With the new year upon us, gyms are filling up with new members who’ve taken the vow to get in shape. Thankfully, most of those individuals are gone by February, meaning we no longer have to stand in line at every piece of equipment. Until then, however, we’re forced to watch guys who’ve spent years on the couch accumulating rolls of fat attempt to do simple bodybuilding exercises in comical ways: the barbell curl with a simultaneous pelvic thrust and low-back extension, the bench press with the bounce off the chest and the quarter squat with hundreds of pounds on the bar. Yet these wayward individuals aren’t the only ones who’ll fail to see progress; intermediate- and advanced-level bodybuilders also commonly make critical errors in their workouts, even though many of these errors have nothing to do with so-called “good form.” Read on and see if you’re guilty of any one of these nine common gym mistakes responsible for slowing your progress.
Being Overly Enthusiastic
A strong commitment to building muscle is beneficial, but as the saying goes, you can get too much of a good thing. If your goals to gain muscle size are so compelling that you spend more than about 60–90 minutes training in the gym each day, especially if you’re a beginner, your efforts will most likely be counterproductive. Enthusiasm is good if you’ve never worked out before or if you’re starting a new exercise program, but doing too much too fast isn’t going to do your body any favors.
The reason is that your body starts producing the catabolic hormone cortisol as the length of your workout increases — and catabolism is the exact opposite process of muscle building. Levels increase with the more work you do, so even the best intentions may be quickly negated.
Beginners typically can’t handle the same volume and intensity as more advanced bodybuilders, so it’s important to stay within your limits. As a beginner, expect to work hard for 45–60 minutes total, about 30 minutes for a given bodypart. You can’t maintain the intensity of a hard training session for very long when your fatigue levels are rising. Most importantly, remember that training is the stimulus for muscle breakdown, but growth actually occurs during your recovery period when supported by good nutrition.
Focusing on Isolation Exercises
While big arms and an impressive chest probably top your list, your first year of training should be devoted to building your foundation with basic moves such as squats, deadlifts, presses and rows. Basic compound exercises will help you add muscle all over your body because these movements require so many muscle groups to be working in coordination. For example, besides the pecs, the bench press also calls the front delts and triceps into play; standing moves like the squat require the core (abs, low back) to stabilize the torso. In addition, you can lift far heavier weights when doing compound (also called multi-joint) exercises as opposed to single-joint moves (such as leg extensions, flyes for chest or front or lateral raises for delts). Also of importance, your body will experience a greater natural hormonal response (testosterone, growth hormone) when confronted with heavy, compound moves rather than lighter-weight isolation exercises. And let’s not forget one other significant benefit: When you include more compound moves, you’ll develop better symmetry and prevent muscular imbalances that can increase your risk of injury.
Blindly Following Someone Else’s Routine
Pro bodybuilders like the athletes featured in Muscle & Performance don’t come up with their routines accidentally; years of trial and error have enabled them to discover what moves work best for them. Their routines reflect a preference for certain kinds of equipment over others (say, dumbbells over barbells if they have a pre-existing shoulder problem) and are often designed specifically to target weak or lagging areas. In addition, the large volume (number of exercises, sets and reps) speaks to their highly advanced state, something a novice shouldn’t try to duplicate. Moreover, training splits (the schedule of workouts you do on particular days, as well as rest days) correspond to time available, recuperative abilities, nutritional support and bodybuilding experience, and those factors vary based on your individual circumstances as well. That being said, you can still gain insight that’s useful to your own training from the pros because they have years of in-the-trenches experience and can provide insight into subtle techniques and ways of doing particular moves that are incredibly useful, even for beginners. There’s much to be learned from dissecting a pro bodybuilder’s routine, but chances are that the program isn’t one you want to be repeating exactly — and the same goes for blindly copying the routines of other gym members.
Failing to Learn All the Variations of a Given Exercise
Knowing how to do a given move with perfect form is critical, and that’ll help you construct a solid base of muscularity, but each and every exercise has a number of variations that are different in subtle ways. Learning — and practicing — all the versions will help you build thicker, denser muscle because you’re training the target muscle from slightly different angles. Over time, incorporating all the variations into your workout will generate a full, dense muscle.
The most obvious way incorporate alternatives is to substitute barbell, dumbbell, cable and machine moves. In fact, you can do some exercises, like the front raise for anterior delts, with each of these pieces of equipment, and each variation is a little bit different from the others. There are, however, more ways to introduce small degrees of change into a given move. Take the standing dumbbell lateral raise for your middle delts, for example. It can also be done from a seated position (less momentum), one arm at a time while standing (greater focus on each side), on the cable (constant tension and the angle of pull comes from across the body rather than the direct result of gravity), on a machine (easier to train to failure as you don’t have to balance your body or the weight), or even leaning away from a vertical post (longer range of motion).
Besides working the muscle from slightly altered angles, knowing how to do a particular move a number of ways can be beneficial on days when the gym is crowded and lines are forming at the piece of equipment you need. Rather than waste time waiting in line, simply try an alternate move and your workout is back on track.
Falling Into a Comfort Zone
If your workout isn’t challenging and isn’t forcing you to push yourself, chances are it’s also stopped working. There are dozens of real-life examples you probably see at your own gym — individuals who’ve been training for years but have made no appreciable progress with their physiques. If you just do your same old workout, you’re bound to get the same old results.
Everyone has their favorite exercises, but you also need to understand that you have to make some kind of change to your routine to keep the muscle stimulated. If you’re not getting results, modification is necessary, and it’s not limited to just exercise selection but order, sets and reps, weights, rest periods, intensity techniques and the composition of your training split as well. Making such adjustments to your workout also has the added benefit of helping to keep you mentally fresh.
Adjust Rest Intervals to Your Workout
Your program is a living and breathing instrument that can be tweaked and poked and massaged so that it works for you, not against you. Here’s an example: Most bodybuilders typically take roughly a two-minute break between sets. But there are a number of reasons that you should adjust your rest period, depending on the circumstances: 1) toward the beginning of your workout when you’re doing your heaviest sets, take a longer rest interval for more complete recovery; 2) on larger bodyparts such as legs or back, take a longer rest period so that your breathing patterns can return to normal; 3) toward the end of your workout when you’re no longer training for strength but rather for muscle pump, shorten the rest period so that you’re not completely recovered between sets; 4) on smaller bodyparts like arms and/or especially abs and calves, significantly shorten the rest period because the muscle recovers more quickly; and, 5) regularly implement advanced training techniques like supersets or rest-pause, which are predicated on manipulating the normal rest period for superior muscle gains.
Ignoring the Power of Your Mind
For beginners, improvement in strength and size typically comes rather quickly. But the longer you’ve been at the iron game, however, the more difficult it is to continue making progress. Your size gains will eventually plateau and adding even 5 pounds to the bar will become a monumental effort. Sure, switching up exercises and rearranging your training split can help, but for many it becomes necessary to rethink your approach and try using some extraordinary methods to jump-start new muscle growth.
Listening to your body gets to be more important the more advanced you become. Rather than simply lifting weights, focus on feeling the muscle work and generating a pump, worrying less about reps and sets. You can also discover new ways to challenge yourself: Do exercises you generally avoid, try high-intensity methods you’ve never used like rest-pause, negatives or cycle heavy and light workouts — any strategy you haven’t tried before.
Skipping the Warm-Up and Cool-Down
Along with being able to lift heavier weights, advanced bodybuilders are very familiar with sore joints, aches and pains. The repetitive nature of bodybuilding makes such nuisances a matter of everyday life. The longer and heavier you train, the more common these occurrences become. If you think about it, all the things you possibly skipped as a beginner, including warming up, doing rotator-cuff exercises and even stretching, become even more critical if you want to continue lifting pain-free for years to come.
In addition, the advanced bodybuilder must know the difference between good and bad pain, when to pull back and when it’s okay to push yourself. Tendinitis and other joint aches related to repetitive motion are common and can get much worse if not treated properly, and you’ll really set your training back if you have to miss a month or two to rest an injury. While the use of NSAIDs can help relieve symptoms, they don’t address the underlying cause and shouldn’t be taken for long-term periods. It’s important to listen carefully to your body and see a sports-medicine physician or chiropractor when you feel pain. Joint supplements can also help, as they provide the raw materials needed to repair damaged tissue and restore normal function.
Expecting to Make BIG Gains Training on Your Own
While it’s true that you don’t need a workout partner to make tremendous bodybuilding gains, and a lazy, late or inattentive partner can even hold your progress back, the fact remains that a good, responsive and motivating spotter can push you well past your physical limits and help you make gains you otherwise wouldn’t accrue. Research confirms what you may have already discovered to be true: In the presence of another person, you have the ability to push more weight or do more reps than you’d do on your own. This is valuable not just on your heaviest sets when you need a watchful eye — say, with free-bar squats, incline and decline barbell presses or overhead shoulder presses — but also when attempting advanced-training techniques such as forced reps, rest-pause, drop sets and negatives. Your toolbox of exercises and advanced training techniques increases exponentially with a solid training partner, and if you return the favor and assist him, everybody indeed wins.