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YOU'VE GOT PROBLEMS
Almost everyone does something wrong in every workout. You probably don’t even realize the errors that are curtailing or preventing gains. This is your wake-up call, your proverbial face slap. Get real. Determine what you’re doing wrong and plot a course to correct it.
1 | TOO MUCH VARIETY
Variety is a good thing—spice of life and all that. A lot of champion bodybuilders never do the same workout for a body part twice in a row. The problem arises when variety breeds anarchy. If you’re merely picking different exercises, rep schemes, techniques, etc., each time for the sake of being different, you’ll inevitably stray too far from the most effective course.
FIX | Build your routine around free-weight barbell basics like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and shoulder presses for 6-12 reps, as well as those exercises that you’ve determined work best with your physique. After that you can swap in and out exercises, alter rep ranges, and use intensity techniques like supersets and dropsets. Keeping a core of excellent exercises done for moderate reps will prevent your workout from descending to chaos when you switch things up.
2 | MISSING THE TARGET
This is about compound exercises, those lifts that involve more than one body part. It can be difficult to focus on the muscle or part of a muscle you want to target. Too often secondary body parts and momentum take over, detracting from the target.
FIX | There is an easy fix to this. Simply avoid compound exercises. For example, you can train chest with dumbbell, cable, and machine flyes (all isolation) without doing a single press (compound). However, compound lifts, in which you can use more weight, are too valuable to skip long-term. You need to consciously focus the compound exercise on your target. For example, when doing incline presses, tense your upper pecs. Pre-exhaust is another great fix because it assures that the targeted area will fail first. Do incline flyes before incline presses. You can even superset the two, flying for a set just before pressing for a set.
3 | SHALLOW SQUATS
You see it all the time. A guy loads up a bar at the rack only to pound out a set of quarter reps or half reps, never getting anywhere near parallel. Maybe you’re that guy. If you are, you’re in good company because this is the most common exercise-specific mistake. Barring extreme examples, where someone bends so little it’s mere pretension, shallow squats are not without benefits. You can use more weight, and you’ll activate the glutes and hips less. That said, studies have proven that a full squat to parallel or below is best for quad (and glute) growth.
FIX | Have someone video you squatting from the side so you’ll know how much farther down you need to go. Next, reduce the weight dramatically and practice breaking parallel. Find the stance that allows you to comfortably go deep. Hint: It’s probably wider than before. Squatting down to a box can help you find the correct depth. You may also need to increase the mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles. Stretch these areas thoroughly before squatting. Only when you’re regularly getting deep in the hole should you start building back to the weights you were using before. Finally, not everyone has the structural mobility to break parallel with good form. If you can’t go deep without experiencing back or hip pain or leaning too far forward, forget it. You’re in good company. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates didn’t squat. Like him, master your form on leg presses and hack squats.
4 | IGNORING INJURIES
It really can’t be avoided. If you’re pushing your muscles to get more reps or move more metal, eventually you’re going to suffer a sprain (ligament or joint injury) or strain (muscle or tendon injury). Often, this will linger for months. You’ll endure it for so long that you may just assume it’s a permanent, limiting feature of your workouts. The old mantra of “no pain, no gain” couldn’t be less true if the pain isn’t the normal buildup of lactic acid but is instead a sprain or strain.
FIX | You can’t continue to do the same exercises the same way and hope to “train your way” through an injury. First, you need to diagnose the problem. The culprit may not be the most likely suspect. For example, the arch during bench presses may be straining your lower back just as holding the bar during squats may be spraining your shoulder joints. Be conscious of every pain during and after every exercise. Once you find any problem lifts, eliminate them until you’ve recovered. Only reintroduce them if you can improve your form or alter the exercise to quell the pain. Never assume you can do the same things in the same way, perhaps with lighter weights, and “train your way” through an injury. Instead, “train around” injuries, doing exercises that don’t generate pain.
5 | PLAYING FAVORITES
We all tend to emphasize our strong points more than our weak ones. Maybe you like training back more than hamstrings. As a result, you put more intensity into pulldowns and rows than leg curls. Your lats grow faster than your hams. Seeing your work pay off, you put even more into your back workouts and develop an even greater mind-muscle connection with your lats, and your hams trail even further.
FIX | You can’t take any half measures on this one. To get your body in balance, you need to prioritize your weak points and, if necessary, de-emphasize your strong points. Train your lagging muscles first in your workout, or give them their own session. Also, train them after an off-day. You may benefit from increasing workout volume, but more likely you need to boost your focus. Lighten your weights and tense the targeted area throughout each set until you feel it from stretch to contraction. Conversely, train your strong points last, and, if necessary, with less volume or frequency.
6 | TOO HEAVY
Lift big or go home, right? Well, sort of. There are two potential problems with turning every workout into a strength contest wherein you need to top the numbers you put up the time before. First, the reps tend to trend downward until the majority of sets are under eight. If you’re doing sets of four on pulldowns, you’re going too heavy. Even powerlifters don’t consistently do reps as low as a strength-obsessed bodybuilder. That’s because it’s not the best strategy for either strength gains or muscle growth. The second problem is your form frequently loosens too much as you cheat up that extra rep, shifting the focus away from the targeted muscle and increasing the odds of injury.
FIX | Science has proven the 8- to 12-rep range is best for muscle growth. However, this doesn’t mean it’s the only way to spark growth. In fact, variety is ideal. Pyramids take care of this. If you pyramid deadlifts from 12 to 10 to 8 to 6 to 4 reps, most of your reps are in the 8–12 range, but this also allows you to safely go heavier. As for cheating, this requires a conscious decision to stay strict even though it will mean using less weight.
7 | TOO LIGHT
Largely due to the promotion of nitricoxide-boosting supplements and training systems like FST-7, there’s been a renewed focus on pumping up muscles in recent years. Unfortunately, too many bodybuilders take the easy route of pumping up with higher reps and lighter weights. That’s a good strategy for temporary muscle expansion but not growth.
FIX | Keep the majority of your sets in the 8- to 12-rep range, and use a weight that pushes you to failure or near failure. If, near the end of your routine, you feel you haven’t sufficiently pumped up, do a final one or two sets of an isolation exercise for 15–20 reps. For example, end your chest routine with two higher-rep sets of cable crossovers but only after doing your preceding chest sets in a moderate rep range.
8 | NO GOALS
Bodybuilders too often plod through workouts with neither short-term nor long-term goals. This is the equivalent of driving your car with nowhere to go, meandering about, killing time. You can’t expect to get where you want to be if you have no route to get there and no clear destination.
FIX | Set goals. At first glance, this is our easiest fix. The difficulty is in designating challenging but realistic short-term and long-term marks. Know where you want to be a year from now. Maybe it’s on a posing dais. Maybe it’s a body-weight goal or a visualized physique. Then plan your workouts and meals before each day to propel you to that destination. You may want to keep a logbook or make notes on your smartphone. Always know where you’re going and the best route for getting there.
9 | MISTIMED CARDIO
Too many bodybuilders treat cardio as a warmup. First thing they do is hop on some contraption for 20 minutes just to build up a sweat. If you’re working legs, a short session of light cardio, such as 10 minutes on a stationary bike, can be a great warmup before you hit the squat rack. In all other cases, doing cardio first can deplete strength and intensity from weight training.
FIX | Ideally, do your cardio in a session separate from lifting, such as first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. With HIIT, this should take less than 20 minutes. If, however, you combine cardio and weights in the same session, hit the iron first and burn calories last.
10 | UNDER-RECOVERY
This is the dreaded overtraining that you hear so much about. In fact, if you read bodybuilding message boards you’ll find people railing against FLEX for telling you how pro bodybuilders train. “That’s too much for a natural,” is the constant cry. The implication is if a drug-free bodybuilder does more than 12 sets for a small body part or 15 for a big body part, he’ll shrink. That’s ridiculous. But if we think of overtraining as under-recovery, this is indeed a common problem.
FIX | Back in the ’70s when everyone was chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger and hitting body parts two or three times weekly, overtraining was truly a thing. There simply weren’t enough days in the week to recover from frequent workouts. Today, it’s common to train body parts only once weekly, which gives muscles plenty of time to recover. If you work body parts more frequently, make sure at least 48 hours lapse between hitting the same one, even indirectly. For example, don’t do back and biceps on subsequent days because biceps assist in many back exercises. Make certain you get at least eight hours of sleep nightly and feed your muscles with high-protein meals at least every three hours. You’ll notice our fix hasn’t said anything about your routines. Short of marathon, 50-plus-set, high-intensity sessions, you can recover from anything with enough time and fuel. – FLEX