By Nick Nilsson
Author of Mad Scientist Muscle
In my 28+ years of training, I've seen and done a LOT of different muscle-building and fat-loss programs.
I've performed (and created) more exercises than I can even remember and I've tried a LOT of nutritional programs...some good, some bad.
And right now, I want to give you the rundown on some of the very worst mistakes I ever made while doing all these things.
I'm hoping by doing this, I can help you avoid making those same mistakes, saving you from frustration and potential injury.
Here we go...and these are in no particular order of severity or stupidity...
1. Too Much Barbell Curling
In my first year of training, I was constantly at the barbell curl...I curled so much that I ended up having near constant pain in both wrists. So what did I do? I bought some neoprene wrist wraps and kept barbell curling. Stupid.
Of course, keeping on with the curling just made things worst until I read one important fact about barbell curls...because your hands are locked onto the bar and because your arms are attached to your shoulders, the stress of the exercise ends up in the most vulnerable part of the arm...your wrist. The over-reliance on barbell curls lead to the wrist pain.
The solution: dumbbell curls.
Very simple. By allowing free rotation of the wrist, it takes all that torque off the joint. The problem cleared up within a few weeks.
Don't rely too much on barbells for your training. This kind of strain can happen not only on curls but on just about any barbell exercise.
2. I Didn't Eat Egg Yolks
This is actually one of the funniest stories about my first year of training (when I didn't really know what I was doing but thought I did)...for 8 months, I refused to eat egg yolks.
I thought (correctly) that that was where all the fat in the egg was.
What I didn't realize is that it's also where the vast majority of the beneficial nutrients of the eggs were. Yolks are also necessary to make egg protein complete (egg whites on their own are not complete in terms of amino acid profile - they're good, but not perfect, like a whole egg).
The funny part is, I was eating fried cafeteria eggs at the time (6 every day)...fried on a griddle covered unidentifiable grease that I'm VERY sure contained at least 3 times the fat of those yolks I would cut out of my fried eggs (like an idiot). And by not eating the yolks, I wasn't eating the lecithin found inside the yolks that would emulsify and help protect me from the effects of that terrible fried grease I was eating my eggs with.
Live and learn.
Eat whole eggs unless you absolutely have to avoid fat. The cholesterol found in whole eggs is not going to raise your blood cholesterol...it doesn't work that way. It's the stuff your body makes itself that causes the problems, not the cholesterol you eat, which is why for those who have cholesterol issues, sometimes diet doesn't help all that much.
To put that in perspective, in my 21 years of training, I would estimate I've eaten about 44,000 whole eggs. My cholesterol is just fine.
The protein and other nutrients found in the yolks is going to do you WAY more good than eating just plain egg whites.
3. I Did a Hard Rotational Stretch as a Warm-Up
This was one of the most painful things I've ever done in the gym, and not in a good way. I was warming up on the incline barbell bench press and decided I need to loosen up my lower back and core.
While sitting on the seat (lower body basically anchored in place), I turned my upper body, gripped the bench and pulled my torso around...until I heard a loud "POP" and my lower back spasmed. I had just blown out a section of my quadratus lumborum, which is a small muscle that is just to one side of the spinal column.
It was like getting stabbed in the back with a hot fireplace poker. I could hardly move...and I still had to walk home from the gym! Instead of 10 minutes, it took me almost an hour, and I had to wear a weight belt cinched up in order to not collapse from the pain (I had to wear it to sleep that night, too).
To this very day, when I get lean enough, you can still see three little round "buttons" where the muscle detached from the bone and bunched up. I'm VERY lucky in that it didn't completely destroy my ability to train my lower back...they were just small pops, but man, did they hurt.
Don't do hard stretching as a warm-up. Use general movements to get the muscles warm and the blood flowing, progressing to more specific movements that target the exercise you're going to be working with first. You can also include some mobility work in your warm-up. Just don't do hard stretching when your muscles aren't warm or you might just pay the price!
4. Not Eating Enough Fat or Protein
After my first year of training, I gained 75 pounds of bodyweight...and I say bodyweight because it was NOT all muscle. So I decided to go on a fat-loss diet...and I did it completely wrong.
In an effort to reduce calories, I eliminated just about ALL fat from my diet. That's mistake #1. I also decreased my intake of animal protein (in that same effort to reduce fat intake), which was mistake #2. I lost some fat but I lost a lot of muscle and strength doing this. It literally took me MONTHS to realize what my mistake was (I read an article about it), correct it and start regaining my muscle and strength.
I corrected it by eating whole eggs and not taking the skin off my chicken (...mmm chicken skin...)...and I suddenly began growing like a weed, gaining strength and dropping fat. I felt so much better and realized exactly how I had messed myself up.
Don't be afraid of fat...it's not your enemy even when you're on a diet. Your body NEEDS fat in order to function, especially from a hormonal perspective (testosterone is derived from saturated fat). You need to watch your calories, sure, and there are nutrient-intake techniques that do require elimination of fat from the diet in a strategic manner. In general, though, don't eliminate fat from your diet and DEFINITELY don't let your protein intake suffer as a side effect of trying to reduce fat.
5. Stupid Stability Training
There was a time when I took stability training too far...and I can freely admit it now, looking back on it.
Stability training, when done properly and for the right purposes, can be a very useful tool in your training toolbox. Just don't take it to the point of stupidity...which is, unfortunately, what I did and where I see a lot of trainers taking it.
So here's what I did...
Freestanding dumbbell one-legged squats while standing on one foot on the handle of a round-plate dumbbell (that could roll freely).
It was a circus act more than a useful exercise...I actually developed my balance to the point where I could do 3 or 4 full one-leg squat reps without setting my other foot on the ground or touching anything for balance.
Did it help me get stronger in the regular squat? No. There was pretty much zero carryover to actual useful strength. And the potential downside of falling off the dumbbell while doing this insane exercise...I don't have to tell you twice.
And here's what else I did...
Handstand push-ups with my hands on top of the PLATES of two round dumbbells set parallel to each other, so as I'm doing the handstand push-up, the dumbbells had the potential to roll outwards (in addition to be very unsteady on their own). I did 4 reps of that and have never even considered trying it since.
Stability training is great, but you CAN take it too far. Use it for the right reasons and don't push your luck trying to do circus-level balancing tricks with resistance. The carry-over to real-world strength just isn't there and the risks don't justify it.
6. Too Many Chest Dips With Too Much Weight
A few years back I almost got a pec tear from doing heavy weighted dips. I know this because I could feel it starting and about to blow out. Luckily for me, when I do dips on my dip station, my feet are about 2 inches from the ground at the bottom. So when I felt that about to go, I immediately dropped out of the exercise, relatively unscathed (just a bit of soreness in the armpit area for a few days).
It's a fact of heavy training that when you always push things, it you're probably going to get an injury at some point. It comes with the territory.
For me, at that point, I had been doing a lot of chest dips and had been trying to push the weight to see how much I could do. I had worked up to using an extra 160 lbs hanging from my waist (three 45 lb plates and a 25 lb plate) when this happened. And the second after it happened, I knew exactly WHY it happened...it simply performing this exercise too frequently with very heavy loads.
I still do chest dips on occasion...just not as heavy and not nearly as frequently. Just like any exercise, if you do it too much and too heavy, it CAN lead to injury.
You have to not only listen to your body...your body has to listen to YOU. Physically, I didn't feel this near-pec tear coming but in looking back, mentally I knew I was probably pushing the exercise too hard, too often, and I should've backed off sooner.
7. I Stopped Training for a Month
It happens to everybody...you hit a patch where there are lots of things going on in your life and training just seems to take a backseat.
For me, it happened when my wife and I were in the process of moving to a new house...in order to best show the townhome for buyers, I had to disassemble my gym so the basement/family room showed like a room and not a gym. I moved all my equipment over to our new place, that we hadn't yet moved into.
Well, with everything going on and not really having a gym to train in, I basically just stopped training...I didn't even do bodyweight stuff.
And THAT was a BIG mistake.
By the time I got back to training, I had lost muscle, gained fat and felt depressed about not training or doing anything really physical.
You've just got to realize that sometimes life gets in the way, or sometimes you do need a break from heavy training (especially if you get injured). Not every workout has to be a blockbuster...sometimes it's enough just to go in and do a "punchclock" workout to maintain what you've got and keep the habit.
Even you're injured, you can quite often work around that injury. If you hurt your shoulder, train your legs and work the non-injured side of your upper body.
If you're short on time, do a 5 minute bodyweight circuit of push-ups, lunges, or other bodyweight exercises.
Training should be a constant in your life. Even just doing small things can go a long way towards maintaining strength, health and sanity.
And one last lesson from me...if you do slip, when you DO get back into training and training hard, hold yourself accountable by taking a "before" picture. It'll give you the motivation not to let it happen again.
I did this (not pretty)...
Then I immediately did two cycles of my Metabolic Surge program, which ended up being 10 weeks of training. The result was the picture below.
So even if you DO fall off training wagon, don't feel like you'll never be able to get back to where you once were...it's actually going to happen FASTER for you if you've been there before.
Everybody makes mistakes...the key is to learn from these mistakes and grow...and hopefully not ever make them again. And I hope you learned from MY mistakes.
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