There was a time when far more emphasis was placed on training than nutrition. Oh, how the tables have turned. Today, nutrition is seen as such a critical component to a lifter’s success that an entire industry of “coaches” has sprung up, with everyone from seasoned experts to relative novices being paid for diets and the infamous “meal plans.” Meanwhile, the prevailing attitude these days seems to consider training to be a mere afterthought. Just do what you want in the gym … it doesn’t matter! That rash dismissal of training’s true significance has led to an entire generation of guys failing to realize their full potential. Most are making the same very common mistakes, day after day, without realizing it.
Mistake #1: Too much training volume
We are all familiar with the term “overtraining.” Until Arthur Jones came along in the early 1970s and began preaching against the need for recovery between workouts, it was not unusual for some hardcore athletes to train as much as four hours a day, six days a week. Later, those heavily influenced by his theories, including professional bodybuilding legends Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates, hammered it into our heads that while growth might be stimulated by training, actual growth would only occur if the muscles and nervous system had adequate time to recover. More might be better for things like money and sex, but too much training volume and frequency can sabotage your efforts to build more muscle mass. If three or four sets of an exercise is good, it should be obvious that 30 or 40 would not be better. If that were the case, the best results would be obtained from working out for 10-12 hours a day! It’s like digging a ditch. The workout digs the ditch, and the eating and resting between workouts fills the ditch back up. If you never give the body ample time to recover, that hole just keeps getting deeper and deeper.
Fix: Rather than see how much training you can tolerate by going overboard on frequency and volume, focus on hitting the muscle hard with just a few work sets of a few exercises. Even with a training partner, nothing except legs or back should take you more than an hour. Try to get the best pump and burn in the muscle as possible. Once you’ve done that, you’re done! From that point on, you’re beating a dead horse and just making further inroads into your recovery.
Mistake #2: Not enough training volume
Even though this is a much rarer issue than overtraining, there are those who employ extremely brief workout systems, wherein only one or two exercises are done for a body part, for one or perhaps two all-out sets of maximum effort. This may produce results for a select few with truly limited recovery ability, but most people will require more to grow. One indication that such a system may not be ideal for you is that you’ve been getting steadily stronger over time, but haven’t gained any appreciable mass to go along with the strength.
Fix: This one is easy enough: do more exercises and sets! Those who are apprehensive about changing their ultra-brief workout styles are usually worried about overtraining. To that I say, if you’re not growing anyway, what can you possibly have to lose by bumping up the volume? It’s quite likely that you will start making progress again.
Mistake #3: Not enough rest days
In the spirit of “more is better,” many of us dislike taking rest days. Maybe we think doing so will mean we are missing out on potential gains, or maybe we are just addicted to training and hate taking days away from the gym. But as we said, you don’t grow in the gym, but instead during the times between workouts where we nourish the body and allow it to recuperate.
Fix: As for training frequency, I recommend no more than two days of weight training in a row for natural trainers. You are missing out by training too often— missing out on gains! Think of rest/off days as “growing days,” because they truly are when you gain mass. Eventually, stubbornly refusing to take rest/off days will lead to losing muscle mass and strength. Who the hell wants that?
Mistake #4: Not enough TUT
Training for very low reps will certainly make you stronger, as you are working with close to your maximum limits. But if you are training with the aim of developing larger muscles, reps in the range of one to three just won’t cut it, nor will four to six for most people. Numerous studies have shown that muscles need more time under tension (TUT), which equates to doing more reps. So why wouldn’t everyone do that? It goes back to ego. We can all handle more weight for three reps than we can for 12, and a lot of guys are forever caught up in how much weight they lift. If you are a powerlifter or an Olympic lifter, that’s great! If you are someone who wants to build the best physique possible, you’re sabotaging your efforts to become bigger and better.
Fix: This is another easy remedy: do more reps! One very easy method to incorporate more time under tension while still varying your rep ranges is to pyramid up in weight as your sets progress, with the reps coming down. For example, your work sets on the bench press might be 225 x 12, 275 x 10, 295 x 8 and 315 x 6-8.
Mistake #5: Stinky form/ego lifting
These two usually occur simultaneously, though not always. Stinky form means that you aren’t properly engaging the target muscle. It could be swinging or heaving the weight, or cutting the range of motion short as in quarter-reps with every plate in the gym stacked on the leg press. Typically, bad form stems from using more weight in an effort to look like a bad-ass. Ego lifting is simply using more weight than you can handle in good form. Allow me to share a quick story that illustrates the perils of ego lifting. There is a young guy in my area who was on a fast track to an IFBB pro card in Classic Physique. His genetics were God-given and spectacular. All he needed was a bit more legs. Recently, he decided to try to bench press a weight that he had no business using— and tore his pec right off the bone. He may still get that pro card in time, but for now he’s going to miss many months of training while he heals from surgery and starts the long rehab process.
Fix: Leave your ego at the gym door, as they say. It doesn’t matter how much weight you lift if you’re not working the target muscles. Use good form, and leave the stunt lifting to the ignorant fools who don’t know any better.
Mistake #6: Perfect form all the time
Now I look like a hypocrite, right? While using terrible form all the time is a no-no, so is using perfect, strict form at all times. Doing so will limit the amount of weight you use, for one thing, and it’s also been noted by many that looser form can also be effective. If you follow social media at all, you have probably noticed that the trolls who mock those using looser form, and brag about how perfect their form is, are often not very large men. That’s no coincidence.
Fix: The best way to incorporate looser form is to do at least the first half of your set in strict form, until you are unable to complete any further reps that way, and then allow yourself to “cheat” the weight a bit to extend the set. Think of this as doing “forced reps” on your own.
Mistake #7: Avoiding free weights
In days of yore, guys who lifted had no choice but to use free weights—that’s all there was! Now, we have our choice of those as well as a dizzying array of high-tech machines. Since machines are “cooler” looking and far easier to master, it’s always tempting to gravitate toward them in our workouts. The problem happens when we almost exclusively, or in some cases exclusively, use machines. In doing so, we miss out on the myriad benefits of classic mass-builders like bench presses, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows and military presses.
Fix: Make a point of starting every body part workout with at least one basic dumbbell or barbell movement before you move on to anything performed with machines or cables. For instance, on back day, you might do barbell rows before using any type of machine or cable row. This will ensure that you are always incorporating free weights.
Mistake #8: Avoiding machines and cables
By the same token, there are those who shun any piece of equipment that isn’t a barbell or dumbbell. While it’s admirable to focus on the proven basics, there are also many machines that do an excellent job of isolating muscle groups, such as the pec deck, leg extensions, leg curls and the seated calf raise. Some machines actually do a better job of working a muscle group through its full range of motion far better than their free-weight counterparts.
Fix: By all means, work hard on the free-weight basics, but don’t miss out on what machines and cables have to offer. Always include at least one machine or cable movement per body part.
Some macho hardcore types will insist you are a wimp if you use any or all of the following: a lifting belt, wrist wraps, wrist straps, knee wraps or lifting gloves (well, I kind of agree with the gloves thing). There is no shame in using any accessory that either keeps you safe, like a belt, or allows you to train a given muscle group harder, such as wrist straps on back day (since your grip will typically give out on heavy back movements before your lats are fully fatigued).
Fix: Use whatever you want to or need to that allows you to have better-quality workouts. If someone else has a problem with that, eff ‘em!
Mistake #10: Lack of nutritional support
Probably the most common training mistake is not supporting your workouts and recovery with adequate nutrients. A lot of guys put out plenty of effort in the gym, but are lazy when it comes to eating the right foods at the right times. Therefore, they fail to see a fraction of the potential results they should.
Fix: To get the best results from training, eat a meal containing quality protein and carbohydrate sources every two to three hours, from the time you wake up until you go to sleep. For most, this will wind up being five to six meals every day. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off!
Mistake #11: Lack of sleep
If you don’t eat enough, you won’t grow. And if you don’t sleep enough, you won’t grow either. Lack of sleep increases the body’s release of the catabolic hormone cortisol. Catabolic is muscle wasting, the opposite of anabolic, or muscle building. You simply can’t recover and grow from your workouts with inadequate sleep.
Fix: Sleep a solid eight hours a night if possible. If work, family or academic demands make that impossible, do the best you can. Take any naps you can to make up for a nightly deficit, and sleep late on the occasions you are able to.
Mistake #12: Overuse of intensity techniques
Intensity techniques like forced reps, drop sets, rest-pause and supersets can be highly effective tools to shock your muscles into new growth— when used in moderation. When used too often, they will lead to overtraining. Eventually, you would lose size and strength.
Fix: Reserve intensity techniques for lagging muscle groups, or be very conscious not to use them more than two to three times in any given workout. Don’t rely on training partners to help you eke out forced reps more than a handful of times per workout, and save drop sets and supersets for muscle groups you have difficulty getting a pump in.
Mistake #13: Training with large groups
It’s a lot of fun for some guys to make their workouts a group effort. You can all motivate each other and feed off or each other’s energy. The problem is, once you are training with more than two other men at most, too much time goes by between sets while you wait. You lose your pump, and workouts that should take no more than an hour can stretch into two or more hours. Several times when I was training with “The Boston Mass” Jose Raymond and more guys showed up than were expected, I chose to break off and train on my own once I got a sense of how long things would take. I might have appeared antisocial, but in the end I got a much better workout than I would have.
Fix: Limit your training parties to three people, maximum. If a large group does show up, break it into smaller groups that do different exercises at different times. Socializing is all well and good, but don’t let it ruin your workouts!
Mistake #14: Training at Planet Fitness
There aren’t a whole lot of hardcore “bodybuilding” gyms anymore, but there is at least one damn Planet Fitness in every town, and usually a few in bigger cities. This also applies to various other chains that cater to the “average” person who doesn’t really want to train hard, and who is offended and/or intimidated by anyone who applies genuine effort and has built any type of above-average physique. This is no atmosphere for someone who is serious about training, yet out of convenience and the cheap price, plenty of people do train at these shrines to mediocrity.
Fix: Maybe you have to spend a little more money or drive a little farther to train at a gym that welcomes those with solid work ethics and challenging physique goals, but it’s well worth it. Being surrounded by others who share your passion and dedication will lift you up and make you better. Being looked at with judgment and derision by those who abhor what you stand for will only drag you down.
Mistake #15: Checking your iPhone constantly
I saved this one for last, because it’s a fairly recent phenomenon in the gym world and also because so many of us these days are guilty of it. Most of us now are addicted to our smartphones. We are constantly checking our text messages, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter notifications. Not only do these things waste tremendous amounts of our time, but they also provide a continuous distraction. How many car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been caused by people glued to their little screens? Training requires steely focus on the task at hand. If you are going through your workouts with an iPhone in one hand, you’re definitely not focused.
Fix: Unless you have some type of job that demands you be accessible at all times, or you have children and could theoretically get a call from the day care or school nurse at any moment with a crisis, lock up your phone with your jacket and wallet and leave it behind in the locker room. I guarantee your workout will be more focused and productive.