Putting on muscle is easy if you have the know-how and combine it with hard work. But even if you have the right training program and work hard, staying on course can be challenging at times. There’s a pitfall at every corner of the gym, waiting for both the complacent and the overzealous. In this piece, I have outlined what I believe are the ten most common workout mistakes. Ignore them at your own peril.
1. Not Working Out Hard Enough
You may think you’re working out hard enough, but are you really pushing it on each set? If you’re not pushing yourself to the point where you cannot perform another unassisted repetition, you’re not training hard enough. In order to stimulate muscle growth, you have to push each muscle group to the point at which it “fails”, i.e., where you cannot perform any additional unassisted repetitions. It is at this point that your brain receives a signal from the muscles indicating that it needs to stimulate additional muscle growth in preparation for the next bout of exercise. Your goal throughout your workout should be to progressively fatigue the target muscle group more and more with each succeeding set, until you reach point where that muscle group is totally fatigued. This is called training to failure. Unlike other failures in life, this is a good failure to have because it signals growth.
In between sets, you should rest only long enough to catch your breath, which will give your body the ability to cancel the oxygen deficit that builds up during each set. Once you have caught your breath, it’s time to start the next set. This leaves very little time for chatting with friends in the gym or indulging in other distractions. It should be your goal to get into the gym, get the job done and get out. Do not mistake training hard with training for a long time. It’s not the amount of time you spend in the gym that counts, it’s the quantity and quality of the work you put in. Keep the intensity high and keep the growth coming.
2. Training Too Long
If you’re spending more than an hour in the gym, you’re probably training too long. The time trap is a common pitfall, especially amongst beginners, who often think that if 30 minutes of exercise is good, 60 minutes will double their results. That is absolutely not the case. There is an inverse relationship between intensity and workout duration. In other words, you can train hard for a brief amount of time, or you can train with sub-maximal effort for a long amount of time, but you can’t both train hard and train long. Staying in the gym too long leads to poor results. In the best-case scenario, your workouts will be ineffectual, because you never truly reach the point at which your muscles are fatigued.
A workout comprised of a series of less than maximal sets will do little to stimulate further progress. In the worst-case scenario, you end up over- trained. That means you end up doing much more than your body can recover from, and hence, your progress takes a beating. A good rule of thumb is to train intensely, limiting the work out for each muscle group to 20-30 minutes. Get in the gym, get the job done, and get out.
3. Eating Too Much
In the old days we were told to train hard and then eat as much of meat, potatoes, milk, eggs and other high calorie foods as we could, but in retrospect, this only addressed the caloric part of the nutrition equation. Focusing solely on calories doesn’t address other very important nutritional factors like macronutrient ratios at each meal and meal frequency throughout the day. Yes, you need to consume more calories than you’re burning to gain weight. After all, a small surplus of calories is necessary for growth. But the macronutrient balance of your meals is important too. All too often, the “all you can eat mentality” that is adopted by those eager for muscle size can make you fat.
Eating too much at one meal also overloads your digestive system, making it difficult for you to be hungry when it’s time to eat again three hours later. Meal frequency is more important than pigging out. If you’re serious about your workouts you should consume 5 to 6 small meals during the day. Eating the right things is important. Check out the Lean Body Transformation Guide for a detailed nutrition plan that can help you build lean muscle.
4. Not Resting Enough
Too much of a good thing can hurt you. Training is wonderful, but you have to recover from it. You must give large body parts such as back and legs at least 72 hours of rest in between workouts; and smaller body parts at least 48 hours to fully recover. When you are expending maximal effort in the gym, i.e. you’re training as hard as possible with very heavy weights, it taxes your body tremendously. Remember that it is what you do outside of the gym, while you are resting and recovering that will determine whether your muscles are actually growing. Rest time must not be underestimated.
Quality sleep is important; research shows that we actually need more sleep than we think. 8-9 hours for a growing bodybuilder is a minimum. If you are a hard gainer, or you have a fast metabolism, you should limit your extracurricular activities outside of the gym. Working out and then participating in highly energy intensive activities such as playing basketball, football, etc. several times per week will actually increase the recuperative time needed in between workouts, not to mention increasing nutritional needs. Keep these things in mind as you are trying to put on muscular weight.
5. Not Sticking to Basic Exercises
Stick to basic exercises such as squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and military presses as the foundation of your training, especially when you are starting out. These exercises are compound movements which incorporate the use of more than one joint and involve several large muscle groups. They have a profound effect on muscle growth by taxing the maximal number of muscle fibers in the major muscle groups. Many beginning bodybuilders lose sight of the fact that it takes time to gain muscle. When muscle gains don’t come as fast as they would like, or the first time they hit a plateau, they think about changing basic exercises. Many will look to advanced programs featured in muscle magazines for ideas. This leads them to discard time-proven basic exercises. What most fail to realize is that many of the pro bodybuilders featured in magazines have built the foundation of their physiques using basic exercises.
6. Lack of Motivation
In order to succeed, you must be a person who is able to perform hard work repeatedly over a long period of time. Persistence is one virtue that bodybuilding has taught me over the years. You must have something that “fires you up” and gets you into the gym. You must clearly define your purpose for being in the gym and expending the hard work in the first place. And let’s face it, the diet needed to support your workouts is not easy either. It requires a commitment of discipline, time, energy and effort. Motivation can be built, just like a muscle. But it requires a crystal-clear idea of why you are doing this in the first place and constant reinforcement of that idea. What I find to be the most useful in staying motivated is measuring your results. This can be as easy as tracking your progress with a scale and a tape measure; or a training log where you can keep track of your training weights as they increase.
7. Not Setting Goals and Timelines
It is all too easy to fall into a routine. Over the long run, routines can be beneficial, but they can also be self-defeating if you fall into the habit of just “going through the motions”. To keep yourself positively motivated in the gym you should always have a goal in mind whether that is an extra half-inch on your arms, getting into the best shape of your life, or dropping a few pounds. It is important not only to set goals but to also to put timelines on them. In other words, you might give yourself a timeline of 8 weeks to attain that half inch you want on your arms. Once you have a goal and a timeline, you can positively motivate yourself to reach it. You become a man on a mission, so to speak, and all of your efforts take on new meaning. Always have a goal and a timeline in mind when you go into the gym to train.
8. Not Competing
Not everybody wants to become a competitive bodybuilder. Competing bodybuilders are those who enter bodybuilding competitions. But there are other ways of competing that don’t involve stepping onto the posing dais. You should compete against yourself at least once per year. But if not on the contest stage, then how do you compete against yourself? Quite simply, set a 10-12-week timeline to get into the best condition possible. During this time, commit to restricting your calories and increasing your aerobic activities and training to shed excess body fat, just like you would if you were competing against others in a bodybuilding show.
Take before pictures and after pictures. The best time to do this is early in the year, after a heavy fall and winter phase of building muscle. It is my experience that I have become a better bodybuilder after each of my competition periods. Why? Because dieting down does several things for you. First, it gives your digestive system a break from all of the extra calories you ingest during the rest of the year. This makes your digestion more efficient so that when you do start increasing your calories again, your absorption of nutrients is improved.
Secondly, dieting down combined with hard training results in the improvement of muscle quality. Most importantly, competing gives you a clear idea of just how good your physique truly is, and helps you identify weak points and strong points. If you want to compete against yourself, you’ll find lots of support from like-minded fellow athletes on our Lean Body Facebook Group for Men, which you can access by clicking here.
9. Skipping Workouts
If you want to build muscle, consistency is the key. Your system is a biological organism, and as such, it needs stimulation at regular intervals. For maximum progress, you must keep a regular schedule. Skipping workouts just retards progress, and at the very best is a step backwards. Now, every so often I will either skip a workout or do a lighter workout intentionally if I’m feeling that my body is not completely recovered. However, skipping multiple workouts for no reason other than it didn’t fit in your schedule or you just didn’t feel like it is a losing proposition. This sets you up for failure both physically and mentally. Physically because you won’t see the progress you desire and mentally because it creates a bad habit. Stay consistent with your workouts and you will enjoy the best results.
10. Not Resting Enough
This is a pitfall that primarily plagues bodybuilders who are well advanced in the number of training years. What happens is that these advanced bodybuilders get set in their ways and develop hard and fast habits, which are hard to break. Most of these advanced bodybuilders are so sure that what they’re doing is right and that their way of training is the only way of training that they fail to expand their horizons by trying new things. New techniques should be incorporated from time to time. By trying out new things, you can break out of training plateaus and enjoy new muscle growth. While it’s important to keep your base of fundamental exercise, it is also important to try new things to jar muscle growth. It is also important to use a variety of exercises both to round out your physique and keep your workouts fresh. Keeping your workouts fresh not only helps you to develop more muscle in but also keeps the workouts interesting, an important factor in keeping your motivation high.
Building a lean body is a journey. It takes time to do it right and learning how to identify and avoid these common pitfalls can speed you along your way. Take stock of your workout, nutrition and rest habits today and challenge yourself to improve. By doing so you can bet that you will improve your physique!
About the Author
Lee Labrada is the founder of Labrada Nutrition and an IFBB Pro Bodybuilding Hall of Famed. Follow Lee on Instagram, in the Lean Body Facebook group, and on the Labrada Nutrition Youtube channel. For personal nutrition coaching visit www.leanbodycoaching.com
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.