There's nothing more frustrating than hitting a wall! We're all probably familiar with this scenario... You're doing everything right - eating healthy, strength training, and even doing cardio. At first, the progress is great, you're building muscle, maybe burning some fat... Then a few months pass, progress slows down, then all of a sudden it stops completely.
You can go one of two ways when you hit a wall...
1) Not seeing any progress upsets you and demotivates you, so you give up.
2) Do some research to see what changes you need to make.
And it looks like you landed on the second one, and we're so happy you did! Your goal to build muscle is achievable! You just have to identify what the issue is, fix it, and keep pushing through!
So first, let's get to the bottom of the problem to find out exactly what you need to do to fix it. There are a number of factors that can be influencing your body's ability to make progress. We'll go through 10 common mistakes you may be unintentionally making that could be killing your gains, plus tips on how to fix them!
Mistake #1: Not getting enough rest
Your motivation to work out is usually higher when you first embark on your fitness journey. Your body feels good, you're seeing progress, and you want to keep it up so you go harder. Many people have this mentality. The harder and the more you train, the bigger the gains and the faster the results. Yes, you should be pushing yourself to lift heavier or to do that extra rep, but you also have to learn to listen to your body.
Often people push through a workout when they're not necessarily feeling energized or still sore from a previous workout. They think they should just push through because everyone has those days. In reality, they're too stubborn to listen to what their body is screaming at them and take a rest day. And that's their downfall... Muscle building doesn't necessarily happen at the gym, it happens when you're resting and sleeping.
To simplify it, this is how muscle building works... Weight training creates tears in the muscle tissues, so it's damaging the muscle. In fact, that's why your muscles get that nice pump that you love to see! It's swelling caused by the increased blood flow. Then during rest (usually during deep sleep), your body breaks down muscle tissue so it can adapt to the new straining exercise and grow back stronger. Not getting enough rest leads to overtraining syndrome - Which is something you don't want.
Here are the signs of overtraining:
- Lack of sleep
- Decrease in motivation/more irritable
- Persistent sore muscles
- Muscle or joint pain that doesn't go away
- Reduced performance
If you're experiencing any of these take a few days to a week off to recover and recenter yourself. This doesn't mean you can't be active, just don't partake in strenuous activities like - heavy weightlifting, running, HIIT workouts. Focus on stretching and mobility work, or even try yoga for a few days. Use this rest period as a time to refocus on your goals, do more research on different training routines, learn to properly plan a workout routine that works for your body. Then once you're back to working out, you'll be feeling refreshed, motivated, and educated!
To avoid getting OTS, start listening to your body and take rest days when you need them. So take a moment to reflect on how often you rest and is it adequate rest. Are you taking 1-2 rest days? Maybe one active rest day and one full rest day? Are you getting enough sleep?
A good rule is to take one or two full rest days after training for 7 days and/or at least two rest days when training a specific muscle group. So if you normally train legs Monday, then your next leg day should be Thursday. Tuesday and Wednesday can be focused on another muscle group or maybe even a more cardio-focused workout. In terms of sleep, aim to get 6-8 hours of sleep because the muscle-building magic happens during the deep sleep phase!
Mistake #2: Not eating enough
People either cut back or increase their food intake in order to reach their goals, but there's one thing people often do... They cut back too much and don't properly fuel their bodies with the nutrients it needs to not only get you through your workout but for it to recover for muscle growth.
This can lead to fast weight loss, but muscle gain will be minimal. You need to be eating enough calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Your body needs protein to build muscle, it needs carbs to use as fuel, and healthy fats are needed for optimal hormonal levels (which are more important than you may think). Now, everyone's body and dietary needs are different, some work better on a lower-carb diet, others don't. But there is one thing that every healthy diet should have in common... And that is that you're getting your nutrients from mostly whole foods. Eating junk and processed foods all the time isn't going to fuel your workouts and it's not going to fuel your body with the nutrients it needs. You'll just feel like junk.
If you're not sure whether you're eating enough, here's what you can do... Calculate your macros and start tracking the food you eat. Be honest with yourself and track everything, the good and bad. Tracking your macros will help you see what foods you're eating on a daily basis to see if there are any changes that you need to make and it will help you make sure that you're hitting your macro goals for the day. Just remember to recalculate your macros every few weeks, your body changes as it makes progress, so the amount of food you need to consume to reach your goals will change too.
Mistake #3: Not supplementing correctly
If you track your macros or are barely going to start, you may notice that you're missing out on important nutrients like protein - the most important for muscle building. Although you should make sure to get most, if not all, of your nutrients from whole foods, it may be hard to do so. Eating enough protein to supplement your goals is not easy, plus there are other nutrients your muscles need to recover like creatine! Supplementing correctly can help ensure that you're not missing out on key nutrients you may not get from food. But only implement them if your nutrition and training are consistent and balanced, do not rely on supplements to make your gains for you!
A few popular supplements that can help maximize your training efforts when used correctly are:
- Protein powder - There are different types of protein powder, but if you want the best type that has all the amino acids needed for your body to repair and rebuild muscle then consider getting a whey protein powder with at least 20 grams of protein per scoop. Use it to make a protein shake at any time of day as a way to help increase your protein intake.
- Creatine - This is the most researched supplement that even bodybuilders and lifters swear by! After intense exercise, your muscles are depleted from a number of nutrients, including creatine. It can be taken before or after a workout to help enhance energy levels, boost performance, and promote better muscle growth.
- Pre-workout - This supplement is a good one to have in your pantry for the days when you need an extra boost of energy to help get you through your workout. But choose your pre-workout wisely, look for one that is not a proprietary blend and has optimal doses of each ingredient listed.
- Fish oil - Many people don't eat enough fatty fish to get enough omega-3's in their diet, but they should. Fatty fish is rich in omega-3 which helps reduce inflammation, improve heart health, and helps the joints to function optimally. A good way to ensure you're getting an optimal dose, consider taking a fish oil supplement!
Again, supplements aren't necessary, but they can make a big difference in your energy levels, exercise performance, and recovery! So, if you're not gaining muscle and not supplementing, then consider doing so because it can make all the difference!
Mistake #4: Not staying accountable on weekends
Staying accountable during the week is easy for more people. They're busier and usually have workouts and meals planned... But then comes the weekend, and anything goes!
Nobody's perfect, everyone has their downfalls. Maybe you ate a little too much, skipped a workout, or had a few drinks with friends. Just try not to make a habit out of it. Going off the rails every weekend is not going to bring you any closer to your goals. And by going off the rails I mean, eating junk food most of the weekend, not getting enough sleep, excessively drinking... Doing any of these on a regular basis is not doing your body any good.
You have to decide what's most important to you. If making progress is your top priority then it's time that you clean up your diet on the weekends. You can still have some fun and stay on track. Here's what you can do on weekends to stay on track...
- Keep drinks to a minimum.
- Don't drink sugary drinks, stick to clear alcohol and unsweetened zero-calorie mixers, like seltzer water.
- Have a cheat meal, not a cheat day.
- Stay busy by doing activities that don't involve food.
Mistake #5: Not lifting enough, nor heavy enough
The mistake many people, especially women, tend to make when they start to lift weights is to start overdoing the cardio in order to build 'lean muscle'. So they spend more time doing a cardio session and end up lifting less than they should be. Too much cardio will just lead to muscle loss, the opposite of building muscle. If you want to get lean then just make sure you're eating right and that your workouts are properly structured for your goals. The amount of cardio to do is based on what your primary goal is. If you are training for the purpose of reducing body fat then aim for 2-3 high-intensity cardio sessions per week, along with some form of resistance training. For muscle gain, do at most twice per week.
The issue could also be that you're simply not lifting heavy enough. If you want to gain muscle, you need to practice progressive overload. Progressive overload just refers to the constant increase of weight, stress, and intensity required to make your muscles work harder than they're used to in order to grow more muscle. So if you're not lifting heavy enough or adding any progression like reps or sets then you're not going to increase muscle mass. You can practice progressive overload by increasing the rep range, weight, or by adding a new challenge like isolating a muscle group or placing an isometric hold at the top of the movement.
Mistake #6: Not tracking your progress
Some lifters may try to practice progressive overload without logging their workouts and relying on memory. We're sorry to break it to you, but if you do this it can be holding you back from your muscle-building goals!
Instead of relying on your memory, log your progress in a notebook or using a fitness app. Writing down what you accomplished, meaning every exercise, the amount of weight used for each set, how many reps, and sets completed. This will help you visually look at your progress along with seeing where you might be making a mistake and where you can improve so you can make minor adjustments as the weeks go by. And if you're a part of the Fit With Iulia fam then you already know we make it easier for you to track your progress by giving you a space to add the number of reps, sets, and weight used for every given exercise!
Mistake #7: Avoiding compound exercises
Gym goers tend to focus heavily on isolation exercises, like dumbbell curls, lateral raises, lat pulldowns, and more. These types of exercises are great to incorporate in any workout routine, but many often forget the most important ones - compound exercises.
Compound lifts are multi-joint exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time. What makes these exercises so great is that they help add muscle and build overall strength, which in turn helps you engage more muscle fibers... And the more muscle you engage in a movement, the more weight you can handle and the more your muscles will grow. Plus, they engage your core and if you don't know by now, a strong core equals a stronger you.
So if your goal is to gain more muscle mass all over then you need to start incorporating compound exercises into your routine.
Here are the most popular compound exercises for building overall strength:
- Bench press
- Bent over dumbbell row
Again, isolation exercises are good, but they're not going to help you get stronger. There has to be a basic foundation of strength in order to add muscle and to do that you need to incorporate compound lifts that target multiple muscle groups. So incorporate these types of exercises into the beginning of your routine (after your warm-up of course) and add a few isolation exercises after. Compound lifts require more energy output so you'll need to focus on those in the beginning, then perform a few sets of isolation exercises at the end to burn you out.
Mistake #8: Bad exercise form and technique
One of the most common reasons people get injuries or have trouble making progress is a lack of focus and technique when working out. It's way too often that you see someone lifting weights that are clearly too heavy for them. Although you should aim to lift heavier weights, it has to be done progressively and with correct form. You can't just enter the weight room, pick a heavy weight, and lug it around. You have to practice lifting the weight with good technique and slowly increase the weight as you make progress.
Bad workout technique is not just about form though, it's also about your mentality. Are you just on your phone while working out? Or maybe talking to your gym buddy throughout the entire workout? All these distractions are taking away your mental focus from the two most important things - Your form and making sure the right muscles are working when lifting weights. For example, let's say you're performing an isolated exercise like a bicep curl and you're slightly focused on the exercise, but your focus is mostly on the story your buddy is telling you. You're just lifting the weight mindlessly and not focused on using your biceps to perform the lift, this can lead to your form being a little off which can force the muscles in your shoulder and back to start doing some of the heavy lifting. Sadly, this can eventually lead to an overuse injury because you are unknowingly recruiting other muscles to work harder.
You have to give your workout 100% of your focus. Focusing entirely on the muscle will help you create a connection with the muscles at work. This helps create tension in the right muscles so your body is able to gain strength and size in all the right places more efficiently. It will also ensure that your form is good to minimize the risk of injury.
Here are a few strength training techniques you should apply to help:
- Keep your reps slow and controlled.
- Don’t use momentum to move weight, a.k.a don't swing it.
- Use a full range of motion.
- Don’t lock joints out at the top of movements.
Mistake #9: You don't mix things up
Variety is a key factor in building muscle. Doing the same workout routine can lead to boredom, not only to us but to our muscles too! Think of the first time you worked out and how sore you felt the next few days. That happened because your muscles weren't used to performing those exercises and they were adapting to them. And if you want your muscles to continue growing and adapting you need to give them new movements to respond to.
You don't have to change your workout every week. Just switch things up once in a while like try different exercises that target the same muscle groups, try different variations of exercises, or even try new equipment like using a barbell instead of dumbbells. Implementing small changes like these will help you work the muscle at all angles, and keep things fresh to stimulate muscle growth.
So try changing things up every few weeks to keep your program fresh and that way you can target an entirely different set of muscles.
Mistake #10: Lacking a properly structured training routine
For a beginner, random training can help you get stronger, but it doesn't build muscle effectively, and eventually, the progress will come to an end. A planned, periodized training program is needed to improve strength and increase muscle size.
Here's what every good training routine needs:
- Training days that are properly arranged to allow for adequate rest. Remember, one full rest day after 7 days of training.
- Muscle groups arranged so overtraining doesn't happen. Remember, at least two rest days when training a specific muscle group.
- Workout splits are arranged so that each muscle can be worked intensively.
- A selection of compound and isolation exercises.
- Cardio workouts as a second priority, only 1-3 sessions a week.
- Proper warm-up and cool down.
Hopefully, this helps you to stop wasting time, energy, and frustrations on workouts that aren't helping you on your fitness journey - Stick to a structured plan for success. Set aside time to plan your workout routine every week. Plan how many workouts you're going to do, what you're working out on what day to make sure you have enough rest between each muscle group, plan at least one full rest day, write down exercises with the number of sets and reps... Doing all of this will help you stay on track.
Now you have the information you need to fix whatever is halting your progress! If you're still not sure what to do or how to go about planning an effective training program then check out the best fitness app - Fit With Iulia. Fit With Iulia was designed to make your life a little easier by providing you with new home and gym goal-focused workouts that are personally planned by Iulia every week! Iulia plans every workout program accordingly so you don't train the same muscle group back-to-back and they are planned around certain fitness goals to ensure your workouts are getting you one step closer to your goals. We've even introduced progress tracking, so you can track your workouts directly on the app.
There's so much more to love about the Fit With Iulia app, but don't just listen to us, try it for yourself! The first workout of every goal is available for everyone to try for free.