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Busting butt in the gym is about the payoff in the end. Why work your tail of only to find that you blow it somewhere else by not giving your muscles the respect they need? Seems to be a common problem, but there is hope. If you are breaking any rules of engagement, you may be robbing yourself from the gains you’re hoping for.

There are hundreds of possible issues that could reduce the effects of your training program. You’ve likely run the gamut, from feeling under the weather to a specific workout-limiting injury to a busy schedule, that’s kept you out of the gym. Unfortunately, there aren’t any miracle pills or magic remedies for those kinds of issues. But if you’re experiencing setbacks from training-related issues, the miracle cure is sitting right in front of you. Most often, we’ve either pushed too hard or not hard enough. At times we’ve dropped of training and yet other times we just simply failed to do something that we should have. It’s time to break your bad, and put some good back in to your program.

While I’ve created a top 5, no matter how you cut it there could be many additional reasons. Any one of these “bads” that I have here will reduce the effect of your hard work, and if you have more than one, you’re killing yourself before you even begin!

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5. OVERDOING IT (OR UNDERDOING IT)

Sure, if you beat yourself up, an injury is probable, and thus could make it worthy of a higher ranking. But, if you adhere to the other four rules, No. 5 will be rare. Most people are pathologically undertraining anyway. Even when it feels like you’ve gone the distance, there’s probably still more in the tank. While overtraining frequently occurs, it’s generally not due to a single session, but rather the grouping of many sessions with improper recovery. So it probably goes without saying that you need to be wary of your accumulated sessions.

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A great strategy, if you’re a six- or seven-day-a-weeker in the gym, would be to cut back, about every six weeks, to 2–3 sessions for the following week. Likewise, if you’re a fan of extending reps and sets with dropsets, burns, stripping, and supersets, then don’t do those on every set of every exercise every day of the week. Instead, employ a strategy that helps extend the volume on one particular muscle each workout so that you allow muscles the ability to recover between sessions. But also remember that extending sets will require a little more between-set recovery time, so think it through before you execute a failing proposition. And finally, remember,

while I always say more is better, let common sense dictate the better part of valor.

I have to admit, I cheated. You could easily make Underdoing It No. 6. But I’ve grouped it here because it sits at the other end of the same issue—how much training should I do? The notion of the “underdoing it” part of this bad habit assumes that you’re giving up. “Going light” doesn’t mean easy. Instead, using well-designed lighter-load lifting programs is a valuable strategy in helping speed muscle recovery and enforcing stronger neuromuscular firing patterns (meaning it helps improve the way in which muscles become activated).

Stopping just because you feel like it is, however, underdoing it. Similarly, a “quick workout,” if done correctly (like picking just a few muscles and beating on them) is not underdoing it, either. But missing body parts because you’re in a rush is. To counter this “bad,” you should always push yourself hard within your limits, then take adequate time of. So Underdoing It resides here with Overdoing It, but it’s the complete opposite. If you give a half-assed effort, you get half-assed results, which were likely fueled by excuses that simply create bad.

4. SHORT RANGE OF MOTION

The longer the range of motion, the more full muscles become. Solid data exists showing what happens to the length of muscle bellies when they’re subjected to shorter movement patterns. Typically the blame for long tendons and short muscles goes solely to the poor genetics excuse. Sure, muscle shape is largely determined by your parents, but just like you always tried to prove that you knew more than them when you were young, you can prove that your muscles can grow when they don’t want to. I see people with high calves (yes, there is a genetic component, for sure) doing half-range-of-motion heel raises. A full raise starts below parallel and goes until you’re literally on your toes. As a rule of thumb, the full-range movement should be when a hard stop occurs from either bone on bone or that your beefy muscles have met and compressed to their max. If you load up with too much weight, your lever system will stay within its strong zone and that is generally just short of the end of each side. And thus, you short-change the movement by doing what you thought was smart—lifting heavier. As a rule, to help break this bad habit, if you cannot go all the way from end to end, you need to cut the weight. A good way to see what I mean is to watch a person doing lat pulldowns or chinups. Rarely do you see bar contact with the sternum, nor do you see an armpit angle of 180 degrees when fully extended.

I’m a fan of 21s, cheat reps, and strategies to gain a pump or put a different twist on your routine. Having read that last paragraph, you may not believe it, so let me clarify where the application of shorter-range movements has a place, and how to do them properly. Half-range movements give great pumps. Cheat reps help finish sets. Pumps don’t last long but they’ll cause fatigue early on and destroy the rest of your routine. Cheats too soon cause fatigue, poor form, and prevent muscle from getting their much needed stress. Getting a pump is cool, but killing your workout because of it is not. If you’re going to cheat, cheat properly. While this is an oxymoron, it makes sense, trust me. Keep the short-range stuff to the end of your routine. If you’re going to employ something like 21s, try them at the end of your biceps routine, but also try switching the pattern around. Do the full reps first, then the low-to-parallel reps next, and finish with the parallel-to-full-flexed reps. If you’re going to cheat, don’t do it from Rep 1, otherwise those biceps will rebel against your lower back for stealing their thickness.

Break this bad: Don’t let it break you.

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3. WRONG SET AND REP SCHEME

We use the terms bulking, mass building, hypertrophy, and others somewhat interchangeably. Now while a true definition of each as it relates to lifting may be hard to come by, one thing is certain—not all set-rep systems produce the same results. You’ve probably heard it before. The key to getting super huge is not necessarily lifting heavy weight. That doesn’t mean that you should never lift heavy, it just means that the majority of your time should be in the true hypertrophy or size-building zone. But yet I still see guys way overlifting, going for maxes, and performing low-rep, heavy-weight exercises with the hope of getting bigger. The heavier you lift, the longer you need to rest. The longer you rest, the more you continue to activate your best strength-producing muscle fibers and the less you recruit all those other fibers. By lifting heavy, you need a very precise line and cannot vary stance, grip, and body position much if you’re expecting to hoist the big stuff.

Strength training places the focus on the lift itself, not the shapes of the muscles. While all of these characteristics are good for strength, they don’t always make the size thing work. For size you want to lift with a moderate amount of weight and let your program volume (the total number of sets and reps) do the work for you. When it comes to shaping things up, you need to hit the muscle heads at several different angles using a variety of different positions with the expectation of isolating specific key portions of the muscle.

To illustrate the point, here’s an example. You would use a squat to increase squat and overall lower body strength. You’d probably hit six- to a max of eight-rep heavy sets. You then may do some isolated leg extensions to help improve quad strength for a few sets of 8–10 reps. But if you wanted to hit all four heads of the quadriceps, you’d want to point your feet in and out during the leg extension in separate sets of 10–12 to ensure success. Then, for more size and shape, you might consider turning the squat into more of a hack squat, and change your foot position to match the area of the quad you’re trying to work on, and bang out 4–5 12-rep sets. In both examples similar exercises are performed, but the set-and-rep scheme would be different.

One of the most important things you can do here to help you break your bad is to plan to train using cycles of strength and size, changing it up every 6–8 weeks. But if your goal is simply to get really strong, you should stay low and heavy. Just know your purpose, before you get yourself caught under a super heavy bar.

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2. INADEQUATE NUTRITION AND SUPPLEMENTATION

I could argue this to the No. 1 spot pretty easily. The reason for this bad by many is failure to understand what it takes to get muscles to grow. Okay, I know everyone generally knows that you need to consume plenty of protein. Sure, you know that clean eating helps overall with your look. But despite chowing down on several pounds of protein, you may not see the results if your muscles don’t get two things that will make them work better: energy for contraction and materials for rebuilding. After the workout has long been done, you can definitely help by adding valuable nutrients for continued growth, but if you miss that critical window of opportunity to begin with, you’ve most certainly created bad.

Pre- intra-, and post-workout drinks are pretty much the norm. But you need to make sure that you have two critical components in your workout drinks if you want muscles to really grow. You need something to drive an insulin response like a sugar, preferably a real sugar (I know that isn’t a favorable idea for most), but if not, then some kind of catalyst to help with transport and to ensure you prime your insulin pump.

Secondly, you need the anabolic activators such as bioactive peptides, BCAAs, or even the entire EAA group to help the body repair. That covers Part 2—the rebuilding. Now, what about the energy? For most, a shot of stimulants is considered the “energy bolus” of choice. But realize, while stimulants can play an important role, they alone do not provide contractile energy or the fuel to keep you going through the workout. You need to make sure that creatine is part of your program and beta-alanine, isn’t a bad second choice. Additionally, you definitely want to make sure there are plenty of sugars in your body during exercise, but you likely will get that from your diet or your glycogen stores that have been building all along.

There are a lot of other cool ingredients that help fuel the process. Some will help create a pump, others will blow your mind out and get you in the game. But without energy, muscles simply don’t work. And without the amino acids from protein, they simply don’t build.

Cover your needs first.

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1. NOT RESPECTING RECOVERY

Recovery starts before you get to the gym. As long as you remember this one thing, you’ll be able to fix a bad that you may not even know exists. In the No. 1 spot, for good reason, sits recovery. Without it, your muscles will not get stronger and thicker. Your body will not respond favorably. You won’t get lean, nor a defined shape. And you won’t be ready for your next workout. But as well understood as this concept is, it surprises me how many people still think recovery is a post-workout phenomena.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve noticed that every “bad” in this article has a recovery component. Whether it’s improper nutrition, often the biggest bad, or improper form and technique, the fact remains that recovery is essential, and everything you do before, during, and after your workout affects it. We covered the nutrition faux pas in No. 2, but another component of recovery is having and following a plan. Not just for the immediate workout, but for each week. Maximize your output and minimize your downtime, with a well-thought-out routine. Make sure to respect delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Don’t train muscles that are sore. Don’t train the same muscle two days in a row. Take care of injuries, but also, don’t let injuries sideline you—train around them. For optimal recovery, group synergistic muscles together (like back and biceps for pulling), or separate them by at least a few days (back on Monday, biceps on Thursday). Know when to quit, but don’t be a quitter. And if you sustain a real injury, make sure to get it healed before training that area again.

BREAKING BAD

There is an art and science to breaking bad. From the science side, you need to respect recovery, balance your nutrition, and plan appropriately. From the art side, you need to take a look in the mirror or get a friend to adjust your form and then lighten the load and crank out longer stronger reps. Bad habits start for a variety of reasons. Even the best create them from time to time. You need to recognize that you’ve gone bad and address it immediately before it becomes routine. The longer your habit exists, the further behind you get, and the more work you’ll create for yourself on the backside. You can only break bad by striving for good. FLEX