Hitting the Weights—What Are Common Newbie Mistakes?

Muscle mass reaches its peak between the ages of 20 and 40. Strength training adds to this base muscle mass, helps control weight, builds stronger bones, improves balance, supports joints, and improves flexibility. The feeling of achieving strength goals also helps boost confidence and improve mental health. We feel better and look better when physically and mentally fit. Should endurance athletes hit the weight room? What about young adults looking to bulk? What are the most common pitfalls that should be avoided?

Key takeaways:
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    Strength training is an important part of any exercise program.
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    Building muscle can reduce injury while improving mobility, flexibility, and performance.
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    It is never too late to start, but starting smart will avoid unnecessary costs and bad habits.
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    Neglecting nutrition while spending on costly supplements is a common newcomer mistake when trying to build muscle quickly.
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    Using PEDs is a trend promoted by some influencers, but it can have serious health consequences.

Young adults eager to build fitness and muscle mass may think all it takes is hitting the gym for enough heavy sets and pounding supplements, but these are common (and expensive) mistakes. Experienced strength athletes consider supplements containing whey protein and creatine as reasonable additions to a fitness program, but caution against shortcuts like junk mass-gainer/weight-gainer shakes, and performance-enhancing drugs. It is possible to build health and strength at any age by focusing on the basics first: nutrition, sleep, hydration, proper form, and consistency.

Older athletes who squeeze running into compressed schedules may focus on cardio and neglect strength training. However, a decade of neglect can accrue, causing muscle atrophy or injury. Even if an injury is avoided, overtraining can cause loss of fitness and frustration instead of being a stress release.

Building a base of strength earlier in life can improve running economy, load handling, time trial performance, and reduce injury. However, it’s never too late to build strength and flexibility.

The role of a personal trainer

Meeting with a personal trainer for an assessment is a solid first step to building a results-oriented program. This first meeting will evaluate your functional mobility, flexibility, range of motion limitations, balance, and baseline strength.

You will also likely get a body composition measure (percent lean muscle mass and body fat) against which you can compare changes over time. Other measures include waist, biceps, and upper and lower leg muscle mass. Your personal trainer will also orient you to the compound movements which build muscle safely.

Some of us may feel that a personal trainer is a luxury we cannot afford, or that we already have enough knowledge to get by. That may be true, but when life is busy — doesn’t it make sense to get the most out of your time in the gym? You will also be more likely to set realistic goals and have a sense of accountability. This will help keep you from falling prey to influencer trends or slipping back into old habits which may increase the chances of injury.

Finding reputable fitness influencers

In addition to this professional guidance, the myriad fitness influencers on YouTube, Reddit, Quora, and TikTok offer a range of advice. Bodybuilders, such as Pranoy Chow, generously offer advice to newcomers, including scientific studies for evidence-based training. Chow thinks one of the biggest pitfalls among newcomers is relying on junk supplements. “Be very careful with supplements because companies use tricks to exploit vulnerable consumers, such as nitrogen spiking.” Companies do this to exaggerate the real protein amount on the label, which can be detected by amino acid fingerprinting techniques. “Other tactics,” he adds, “include adding collagen to protein powders, underdosing ingredients in supplement mixtures, and using proprietary blends which don't disclose the exact amount of each ingredient.”

This hard-earned wisdom saves time, money, injury, and frustration. Parents with teens who are interested in weight training can gain personal knowledge and awareness of the current fitness space, who is active on what platforms, and who tends to have sound advice by working with a personal trainer and talking through these topics. With that said, one should also beware of bodybuilders/influencers who are not honest about their steroid usage, their posts being sponsored by supplement companies for monetary benefit or those who push junk supplements on vulnerable people as a way to achieve chemically enhanced body goals like theirs.

Three types of lifting programs

1. Olympic weightlifting

Focuses on the clean-and-jerk and the snatch. The nature of these complicated moves means that Olympic weightlifters have good explosive strength and are capable of lifting heavy weights quickly and using a full range of motion.

2. Powerlifting

Focuses on three lifts: back squat, bench press, and deadlift shooting for a one-rep max. All other collateral training exercises are meant to help improve these three core lifts. The form is important, and speed is not a factor.

3. Strongman/woman

Training involves carrying heavy, awkward implements over a distance or placing them on something. Strongman lifts include things like farmer carries, vehicle drags, keg tossing, tire flips, shot throws and yoke carries.

Common newbie mistakes

Not learning the basics

Not learning the basics of compound movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, bent over rows), not finding a good program that incorporates these movements, and not sticking with a program. Also, failing to learn proper form while doing pull-ups, pushups, planks, and body weight squats.

Dirty bulking

Dirty bulking – this is the practice of eating whatever it takes to gain weight, however, a poor diet is not good for cardiovascular health, and eating too many calories will simply mean the excess gets stored as fat, not muscle. About 300-500 additional calories per day are enough to build muscle without too much excess fat gain.

Eating too little

Eating too little – some middle-aged runners may be recovering from an adolescent eating disorder and resort to over-exercising and under-eating to fight weight gain. This will not provide enough energy to build muscle.

Drinking empty calories

Drinking empty calories in the form of supplement shakes, soft drinks, and fruit juices and not drinking enough water.

Not sleeping enough

Not sleeping enough – sleep is necessary to rebuild muscle fibers (the hypertrophy that results in more muscle mass). Pulling all-nighters and partying does not allow the body to recover from the heavy demands placed on it while lifting.

Protein shakes

Drinking empty protein shakes (this is the worst). You need enough carbs and some good fats. Also not eating enough protein from meals like meats and eggs. These foods provide complete proteins which ensure that enough essential amino acids are available to build muscle.

Buying junk supplements

Buying junk supplements or “mass gainer/weight gainer” drinks instead of retooling the diet. According to Pranoy Chow, “The only supplements which I really think are worth it are creatine and vitamin D. I would also maybe add zinc, good quality fish oil for the joints, and good whey protein.”

Energy drinks

Relying on energy drinks instead of getting sodium, potassium, and electrolytes from the diet with the right amounts of salt, white beans, tomato sauce, bananas, spinach, beets, coconut water, etc.

Steroid usage trend

Young kids falling into the steroid usage trend on TikTok. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) have no place in a person starting with weight training. Use proper nutrition, such as ensuring you get enough omega-3 fatty acids and zinc, to support testosterone production, which is important for muscle growth. Older individuals with lower natural testosterone production diagnosed by a doctor may benefit from testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) but it should not be used by young individuals and should be accompanied by regular blood work to prevent side effects.

Not focusing enough

Not focusing enough on stretching, mobility, recovery, foam rolling, lacrosse ball, deep tissue massage, etc. (The author is guilty.)

Although muscle does begin to atrophy after age 40 or so, this is not an irreversible phenomenon. Resistance training and a good diet are all you need to retain or build new muscle, at any age. For example, a study of Japanese women found that a higher-protein breakfast may help build muscle, but more importantly, they found that middle-aged women can build muscle with a 16-week program.

Acknowledgment
The author would like to acknowledge the expert insights contributed by Pranoy Chow, a mobile app developer who has been consistently strength training for 10 years. His top lifts in 2019 were 495lb x 3 squats, 335lb x 3 bench presses, and 495lb x 3 deadlifts at a body weight of 210lb.