Have you plateaued with building muscle?
Do you feel like when you first started everything seemed to work, and now you are putting more work in and not seeing any results?
Does it seem like you are spinning your wheels?
I felt the same way.
I remember my first year of training everything worked, I grew muscle and put on size.
So I continued to do what worked.
I put more time in, did more, but I just felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.
What I didn’t realize (but eventually did) is what I experienced was the “newbie” gains. This basically means that no matter what you do, its going to work, no matter how inefficient it may be because its new to your body.
But eventually, your body and muscles adapt and you have to get more efficient to build more muscle.
Side note: the body doesn’t like to have a ton of muscle, this is because from an evolutionary standpoint it doesn’t make sense to carry around a lot of muscle, but we live in different times now and having more muscle makes a lot more sense and is sustainable.
So I have some good news and some bad news if this sounds like you.
Good news: with a little more structure/more efficient training you will be able to build significant amounts of muscle still.
Bad news: this is going to require a little more investment in your training and nutrition than before.
Let’s go over common muscle building mistakes and how to fix them so you can continue to make gains past the “newbie” stage.
Here are some common training mistakes people make when trying to build muscle.
1. Not enough intensity during workouts
Step one is getting into the habit of weight training at least 2-3 times per week, as something is always better than nothing, especially when you are getting started. But once that is accomplished, the body will adapt and training must get tougher over time, so the workouts that once worked will not anymore.
Just going through the motions and not breaking a sweat will not get you to grow muscle, neither will chatting with everyone in the gym. Eventually, each set you do for the day needs to be somewhat challenging. If you cruise through a set and don’t have to work for a rep or two, your workouts are not intense enough.
Takeaway: Not every workout needs to leave you feeling beat up and sore, however, a good rule of thumb is to have around 3 out of every 4 workouts be challenging.
2. Too much focus on isolation work
Isolation work can be thought of as exercises that work one muscle group at a time. I also like to think of isolation work as machine or cable exercises as well. Don’t get me wrong, machines and cables have their place in building muscle, but some people rely on them too much.
I get it though, it’s easier than dumbells and barbells and doesn’t require as much focus and effort, but that is the problem.
This is especially true if you are short on time, what is going to work more muscle?
- Leg extension
- Back squat
The squats work your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and indirectly work many other muscle groups, squats also allow you to use a significant amount of weight. Compared to the leg extension that only works your quads.
Isolation exercises should be apart of your workout routine. But they should not be the foundation of your workout routine, especially if you are short on time.
Takeaway: The foundation of your workouts should be compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups. Isolation exercises should fill in the gaps.
3. Winging it
When you first get started with working out you can get away with a lot and still grow muscle. You don’t have to track all of your workouts, because your body is still sensitive to muscle growth. Once this wears off it will require you to become more diligent in tracking your workouts.
What happens when you don’t track your workouts is you forget what you did the previous week and could potentially be spinning your wheels over time. Most of us cannot recall what we ate the previous day, so how are you going to know what you did in your workout weeks ago?
For me personally, knowing what I did in previous weeks helps me push myself. If you dont know what you need to do, you may not push yourself as much. There have been plenty of reps or sets of squats I would have left on the table had I not known what I did the previous week.
Takeaway: Track your workouts so you know you are improving over time and to take out the guesswork in what you should be doing each workout.
4. Not training each muscle group enough/too much volume in one session
A very popular way to train is the “bro split”. For those who dont know, the “bro split” is where you work out one muscle group per day normally. So you would have a dedicated “arm day” or just a “chest day” where you would just work out that muscle group, usually leaving that muscle group extremely sore.
Too much soreness and too much volume (think: how many working sets you do) in one training session for one muscle group seems to be an inferior way to train for muscle growth compared to splitting that volume up over at least 2 workouts. What ends up happening is you damage the muscles so much that they instead spend more time recovering rather actually growing.
Some people who can only go to the gym 3-4 times per week run into this issue of not training their muscles frequently enough either, if they follow a “bro split”.
For example, say you only make it to the gym 3 times one week and follow a “bro split”
Monday is chest, Wednesday is back, and then Thursday is arms. So what happens in this situation is that you only hit certain muscle groups once and then you left out certain muscle groups altogether (legs).
Here are two example programs if you can only make it to the gym 3x, or 4x per week
Takeaway: Train each muscle group at least 2 times per week and up to 4-6 times per week on smaller muscle groups like the biceps and side delts.
5. Going too heavy all of the time
In order to build muscle, it is important to get stronger over time. However always trying to hit your 1 rep max on the deadlifts, squats, and bench seems to be less than ideal for building muscle. I’m not saying doing 1 rep maxes are bad, but unless your goal is a powerlifting competition or to just build strength in the lower rep ranges (1-3 reps) then lifting that heavy all of the time is probably less than ideal for muscle growth and could lead to higher injury risk.
Let me explain why. First, it probably isn’t enough volume to build as much muscle as you would be able to with lighter weight in say the 5-10 rep range. And in order to get enough volume to build muscle, the amount of fatigue you accumulate in the lower rep ranges will far outweigh any muscle growth that will be going on. Also, injury risk is higher in the lower rep ranges and especially when you are carrying around extra fatigue.
Second, strength is all about skill and fatigue management. If you have been training a lot recently with higher volumes, then you are most likely not even going to be able to see how much you can lift in that 1-3 rep range because your fatigue will be so high, thats why as powerlifters get closer to their competition they will lower their training volume and then the week before the competition they will essentially take a deload. This is so they are fresh on competition day.
Takeaway: Train mostly in the 5-30 rep range for muscle growth. If you love to work in the 1-5 rep range then doing so every few months may be a good idea.
6. Giving max effort 100% of the time
The fitness industry gives out the perception that you must go hard all of the time to make progress, phrases such as “no days off” “beast mode” etc. While these phrases can be good at times, most people take this as that they have to train as hard as they can every single time they make it to the gym, otherwise why go?
However, this thinking can lead to burnout, fatigue, and higher injury risk.
Reps in reserve (RIR) can be a great system to use.
Takeaway: Instead of giving 100% every session here is how I like to program a 4-week phase for clients:
Week 1: Workouts shouldn’t be super challenging. You should leave feeling like you could do more. Leave 2-3 reps in the tank.
Week 2: Workouts should pick up a bit. But still, you shouldn’t be super sore and beat up after the workout. Stay around 2 reps from fail.
Week 3: Workouts should start to get pretty challenging and you should start to have to push through a bit on some reps and sets. You should bit a more sore. Stay around 1-2 reps from fail.
Week 4: This week will be a challenge. You will have to push yourself through some sets and reps. 0-1 reps from failure this week.
Week 5: Deload. Get to the gym and focus on getting the blood flowing and not pushing anything. Stay 5 reps from fail.
Rinse and repeat.
This goes hand in hand with going too heavy. Most of the time we sacrifice good technique so we can lift more weight. But what ends up happening is you feel the exercise working the correct muscle(s) less and less as you try to add more weight.
How you do each lift is the most important. If you are just frailing the weight around and you feel exercises more in your joints than in your muscles, chances are your technique is off and this is not only going to be suboptimal for muscle growth but it is also going to increase your injury risk.
I’m not saying you need to have a “picture-perfect” form on every single rep, but you should at least aim for it.
After each set or after each workout think back on where you felt the exercise. If it wasn’t hitting the correct muscles then chances are there is something you can improve on technique-wise.
Here is a good YouTube series from Renaissance Periodization on how to fix common technique issues for certain exercises.
Lifting less weight with good technique >> lifting more weight with poor technique for muscle growth. And it isn’t even close.
There you have it. If you have reached a plateau in your training. Chances are you are making at least 1 if not many of these mistakes.
Be honest with yourself, the good news is that the more mistakes you are making, the more muscle growth you will see once you start to improve them.
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