1: Doing Way Too Much
This is easily the most prevalent and destructive problem among beginners and experts. Sometimes you just can’t imagine doing fewer than five sets for an exercise, when in reality (and especially for beginners) two or three is usually enough.
The problem stems from the sport of bodybuilding, and the workout routines its champions—who are always genetically gifted and often steroid-enhanced—have made famous. Through magazines, other media, and pop culture, we’re led to believe that if we want bigger arms, we need to do four different types of curls as a bodybuilder would do, using drop sets, taking each set to failure with a five-second negative, or some other advanced technique.
The truth is, thankfully, building muscle is not that complicated. At least not for people in the early stages of their training or who have no plans to use performance-enhancing drugs.
2: Doing Too Much Of One Thing, Not Enough Of The Other
Whenever we set a goal, we tend to gear our training toward only that one thing, and forget about all the other little things that aren’t a priority. The only trouble is that those “little things” count. For instance, many guys start lifting weights because they want to build a bigger chest. They start doing all kinds of presses, flyes, and pushups in their workouts, because they’re eager to see their pecs grow.
Unfortunately, they’re not thinking about their shoulders and upper backs, and how all that extra work is going to affect them.
Remember this line, which in the fitness world is akin to the golden rule: “Whatever you do on one side of a joint, you need to do an equal amount on the other side.” While a certain amount of imbalanced training is helpful for bringing up a lagging muscle group (when it’s a major weak point), most of the time, including when you’re a beginner, you’ll make faster progress when you keep things even.
If you’re going to do 20 sets for chest on chest day, do at least that many for back on back day.
Balance is especially important for chest training because of the action the shoulders take. Pressing motions draw the arms in front of the body, lengthening the muscles on the back of the shoulders and tightening the front delts and pecs. Without rowing movements to counteract this motion, over time, you’ll develop a tight chest and rounded shoulders, setting you up for shoulder injury in addition to bad posture.
Try supersetting push and pull movements so you can always be sure you’ve done enough back work. Also, write your workouts down. Keeping a log helps you keep track of balance.
3: Ignoring The Little Things
This is an extension of the last tip but warrants its own entry. While all you may want out of training is a big chest, ripped abs, or a stronger bench press, you have to pay attention to the small details that make them possible.
Every workout, no matter what kind, needs to begin with a warmup. Part of that warmup should include foam rolling and stretching to promote blood flow and loosen tight muscle groups.
You should also work stretches and exercises that specifically target muscle imbalances into your training from time to time. These include a piriformis stretch (what strength coach Eric Cressey calls the seated 90/90 stretch) for the hips, and facepulls to protect the shoulders. Get used to the idea that not every exercise you do will be glamorous, fun, or immediately evident as a step that brings you closer to your goal.
A good program strikes a balance between what you want to do—so you’ll stay motivated to train and enjoy the process—and what you need to do, so you can keep training pain-free years into the future.
4: Not Understanding Anatomy
Another misconception that bodybuilding culture has injected into mainstream thinking is that the body is just a collection of disparate parts. Many people think that if they squat on Monday they can still do a full back workout on Tuesday, complete with back extensions or, incredibly, even deadlifts. As if the lower back isn’t getting enough work from squatting.
It’s true that the dead lift trains the entire back hard and it is often categorized as a “back exercise”, but it’s also murder on the legs. Just because you don’t happen to be sore in your legs after squatting (hey, it can happen) doesn’t mean your body is ready for some heavy pulls only a day or so later.
5: Second Guessing Yourself And Getting Bored
Hopefully, this article hasn’t thrown you into a panic, making you second-guess everything you do in the gym. Because more important than doing things correctly is that you actually do something consistently.
Thanks to the Internet, there’s more fitness information available today—right now—than there ever has been in history. With that much to look at, it’s no wonder you’re confused about what to do. The solution is to pick one thing and block the rest out of your mind, at least for a few months. (Don’t worry, it will still be here when you get back.) You’ll never make progress if you doubt what you’re doing or continually hop aboard the latest trend. A flawed program—and ALL of them are, to some degree—that you commit to is better than a superbly designed one that you’re unsure about or want to tamper with.