Are You Making These Muscle Building Mistakes?

“Wait, not another article telling me all of the things I’ve been doing wrong…”

I feel you, no one likes to hear that all of the time and effort spent in the gym could have produced a far greater return on investment. I’ve had way more conversations and sessions than I care to remember with guys and gals who have been training for 10+ years that simply have not been training anywhere near optimally. For them, they just can’t understand why their physique hasn’t changed one bit in the last 5 years. A few probing questions and a training session later, it’s as clear to me as the finest crystal vase you would ever set your eyes upon why this is the case. Maybe you’re right there with em in the same boat?

The way I see it, mistakes open up exploration for self improvement and continued development. The main thing is that you critically appraise where you are at present, then put a plan in place to make the necessary changes. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of what I feel are the 11 biggest mistakes gym goers make in pursuit of sweet sweet gains.

Mistake #1 – Going off the cuff

In other words having no remote semblance of a training plan, or nutrition for that matter. Remember that line in Tropical Thunder…  “Never go full retard”. Going into the gym with no structure or logging your week to week progression is about as logical as using an electric shaver in the tub, it’s never going to end well. There’s a reason this is number 1 on the list, as it’s the most common mistake I come across.

You can’t measure what you don’t track, which I will explain in more detail further down this list. Looking from a more high level overview, you have to define your goal, both subjectively and objectively. What is your goal? How much more muscle do you want to pack on your frame? 2lbs? 4lbs? 10lbs? Once you know, you can reverse engineer back to set a timeline. Once you have this, a plan should be created, where one phase builds on the next.

SOLUTION: Unless you are some sort of Rain Man, there’s no possible way you can remember every single aspect of your plan. At the very least, spend time planning your training phases, then log and track every single weight, sets and reps. If you are not sure how, get a qualified coach to setup your plan for you. It’s certainly a lot better than the random “pick a machine thats free” tactic.

Mistake #2 – Not Eating To Support Your Gains.

This is exactly as it reads above. Now we know it is possible based off what the scientific literature tells us for some individuals to build muscle and drop body fat at the same time. This is one of those situations that just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should or that it’s optimal.

Unless you are a complete NEWB to lifting or coming back after a long lay off from training, your efforts will be best spent focusing on muscle gain specifically by creating an environment that sets you up for success.

Additionally, you will need enough protein to support the muscle building and recovery process. Shooting for 0.8-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight is more than sufficient, with the upper protein limit per meal established in the literature as 0.55/kg (1.2g/lb) per day (1), whilst freeing up more calories for carbs and fats dependent on preference.

SOLUTION: Start building some serious size by eating in a 200-400 calorie surplus. If you don’t know what your maintenance calories are yet, spend time establishing this first and successfully maintaining your weight. Get at least 0.8-1g per pound of protein per day.

are you making these muscle building mistakes broccoli

Mistake #3 – Eating Like An Asshole

This follows on from Mistake #2. As much as you need enough food to create an environment that encourages adaptation, you can end of blowing up and gaining an unnecessary amount of body fat in the process. Long gone are the days of old school thinking of simply eating what you like and piling on as much weight as you can.

Once you have laid down some muscle, if the goal is getting lean, then accumulating unnecessary body fat just simply prolongs the amount of time you need to diet to get shredded. Additionally, we have to consider the impact of the “dirty bulk” approach on our digestive health and creating a watery, inflamed physique by the end of the building phase. This usually involves the need to diet more aggressively, resulting in a loss of the majority, if not all of the hard earned muscle that you spent time grafting for.

Listen, we can 100% incorporate the foods you love within the plan, perhaps using methods like refeeds every 2-3 weeks, which is very different from treating every day like an all you can eat buffet. My golden rule with clients is simple… “Don’t eat like an asshole”. Mindful eating is a daily pursuit, and building muscle is no different.

Mistake #4 – Over Glorification Of Supplements

As the old adage goes, supplements are exactly that… they supplement our nutritional intake. It’s one of those areas where, as I often say, people like to major in the minors. That $gazillion supplement stack may look cool on the gram, yet it does very little if you’re not getting the calories and macros dialled in. Now I’m not saying supplements aren’t beneficial, as they definitely can be. What I am saying is that placing greater importance on them over getting high quality nutrient dense foods in your body has about as much sense as pouring cola in your coco pops.

SOLUTION: Save your money from supplements and put it towards dialling in your nutrition with higher quality sources of vegetables, proteins, carbs and fats.

Mistake #5 – Not Knowing Your Numbers

Getting on top of the key training metrics, in my experience, is an absolute game changer for most people. We know that progressive overload is key to create an adaptation response, since why should a muscle grow to adapt to stress if we don’t give it sufficient reason to? This brings us back full circle to mistake #1 above. If we don’t have a structured program in place, we sure as hell are not going to know how much volume are are accumulating per exercise, per session.

Longer term, knowing our numbers helps us to plan and periodise, as well as inform whether or not our exercise selection is appropriate. Dr Mike. Isratel, Eric Helms and many other industry stalwarts have done a fantastic job explaining the concept of periodising volume with a long term lens. Getting to grips with the Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) required to create a response (or at the very least maintain), as well as our Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) provides a range for which we can plan and continue to make progress without doing too little or too much. Not to mention, we can utilise these ranges to choose when to deload and give our Central Nervous System a much needed back off.

This is also relevant to body parts. Your minimum effective volume for chest may be for example around 15 sets within the 8-12 rep range, whereas to get your quads to respond, you may need 20+ sets to continue upgrading those wheels. Knowing such info helps you to focus your efforts to where they are needed most.

SOLUTION: Put a system in place that allows you to track your volume. Personally, I use Google Drive with all of my clients, where every training plan comes with a training log that automatically calculates total reps, sets and volume per exercise and per session. There are many fitness apps, like trainerize, which also do the trick.

are you making these muscle building mistakes curl

Mistake #6 – Volume For Volume’s Sake

Following on for above, putting in the reps for the sake of putting in the reps is a sure fire way to plateau or even potentially burn out, which ultimately shunts progress in the long run. As discussed in #5, take time to get an appreciation for the minimum effective dose required, then gradually build up from there until you reach your MRV, before tapering off and starting slightly higher than you did the last time. There’s nothing worse than blowing all of the load prematurely… yep I went there. A gradual build up always leads to a more spectacular end result… yep went there again.

SOLUTION: Start by establishing your MEV, build up your MRV, then taper off with a deload before starting slightly further ahead on the next phase.

Mistake #7 – Insufficient Recovery

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of many training programs and die hard gym rats endeavours for crushing the iron. Yes we train to create a stress of the muscle tissue, but it also needs the necessary components to repair, replenish and come back ready to give just a little bit more the next round. Say you drove a 4×4 and the tyres started to wear down and needed replacing. Would you put regular car tyres on there and expect to get the same response next time? Hell no, you would upgrade those tyres to newer more robust tyres.

To that end, training can only be as good as your recovery between sessions. Dialling in your nutrition, getting much needed sleep and spending time de stressing are a must when it comes to packing on lean tissue. Replenishing glycogen stores and repairing damaged tissue will help you progress from week to week, rather than simply breaking the body down more and more over time.

There are some tell tale signs to look out for. Persistent fatigue, excessive soreness, a noticeable decrease in strength and/or output during training, sleep disturbances and increases pains and niggles in the joints are all signs you are not getting enough R&R.

SOLUTION: Plan in your rest days with as much importance as your training days. Train every other day, 2 sessions on 1 session off, or even have set rest days per week. Use those days to give the body a break. Go for a massage, do some light yoga or mobility, get some extra steps in and be sure to get your nutrition on point. Your body will love you for it.

Mistake #8 – Ineffective Exercise Execution

This is a huge trending area in the industry. Personally, I love geeking out on biomechanics and it is for sure an area I nail down early with my clients and with my trainers on staff at Embody Fitness. This can be a bit of a double edged sword at times though and I’ll explain why.

Proper exercise execution is essential to get the best possible focused contraction from the target muscle in question. Controlling every single part of the movement is key, such as the eccentric portion of the movement which is commonly understood. Controlling the transitions at either end of the movement is something that is often overlooked. The way I phrase it is this, “You have to earn the right to go fast!”. Gain complete ownership of the key movement patterns. Fully utilise concepts like bracing, alignment and manipulating exercise profiles. Which lead me to my next point…

You still have to left some damn weight. I recently attended a Eugene Tao seminar which hammered home this exact point. Many coaches are getting so cute with creating the perfect exercises and biomechanical profiles that they are forgetting to actually have their clients lift some decent weights and make progress. Like with most things, there is a fine balance to be struck here. There’s a time to slow things down and seek precision execution, but there’s also a time to “lift loose” as Eugene would say.

SOLUTION: Spend time refining your technique and getting a greater understanding for the biomechanics of the exercises you perform. Just don’t forget you still need to make progress and achieve progressive overload over time.

are you making these muscle building mistakes bench press

Mistake #9 – Trying To “Shock The Body”

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great to mix things up. Rotate exercises out here and there or modify an exercise to a different variation. What this doesn’t mean is hop from program to program, or cleaning out house and completely changing all exercises from one training phase into the next. Program hopping is unfortunately too common and many trainees often move onto the next thing just before they would actually start reaping the benefits.

The reality is, we can often progress on an exercise and it’s variants for a lot longer than we often think. Relating back to tracking volume and the importance of progressive overload, there is a key failing that crops up time and time again. Say you are coming to the end of your current phase and you have been progressing well on Barbell RDL’s. Then, just because you want something new and fresh, you decide to switch to Dumbbell RDL’s. Now the movement pattern is the same, so you are swapping like for like which is cool beans. The only issue is you were lifting 225lb for 12 reps as you ended phase 1. Now as you enter phase 2, you are lifting 2x80lb dumbbells for the same number of Sets and reps, since the loading potential of the dumbbells is significantly less than the loaded bar. You are now 780lbs down on volume. And that’s just one exercise! Now the reality is that swap is actually ok, but you would have to perform an extra 2 sets to push past the volume for the BB RDL’s in phase 1.

There’s no need to shock the body, but rather keep chipping away whilst making considered tweaks and exercises rotations.

SOLUTION: Stick to a structured program with considered progressions between phases. Trust progressive overload and you will reap the rewards.

Mistake #10 – Trying To Go It Alone

I could 100% do a shameless plug here! Something along the lines of “if you are serious about your training and want an experienced coach to program to your specific needs, or you are a coach who simply wants another coach to take your own programming off your to do list, shoot me an email on the details below”. Ok I just kinda did right?

But seriously, so long as you take the time to find a great coach, it is one of the best investments you can make towards your training. I’ve had numerous coaches over the years for various training needs. I’ve also had some incredible training partners who were both knowledgeable and hard working, which pushed me to train harder and be a better coach. Whether it’s for accountability or that extra push, get a solid support network around you, it really makes all the difference.

SOLUTION: Hire an experienced quality coach and/or get some legit training partners by your side.


If you are able to navigate past the most common muscle building mistakes in this article, I can guarantee you will enjoy a very prosperous training journey. Regardless of how experienced we are, everyone falls victim to some of these mistakes from time to time, and that’s ok!

Get structured, support yourself nutritionally, dial in your key lifestyle habits, and if needed get some good people in your corner. Do that, and the gains are yours for the taking. Even Ron Burgendy’s pipes will have nothing on your impressive canons.


  1. Schoenfeld and Aragon Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2018) 15:10; How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution.

About the Author

Ross Gilmour is a specialist in applying broad movement principles and methods to specific clients and contexts. The precision of execution is an absolute non-negotiable! Programming in order to build strength, add muscle or improve athletic performance is a real passion of his. Ross also gets an immense sense of reward from helping active populations recover from injury, bridging the gap between rehab and performance.