Q: What are the most common mistakes made by those who embark on a bodybuilding lifestyle?

A: Two of the most common mistakes are actually two sides of the same coin. Beginners often don’t know when not to do something they know they’re capable of doing and, conversely, when to do something they don’t think they can.

A symptom of our age is the macho litany, uttered by both men and women, which proclaims that “You can do anything you want to do.” Thanks to modern science, they’re right — except for one small detail: Science can never improve our wisdom. In fact, it appears that the more power we have over our circumstances, the less willing we are to use it wisely. In bodybuilding, that can be disastrous.

Dorian Yates put it pithily a couple of years ago when he said that the real test of one’s strength is not the ability to do what’s possible but the ability not to do what’s possible.

Your quest for success at bodybuilding should always be guided by what that success will do to your character. Throughout the history of our sport, our greatest champions were driven not to vanquish their competitors so much as to make themselves the best they could be, in heart, mind and soul. The first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott, sought an exalted spirituality. Sergio Oliva looked to be a role model in the sport as he was as a cop in daily life. Arnold Schwarzenegger became the consummate achiever, and Lee Haney toiled to complete his mosaic of man’s finest all-around qualities. What I sought was another dimension, to make myself a better example as a human being.

As important as it is to know when not to do what you can do, it’s just as important and even more difficult to do what you don’t want to do. Many people are intimidated by bodybuilding’s heavy weights and exhausting workouts but, in all except the rarest of cases, bodybuilders don’t work hard enough. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing, and I mean nothing, is as difficult as bodybuilding when it is approached in the correct manner.

When I do a set, for example, my rep range is open-ended, so that upon reaching failure at six, eight or 12 reps, I force myself to do four more.

When I’m torn between the temptation of using a safe and comfortable machine versus the threat of painful and dangerous free weights, I grit my teeth and choose the latter, because I know they will give me better results.

When I crawl under a weight, I deliberately place myself in harm’s way by loading the bar with do-or-die poundage, rather than play it safe with lighter weights that fail to take me to my limit. Ironically, this makes me concentrate harder and train even more correctly, because I know that the slightest inattention can lead to an injury.

Finally, I don’t set goals. A goal is a limit, and that’s something I can’t tolerate. Just as with my reps and sets, I want my destination to be open-ended, preferably infinite.