When it comes to the care and feeding of muscles, most of us have mastered the basics. We train hard, eat right (we think) and spend more time curling bars than hanging out in them.
But sometimes our habits in and out of the gym unknowingly can sabotage our hard work—or at least make us less efficient in producing the results we’re striving so hard to achieve. Here are the 10 worst things you’re doing for your muscles and what you can do instead.
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Pete Williams is a NASM certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.
If you’re focused on building a huge chest, arms, and legs, you could be ignoring your body’s foundation. Be sure to work in three planes of motion and strengthen the stabilizer muscles around your shoulders, hips, and midsection, to build a powerful core and provide protection against injury. Make medicine balls, physioballs, mini-bands and rotational movements (lifting, chopping) part of your arsenal.
We’re talking water, of course. Dehydration of just three percent can cause a 10 percent loss of strength, hindering your training. Drinking enough water before, during, and after exercise can increase performance up to 25 percent. Drink ½ to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight per day to maintain hydration.
Generations of gym teachers and track coaches gave stretching a bad name by having us push against walls or pull one heal to our butt. So-called static stretching is most effective after a workout. Instead, activate your muscles by taking 5 or 10 minutes before training to perform an active warm-up consisting of movements such as walking lunges, planks, glute bridges, and marching in place. You’ll be better prepared for a great strength workout—and less likely to hurt yourself.
Do you perform a set of 10 reps and wait two minutes before doing another? Make better use of your time and get better results with super sets. If you do a pushing exercise, like a bench press, follow it immediately with a pulling exercise, like a dumbbell row. While one set of muscles is working, the opposite set is resting. You’ll save time and perform better since the non-working muscles recover faster while their opposing muscles work. See how many sets you can do while the people around you are playing with their phones.
The body adapts quickly to even the most brutal workouts. That’s why it’s important to keep challenging it with different movements. It’s easy to fall into familiar routines in the gym. After all, you’ve no doubt mastered the movements and added more weight to the bar. But your body has been lulled into autopilot. Workouts should be like snowflakes; no two should be alike.
When it comes to muscle, people tend to focus on size and weight; the bigger, the better. But if a 200-pound athlete drops to 180 pounds but maintains the same power and strength, his relative power has jumped through the roof. Cars, planes, and motorcycles have elite power-to-weight ratios. So do athletes. Train with the goal of having more lean body mass and less body fat, not more muscle and more weight.
Those who get the protein they need throughout the day maintain muscle mass and are leaner than those who don’t. Those who train don’t need more than one gram of protein per pound of body weight a day—less active people need less—and that should be spread out over five or six small meals. It’s a misnomer that you can’t eat too much protein. That’s because excess protein, especially from animal sources, has been linked to kidney stones.
It’s difficult to build muscle and burn fat without adequate sleep—seven hours a night, preferably eight. Sleep is when most of your hormones, such as growth hormone and testosterone, are released. Without adequate sleep, you’re sabotaging your efforts to build muscle and burn fat.
Your body is screaming for nutrients right after a workout and the sooner you refuel the tank, the quicker your body will recover and your muscles will grow. Your gym bag should include a post-workout recovery mix and a shaker bottle that you can mix immediately following the workout. If that’s too heavy a burden, pack a ready-to-drink protein drink. The sooner you refuel, the better.
If you lift three or four days a week, you probably do little or nothing on the other days. Rest is a good strategy, but active rest promotes recovery. Rolling on a foam roller provides deep compression to roll out muscle spasms that develop over time. This allows the muscles to relax and loosen, gets the blood flowing, and helps the body recover more quickly.