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8 Simple “Fixes” for Packing on More Muscle

8 Simple “Fixes” for Packing on More Muscle


Being a sports-performance coach for the last 20 years, I’ve hung around in gyms, coaching hundreds of 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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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:

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

5. 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).

6. 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.

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8 Comments

  1. Doug A. May 11, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I would have to say the biggest thing that helped me make progress was keeping a log. For years I trained without a log and I didn’t gain much strength, but as soon as I started keeping a log I knew exactly what I needed to do to surpass what I had done in previous workouts and focusing on that I made huge gains in strength.

  2. admin May 11, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    No doubt about it Doug, a log, journal, whatever you name it, just make sure your writing down what you’re doing consistently. Something so simple yet effective! Thanks for the comment!

  3. admin May 12, 2010 at 11:42 am

    keep’em coming ! Enjoy your free gifts !

  4. BMays May 13, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Most middle/high school lifting programs focus on only a few core lifts. They do them because the lifts are easy to monitor and because the lifts build the proper muscles that are necessary for good athletic performance. These alternatives would be a nice change of pace.

  5. BMays May 13, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    TR, is that picture at the top a picture of you?

  6. physical therapist June 6, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  7. admin June 10, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for spreading the word. I’m glad we have what you’re looking for!!

  8. admin June 10, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Bmays, Unfortunately no, that’s not me.. I’m getting close but not that close yet!