Beginner lifters: avoid these 3 mistakes

Beginner lifters: avoid these 3 mistakes

Walking around the average gym it's sometimes hard not to be that guy – the one offering unsolicited training advice to anyone who'll listen. Unless someone's about to kill or land themselves in a wheelchair it's usually best policy to leave them to it. So when I feel the urge to step in I remind myself that everyone was a beginner at some point, and that a few short years ago I was making the same mistakes.

Here's 3 most of us made so you don't have to.

1. Ego lifting

Gyms can be humbling places. Walking in as a 21 year old and seeing men 3 times my age lifting twice as much as me knocked me down more than a couple of pegs. The correct response would have been to accept that they'd earned their strength by putting in thousands of hours under the bar, and maybe ask for some advice.

I did not choose the correct response. Instead I did what everyone does: assume the whole gym was watching me, and try to lift way more than I was capable of doing safely. It went about as well as you'd expect.

The fact is, nobody cares how much you lift. Whether you're fat, skinny, weak, unfit, or some combination of those you can only improve yourself by working within your limits, rather than trying to impress people who are probably too busy training to notice, or already silently congratulating you for being in the gym at all.

Plus research shows that focusing on mastery – i.e. getting better – rather than performance – i.e. showing off – leads to better motivational patterns (Ntoumanis and Biddle. 1999) which is what will keep you on track to your goals.

2. Having too many goals

Ask the average person what someone who lifts weights is called and they'll probably say a bodybuilder. They might know that olympic lifters, powerlifters, and strongmen exist, but they won't be able to explain what makes each different.

A similar thing applies to most novice lifters: they see that strong people lift weights, and big people lift weights, and shredded people lift weights, and think they can achieve all three with one style of lifting. Which is like saying football and golf is the same thing because they both involve balls.

While it's true that most lifting will make you bigger and stronger to a point, especially in your first couple of months of training, after a while you'll see diminishing returns. This is where the principle of specificity comes in: high level bodybuilders and powerlifters have very different goals – they both use weights to achieve them, but in very different ways.

If your goal is strength, which it should be as a beginner, you should generally perform sets of 5 or less at above 70% of your 1 rep max, and limit the amount of accessory exercises you use as excessive training stress can hamper recovery.

If you want to focus on hypertrophy, after a few months spent building a base of strength, it's good practice to lower the weight, cut rest periods, and up the number of sets and reps. A systematic review of research into hypertrophy found that 40-70 reps per muscle group per session is optimal for size gains (Wernborm, et al. 2007).

3. Poor diet

As the idiom goes: abs are made in the kitchen. But so is a big deadlift. You can spend 5 hours a week working yourself to the limit in the gym, but if you spend the other 163 hours eating like a 10 year old who's been allowed to pick his own food you'll be wasting your efforts.

Everyone's heard the rule that you should eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day to gain muscle and strength. This is actually inaccurate, but it's a close rule of thumb.

The most recent research – a systematic review, meta analysis, and meta regression (a study designed to comprehensively review existing research, using statistical modeling to generate new and more accurate conclusions) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine – found that increased protein supplementation does significantly increase strength and size gains in weight trained subjects, but that this effect does not increase past 1.6 grams of protein per kg, or 0.72 grams per pound, of body weight per day (Morton et al., 2017) .

If you're not eating this much, you're literally throwing gains away.

And make sure you eat your veggies too. Research indicates that micro-nutrient deficiency, especially in vitamins A, E, B6, B12, folate, selenium, and zinc, may contribute to decreased force generating capacity and fatigue resistance in human muscles (van Dijk et al., 2017).

Don't make the same mistakes

If I had a pound for every lifter I've heard lamenting the time they wasted as a novice due to these mistakes I'd have retired and you wouldn't be reading this. As a novice you can make huge gains in a very short space of time, provided you train within your limits, work towards solid goals, and eat right. Get to it.


Morton, R., Murphy, K., McKellar, S., Schoenfeld, B., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Aragon, A., Devries, M., Banfield, L., Krieger, J. and Phillips, S. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Ntoumanis, N. and Biddle, S. (1999). A review of motivational climate in physical activity. Journal of Sports Sciences, 17(8), pp.643-665.

van Dijk, M., Dijk, F., Hartog, A., van Norren, K., Verlaan, S., van Helvoort, A., Jaspers, R. and Luiking, Y. (2017). Reduced dietary intake of micronutrients with antioxidant properties negatively impacts muscle health in aged mice. Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, 9(1), pp.146-159.

Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J. and Thome, R. (2007). The Influence of Frequency, Intensity, Volume and Mode of Strength Training on Whole Muscle Cross-Sectional Area in Humans. Sports Medicine, 37(3), pp.225-264.