Trainers like to say that the most important part of any training programme is consistency. If you don’t hit the gym regularly, you’ll never see results as weightlifters. “But consistency can work both ways,” says BJ Gaddour, creator of Men’s Health StreamFIT. “Science is finding habits that slow your gains or halt them altogether—from how you monitor your recovery, if at all, to which muscles you focus on or ignore.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a weightlifting neophyte or a seasoned ironworker; odds are your routine is peppered with missteps that are holding you back. In fact, we’re willing to bet that the following five are among them. The more you stop, the faster your gains. Knowledge is more than power—it’s strength.
1. You Don’t Listen to Your Heart Before You Workout
Monitoring your HR during exercise is a smart way to gauge effort and optimise rest. But measuring your heart rate variability (HRV) between workouts can be even more effective for guiding training. “HRV is the fluctuation in time between heartbeats, and it indicates your level of recovery,” says strength and conditioning coach Bill Hartman. Low variability means you’re still recovering. High variability means you’re primed for action. “And you can use where you are in that spectrum to fine-tune each workout,” says Hartman.
- Do this If you don’t have an app or gadget that measures your HRV, there’s an old school way of monitoring your recovery that’s popular with weightlifters. Take your HR every morning as soon as you wake up (you can use your finger on your neck). If it’s close to eight or more beats than the average, then it’s time to rest and recover
2. You Don’t Eat Enough
“Fitness-minded guys often undereat on purpose, thinking it will help uncover their abs,” says MH nutrition advisor Mike Roussell. “Or they unwittingly develop a kilojoule deficit while attempting to eat more healthily.” Either way, the result is the same. “Not eating enough slows your metabolism and makes it easier for you to overtrain because you don’t have enough to fuel recovery.”
- Do this “For two weeks, add 630 to 1 200kJ—the equivalent of a handful of almonds or a protein bar—to your daily diet,” says Roussell. “After two weeks, add another 630 kilojoules a day, and stay there.” The gradual increase will help weightlifters gain muscle, not fat—especially if the bulk of these additional kilojoules come from protein. Roussell also recommends buying a bathroom scale that measures body fat (Elektra Body Fat/Hydration Digital Monitor Scale, kalahari.com). “If your body fat increases by a percentage point, calculate your current kilojoule intake and remain at that level—don’t add more kilojoules.
3/You Ignore Your Glutes
Strong glutes are useful for more than just filling out a pair of jeans; they’re the strongest link in your body’s posterior chain, the string of muscles running along your backside that drives acceleration and generates explosive power—that’s perfect for weightlifters. “Deadlifts and squats activate them indirectly,” says Bret Contreras, author of Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy. “But doing exercises that target those muscles directly will hit them more thoroughly, helping you crush more kilojoules and boost total-body power.” All of which will translate to greater strength and performance.
- Do this The hip thrust. Recent research by Contreras found that this exercise activates the glute muscles to a greater degree than any other lower-body move. “You’re not limited by the strength of other muscles, like those in your back, as you are with squats and deadlifts, so you can use more weight,” says Contreras. “Plus, your glutes are under constant tension, maximising their growth stimulus.”
4/You Skip Cardio
Hang around the barbells long enough and you’ll hear guys talking about the “interference effect”—a bro-science term referring to cardio’s supposed inhibitory influence on muscle building. Ignore them; real science says otherwise. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that cycling for 45 minutes, in addition to resistance training, resulted in a 14% increase in leg muscle volume. Strength training alone resulted in a 9% gain.
- Do this Follow those cyclists! Three or four times a week, either a few hours before a strength session or on a separate day, do at least 30 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity cardio on a track, treadmill, rower or Airdyne bike. “That’ll jack up your musclebuilding hormones,” says Matt Harber, associate professor of kinesiology at Taylor University. “Aerobic exercise activates growth pathways in the muscle about as much as resistance exercise does, and doing both—separated by a few hours—appears to have an additive effect.”
Weightlifters who follow fitness programmes, whether with a trainer or from a book or magazine, often tinker with what’s being prescribed. “Guys just can’t seem to help themselves,” says Dan John, the author of Mass Made Simple. “They add more sets or exercises, they hop over to another programme when they don’t see results in a week or two, or they do additional workouts on days they should be resting.” Trainers call it “exercise ADD”, and the result is often a training plateau. “Improvising exercises or doing extra sets or workouts can leave you too exhausted to succeed with the programme at hand,” says John. “It’s the primary reason why so many guys never progress.”
- Do this Stay the course right until the end. “Most programmes last about six weeks—and the key to success is making it all the way to that sixth week,” says John. Follow the programme with a friend, or make sure an incentive or goal is waiting for you at the end—even if that goal is little more than an “after” photo.