The profusion of Internet fitness content gets a bad rap. Sure, there's plenty of suspect advice and needless hating, but on the other hand, more people than ever are becoming well versed in the tried-and-true principles of muscle growth.
First and foremost, they lift—a huge step in and of itself, particularly for women. Second, they recognize the crucial roles played by nutrition and recovery. And just as important, they recognize that the key to progress for most beginners is simply following a program, consistently and faithfully, for a few months.
So is that enough? For a while, it definitely is. But then, one day, you are no longer a beginner—you are … drumroll please … an intermediate lifter. That sounds great, but in actuality, it means you have to work harder for muscle gains that previously came relatively easily.
When this happens, a rookie mistake—like not eating enough—can be the culprit. But it's also possible that you need to bring your beginner's programming up to speed with your new body.
Here are five intermediate-level mistakes that can hold you back.
Mistake 1 You Always Train in the Same Rep Range
The claim that muscle growth is maximized in a moderate rep range of 6-12 reps per set continues to be a source of debate in the fitness field. Although this theory is backed by research, evidence on the topic remains far from conclusive. But for argument's sake, let's say that moderate reps are best for gaining size. Does that mean that you should train exclusively in this narrow rep range? The answer is: "No!"
Training in a lower rep range, such as 1-5 reps per set, maximizes strength development, thereby furthering your ability to use heavier weights during moderate rep training. In this way, you create greater tension in the muscles, spurring additional growth. High reps such as 15-20 per set, on the other hand, help to increase your lactate threshold.
By training your body's ability to delay the buildup of lactic acid, you'll help stave off fatigue when training in the 6-12 rep "hypertrophy range," and thus increase time under tension—another important aspect of the growth process.
Optimum muscle development is best achieved by using the full spectrum of rep ranges. Periodize your program so it is built around a moderate repetition protocol, but make sure to include training in both the lower and higher rep ranges.
Although a number of different periodization models work, I recommend a modified linear approach beginning with a strength phase (lower reps), followed by a fairly short metabolic phase (high reps) and then culminating with a hypertrophy phase (the 6-12 range).
When properly implemented, this predictably produces a "supercompensation effect" so you maximize muscular gains and see a peak at the end of the training cycle.
Mistake 2 You Use the Same Exercises Every Day
Most people have a limited number of favorite exercises that are staples in their routine. While it's OK to prioritize these old standbys, they shouldn't be performed to the exclusion of other movements.
Changing up your exercise selection has several important benefits from a mass-building standpoint. For one, it helps prevent the "repeated-bout effect," whereby muscles become accustomed to the continual use of the same movements, making them increasingly resistant to trauma. Staving off such accommodation allows for greater structural perturbations to muscle fibers. This damage, like time under tension and metabolic stress, has been shown to encourage muscle growth.
What's more, muscle fibers don't necessarily span the entire length of a muscle and are often innervated by different nerve branches. Thus, exercise variety alters recruitment patterns in the musculature, so all the fibers get smoked.
Think of it this way: Some people like blondes, other prefers brunettes, and you have people who love redheads. Your muscles are greedy and like them all. To keep them happy and growing, you must give them what they want. Even slight variations in the exercises you employ will work the muscles somewhat differently, enhancing results.
Employ a diverse selection of exercises over the course of your training cycle. This can be accomplished by switching around modalities, training angles, planes of movement, and even hand and foot spacing.
For instance, on dumbbell curls, say you normally think about holding the handle with your pinky against one end of the bell. To switch things up, perform them with your thumb against the bell. That slight shift will work your biceps in different ways.
The possibilities are almost endless. There is no hard rule as to how frequently exercises should be changed, but a guideline is to do so at least on a monthly basis.
Mistake 3 You Isolate Too Much or Too Little
When it comes to exercise selection, there are two schools of thought. One preaches that the only way to gain muscle is by performing the big lifts such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. The other claims the key to muscle building is isolating muscles with flyes, curls, extensions, and the like.
Who's right? Both camps!
This isn't an either-or debate; the two types of movements are complementary. Multi-joint exercises involve large amounts of muscle and are therefore highly effective for packing on mass.
Alternately, single-joint exercises allow for greater targeting of individual muscles—or even portions of muscles —enhancing overall growth and symmetry. Including a mix of both types of movements into your routine can improve both muscle size and symmetry.
Structure your routine to include a combination of multi- and single-joint exercises. As a rule, every workout should contain at least one or two "big lifts" and a single-joint move.
But even while working under those categories, recognize that for all practical purposes, you can't "isolate" muscles. The body is designed so multiple muscles will always be active during any movement. You can only target a given muscle so it is more active in a given movement.
Mistake 4 You Always Follow the Straight and Narrow
Typical resistance training routines involve performing straight sets—where you do a set, rest, perform another set of the same exercise, rest, and then continue in this fashion throughout each exercise in your workout.
There's nothing wrong with this basic approach; straight sets can and, many argue, should form the foundation of your routine. But once you've built that foundation, mix things up a bit with some specialized techniques if your goal is continued growth.
- Supersets: Perform one exercise followed immediately by another exercise without rest.
- Dropsets: Perform a set to muscular failure with a given load and then immediately reducing the load and continuing to train until subsequent failure.
- Heavy Negatives: Perform eccentric actions at a weight greater than your concentric 1-repetition maximum.
These three variations can be excellent additions to a mass-building routine. They help to induce greater metabolic stress and structural perturbations that can take your muscle growth to new strengths.
Selectively add these techniques into your program, but do so with caution. These techniques should be considered advanced training strategies, and many people have made the mistake of pushing them too hard, too soon. Their demanding nature increases the amount of recovery you'll need, and if you don't get it, you can veer toward overtraining.
So train hard, but limit your use of advanced muscular-overload techniques to no more than a few microcycles over the course of a periodized program.
Mistake 5 You Do Too Much Cardio
It's an understandable goal to increase muscle development while simultaneously reducing body-fat levels. And the way people approach this goal seems, on its face, to be logical. In an attempt to accelerate fat loss, they ramp up cardio while still performing intense resistance training. They stack intensity on top of intensity, don't leave extra room for recovery, and then wonder why their body feels like it's getting weaker rather than stronger.
Don't get me wrong: Adding some aerobic training to a muscle-building routine isn't necessarily a bad thing. Overdoing it, however, is. The signaling pathways for resistance training and aerobic training are contradictory. Some researchers coined the term "AMPK-PKB switch" to describe the process whereby aerobic training promotes catabolic (muscle-wasting) processes and resistance training promotes anabolic (muscle-developing) processes.
In actuality, the concept of a "switch" is a bit simplistic, since most evidence points to anabolism and catabolism taking place along a continuum. However, there is little doubt that concurrent training has the potential to interfere with anabolism and undermine your ability to build muscle.
What's more, adding extensive cardio to an already demanding resistance-training program without factoring in adequate nutrition or rest can point you toward overtraining and bring muscle growth to grinding halt.
If your goal is to maximize muscle, keep cardio at moderate levels. How much is too much? It ultimately depends on the individual; some can tolerate more than others.
A guideline is to limit steady state cardio to no more than about 3 or 4 weekly bouts lasting 30-40 minutes. Alternatively, 2-3 high-intensity interval-training workouts per week should be fine for most lifters.
Just make sure you stay in-tune with your body and be aware of the signs of overtraining.
- Sleep disturbances and insomnia-like symptoms.
- Dramatic changes in your mood, emotions, or energy level.
- Stomach problems.
- Consistently elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
Simultaneous muscle gain and weight loss is far more effective when you're new to lifting and have a fair amount of weight to lose. It becomes increasingly difficult once you've been training for a number of years.
Once you're no longer a beginner, the most effective route is generally to focus on one goal or the other.