Mistakes of adolescence: experts tell us what they did wrong

Trainers, experts and authors on T-Nation talk about their biggest mistakes in strength training.

1. “Trying to emulate the best”.

Ben Bruno, strength coach:

I’ve always had a good gut feeling for avoiding obviously useless exercises. And, following the slogan “learn from the best”, I looked for those in the halls who clearly knew more than me.

But it would have been more useful if I had not thoughtlessly copied their training, but rather asked: what did they do in the beginning, how did they lay the groundwork for their achievements? What works for the experienced is not always effective for the beginner – and vice versa.

So make sure you try to find people who have excelled in your sport, but don’t repeat their current programme after them. Rather, ask them how they started – and repeat it.


2. “Trained too infrequently.”

Chad Waterbury, strength and general fitness coach:

I was looking for the magic combination of approaches and reps to pump up, flicking through all the bodybuilding magazines on the rack at the shop for long periods of time. And the lagging muscles weren’t growing just because I worked them too infrequently.

One week I tried multi reps, the next week I tried a power circuit, the third week I tried torturous drop sets or partial reps with excessive weight. And nothing worked. I did not yet understand that even the most effective protocol would work only on one workout, adding a drop of weight.

It was only when I started to increase the frequency (up to 4 or more times a week) that the stubborn muscles woke up and started to grow. Of course, after about a month in this regimen I usually moved into overtraining. It took some more time to realise that I could only work certain muscle groups so often, and that it was necessary to change exercises and vary other training parameters after a few weeks.

Fortunately, I found all this out for myself before I started working as a trainer – my clients were not affected.


Chad Waterbury.

3. “Not doing the right exercises.”

Bret Contreras, strength coach:

Coming to the gym as a skinny teenager, I couldn’t get through the most effective exercises – barbell squats, pull-ups, push-ups on bars. And at that time I knew nothing about the progression of these movements, I could not find easier variants (I did not have the Internet yet); so for four years in the beginning I did not do them at all. And then, when I started trying them, I lost some more time on ‘quarter squats’ and round-back deadlifts.

If I had started training today, I would have practiced lighter variants from the first day: cup squats, negative pull-ups and push-ups on bars (or with auxiliary bands), Romanian stanza and other versions of basic exercises. Then all the main movements would be in my program from the beginning, and by gradually increasing the complexity, in 6 months I would reach full squats, chins, pull-ups and push-ups on bars. And I would have gained a lot more muscle mass in the meantime.


4. “Focused on ‘finishing’ work.”

Chris Shugart, creative director of T-Nation:

Before normal trainers started being published in the press, we got all our training information solely from bodybuilding magazines and pro books – not necessarily a bad thing, but very limiting to the outlook.

For example, in my youth I was lucky enough to get a book by the famous bodybuilder Bob Paris, in which he wrote about the necessity of lifts for the tibialis anterior muscle. It’s like for the calves, only in reverse – you stand on your heels and lift your toes. I was convinced that without working this tiny muscle group my musculature would be “unbalanced”. But the trouble was that I was doing these lifts instead of exercises like deadlifts and pull-ups.

To this day, people in the gym waste time working out small details, excessive prophylaxis, achieving some “balance” when they just need to lose weight and gain muscle. All this for one reason only: ‘small’ and corrective exercises are just EASY, while real iron work is hard. But easy workouts won’t make your body adapt and change. To get stronger and improve your figure, you have to work hard.

5. “Evaluated foods in isolation from the whole diet”.

Jade Theta, integrative medicine doctor, naturopath, trainer:

I was obsessed with HEALTH and training, but totally ignorant about nutrition. Every now and then I thought, “Screw this diet, I work so hard at the gym I can afford a burger.” And I did. (And not just a burger, obviously – Zojnik’s note). The result was a waistline of over a metre, over a dozen extra pounds and thyroid problems.

Too strict diets led to overeating. For example, I avoided bananas (“too many carbohydrates”) and then broke down and ate cheesecake. Observing the same thing in many patients, I even started calling it the “banana effect”.

Today, I call such foods ‘buffer foods’: if we can’t do without a certain food, it has to be present in our diet (and help us not to snap). I loved bananas, their sweet taste satiated me and kept me from falling off. Another example is wine. A glass of wine helps me fully satiate my dinner of salad and steak (without the carbohydrate dessert).

You can’t look at foods in isolation without seeing the big picture. Today, I allow indulgences unrelated to the diet as long as they improve the overall result.

Now is a good time to remind you of the article on diets and cheat meals.

6. “Raising the bar too slowly and lowering it too quickly.”

Ellington Darden, PhD, best-selling bodybuilding author:

When I started training in 1959, everyone was only thinking about how to lift more – but not how to lower. In ’72 I read an article by Arthur Jones in IronMan magazine in which he talked about the importance of negativity.

Arthur proved that a person is on average 40% stronger in the eccentric phase. That is, if you, say, lift 50 kg on your biceps, you can put down 70. So he advised to at least double the time of the eccentric phase, e.g. 2 seconds for lifting and 4 seconds for lowering.

In the new millennium this has gradually been forgotten again, few people today do heavy negatives in gyms. However, in 2009, the British Journal of Sports Medicine did some serious work on the subject: scientists compiled a meta-analysis of 66 studies comparing the effects of eccentric exercise with conventional exercise over the past 50 years. The results showed that “negatives” were significantly more effective for both strength and muscle mass development.


Ellington Darden.

7. “Overdoing the extensions for the triceps”.

TC Luoma, editor of T-Nation:

…as well as leg extensions, wrist bends, biceps reverse grip lifts and other low-impact exercises. Instead you should have been doing squats, lunges, deadlifts, standing presses and pull-ups. Occasionally, perhaps even a bench press.

I should have used a shorter programme, improving my results in one or two movements during the cycle and leaving the rest behind. Do farmer’s walks and heavy sled pushing as ‘cardio’ rather than pedalling on a stationary bike.

I’d hire a weightlifting coach and put in snatch and push technique, rather than trying to copy the hours-long workouts of bodybuilder chemists. Then, when I got noticeably stronger, I could add biceps curls to show off to the girls.

In short, if I started all over again, I would never train on a split for individual muscle groups. I don’t need individual muscle groups, I need muscles as a whole – and heavy multi-joint exercises will give that.


TC Luoma.

8. “Forced press instead of recruiting”.

Christian Thibadeau, strength coach:

When I was 18, when I was on the American football team, I needed to add mass. So I was eating out of moderation, eating fast food twice a day and also eating a multi-gainer shake with ice cream, peanut butter, eggs and fatty milk. In total I was gaining about 6,000 kcal a day.

In one summer I “grew” from 84 kg to 100 kg. What’s more, I was sure I had gained muscle because I wore the same trousers. Only I didn’t know that my mum was always sewing them up, because my waist had grown from 82 cm to 106! At training camp I embarrassed myself and lost my place in the team after two games.

After the season I went on a diet and went back to 85kg; I ended up losing 9 months of my best age to gain muscle – through my own stupidity.

There’s no quick way to gain good, quality muscle mass: set yourself up for long-term progress. If you try to cheat Mother Nature, however, it’s likely to put you even further away from your goal. The best thing you can do in terms of nutrition is to consume enough macronutrients from healthy foods. Choose the right programme and exercise on it properly; you can add quality sports nutrition to improve recovery. Although the road to your goal will take years, every workout and every meal will bring you closer to it.

9. “Got hooked on trainers”

Dan John, strength coach:

If I were to start all over again, I would only do three things with iron:

– Lift off the ground.
– Lift it over my head.
– Would carry it over time/distance.

When we started training at school, we would always take the tackle from the floor: in every exercise, every approach, every repetition.

We did:

– Chest raises in a standing position
– Chest squat
– Bench press from the floor.

Floor press? Yes, we didn’t have benches with racks yet, so the barbell was fed from the floor by colleagues.

But then there was a rebellion of machine exercisers! They enslaved us – laid us down, sat us down, strapped us down. I got caught too and lost three years on them, then realised the mistake and went back to the barbell.


Dan John (left) doing strength training.

10. “Relaxing on the weights.”

Mark Dugdale, IFBB professional bodybuilder:

“At first I thought ‘on the masses’ I could eat whatever I wanted, as long as I got enough protein. This, of course, managed to gain weight, only more fat; when I bent over to tie my shoelaces, my heart rate and blood pressure skyrocketed. So the preparatory drying out was longer and more painful, and in the end I could show very little “competitive” mass on stage.

A 23-year competitive career has taught me that it’s much more effective and healthy to stay in shape (close to competitive weight) out of the season. And drying off has become much easier. The quality of the gained weight is always more important than the quantity.

11. “Got it right.”

Jim Wendler, strength coach:

I was immediately lucky enough to meet the right people (and had the good sense to shut up and listen). So I did exactly what I needed to do: quality nutrition, squatting, jumping, running, a combination of different sports.

I lacked time and energy for only one thing – training for hypertrophy of the upper body. And I have no regrets. I care about strength, speed and athletic performance, not the “horseshoe” of triceps.

So here is my advice: shut your mouth, put your ears open and listen! You can always find a competent trainer everywhere, if you transcend ego and refuse fashionable “methodologists”.

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