David Letterman’s signature comedy routine for his late-night TV show is his Top Ten List. Likewise, many bodybuilding and fitness magazines also have their top ten lists of how to achieve various body composition goals with countdowns such as “Six Tips for Building Shoulders Like Boulders!” and “The Four Best Ways to Pump Your Stomach!” Because this formula is a good way to get a message across, here is my top ten list of “Don’ts” for muscle building so you won’t end up with a body like David Letterman’s.
1. Performing too many isolation exercises
An exercise is only as good as the time it takes you to adapt to it. Provided you use enough load for enough time, all exercises can build muscle. It’s just that some exercises do it better than others.
It has to do with what the German strength physiologists call the scale of motor unit recruitment. For example, cam exercises for a given number of reps recruit less motor units than pulley exercises, and pulley exercises recruit less motor units than dumbbell exercises. The more you stick to what we were designed for as animals (lifting rocks, carrying carcasses and generally just fighting against gravity), the better off you are. What that means is using free weights in preference to machines. A large, muscular physique is built from squats, dips, chins and deadlifts – not triceps kickbacks and cable crossovers.
2. Performing too many machine exercises
Remember this motto: “Seven days training on machines makes one week (weak)!” Again, because of the scale of motor unit recruitment, if you are the type who lines up at the gym for the lat pulldown machine, you are not going to grow as fast as the guy slaving away at the chin-up bar.
3. Believing the bulking-up nonsense
In the so-called Golden Age of Bodybuilding where bodybuilders were known by their first names (e.g., Arnold, Louie and Sergio), bulking up in the off-season and then cutting up was standard practice. Besides the obvious health problems associated with adding excess fat, bulking up is a really bad approach to trying to achieve your physique or athletic fitness goals. Here are six reasons why:
ANTI-BULKING FACT #1. Bulking-up diet programs won’t produce any more muscle growth than ingesting an ideal amount of nutrients. Sorry, but it’s simply not possible to force additional muscle growth by overfeeding.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #2. Bulking up develops insulin resistance, which makes it harder in the long run to gain muscle. What happens when you bulk up is that carbohydrates will go preferentially to fat stores, not to muscle tissue.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #3. Bulking up will make it harder for you to get leaner because insulin resistance is hard to reverse. The fatter you get, the harder it becomes to get lean. Female bodybuilders learn this fact quickly, as it is considerably harder for women to reach the low body-fat levels required for competition.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #4. The fatter you get, the more aromatase enzyme your body will produce. In the extreme, getting fat could be considered a form of self-castration, as your own testosterone will be converted into the female hormone estrogen and you will suffer many unwanted side effects. If you’re a man and you enjoy wearing a bra, go right ahead and get fatter.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #5. Getting fatter will ramp down the effectiveness of your thyroid hormone production – not a good thing, because thyroid production is essential for fat loss. The fatter your abdominal wall becomes, the less conversion there will be of T4 to T3, the metabolically active form of thyroid.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #6. The lower your percentage of body fat, the better your body becomes at nutrient partitioning. This means individuals with low body fat are more effective at storing the ingested nutrients in the muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen) or in the liver (as glycogen) and less effective at storing nutrients as body fat. To put it in simpler terms, leaner individuals can eat more nutrients without gaining fat.
ANTI-BULKING FACT #7. The idea that “a calorie is a calorie” is a bunch of bunk. Calories from sweet potatoes are great for building muscle; calories from beer are not. For that matter, getting fat increases the risk of dying from any cause, even terrorist attacks. I’m serious – you’re a bigger target and you can’t get out of danger as fast.
4. Burning too many calories outside the gym
You can’t effectively gain a lot of muscle mass if you play basketball four days a week and in the evening go to bars cutting the carpet till the wee hours, and then run up and down the beach on Sundays. My good friend Angus Cooper was a bronze medalist in hammer throwing at the Commonwealth Games. He used to repeat a poem that came from Al Schoterman, a PICP Level 5 strength coach who was a 1972 Olympian and Jud Logan’s hammer throw coach:
The Phases of Rest
Never run when you can walk
Never walk when you can get a ride
Never stand when you can sit
Never sit when you can lie down
Never lie down when you can go to sleep
5. Keeping your reps too low
Using relative-strength protocols are great to build up the nervous system to lift high loads, but they are not the fastest way to hypertrophy. That is why athletes who compete in set weight classes sport like judo and wrestling will do relative strength as they want to get stronger and not necessarily heavier. Alternating cycles of 9-12 reps with cycles of 4-8 reps is the quickest way to gain lean muscle mass. Occasionally doing sets of 20-50 can also boost mass gains in muscles with a relative higher proportion of slow twitch muscles like the quadriceps. Such high reps for hamstrings with are typically at least 60% fast-twitch would be a waste of time.
6. Failing to take post-workout shakes
Taking a post-workout shake is critical for mass gaining. In fact, the rate of protein synthesis and possibly muscle growth can double when protein is consumed immediately after a workout.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut at Storrs found that a protein/carb shake also helps increase the number of testosterone receptors.
For those athletes who are already lean, I’ve found that results are best when you use a formula that contains four carbs to every gram of protein. For carbs, you should be taking one gram per pound of bodyweight post-workout. For protein you should be taking 0.25g per pound of bodyweight. My recommendation for post-workout carb powder is Quadricarb
Post-workout glutamine supplementation facilitates muscle recovery and can accelerate muscle glycogen resynthesis and glutamine levels, which are critical in creating an anabolic environment and in preventing overtraining. Adding glycine and/or Primal Greens also helps lower cortisol post workout.
7. Failing to stay hydrated
Water is often the most neglected nutrient. Dehydration leads to higher cortisol output; negative repercussions range from increased oxydative stress to the brain, to increased fat storage.
As a rule of thumb you should drink 0.6 to 0.7 ounces of water for every pound of bodyweight. In other words, if you weigh 200 pounds, you should drink 120 to 140 ounces of water a day. An easy way to ensure that you are drinking your proper daily quota is to measure your prescribed amount into containers for the day, every morning. By bedtime, all the containers should be empty.
When first starting to do this hydration protocol, many individuals realize that they barely drink 40 percent of their water needs by the time they retire for the evening. This exercise in itself is very educational. From a practical standpoint the best indication that you are staying well hydrated is that your morning urine is clear and odorless. If it has the color of Vermont’s finest maple syrup, start drinking more water.
8. Drinking stimulating drinks all the time
Stimulants by their very nature increase cortisol. That is fine if you are on your way to the gym and are going to use that extra drive to increase loading. But once the workout is over, no more coffee, caffeinated drinks, etc.
One of the dumbest things I have seen was at Italy’s best gym in Tuscany: Locals would reach for the coffee machine post workout! No wonder I’d never seen anyone from that town bench or squat over 80 kg all week.
9. Getting insufficient sleep
As in the case of fat loss, sleep deprivation can interfere with muscle mass gains. Lack of sleep lowers androgen levels and growth hormone levels, thus robbing you of some serious growth potential.
10. Consuming insufficient protein
For a 200-pound lean male, 300 grams of protein per day would be the minimum. In fact, I think the rule should be closer to two grams of protein per pound of body weight, assuming the person is lean.
For about 70 percent of the population who is not carb tolerant
, two grams per pound is good for mass gains; it can make a huge difference. Personally, I couldn’t get above 192 pounds until champion bodybuilder Milos Sarcev convinced me to get two grams of protein per pound of body weight. In a matter of eight weeks’ time I was up to 205 pounds, lean.
That being said, if an individual is carb tolerant (i.e., handles carbohydrates very well), that value would drop to 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight. Someone like Christian Thibaudeau, who’s not carb tolerant, should be getting 2 grams per pound. But I’d say 1 to 1.5 grams for a guy like Milos Sarcev, who would be able to wake up and drink a gallon mixture of 50 percent maple syrup and 50 percent dextrose without it affecting his blood sugar. Guys like Milos need to get 70 percent of their calories from carbs.
The bottom line is that carb intake has to be individualized to an extent. Still, most people don’t “deserve” the carbs they eat. The rule for most people is this: You have to earn your carbs!
While there are many mistakes that can be made in trying to gain muscle mass, correcting these 10 errors will help you achieve results faster than ever.