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The video below will outline the most common mistakes people make when trying to build muscle and exactly how to overcome them.
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How To Avoid The 6 Most Common Muscle Building Mistakes
Building muscle at times can feel like a pretty elusive goal. You may find yourself having put the time and effort into your workouts and it can be pretty frustrating when you're not seeing those efforts pay off.
The good news is that there are some iron-clad rules of muscle building and if you put all of them in place and stay consistent you really can't fail to see muscle growth.
The interesting thing is that most people don't realise the mistakes they're making that run contrary to these rules; as I mentioned, just because you’re putting the time into working out, that doesn't necessarily mean you will see results. You can spend years working out in a way that will deliver very little muscle growth if you don’t understand the rules of mechanics of gaining muscle, that's just the reality of the situation.
Let’s outline some of the mistakes that are commonly made in the pursuit of muscle building and then how to implement the solution to each of them.
Mistake #1: Inconsistency or Randomness
The first major mistake I see people make when it comes to their muscle building efforts is a random or inconsistent approach to their workouts. To highlight how this can be a problem, let’s explore how muscle is actually built.
Essentially, muscle is built by signalling to the body that, due to the work and strain you’re putting on it, an adaptation is necessary. By progressively exposing it to more and more stress your body will be forced to adapt, meaning you will gain size and strength so that the next time you attempt a similar physical feat, it will be well within your capability. By walking that line very carefully we can stay in a state of what we call ‘over-reaching’ by lifting slightly heavier weights in each training session. This is known as progressive overload and is essential to the muscle building process.
Training inconsistently or randomly means you can't control those variables, which means you will not be able to control or guarantee that your workouts are actually going to lead to muscle gain. They may be good individual workouts, but that is a different thing entirely to staying in that vein of ‘over-reaching’ which is the key to muscle building success.
Put simply, If you're not regularly asking more of your body than it’s conditioned to, you will not see muscle gain. This is because it costs energy to have more muscle, you will need to eat more calories to sustain it daily, and as a survival machine your body will not waste that energy unless there is a reason to.
For the same reason, consistency is key. Not only does your body need a reason to gain muscle, it also needs a reason to keep it. Of course, everybody is going to experience times where exercise is more or less of a focus depending on what else is going on in life. However, you must not allow your exercise to fall below the minimum threshold your body needs to maintain it’s muscle; whilst there is a genetic factor here, in that some people are going to lose muscle faster than others, on a long enough time line everyone will lose muscle with inactivity. A major distinction to make is that you muscle mass is not something you work for, earn and keep like for example a qualification or level in a computer game, but rather something that you put a lot of upfront effort to gain, and then have to spend time maintaining and cultivating to keep, like a garden.
Mistake #2: Not Tracking Workouts
The second biggest mistake I see people make when pursuing muscle building is failing to track their workouts. Now, this means having a proper log of every workout, what you lifted and everything involved in that workout. This is important because any workout program, even the best in the world is only going to pay dividends for so long.
There is a point of diminishing returns on all training protocols. For example, after four, six, or eight weeks, you're going to be both physically conditioned and psychologically fatigued from a given training protocol, at which point you have to switch it up to create a new adaption, but only by knowing exactly which variables you were using do you know what should come next. That's why workout logging is key.
I’m often asked "what's the best program for gaining muscle?" and the answer really is, "it depends". As any program is only going to deliver results for so long, even the best program in the world will not be 'the best' in 8 weeks time as you will be conditioned to it. So in week 9 you will need a new training program, and you will only know what that program should consist of if you’ve tracked the previous workout because you will then have a contrasting exercise selection, rest periods, rep range, speed of movement and many other factors with which to create further adaptation and muscle gain. Basically, if you aren’t tracking your workouts, you aren’t in control of the trajectory of your muscle gains.
Now, workout tracking is not just about the aggressive pursuit of gaining muscle. It also gives you indicators as to how you're recovering. By tracking your workouts you should be able to predict performance when it comes to progressive overload. If your actual performance is not matching your plan, then that is an indicator that you're not recovering well, so you might want to look at stress, sleep and other lifestyle choices as the cause. It will also be an indicator that the current workout program has served it’s purpose and needs to change.
Mistake #3: Not Changing workouts frequently enough
This brings us to mistake number three, which is not switching up your workouts frequently enough. Now, I've actually met people in gyms that would do the same workout week in, week out for up to ten years. The uncomfortable truth as we’ve discussed is that any training program will reach the point of diminishing returns after just a few weeks and months, so if you keep using it you will not see results, you’ll just be very frustrated and you’ll start to question thinks like your age, your metabolism as to why you aren’t seeing results. The truth is simply that you aren’t using your time to exercise in a manner where you will see sustained results. Remember, just because you are working out, doesn’t mean you will gain muscle. That may be true when you first start exercising but that kind of ‘newbie gains’ result doesn’t last long.
There is further nuance to this situation in that just because a training program is known to be effective, it doesn’t mean that it the right move for you right now. For example, many renowned bodybuilding protocols work on 5 or 6 days of training and training at heavy volume, however, if you find yourself tired, fatigued and lacking time, this very effective training protocol may be inappropriate for you and actually lead to overtraining or injury. This is a scenario in which you may want to turn to a high frequency, low volume approach to reach the same goal, without burning out.
Mistake #4: Doing Too Much or Too Little Work
The fourth biggest mistake people make in muscle building is doing too much or too little work which is going to be informed by their individual lifestyle and conditions at the time.
For example, if you have ambitions to both gain muscle and run a marathon, for example, these two goals are physically possible to do together, but you're somewhat stacking the odds of comfortably achieving both against yourself. Don’t get me wrong, you may be able to do it - maybe you can live like an athlete and that's perfectly fine - but if there's a wild card such as stress or a lack of sleep at play that could be enough of a tipping point to push you into overtraining and sub optimal performance. Sometimes when it comes to health & fitness it's better just to ask yourself "what's my priority right now?" Then pursue your choice 100%.
Remember there will always be many different routes to the same goal. Indeed, there's a right training program for the right time, as I alluded to before; if your goal is to gain muscle, but you're also not sleeping well and you're stressed and tired all the time then perhaps going for the highest volume, most challenging approach wouldn't be the smartest move as you would be taxing your central nervous system and just putting more demand and more fatigue on the system. You might want to consider a lower volume approach; train more frequently, but with less overall demand on the system. This way, you're still going to get muscle building results, but you're not going to wipe yourself out in the process.
There is another side to the coin in that if you're feeling great, well-rested and sleeping well, you might want to have a look at exploring how close you can get to your maximum amount of recoverable volume of exercise, which basically means how much can you do without running into fatigue or overtraining? This is a little bit more of a nuanced calculation and you might want to have a coach help you through that.
So this is where you start to see that there's quite a lot of intricacy in planning your workouts and many different factors need to be taken into account when creating your muscle building workout program.
Mistake #5: Not Eating To Gain Muscle
The next biggest mistake I see people make when it comes to muscle building is simply not eating enough. This is a big mistake because getting the right amount of calories to support gaining muscle is crucial. Put simply, unless you have the excess resources and building blocks available to build new muscle tissue, all you stand to gain with you workouts is strength and fitness, but you’ll stay the same size.
In order to gain muscle, you're going to want to reliably be in a modest calorie surplus. You can calculate what that means for you by establishing your basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of calories your body needs just to maintain itself, then account for the level of activity you do including your workouts and other activities. Then, you bump on top of that a modest surplus of 10-20% total calories.
So once you have these calories nailed on you're going to want to make sure that you're getting in the right ratio of protein, carbohydrates and fats, or macronutrients. Think of protein as the building blocks for muscles; these are the nutrients you need to maintain existing and build new muscle mass. Great sources of protein will be meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu, protein powders and lentils. You might aim for 25% to 35% of your calories every day from proteins. Next comes carbohydrates, which are the nutrients that fuels your workouts. There's a spectrum of carbohydrates called the Glycaemic index. This is a scale of one to 100, 100 being the kind of carbohydrates that turn into sugar faster and enter your bloodstream, whereas those with lower numbers are going to be slower digesting or slower releasing carbohydrates and will have less of an impact, like a spike on your blood sugar levels.
Now, ideally, you fuel your working day and the vast majority of your workouts with these lower glycaemic index carbohydrates. These would be things like buckwheat, quinoa, rice, sweet potato and oats, generally avoiding the higher glycaemic index carbohydrates and foods that are going to spike your insulin and may have a deleterious effect on your health, especially processed sugars. Generally speaking, you'll be wanting to get 30% to 40% of your total calories for the day from carbohydrates.
Last come getting healthy dietary fats, which play a big role in gaining muscle as they help promote hormones that have anabolic properties. Fats also help regulate a number of bodily functions. Great sources of fats will be things like olives, avocados, coconut oil, fish, nuts and seeds. Like carbohydrates, healthy fats should make up 30% to 40% of your daily calories when pursuing a muscle building goal.
Eating this way should leave you both well-fuelled to perform in your workouts and also give you the excess building blocks your body needs to gain muscle mass.
Mistake #6: Over training (or under-resting)
The final mistake to avoid when pursuing muscle gains to make sure that you're neither overtraining or under-resting, which is a bit of a funny one because as a saying in sports and bodybuilding circles proclaims: ‘There is no such thing as overtraining, just under resting’.
I like the saying because it highlights the importance of respecting rest as much as training. Think of it like this: no muscle is ever built in the gym. Actually, what's going on in the gym is that you're tearing down existing muscle. So in order to come back to the gym with more muscle next time, the muscle gaining process has to have happened during a period of rest, so sleep and recovery are paramount.
Overtraining can be just something that you feel or it can actually become an actual syndrome that inflicts flu-like symptoms. Essentially, you could be on the best workout regime in the world, performing well, never missing a workout, but if you don't, then go home and sleep well and recover fully you just won't see the muscle growth you’re looking for..
Recovery isn’t just about non-workout days. If you're looking to gain muscle, you've got to understand that you're acting on that goal even when you're not in the gym or sitting down to a meal. So that means you're going to have to work on the quality of your sleep, if not the duration of your sleep. You have to be realistic about your requirements for work and your responsibilities at home. You may not always get those 8 hours, but what you can do is try to get as much sleep as you can.
The next big lifestyle measure you can work on is the degree which you take on and manage stress. Stress hormones like Cortisol can be really catabolic, which means they can actually lead to a loss in muscle. This is, of course, the complete opposite of what we're looking to achieve and it’s also not gong to help you recover from you workouts at all.
Just as with sleep, you have to be realistic about how much stress you can actually mitigate. You might be in a situation where things are just stressful, but there are still things that you can do to help. For example you could put in place a stress managing routine which incorporates meditation, mindfulness, even things as simple as taking a piece of paper, writing out a list of the things that bring you joy and then making sure you do them regularly.
Beyond this, you could start looking at recovery methods that might stack the odds in your favour which could include things like breath work, cold exposure, heat exposure, sports massage or remedial therapies.
If you can avoid these common muscle building mistakes and put in place and integrate their solutions, you stand not only to gain a good deal of muscle mass, but also have the lifestyle in place where you can maintain it. Year round.