You've been in the gym awhile, and you know what you're doing, but even iron veterans don't know everything! Building muscle and strength can be a tricky business, and mistakes—even for seasoned lifters and elite athletes—are an all-too-common reality.
If you want to avoid gym errors and keep making progress toward your goals, check out these nine training mistakes you might be making and learn how to correct them. With advice and tips from the elite athletes of Team Grenade, you'll hop on the fast track to results and keep injury at bay.
It's time to stop making mistakes and start making new gains!
Mistake 1 Lifting With Your Ego
Just about every guy has been guilty of this gym sin at one time or another. Whether you're trying to show up your training partners or impress that badass CrossFit chick who always out-reps you in the squat rack, ego-driven lifting gets you nowhere. You'll look ridiculous when you almost crush your face with a too-heavy barbell, and your poor form puts you at risk for injury.
"When you're in the gym, you're there for a specific purpose: you," says fitness model and men's physique competitor Vincent Russo. "Don't focus on who is watching you or what they are lifting. Focus on yourself, your form, and the specific parts of your lift to help build muscle. Your job is to make a solid mind-muscle connection."
Train with a dedicated workout partner who lifts about the same amount of weight you do, not a group of guys who are there to socialize and screw around. Help each other focus on each part of a muscular contraction—the concentric and eccentric portions—and squeeze hard at the top of each repetition.
Shoot for failure with moderately heavy weight to incite hypertrophy instead of going for your 1RM all the time. This is how gains happen, not by trying to squat a Volkswagen and getting crushed.
The last word
"Who cares what other people think?" says Russo. "Put your headphones on, throw your damned hood up, and worry about building your own body!"
Mistake 2 Failing to Fail
When a muscle fails, it has absolutely no energy or strength left to perform another rep, or even part of a rep. This is when your muscle fibers say, "Message received! Time to grow!" Achieving muscle failure should be your goal every time you lift.
According to Russo, however, there is a difference between fatiguing a muscle and reaching muscular failure. "To reach failure, you need to use heavy enough weight to make each set as difficult as possible," he says. "If you're going to do 3 sets of 10 for the bench press, you need to fail on all 3 sets."
Instead of doing a couple lighter sets and then trying to achieve failure on that final set, Russo suggests performing several light sets of chest exercises to prime the movement pattern and prep your muscles. Then he says to do a couple of quick warm-up sets with the bench press, and finally go for failure on all three working sets.
"Otherwise, you spend 10 minutes exhausting your chest without reaching failure," says Russo. "Then, when you do go for that last heavy set, you lift less weight because you're too fatigued and don't actually achieve what you've set out to do."
Make failure your goal for each set. In addition to lifting a challenging weight, you can also try dropsets, forced reps, and negatives to tax your muscles and go beyond failure.
It's also important to remember that you won't always hit 10 reps for each set when training to failure. You may get there on the first set, but your fatigued nervous system may only allow for 8 reps on the second set and maybe only 6 on the third. That's OK.
The last word
"Reaching failure is the most important rule," says Russo. "It promotes the most muscle growth. In order to succeed, you have to fail."
Mistake 3 Doing Cardio First
Cardio is a necessary evil. It helps keep you lean, keeps your cardiorespiratory system on point, and gives you an opportunity to ignite calories during and after training. Some people like to do cardio first to "get it over with," but if building muscle is your goal, cardio before weights is a mistake.
"Why would you want to deplete your glycogen (stored energy) levels and fatigue your body before you actually weight train?" asks Russo. "If you're already tired from cardio, you'll move less weight and thus won't achieve your full muscle-building potential."
Aside from a 5- to 10-minute warm-up, do cardio after your weight training. If you don't have time to do both in one session, do it at a different time during the day, or even on a day all its own. You can even blend your cardio work into your lifting workout by cutting down rest time, increasing the number of reps you do, or using techniques such as supersets and giant sets. Any of these techniques will boost the intensity so your heart rate stays high.
The last word
"Ensure 100 percent intensity during weight training and do your cardio last," says Russo.
Mistake 4 Lacking Direction
You can't build a house without the blueprints, so how can you build your body without a plan? "Most people know if it's leg day or chest day, but besides that, there's no structure to their workouts," says WBFF pro Jamie Alderton. "That's why so many people struggle to make significant gains."
"A lot of guys also make the mistake of only doing lifts they're strongest in," he says. "If you train that way, you'll never push the envelope and develop a bigger, balanced overall physique."
Start a training log, and map out a weekly plan of action. Make sure you hit each body part at least once per week. Each day, do alternate exercises for variety and to incite growth. For instance, instead of always performing barbell back squats, try front squats, dumbbell squats, kettlebell squats, or hack squats. Instead of constantly doing the barbell bench press, try machine presses, decline dumbbell presses, or weighted push-ups.
"Write down what weights you use each week," says Alderton. "That's how you'll best track your progress and make continual gains."
Mistake 5 Ingesting Excessive Mid-Workout Calories
There is a time and place for sports-recovery drinks, and that time is not always during your strength-training workout. "I see a ton of people chugging these high-carb drinks during a workout," says Alderton. "Then they wonder why they aren't dropping body fat."
There is some research touting the benefits of ingesting a carb-filled drink during your training session, but if you're not counting it toward your daily intake or as part of your macros, you're going to ingest too many calories.1 Those excess calories will probably end up being stored as fat, which means you won't see the results you're working so hard for.
Unless you're running a marathon, save your high-carb drinks or meals until after you're done training. Have a small meal about an hour before you train. Twenty minutes before you start working out, have a pre-workout supplement to improve focus and get a killer pump.
Afterwards, have a shake with quality protein and simple carbs to replenish glycogen stores and kick-start your repair process.
The last word
"Hydrate with water during your workouts. If you want some extra flavor, add BCAAs to your water bottle instead of sugar-filled juice," says Alderton.
Mistake 6 Racing Through Your Reps
Whether it's because you've overdosed on pre-workout or are just short on time, it can be easy to speed through your reps. "A lot of guys fail to realize that a fundamental part of muscle growth is called 'mechanical tension,'" says Alderton. "You can maximize this tension by taking a muscle through its full range of motion—a full stretch and big contraction."
In order for you to reap optimal size and strength gains, your muscle fibers need to be trained through the negative and positive contractions. That means you need to slow down and take your time through the lowering and lifting portion of each lift. Don't shortchange yourself by using your body's momentum to speed through your reps.
Slow it down, dude, and get things under control. Take up to two seconds to lift the weight and up to four seconds to lower it. Increasing your time under tension (TUT) will engage the most muscle fibers and help you make those crazy gains.
The last word
"You'll be able to lift more weight and gain more size when you're the tortoise, not the hare," says Alderton.
Mistake 7 Cutting Your Range of Motion
Partial reps have their place in certain training plans, but they shouldn't make up the bulk of your workouts. "It's one thing if you are knowingly performing partials to overcome your plateaus," says NPC competitor and fitness model Melih Cologlu. "But it's another thing entirely if you're doing partials because you're using too much weight and cannot perform a lift through a full range of motion."
Get back to basics. Reduce the weight you're lifting, and use a full range of motion for all your lifts. Try to feel both the positive and negative portion of each repetition. Use partial reps only as an occasional tool to change things up.
The last word
"Once you're in the habit of using a full range of motion, experiment with partials to increase strength or improve the weakest part of your lift," says Cologlu.
Mistake 8 Getting Too Comfortable
Most people are busy. Taking the time to program yet another training routine or split might not top your list of priorities. Moreover, you may have been hitting the same routine for so long that you know exactly what's coming, so you never have to stop and worry about remembering something. Yeah, routines like this are great, but here's the thing: Your body is onto you.
"It's common for people to do the same routine for months and months and wonder why their body isn't changing," says Cologlu. "The human body is an adaptation machine. If you do the same thing over and over, your body learns exactly how much energy it'll take for it go get through the workout, and then it will learn how to do it more efficiently. Eventually, your progress will stop because your body is so good at expending the least amount of energy possible."
In order to get growing again, change the variables. Manipulate your training split, rest time, number of reps, and number of sets. You can also try some advanced techniques such as rest/pause, dropsets, supersets, or negatives. Do whatever it takes to give your body the wake-up call it needs.
The last word
"Don't get comfortable. If your progress is stuck, use variables to shock your body into progressing," says Cologlu.
Mistake 9 Being a Copycat
Each person has a different starting point, athletic ability, experience, and genetics. So, what one person is doing in the gym may not work for the next guy. However, smaller dudes continually badger the bigger, leaner bros in the gym about what to do and how to do it. Once they get the info, they go about copying every move.
"There is no question that someone who looks amazing is doing something right, and it makes sense to ask them for tips," says Cologlu. "But to follow someone else's plan to the letter is not a viable path. Everyone is different and unique, and will respond differently to various techniques."
There is no one-size-fits-all workout plan. Yes, ask questions. Yes, try certain training techniques and ideas for yourself, but be objective about the outcome. Take what works for you and bank it, discard what doesn't, and move on. Sometimes, it takes years to figure out exactly what works, so be patient. One day you'll be the guy everyone is badgering.
The last word
"Be open-minded about new ideas, and of course, ask questions," says Cologlu. "But do not dedicate 100 percent of your effort into copying someone else's workout."
- Welsh, R. S., Davis, J. M., Burke, J. R., & Williams, H. G. (2002). Carbohydrates and physical/mental performance during intermittent exercise to fatigue. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(4), 723-731.