12 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Trying To Build Muscle

18 min read

Harder than fat loss?

Despite what millions of women feel, getting big isn’t easy. You’re certainly not getting there by accident. Lifting heavy objects and putting them back down might seem like a simple enough plan to get behind, but there are plenty of ways to mess it up.

It would be completely possible to turn up at the gym five times a week, do all the standard bodybuilding staples that pop up on TikTok, grind out for a year, and only have the faintest sliver of muscle to show for it.

So let’s say you’re not willing to settle for that sliver. Perhaps you want an actual bona fide transformation. Maybe you even want to get yoked. In which case, you’ll want your programme to be optimised. That means getting rid of the fluff that barely make a difference, and sticking doggedly with the fundamentals of muscle growth.

As for what it takes to build muscle, you may want to read my earlier article for a quick primer.

The Myths And Truths Of Muscle Growth

Now for the fluff. Believe me, there’s plenty of it, and virtually everyone is making these mistakes each time they set foot in the gym.

1. Not Lifting Close To Failure

mechanical tension

‘Training too hard kills your recovery. The science says so’

What causes hypertrophy? If you like to dabble at all in the science behind broscience, you may have heard about the trifecta.

1. Mechanical hypertrophy

2. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy

3. Muscle damage

Unfortunately, the last two have no proven effect on hypertrophy, only showing up as byproducts of the one that actually does the driving: mechanical tension. 

To sum it up briefly without traipsing over the previous article, mechanical tension occurs when the contraction involuntarily slows down, allowing maximal stimulation of the muscle fibers. And there’s only one way to reach it. Lift within five reps of failure.

This isn’t good news for most lifters, because most lifters have a nasty habit of coasting through their workouts and vastly overestimating how hard they’re training. 

Lifting to failure doesn’t mean you stop because you’re tired or not feeling the vibes, it means you stop because you wouldn’t be able to complete another rep even if you were being held at gunpoint.

Bottom Line – If you want to build muscle, you need to be spending plenty of time in those five golden reps from failure. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

2. Training To Failure All The Time

the best way to build muscle

‘You’re just not going hard enough’

In case you’re confused, don’t be. Training close to failure is essential. That’s what sparks the process that ends with you adding an extra inch to your arms. 

Training to failure, is also essential, as it lets you properly gauge how close your lifts are to failure, as well as making progressive overload easier. But, squeezing out that last rep will create more muscle damage and fatigue, which impedes muscle stimulation both in and between sessions.

That cost will become pronounced if you go to that well too often. Especially when you’re using it on high-fatigue exercises like deadlifts. If you’re taking a powerbuilding approach, as in you’re also trying to improve the big lifts, then that’s going to have a serious knock on your ability to perform at maximum capacity. Strength depreciates fast in the face of fatigue.

Bottom Line – Going to failure creates muscle damage, which can impair recovery. A more practical strategy would be to keep at least one or two reps in the tank for most sets in the session, and save failure for the top sets. Train smart, then hard.

3. Too Much Volume

too much volume

‘More volume, more muscle’

Ever since a few studies came around that suggested that muscle gain was linked to volume, people have been taking it as gospel. The truth is, volume has no relation to growth, since the sum of weight x reps does not show the sum of effective reps. As in, the reps taken close to failure.

That hasn’t stopped gym rats from taking it as gospel, and running with the doctrine that more volume equals more growth. A hard and fast rule that acts as the solution to any gym problem.

Your chest isn’t growing? Just add more reps.

Squat stuck on a plateau? Just double the sets or add an extra squat day.

So that’s volume as people see it. More reps, more sets, never mind anything else. It’s science.

Unfortunately, this strategy only works if you’re adding in quality work with close proximity to failure. Even then, it may do more harm than good. More volume just means more central fatigue, which sends signals to reduce motor recruitment in the muscle. In other words, the more tired the system gets, the fewer fibers get activated.

This is a prime reason why I’m just not a fan of the high rep shenanigans included in most bodybuilding programmes. You end up expending more energy reaching failure, and the muscle gets suppressed as a result. 

You might not even reach true mechanical failure, because you just get gassed too early. Not to mention, 15 rep sets aren’t an effective way of increasing strength.

Bottom Line – High volume causes excess fatigue, which impairs muscle growth. I don’t see much use in going above 12 reps, for any muscle bar calves. As for sets, keep it to 8 sets per muscle group, per session. Quality beats quantity.

4. Excessive Cardio

cardio for weight loss

‘I’m a hybrid athlete’

It’s not that cardio and weights don’t mix. It’s perfectly possible to have them in harmony. It can even be beneficial, as much as it pains me to say. But the dose makes the poison, and piling on the cardio will have an interfering effect on your ability to gain muscle.

For one, jumping on a treadmill and sprinting away for ten minutes will increase central fatigue, the aforementioned destroyer of muscle stimulation. Acutely, this means it would be a terrible idea to do your cardio before attacking the weights. If you must, swap them round.

Running is also pretty high on impact, which causes muscle damage, which further dents motor recruitment. So if you’re attempting to train for a half marathon while holding onto your ambitions of putting a few inches on your thighs, prepare for a grind to nowhere.

Bottom Line – You don’t have to do cardio, but if you feel the need to, then perform them after your lifting sessions, and try to keep it low impact.

5. 1 Minute Rest Between Sets

how long to rest between sets

‘I go again when I’m ready’

In the spirit of chasing the pump and maxing out on volume, it might seem like a great idea to keep your rest to a minimum. If you’re not heaving in humungous gulps of air, you must be ready to go again, right?

Here’s the thing, it’s not about feeling ready. Your ability to exert maximal force and fully stimulate the muscle, is not dependent on cardio. It’s neural. And that, regardless of how fit you are, takes a set amount of time to recharge.

The research supports it. Two minutes is better than one, and three minutes beats two. That’s for both strength and size. So settle down, stifle the urge to dive into the next set of squats, and bide your time.

In case you’re wondering, yes, this also applies to isolation exercises as innocuous as bicep curls. 

Bottom Line – To maximise strength and size, rest for at least two minutes between sets, but ideally three. If you’re short on time, you can pair antagonist muscles in supersets, although you’d want to pick them carefully to ensure they don’t detract from each other.

6. Too Many Unstable Exercises

unstable exercises are bad for growth

‘The smith machine is for sissies’

I love the big lifts. The deadlift, squat, and bench press are staples of my training. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re the best at hand for the business of building muscle. 

For strength? Sure. As for size, barbell exercises are always going to be a little unstable. That means you’ll be diverting some of that force towards bracing the bar and body, as well as fatiguing faster as the session goes on. Which, as you’d expect, equals less muscle stimulation.

If you were to base your training solely on barbells and dumbbells, that’s going to cost you. The smith machine isn’t a piece of equipment that you should ditch once you get past the newbie phase. It’s incredibly useful for building muscle, because it provides that stability, leaving you free to focus simply on moving the weight in a linear trajectory. 

The same goes for the cables and machines that are hopefully laid out across your gym. They let you manage stability, minimise fatigue, and maintain a high degree of mechanical tension throughout the session.

Bottom Line – You’re never too wise or big to jump on the smith machine. No-one’s going to judge you, and you’ll be more swole for it. By all means, keep the big lifts, just don’t use free weights for the entirety of a session.

7. Not Lifting Heavy Enough

high reps for muscle

‘High reps for hypertrophy’

Heavy loads with low reps for building strength, moderate loads with high reps for building muscle. It’s an accepted keystone of bodybuilding wisdom that is completely inaccurate.

There’s nothing special that high reps do for hypertrophy, that heavy loads can’t do. As long as both brands of training are taken within those five reps of failure, they have the same outcome. Except, heavy loads cost less fatigue to get there.

Regardless of what style of training you’re doing, as long as it’s focused on building strength and shape, the goal is simple. You add more weight to a lift, more reps, or both. How you get there can always change, but if that’s not the outcome, then you’re stagnating.

So if you settle for adding more reps, you’ll end up running into the previously tackled problem of high volume training, where excessive training creates a pileup of fatigue and inhibits motor recruitment. 

10 reps isn’t a huge deal, as long as you’re not doing it on deadlifts. But taking it past 12 is pretty pointless. At that point, you’re much better off just sliding an extra plate on whatever barbell or machine you’re using.

Bottom Line – You don’t improve without progressive overload, whether that’s by weight, reps, or both. In order to minimise fatigue, you’d be best off keeping the rep range around 5-8 for the most part. Which means you have to lift heavy.

8. Relying On Mind-Muscle Connection

mind muscle connection myth

‘You don’t need heavy weights, you just need to squeeze the life out of it’

It doesn’t matter what celestial level of technical prowess you’ve reached. It doesn’t matter how intensely you can squeeze your biceps. If you’re straining at the eyeballs to curl a 5kg dumbbell, and you’re not a rank beginner, you’re embarrassing yourself and everyone around you. 

Without adequate weight, it doesn’t matter how prolific you are at melding mind to muscle. The biceps will not reach full motor recruitment without being given an obstacle hard enough to take them within close proximity of failure.

Bottom Line – The mind-muscle connection is real enough, but it’s not a game changer. You can’t conjure up resistance where there isn’t any.

9. Focusing On Sensation Rather Than Setup

lat pulldown setup

‘Just feel the muscle’

People sorely underestimate the importance of setup. The muscle you’re targeting has to be the prime driver of the movement. You have to position yourself in the right place before the lift begins in order to make that happen. 

Otherwise it won’t matter how much weight you’re lifting, you’re getting subpar results. The force is being shared, and the target muscle isn’t getting its dues.

Let’s use an example of a popular exercise for lats: pulldowns. If your lats aren’t lined up where they offer the best leverage in a pulldown movement, they aren’t going to be fully stimulated. The lats have their best leverage when the humerus is below 90°. They decline in activation as the humerus goes above 90°, and have no leverage beyond 120°. 

So when you position yourself directly under the pulley to start the pulldown, starting with your arms at 180°, the lats aren’t coming to the party. But if you lean back so that the pulley is diagonally up ahead, the lats are firing from the get go.

Bottom Line – This is where it pays to have an understanding of muscle physiology and leverages. Do the research, and make sure you’re setting up an exercise in the right place where the target muscle has the most leverage.

10. Believing In Time Under Tension

breaking strength plateaus

‘It’s all about TUT, bro. Slower the better’

Slowing down the reps isn’t inherently a bad move. If you did that exclusively with the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement, it could be a great idea, especially if performed on a muscle that experiences stretch-mediated hypertrophy.

Where TUT becomes an issue, is when bodybuilding aficionados start slowing down both the concentric and eccentric parts in a misguided attempt to increase the tension being placed on the muscle. The TUT principle assumes that the longer the muscle is under tension, the more it grows.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it goes. Mechanical tension drives growth, and then needs involuntarily slow contractions to occur. Not voluntary slow contractions. 

There’s a big difference. The former needs the muscle to be fatigued enough to slow down the speed of the contraction. The latter is just intentionally slowing down a concentric without creating that fatigue.

But that’s not the end of it, because TUT is also quite detrimental. By sticking to slow contractions, the muscle ends up sticking to the slow-twitch fibers that don’t show hypertrophy in response to resistance training. 

In the meantime, the fast-twitch fibers, the ones that actually grow through training, remain inactive. So the net result of TUT is a wasted set, even if it’s taken to failure.

Bottom Line – Time Under Tension inhibits growth by avoiding the fast-twitch fibers. Stick to fast concentrics and controlled eccentrics.

11. Using Too Many Intensity Techniques

lifting intensity techniques

‘Train insane or remain the same’

When lifters step away from the 5×5 starter package and get immersed in the deep pool of fancy bodybuilding set schemes, they can get fooled into believing that they’ve found the sweet spot of muscle growth.

Dropsets, supersets, cluster sets, giant sets, strip sets, rest pauses, there’s many ways to spice things up. Failure isn’t the end anymore. You can push yourself to the brink, drop a plate, and keep going. 

Intensity techniques are a badge of honour to show just how much pain you’re willing to go through to step on stage or walk across some Spanish beach.

In a sense, they do create more stimulation by increasing the number of reps performed in close proximity to failure. But, they also create much more fatigue, which quickly spirals when you go back to the same well too often.

A drop set done occasionally is a time saver. It doesn’t give you more growth, it just gets you there quicker. Potentially. If you make like a TikTok bodybuilder and spam them across a session, then you’re going to get less growth due to the suppressing effects of central fatigue.

Bottom Line – Despite how impressive intensity techniques might look, they don’t match up to the ruthless consistency and fatigue management of straight sets. Keep it simple.

12. Not Eating In A Surplus

how to deload

‘I just get my protein shakes in for the anabolic window’

You might have heard the terms ‘maingaining’ and ‘recomping’, which both speak of a state where one can gain muscle while coasting on maintenance calories. 

This is a mythical state as far as most of us are concerned, because it’s only possible when you’re detrained, obese, or a rank beginner. And even then, it’s simply not optimal.

To maximise muscle gain, and to break past plateaus, you absolutely need to eat in a surplus. That doesn’t mean smashing a tub of Ben and Jerry’s every evening to keep your 1000 calorie surplus going. 

That means a modest surplus of 200-500 calories, made mostly of nutritious sources. The former can be an issue when you’re mostly eating steak, the latter will be a formality. 

A carnivore diet is extremely nutritious, but highly satiating, to the point where you may have to force the issue in order to break into a surplus. That can be done by either including workout carbs, leveraging fat, or just doing both for good measure.

Bottom Line – If you’re not new to the lifting game, returning from a long hiatus, or just fat, you’re not going to gain any appreciable muscle without being in a consistent caloric surplus. Eat like you mean it.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully all this can help illustrate just how complicated lifting heavy objects can be. Don’t get me wrong, you can get by without paying attention to this article and amending the mistakes made in your training regime. Especially if you’re just making your entrance into the lifting game. 

Do enough volume, and you’ll scrape together a few stimulating reps here and there. But this article is about maximising your muscular potential, which needs you to have your many eggs in line. If you’re serious about training, and you want to gain muscle as fast as possible without having to radio in pharmaceutical support, then let this guide you.

So in order to maximise your muscle building potential…

  • Lift heavy
  • Lift close to failure
  • Take long breaks between sets
  • Keep the reps low
  • Stick to mostly straight sets
  • Don’t run
  • Make sure you’re in a surplus
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1 year ago

Love this ? very informative

1 year ago
Reply to  Lorraine

Glad you like it!

Tony Doyle
1 year ago

So much advice! And easily digested too. Pardon the pun.

1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Doyle

Thank you sir