There are two things I do as a personal trainer that you can implement immediately in your own workout regimen. I take detailed notes, and I increase weight incrementally. The first will just cost you the price of a notebook (Moleskine baby!), and the second might prompt you do join a different gym or to make purchases to round out your home gym.
The Power of Notes
I’ve not always been a good trainer. For many years I would say I was very bad. But I managed to get results for clients despite this because I’ve always taken good notes. That means I know exactly how many sets and reps you performed last week, I know what you’re struggling to grasp, and I know if it’s time to increase the weight for a particular movement. That’s all in the notes.
If you’re working out on your own now and you don’t have any injuries but you’ve been struggling to make progress, start taking notes. When you struggle with an exercise, write that down. What happened? Where did you go wrong? Take a video of yourself squatting. How was your form? Did you lean forward? Did your heels pop off the floor or did your left foot pronate? Taking notes of anomalies can help you address them during the next workout.
The Power of Incremental Progress
This note-taking is directly linked to another factor that can dramatically affect how much you’re getting out of the gym: increasing the load that you’re moving during your workouts.
Let’s say you’re still in the beginner’s stage of strength training and you’re using a basic 3 sets of 10 repetitions for your exercises. If you were doing a goblet squat for 3 sets of 10 repetitions using a 35-pound kettlebell last month, then you should be using a heavier one this month. Understand that this scenario presupposes that you’re still fairly early in your strength training life, so that a basic linear progression (add more weight next week than you’re using this week) still yields results. If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter then you won’t be able to add weight to the bar forever. In the beginning, however, it’s not a bad idea to keep things simple. Just keep adding weight when you hit your goal of 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
If you’re working out in your home gym, a really underrated investment is small “change plates,” which are the barbell weights that come in sizes like 2.5 pounds, 5 pounds, or 7.5 pounds. You also can get them in smaller increments, like 1.25 pounds or .5 pound. It seems silly, but these tiny increments can help you increase your work capacity slowly over time. Then when you’re ready to convert to more sophisticated percentage-based programming, you’ll be all set when the day calls for a back squat at 77.5 percent of your one-rep max: you’ll have the change plates to get you as close to the actual number you’re lifting as possible. Not all gyms have change plates in small increments, but it might be worth looking for one that does.
You don’t need a lot of different exercises in the beginning of your fitness journey. And once again, the idea of “muscle confusion” is a fiction peddled by people trying to sell yo things you don’t need. You don’t want confused muscles; you want strong, smart muscles that know what the hell they’re doing. You’re not going to build those by hopping around to different exercises every week. And you can’t develop smart muscles without holding them accountable for what they’re doing: that means a combination of notes and incremental weight increases.