Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made in the Name of Getting Big

When I started training, I was extremely skinny.

The first time I set foot in a gym to train, I weighed about 44kg at 170cm. But that wasn’t the first time I exercised with the intent of gaining muscle. That first started when I was 12 years old, 150cm and 25kg.

That’s a BMI of 11. No, that’s not an exaggeration.

Over the next decade, I did a lot of stupid things so you don’t have to. Here are some of the stupidest mistakes I made:

1. Training With My Ego

You may also know this as the mistake literally every male who sets foot in the gym makes.

For a man (or someone who wants to look and feel manly, at least), there’s a powerful imperative to be strong. That’s what got me to start training in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for us to divorce being strong from becoming strong. To become strong, one must first accept that he isn’t strong (yet!). Incidentally, that forges humility, which is a component of strength of character.

If we don’t acknowledge our limitations, we won’t train where we’re at. If we don’t train where we’re at, we won’t get the most out of training and will blunt our results. That’s before we even touch on the issue of too much load + too little technique = injuries. Injuries, mind you, prevent training, which then prevents further strength development.

Even in saying that, the person who lifts the most weight (even if they lift it really, really good) isn’t necessarily the biggest. Yesterday I squatted 3x8x120kg at a bodyweight of 70kg. Meanwhile, I have friends with just as much leg and hip muscle mass as me, if not more, who would get stapled under the bar trying to squat 3x8x60kg! What you emphasise in a given, how you load up the muscles, how you control the motion, whether or not you lock out each rep, total training volume (sets x reps) and density (how long it takes to accumulate that volume) all play a part. When it comes to building muscle, you do want to lift heavy, but that’s relative to what you can handle once all of those other factors are considered. The best way to lift maximal weight safely through a full range of motion isn’t necessarily the best way to put a slab of meat on your bones.

2. Training The Mirror

Fortunately, I always saw enough value in my back and legs to train them, too. So I never went as far down this path as the cliche gym rat does.

Having said that, “how much do you bench press?” remained the question everyone was measuring results by. So when I did my first split training program, it was an upper/lower split (which I endorse), but I ended up doing twice as many upper days as lower days.

When you train in an unbalanced manner, you become unbalanced. At best, this means you only look disproportionate. At worst, this means you also function disproportionately, which creates all kinds of pain and injuries. In my case, my shoulders are messed up because of it in ways that will never naturally heal. It’s highly manageable, so I have no plans on seeing a surgeon, but it’s better to be functional than to be managing dysfunction.

3. Making Things Too Complex

I don’t want to bag out complexity. Complexity isn’t a bad thing, and is often needed. To get the most progress, we need to use different rep ranges, different exercises and different techniques. A certain degree of complexity is good.

But once I started learning methods that increased training complexity, I started seeing complexity itself as the end-goal of exercise programming. I started doing things that were needlessly complex because it was fun and a challenge. But it was the wrong kind of challenge, because it didn’t lead to increased size or strength.

4. Making Things Too Simple

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Wise words. After a stretch of increasing complexity in my training for the fun of it, I went back to basics and got great results.

Then I overshot.

In the name of simplicity, I started leaving undone things that needed to be done. For a whole year I barely did any rows. For longer I ignored my calves. I took low bar back squats and conventional deadlifts in sets of 5 to be the be all/end all of lower body training, and my upper body training consisted entirely of bench press, overhead press and pull ups, again for sets of 5.

In doing so, I limited the muscle and strength I could gain in the prime movers for each of those movements, and practically nullified the results I could get anywhere else.

5. Eating Too Much

When I was 22, I weighed 62kg. I decided I really needed to eat more to gain more muscle mass. So I took the internet’s advice and started eating enough to gain 0.5kg/week. I stalled at 67kg for a while, but eventually got back on track. At 62kg I was 12% bodyfat, so I had about 7kg fat on me and 54kg lean body mass. At 67kg I was 18%, so I had about 12kg fat on me and 55kg lean body mass.

That’s 5kg gained, 4kg of which was fat.

That should have been a wake up call. That should have been as high as I went without cutting excess fat. Instead, I kept on pushing the scale up. Eventually I got up to 76kg. I didn’t measure my bodyfat percentage at that time, but I did measure it when I was back down to 70kg. 22%. Yikes! That’s about 15kg fat and still 55kg muscle, maybe even worse.

I had been getting bigger, but I hadn’t been gaining any muscle. Or, if I had gained any muscle with the added fat, the amount lost while cutting fat was too much to justify it.

In reality, we can only gain a small amount of muscle in a given time period. For a man to gain 10kg of muscle mass in a year requires the best circumstances for growth. And for each little bit of progress that has already come, the next little bit will be about twice as hard. There’s never any good reason to be gaining more than 1kg/month, and for most of us we shouldn’t even be aiming that high. Once we’ve gained the tiny amount of muscle mass we can gain, the rest is fat.

For the record, it took a very long time to cull most of the fat gained in this stage of life (much longer than the numbers might suggest), and it left me with lots of stretch marks. Probably increased my number of fat cells, too, which makes it harder to maintain a low bodyfat percentage. It also established some bad habits that have made diet harder to stick to ever since.

6. Not Appreciating My Results

When I started out as a 12 year old, I gained 7kg of lean body mass before my height started catching up. This was great news. But all I saw was that I was still 8kg lighter than most of my peers. When I first went to the gym, I went from 44kg to 58kg over 2 years while maintaining 7% bodyfat. This was excellent progress! All I saw was that I wasn’t another 30kg heavier, and my bodyfat% couldn’t be counted on 1 hand. I was my own toughest audience.

Had I appreciated the results I was getting, I wouldn’t have done many of the stupid things I did. I definitely wouldn’t have done #5, which has had longterm negative consequences, as has #2.

When you don’t appreciate the good things that are happening, you feel like crap. You might look great, but you end up with terrible body image. You become blind to the fact that things are working, and so you pursue ever stupider things in the hopes that they will finally work. You don’t get to enjoy your results and you do horrible things to yourself. This is by far the stupidest thing I’ve done in the name of getting big.

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