By Johnny Fitness, Editor-in-Chief
Okay, you love bodybuilding. I get it. Your dream is to one day face the world with every inch of your physique filled to the brim with well-toned, meaty contours of amazing muscle mass that’ll turn men green with envy and get a woman’s attention in no time flat. Great! Your ambition is commendable. But, if you’re such a committed bodybuilder, answer me this: In your opinion what’s the single most obvious physical attribute that separates successful bodybuilders from those suffering long-term failure?
Never mind, I’ll answer for you. It’s mass. I allude to those dancing mounds of muscle that, by the pool or on the beach, set the silhouettes of true bodybuilders apart from the next thousand silhouettes that block the summer sun from your eyes. Bottom line? If you want to be seen as a genuine bodybuilder, you need mass. You’re going nowhere without it. But here’s the rub. If you’re like 90% of trainers who’d do anything for more size, you’re frustrated because you don’t quite know how to fulfill your dream. Don’t despair, though. There are ways you can optimize muscle mass. Rather, there are mistakes you must never make that will kill your chances of owning the silhouette you crave.
There’s a reason you’re not as massive and muscular as you’d like to be – and it’s not simply because you’re not on steroids. If you knew how to avoid the top five mass-building mistakes, you’d be a lot closer to achieving your goals. Starting now, here’s how to make every workout a mass-builder. By a process of elimination you must remove as many negative variables as possible. Once you know what to do, knowing what not to do becomes much easier.
Look around any worthwhile gym. You’ll see lots of big guys, and invariably they’re strong. They’re handling heavy poundages with ease and sport the muscle mass to validate their strength. Not uncommonly, however, you’ll see smaller guys heaving weights nearly as heavy as what the bigger guys lift. It’s a conundrum that needs explanation.
Although you need a certain amount of strength to continue building muscle mass, you can develop tremendous strength without having much physique to show for it. The key is to find your personal balance to maximize mass through the use of, what is for you, heavy weight. The vital factor you must understand is that “heavy” is relative. Some men might require reps with 405 on their bench, while others will build the same, or more, muscle mass repping with 225. This reality brings us to the first of our five mistakes.
Villain #1: Lifting Too Heavy
There’s nothing wrong with lifting heavy, or with pushing the envelope of your strength limits, but when your entire approach to training revolves around how much you can lift (doing single-rep max lifts), you’re in trouble – at least if your goal is max muscle building. They’ve already invented all-out, bust-a-gut strength sports. They’re called powerlifting and Olympic lifting. If you want to forever test your strength, more power to you. Chances are, though, you’ll end up looking like those guys who train the same way you do. To look like a powerlifter, lift heavy ad infinitum. Don’t worry about making your muscles do the work, just learn the technique.
Bring ’em to Justice:
Building big muscle occurs when you train specifically to make the exercises as difficult as possible. You want to tax the muscles excessively by structuring your form and designing your entire program to make movements as inefficient as possible. If your only concern is completing reps, you won’t force your body to adapt with maximum hypertrophy (muscle growth). Your connective tissue will get stronger; your explosiveness, agility and athleticism will improve, but your muscle mass will not necessarily increase to a comparable degree. To add more muscle, you don’t simply heave weights around with bad to questionable form, even though you may succeed in getting them from point A to point B. You need to use weights you can handle for a minimum of six good, quality, unassisted reps. Your rep range should actually be 8-12 for upper-body movements and 8-15 for legs. More specifically, choose a challenging weight with which you can just reach those target reps with good form and absolutely cannot do another single rep on your own. Training to failure is, for bodybuilders, key.
For example, if you can’t bench 225 for six reps without help, lower the weight to 215 or less. The weight is irrelevant at this point. The goal is to get your form under control. If right now you’re doing ugly reps, where the weights are controlling you instead of you controlling the weight, you must go back to the drawing board. Slow down your rep speed. Control both the concentric (positive) and eccentric (negative) portions of each rep. Feel your chest muscles moving the weight, rather than rushing through the motions to reach a desired rep number. Don’t be sloppy; clean up your form because a little hip thrust or bounce invites momentum and recruits other muscle groups into the equation, removing stress – not adding it – from the targeted bodypart. Work your muscles, not your ego or your logbook.
Villain #2: Overreliance On Partial Reps/Forced Reps
Ever see a guy load up the leg press with every available plate in the gym? Ever notice that the guy loading the plates is rarely very big? It’s usually a little dude or fat guy putting on a one-man show in front of a captive audience. Once the “leg press specialist” has the machine locked and loaded (or overloaded), the show begin as he descends a grand total of just 3-4 inches, and that’s the limit of his range of motion.
The problem is, he’s done absolutely nothing to increase his muscle mass. All the reps he’s done in one workout probably add up to the equivalent of fewer than five genuine reps. He probably gets some residual effect on the tendons and ligaments, and the quads may take a bit of work at the top of the move, but he won’t build muscle throughout his hips and thighs with partial reps, at least the way he does them.
Partial reps can be seen as the twin (separated at birth) of forced reps. Getting the occasional spot to keep the weight from trapping you at the bottom of the leg-press machine is perfectly acceptable, but relying on someone to provide spotting assistance by lifting the weight with you during every rep is just as counterproductive to your anabolic goal as partials, necessitated by using far too much weight.
Who do you think you are, Milli Vanilli? (That’s an old reference, so look it up if you don’t know.) If you want someone to work out for you, why bother doing any part of it yourself? You don’t see Lance Armstrong using training wheels at the Tour de France. Having someone help you with every rep of a set probably isn’t a good idea. Here’s a novel approach you should get familiar with: It’s called lowering and raising the weight to the ends of the range of motion all by yourself. Do you and your training partner put straws in the same cup and share protein drinks? That’s what overassisted forced reps equate to. Your goal is to increase your own muscle mass, not make your training partner the best-conditioned spotter in the gym.
Bring ’em to Justice:
Occasionally, to increase strength level, you can use heavier weights than you can normally handle to overcome the temporary physical and mental limitations associated with getting stronger. If you’ve never done seated dumbbell overhead presses with 90 pounds, but you can handle 70 for 10, try a final set with 90s and have someone spot you. You’ll experience the unknown without injury and prepare yourself for the day when you’ll be handling that weight (and more) on your own. Plus, when you go back to the 70s, they’ll feel lighter (via a process called post-activation potentiation, which we’ve covered before in MMI). Try this technique once or twice a month as ancillary to your actual workout, not the core of it.
Villain #3: Lifting Too Frequently
What do you want? Muscle! When do you want it? Now! No, strike that…yesterday! Desperation is the common thread among bodybuilders looking to add quality lean body mass. You want muscle size and you want it immediately. That objective is on par with a get-rich-quick scheme. After all who wants to get rich slowly?
Being intent on changing your physique from what it is to what you want breeds urgency and overactivity. You’ll see guys training every day, never taking days off, in the gym each day for hours yet lifting the same weights year after year and looking the same … only older. The “more is better” bodybuilding mentality has brought more people to their knees than praying.
Sorry to say, no magic formula exists. You can’t simply watch what someone else does, copy it and hope to replicate his results. Some people are born to gain muscle. Regardless of what the genetically gifted do, they’ll add quality mass to their bodies without a well-conceived plan, or any plan at all for that matter. You’re not one of them; in fact, very few of us are. If you were, you likely wouldn’t be reading this article. You have to get more creative in your approach and implement a system you logically develop through your own trial and error.
Bring ’em to Justice:
Training involves three variables: frequency, intensity and duration.
• Frequency – how often you train.
• Intensity – how hard you train, and this is often measured in terms of weight relative to your maximal strength.
• Duration – how long your training sessions last.
What’s important to remember is that you can’t train hard (high intensity) for long periods of time over and over again. Expect a car to perform aggressively like that and it’ll soon break down. If you train very hard for 90 minutes per workout, you shouldn’t train as often. If you train hard for 30-45 minutes per workout, you can train more frequently. If you don’t train hard, you can train as long and as often as you want … but with little to show for your effort. You’ve got to train hard – that’s a given, because intensity is critical for making muscle-building gains – but you can’t overtrain and expect results. Ideally you want to hit each bodypart 1-2 times per week. Some people can get by training once a week while others can handle more frequency, but oftentimes those individuals do far less volume for each bodypart. Training 4-6 days a week works well with a twice-weekly bodypart routine. For the first 4-8 weeks start with four days per week with workouts lasting 45-90 minutes. You can work up to 5-6 days a week, but keep your workouts shorter, about 40-60 minutes in length.
Adjust training days and days off, but you need rest (because that’s when you recover and muscle growth takes place), so don’t train more than 2-3 days in a row without a day off.
Suggested Weekly Training Splits:
4 workouts per week: 2 on/1 off, 2 on/2 off
5 workouts per week: 2 on/1 off, 3 on/1 off
6 workouts per week: 3 on/1 off, 3 on/1 off
Villain #4: Training Too Infrequently
Gym absenteeism (or call it “MIA training”) is the yang to the yin of Mistake #3, “training too often.” Rest is critical and recovery occurs out of the gym, but some people take this principle as a license to loaf. Rest alone won’t build a physique without the stimulus – frequent stimulus. You have to train hard and efficiently, then rest. Way too many bodybuilders slip into the 1-2-times-per-week mentality thinking they’re “heavy duty.” Although 1-2 weight-training sessions might be good for geriatrics who play tennis, ride bikes and like to exercise, this program won’t add muscle mass. You can’t train hard enough or long enough in 1-2 sessions a week to add muscle, even if those are balls-to-the-wall workouts. Muscle wasting (atrophy) can begin to occur within 96 hours (four days), so you don’t want to let too much time pass between workouts.
Bring ’em to Justice:
If your workouts have sufficient volume and intensity, structuring your split to allow a day off after every workout, or every second workout, is the way to go. Try not to take more than two consecutive days off and you’ll find a routine that works best for you. The key is you have to listen to your body. If you’re feeling run down, a day off is in order, whether scheduled or not. If, however, you’re feeling lazy or sorry for yourself, stop complaining and get in the gym. Do you want muscle mass or do you just like talking about it without actually doing anything about it?
Suggested Weekly Training Splits:
4 workouts per week: Alternate 1 on/1 off
4 workouts per week: Alternate 2 on/2 off with 2 on/1 off
5 workouts per week: Alternate 2 on/1 off with 2 on/2 off
Villain: #5: Trying To Do Much in Each Session
You can have too much of a good thing. Mike Mentzer used to compare weight training with sun exposure. An adequate amount will give you a tan, but exposure beyond that will burn you. Over the years many bodybuilders have confided in me that Mike’s basic logic wasn’t flawed, but they were wearing a lot of sun block and standing under an umbrella. They needed, and could benefit from, “excessive training.” If you train hard, you can’t train for more than two hours. The limit is probably closer to 60-75, minutes depending on your workout pace. If you’re doing 20+ sets per bodypart and resting five minutes between sets, you’re not maximizing training efficiency. You’ve got too much time on your hands and you’re just passing time in the gym rather than adding muscle mass.
Bring ’em to Justice:
Decrease your rest periods to 1-2 minutes between upper-body exercises and 2-4 minutes for legs, though hamstrings and calves require a little less rest time. Give all-out effort for 45-60 seconds during each set, then use your rest period between sets to recuperate. However, you should always start your next set before your breathing is completely back to normal. Workouts aren’t for socializing and recounting the latest exploits of celebrities or athletes. If you train hard, with a purpose and a time limit mentality, you’ll train harder in less time for more gains.
Imagine you’ve got only a limited amount of time to get your workout done – say, the equivalent of having only 60 minutes till the gym closes. Don’t screw around; increase your intensity and pace. You have to finish and you’re working against a hard time limit. If yours is a 24-hour gym, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ve got all the time in the world. Your performance and effectiveness will fall rapidly after the 60-minute mark because the body fatigues quickly and your training intensity will fall as your propensity for injury rises (as well as muscle-robbing cortisol levels). The more you can get done in under an hour, the better and more rewarding your mass-building quest will be because cortisol levels will be under control.
Think hard about your present training. If, after reading this article, you feel you’re batting 5 for 5, you’re on the right track. If not – and I’ll bet you’re not – arrest those mass murderers.