When progress stalls, there are usually only one or two elements of the program that need to be changed in order to start driving progress again. The following are 8 elements that should be checked to make sure the critical elements of a quality strength regimen are present.
These are ordered in list of importance, so as you fill in the holes in your training, start at the top and work your way down. Only change one variable at a time. If progress starts again, don’t change anything. Only after progress stalls should you make a change. If progress doesn’t start again, move to the next item on the checklist to change. Repeat until you’re doing all of these and you’ll make great progress. I guarantee it.
A plan that isn’t followed can’t be controlled or changed in a predictable way. On the one hand, if you don’t have a plan, you need one. On the other hand, you need to be following that plan. If you plan to be in the gym 3 days a week, you need to be in the gym 3 days a week doing the program you’ve decided to do.
Always follow the cardinal rule of programming: if it’s working, don’t change it. Once it stops working, then make one change at a time to start driving progress again.
2) Do exercises that have the highest benefit:cost ratio
The gym is filled with literally hundreds of options for exercises. How is someone supposed to know which ones are best? First the goal has to be understood. We'll assume because this is "The Strength Checklist" that the goal is strength. With that, a few criteria can be applied to find the best exercises.
1) Uses a lot of muscle mass
2) Longest effective range of motion
3) Incrementally loadable
The first criterion is important because the human body exists as a system, not as a series of components that have no synergy. It also allows you to select so that you can get really good at a few exercises and have repeatable technique on those. You can also optimize on time. If you pick a few good exercises, you can be in an out of the gym in an hour or less.
A long range of motion feeds back into the first criteria and allows you to train a lot of muscles and get a massive hormonal and adaptive effect you cannot get from short range of motion exercises.
Incremental loadability is crucial, because it gives the trainee control over the training stress imposed on themselves. If you need to increase the weight by 25lb, it's easy. If you need to increase the weight by 2.5lb, it's just as easy. Contrast with this something like kettlebells where you have to either spend another $50 for a new kettlebell or increase the weight on the kettlebell by 10-20lbs. Additionally, incremental loadability allows all humans to do the same exercises. A barbell squat, for example, can be done by both a 300lb football player and a 90 year old 100lb woman. The difference is the weight on the bar, but the exercise is the same.
The exercises that come out of this analysis are the back squat, the deadlift, and the standing overhead press (or just press) – all done with a barbell. These incorporate massive amounts of muscle and can be progressed for decades. Unless you have an important reason, you should deadlifting, squatting, and pressing at least once per week if not twice per week.
3) Have good technique in the exercises you do
This is highly contentious topic, not because there's an argument that people should have good technique, but because "good technique" is up for debate. What is the "right" way to do something? The "right" way to do an exercise is the way that moves the load efficiently, maximizes progress, and minimizes injury.
In the deadlift, the bar should move directly upward, because the only external force acting on the bar is gravity which always acts downward. Therefore, the technique that is "best" is the one that moves the bar in a vertical line upwards against gravity.
The bench press by contrast, by contrast, should not have a vertical bar path - although this would be the most efficient way to do work against gravity, the safety of the shoulders matters. If you bench with a vertical bar path, the shoulder joint becomes impinged, and over time, injuries develop. Therefore, in the name of safety, the bench press should not be performed with a vertical bar path.
For each exercise you do, consider the forces externally imposed on the load (usually gravity) and do work against those forces - unless you have a safety consideration that precludes perfectly efficient movement.
4) Sleep and eat enough
For an underweight individual, this is the least followed advice. For people trying to lose weight, it becomes a conflicting objective. Regardless, too little calories and protein is not going to allow your body to recovery from the stress imposed on it. This is going to vary for each individual, but a good starting place is to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE - you can find calculators online) and reduce that by 100 cal to lose weight or increase to gain significant muscle. For most men, this will be somewhere between 2000 and 3000 calories per day, but it's heavily going to depend on your starting weight.
A tried and true rule for protein intake is 1g protein per lb of body weight (a 200lb individual would need 200g protein per day). This works extremely well for the vast majority of people.
Sleep is similar to “rest between sets” - most people know this is the case, but don't know how far to take it. There seems to be a “correct” amount of sleep for each individual. For me, 8-9 hours and I'm solid. For my client Bill, 6 is good. For my wife, 10 is needed.
So, you should know by now where you “correct” amount of sleep is. Just add a half hour or hour to that, and try your hardest not to miss.
Mechanistically, sleep is very different from food in how it affects recovery from workouts. However, the proximal cause and effect look similar.
You don't eat enough - your recovery suffers. You don't sleep enough - your recovery suffers.
5) Add weight to the bar incrementally
In order for the body to adapt, a stress has to be imposed on it that will MAKE it adapt. If you're already a very tan person, going out in the sun for 10 minutes isn't going to make you any more tan. If you're a very white person, 10 minutes in the sun might be enough stress to cause a tan to form after the stress is recovered from.
By the same token, if you do the same weights every single time, you'll never get stronger. The stress has to increase. That might be by increasing the load, increasing the duration, increasing the number of reps, but something has to go up. The most reliable way is to keep everything constant, but make the weight increase every time. This works on every exercise, but stops working after some time.
The weight has to go up, and once this is recognized, people are happy to do it and see their lifts go up. But then something happens - they can't keep going up in weight. Commonly, this occurs because the increments are too high.
If you've been squatting and adding weight every workout by 20lb, and you hit workout 4 and you can't add weight again, you've added too much. A great starting place is to just add 5lb for the squat and deadlift, and 2.5lb for the press. This might not seem like much, but over the course of 3 months, a 5lb increase on the squat every workout for 3 workouts a week constitutes a 180lb increase on your squat.
6) Rest enough between sets
This is the most common mistake I see in public gyms. People do their squats, then wait one minute, maybe two, and then squat again. The way body uses energy doesn't allow for recovery that quickly on compound exercises. A great place to start is 5 minutes, and go up or down from there as needed. Bring a watch and a book. You'll need it.
7) Warm up each movement
Look around the gym and you’ll see a lot of people doing maybe one warm up set. You need more than that to get used to the exercise again and to warm up the movement. This is where I see the most injuries. When people get hurt, it’s because they either lifted with poor technique and too much weight or because they didn’t warm up. The latter is far more common.
A very easy formula for warm ups is to have a starting weight (usually the bar) and have even increments for 4 sets between the starting weight and the work set weight. The work set weight is the weight that “counts”.
For example, let’s say you want to squat 225lb for your work set.
Increment = (Work set weight - Starting weight)/4
= (225 - 45)/4
So your first warm up is 45lb, the second is 95lb, the third is 145lb, the fourth is 195lbs, and then you do your work sets at 225lb.
Keep yourself safe and make sure you’re warm before you do the “work”. It usually doesn’t hurt to add in some light and short cardio as a warm up.
8) Push even when it feels heavy (or hard)
Pushing when the weight gets heavy is difficult, but crucial. I see this all of the time with clients. They get to a weight and go to pick it up, put it down, and say, that's way too heavy. There's no way I can lift it. The problem is that their understanding of what "heavy" feels like is mis-calibrated. I'm not saying you should push yourself so hard that you get injured. I just mean that just because the weight is the heaviest thing you've ever lifted doesn't mean you can't do it.
Here's how I have clients do it: I tell them "you have to push on the bar for at least 5 seconds before you're allowed to give up." And then as the lift starts, I count to 5 seconds. 99% of the time, they finish the rep before I even say "3".
You're trying to impose stress on your body, and if you can't make yourself do it, the stress won't be imposed. If that happens, you won't get stronger without unnecessary complexity.