If I had to boil down the fitness goals of the average person in less than five words, it’d be a surprisingly easy task: “Lose fat and gain muscle.”
In reality there are many (many) other fitness goals, and lots of other reasons to workout and eat healthy foods; but this is what interests—and confuses—most people. While losing the extra pounds can be the most frustrating process, building muscle is harder for most people to understand. After all, if you go to the gym and lift weights consistently you should pack on slabs of new muscle, right? And yet, most gym goers would respond with a resounding, “NO!” Instead, more people are more familiar with training…and then training some more, and never seeing gains that are quite as good as they want.
To dig a little deeper and find the answers to the your muscle gaining struggles, I reached out to Brad Schoenfeld, MS, CSCS, author of The MAX Muscle Plan: Blast Through Training Plateaus for Your Best Body Ever, educator, and trainer. He is also my partner on our special project: Cracking the Muscle Code.
Brad literally spends each and every day researching muscle gain, so I asked him to share his thoughts on why so many people struggle to add size. Here are 5 common muscle-building mistakes he’s identified, and the fixes that can help you upgrade your body.
By Brad Schoenfeld
The claim that muscle growth is maximized in a moderate rep range (6-12 reps per set) continues to be a source of debate in the fitness field. Although this theory is backed by some research, evidence on the topic remains far from conclusive. But for arguments sake let’s say that moderate reps are in fact best for gaining size. Does that mean that you should train exclusively in this narrow rep range? The answer is an unqualified, “No!”
Training in a lower rep range (1-5 per set) maximizes strength increases, thereby facilitating your ability to use heavier weights during moderate rep training. In this way, you create greater tension in the muscles, spurring better growth. High reps (15-20 per set), on the other hand, help to increase your lactate threshold. By delaying the buildup of lactic acid, you stave off fatigue when training in the “hypertrophy range,” (the muscle building range) thus increasing time under tension—another important aspect of the growth process. Bottom line is that optimum muscle development is best achieved by using the full spectrum of rep ranges.
Your fix: Periodize your program so that it is built around a moderate repetition protocol, but you make sure to include training in both the lower and higher rep ranges. Although a number of different periodization models work, I recommend a modified linear approach beginning with a strength phase (lower reps), followed by a fairly short metabolic phase (high reps) and then culminating with a hypertrophy phase (the typical 6 to 12 range). Depending on your goals and body, this might mean sticking with a particular rep range for a longer period of time. (Such as not changing every 4 weeks.) When properly implemented, this produces a “supercompensation effect” so that you maximize muscular gains and see a peak at the end of the training cycle. With time, you might then want to shift to a non-linear approach, where you shift rep ranges more frequently to hit all phases.
Most people have a limited number of favorite exercises that are staples in their routine. That’s human nature. While it’s okay to have your old stand-bys, they shouldn’t be performed at the exclusion of other movements. Changing up your exercise selection has a couple of important benefits from a mass-building standpoint. For one, it helps to prevent the so-called “repeated-bout effect” whereby muscles become accustomed to the continual use of the same movements, making them increasingly resistant to trauma. Staving off such accommodation allows for greater structural perturbations to muscle fibers. That might sound like a bunch of confusing science to some of you, but what it all means is that changing exercises can facilitate increased growth.
What’s more, muscle fibers don’t necessarily span the entire length of a fiber and are often innervated by different nerve branches. Thus, exercise variety alters recruitment patterns in the musculature, ensuring optimal stimulation of all fibers. Think of it this way: Some people like blonds, other prefers brunettes, and you have those that love redheads. Your muscles are greedy and like them all. So in order to keep them happy, you must give them what they want. That’s why exercise variety provides your muscles with the variety it literally needs for optimal growth. Even slight variations in the exercises you employ will work the muscles somewhat differently, enhancing results.
Your fix: Employ a diverse selection of exercises over the course of your training cycle. This can be accomplished by switching around modalities, training angles, planes of movement, and even your hand and foot spacing. (For instance, on dumbbell curls, think about holding the handle with your pinky against one end of the bell, and on the next set perform with your thumb against the bell. That slight shift will work your biceps in different ways.) The possibilities are almost endless if you think outside the box. There is no hard rule as to how frequently exercises should be changed, but a general guideline is to do so at least on a monthly basis.
When it comes to exercise selection, there are two basic camps. On one end of the spectrum are those who preach that the only way to get big is by performing the “big lifts” such as squats, presses, and rows. On the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that key to muscle-building is “isolating” muscles with flys, curls, extensions, and the like. Who’s right?
Realize that this isn’t an either-or debate; the two types of movements are in fact complementary. Multi-joint exercises involve large amounts of muscle and therefore are highly efficient for packing on mass. Alternatively, single-joint exercises allow for greater targeting of individual muscles (or even portions of muscles), enhancing overall growth and symmetry. Integrating a mix of both types of movements into your routine can have a synergistic effect that improves both muscle size and symmetry.
Your fix: Structure your routine so that it is comprised of a combination of multi- and single-joint exercises. As a general rule, every workout should contain at least one or two “big lifts” and a single-joint move. Oh, and realize that for all practical purposes you can’t “isolate” muscles. The body is designed so that multiple muscles will always be active during exercise performance. Thus, you can only target a given muscle so that it is more active in a given movement.
Typical resistance training routines involve performing “straight” sets where you do a set, rest, perform another set of the same exercise, rest, and then continue in this fashion throughout each exercise in your workout. There’s nothing “wrong” with the basic approach; straight sets can and perhaps even should form the foundation of your routine. But it’s also good to mix things up a bit with some specialized techniques. Supersets (performing one exercise followed immediate by another exercise without rest), drop sets (performing a set to muscular failure with a given load and then immediately reducing the load and continuing to train until subsequent failure) and heavy negatives (performing eccentric actions—the lowering of a weight—at a weight greater than concentric 1-repetition maximum) can be excellent additions to a mass-building routine. They help to induce greater metabolic stress and structural perturbations that can take your muscle growth to new heights. These strategies are particularly effective for advanced lifters who need to “shock” their body to spur greater growth.
Your fix: Selectively add specialized techniques such as supersets, drop sets, and heavy negatives into your routine. A word of caution: these techniques should be considered advanced training strategies. Their fatiguing nature increases the risk for overtraining, and it is therefore wise to limit their use to no more than a few microcycles over the course of a periodized program.
A goal of many lifters is to increase muscle development while simultaneously reducing body fat levels. In an attempt to accelerate fat loss, cardio is frequently ramped up while performing intense resistance training. Adding some aerobic training a muscle-building routine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overdoing it, however, certainly is. You see, the signaling pathways for resistance training and aerobic training are contradictory. Some researchers have coined the term “AMPK-PKB switch” whereby aerobic training promotes catabolic processes (AMPK is involved in pathways associated with protein breakdown, which for your sake can be considered “muscle wasting”) and resistance training promotes anabolic processes (PKB is involved in pathways associated with protein synthesis, or for you, “muscle gaining”). While the concept of a “switch” is a bit overly simplistic (most of the evidence points to anabolism and catabolism taking place along a continuum), there is little doubt that concurrent training has the potential to interfere with anabolism and thereby undermine your ability to build muscle. What’s more, adding extensive cardio to an already demanding resistance-training program can hasten the onset of overtraining, which brings muscle growth to crashing halt.
Your fix: If your goal is to maximize muscle, keep cardio at moderate levels. How much is too much? It ultimately depends on the individual, as some can tolerate more than others. A general guideline is to limit steady state cardio to no more than about 3 or 4 weekly bouts lasting 30 to 40 minutes. Alternatively, 2 to 3 high-intensity interval training workouts a week should be fine for most lifters. Just make sure that you stay in tune with your body and be aware of any signs of overtraining. You also should be aware that unless you’re a newbie to lifting with a fair amount of weight to lose, it becomes increasingly difficult trying to simultaneously gain lean mass while losing body fat. Once you’ve been training for a number of years, it’s best to focus on one goal or the other.
If you want help building muscle, losing fat–or both–join me in my online coaching program. Here you’ll receive professionally designed workouts, have access to me and some of the best strength and nutrition coaches to ask your questions, and receive exclusive access to an exercise library, interviews, podcasts, and special deals. Or, to learn more about the muscle building process, check out Cracking the Muscle Code.