Trainers like to say that the most important part of any training program is consistency. If you don't hit the gym regularly, you'll never see results.
"But consistency can work both ways," says PT BJ Gaddour. "Science is finding more and more habits that can slow your gains or halt them altogether – from how you monitor your recovery, if at all, to which muscles you focus on or ignore."
In fact, 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 bad habits you do away with, the faster your gains will be.
In the gym, knowledge is more than just power; it's strength.
1 You Don't Listen to Your Heart Before You Work Out
Monitoring your heart rate 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 high performance 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.
Before you hit the gym, use an HRV tracker like BioForce HRV; it uses a chest strap to send HRV data to your phone. The data is then analysed by the BioForce app. "It tells you if you should go hard, go easy or skip the gym," says Hartman.
2 You Don't Eat Enough
"Fitness-minded guys often undereat on purpose, thinking it will help uncover their abs," says nutrition advisor Mike Roussell. "Or they unwittingly develop a kilojoule deficit while attempting to eat more healthfully."
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 nutrients to fuel recovery," says Roussell.
"For two weeks, add 600 to 1200 kilojoules – the equivalent of a handful of almonds or a protein bar – to your daily diet," says Roussell. "After two weeks, add another 600 kilojoules a day and stay there."
The gradual increase will help you gain muscle, not fat – especially if the bulk of the additional kilojoules comes from protein. (Thirty grams with each meal is ideal, say researchers at the University of Texas.)
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 back side that drives acceleration and generates explosive power.
"Deadlifts and squats activate your glutes indirectly," says Bret Contreras, author of Body-weight 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." And that, in turn, will translate to greater strength and performance both inside the gym and beyond it.
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 squat rack 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 those guys.
The weight of scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Indeed, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that cycling for 45 minutes, in addition to resistance training, resulted in a 14 per cent increase in leg muscle volume. Doing strength training alone, without cardio, resulted in a gain of only 9 per cent.
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 bike.
"That will jack up your muscle-building hormones," says Matt Harber, an associate professor of kinesiology at Taylor University who studies the effect of cardio activity on muscle size. "Aerobic exercise activates growth pathways in the muscle about as much as resistance exercise does, and doing both types of exercise – separated by a few hours – appears to have an additive effect on muscle growth," says Harber.
5 You Improvise
Men who follow fitness programs often tinker with what's being prescribed. "Guys just can't seem to help themselves," says Dan John, author of Mass Made Simple. "They add more sets or exercises, they hop over to another program 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 program at hand," says John. "It's the primary reason why so many guys never progress."
Stay the course. "Most programs last about six weeks, and the key to success is making it all the way to that sixth week," says John.
Follow the program 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. Bored with a particular move? Ask a trainer to show you a different exercise that replicates the same movement pattern.