By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT | Editor-at-Large
Nobody gets it right all the time. If that were the case, we’d all be sporting Olympia-contending physiques and chasing down supplement contracts. Bodybuilding is such an individual pursuit — one where success is built on more trial and error than we sometimes care to admit. But one of the best ways to achieve results the fastest isn’t to ensure you’re getting everything right but rather to evaluate what you may be doing wrong. The following list represents nine of the most common training and dietary mistakes that people make as they work to build lean muscle and torch more bodyfat.
1. Skipping Breakfast
Wake up. Shower. Shave. Get dressed. If you’re lucky, you get to grab some coffee before sprinting to your car and diving headlong into your morning commute. But if you haven’t eaten, you won’t be taking a trip to Gainsville. For one, studies have shown that those who skip breakfast are much more likely to overeat later in the day. Also, for every minute you run on empty after waking up, your body is cannibalizing your muscles for energy, which it needs to fuel basic activities, and it’ll take it from somewhere, even your muscles. Without restocking muscle glycogen with some healthy, slow-digesting carbs or introducing some amino acids with a protein quick fix, you’re condemning yourself to a plateau or worse — a backslide. Missing this important meal also interferes with your blood-sugar level, causing undesirable swings in energy and unwanted storage of bodyfat. While oatmeal is a great source of fiber and complex carbs, the centerpiece of a bodybuilder’s breakfast has to be the almighty egg. Research conducted at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that eating eggs for breakfast reduces hunger and leads to greater abdominal fat loss.
>> Keep your gains on track by having a carb- and protein-rich meal every morning before starting your day. Your breakfast caloric ratio should be about 25–40% protein, 50–65% carbs and 10% fat.
2. Excessive Cardio
Weight training, on its own, is one of the most powerful fat-fighting activities anyone can engage in since it builds muscle, which is a metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you carry, the more calories you burn. But performing cardio is absolutely essential if you expect to get your physique dialed in — it taps into stubborn pockets of bodyfat and increases your overall cardiovascular health. But it’s easy to get carried away. Guys eager to burn fat faster will start stretching sessions out longer or adding more cardio over the course of the week, not knowing that they’re actually sabotaging their overall body composition. Cardio burns calories, but calories build muscle, so adding size will be much more difficult if your body is fighting a constant calorie deficit. Plus, excessive training of any kind can blunt recovery and spike the stress hormone cortisol, which can interfere with muscle growth and fat burning.
>> To keep your gains on track, perform 2–3 cardio sessions per week. For high-intensity cardio, keep sessions to 20 minutes or less. If you’re doing steady-state work, 30 minutes is a good target. To keep from overtraining, add minutes or additional sessions incrementally — a few extra minutes per week or one more bout of cardio every few weeks. If you plateau, start to lose muscle or have a drastic drop in your energy level, cut back on the cardio volume.
3. Training To Failure
We love spirited, iron-loving diehards who think that a set isn’t a set unless your eyeballs are bleeding by the end of it. Training to failure has its place, but the research is clear on when and how it’s best used. As to the “when,” it simply doesn’t make sense to take your first set of any exercise to failure, certainly not if your goal is to lift as much cumulative weight as possible each session. Your muscle strength will be diminished if you spend all your energy capital at the start of each set, which is why you should save failure for your final sets of an exercise. Specifically, by training to failure during the last set — and only the last set — of an exercise, you give yourself the best chance for growth. Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra found that those taking multiple sets of the bench press to failure gained less strength than those who took only one set to failure.
>> Keep your gains on track by limiting failure training (forced reps, drop sets, etc.) to the last set of each exercise for a given bodypart.
4. Not Training To Failure
One of the most common things that can hinder gains in the gym is not pushing your muscles to failure. Beginners tend to do this out of fear, while more experienced lifters do it out of some misinformed notion that doing so could adversely affect strength gains. But researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra found that lifters who performed four sets of six on the bench press, with the last set done to failure, three times a week for six weeks experienced a 10% increase in strength. Subjects in the study who performed three sets of eight, but never trained to failure over that time, saw only a 5% bump. Additionally, a recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that protein synthesis was increased for 24 hours following resistance exercises performed to failure in both heavy-weight/low-rep and lighter-weight/high-rep groups, meaning that training to failure puts you in a position to grow more muscle — regardless of how much weight you’re using.
>> To keep gains on track, take the last set of each exercise to failure, which increases protein synthesis for 24 hours following your workout.
5. Eating Carbs Late
Some hardcore bodybuilders will tell you that the only way to grow during a mass-gaining phase is to eat … constantly. All calories, all the time, they’ll tell you. But that well-intentioned advice is lacking a key bit of information, namely that meals consumed later in the day need to be more carefully thought out. Early in the day, your body requires carbs — your overnight fast left you glycogen-depleted and your first few meals will refill your tank. But as the day wears on, glycogen stores top off and your metabolism slows, meaning that carbs consumed later in the day are more likely to be stored as fat than carbs consumed in the morning or around workouts. So if you’re scarfing down another few cups of brown rice with your chicken or taking down a bowl of cereal just before bed, you’re asking for trouble … doughy, blubbery trouble.
>> To keep your gains on track, have the majority of your carbs in your first few meals and taper your carb consumption off in the afternoon. This will ensure that the carbs you eat are less likely to be stored as bodyfat. Better late-night alternatives are low-carb/no-carb casein protein shakes or cottage cheese, which provide a slow trickle of amino acids to recovering muscles overnight, and a small amount of healthy fat such as a tablespoon of peanut butter to help further slow digestion.
6. Being Overly Consistent
So yesterday you benched 225 for 10 reps. Awesome. Normally, that’d be a big deal for you, except that you’ve been doing 225 for 10 for, well … ever. It’s not to say that you won’t get anything out of said reps, but without forcing progression, you’re ensuring a halt to all progress. To grow, muscle requires stimulation. Comfortable, familiar workouts invariably lead to a physique resistant to change. We like your 10-rep dedication but next time, maybe add some 5s to the bar and try 235 for 8–9 reps instead. If you fall short, have a partner help you with the extra reps — your body will respond in short order, we promise.
>> To keep your gains on track, outdo your previous performance each time you set foot in the gym to train a bodypart. Incrementally adding weight, performing additional reps or decreasing rest periods forces progression and ensures your workouts — and physique — never go stale. Make it an easier go by meticulously charting your weights, sets, reps and rest for each workout.
7. Avoiding Dietary Fat
If you eat fat, you’ll get fat … right? Wrong. If you subscribe to this outdated philosophy, you could be limiting how much strength and muscle you can gain, not to mention how much bodyfat you can lose. Most typical sources of healthy fat — i.e., omega-3s, monounsaturated and some saturated fats — have other benefits that can help you push harder and longer in the gym. Red meat, which many avoid because of its higher saturated fat content, is rich in creatine, which helps you move more weight in the gym, and has a full assortment of vitamins like B6, B12 and thiamin, which help you better use fat and carbs during workouts. Also, healthy fats from sources like salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil can actually promote fat loss. CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a healthy fat found in grass-fed beef, serves as a powerful fat burner that should be a part of your supplement stack year-round, and fish oil has numerous health benefits including boosting joint health (by reducing inflammation), enhancing recovery and fat burning. So don’t cut off your nose to spite your face — healthy fats definitely help you more than they can hurt you. And don’t turn your nose at saturated fats, because those are key in the production of your natural testosterone levels.
>> To keep your gains on track, try to derive 20–30% of your total daily calories from fat, mostly from healthy sources such as olive oil, fish, nuts, seeds and avocados. Also, to help general health and fat burning, supplement with 3 grams of fish oil 2–3 times per day and 2–3 grams of CLA 2–3 times per day with meals.
8. Not Being Specific
What’s your goal? Do you want to be all-over beefy, with thick slabs everywhere? There’s a way to train for that. Do you want to be ultra-lean, with sickly striated muscle bellies and vascular tracking that looks like a 3-D map of the Amazon? There’s a way to train for that, too. Many lifters foolishly try to do both at the same time and expect dually amazing results. The principles of specificity dictate that results are best achieved when you devote yourself wholly to one training goal. It’s Personal Training 101 — the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) means that you train in a specific manner to elicit a certain result. Size chasers, for instance, need to make sure they’re training heavy on major, compound lifts with longer rest periods, and they need a nutritional plan that includes plenty of calories, carbs and protein. It doesn’t make sense for this lifter to spend an hour on pre-breakfast cardio, since this will rob him of the calories needed to facilitate growth. If you chase two rabbits, you end up losing them both.
>> Keep your gains on track by first identifying your specific training goal, then following a proven, progressive training program to help get you there. Enlist the help of a personal trainer or a more experienced friend, or just try the focused programs we provide in MuscleMag each month.
9. Ignoring Thyself
Since the strategic use of training to failure is a key component of instigating hypertrophy (muscle growth) and strength gains and since particular gains are best achieved at particular rep ranges, it’s important to know just how strong you are. Why? Consider the guy who is savvy enough to know that muscle growth is best achieved in the 8–12-rep range. If he stops at 12 reps on his last set but could’ve done 2–3 more, he’s drastically limiting his opportunities for growth (see tip No. 4). Honest, calculated self-assessment is critical for bodybuilders because it reduces interference from other pitfalls such as ego (using too much weight), timidity (using too little) or outright ignorance (not knowing the difference). The best way to assess your starting point for rep ranges is to know your true one-rep max (1RM) on the lift in question, which you should attempt only after a thorough, thoughtful warm-up and the help of at least one attentive spotter. If you’re not comfortable with a 1RM test, you can try plugging your 5RM into a formula that is 97–99% accurate for determining your max (see chart below). Many science-backed training protocols require you to use weights based on your 1RM, so knowing how much you can lift on a particular movement is a key starting point to using them.
You don’t necessarily need a single-rep effort to determine your 1RM. A calculator will suffice.
The thought of getting under the bar for one potentially chest-crushing rep is not that attractive to a lot of lifters. And that may be doubly true if you’re squatting. Once your post-teen hubris starts to fade, you realize that nurturing your joints and muscles for the long haul is more important than impressing other dudes in your gym. But knowing how much weight you can move at your best is still critically important for growing muscle since most suggested weight loads work off a percentage of that max. To avoid 1RM performance anxiety, try this five-rep, Journal of Strength and Conditioning
–published alternative, which is 97–99% accurate.
Upper Body: (5RM weight x 1.1307) + 0.6998
Lower Body: (5RM weight x 1.09703) + 14.2546
Do five reps to failure on your lift of choice and plug it into the equations listed above. The studies used the barbell bench press and the leg press, but the equation will translate well into other multijoint moves such as the overhead press, incline bench press, lat pulldown and back squat.
For example, if you can do 245 pounds on the bench press for five and only five reps (good form, no help), then you multiply (245 x 1.1307) and add 0.6998. That means your 1RM is closer to 277 pounds.
Need more advice for keeping your gains on track? Check out our list of 33 ways to crush plateaus!