The 10 Most Common Mistakes Lifters Make When Building Strength, Power, and Muscle Mass
What follows are 10 of the most common mistakes that lifters make when trying to add muscle mass and build strength. Fix these mistakes and your mass-building/strength-gaining plateaus will be a thing of the past.
In true countdown fashion, we’ll start with #10 before we make it down to the #1 mistake that the majority of trainees make—not to mention coaches.
#10: Using a Percentage-based Training Program
For some of you, this may seem like an odd thing that I would pick as a mistake. Especially considering the fact that the most-effective powerlifting program I ever used was (is) a percentage-based program: the training plans of Boris Sheiko. But Sheiko is the exception, not the rule, and it’s not something you need to attempt until you have plenty of training under your belt.
The training program that I most recommend that lifters follow—Bill Starr-style heavy-light-medium training—is decidedly not percentage based, as are the vast majority of effective training programs and lifting styles. For instance, probably the most popular form of powerlifting training in the world (or, at least, the most well-known), Westside Barbell, is not percentage-based.
The fact is that your strength will oscillate, it will ebb and flow, from one session to the next. You shouldn’t lock yourself into doing a certain weight, or using a certain number of exercises, at each workout. When you’re strong, go for it, and when you feel like pure hell, feel free to back off.
#9: Not Properly Manipulating (and/or Understanding) the 3 Variables of Frequency, Intensity, and Volume
If a training program is going to be effective, two of these variables must be high, and the third variable must be low. Only highly advanced lifters can get away with having all 3 variables high.
At one time, the primary mistake lifters in the West made was having all 3 variables high, but this changed when H.I.T. and other “lesser-is-better” training philosophies became popular. Now many lifters also make the mistake of having one variable high, while the other two are low. This is the main problem with H.I.T. or any one of its offshoots. The programs have a high level of intensity, while having low frequency and volume. This may work in the short term, especially if the lifter using it has been training with all 3 variables high for an extended period, but eventually it will stop working, usually sooner rather than later.
Most bodybuilding programs in the U.S. utilize a high level of volume, combined with a high level of intensity, and a low level of frequency. This works when trying to just gain muscle mass—in other words, if it’s “aesthetics” that you’re after—and it’s popular because it’s easy to manipulate. Basically, you just train the hell out of a muscle group—or a lift—with a lot of sets and reps, and then you give that muscle group a week to recover before training again. But for my money, I think it’s best to utilize either high-volume with high-frequency or high-intensity with high-frequency.
For more of my thoughts on this subject, read my post “Train Easy, Lift Big.” I’ve written about this subject in that post, as well as several others.
#8: Not Incorporating “Light” and “Medium” Days into the Program
One of the reasons that the high-intensity, high-volume, low-frequency mentality is so prevalent in bodybuilding and “fitness” circles is because lifters and trainees just don’t understand the need for light and medium days.
You don’t always need to train all-out. Light and medium days help to facilitate recovery between workouts—one of the reasons Starr’s programs are so effective—as well as aid in “greasing the groove” on particular lifts.
#7: Training Too Frequently
Yes, I’ve pushed high-frequency training ad nauseam in recent years, and, yes, I believe that frequent training definitely has its place, but too many lifters—especially novices—do too much too soon.
You must lay a foundation that the rest of your strength and mass gains can be built upon. And this foundation is laid with training on the fundamentals. Two to three-days-per-week on a handful of exercises is all that’s required for the beginner.
By the way, if you’re not relatively strong, then you’re just a beginner. For most, this means if you can’t bench press at least 250 pounds, squat and deadlift over 350, and overhead press around 200 pounds, then, sorry, you’re still in the rank “beginner” status. (While I’m at it, let me add this: no one, and I mean no one has any business training others in strength and power if he can’t meet these requirements. The only exceptions would be females who are damn strong for their size, and older strength coaches and personal trainers who spent years being this strong when they were younger. I’m sure one day—maybe when I’m 80—I’ll fit into this latter group.)
#6: Not Training Heavy Enough, Frequently Enough
If you’re going to get strong and big, then you’re going to have to pay your dues by training ultra-heavy on a fairly regular basis. If strength, power, and mass is your goal, then you should devote at least one training session—for each lift—per week that focuses on heavy training of 3 reps or lower.
#5: Not Training Frequently Enough
After reading #7 above, surely you didn’t think I wouldn’t include this one, did you? Sorry, but despite what you’ve heard from mindless bodybuilders, or some of the bodybuilding magazines over the last 20 years—or, hell, some of the stuff I wrote at one time—there comes a time when doing more is not a bad thing.
Once you have laid the foundation with heavy, fairly infrequent basic training, not only can you get away with more frequent training, but most of you reading this actually need frequent training.
As Nick Horton says: “More is not always better, but it usually is.”
#4: Using the Wrong Program or Not Being on a Program
Vince Gironda said it many years ago (and I have repeated it often in many of my articles over the years): “Are you on a training program, or are you just working out?”
First, you need to be on a program. Second, you need to be using a program that produces the results you are looking to attain. Want to get big and strong? Start with a Bill Starr-style H-L-M program. Use that for six months to a year. (To learn how to manipulate it, read a lot of my posts on just that very thing.) After that, move on to some similar programs such as Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program, and stick with it for another six months or so. At this point, you should be big and strong. And now it would be time to kick it into really high gear with either some Westside training or something along the lines of a Sheiko program.
By the way, doing some random “workout-of-the-day” is not being on a program. That’s just working out.
#3: Using Too Many Exercises
Even when many lifters get on a “program”—and I use the term loosely here—they often get on one with way too many exercises. Honestly, if you’re just starting out, then you only need a handful of exercises. And most advanced lifters can get by just fine with less than a dozen exercises that are rotated into the workouts. The exception, of course, would be something such as Westside Barbell, but, even then, you are only using a few basic exercises at each session.
#2: Using the Wrong Exercises
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re not training on the correct exercises, then you can do everything correct regarding mistakes #s 10 through 3 and you’re still going to be out of luck. Machines? Rubber band-crap that attaches to your door? One-arm or one-leg whatever? High-rep snatches and cleans done with god-awful form such as you see at the average Crossfit “box”? Jumping anything? Nope. None of that crap is going to cut it.
What will cut it, you ask? How about the good, old-fashioned barbell basics. Here’s your list just in case this is the first of my articles/posts that you’ve ever read (or just in case you’ve never read one good training article in your whole life): power cleans, power snatches, deadlifts, back squats, front squats, standing presses of various kinds, bench presses, clean and jerks, barbell and dumbbell rows, and barbell curls. (The barbell curl, unfortunately, has been much maligned in recent years, but let’s start today with the goal of making up for that.)
Now that all of that’s out of the way, what-in-the-hell could be the one thing worse than even using the wrong exercises? Drum roll please…
#1: Letting the Means Justify the Ends
People do this all the time, in every gym, in every garage, and in every high school and college weight room in the nation, but nothing—and I mean nothing—is worse than this mistake.
Just for clarification—in case any of you are staring at the screen, confused over what I’m writing about—the “ends” are the “results” that you are trying to attain. (In this case, it would be to get bigger and stronger.) The “means” are the workouts. The ends must justify the means, never the other way around. The results you are trying to attain must justify the workouts that you are doing.
A workout is only a “good” workout if it leads to the desired goal. How many times have you heard someone say—or possibly heard yourself say—“I just had a good workout”? Many times—too many times, in fact—what they mean by a “good” workout is that the workout was exhausting or tiring. Let’s get the fact straight: just because you are lying in a pool of sweat at the end of your workout doesn’t mean that it was “good.” Just because it produces extreme soreness the next day, does not mean that it was a “good” workout. The problem with both of those examples is that in either case the means are justifying whatever ends are achieved out of it.
Here’s the good news, however, if you follow the tips in this article—if you don’t make any of the mistakes I’ve listed—then you’ll be well on your way to letting your ends justify your means.