The Question

What's the biggest mistake you made as a beginner? What would you do differently now?

Ben Bruno – Strength Coach

I tried to emulate the best guys.

I've always had a pretty good BS detector and a decent amount of common sense, so luckily I've been fortunate to seek out smart teachers. There's an adage, "success leaves clues," so I've always tried to surround myself with people who know more than I do.

But as a beginner, I should've asked the advanced guys how they built their foundation. What works for advanced lifters doesn't always work for novice lifters, and vice versa.

So by all means, seek out the best people who excel in your interests, but instead of trying to copy them, ask what they did to get started and how they got where they are now, then copy that. – Ben Bruno

Chad Waterbury – Strength and Conditioning Coach

I didn't use frequency to my advantage.

I was convinced there was some magic combination of sets and reps that I was missing. So I endlessly searched the newsstand muscle magazines to find the answer. The real problem was, I didn't train my stubborn muscle groups with enough frequency.

One week I'd try high reps, the next week low reps. Then it was triple-drop sets or training to a brain-splattering intensity or partial reps. They all failed me because I didn't realize that even the best combination of sets and reps will only trigger a miniscule amount of muscle growth in a single workout, at best. Adding more intensity or volume to a workout that already had enough of each was like trying to put more gas into a full tank.

It wasn't until I upped the frequency (by four or more times each week) of training my stubborn muscle groups that growth started to occur.

But after a month or so I'd often run into the issue of overtraining. It took me more time to figure out that the increased frequency had to be limited to just a few muscle groups at a time, and the exercises and parameters had to systematically change every few weeks. Luckily I figured this out early in my years as a trainer so my clients didn't have to suffer like I did. – Chad Waterbury

Bret Contreras – Strength Coach

I did the wrong exercises.

As a lanky teen, I couldn't do many of the most effective exercises, like barbell squats, bodyweight chin-ups, and dips. So I skipped them for the first four years of my training. I had zero knowledge of regressions and progressions at the time.

Then when I eventually added barbell squats to my program (this was the pre-internet era), I did quarter squats and round-backed my deadlifts because I didn't know any better.

Had I started with simple regressions like goblet squats, band-assisted and eccentric chin-ups, band-assisted and eccentric dips, and RDLs, I could've been doing variations of these effective exercises from the get-go. I would've progressed quickly and been deep squatting with a barbell, chinning, dipping, and pulling properly within six months, and my physique would've seen much more rapid progress. – Bret Contreras

Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO

I did too many small, fine-tuning exercises.

Before strength and conditioning coaches were given a voice in popular media, we had to rely on the info in bodybuilding magazines. That meant most of us copied the pros. That's not always a bad thing. In-the-trenches experience of successful people is valuable. But it also made us myopic.

For example, as a googly-eyed teen, I picked up a book by bodybuilder Bob Paris. In it, he said to do tibia raises. That's like a reverse calf raise where your heels stay put and you lift your toes up. I was convinced that if I left out this tiny muscle group, my physique would be "unbalanced."

The problem? I was doing these silly tibia raises instead of doing deadlifts or pull-ups. That's like polishing the wheels of your car but neglecting to gas it up and change the oil.

Today we're seeing almost the same thing. Too many people are spending too much time focusing on the small stuff. Excessive corrective exercises, excessive mobility drills, working on "balance" for some reason... when their goal is simply to lose fat and build some muscle. That stuff is fine, but don't forget to throw around heavy weights and do things that actually make you strain, suck wind, and sweat.

And that's the core issue here: the small stuff is EASY, so people gravitate toward it. But easy doesn't force the body to adapt and change. Easy doesn't make you strong, and it doesn't make you look good naked.

Although my wife does say that I have the sexiest extensor digitorum longuses she's ever seen. – Chris Shugart

Jade Teta – Integrative Physician, Naturopath, Coach

I looked at foods in isolation.

I was the overworked, health-obsessed, carbophobic, workout junky, who would always eventually think, "To hell with this diet. I feel like I'm going to gnaw my arm off. Surely I can enjoy a pizza or a burger on occasion." So I'd give in.

What were my results? A 40-inch waist, 30 extra pounds, and a thyroid condition. This type of overly-strict thinking always led to a binge of some sort.

As an example, I'd stay away from bananas because they "had too many carbs" but then as a result, I'd end up gorging and go on a burger and cheesecake binge a couple days later! After seeing this same phenomena play out for patient after patient, I gave it a name: "The banana effect."

So here's what I had to do differently: First, I realized the concept of buffer foods. There are certain foods we simply need in our diets for no other reason than that we love them and they take the edge off. I loved bananas. Eating bananas gives me the sweet taste I crave, but doesn't cause me to binge like the way eating French fries might.

Bananas are my buffer food. They're a food that, when I include them on a regular basis, result in me eating better overall and feeling more satisfied. They keep my HEC in check. (HEC is an acronym I use for hunger, energy, and cravings.)

Another example of a buffer food for me is wine. Including a glass of wine with dinner allows me to feel satisfied with a salad, a steak, and vegetables and keeps me from overeating carbs or needing to eat dessert.

Looking at foods in isolation as if they have nothing to do with my future food choices was a huge mistake. Now I eat what allows me to make better choices at future meals, even if those foods may not be the most desirable from a standalone perspective. – Jade Teta

Ellington Darden – PhD, Best-Selling Bodybuilding Author

I spent too much time on the lifting phase and not enough on the lowering phase.

Think of these as frontloading (the positive or lifting phase) and backloading (the negative or lowering phase). I spent too much time frontloading my reps and not enough time backloading them.

When I started training in 1959, no one paid attention to backloading. It was the frontloading that we were concerned about. On every set of 10 reps, at the 7th or 8th rep, the frontload became gradually harder until I had to cheat a little, or sometimes a lot, to achieve the final 1 or 2 reps.

After I cheated on the last couple of reps, did I do the lowering or backside slowly, smoothly, and under control? No. I dropped it quickly hoping to get some bounce at the bottom, which gave me needed momentum to do one more positive rep. My training buddies and I focused on frontloading. The question was always, "How much can you lift?"

In 1972, I read an article, "Accentuate the Negative," by Arthur Jones in IronMan magazine. Jones had found that the backloading part of the rep was more important than the lifting. He proved that an average lifter was 40-percent stronger in the negative than the positive. In other words, if you could do a strict barbell curl with a maximum of 100 pounds, then you could do a controlled lowering with 140 pounds.

Jones tried for the next two decades to design machines that allowed more resistance on the negative than the positive, but he was never – to his satisfaction – successful. The guideline that he applied was simply: Take twice as long on the negative as the positive. If the positive required 2 seconds, then perform the negative in 4 seconds. Such a guideline is better for free weights than machines, because machine movements involve friction, which adds to the positive and subtracts from the negative.

Since 2000, lifters have gradually returned to frontloading more and backloading less. In fact, if you visit serious bodybuilding gyms across the country, you may not see anyone performing heavy negatives of any kind on any of their exercises.

In 2009, a landmark investigation was reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers examined 66 studies reported within the last 50 years that compared negative-style resistance training with normal positive training. They entered all the relevant data from those studies to create computerized meta-analyses. The results concluded that negative training was significantly more effective in increasing muscular size and strength than positive-style training.

I wish I'd known about backloading during my early days of training. – Ellington Darden

Leg Extension

TC Luoma – T Nation Editor

I did too many triceps kickbacks.

I also did too many leg extensions, wrist curls, reverse curls, and other low bang-for-your-buck movements. I was 6'2" and woefully thin. I had no business wasting my time on horseshit exercises.

I should've had a plan, man. I should've focused on squats, lunges, deadlifts, overhead presses, Pendlay rows, weighted pull-ups, and maybe at least considered that human beings don't need to spend half their workouts doing bench presses, unless they're NFL offensive linemen, often find themselves in the woods with a fallen oak tree on their chest, or are professional push-cars-out-of-the-snow guys.

I should have built a strength base first using progressive programs where I concentrated on one or two strength movements at a time while I simply maintained the others.

I should've done movements like weighted carries and Prowler pushes as "cardio," instead of stationary bicycling or jogging or that dumb ass NordicTrack elliptical machine that would no doubt provoke my Scandinavian ancestors into stuffing me with moose meat and baking me in a nuclear powered sauna bath.

I should have hired a coach for at least a couple of sessions to teach me the Olympic lifts. I shouldn't have tried to emulate the hours-long training programs of steroidal bodybuilders. I could have had a life outside the gym. I could have known a woman's touch. Tell me, please, anybody, what's it like? Is their skin really as soft as the seats in my aunt's Lexus coupe?

And then, maybe when I'd built a solid strength base, mastered the Olympic lifts, figured out at least some of the intricacies of weight lifting, I maybe would have thrown in some curls for the girls and started working on specific body parts in general.

But in all probability, if I'd done it right from the beginning, I probably would never have bothered with the horseshit individual body part exercises because I wouldn't have needed them. All the tough stuff would have taken me exactly where I wanted to go, physique wise. – TC Luoma

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach

I tried to force-feed muscle growth.

When I was 18, I wanted to gain weight for football (I'd been switched to linebacker when I was 15). So I started eating tons of junk everyday. I would eat fast food twice a day and also made a drink which contained several servings of a weight gainer, ice cream, peanut butter, eggs, and whole milk. It must've had around 6000 calories. Anything to make the scale go up.

In one summer I went from 185 to 220, and I honestly thought that it was all muscle because my pants still fit the same. What I didn't know was that my mother kept adjusting my pants as my waist got larger! I went from a 32 to a 42 inch waist!

When football camp came along, I ran a dismal 5.31 seconds for the 40 yard dash, which was basically slower than most of the linemen. I lost my starting job after two games because I couldn't keep up.

After the season, I decided to drop the fat, only to find myself at 188 pounds again. So really over the course of about 9 months, in the prime of my muscle-building potential, I became a blimp for absolutely no reason. That's when I learned that you can't force-feed muscle growth. Of course, undereating is one of the best ways to limit it, but the bulking concept died that year for me.

I also learned that if you aren't lean to start with (above 13 percent body fat) it's hard to tell the visual difference if you increase that by 5-6 percent body fat. There's a range of body fat that appears about the same. If you hover between 14-20 percent body fat you aren't lean enough to be defined, nor are you fat enough to look like crap. You can very well add 10-15 pounds of fat and THINK you're gaining muscle.

There are no shortcuts to building a muscular body. Unless you have amazing muscle-building genetics, you will have to accept that getting the body you want is a long-term project. And trying to force mother nature can have the opposite effect, making your dream body more difficult to attain.

The best thing you can do is get your nutrition in line: eat plenty of quality food but don't go the junk route. Pick a training philosophy that fits your goal and psychological profile and go hard at it. And consider using a good supplement protocol to optimize your training sessions (get your peri-workout nutrition in order before considering anything else). Do that consistently for years and you'll inch closer to your goal every day. – Christian Thibaudeau

Dan John – Strength Coach

I thought that isolation trumped movement.

If I had it to do over again, I'd use simple guidelines for lifting:

  • Pick it up off the ground.
  • Put it overhead.
  • Carry it for time or distance.

When I first started lifting, I did everything from the floor. Every exercise, every rep, and every set started from the floor. When I went to junior high, we did the same:

  • Power Clean
  • Military Press
  • Front Squat
  • Bench Press

Bench press from the floor? Yes, we had benches with no racks and your partners picked up the ends and brought them up to you.

Then, the rise of the machines! Now, we laid down, sat down, and strapped on. I benched and did machines! It took three years to figure out my error. – Dan John

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

I followed the eat big, get big philosophy.

As long as I got my protein intake covered I thought I could eat everything else I wanted. This approach resulted in me getting bigger, but it wasn't a good bigger. I got fat to the point that my heart rate and blood pressure spiked to unhealthy levels when I attempted to tie my shoes.

This lead to a longer, more demanding pre-contest diet whereby the end result of all the suffering included very little net "stage quality" muscle gain.

After competing for 23 years I've gathered that staying closer to contest condition in the off-season is much more effective and healthy. It also makes dieting easier since I'm always within striking distance. Quality off-season gains are significantly more important than the quantity of gains reported on the scale. – Mark Dugdale

Jim Wendler – Strength Coach

I wouldn't do anything differently at all.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have great people guide me and I was smart enough to shut up and listen to them. So I did most things that everyone should do: eat well, jump, squat, run, and play multiple sports for years.

One thing that I had to leave out due to time and energy was upper body hypertrophy work. But really that's just splitting hairs since I would rather be strong, fast, and accomplish all my goals rather than worry about the tricep "horseshoe."

The lesson in all of this is shut your mouth, open your ears, and listen! There are mentors everywhere provided you let go of your ego and your 4 months of sporadic training experience. – Jim Wendler

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