“Newbie gains” can unfortunately give a false sense of confidence in your first few years of training. Although you’re bound to make a great deal of progress no matter what, prolonging the length of time before things slow down helps to create much more sustainable training habits. It’s great to get everything about exercise correct from the jump, but more often than not, you simply don’t know what you don’t know.
There are a number of common mistakes that almost every single person makes under the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm of weight room wanderlust. But with a bit of knowledge and patience, avoiding these pitfalls can help land yourself in the promised land of long-term gains. Here are six mistakes to avoid as a new lifter.
Common Beginner Lifting Mistakes
- Neglecting Muscle Groups
- Training Too Frequently
- Changing Exercises Too Soon
- Training Too Light
- Training Too Heavy
- Undervaluing Recovery
There are a few attractive, very visual muscle groups that can become addicting to train because of how satisfying their progress can be. The arms, pecs, and glutes tend to be standouts in this regard.
Alternatively, from a strength training perspective this can manifest as training only your competitive lifts and unknowingly missing out on the benefits of a more well-rounded program. Altogether, this could cause you to have a disproportionate aesthetic or potentially create hard plateaus in strength.
It’s not uncommon to see multiple days per week dedicated to these exercises in both strength or muscle building programs. While this won’t necessarily always be a bad thing, a lack of balance usually has the potential to become a sticking point somewhere down the line.
What To Do
Start with a foundational program with squats, hinges, presses, to give yourself the time to plan a more specific follow-up program tailored to your goal.
To prevent gaps in your program, building a foundation of muscle and strength with a balanced approach using broad movement patterns is never a bad idea. Squats, hinges, and various pressing and pulling exercises will stimulate the entire body for an excellent baseline of strength and hypertrophy.
While you’re practicing these skills (which will likely become fixtures in your program in some capacity), begin reading up on the science and practice of powerlifting or bodybuilding. Training these foundational patterns can be the bedrock of your program that seamlessly transitions into a physique or barbell-oriented style of training.
As a new lifter, your body tends to be primed to make gains extremely quickly relative to the gym veteran. This can also create a sense of urgency to train as frequently as possible. However, there’s a recovery period of around 48 hours after you train a particular muscle group. (1)
Although soreness and perceived fatigue might have dissipated, the reality is your body might still be growing and adapting from the previous session. It’s easy to keep training when the majority of the warning signs (soreness, tightness, tiredness) have seemingly disappeared. However, give adequate time between sessions to guarantee a full recovery.
What To Do
Determine a training split or periodization style early to keep your training organized.
Strike a balance of training and recovery by implementing a structure. Figuring out a training split that suits your goals and lifestyle will keep your training on track, especially as non-gym related responsibilities stack up and make recovery harder than normal. A good training split (such as upper lower, full body, or push-pull-legs) will keep you organized and training consistently without overdoing things and potentially working out again too quickly.
If absolute strength training is your goal, developing a periodized program to drive your training will accomplish the same benefit.
You can progress most exercises longer than you think. It’s easy to think that a particular lift has plateaued, especially early in your training when the amount of weight you can lift stalls. While it’s common in early training programs to see large leaps in strength, there are other ways to measure progress in an exercise. Completely wringing an exercise of all possible progression methods is a smart way to prolong the value you get from your workouts.
What To Do
Avoid changing exercises too frequently by tracking metrics such as tempo, rest periods, total repetitions, and load. Once several metrics have plateaued, begin thinking about small program changes.
In early training sessions, the weights you use should leap quite quickly as your nervous system adapts to the stress. Although encouraging, after a few sessions the pace of progress may begin to slow. Instead of focusing purely on adding weight, start pushing for improved technique, work on tempo, add variations, or an additional set to continue stimulating change.
You can also make very subtle adjustments to the exercise without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This might include things such as slowly altering the incline on a bench or choosing a slightly different grip.
One problem you might encounter is determining what an appropriate challenge looks like for building muscle or strength. Muscle is stimulated to grow by generating mechanical tension — which, in simpler terms, means working hard enough that your muscles approach their limit to push against a weight.
Gaining strength or hypertrophy has a threshold of load or difficulty that acts as a sweet spot to make the best progress. Usually, this is approximately 65% to 85% of your 1-repetition-maximum for an exercise (2). As you’re pushing through early training sessions, without knowing your strength potential it can be easy to work too far away from the intensities that provide the best benefits.
What To Do
Choose a safe machine or a sub-maximal repetition-max test to calibrate your intensity.
Testing a true 1-repetition-maximum can be impractical for machine or cable exercises. One option would be to commit to training to a true muscle fatigue point, where the machine will simply no longer move. Use a moderate weight that you can then use to calibrate the feeling of true fatigue for future exercises on that muscle group.
On the barbell side of the equation, choosing to perform a sub-maximal repetition-based test is a great way to find out where you stand. From there, numerous calculators can help you more precisely calculate your estimated 1-repetition maximum and more accurately structure your program.
Contrary to training too light, some may find themselves maxing out far too frequently. Although there is a threshold level of intensity that helps generate more optimal gains, (2) training too close to failure is not necessarily a better option than training too light. While undercutting intensity might slow down your progress, overdoing things too frequently likely risks injury.
Not only that, but certain full-body exercises produce a ton of systemic fatigue. Not only does the main muscle you’re working get close to failure, but so does your bracing musculature and often your cardiovascular or nervous systems. This can have some pretty detrimental effects on the remainder of your workout.
What To Do
Walk into each session with a plan written for your sets, repetitions, and load (especially for barbell exercises). Stick to the plan.
Increasing strength requires a higher percentage of your 1-repetition maximum than building muscle does, so having a predetermined plan to guide your workout is essential. Determine a 1-repetition maximum and use it to landmark how much weight to use for the exercise of the day. Once that plan is established, stick to it — stimulate, don’t obliterate. You can accomplish your muscle-building goals by adding in more exercises for the remainder of the workout.
As painstaking as it can be, prioritizing recovery is one of the most beneficial things you can do as a new lifter. It’s great to be extremely dialed in and enthusiastic about training as hard as possible, but the reality is that the less viscerally satisfying aspects of training (such as recovery) are going to pay much larger dividends long term. Especially as the thrill of newbie gains wears off, training hard and recovering just as hard becomes increasingly important.
What To Do
Develop a companion “program” for recovery to follow alongside your training. Account for your sleep, food, hydration, and stress management.
Dialing in your nutrition, hydration, sleep, and stress management are huge keys to optimizing recovery. Most people would benefit from about eight hours of sleep, boosting protein intake, drinking more water, and finding time to wind down from both training and life. With those bigger issues taken care of, you’ll likely enjoy much more longevity with your exercise regimen.
How to Make Progress in the Gym
The major theme behind most common mistakes is a lack of adequate structure. Especially early on, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the vast amount of information, tips, and tricks available. Looking beyond the flashiness of these gym hacks, there are certain underlying principles that will consistently drive your long-term success. The two majors are specificity and progressive overload.
Specificity is a central principle of fitness that should guide the development of your programs. Your body will make adaptations (gains in strength, muscle size, endurance, or otherwise) with respect to the challenges imposed upon it. If you have a goal to build muscle, you have to target the muscle groups of choice with the right dose of sets, reps, and load. The same is true for building strength. If you train for cardiovascular endurance, don’t expect to build massive delts along the way.
Progressive overload is another central principle of fitness that should guide your planning of sets, repetitions, load, and rest periods. Progressive overload states that in order to see continual adaptations, there must be some form of challenge to a muscle group or exercise that is progressively more challenging than previous sessions.
Add additional repetitions, perhaps another exercise or set, more load, less rest, or other challenges as ways to progressively overload your body.
The Big Picture
If you train long enough, you will most likely run afoul of a mistake or two in your lifting career. Making any number of errors doesn’t prevent you from reaching your goals, but they certainly can contribute to frustrating plateaus. Ultimately, the solution rests upon adding structure to your training as soon as possible.
The principles of specificity and progressive overload, accounted for by a well-designed program, tend to keep a lot of these errors at bay naturally. Thanks to many years of study and practice, the principles behind getting truly strong are pretty well understood. Armed with the right knowledge, you can skip the plateaus and dodge the problems to set your training, and results, years ahead.
- Damas, Felipe; Phillips, Stuart; Vechin, Felipe Cassaro; Ugrinowitsch, Carlos (2015). A Review of Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Their Contribution to Hypertrophy. Sports Medicine, 45(6), 801–807.
- Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
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