Everybody loves lists and the fitness industry is no different, which is why articles like “6 Ways to Turn Calves into Cows!” and “12 Tips to Lose Your Belly!” are so popular. However, when it comes to packing on lean mass, it can be just as important—if not more—to know what NOT to do. Here are 13 mistakes many trainees make when trying to add lean body mass.
1. Buying into bulking up.
The old school practice of bulking-up in the offseason and then dieting down for contests (or the beach) is a waste of time. Ingesting more than the ideal amount of nutrients only leads to fat gain and greatly increases your risk of developing insulin resistance, which makes it harder in the long run to gain muscle or lose fat. (For more on that see point #12.)
Not to mention the fatter you get, the more aromatase enzyme your body produces, meaning your testosterone will be converted into the hormone estrogen while also downgrading thyroid hormone production, which is essential for fat loss.
Stop chasing a meaningless number on the scale and focus instead on practices that add lean, functional bodyweight.
2. Performing too many isolation exercises
Any resistance exercise can build muscle—some just do it far better than others. A large, muscular physique is built from squats, dips, chin-ups, and deadlifts—not triceps kickbacks and pec dec flyes. It has to do with what the German strength physiologists call the scale of motor unit recruitment.
The more you stick to what we were genetically designed for (lifting rocks, carrying carcasses, and generally just fighting against gravity), the better off you are. Always use free weights in preference to machines.
3. Burning too many calories outside the gym
How you spend your time when you’re not working out matters. You won’t gain much muscle mass if you’re out at the clubs until the wee hours or if you play 4 hours of basketball on your “rest days.” Adjust your schedule and your hobbies to support your muscle building goals.
4. Keeping the reps too low
Heavy, low rep sets are great for teaching the nervous system to lift big loads but they’re not ideal for hypertrophy. To get stronger and bigger fast, alternate cycles of low reps (4-8) with cycles of moderate reps (9-12). Even occasionally doing a few high rep sets (20-50) can boost mass gains in muscles with a greater proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, like the quadriceps.
Save the low rep, relative strength protocols for athletes in strict weight classes who need to get stronger but not necessarily heavier.
5. Skipping the post-workout shake
Post-workout shakes are a must for mass gaining. The rate of protein synthesis and possibly muscle growth can double when protein is consumed immediately after a workout. Furthermore, researchers at the University of Connecticut at Storrs found that a protein/carb shake also helps increase the number of testosterone receptors.
Your post workout shake should contain 0.25 grams per pound of bodyweight of protein along with (for leaner athletes) one gram per pound of bodyweight of carbs.
Glutamine can also be added to the shake to facilitate recovery and muscle glycogen resynthesis, along with glycine and greens to help lower post-workout cortisol.
6. Failing to stay hydrated
Water is very important for gaining mass as dehydration can lead to increased cortisol output and a host of other negative repercussions.
As a rule 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’re drinking your quota is to measure your prescribed amount into containers for the day, every morning. By bedtime, all the containers should be empty.
7. Drinking stimulating drinks all day
Stimulants increase cortisol. This is a good thing if you’re on your way to the gym as it can help you lift more weight. Once the workout is over, however, no more coffee or caffeine containing drinks.
8. Not getting enough sleep
Lack of sleep can interfere with muscle mass gains. Sleep deprivation can lead to suppressed androgen and growth hormone levels, thereby robbing you of potential pounds on your frame.
9. Not eating enough protein
Most stereotypical “hard-gainers” fail to consume enough protein. A good general recommendation for putting on mass is to consume at least 1.5 grams of protein for every kilogram of bodyweight. A helpful rule is, if you don’t know how many grams of protein you eat in a day, it’s likely not enough.
10. Not eating enough carbs
Carbohydrates can be your best friend if you’re lean enough—they lower cortisol post workout, help restore muscle glycogen, and minimize protein breakdown. Your subscapularis and suprailliac body fat measurements will let you know if carbs are right for you, just remember—you have to earn your carbs!
11. Not eating enough smart fat
You need to eat fat to build muscle. Good fats support cellular health while aiding insulin sensitivity but the type of fat matters. Emphasize your intake of “smart” fats from omega-3s (fish oil, wild meat) and other healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
12. Not taking steps to improve insulin sensitivity
Your ability to build muscle is directly correlated to your level of insulin sensitivity. A body that’s very insulin sensitive will partition carbohydrates preferentially into muscle cells, whereas one with poor insulin sensitivity will drive nutrients into fat cells.
Strength training, a high protein diet, and choosing the right smart fats all increase insulin sensitivity, but other things that help include resveratrol, probiotics (improve glucose uptake and energy use), and carnitine (supports fat burning).
13. Not maintaining an alkaline environment
A low pH is linked with a loss of muscle mass, not to mention greater risk of diabetes, heart attack, osteoporosis, and cancer. The typical Western diet of processed foods, refined sugar, corn, sugar, gluten, alcohol, and soda lowers pH, but eating lots of green vegetables and high-antioxidant fruits helps restore alkalinity.
If you find eating vegetables inconvenient, try green drinks to help you get alkaline. Drinking water with a higher pH works as well. You will recover faster, detoxify better, and feel more energized.