When I take on online coaching clients, I almost always create personalized strength training programs for them, because I like to be pretty specific about how and when they are training. Call me a control freak, but I like to have my finger on the pulse of their exercise intensity and frequency.

This is because when people use the word “workout” or “exercise,” it can mean a lot of different things.

“Exercise” can connote everything from taking a walk to taking a CrossFit class. Obviously, if someone has specific body composition and/or performance goals, we need to be more specific!

In today’s blog post, I’m going to break down 10 of the most common issues or mistakes I see during consultations, which hold people back from making meaningful and steady progress in their strength training.

Problem #1: The routine is a “split routine” where you’re doing arms one day and legs another day, but you’re only doing two strength workouts a week.

Noticeable changes in strength and physique tend to happen when you train a muscle group at least twice a week. This isn’t to say that four times a week is better (more on that in a minute) – it’s just that it needs to be at least twice.

When you think about a typical week, how much time do you have to exercise? Can you only go to the gym twice a week? Or three times a week?

If that’s the case, it’s smart to do full-body routines. If you can go at least three times a week, you can probably do some “splits” with one full body workout. If you can go at least four times a week, you can definitely do “splits.”

You just need to make sure that the same muscle groups are being trained at least twice a week. For people who can’t go to the gym more than 2-3 times a week, then full body routines are probably ideal.

Problem #2: You’re not working the right muscle groups.

This depends on your goals, but to see overall changes in physique, it’s better to focus on big bang-for-your-buck exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, presses, push-ups, and pull-ups, than it is to do 1,000,000 reps of bicep curls, triceps push-downs, or calf raises.

Of course, these “isolation” exercises have their place. I do plenty of them myself.

But it’s important to understand how the size of muscles play a role in their metabolic output and contribution to strength gains. Relatively larger muscles like glutes, quads, and lats, because of their size, contribute more significantly to metabolic output and performance than smaller muscles like biceps or calves.

I often find that women drift to these isolation exercises partly because they can “hide out” at the gym while doing them – they can take dumbbells to a secluded corner and feel more comfortable.

While this is understandable (and I’ve had these moments, too!), it’s essential to find a way to be more comfortable in the “real” weight room so that you can activate larger muscle groups with bigger movements. You could start with machines, doing leg presses, chest presses, lat pull-downs, shoulder presses, and seated cable rows until you feel more comfortable moving over to the squat rack, for example. You could also go to the gym at a less-busy time (if possible) so that you can use the equipment you really want in peace!

Problem #3: The weights aren’t heavy enough.

This is linked somewhat to Problem #2 – the level of intensity you’re using may simply not be high enough, especially if you’ve been exercising for awhile.

People tend to undershoot their own strength – in this study, for example, women who weren’t experienced in the gym chose significantly lighter weights than they were really capable of using.

Let’s talk about horizontal seated leg presses, for example. Sometimes I find that women sit and do the same weights over and over again, month after month, until they can do 20 or more reps at a particular weight. But they are still stopping long before they’re truly at failure. The weight is simply too light to provide an adequate stimulus to the muscles.

The solution? Increase the weight in an extremely focused way. Spend one session at the gym just doing horizontal seated leg presses, and increasing the weight incrementally at reps of 6-12 until you are really not able to do more than 6-12 reps at a particular weight. Now that’s the new weight you use for leg presses! Not the previous weight where you could do 20 reps that only felt moderately challenging.

You can do this for a few weeks – each time you go to the gym, spend a significant amount of time on each machine, increasing the weight for different exercises until you’re not able to do more than 6-12 reps. This will give you a new set point to work from, which will be much more effective for physique change and strength gain.

Problem #4: You’re going to classes where you can’t make progress.

People like classes because they are told exactly what to do, and in some ways, they’re held captive for 30-60 minutes for a workout. There’s almost no way they’re going to answer a work e-mail or bounce out of the class when they get fatigued.

But classes often don’t have the potential to allow for real progress beyond a certain point, because they’re constrained by the equipment they can offer. CrossFit is probably a notable exception, but many gym classes only offer a few sets of dumbbells that – if someone attends consistently over time – will eventually become too easy.

Classes are fun. The music, real-time instruction, and social environment all help to make exercise more enjoyable. But with my clients, I like to see classes (if the clients want them) serve as a side dish instead of an entree. Again, for women who want to really improve their strength, performance, and physique, the weight room is practically a must, because they need to challenge themselves.

Problem #5: You don’t have a backup plan for home workouts (or rescheduling workouts).

This is partly a time management issue. You may ask, “What does time management have to do with gaining muscle or losing fat?”

Workouts only work if you’re quite consistent with them. If your life is busy and you frequently miss workouts, you’re not going to see the results you want.

As a mom running a full-time business, I understand only too well how seasons of life play a big role. With a toddler, I’ve certainly had those weeks where the daycare gets shut down, or my daughter’s sick, or my husband’s traveling and I’m keeping a lot of plates in the air.

But part of habit resilience is getting creative when a “rough week” is threatening to turn into a rough month or a rough summer. One week will hardly ever make any difference in someone’s overall progress. But weeks or months will absolutely affect results – and those weeks can add up super fast!

I collaborate with clients to design exercise plans that flow well with life. It’s important to ask yourself realistic questions like,

  • “How many of my workouts can be in the gym?”
  • “How many of my workouts need to be at home?”
  • “What time of day is really the most ‘protected’ time for me to exercise on a regular basis?”
  • “Is it possible for me to have a ‘backup time’ I can exercise if Plan A doesn’t work out?”
  • “What equipment do I need at home to challenge myself appropriately?”

In general, it’s smart not to miss workouts when you don’t have to miss. There are times that are absolutely not an option. But those gray areas… it’s smart to get your workouts in however you can, just to keep momentum moving.

Problem #6: You’re not fueling workouts.

This is a huuuuuuge issue for my female clients.

I’ve written another blog post about fueling early morning workouts and why I don’t encourage fasted workouts, but fuel is needed at any time of day to really encourage changes in your physique and performance.

While strength training plays the biggest role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the metabolic process of building muscle), the supporting role goes to protein intake.

It takes planning ahead, and it helps if you’re consistent with the time of day you exercise (because it will simply become a habit). But the essentials are:

  • Have something in your stomach before you exercise, and if it’s cardio, it’s more important that it’s carbohydrates
  • Have a protein-carbohydrate combination snack/meal within an hour after exercise
  • Eat protein-rich meals and snacks every 3-4 hours on top of that

Sometimes I see clients get hung up on the uber-specifics – how many grams of carbohydrates, what products, etc. But just focus on the “big rocks” of not exercising on a totally empty stomach, eating protein and carbohydrates after workouts, and eating a big chunk of protein at every meal.

You’ll be amazed at how much better workouts feel, and how much more energy you have overall – not to mention the physique results you will inevitably see!

Problem #7: You’re HIIT-ing it too hard.

…Or otherwise over-exercising.

Exercise can become “too much of a good thing.” Have you heard the phrase “diminishing returns”? In practical terms, it means that two workouts a week is way, way better than one. Three workouts a week is better than two workouts a week. Four workouts is probably slightly better than three. Five workouts is only marginally better than four. Six or seven workouts – is there any difference/improvement at all? Maybe not, and you’re probably going to start moving in the wrong direction, where you don’t have enough rest/recovery to actually experience “adaptations” (improvements) as a result of exercise.

This is not really theoretical, though – it has to do with what you are currently doing. It’s very practical.

If you’re exercising once a week, you are in no danger of over-exercising.

If you’re exercising six times a week, you probably need to re-evaluate your rest and recovery.

If you’re in that gray zone of four or five times a week and you’re not seeing good progress, it’s much more nuanced. Contact me for a consultation so we can go over what you’re doing.

Problem #8: You’re not clear on your goals.

It’s possible for goals to tug you in opposing directions. If you want to run a half marathon and do a “cut” and put on muscle and do your first pull-up… it’s not that it’s impossible, it’s just that you’re sending your body some really mixed messages.

You can be more clear in your goals by asking yourself:

  • “What is the primary goal I want to work on? Does it prioritize performance or physique more?”
  • “What is my timeline?”
  • “How does this fit with my current lifestyle and demands?”

These three questions are incredibly important because (1) you only have so much time each week, and (2) your body has only so many metabolic resources to offer.

Problem #9: You immediately start a diet when you feel anxious about your weight or body composition.

Of course, this is nuanced, and it depends on your primary goals.

But for so many of my clients, they’ve been on a dieting treadmill for a long time – for an adult lifetime. It is incredibly healing to focus on strength and performance.

But the dark side of this evolution is that we have to deal with the niggling fears about weight gain, and build better skills for not panicking when the scale isn’t always moving down.

Constantly hitting “reset” with abrupt decreases in calories (and food variety) can stall out someone’s workout plan, because suddenly insufficient calories and carbohydrates are coming in.

The reality is that women (even more so than men) need a baseline amount of carbohydrates on a regular basis to be healthy – even to stimulate muscle growth and fat loss. Ironically, when women cut down on carbs with the intention fo weight loss, they may be depriving themselves of the fuel they need to burn fat more effectively in the long run!

Don’t make radical diet detours to get the instant gratification of short-term changes… because this can affect long-term progress. Trust the process, stick with a program, and know that you can always implement a dieting phase if you need or want to lose fat, but you can do it in a way that supports your overall progress and health.

Problem #10: Your program changes too often.

Finally, this may sound obvious, but it’s very helpful for fitness progress to stick with something!

We can get lost in the rhythms and seasons of our daily lives, and not realize that we’re only following a particular program for a month and a half, or a few months at most. Then we switch and focus on something else.

While this is fine for general health and fitness and fun, it’s typically not effective for people who want to see meaningful changes in performance or physique.

If you want to get stronger on particular lifts or exercises, then it may take a very long time of persistent effort to improve these movements. You may be doing them a few times a week (on average) for literally years! Similarly, if you want to achieve a goal like getting faster or finishing a bigger race, it could take months or years of very consistent training to improve your times and build up your volume. If you want to see a truly shredded physique, this is not a 30-day fix-it – this is probably months of dedicated strength training followed by months of committed nutrition focus.

My role as a personal trainer is to help people get fitter and healthier. A huge part of that is staying consistent with any exercise – so I’m generally laidback if people want to explore different avenues of exercise. As long as they’re having fun and sticking with it, that’s ideal. But if someone is “serious” – they have big goals that are specific and measurable – I need to hold their feet to the fire. If you’re working on your own without a coach, you have to do this for yourself – keep yourself focused and not get distracted by the “shiny object syndrome” of new plans.

A good strength training plan has a lot of flexibility, so that you can include ideas that you’re interested in exploring. But novelty can’t derail the basics, or you’ll never make any progress.

Key Takeaways

Ultimately, being active is the most important aspect of exercise. It’s good for health, it’s good for feeling capable and strong in life, and it’s good for mental health and mood.

But if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels with exercise – you’ve got goals and you’ve been working on them without meaningful progress – it’s time to re-evaluate.

Need help? Set up a call.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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