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5 Mistakes People Make When Trying To Build Muscle

At face value, building muscle seems like a simple process. Just pick things up and put them down, right?

While that simplicity works great for beginners, seeing continued progress requires a smarter strategy. Avoid the following common mistakes to ensure you keep making gains.

1. Focusing Only On Your ‘Dream Body’

Not only does this mistake apply to people who want to build muscle, but to pretty much anyone who works out (and eats healthy) in order to achieve some sort of goal physique.

Regardless of what your goal looks like, constantly comparing your current physique to your ‘dream body’ can ultimately just get in your way. I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals; having something to aspire to can absolutely support your progress. However, sizing yourself up against your ideal too often stresses you out—and backfires on your training and healthy eating efforts. 

Follow fitness models on Instagram for motivation? Their posts aren’t actually motivating if they make you feel crummy about yourself. (Plus, loads of fitness photos are Photoshopped—and thus truly unattainable.) If any of this resonates, you’ve got some unfollowing to do. 

Instead, find motivation by comparing your current progress photos to those from a few months, or even years, ago. Seeing how much progress you’ve already made is much more motivating than looking at how far you still have to go! 

Keep your focus on your progress and it will be much easier to continue pushing forward.

2. Doing The Same Workouts For Too Long

I see this training mistake all the time. Do you always walk into the gym and do the same workout on leg day, back day, chest day, and so on? Loads of people do—but a lack of variety in your training will eventually lead to stalled gains. 

We refer to this as the Biological Law of Accommodation, which states that the adaptation (a.k.a. gains) to a stimulus (a.k.a. your go-to leg day workout) slow and eventually stop if the stimulus is constantly presented.

Related: How Often Do You Really Need To Switch Up Your Workouts?

I made this mistake myself back in the day. In high school, I wanted to build massive pecs, so every time I did chest, I worked my way up to 135 pounds on the bench press and tried to get as many reps as I could. It worked for a few months, but eventually, my gains stalled. Why? I wasn’t giving my muscles anything new to adapt to!

Once I switched things up by using dumbbells and incline bench for a month or two, though, my bench press shot up by about 50 pounds.

Don’t get stuck in the same routine. If you can do your usual workouts in your sleep, it’s time for a change. 

3. Not Using Periodization

Not only should you regularly switch up your workouts to continue seeing muscle gains, but you should plan the short- and long-term variations in your training program. This process is called periodization. 

How do you periodize a training plan for muscle growth? By planning different training volumes for each time you hit a particular muscle group. Let’s say you hit legs four times in a given two-week period. One day, you’d go heavy and perform fewer reps. Two other days, you’d use moderate weight and reps. Then, on the final day, you’d stick to lighter weights and higher reps.

Known as non-linear periodization, this method has been shown to be more effective for promoting muscle size gains than linear periodization (which involves consistently increasing weight and decreasing reps).

Why? Your muscles contain multiple types of muscle fibers—and these different types of muscle fibers respond differently to different types of training. Therefore, a linear program that focuses on increasing weight essentially ignores certain types of muscle fibers. A non-linear program, meanwhile, hits them all. (It’s especially effective for lower-body gains, because those muscles tend to contain a greater mix of fibers than many upper-body muscles.)

Plus, non-linear training also helps your body overcome that Law of Accommodation. You see, the most stressful (a.k.a. gains-inducing) aspect of a training program is its volume. (Volume is the number of sets you do multiplied by the number of reps you do multiplied by the weight used). In non-linear training programs, you constantly alter your workout volume, making every workout more effective. In linear programs, meanwhile, volume stays stagnant as you increase weight but decrease reps. 

4. Letting Abs Stand Between You And Your Gains

Many bodybuilders I know value staying lean over building muscle. And hey, if you’ve already developed an amount of muscle that you’re happy with, that’s fine. Thing is, these guys often say they want to build more muscle. However, they stay in a caloric deficit and struggle to make meaningful gains for fear of putting on fat.

While it is possible to gain muscle without eating your face off, it’s not easy—and takes quite some time. 

Related: 4 Snacks That’ll Help You Build Muscle

If you want to build serious muscle (and fast), you’re going to have to buckle up, eat more, and accept that your midsection might soften up a bit during the process. To preserve some of those precious ab lines, make sure you’re eating a high-protein diet, which has been shown to improve body composition. You can also try calorie-cycling, which involves restricting calories just a few days a week. 

The bottom line here: Don’t be afraid to spend some time with your fork and knife! Your future gains will thank you.

5. Not Eating Enough Protein

Protein, which our bodies need to build muscle mass, should be a huge focus of any gains-friendly diet. 

How much protein to eat for maximal muscle gains, though? The research on it is a little all over the place.

Some studies (like this 2013 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study) show that a relatively small amount of protein maximizes muscle growth. Others (like this 2016 Physiological Reports study), show that individuals undergoing more intense training need more protein to maximize growth.

Many scientific reviews on protein intake, like this 2017 British Journal of Sports Medicine meta-analysis, analyze studies that use older participants, poor training protocols, or low-quality proteins. The result: The authors claim that just 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day promotes muscle growth while training. In the fine print, however, the authors state that individuals who perform higher-intensity, full-body training should really consume one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.

The latest review on protein intake and bodybuilders (published in Sports Medicine in April 2019) confirms that people looking to maximize muscle gains should consume at least a gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. 

If you want to make the most of your training program, make that much protein a daily requirement.

References & Further Reading

  1. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: “Comparison between nonlinear and linear periodized resistance training: hypertrophic and strength effects.”
  2. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation.”
  3. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise.”
  4. Physiology Reports: “The response of muscle protein synthesis following whole-body resistance exercise is greater following 40 g than 20 g of ingested whey protein.”
  5. British Journal of Sports Medicine: “A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.”
  6. Sports Medicine: “Should Competitive Bodybuilders Ingest More Protein than Current Evidence-Based Recommendations?”

Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.


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