We’ve all been there, fresh to the gym and eager to do whatever it takes to build some muscle. You walk into the gym and feel overwhelmed by all of the equipment and energy buzzing around the gym. You start mimicking some of the people in the gym and doing the same exercises they do, pick up a muscle magazine lying around, and think you have found the secret to building muscle.
Every beginner who gets into weight training falls into these mistakes and I’m going to point them out so you can correct them before you get bummed that you aren’t building muscle and simply quit, or even worse, get hurt.
Reading Muscle Magazines
Every time I pick up a muscle magazine, every article seems it is aimed toward selling a product or giving some bull crap ‘4 week shoulder shredder’ workout that doesn’t work. All throughout the magazine it tells its readers that if they want to get this big [insert a jacked bodybuilder here], that all they had to do was buy this supplement and do this crappy routine.
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it took the person in the picture longer than 4 weeks and much longer than even 4 years to achieve that physique. Muscle magazines are great and I’m not bashing on them, but they give a beginner lifter who has no perspective on the lifestyle a skewed vision of ‘what could be’ and they usually quit soon after they start because of not seeing the results they think they should have.
There are two ways socializing starts: you walk into the gym and the guy that likes to give crap advice comes to talk to you, or you bring a friend or two to start lifting with you. Socializing is not what the gym is for and you will end up losing focus on your objective. There has been too many times I would go to the gym and have to work around people who decided to have a tea party in the middle of the gym. This isn’t cute and all you are doing is getting in the way of people who want results.
Socializing kills your focus and drive at the gym and keeps you from making any significant gains. Save the socializing for outside of the gym and get your lift on.
Taking Advice From the Wrong People
Once you start socializing in the gym, you will inevitably have someone who has a friend’s uncle who knows someone who has trained Ronnie Coleman and he said that [insert horrible advice here]. Taking advice from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about is quite possibly the most fatal mistake a beginner can make. Most people don’t give crap advice on purpose so you fail, so you need to do your homework.
A lot of crappy advice may sound believable, but only take advice from people who either can do what you are wanting to do, or look the way you want to. There are many people who know what they are talking about, so if you get advice from someone, try to research it online and see if there are more people who are advocating that advice.
Using a Crappy Program
There are a lot of programs out there that are imbalanced, don’t use compound lifts, or don’t talk about progressing with the weights at all. If your program is crappy and you strive to add weight to the exercises you are doing, you are going to make gains.
Using a program that has no compound lifts and promises you results in 4 weeks is just a crappy workout and usually results in a plea for help online; “Just ran a program and had no results, am I a hardgainer?”
If your program does have compound lifts in it, strive to add weight to the exercises and give it your all and do what the routine says to do. It is better to give your all on a crappy program than to program hop.
Program hopping is where you run a program intended for 12 weeks or longer for a few weeks and then switch to the next big program. This happens too much and this is a huge cause for not gaining any muscle or strength. Most decent programs have compound lifts, some sort of progression scheme, and a timeline for it all. One of the popular beginner routines, the MadCow 5×5 has you working sub-maximal weights for 4 weeks before you start to use heavier weights than you have before.
These programs are designed to be run the full-time, not until the next new miracle routine comes out and you jump to that. If a routine is working for you, don’t switch just because everyone else is.
Not having a program or at least a plan of what you are going into the gym to do is a mistake a lot of people make. You must plan and be consistent in order to gain muscle and strength. Going to the gym and ‘doing what feels right’ that day is not going to make you stronger. Quite frankly I hate how hard squats are and I can’t stand bench pressing, so if I were to ‘do what feels right’ I would be weak. Using a crappy program is better than no program at all.
You must have a program or some consistent form of a routine if you want to progress.
No Compound Lifts
Many beginners come to the gym and start using machines because they are embarrassed by not knowing how to properly do a compound lift, or they are not very strong and don’t want to look like a wuss. Most people in the gym are not going to make fun of you because you have to start with 95 pounds on a bench press. If someone is giving you flak because of that, they don’t deserve any attention and just ignore them.
Compound lifts use multiple joints and put tremendous stress on the body and nervous system. This stress put on the nervous system creates an anabolic response so your body will adapt and build muscle. Squats are arguably the most important exercise when done correctly in the gym because of the response of the nervous system.
Your main compound lifts that should be done regularly are squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, and barbell rows. Cleans, clean and jerks, and snatches are great Olympic style lifts and are very technical and need to be learned from a coach.
The fact of the matter is if you want to build muscle and get stronger, do your compound lifts.
I applaud you for starting to do compound lifts, now it is time to get your form correct. There are many videos online to watch how to do proper form on all exercises. Be sure to watch multiple videos for each exercise, because even online there are people who will give you horrible advice.
Form is something that must be worked on every time you enter the gym; people who have been lifting for 20+ years are still working on form. There is no such thing as perfect form, so always read and learn how you can improve your form. Be sure to record your sessions and share them online with experienced people who can give you solid advice. Don’t worry about how much weight is on the bar, do your form correctly and the weight will come soon after.
So a pretty girl walks in and you put more weight on the bar than you had intended, or you are benching next to someone else who is benching more than you so you put more weight on the bar than you should. This is ego lifting and one of the main reasons people get hurt. There is a due process on building strength and muscle and you can’t ignore it. Putting too much weight on the bar too soon is going to lead to form break down and injury.
Ego lifting is different from putting another 5 pounds on the bar every week and going for your personal record, ego lifting is not wanting to get shown up or trying to act stronger than you really are. Check your ego at the door and put in the hard work.
Training Way Too Much
Work capacity plays a huge role in how many times you can train a week and how much you can do, but the saying quality over quantity is critical for weight training. Using quality exercises with quality sets and reps will give you better results than going to the gym 5, 6, or 7 times a week and banging out a bunch of sets. If you really want to grow and get stronger, there is a known process which calls for quality work to tear down the muscles, proper rest and nutrition for recovery and rebuilding your muscle, and time.
You need to listen to your body and find what works best for you and know that going 3 days a week and doing a few sets of a couple of compound lifts each session is better than 5 days a week and doing 20 sets on machines. There is no need to spend hours in the gym doing 20+ sets.
Not Listening to Body
Being able to ‘listen to your body’ is a skill picked up as you progress in your training. If you listen to your body and record your results, you are going to find that your body best responds to a certain type of training, a certain type of food, and you’re going to learn when to call it a day if your lower back feels strained or if you feel ill, that it is not going to benefit you to go into the gym.
Training through injuries and not treating them is a fatal mistake a lot of people make, even professional powerlifters and bodybuilders. There is a certain amount of ego and you don’t want to be seen as a wuss because your elbow or knee hurts, so you go into the gym. Find out what type of injury you have and deal with it that way. If you need to do some mobility work and modify your training, do it. If you need to completely stop training and lay on an inversion table for a week, do it.
It doesn’t pay to work through an injury if there is a way you can make it better. I’ve been dealing with shoulder pain a while and my bench press has suffered from it, so I guess I should take my own advice.
Not Enough Recovery
Recovery is sleep and food. When you go to the gym and beat your body and muscles up, that’s the easy part of the equation. Recovery is when your body rebuilds your muscles bigger and makes your nervous system more efficient at using these muscles. If you do not recover properly, you will squash any gains you could be making, as well as being very sore or becoming sick.
Getting enough sleep is the most important thing you can do for your recovery. Going out partying and getting 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night is not enough for your body to recover fully. If you are serious about building muscle, you can’t go partying every night and not getting enough sleep.
Not eating enough is another huge mistake people make when trying to build muscle. People who do not eat enough and can’t gain muscle usually label themselves as ‘hardgainers’ and the only problem is they just don’t eat enough. Drink some weight gainer or make a high calorie protein shake if you really can’t eat any more food.
Recovery is simple: Pick up a fork and eat, get plenty of sleep, repeat.
Along with not eating enough, people simply don’t eat the right foods. You cannot out exercise poor diet. Whether you are training to be a strength athlete or simply to get in shape, you have to eat nutritious whole foods in order to reach your goals. Getting enough protein, dietary fats, and carbs is essential to building a lean and dense body. If you do not give your body the proper nutrition, you are robbing yourself and wasting your time in the gym.
There are plenty of articles here about muscle building foods, how to eat healthy on a budget, and other articles you should check out. If you have any questions about nutrition, feel free to ask in the comments below.
Relying on Supplements
There are many debates about the usefulness and effectiveness of supplements, so I’m not going to get involved in that right now. You do not need supplements to build muscle and lose weight. Do your research and look at the scientific studies on the different supplements out there and know what you are wanting to take. I fell into the trap of thinking I had to have supplements, spending $300 a month on them. I use creatine and supplement protein shakes in my diet and a pre-workout or some caffeine for a stimulant and I have been saving money and building strength and muscle.
The reason I bring up supplements is because I would rather see someone saving $200 that they would spend on supplements and buy some fresh vegetables, chicken, fish, and beef instead of supplements and a McDonalds burger. Remember, nutrition is important for muscle building. There is no magic formula to build muscle if you can’t even eat correctly.
If you are getting your sweat on, wipe off the machine for the next person. It’s more a sign of respect to the equipment and the gym than it is anything else. If your gym allows chalk, don’t abuse this privilege and make a mess like an idiot. The people in my gym feel that the owners owe them something so they made a huge mess with chalk and now chalk is no longer allowed.
Pick up your trash, no one wants to pick up your empty pre-workout bottle, water bottle, or sweaty ass paper towel. Again, it’s a respect thing.
No Respect for Gym
Put your damn weights back on the rack. If everyone put the weights back where they are supposed to go, you wouldn’t spend too much time between sets trying to find a pair of 2.5s or 5s. You also wouldn’t have to walk through that corner of the gym on your tip toes because there are so many plates and dumbbells over there you will die if you step wrong.
Don’t drop the weights either. This doesn’t mean you have to be lunk alarm quiet, but there’s no reason to throw your dumbbells and make a lot of noise. If you want that much attention, I’m sorry.
Just respect the equipment like it is your own, it will keep dumbbells from getting bent, plates from getting chipped, and machines from breaking.
Not Using Collars
Using collars is important so you don’t get hurt. For most people there is a side that is more dominant and will pull or press faster than the other side. The weights will start to slide further out and creates a teeter-totter effect which you will lose really fast. If the collars in your gym are crappy, invest in some good ones so you don’t have to worry about the weight on the bar shifting.
Not Balancing Cardio and Weight Training
You have your cardio bunnies and your unconditioned lifters. Both are not beneficial to making gains so make sure that you balance the amount of time you spend doing cardio and lifting weights. The way your body recomposes itself relies mostly on food. You cannot out train a bad diet. If you eat healthy and eat less, your body is going to burn fat. There is no need to spend hours on a treadmill or doing cardio and hardly lifting any weights.
On the other hand, going in for hours just lifting weights is not beneficial to your gains also. Conditioning plays a huge role in work capacity and how much energy you have and can use at the gym and in life. If you’ve ever had great conditioning and got lazy and lost it, you know that it is no fun.
Mix a good amount of cardio or conditioning work in with a good weight resistance routine, eat healthy, and work hard.
Mobility and being flexible is important because it helps prevent injuries and it also helps you keep a functional body. When a muscle gets stronger, it gets tighter. This is why some say that stretching before working out makes you weaker; you are stretching and weakening a muscle before use.
A great thing about improving your flexibility is that you use corrective stretching to fix imbalances and bad posture. A lot of people have hunched shoulders and their shoulders internally rotated and tight hip flexors from working at a desk all day. (Look at your posture right now while you’re on the computer). In order to correct this posture and muscle imbalance you want to stretch your pecs and the muscles in the front of your body and strengthen your back to help straighten up your posture.
Having tight hips, tight ankles, tight quads and hamstrings are all common and can make doing exercises more difficult than they should be. Mobility work isn’t something you should spend hours a day on, but if you want to have a functional and strong body, stretch.
Wearing the Wrong Shoes
If you are serious about getting strong, wearing the proper shoes will help you stay safe and build a strong body. Using running shoes and other cross trainers while you deadlift and squat create a weak base of support. Use a flat soled solid shoe for the best results like some chuck all-stars or even dress shoes.
Don’t use the excuse of not having the right type of shoes to not squat or deadlift, I deadlift barefoot. This simply is a tip that is often overlooked.
These tips I would invite you to take into consideration if you are new to the gym. From muscle building mistakes to being “that guy” in the gym, these tips will get you on the right track towards achieving your goals.
For the love of god, stay off of the damn bosu ball!
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