From The Workout Masochist: Hey! I've been hitting the gym twice a week for a few months now trying to build torso and arm strength but I feel like my progress has stalled. Though I've been attempting heavier weights and my muscles burn during exercises like the lat pulldown, afterwards I no longer feel that residual ache which indicates muscle tears/growth. At first I thought it was an issue of not pushing myself enough, but doing longer sets with heavier weights hasn't helped. My form is perfect so that's not the problem. I'm just chasing that ache that I felt in the days after the first few times I really went hard. Not aching afterward leads me to think I'm not making any progress. Help?
Answer: Being sore afterward doesn't necessarily indicate growth. Admittedly, I love to feel sore after a workout too, but I judge progress based on whether or not I've been able to increase my weight or even reps. It's difficult to say what you may be doing wrong, particularly when I don't know your sets or rep schemes or the weight you're using or just what exercises you're doing; however, if you're building strength, you need to lift fairly heavy with fewer reps and longer rest breaks. For example, when I bench my max, I do 3 sets of 3 reps with 3 minutes rest in between each set. If I take a rest shorter than that, i won't be able to bust out all 3 reps. And 3 reps is all I can do. If I were to do one more, I'd get pinned under the bar, so this tells you just how heavy you should be lifting. However, you should only attempt maximal lifting with exercises that utilize more than one joint. Do not attempt this with exercises like bicep curls.
You can also mix things up to give your body a new stimulus. For example, you can do breakdown training, where you start with the heaviest weight, do as much as you can at the weight, then lighten the load, do as much as you can, and keep lightening the load. I generally only lighten the load three times, then take a break before beginning again. I typically do three sets of this. You can also do compound training, where you do one exercise that works a particular set of muscles and do a different exercise immediately after that works those exact same muscles. You should do this to fatigue.
You may also want to try to pick up your strength training three times a week so that way you can essentially periodize your workouts. For example, you lift heavy during the first two workouts, then lift light during the third one. Doing it three days also allows you to get into a split routine. For example, you can work upper twice a week and lower once a week, as legs typically take longer to recover than the upper body does due to the amount of muscle within the legs.
There's a variety of things you can do to make progress. I consider myself an advanced weightlifter, and I still feel sore after a workout. You may also want to look into your nutrition. In the beginning, you can get away with poor nutrition because any stimulus will make you stronger; however, once you're no longer a beginner, nutrition becomes a major factor. If you're not getting in enough protein, you simply will not make any improvements. On days you do resistance training, you should be consuming about 1.4-1.7 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. And your biggest meal should be after a workout--so imagine a plate filled with half veggies and half protein. Men should be consuming about 2 palmfuls of protein, and women should be consuming 1.