You faithfully go to the gym several times a week and during every workout you push yourself to the limit. Still, no gains. Recognizable? Then you may be making one or more of the following muscle building mistakes.
1. NOT KEEPING A TRAINING LOG
The essence of muscle growth lies in creating overload, simply putting more stress on your muscles than they are used to. If you continue to do this in the longer term, we speak of progressive overload.
Applying progressive overload is only possible if you use a fixed training schedule for a certain period and keep track of the results. The latter means that you record the amount of weight, the number of repetitions and possibly the number of Reps In Reserve (RIR) for each exercise .
You can keep track of this by means of a fancy mobile app (for example Strong Workout Tracker Gym Log, Fitbod or HeavySet) but just as well with the help of a pen and a piece of paper. Anyway, as coach Mike Israetel would say:
Write shit down when you train. It works.
We see very few people logging their training in our gym. Many even just walk into the gym and just do something. We would like to say to them, not in our best Dutch:
Stop exercising, start training!
2. NOT TRAINING HARD ENOUGH
To create overload, you have to make sufficient effort per set, so that sufficient mechanical tension is exerted on the muscle. That means you need to train your sets close to muscle failure, i.e. near the point where you can’t do a decent rep anymore. This is where it often goes wrong: people stop the set too early, for example five or six repetitions for muscle failure, so that insufficient mechanical tension is applied.
Do you have to train every set completely to muscle failure? Not that either (see mistake 3). To achieve a good ratio between stimulus and fatigue, keep a few repetitions “in the tank” for most sets, also known as reps in reserve (RIR). Make sure you train with an average of 1-3 RIR. So, for example, you stop the set at the point where you could do two more reps. Due to their high training sensitivity, only absolute beginners can afford a little more RIR, for example 4-5 RIR.
Estimating the number of RIR correctly is quite difficult and requires at least some training experience.
3. TRAINING TOO HARD
The opposite of mistake 2 are gym goers who train too hard, namely by training almost every set to the point of complete muscle failure. Yes, achieving muscle failure may provide the greatest stimulus, but this is offset by a disproportionate amount of fatigue. That fatigue is at the expense of your recovery capacity and therefore also of the number of sets you can do and the quality of those sets.
Viewed differently: if you would only do one muscle group for a muscle group, you would train it until muscle failure, for the optimal return. In practice, however, you usually do several sets. Then you achieve the optimal return by staying slightly away from muscle failure in those sets, on average 1-3 RIR, so that a favorable ratio is created between stimulus and fatigue.
Don’t worry, you can train a few sets to complete muscle failure. But only do that with isolation exercises and only in the last set of an exercise.
4. DOING TOO MUCH OR TOO LITTLE VOLUME
We define training volume as the number of hard sets per muscle group per week. And it’s up to you to find the sweet spot between too much and too little.
The relationship between training volume and muscle growth rate is referred to as an inverted U-shaped relationship, also known as the horseshoe model. In principle, therefore: more = better, but from a certain point you reach the opposite: doing too much volume means less muscle growth and can even lead to muscle breakdown. This is because the body has only a limited growth and recovery capacity (at least, if you are natural and that is what we assume here).
The ideal training volume depends on several personal factors, but a good starting point is 10 sets per muscle group per week for beginners, increasing to 15 sets for intermediate and 20 sets for advanced.
As soon as you do more than 10 sets per muscle group weekly, training frequency also becomes important. The horseshoe model alsoapplies per training: the advice is not to do more than 10 sets per muscle group per training (after all, you can only achieve a limited amount of muscle growth per day). For example, if you do 12 sets a week, it’s best to divide them into two workouts of 6 sets each, with plenty of rest days between those workouts.
5. RELY ON INTUITIVE TRAINING
Many gym goers base their training on indicators such as muscle pump, fatigue and muscle soreness. But those aren’t necessarily indicators of muscle growth; they are side effects that can occur during and after training. Training for muscle growth means exposing the muscles to sufficient mechanical stress, which is different from tiring the muscles as much as possible.
In short, as a natural you should stimulate the muscle, but not tire it unnecessarily: stimulate don’t annihilate. This means, for example, that you only do a maximum of 10 sets per muscle group per training (see mistake 4) and that you do not train your sets to complete muscle failure (see mistake 3). This may result in less pump, sweat and muscle soreness, but it is more beneficial for muscle growth because you do not unnecessarily affect your recovery capacity. That still doesn’t mean that a workout shouldn’t be heavy.
Muscle soreness, in particular, is often seen as an indicator of muscle growth. In this article you can read that this is not always the case. And vice versa: not having muscle soreness does not have to mean that there is no muscle growth.
6. RELYING ON INTUITIVE EATING
Many people rely on their intuition when it comes to nutrition; they rely on mechanisms such as hunger and satiety. That may work for the mere mortal, but not for you as a natural bodybuilder, striving for maximum muscle growth!
After all, for the latter it is important that you
- eat enough calories, namely slightly above your maintenance level;
- enough protein, namely about 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
You can only determine whether you meet these two conditions with the help of a calorie app. Ideally, you use such an app every day, but if your diet is somewhat consistent, it can also suffice to only use the app for a certain period of time.
7. VARYING TOO MUCH
Many strength athletes think that they have to ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ a muscle again and again, and therefore vary all the time: in exercises, order of exercises, rep ranges, rest times and so on. The fact is, however, that you have to stick to a training program for a long time, in order to apply progressive overload. Progressive overload means that you can gradually train harder, so with more weight. If you are constantly doing other exercises, you will not be able to measure and make progress.
As long as you make progress with a training program, you don’t have to change anything. Varying only becomes important when your body has become somewhat accustomed to certain training stimuli, so that you create an overload less easily: training steeless. In intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, this steelness often occurs after a few mesocycles, so after roughly three or four months. See also this article.
Nevertheless, only vary if you are sure that you are using an adequate training volume and that your recovery is in order.
If variety is important to your enjoyment of training, vary small exercises. For example, do cable curls one time and dumbbell curls the next. Do continue to monitor the training principle of overload.
8. NOT MAINTAINING CONSISTENCY IN EXECUTION
A condition to be able to apply training logs (see point 1) and thus progressive overload is that you use consistency in the execution of your exercises. That means, for example, that the last repetition of a set is performed in the same way, over the same range of motion (ROM), as the first.
You often see bits of ROM being sacrificed as a set or workout gets tougher. That way you can never truthfully track the number of reps completed.
Be consistent in your execution and don’t fool yourself (and others) – see also mistake 10.
9. USING TOO SHORT REST PERIODS
We already saw: in order to grow muscles, you have to expose them to sufficient mechanical stress. If you use breaks that are too short, this is at the expense of that mechanical tension: you have to sacrifice the number of repetitions and/or the weight.
If you find it difficult to feel when you’re all set for your next set, use as a guideline 1-2 minutes for isolating exercises, 2-3 for most compound exercises, and 3-5 for squats and deadlifts. If necessary, use a stopwatch.
10. EGO LIFTING
Of course, progressive overload means that you gradually use heavier weights. But if you take steps too fast and sacrifice technique for weight, it actually works against you. After all, you will then not create a good stimulus on the target muscle and you will put unnecessary stress on your tendons and joints. So put your ego aside and focus on correct execution and the mind-muscle connection.