10 Mistakes To Avoid While You're Still Young

Use these smart training tips to get you bigger and stronger, even in your later years.

As a guy who's been in the iron game for many years, I can't tell you how often I've read or heard something like the following: "When I was a young lifter, I was so stupid. I don't know how I ever made gains!"

Quite frankly, even a lousy, borderline-unsafe training program will produce results if you hit it hard, don't skip many workouts, and continue to do so for years. But there is some truth to that "young and stupid" sentiment. Young lifters often do things that don't hurt them too much at the time, but their "sins of youth" often come back to haunt them like a scorching case of herpes in their 30s and 40s.

Looking back at my own lifting history, I did tons of stuff wrong, but not every mistake was a huge deal. Sure, I probably beat myself up too much on occasion, but I was enthusiastic and loved the gym.

However, had I known better, there are a few key mistakes I would have avoided as an eager young lifter. If I could travel back in time and find my younger self in the gym, I'd sit him down on a bench and tell him about these 10 mistakes so he could keep getting bigger, stronger, and healthier well into his later years.

Mistake 1 Poor Warm-up

I used to think warming up too much would leave me gassed and weak for my epic one-rep-max bench press—which I tested every single week, by the way.

For years, I warmed up for a chest workout with, well, a chest workout on the flat bench! I threw up 135 pounds for 15 reps, felt good about it, arrogantly slapped on two plates to each side, and got pinned like a rookie.

Today, I'm much wiser: I avoid pushing out excess junk "warm-up" reps till I'm stapled to the bench. Instead I start each workout with a 7-10 minute general warm-up, focusing on hip, shoulder, and thoracic mobility. Then I do a gradual, low-rep warm-up using my first exercise of the day as a way of "rehearsing" for the upcoming movement. Some people get antsy and jump right into heavy lifting, but a proper warm-up increases blood flow to the muscles and improves joint viscosity.

Let's say your squat workout calls for 4 sets of 5 reps with 335 pounds. Here's what a proper warm-up looks like:

Set #WeightReps
1 Empty bar 5 reps
2 135 lbs 5 reps
3 185 lbs 5 reps
4 225 lbs 5 reps
5 275 lbs 3 reps
6 295 lbs 2 reps
7 315 lbs 1 rep
8 335 lbs 4 reps (first working set)
Set #WeightReps
1 Empty bar 5 reps
2 135 lbs 5 reps
3 185 lbs 5 reps
4 225 lbs 5 reps
5 275 lbs 3 reps
6 295 lbs 2 reps
7 315 lbs 1 rep
8 335 lbs 4 reps (first working set)

Rest only as long as the time it takes to add weight between sets.

A low-rep warm-up like this ensures your body is properly revved up for a heavy movement without jeopardizing your joints and body, which could impact you later in life.

Barbell Squat

Mistake 2 Training Too Heavy

Loading more and more weight onto the bar is one of the most effective ways to build size and strength, but it's also playing with fire—at least from a long-term health perspective. I don't know a single lifter who went heavy all the time in his 20s that doesn't now have some type of chronic injury in his late 30s.

For me, it's shoulders, lower back, and neck—my unholy trinity. I actually got off easy, because these are things I can work around. Other people aren't so lucky. Many a lifter has hung up his weight belt by age 40 because of joint issues.

This isn't to say that heavy training is forever out of the question. Your body will not progress or recover in a linear fashion as you continue to add training years to your resume, so constantly pushing yourself to the edge in pursuit of strength gains without intelligent training and programming will spell disaster.

You should still train heavy, but you shouldn't always train heavy if you want to train for life. Program periods of lower-intensity, higher-volume training after your high-intensity training cycles.

Mistake 3 Too Much Junk Volume

According to trainer Brad Schoenfeld, author of "The M.A.X. Muscle Plan," the optimal number of sets for growth varies from person to person and depends on genetics, training experience, and nutritional status. Some lifters—like yours truly—respond better to lots of sets and moderate reps, which is known as high-volume training. This is a generally "safer" way to train than lifting heavy all the time, and it doesn't hurt that this type of training helps build muscle.

Junk volume, however, is too many reps and sets; that can impose significant wear on joints and tendons, especially if excellent form isn't followed or the exact same movement pattern gets repeated too often, even with different implements. Not to mention that there's a point of diminishing returns on training stimulus.

"High-volume training is a generally 'safer' way to train than lifting heavy all the time."

Schoenfeld says optimal results are achieved by taking a periodized approach, in which the number of sets is adjusted over the course of a training cycle. For example, for the first month, perform 8-10 sets per muscle group per week. Then, for the second month, perform 12-15; finally for the third month, push the envelope and perform 18-20 sets per week.

While actual overtraining—a term that gets thrown around a lot in circles where high-volume training is the norm—is a bit of a boogeyman because few recreational lifters ever truly reach it, you can certainly get close by training far too much for too long. This can weaken the immune system and negatively affect hormone levels, which sucks.

Mistake 4 Not Enough Variety

Everyone intrinsically understands that lifting heavier and heavier, or with higher volume for the same weight, is a proven way to get bigger. It's the principle of progressive overload. However, there's one other method that rarely gets the credit it deserves: exercise variety.

Let me be clear: Variety in strength training versus hypertrophy (muscle growth) training can elicit different results. In strength training, variety can be counterproductive, since you want to constantly prime your body to rock at a few key lifts. With hypertrophy training, the exercises are just stimuli for the muscles to grow because the body adapts to an exercise relatively quickly, especially as you get more advanced.

It's on you to keep your body guessing with just slight variations of the same movement patterns, such as switching from standard dumbbell curls to hammer curls.

These days, I swap out all my exercises completely every month unless I'm in a dedicated strength phase. If you're short on ideas, pick up Bill Pearl's classic "Keys to the Inner Universe," which has about 9,000 exercises, or browse the Bodybuilding.com Exercise Database. Have fun!

"It's on you to keep your body guessing with just slight variations of the same movement patterns, such as switching from standard dumbbell curls to hammer curls."

Mistake 5 Too Much Consistency

Earlier, I noted that hard work performed consistently will get results. However, there's a point at which you can be too consistent—not just with your exercise selection, but with your training frequency.

For years, I trained each body part once a week but didn't get very far. I guess I thought that if I stuck to it long enough, it would eventually work. (Stupid.). I learned, however, that I simply needed to stay ahead of my body's ability to adapt. Beyond hard work and proper intensity, that means consistency—and change as needed.

Nowadays, I change my training frequency at least every three months. I hit each muscle twice a week, to every five days, to three times a week, or even to four times a week with frequent, low-volume workouts.

Mistake 6 Too Many "Dangerous" Exercises

There are no inherently "dangerous" or "bad" exercises—only exercises with a higher risk of injury, as well as exercises that are inappropriate for a lifter's goal, flexibility, or orthopedic health.

For example, the behind-the-neck press is a great lift for the medial and anterior deltoids. For someone with so-so shoulder mobility like myself, however, it's a bad choice. It's much better for me to use dumbbells or machines. Basically, what's a great exercise for some isn't the best choice for all. If it hurts you, don't do it.

"The behind-the-neck press is a great lift for the medial and anterior deltoids but for someone with so-so shoulder mobility, however, it's a bad choice."

Here are some common offenders and their more joint-friendly counterparts:

ExerciseSubstitutes
Behind-the-neck press Neutral-grip dumbbell shoulder press, single-arm dumbbell shoulder press
Triceps Dip Partial-range dip (lockout), eccentric-only dip
Behind-the-neck lat pull-down Lat pull-down to the front, chin-up
Lying triceps extension Dumbbell triceps extension, barbell or EZ-bar triceps press-down
Narrow-grip barbell Wide-grip upright row, cable upright row (rope attachment)
ExerciseSubstitutes
Behind-the-neck press Neutral-grip dumbbell shoulder press, single-arm dumbbell shoulder press
Triceps Dip Partial-range dip (lockout), eccentric-only dip
Behind-the-neck lat pull-down Lat pull-down to the front, chin-up
Lying triceps extension Dumbbell triceps extension, barbell or EZ-bar triceps press-down
Narrow-grip barbell Wide-grip upright row, cable upright row (rope attachment)

I avoid most sketchy exercises for myself, as I simply can't stand being sidelined due to doing an exercise that could've easily been substituted with something else.

Mistake 7 Not Enough Add-On Work

Let me guess: You probably started your lifting journey by carpet-bombing your biceps, triceps, and chest. Eventually, your back, shoulders, and legs joined the party. Cool, but what about the smaller muscles you ignored?

See, what happens over the years is that you'll realize your physique looks somewhat lacking—full of aesthetic holes, if you will—in places where there's plenty of "untapped" muscle for growth.

These often include the posterior chain—the term that defines your glutes, hamstrings, erectors, and trapezius, collectively—which can turn into monstrous muscles that look seriously impressive when fully developed. The often-neglected forearms and rear delts also give a muscular physique a polished, complete look.

Why wait till you're 30 before you start training them? Start hitting the muscles you don't see in the mirror right now. This way you'll enter your 30s looking balanced and complete, and avoid having to play catch-up.

Mistake 8 Not Enough Flexibility Work

Flexibility, mobility, dynamic stretching, static stretching—you name it, I avoided it all to save time for more reps of cable flyes. (Stupid again.)

As I now enter my middle years, I'm forced to try to recapture the nimbleness of my youth. Or at least loosen up my hips a little.

The cool thing about flexibility is that once you have it, it's relatively easy to maintain. Another cool thing is that bodybuilding-style training, which often forces a full range of motion in the movements, can help—to a degree.

Daily forces like sitting at a computer all day or slumping over your La-Z-Boy with a cold one in hand relentlessly conspire to tighten you into a pretzel. Usually, even the most robust weight-training program isn't enough to counter these forces. Start stretching before and after workouts now, before you have to really work to untwist yourself with awkward groans.

You don't need dozens of drills to really improve things. In fact, a small set of effective drills done perfectly is much more effective. Here are a couple pre-workout drills for the lower body and one for the shoulders, courtesy of mobility expert Dean Somerset:

Mistake 9 Not Enough Restorative Work

In my 20s, my idea of recovery was slamming back a post-workout sugar bomb and playing video games until 2 a.m. (Ahh, those were the days.) In my 30s, I tried to go to bed earlier and drink less soda—especially less soda mixed with Jim Beam.

These days, two-thirds of my supplement and lifestyle choices revolve around sleeping better, digesting optimally, and recovering fully. And you know what? As a result of my refocused efforts, I'm also experiencing the best hypertrophy gains I've ever had, mainly because I know my body, but also because I'm allocating my energy to keep myself healthy and relaxed.

It's hard to see the immediate benefits of fish oil, probiotics, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin D3, magnesium at night, limiting the stimulants, and tons of vegetables in the blur of youth, but your future self will thank you.

Mistake 10 Misplacing Energy

I used to stress about eating the exact grams of protein I ate every day and whether I should include concentration curls or cable curls. These are still (sort of) important issues to me, but I wish I could've viewed training differently when I was younger.

Back then, I just wanted to get as jacked as I could, and would do whatever it took to look the part. Nowadays, lifting is less a way to get strong, look jacked, or even be "healthy," but more of a daily investment in myself. It's become 75 minutes of blissful meditation, the sole purpose of which is to make me a stronger, more capable, more aware human being.

The veins, the pumps, and the PRs, while still cool, are just icing on the cake. I train because I love it and because it makes me a better person. And because I can.

If you work out consistently, eat smart, and get plenty of rest, your physique can continue to improve like a young man's. However, it's a much smoother process when good habits are already a part of your daily routine.

That means starting from when you're young—as in, right now. You can't turn back the hands of time, my friend. Start babying your body today and reap the rewards tomorrow.