You’ve been training hard and eating clean for some time. You have a thirst for knowledge and absorb every bit of information you can find. But look back to a year ago, do you truly see a difference in how you feel and look between then and now? If you do then that’s awesome, in fact maybe stop reading right now. But if you’re one of many men that have plateaued in the gym, then continue reading.
Mistake 1: Stubbornness
Fitness is a journey, and the gym is just a vehicle to help you get there. You know that guy that thinks he knows better than the GPS unit in his car, even though it’s the same exact system of satellites used by Elite Military Forces all over the world? If this is you when it comes to the gym, then you need to understand that it’s only you that’s holding yourself back from reaching the planned destination. Find a good GPS unit and listen to it.
Equally, it’s the inexperienced driver that’s never been on a long road trip before, who by constant self-doubt and hesitant driving will have a hard time reaching the destination. At least this person will eventually get there providing they follow the GPS. Whereas Mr. Stubborn is at a truck-stop right now, wondering where he went wrong. He should have just listened to the GPS. This example is of is the stubborn, know-it-all attitude that can hold men back in particular from reaching their goals. They have to learn to understand that it is okay to ask for help and to accept that they can’t know or do for themselves.
When it comes to fitness, the GPS is a professional who, through years of training and qualifications (and working with many people just like yourself), knows how to get you to your destination. Just like a coach or mentor in business or your kids’ school teacher, it’s the professional coach or personal trainer that can use expertise to map out a journey of learning and development specifically for you—they are qualified to do so. Just like a good GPS, a trainer can be an investment, but if you think that’s expensive then try working with an amateur trainer. Elite athletes get fitness coaches, so why shouldn’t you?
Mistake 2: Always Hitting the Ego Lifts First
Through traditional strength and conditioning and bodybuilding dogma, it’s typical to go straight into your workout hitting your key indicator lifts first—the squats, deadlifts, and bench presses of this world. Question yourself why you’re doing these first, and even why you consider these to be the most important. Maybe the sport of powerlifting has something to do with it. For a powerlifter, these lifts are indeed the most important and the most “functional” lifts for them, since they directly mimic their sport. But are they the most important for you?
Unless you’re a powerlifter, or these movements directly transfer to your sport, there could be better training options. Exercises that produce a higher level of muscle activation could be better at building muscle. For example, a reverse grip bench press can result in higher pectoral muscle activity than a typical medium grip bench press.
There are also ways to exercise that burn more calories and ramp up your metabolism for longer if fat loss is your primary goal—metabolic resistance circuits for example. If specific strength in these big moves is your goal, or they translate directly to your sport, then go for it and train them when you’re not fatigued. If, however, you saved them for later in your workout after more specific exercises to meet your objectives, you’ll progress faster and get closer to your body’s potential.
Mistake 3: Building Muscle without First Losing Body Fat
Generally, the leaner you are the more sensitive to nutrients your body is. Especially if you have a good amount of muscle mass. When you have excess fat on your body, it’s doing everything it can to store it and hold on to it. Especially during times of stress-elevated levels of the hormone cortisol will also help your body store unwanted fat. Not good news if you sit at a desk all day, stressed, and have a bit of weight to lose.
Your lack of lean mass and higher fat mass means your body won’t deal with carbohydrates as well as someone else who is lean. The size and number of fat cells you have also make it much easier for your body to store even more fat. As a side note, as you lose fat your fat cells only shrink in size, whereas when you gain fat they increase in number, as well. Another reason to try and maintain a level of leanness year-round instead of a yo-yo approach.
If you first make sure you’re at a good level of leanness (less than 10% for men depending on measurement technique), your body will become much better at putting extra calories towards building muscle and strength, rather than storing them in unwanted areas around your body. First get lean, then you can spend the rest of your life getting strong.
Mistake 4: The Pro Bodybuilder Mindset
As much as you and your training may be influenced by top bodybuilders, chances are you’re not one of them. Bodybuilding is a sport where things are taken to the extreme to get to the top, and, like any other sport, hard work and sacrifices are made. The human body is pushed to its limits and faces a toll in the long-run.
Just like any other sport, bodybuilding has an off-season and a competitive season. In the off-season, athletes enjoy extra calories and gains in energy, strength, and size that those extra calories bring with it. You may know this as a “bulk.” Prior to competition, things get massively strict and the “cutting” begins. Things go from one extreme to the other.
Unless you want to get on a bodybuilding stage one day, stop comparing yourself to this way of eating and training. You may also not be as blessed as those with natural genetics, or as willing to do the things they need to do to compete. You just do you, and make sure that you’re doing all you can to achieve your goals and enjoy the journey. If you’re a Volkswagen Beetle then stop comparing yourself to a Ferrari, and think about upgrading your Beetle to a newer model first.
Mistake 5: Bulk and Cut, then Bulk Again
At a guess, you don’t have a competition season like a bodybuilder, either. Therefore, you want to look and function both physically and mentally at your best throughout the year.
The bulking and cutting mentality are part of that. If you weren’t going to the gym you’d probably say you were on a yo-yo diet and routine. We all know that’s not good for us to yo-yo diet on so many levels, yet for some reason, it’s okay if you’re lifting weights to rebound, gain fat, and then call it a bulk. So, how do you stay lean and build muscle consistently without “bulking”?
To build muscle you need to be in a calorie surplus—consume more calories in 24 hours than you would typically burn in that same period. The extra energy supplied from those calories and nutrients are put to good work allowing your muscles to grow and get stronger. The additional calories mean that muscle protein synthesis can be maximized, while protein breakdown is minimized. This is what we call being anabolic. If you eat more calories than your body needs to develop new muscle, you’ll get an overspill of energy and your body will store that energy as fat. More body fat does not mean you are more anabolic.
You need calories to grow muscle, but only add a small number on top of your maintenance calories to start with. Begin by simply adding in a few hundred extra quality calories a day and track your progress to see how your body is responding. If you feel you’re gaining a little fat then maybe reduce intake slightly, but if you have room for more food then gradually increase your intake. It’s just as much of an art as it is a science, so never be afraid to adjust things gradually as you go along and never be too rigid. If you’re a little more active some days of the week than others, then give yourself permission to eat more. Conversely, if you sat on the couch all weekend then reduce your calories slightly.