We all want the best results from our time in the gym, that's what we're here for, right? The only problem is a large majority of us are going about it all wrong. There are 4 very common mistakes people make when looking to get the results they want.
Needing The "Perfect" Program
How perfect does your training program need to be to get good results? Probably not that perfect. Unless you were at some point an high level athlete (chances are it was in high school anyways) you should have no problem picking up any moderately well put together program and see decent results from it.
Maybe you've been in the gym for a while now and have never stuck to anything for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time. You've cycled through every program you could get your hands on and still no results.
Stop. Commit to a program.
I'm not saying there is anything wrong with cycling programs, because it can actually be useful, but it's generally only useful once you've finished the program you were doing first.
Not Hiring A Trainer
If you're still not seeing great results and aren't sure what to do about it, hire someone to help you. Nobody wants to spend money -- but everyone does. You spend it on what you see as valuable and if getting to your goal in the shortest amount of time is valuable, it's worth it.
Would you walk into a mechanic shop and start trying to tune up expensive cars with no instruction or experience? Probably not, that car is expensive and if you break it, can you afford to pay the owner back? Likely not because you knew you didn't have the necessary knowledge to do a good job and in a time efficient manner. So why is your body any different? Your body is obviously not a car, but you're also not a personal trainer and you go experts when you need help with something you don't know about.
If you knew that you're goal of losing 30lbs of fat or gaining 10lbs of muscle could be achieved in 1 year, would you deliberately take the long route lasting upwards of a 3 years? A trainer gets hired for three things:
1) To take you through the simplest, most efficient route to getting you to the body/goal you want with the least amount of obstacles and plateaus possible. Granted, you need to hire good trainer for that, but once you've found one, you're set.
2) To educate you in the ways of the force -- lifting technique and training methods.
3) To hold you accountable to your goals when things aren't going your way. By setting appointments, making sure you're tracking your food intake (if necessary) and monitoring your emotional well being and stress levels, they are able to guide you to not only optimal fitness results, but a happier mindset as well.
Your technique needs work
To get the full benefit of an exercise, one first needs to do the exercise properly. Proper form is arguably a complex subject since most people don't carry the exact same bone and joint structures, length, and otherwise.
Regardless, there are common themes with technique that should be followed. An easy example would be a row when someone is looking to gain muscle in their back.
A row that looked like the picture on the left (below) vs. a row that looks like the picture on the right have substantial differences in terms of muscle activation and resulting growth.
On the left, the hand is pulling too high for my arm length and the elbow is being pulled back beyond what my body's range of motion offers. On the right, the chest is lifted, the shoulder blade is pulled down to contract the lat and the hand is pulling at a lower angle to produce more lat contraction.
The main difference between these two methods is the contraction. On the left, minimal contraction happens because the arm isn't positioned correctly to flex the lat, but on the right, the focus is on lat flexing and therefore more contraction during the row.
The same principal applies to all movements. If the technique is working with your biomechanics, you can't get the full benefit of the exercise, which in turn limits your potential muscle contraction.
Doing The Same Routine For...Ever
Adaption is a key term in fitness. If your body has nothing to adapt to, it won't need to change and therefore it won't.
Talk to some of the regulars who have been around for a while, you may quickly notice how easily people get stuck in their routines. They may tell you they've been doing the same routine for the past 3-5 years without no changes. It's easy to always do your favourite exercise with a comfortable weight, but you may need to make some changes to it if you want to keep seeing good results.
Try different training styles, experiment with different rep schemes and total volume. If you've been doing 100lb barbell squats with 3 sets of 10 for past 5 years, your body probably stopped responding to it about 4 years and 10 months ago. If nothing in your workout routine ever progresses neither will you.
Some of the easiest changes you can make to a workout are listed in this order:
Instead of 3 x 10 all the time, work up to 5 x 10 or 10 x 5 and then up the weight.
The total amount of work performed doubles and introduces a larger amount of muscle damage, resulting in more of a hypertrophy effect (muscle building). You may also notice over the next couple of weeks, that weights starts to feel even easier, allowing you to push it up even higher, resulting in further muscle damage. Since muscle damage is one of the essential components of building muscle, this definitely works out in your favor.
Slow Down There, Pony Boy.
Too many times you see people finishing the 10 rep "hypertrophy" sets in under 20 seconds, that means they probably took about 2 seconds to do each rep with the full range of motion -- hopefully. Now imagine the sight of a young man or woman flailing their weights up and down in the air as they try to reach their peak muscle building potential.
When you're looking to gain muscle, control is the name of the game. You're going to want slow down those reps so you can control the weights.
Aim to get in at least 20 seconds to as high as 48 seconds total, this will put you more of muscle building range for time under tension. You can also aim for tempo reps using an easy 1 seconds up, 2 seconds down set for a certain amount of reps, just make sure you hit at least 20 seconds.
Some charts reference a 6-12 rep range working in a strength/hypertrophy mix as it possible to mix both at the same time.
Put the weight up.
Mechanical Stress, otherwise known as the amount of weight you put on that bar, is paramount in determining muscle growth. While you can make gains with some light weight lifting for very high reps, you are more like to make significant muscular gain through heavy lifting for low to moderate reps.
Don't be afraid to experiment with some lower volume work. Instead of starting your workout with your classic 3 x 8 on back squats, try a high weight for a pyramid set like this:
Warm up: 50-60% of perceived max x 8
Set 1: 65% of perceived max x 8
Set 2: 70% of perceived max x 6
Set 3: 75% of perceived max x 3-4
Set 4: 80% of perceived max x 2
Set 5: Back off set at 50% of perceived max for 12
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.