By: Joey Percia
Turn on the TV and the chances of you seeing a workout commercial or reruns of the Crossfit games is higher than ever. Baseball players look like GI Joe figures and professional wrestlers look like the statues of Greek Gods.
How does this happen?
All training methods aren’t equal. Especially when it comes to athletes needing to add muscle.
The Average Joe, can get away with poor training and beating himself into the ground. They don’t have to recover and practice his sport. They don’t have to compete and adding muscle won’t decrease performance as long as you are still practicing the skill in the process.
Powerlifters get strong at 3 exercises, sprinters run in a straight line fast. Jumpers jump high or long, bodybuilders get as muscular and lean as possible. Defensive backs run faster and hit harder.
Picking a program of your favorite athlete and expecting to look like them will leave you disappointed.
When it comes to adding muscle and changing the way your body looks, it’s important to train the right way.
Here are 3 muscle building mistakes that are killing your muscle building efforts…
Mistake #1: Doing the Wrong Exercises
Like building a house you have to pick the right tool for the job. Muscles don’t just respond to the amount of weight, reps or exercises you do.
They respond to a combination of three different things.
1. Mechanical tension (think heavy)
The big lifts and their variations are great for creating high amounts of mechanical tension — bench press, chin-up, row, military press, deadlift, and squat.
Variations of these movements that change angle work the muscles differently and in some cases can more beneficial and joint-friendly — dumbbell floor press, Neutral grip eccentric chin-up, Chest supported neutral grip dumbbell row, steep incline dumbbell press, B-stance deadlift, Bulgarian split squats.
These are best done with lower reps (1-6 rep range) and longer rest periods.
2. Metabolic stress (think pump)
This is the fun stuff that Arnold would always talk about. This is what most current bodybuilding programs you find in major magazines consist of. But remember you need all three to see the best results.
For metabolic stress, use exercises that put a lot of tension on the muscle in it’s shortest position — barbell curls, lateral raise, and leg extensions.
Use moderate to high reps 8-20+ with short rest periods to maximize the pump.
3. Muscle damage (think soreness)
To create the most muscle damage look for exercises that put a lot of tension on the muscle when in the longest position — incline dumbbell curls, lunges and RDL’s.
These also create one hell of a pump. Use moderate to high reps 8-20+ with moderate to short rest periods.
Some exercises are better suited for creating tension and others for muscle damage or a pump.
For the best chance of putting on muscle in the right places, use a program that incorporates all these. This means a combination of compound exercises, and single joint exercises to bring up smaller muscle groups.
Sample Upper Body Workout
Here is a sample upper body workout that can be found in ‘The Muscle Building Manual’, that follows the most important muscle building rules.
Warmup: General upper body foam rolling 3-5 min, scap pushups, underhand band pull-aparts, shoulder dislocates, lying handcuffs.
1) Med ball ‘Shoulder Scorcher‘ 1 x 15 each exercise
2) Barbell bench press 5-7 RM*
Work up to the heaviest set of 5-7 you can get. Rest 2-3 minutes between heavy sets. *After you find your 5-7RM drop 15% of that weight and perform as many reps as possible for 1 set.
3) Dips or squeeze pushups 3 x 12-15
Rest 60-90 seconds between sets. Weighted if possible for the dips. If you choose to squeeze pushups set your hands right outside of shoulder width and actively try and pull the ground together throughout the entire movement. Your hands will not actually move.
4a) Chest supported row with 5-sec hold at the top 4 x 6
4c) Empty barbell curls 4 x 10-15 No rest between exercises. After 4c Rest 60-90 seconds before repeating.
5) Barbell bench press 1 x 50 reps AFAP with bodyweight (using rest pause method)
For example, 185lb man would load a barbell to weight 185 lbs. He would begin the set by doing as many reps as possible without going to actual failure, then rack the weight. Then take 6-8 big deep breathes (20-30 seconds) and do as many reps as possible without going to failure. Rack the weight again and rest 6-8 breaths (20-30 seconds) and then repeat until you hit 50 reps.
Then walk around the gym and get compliments on your epic chest pump.
Mistake #2: Poor eating habits
The most important factor of gaining muscle is eating more calories than you burn. This is also known as being in a calorie surplus or hypocaloric.
It’s possible to build muscle while in a caloric deficit. The more experienced you are the less likely it becomes, but the process is much slower. Slow enough that you will want to stab yourself in the eye with a fork and you’ll need that fork to eat your food.
To gain a significant amount of muscle you must eat in a calorie surplus. Meaning you need to eat more calories than you burn. This also requires you eat enough protein.
I recommend 1g per pound of bodyweight.
If you want to add muscle you will add some fat. The size of the surplus will depend on how much of the new weight will be from lean muscle, compared to fat.
Stay away from going on an all-out ‘bulk’ with junk foods and a large surplus. You can make poor food choices and put on weight, but the majority of that weight will most likely come from fat.
Save that for someone that wants to put on a lot of fat and only a little bit of muscle.
I recommend a 5-15% calorie surplus over your maintenance calories, depending on how fast you want to gain weight. A higher percentage will increase the chances of adding fat but the scale will move quicker and vice versa.
Your food choices will determine how full you feel when you are dieting. If your calorie goal is high there are certain foods that will make it easier to hit those goals, while others will make it feel like you are going to throw up.
Follow the 80/10/10 rule:
- 80% unprocessed whole foods that are good for you and your life
- 10% foods you don’t love but that are good for you
- 10% the fun stuff that you love but isn’t considered ‘healthy’
Mistake #3: Not Emphasizing the Essentials
The most common form of progressive overload is trying to add 5-10 lbs to the bar every week. While this is great in theory it becomes ineffective for intermediate and advanced lifters.
Our bodies don’t adapt like that. If it were as simple as adding a small amount of weight to the bar each week there would be 700+lb deadlifters everywhere.
Here are 4 uncommon ways to use progressive overload and get better every workout:
- Do more work in the same amount of time (increase density)
- Do the same amount of work in less time (increase density)
- Increase the speed or effort of the exercise
- Decrease your body mass (increase in relative strength)
As long as you are using one of the methods above every workout you are on the right track. Keep your ego in check and use a weight that allows you to improve and nail your technique.
When your form goes out the window you move the stress off of the muscles that should be working. The exercise becomes less effective and you increase your chances of getting hurt.
Key Take Away’s
Avoid these muscle building mistakes by following the rules and you are on the right track.
- Emphasize compound exercises and use isolation exercises.
- Focus on some form of progressive overload.
- Do variations of the overhead press, horizontal or slight incline push up and press, squat, deadlift, and pulling and rowing.
- Lift 3-4 days per week with 2-4 days of rest between muscle groups. Popular splits include:
- Beginners: 3 day — full body workouts OR 4 day — full body or upper/lower
- Intermediate and advanced: 3 day — rotate upper/lower every time you workout OR push/pull/legs OR 4 day — upper/lower/upper/lower
Consistently follow these muscle building rules and start changing your body today. Track your progress via training journal, pictures, measurements, scale, body fat or anything else you want to make sure you are heading in the right direction.
If you have any questions, ask in the comments section below. Thank you for reading.
Joey Percia is a coach at a training studio in New York City and also runs a successful online training business. He is a competitive powerlifter in the 181 division and has totaled 1400lbs. Joey has a Masters degree in Exercise Science, is a CPPS coach, Westside Barbell Coach and CSCS. Follow him on Facebook, you will be glad you did.