Gaining muscle is a serious science. Putting the wrong food in your mouth or overlooking that one magical, body-changing exercise can make all the difference in whether you’re going to see the benefits of this week's workout.
There are an endless number of factors that play into the business of bulking up—which means there are an endless number of ways for us to screw ourselves over. The worst part is, you probably don’t even realize that you’re sabotaging yourself. Luckily, we’re here to clue you in on 13 of the worst offenders.
Ditch these habits and you’ll finally start seeing those gains you’re working so hard for.
1. Skimping on shuteye
“Ample sleep may be the single most important habit to help build muscle,” says Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., trainer and founder of 12-week transformation program BuiltLean.
For starters, it makes maintaining all other muscle-building habits easier. “If you get at least eight hours a night, you’ll have more energy for your workouts, be able to plan your meals more effectively, and give your body the rest it needs to repair the damaged muscle tissue from working out.” In fact, a 2011 Brazilian study found that skipping out on sleep decreases the activity of protein synthesis, leading to muscle loss and inability to repair damage.
Plus, growth hormone is naturally released by the brain into the bloodstream during sleep, points out Richard Kreider, Ph.D., director of the Exercise & Sport Nutrition Lab at Texas A&M University. Not scoring enough z’s means your body doesn't produce the helpful hormone needed to build muscle and keep tissue healthy.
Besides hitting the hay at the proper bedtime, Kreider suggests having a whey and casein protein blend before bed. It’ll help promote protein synthesis and reduce breakdown.
2. Always lifting heavy
You may think curling or pressing just a few reps from a crazy heavy load will help you bulk up, but in fact the opposite is true. “Training with lower reps in the one to three range can help you break through a strength plateau, but it also makes training with enough volume to spur muscle growth difficult for someone other than a powerlifter,” says Perry. On the other hand, too many reps can make it impossible to increase strength, he adds.
It works like this: You have two types of muscle fibers—both of which are necessary to build truly strong (and well-defined) muscles: type I, or “slow twitch”, is ideal for endurance and lasting energy while type II, or “fast twitch,” fatigue quicker but are necessary for building muscle mass and fueling powerful bursts (like sprinting or clean and press). “Emerging evidence shows that heavy loads target type II muscle fibers while lighter loads target type I fibers,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College in Bronx, NY. That means if you work exclusively in one loading zone, you're missing out on some muscle building potential.
Schoenfeld’s research, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, shows that six to 12 reps optimizes muscle growth best. Shoot for switching between heavier loads on the low end of the rep spectrum and lighter weights for the higher end.
3. Too many single-joint exercises
“All too often, I see people spending most of their workout focusing on the smaller muscle groups like biceps and triceps, using single-joint exercises such as dumbbell curls and single-arm cable extensions,” says Chris Jordan, C.S.C.S., director of exercise physiology at The Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. These exercises can be effective, but they’re not efficient, he says.
Trade out the basics for multi-joint exercises—like a dumbbell chest press or barbell row and squat—which will work multiple muscles at once, stimulating more muscle mass gains by the end of a workout. If you’re really trying to work on bulking up in one area, start with the multi-joint exercises and finish your workout by exhausting that muscle with single-joint moves, Jordan suggests.
4. Wolfing down protein bars
Bars, gels, and powders are great add-ons to your diet, particularly if you need fuel on the go. But the convenience of these snacks—along with their high-protein count—causes a lot of guys to go down the rabbit hole of swapping freshly cooked meals for the protein-in-a-wrapper.
Eating the right mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats from whole food is critical in both maintaining lean body mass and fueling your body in the right way for your upcoming workout, says Pam Bede, R.D., sports dietitian for Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition. Protein is crucial, but scoring it from fresh sources like chicken, turkey, beans, and quinoa also provides your body with micronutrients that help repair damaged tissue in a way no kind of powder or gel can compare to.
5. Skipping the barbell
Most machines can get you some results, but they will not be nearly as effective as old school, free-weight exercises—particularly the barbell, says Perry. Machines tend to focus on single, isolating muscles, which, as we just learned, is limiting. Just deadlifts, squats, and bench presses alone can help you build impressive mass since these three recruit the greatest number of muscle fibers in multiple areas of your body.
6. Devoting the wrong amount of time to cardio
One of the annoying facts of fitness: You have to do aerobic exercise in order to burn fat and keep your body healthy. Luckily, a bit of cardio can actually help you build muscle. Guys who did endurance training twice a week in addition to their strength training saw greater increases in the rate of force development—what we know as explosive strength—than those who only did the latter, according to Finnish research. The greater your rate of force development, the more rapidly you can recruit muscle fibers, and the greater the changes you’ll see in lean body mass, reports a new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
But since no one likes running on the treadmill, you’ll be happy to know that spending too much time on it can actually compromise your ability to build muscle, says Jordan. How? Well, for starters, the energy you exert on running or biking takes away from your reserves when it comes time to hit the weights. Plus, when you’re trying to build muscle, you have to eat enough protein and calories to foster muscle growth, Perry points outs. If you’re logging 50 miles a week running, it’s going to be way harder to replenish those calories and score enough nutrients for an anabolic environment—your body has too much damage to repair and keep up with.
If you’re trying to bulk up, consider scaling back on your long runs and stick to two to three days of cardio under 45 minutes. Better yet: Work your weights to do double duty. A 2010 study by the American Council on Exercise, for example, found that working out with kettlebells can burn up to 20 calories a minute, while HIIT routines both burn calories and build muscle simultaneously.
7. Fasting before a workout
“We’ve all experienced the unpleasant reactions of exercising after over-eating, but not eating before training can also leave you feeling sluggish or cause stomach pains,” says Bede. While there are some studies that suggest intermittent fasting can help you shed more fat, if that isn’t the diet you routinely prescribe to, heading to the gym after work when the last thing you ate was breakfast is only going to compromise your ability to go at 100%. Plus, a 2013 meta-analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that having enough protein pre-workout is just as crucial to muscle building as scarfing the stuff after your sweat session. The study found that you should time your pre- and post-exercise meals to be within three to four hours of one another for max muscle growth and recovery.
Aim for a high-protein, low-fat, low-fiber meal or snack one to three hours before training, Bede suggests.
8. Skimping on water
If you’re dehydrated, you’re going to be fighting fatigue, nausea, and headaches with every rep—until you give up one set short because you just can’t muster through. “Similar to how we need certain macro and micronutrients to fuel the body, achieving the right level of fluids and electrolytes is critical for your body to function optimally,” Bede explains. Plus, some studies have shown people often think they’re hungry when they’re actually dehydrated, so keeping up with your H2O can actually help you avoid overeating and covering that muscle with fat.
9. Focusing on post-workout protein
We’ve all heard you should get protein into your system ASAP after a sweat session—and your muscles do indeed need the nutrient to begin the muscle repair and growth process. But just as important—perhaps even more—is making sure you’re scoring enough of the stuff all day, every day. A 2012 study in Nutrition & Metabolism found that the optimal strategy for building lean body mass is for guys to consume 20 grams of protein (roughly a personal-size Greek yogurt or one scoop of powder) every three hours, four times a day compared to small amounts more often or large amounts less frequently.
10. Sticking to the same routine
Performing the same exercises week after week stunts the growth potential of your muscle fibers. “Muscles have varied attachments, so to optimize development, you need to rotate in different exercises that work your body from different angles,” explains Schoenfeld.
If you’re a creature of habit, go old school and follow one routine for six to eight weeks, then trade it out for an entire new routine. But if you want optimal results, fast, try adding a little variety to every workout, suggests Jordan. Trade your usual front squat for a back squat, a bench press for an incline dumbbell chest press. Or switch up the way you split your days—instead of bis and tris, try whole upper and whole lower body days or push/pull splits. Your body will adapt to anything it’s unaccustomed to, Jordan adds, so keep it guessing for optimal gains.
11. Not tracking your workouts
The gym rats who scribble on a notepad after every set may seem a little too into their workout—but that may actually be the reason their biceps are bigger than yours. “If you don’t track you workouts and how much weight you are lifting every time, it’s more difficult to ensure you’re actually lifting more over time, especially enough to create enough stimulus for your muscles to to repair and get bigger and stronger,” says Perry.
In fact, a recent study from the American Psychological Association found if you are trying to achieve a goal, the more often you monitor your progress, the greater the likelihood that you will succeed. But keeping track in your head isn’t enough—the researchers found your chances of success are even greater if you report your progress publicly or physically record it.
Whether you use an app, a pen-and-paper workout log, or an Excel spreadsheet, just be sure to write down every exercise you do, along with reps, sets, and the amount of weight you’re lifting, Perry advises.
12. Being impatient
When you’re new to the weight rack, you can build up to 20 pounds of muscle in the first year, but after that, your growth rate can fall to just one pound per month, Perry says. In fact, gaining even just half a pound of muscle in a month is considered a good pace of gain, he adds. “So many guys give up just before they are about to make more progress—but building muscle is a marathon, not a sprint.” Genetics are a factor, but lifters who religiously hit the gym are rewarded with the most gains.
13. Skipping supplements
Eating a diet based on whole foods and hitting the gym regularly are the two most important factors in trimming fat and gaining muscle, but certain supplements can help you build even more bulk. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), for example, supply your body with a blend of amino acids necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Creatine is the superstar of building bulk, but a study in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism actually found that guys who took the stuff along with beta-alanine supplements gained more lean mass than those who took creatine alone.