Disclaimer: One of the advantages of being both a senior doctor and a strength coach is being able to see a wide spread of people — regular folks of all shapes and sizes. It is to these people (not the professional athletes) that I restrict my counsel.
If you are one of those sincere people who read all manner of training articles and get motivated from one thing to the other (program, system, product, tool, guru, etc.) and yet surprisingly fail to progress much in any of them, then this article is for you.
So what is it that’s getting in your way? Consider the ten possibilities below.
1. Nutritional Deficiencies
In urban, especially vegetarian communities, as we see in India, there is a huge population base of people feeling tired, weak, and giddy. These people are chronically easily-fatigued. They want to train hard, but five sets of swings and they feel their end is imminent. While most trainers would blame laziness as the cause of failure to progress, it could be an organic deficiency in vitamin D or B12 levels. If you are a woman and find training to be too taxing, you could be anemic. This is important possibility to exclude if you are having heavy periods, if you are a vegetarian, or if you are on a diet.
Solution: Check your blood vitamin D and B12 levels and ask your doc for help. Look under your lower eyelid, at your nail-beds, and at your tongue. If you look paler than others, go to your doc. Take iron supplements. Eat meat and veggies. Listen to Grandma.
2. Breathing Problems
You get gassed-out easier than a fat pug chasing its tail, but don’t know why. You may simply be unable to inhale due to a nasal obstruction. Test this: occlude one nostril and breath out over a finger. Repeat on the other side, using the same finger to breathe out on. If you feel the warm breath more heavily on one side, you may have a nasal obstruction, and this may be a reason your breathing is suffering. There may also be other breathing related problems that need evaluation.
Solution: Get checked by your doctor and fix it. Nasal decongestants and irrigation may help.
3. Low Testosterone Levels
If you are a male, and in middle age or beyond, your low energy levels or mediocre strength gains may be due to low T levels. Low libido and performance, poor sleep, and depression are common. This could follow a protracted period of dieting. And while we are on the topic of hormones, please, please, please — stop talking about this adrenal fatigue nonsense. I insist. This is alternative medicine quackery stuff.
Solution: Check your blood levels for testosterone (there are also online companies that do this) and get treated.
While a lot of people feel energized and fulfilled on the Paleo diet, quite a bit of it could be confirmation bias or placebo effect at work. Without needing to bash Paleo (it works for a lot of people), it may not be the right fit for you. Endurance training and heavy lifting both rely on muscle glycogen levels being topped up, and Paleo does not help in this regard.
Solution: Take a dip in carb Hell and see if you feel better.
5. Weak Core
Many a strength lacuna or restrictive stiffness may actually be a lack of reflexive core stabilization. A classic example is tight hamstrings due to a weak core. A single set of side planks or deadbugs could improve the ASLR (straight leg test for hamstring length), revealing the problem. If you train with a good powerlifter and wish to improve your squats, one of the things he would tell you to do is push your belly outward with tension. Harder. Much harder. I see several women whose pelvic floor muscles are damaged and they are incontinent during exercise. The abdominal cylinder compression in lifting cannot help move the weight if the power is leaking from the floor of the cylinder.
Solution: While in an ideal world, you should be able to fix your problem with the help of an SFG, FMS, or NKT specialist, you could simply work with more focus on reflexive core work. Original Strength has much to recommend it, as do many of the things Pavel has been teaching us over the years. Read “Hardstyle Abs,” for example, to learn ab activation with breath. Gold!
A secret SFG technique taught by Pavel: At the top of a swing, pull your tailbone toward your navel. While this imagery seems absurd, this contracts the pelvic floor in sync with the abs and creates better compression. This is a real-world application of linkage versus leakage.
6. Tissue Restriction
Many people complain of low-back stress or tweaks after a solid training day. Typically, this follows exercises like swings, squats, presses, and pull-ups, though anything done in high volume could unravel issues hidden by compensations. While it would take a real expert in therapy to diagnose the cause of each tweak and alleviate it, there are broad patterns we can learn from.
Pull-ups can result in pain in multiple body parts, from wrists to the lower back. While those are beyond our scope now, a couple of things need to be said. First, the training world needs to be aware of the underdiagnosed problem of over-extension and being lat dominant. This leads to poor trapezius activation, leading to the lat pulling the shoulder into internal rotation and the lumbar spine into hyper-extension. Second, anterior core activation needs to be stressed in order to do the movement better. This would also counter the over-extended pattern.
Similarly, tight hips or restricted T-spine extension may lead to a squatty swing pattern and translate to a horrendous snatch test ordeal. However much you train your swing or snatch, unless you free up the restriction and allow the hinge to unfold fully, the snatch will not improve.
Solution: Get assessed by an expert, or mwod yourself into goodness!
7. Too Many Goals
This is possibly the most important and under-reported cause of failure in progress. Most people don’t have a coach, and keep doing too many things too often.
Solution: Stick to one proven program, and start making a change for the better.
8. Poor Progressions
Many women (and even men) can’t progress on their pull-ups or push-ups. Straightaway testing and trying a move that is beyond one’s abilities is not going to work. Swallow some pride, go back a few steps, and work on the progressions so that the practice is challenging without being difficult, and always with solid execution. Discipline should blend with desire.
Solution: Regress to progress.
9. Poor Coaching
It may not be your fault. I have seen countless examples of coaches who can’t understand the reasons their clients don’t progress, including the need for using regressions. Another major issue is their lack of programming knowledge. After a level of gains that is inevitable from practicing movements, one stalls and tends to get frustrated.
Solution: Programming. Find a better coach. Ask StrongFirst.
10. Lifestyle Dichotomy
So you are training to get stronger? But in the rest of your life, you are destroying your strength potential? Are you sleeping? Are you sitting all day cooped in flexion over reports and meetings? Are you eating badly? Are you drinking and smoking? Your problems are there. Your training will change when you address these issues.
Solution: Identify one lifestyle issue that is a problem, and hit it hard. You know the way. You just need to be tough with yourself in complying with it.