Your Muscles Shaking During a Strength Workout Doesn’t Mean You’re Getting Stronger

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Just like your mouthwash can work without that burning sensation, your muscles shaking during strength workouts isn't a prereq for getting stronger. Technically, your arms or legs feeling like Jell-O is a sign of exhaustion but that doesn't directly correlate to increasing muscle mass or upping your one-rep max. In truth, that quaking feeling can actually be an indicator that you're not giving yourself enough time to adequately recover in between rounds. "When you feel really fatigued quickly, and you're really pushing yourself and it feels awful, it's the fact that you didn't give your neuromuscular system enough rest in between," explains Heather Milton, CSCS, a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center.

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It's easy to mistake that sensation for something positive, but when it comes to determining if your workout is "good" or "effective," better indicators include the ability to steadily increase their volume (so more reps and sets), reduce your rest periods without it affecting your form and, probably the most obvious of all, lifting progressively heavier loads over time, according to Milton.

Wherever you are on your strength-training journey, you should be working with a weight that feels challenging to manage by your final lift of each set—"like it's extremely difficult to finish that rep with good form," says Milton. (If you can't execute the exercise properly, however, that's a sign that you need to reduce the load.) Similarly, the intensity should feel challenging as well, but it shouldn't feel as if you're going to drop the weight because you should be giving yourself an adequate amount of rest in between each set, Milton says. And finally, your volume will be determined by what type of strength you're looking to build.

So, for example, if your aim is to not just get stronger, but to also increase the size of your muscles, you'll want to focus on a type of strength training called hypertrophy. "For that kind of set and rep range, it should be somewhere between five to 15 repetitions, depending on the age, the fitness level, and so forth," Milton says. Your rest should be anywhere between 30 seconds and two minutes, and you should be aiming for at least three sets—the objective here is high reps with a moderate weight.

But anyone who is new to strength training and just looking to master form and start getting stronger should begin with one set of eight to 10 reps, advises Milton. After eight weeks of developing a solid strength foundation, you'll need to adjust the volume to continue challenging your body and seeing gains.

At this point, if your goal is to get stronger, Milton suggests doing at least three sets of eight to 12 reps per exercise. "You should be moving at a slower tempo for your lifts," she says. For rest, she recommends taking 30 to 60 seconds in between each set. It should feel "extremely challenging" as you lift, and your rest should be shorter because "you're essentially trying to optimize the time that the muscle is under tension to get an endocrine response" from the hormones responsible for building muscle. Those are testosterone, growth hormone (GH), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), just FYI.

Once you've got your set and rep range down based on your fitness goals and ability, it's oh-so important that the amount of weight you lift increases weekly, Milton says. She recommends starting with a two-percent increase in weight each week and gradually increasing the weight up to 10 percent. That, plus making sure that you're adequately hydrating, fueling your body with quality foods, and getting enough sleep will give you your best shot at obtaining your desired results—no shaking required.

Want more strength training tips? Check out how to do a single-leg deadlift properly. 

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