By: Charles Staley
I’m a sports-performance coach. For 20 years, I’ve been hanging around in gyms, coaching thousands of football, basketball, and track-and-field athletes on how to build muscle and lose weight. I show up before the gym rats and leave after they jump ship. And that means I’ve seen every mistake that is humanly possible to make. Stupid mistakes. Dangerous mistakes. And maybe worst of all, time-wasting mistakes.
Time is always a crucial factor, whether a guy is trying to survive training-camp cuts or hustling back to the office before the boss puts him in for the next round of layoffs. Save a minute, add more muscle. It’s a principle you can build on.
Here are the most common mistakes I see in the gym. Let this be the last time I warn you.
You Don’t Use a Training Log
It’s hard to break records that don’t exist. So invest in a clipboard. Then focus on lifting more total weight each workout. It’s the key to building muscle. Here’s how: Multiply the amount of weight you lift for each exercise by the total number of times you lift it. Then increase that number every workout by moving heavier weights, increasing your repetitions, or doing more sets. So if in your last workout you did three sets of 10 repetitions of the bench press with 150 pounds, your total to beat is 4,500. Accomplish that goal by doing four sets instead of three, 11 repetitions instead of 10, 155 pounds instead of 150, or a combination of the three.
Beginners take note: Training logs aren’t just for the big fellas. In a 2002 study, YMCA researchers found that 70 percent of exercisers who set goals stuck with their programs for the entire year. By contrast, three-quarters of those who didn’t set goals dropped out.
You Try Too Hard
Working your muscles to failure—the point at which you absolutely can’t do another repetition—isn’t the best way to get bigger and stronger. As your muscles fatigue, they use fewer fast-twitch fibers, which have the greatest potential for size and strength gains. For most exercises there’s an easy fix: You can simply use a weight that allows you to finish all of your repetitions.
But body-weight exercises like chinups don’t allow that luxury. The solution: Cut your repetitions in half and double the number of sets you do. So if you can do only three sets of four chinups, you’ll switch to six sets of two repetitions. That way, the total number you do is the same as in your typical three sets of four, but you’ll focus your training where it counts the most—on those fast-twitch muscle fibers.
You Have a Big Ego
Don’t feel terrible if you’re guilty of trying to lift more weight than you can handle. It’s a product of our natural inclination to be better than the other guy. (If we can’t have his job, his house, or his car, we can at least outlift the smug bastard.) But the only way heavy weights benefit your end goal is if you lift them with perfect form. Item #5, on the next page, describes a few of the signs that you’re working with more weight than you can handle. Some less obvious clues:
You can’t perform an exercise through its full range of motion. For instance, on a squat, you know you should lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. But if you’re using too much weight, you don’t dare go down that low for fear of getting stuck, so you stop halfway and then return to the starting position.
You can’t do your entire set without the help of a spotter. You should always have one on hand for your maximum-weight sets, but he’s there for safety, not to actually help you perform your repetitions.
You can’t hold on to the bar without wrist straps. Straps are effective if you use them occasionally, but many men use them on all their sets to mask weak grip strength. You’re better off using weights you can hold without assistance, and forcing your grip strength to improve along with muscle size and strength. Trust us: Lift without straps and soon you’ll be lifting more than you ever could with them.
Your lower back arches like a sapling in a windstorm on bench presses and arm curls.
Universal ego-fixing drill: Once a month, do 10 sets of a single repetition of an important exercise such as the bench press, squat, or deadlift. Use about two-thirds of the maximum weight you’re capable of lifting on that exercise. If possible, have a trainer or knowledgeable friend evaluate your form. Strive for perfection on each repetition. Once perfect form for that exercise becomes second nature to you, you’ll reap greater gains—with fewer injuries—from your normal workouts.
You Do the Same Old Exercises
Muscles get bigger and stronger when they’re challenged with new exercises and techniques. And yet gyms are filled with guys who are still doing the same exercises they learned in their first workout program—no matter whether they learned them 2 months or two presidential administrations ago. Chances are, their muscles stopped responding to the exercises halfway through Paula Jones’s deposition.
All exercises have an expiration date. A general guideline: If an exercise uses more than one joint (for example, the bench press uses the shoulders and elbows; the squat uses the hips and knees), you can do it for 8 weeks before you should switch to another exercise for the same muscles. If it involves a single joint (biceps curl, triceps pushdown, lateral raise), find a substitute after just 4 weeks.
Below are some popular exercises and good substitutes (find exercise descriptions at http://www.menshealth.com).
If you’ve been doing . . . Leg press
Switch to . . . Squat
And then to . . . Wide-stance squat
If you’ve been doing . . . Leg curl
Switch to . . . Romanian deadlift
And then to . . . Good morning
If you’ve been doing . . . Deadlift
Switch to . . . Sumo deadlift
And then to . . .Snatch-grip deadlift
If you’ve been doing . . . Barbell bench press
Switch to . . . Incline or decline bench press
And then to . . . Wide-grip or close-grip bench press
If you’ve been doing . . . Lat pulldown
Switch to . . . Pullup or chinup
And then to . . . Wide-grip, close-grip, neutral-grip (palms facing each other), or weighted pullup or chinup
If you’ve been doing . . . Arm curl
Switch to . . . Preacher curl or incline curl
And then to . . . Wide-grip or narrow-grip curl
If you’ve been doing . . . Triceps extension
Switch to . . . Overhead triceps extension (French press)
And then to . . . Incline or decline triceps extension
You Use Incorrect Form
Quit flexing. Mirrors are in gyms for a reason, but not that reason. They’re the easiest way for you to monitor your form and avoid injury. Three signs you’re doing an exercise wrong:
The barbell isn’t parallel to the floor. If it’s tilted to one side, you’re applying more force with one arm or leg than the other. Keep your movement precise and consistent throughout each repetition—as if you were performing each exercise on a machine.
Your lower back is rounded. This isn’t a mistake in all exercises (you have to round your back to do most abdominal exercises properly), but it shouldn’t happen during squats, deadlifts, or rows.
Your torso sways forward and back. On power exercises—deadlifts, squats, cleans—your torso needs to move. But if you sway like a mast on the Edmund Fitzgerald while doing curls, rows, or presses, you’re doing something wrong (see #3 for the most likely explanation).
You Run Too Much
A little running—about 20 minutes on the days following your weight-lifting sessions—can help you recover from your workouts faster. But a lot of running can prevent your body from gaining muscle and strength. One possible reason: Running damages your lower-body muscles, and exercise-induced muscle damage significantly decreases leg strength, according to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Sports Science.
Don’t run or cycle the day before a weight workout in which you plan to work your leg muscles.
You can do a light run the day after a leg workout to help speed recovery and reduce muscle soreness, but a hard run will probably undo the benefits of the weight workout.
Don’t train for a triathlon or marathon while you’re trying to build serious muscle and strength. You can train for both endurance and strength throughout the year, but not at the same time.
You Warm Up on a Treadmill
For most men, warming up means running on a treadmill or pedaling an exercise bike. But that 10-minute aerobic workout only prepares the muscles of your lower body to lift.
A better way to warm up—especially when you’re crunched for time—is to focus on the specific muscles you’ll be using in your weight workout. Try this quick three-set routine. For your lower body, warm up with squats. For your upper body, use a combination of bench presses and rows. Start with a weight that you figure you can lift 15 to 20 times, but perform only six repetitions. Wait 30 seconds, increase the weight to an amount you can lift just 10 to 15 times, and do four repetitions. Rest again, increase the weight to an amount you can lift five to 10 times, and do two repetitions.
You Play to Your Strengths
It’s human nature to spend more time on the muscles that work best–a dangerous mistake, as it happens. A 2002 study found that 70 percent of men with recurrent hamstring injuries suffered from muscle imbalances between their quadriceps and hamstrings—the muscles of the front and back of the thighs. After correcting the imbalances with equal training for both areas, every man in the study went injury-free for the entire 12-month follow-up.
Use the general guidelines below to check your muscle balance. The strength ratio for each set of muscle groups represents the amount of weight that the first muscle group should be able to lift compared with the second muscle group. If one group is proportionally weaker than it should be, you have to hit it first in your workouts until it catches up.
Muscle group: Quadriceps (front of thighs)
Opposing muscle group: Hamstrings (back of thighs)
Ideal strength ratio: 3:2
Sample exercises: Leg extension, leg curl
Sample weights (lb): 90:60
Muscle group: Biceps
Opposing muscle group: Triceps
Ideal strength ratio: 1:1
Sample exercises: Arm curl, triceps extension
Sample weights (lb): 45:45
Muscle group: Front shoulders
Opposing muscle group: Rear shoulders
Ideal strength ratio: 2:3
Sample exercises: Cable front raise, cable bent-over rear-shoulder raise
Sample weights (lb): 20:30
Muscle group: Internal shoulder rotators
Opposing muscle group: External shoulder rotators
Ideal strength ratio: 3:2
Sample exercises: Cable internal rotation, cable external rotation
Sample weights (lb): 30:20