By Jon-Erik Kawamoto, M.Sc.Kin.(c), C.S.C.S., C.E.P. Men's Fitness
Packing on muscle is no easy feat regardless of whether you're a string bean or a husky guy. And why you're missing out on gains is typically caused by a number of reasons that can be easily avoided. So if you're frustrated about being stuck in the place and at the same weight, it's time to assess what you're doing and make a change.
1. YOU'RE IMPATIENT
If you’re a true beginner, the first phase of your training program results in changes that you can’t see – typically, your coordination improves with each exercise and the amount of co-contraction between muscles decreases. Your brain gets better at communicating with your muscles and can actually activate a higher percentage of your muscle fibers, commonly referred to as neuromuscular efficiency. Don’t look in the mirror after two weeks and wonder why you’re not getting bigger. Be patient and put in the work, the results will come.
2. YOU DON'T KEEP TRACK
Training logs are just as important as the program. How are you supposed to know what to do today or what you did last week without keeping track of it? To maximize muscle hypertrophy, keep track of all your workouts, weight used, repetitions performed, the tempo of the exercise and the breaks between sets. Keeping a training log will allow you to track your progress and your energy levels. Logs are also a great way to look back to see how (hopefully not) you got injured or over-trained.
3. YOU'VE GOT NO STRUCTURE
Remove the randomness from your workouts and stick to a plan. This is the best way to improve strength and increase muscle size. Random training might make you strong (for a beginner), but it's inferior to a planned periodized training program. A linear periodized plan can look like this: week 1: 3x12-15; week 2: 3x10-12; and week 3: 3x8-10. A non-periodized plan can look like this: weeks 1-3: 1st set 10-12 reps; 2nd set 6-8 reps, 3rd set 3-5 reps. Pick a plan and stick to it for maximum gains.
4. YOU'RE DOING TOO MUCH CARDIO
If your goals are size and strength, cardio workouts should not dominate your program. HIIT workouts and easy cardio sessions can be slotted into your program, but your 1st priority is getting in the 3-4 weight training days. If you can recover well between workouts, feel free to add in a cardio session here or there, but not at the expense of your recovery.
5. YOU'RE A HEADCASE
Having too much negative stress in your life can wreck havoc on your body’s chemistry and your overall health. It’s easier said than done, but you need to chill out man. Find a job you enjoy and a non-drama-filled girlfriend. Eat fresh whole foods and drink plenty of water. Try to get 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Learn how to meditate. The lower the stress, the better you recover. The better you recover, the better your progress. Make it happen.
6. YOU'RE EATING LIKE A BIRD
To put on size, you can’t eat salads all day. You need to have a slight calorie surplus to support muscle growth. This includes all energy expended from physical activity and internal processes. As mentioned earlier, eat whole fresh foods. Put time into planning your meals so you don’t have to resort to eating junk. Avoid sugary drinks and all fast food. Try to eat organic meats and drink organic milk. Eat healthy fats such as avocados and coconut oil. If you’re inclined, diets such as the “Paleo Diet” or “Perfect Health Diet” work really well for putting on size while staying lean. Ensure your growing body receives the nutrients and building blocks it needs and remember that eating junk equals junk results.
7. YOU CHEAT YOUR REPS
Half or quarter reps are commonly seen in the gym. Don’t be that guy. Half reps are going to get you half-assed results. Learn how to perform the full range of motion for each exercise. Leave your ego at the door because the weight you’ll use will be less. In the long run, you’ll maximize your gains when progressing full range of motion exercises with lighter weights than you would when using heavy weights for half reps. Half and quarter reps have their place though – they are great when used as assistance exercises to the main lifts, but only when the main lifts can be performed with full range of motion.
8. YOU'RE AFRAID OF COMPOUND MOVEMENTS
Curls, front raises, lateral raises, and calf raises are all good exercises but are normally performed at the wrong time. Focus on big compound lifts at the beginning of your workouts while you’re fresh and not fatigued. Exercises such as deadlifts, squats, cleans, presses and/or pulls should make up the first half of your workout. Save the isolation exercises for the last half.
9. YOU'RE A GYM ADDICT
Spending hours in the gym isn’t going to do you any favors. Related to the “you need to chill out” tip, doing too much in the gym will result in a tougher time recovering between workouts while adding to your already high levels of stress. Beginners can get plenty of work in a 45-min to 60-min workout, if the proper breaks are taken between sets and if they’re not checking their Facebook. Too many sets and hours in the gym can result in diminishing returns. Go to the gym, get focused, do the work and go home.
10. YOU'RE AVOIDING DROP-SETS
Drop-sets involve sub-maximal weights performed to failure over several mini-sets. Arnold referred to this type of training as training for “the pump.” For example, grab a weight you can curl for 8-10 reps. Following that set, grab another pair of dumbbells 10lbs lighter and immediately perform reps to failure. Perform this drop for one more set. Take a minute break and do it again. Constant muscle tension created with these 3 mini-sets induces hypertrophic mechanisms within the muscle. Add in drop-sets to your isolation exercises to maximize your gains in size.