10 Things You Shouldn’t Do If You’re Trying to Build Muscle

While it’s important to think positive and focus on all the things you should be doing to achieve your goals, it’s equally important that we focus on those things that interfere with our goals and remind ourselves to avoid doing them. Some call it the “not to do list,” which I like. Many of the behaviors on not-to-do lists are deal breakers, so it’s arguably more crucial that we identify and curtail those that apply to our lives. But that’s hard; these are behaviors we might already be doing. Heck, they might be bad habits we’ve developed, or biases we’ve internalized. And so before adopting good behaviors, we should clear out the bad ones. Otherwise, we’re just pissing in the wind.

What are some things you shouldn’t be doing if your ultimate goal is to build muscle?

1. Skip sleep for a late (or really early) training session.

It feels good to make that late night Facebook post about the weights you just lifted, or brag about your 4:30 AM wakeup for CrossFit class. It looks impressive. That’s true dedication, right? Except that you’re not building muscle in real time as you hoist that bar off the floor. You build muscle by recovering from your training session, and sleep is where we do most of our recovery. Sleep is where everything good happens. Sleep debt actively inhibits muscle recovery and hypertrophy and promotes muscle degradation. Sleep deprivation increases cortisol and reduces testosterone; for optimal muscle building, the former should be lower and the latter higher. One older study found that total sleep deprivation increased urinary excretion of nitrogen, which could be indicative of muscle breakdown and loss of lean mass.

Sleep is (almost) everything.

2. Sacrifice form just to increase weight.

For two reasons. First, poor form will inevitably lead to injury on a long enough timeline, which means you won’t be lifting at all and your muscles won’t be receiving any stimulus. Second, poor form is a shortcut, often curtailing your range of motion and limiting the amount of work your muscles are doing. If it’s easier, you’re not actually exposing your muscles to the work they need — and you think you’re giving — to get stronger. You’ll still gain muscle with bad form, but it won’t be as effective as the weight would indicate and you’ll eventually hurt yourself.

A perfect example of this is the perceived dichotomy between the front squat and the back squat. Although back squats allow you to lift more weight, they’re often harder to do right, and a recent study suggests that doing the front squat, which many find to be a more intuitive lift, with a lower weight can be just as anabolic as doing a back squat with a higher weight.

3. Speed through the eccentric phase (drop the weight).

Everyone focuses on the concentric phase of a lift. The lifting off the bar off the floor in the deadlift. The press upward during the bench and overhead presses. Even the generic term — “lift” — implies the primacy of the concentric phase.

But there’s evidence that the eccentric phase is just as important for hypertrophy and strength gains. A 2014 study showed that training emphasizing the eccentric phase resulted in extremely high post-workout biomarkers of muscle anabolism. This didn’t show actual muscle gain, but that’s because it was a one-shot look at the acute effects of eccentric training. And a 2009 review determined that high-intensity eccentric training can increase muscle mass to a greater degree than concentric training.

You don’t necessarily have to lower the weight as slowly as possible, but lower it with control. Don’t let gravity do the work for you. Resist it.

4. Stick to the ideal routine even if it’s not working.

You’re doing everything everyone says to do. You’re squatting and pressing three times a week, deadlifting once, and learning how to power clean. You’ve got a dog-eared copy of Starting Strength by your bedside. A permacloud of weightlifting chalk dust follows you around like PigPen. For most people, this kind of dedication builds muscle. Barbell training works wonders for most people, provided they do it with the right form and intensity. It allows you to handle the most weight and places dynamic stresses on your musculoskeletal system. But don’t get caught up in barbell dogma if it simply isn’t producing the results you want. 3×5 squats, deadlifts, and presses aren’t the only way, no matter how loudly Internet commenters scream it.

Many people find that higher-volume training in the 8-12 rep range offers a good balance between volume and intensity and produces greater hypertrophy with real strength.

5. Try to lose weight.

I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to lose body fat and build muscle at the same time. Lifting heavy is probably one of the best things you can do to lose body fat and improve body composition. It’s certainly doable, if a bit more difficult than focusing on either alone. But when your primary goal is gaining muscle, losing weight is really, really hard. For one, muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re successful at gaining muscle you will likely gain weight. Two, gaining muscle requires caloric excess, which makes losing weight is really hard if not downright impossible.

So if you’re successful at losing weight, you won’t gain much muscle. If you’re successful at gaining muscle, you won’t lose weight. The two are not compatible.

6. Train for endurance.

Large muscles aren’t just energetically and kinetically costly for endurance athletes; they’re really difficult to develop on the training schedule required for serious endurance work. The training needed to get really good at endurance work crowds out any chance you’ll have to train the weights. There simply isn’t enough time in the day or week to train for and recover from both muscle hypertrophy and elite endurance performance. And yes, endurance athletes are increasingly integrating strength training into their regimens, but not to bulk up. They’re lifting weights to improve their sport, become more resistant to injury and wear and tear, strengthen their connective tissue, and get stronger overall.

7. Spend hours in the gym doing every exercise.

Building muscle requires dedication, consistency, and getting in there and doing the work even when you don’t really feel like it. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend three hours killing yourself in the gym. You don’t have to hit every muscle group with five different exercises. You don’t have to do donkey calf raises. You don’t have to do pull-ups, chin-ups, and lat pulldowns. In fact, trying to do too much can cause overtraining, which is counterproductive to actually gaining the muscle.

If every training session is an hours-long affair, you’ll start making excuses not to train that day. Before long, you’ll be skipping entire weeks and wondering why you never feel like lifting. You’ve set the bar too high to stick to the routine. Very few people can consistently train for three hours a day without hating their lives. You’re probably not among them.

8. Ignore other forms of physical activity.

If you want to gain muscle then, yes, your focus will need to be strength training. But I caution against strength training to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t have much hard science backing me up here. It’s more of an intuition borne out of years of seeing people fail and succeed. But it’s the folks who do things other than strength train that often have the best physiques. They’re playing frisbee or paddle boarding. They’re hiking and sprinting and slacklining. They’re challenging their bodies (and minds and muscles) in different ways. They’re taking time out of their lives to have fun and simply enjoy the body they’re diligently creating in the gym. Everything in life must have balance; I have yet to see a counter example. Have you?

9. Do high-rep conditioning workouts like P90x.

If you just want to lean out and build stamina and the capacity to withstand great physical discomfort, programs like P90x work well. These are high-rep, low-weight workouts that never seem to end. You’ll do things like air squats into pushups into light dumbbell presses into reverse lunges into tuck jumps, with very little rest. If you ever go down to the local park, you might see hordes of people doing “boot camp” workouts that look very similar. And all these will make you tired and sore the next day, and you’ll get “fitter” and better conditioned. But to build muscle? To gain lean mass? These are not the programs you want to be doing.

10. Do post-workout cold water plunges.

Cold water plunges can help restore performance and reduce recovery times in hard-charging athletes and professional sports teams are beginning to install ice baths in their facilities to take advantage of this. But emerging evidence suggests this may come at a cost: reduced strength and muscle gains. In one recent paper, researchers separated athletes into two 12-week resistance training groups. One group sat in cold water for 10 minutes after training. One group practiced active recovery for 10 minutes. After 12 weeks, the active recovery group enjoyed greater strength and mass gains than the cold immersion group. For the second phase of the study, they measured acute changes in anabolic biomarkers and found that cold water immersion blunted post-workout activation of key proteins in muscle cells for up to two days.

Cold plunges are still useful for trainees. If you need to recover quickly from a game of Ultimate, or you’ve got another event coming up in the CrossFit games, or you’re on a ski trip and intend to make the most of every single day, dunking your body into cold water after a session can help you reach your goals. If you’re an endurance athlete, cold water plunges appear to be beneficial (PDF). If you’re competing, it will probably help you recover. And I’ve had great success using alternating cold/hot plunges at night to improve my sleep. But if your goal is to gain muscle above all else, post-workout cold water plunges may interfere and should be delayed to rest days.

These are probably the most common mistakes I see people making when trying to build muscle, but there are definitely others I’ve left out. What mistakes have you made – or are still making — in your quest to gain lean muscle mass?

Thanks for reading, all. Take care!

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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59 thoughts on “10 Things You Shouldn’t Do If You’re Trying to Build Muscle”

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  1. Great post, Mark!

    I would add that you should also not stress.

    Just my 2 cents…

    Have a great week everyone!

  2. Nice post, Mark. I discovered years ago as well, that focusing on building a bigger (fat burning) engine was the key to a more pleasing body composition, without the worries of weight lose.

    Memo Stephens

  3. You made a lot of good points in this article. Too many times people get sidetracked and lose focus of the goal that they wanted to achieve in the first place (building muscle in this case). Thus, they end up chasing a bunch of different rabbit holes and never really achieve anything.

  4. As an over-forty-almost-fifty female, I am finding it difficult to add muscle mass. I’m relatively lean (16% body fat at last check) and look rather fit but there’s always room for improvement. As we age, it gets harder to build muscle – male or female. As a female who’s been conscious of her weight her entire life (I used to be overweight), it is exceedingly difficult to ignore the scale. My brain knows a few extra pounds on the scale likely means muscle gain but it’s still somehow worrisome to see that number increase.

    1. As a 56 year old female overcoming osteoporosis, it was an uphill battle to not worry about the number on the scale, especially with all of the weight loss noise aimed at women. My aha! moment came when after putting on 15 lbs., I realized that the 1/2″ increase in waist size did not include any additional fat around the middle, my normal place for storing excess fat.

    2. May I suggest tossing your scale, at least temporarily? Go by how you feel, how you look, how your clothes fit, etc. and forget weight. Seriously, free yourself from the scale, concentrate on good Primal eating and moving, and you’ll be happier!

      1. Great advice to toss the scale. I’m 51 now and tossed my scale in my 20’s. So very much more useful to just pay attention to how I feel and what activities I can or cannot do. The coolest part is then fitness has to do with living and not a number.

        1. I don’t weigh myself anymore either. I get really obsessive about the number, and slip into orthorexic behaviors. As the mother of a 16 year old girl, I just can’t risk passing those behaviors onto her, the way my grandmother and mother passed them to me.

  5. Yes #8 slacklife! everyone should own a slackline, no better way to find balance in the body and mind

  6. I can attest to number 4. I followed a 5×5 routine for half a year and made minimal gains in both muscle and strength. I always felt fatigued after squats and couldnt perform at my max for the rest of the session. A few weeks ago I changed to a 5 day body part split and for the first time I have seen massive gains in my strength. I add plates to the bar every single week and I actually see changes in my body already. Just because something is best on paper doesnt mean its best in practice.

  7. On that last point re cold water baths, I wonder if this is related to association of inflammation with muscle growth?

  8. To me the biggest issue I see is the confusion over muscle size and muscle tissue. Muscle size has more to do with water and glycogen storage and the appearance of quickly gained muscle and size will always involve some body fat.

    True muscle tissue is only gained at the equivalent of maybe 5-10 pounds over the course of the year. People who put on say 20 pounds in 6-8 weeks need to know it’s not going to be genuine muscle but a combination of all these things listed.


  9. So now I’m really confused. I just started a 5×5 stronglift schedule 3 weeks ago. I need to lose 50#. So am I wasting my time since you say I will lose weight but not gain muscle? I get hungrier when I lift which is a problem since I try to eat less to be in a deficit. I think I’m just on info overload and it seems the more I read the more confused I get!

    1. What he means is that optimal weight loss ( I’m assuming the goal is fat loss and not weight loss, otherwise strength training is a poor choice for dropping weight as it promotes muscle development) is best achieved while not also trying to gain muscle mass. Yes, both can happen at the same time, but for maximum effect you need to choose one or the other as your goal. Muscle gains prefer an excess of calories while fat loss prefers a calorie deficit.

      So for you, of course you will gain size and strength hitting the weights that hard, and you will also probably lose some fat, assuming you don’t over eat. But if your goal is pounds off the scale, don’t be surprised if you get bigger and leaner, but also heavier, or stay the same weight. Muscle is heavier per equal mass than fat. You can get leaner and heavier at the same time.

      So maybe your proper goal should be improving muscle to fat ratio and forget what then scale says.

      1. Hey, I’m doing 5X5 and have been since July. I can only relate my experience. In the beginning of the program, you are lifting really light weight and focusing on form and flexibility. Or you should be. During this time, I would suggest adding 30 minutes of cardio after your workouts.

        As you start to get into heavier weights, you can taper off. You will know when. I started by removing cardio on Fridays (MWF schedule) because I could just feel how tired my legs were by the end of the week.

        By the time you start missing reps, you shouldn’t need much more cardio. Your 5X5 workouts WILL get the heart pumping. I’m a mountain biker, so I keep that in my weekends. Also, I understand this is when your body will really start burning fat in a big way so be patient.

        I started at 203 lbs in July and I am now down to 193. HOWEVER, I look like I’ve lost 20 lbs. People keep asking me how much I’ve lost and I’m answer, “not that much”, but I feel great.

    2. If you say that you are 50# too heavy in fat AND you are just starting out on weight training, then please forget about your weight, the scale and almost every seemingly clever advice on the web. Just focus on building strength for the first two years and only then reassess what tuning or optimizing goals re your weight there are left. Do not let others talk you into some hard to follow diet scheme on top of you beginners training. Gains in strength are the only commanding rule. If you don’t improve every week and you know that you sleep enough, EAT MORE. Do not, I repeat, try to follow two goals at once as a beginner!

  10. “muscle weighs more than fat” Just wondering how much more it weighs? ha!

    1. About 15% more for the same volume, according to wikipedia. muscle is around 1.06 kg/liter and fat is around 0.92 kg/liter

      1. Yes, I was making a joke. A pound weighs a pound no matter what. You are referring to density. I was just poking fun at the old “muscle weighs more than fat” because it doesn’t weigh more, it’s just denser.

        1. That’s why I said “per equal mass” muscle weighs more than fat. I never said a pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat. Just sayin’.

        2. @Clay…that was not directed to you, the article said “muscle weighs more than fat” in #5.

      2. Actually, muscle can be way less volume per same weight as fat – depending on how lean and dense the fibres are of the muscle of course, it can be up to 5 times less volume for the same weight !

  11. Very useful information for people who are in the process of building muscles. Point 10 is awesome.

  12. I believe it was Mike Mentzer who calculated the average person on a muscle gaining program only needs the equivalent of an extra apple a day to feed that growth. So I don’t think it’s necessarily difficult to lose fat while gaining muscle, though professional bodybuilders would likely disagree. But then, they’re impatient for rapid gains.

    Anyway, I struggled for more than a decade with the problem of gaining muscle while in a high endurance sport (martial arts, four times a week). It was nearly impossible, so I completely agree with Mark’s assessment, I tried everything I could discover or make up. At the last it was Mentzer’s “one set to failure” program that came closest to letting me put on some muscle while still doing (what we’d call here) chronic cardio.

  13. Eccentric phase actually increases DOMS symptoms so I would recommend going any slower than “with control”. Personally If I excercise with bumper plates I like to drop the bar after deadlifts. Lower back DOMS is highly unpleasant, plus dropping the weight looks really badass.

  14. “muscle weighs more than fat.”

    that phrase just kills me every time i see it.

    a lb of muscle weighs the same as a lb of fat. muscle takes up less space than fat.

    1. I think it’s clear we are talking about volume here, no? You judge the physique of a person by how much space she “occupies” and where that space sits, not by how much their scale showed this morning in the bathroom.

    2. That phrase should not “kill you.” If you take a 6 sq.in. piece of muscle and a 6 sq.in. piece of fat, they will take up the same amount of space. There is no difference in space occupation, but guess which piece will weigh more. The muscle will, because muscle is more dense than fat, thus “muscle weighs more than fat.” They are talking about the weight of equal sizes of both.

  15. While I agree with Mark on like 99% of the stuff he says, Point 5 about losing weight and gaining muscle the same time, he mentions in there that gaining muscle requires caloric excess.

    I’ve seen evidence now that this is not the case (which is good news). To gain lean muscle requires a positive nitrogen balance which part of is, consuming enough protein. This doesn’t mean over-consuming protein, but meaning you consume whatever the required amount is to your activity level to keep you in positive nitrogen balance AND maintain a reasonable activity level that doesn’t constantly plunge you into a catabolic state.

    I may make this sound simple; however, I don’t believe it’s as simple as it sounds. It seems to me that it would take a lot of fine tuning per individual to find out exactly how much protein vs what their activity levels should be.

  16. Great read Mark. I think I’m guilty of doing a few of these over the years…except P90x. I always thought it was kinda goofy. Keep the blue side up. Joe

  17. How about if you want to be looking like an athlete, gymnastic performer. Great strenght, flexibility.
    How do the rules of building muscle apply to get that physique?

  18. I like #8 the older we get the more difficult it is to gain muscle unless we use them. When I lift heavy things I wake up with sore muscles. If I do squats in the gym one day. I need to spend the next day hiking it off. If I do chest and back at the gym it’s followed by a paddle day. I’m at my best when I keep moving.

  19. My doctor told me that at age 65 I wouldn’t be able to gain muscle, just slow down the rate at which I was losing it. I took that as a challenge. I discovered a good simple strength gaining exercise regime: choose weights that your maximum reps for is in single digits, and repeat to failure twice a day five days a week. I gained strength rapidly. So rapidly that I damaged tendons and joints. It took nearly a year to recover. The important lesson is that muscle strength can grow faster than joint and tendon strength, so strength gain rate must be limited to the rate at which joints and tendons can keep up.

    (I’ve used the phrase “strength gain” here rather than “muscle gain” because the two are not the same. My personal interest is in strength, not muscle size.)

    1. That’s my problem as well. My muscles can get stronger and handle more work, than my tendons can handle.

    2. That’s one of the reason I switched to pure bodyweight training – it ensures that tendons are strengthened, not just the muscles, which isolated weight training will do. If you think you can’t build ,muscles using pure calisthenics, check out the likes of Barstarz on you tube, etc. Again, it all about controlled heavy reps, and good form – one good form chin up can be harder than ten “cheat ups”.

    3. Also, I read somewhere that tendons recover at 1% per day, so patience will be required…

  20. I think I’m the exception to your rule. Nothing I’ve ever done has made a real difference in my physique, with the possible exception of starvation, but that comes with bad side-effects. I always look the same. Strength training has improved my performance, but I pretty much look like I always have. Lots of endurance work pretty much results in the same physique. I went the whole summer wearing only skirts and dresses. Thought for sure I’d never fit into my jeans. I was wrong. They fit the same as always. I don’t need to count calories, weigh myself or anything because I’m always the same. I think this is pretty good in a lot of ways. No need to worry about it.

  21. So… I feel pretty confused. I follow MDA. I have serious trouble losing body fat (confirmed by my DNA tests which showed extremely low metabolism and a genetic tendency for obesity and type 2 diabetes, yay). I prefer weights and strength training… but how much is too much? I don’t want to do chronic cardio… so what do I do (besides eat healthy, of course, and walk a lot)?

    1. I would just for strong and healthy and leave it at that. Your body type and genetics are what they are. You can’t change that, so why stress. Just be the best version of you, you can be.

      It’s like trying to get a six pack. What no one tells you is that it’s almost entirely genetic. My cousin had a six pack at nine years old. I grew up with skinny stoner kids who had them. Once you are lean, you either display a six pack or you don’t. It’s entirely related to how your muscles are shaped genetically and how you body stores fat and the thickness of your skin.

      As far as what’s too much excersize. Your body will tell you. Either in the form of diminishing results, injuries or just exhaustion and lack of enthusiasm. But if you feel good, you’re doing good.

  22. How about we also stop using images like the one accompanying this post. That’s enough to demoralize people who are seeking health and fitness and have no desire or time to achieve that.

    1. honestly… I am motivated by seeing others with their own great results!

      – watched someone with my own body weight (160 lbs) back squat 300 lbs like nothing in the gym…..can I do that? Not currently…..but after seeing him do that I imagined I would feel pretty damn proud of myself if I could get to that point. So I measured my current one rep max (195) and I am taking it one step at a time. Next goal is 200…..(not 300 YET)

      – True some people are genetically gifted… maybe way out of our leagues…
      But should we feel embarrassed when we see them? NO – don’t compare yourself to someone outside of your league. That would be like a first grade science student getting embarrassed when compared to NASA scientists….actually a lot of NASA scientists INSPIRE young kids to be scientists!!!

      should we lock up all of the extremely talented and gifted people just so no one will feel embarrassed when seeing them? Wait for the olympics, get them all together….then lock the door trapping them in the sports arena? That wont work…..they will simply pole vault or high jump out of the locked arena…

      Maybe that little voice in your head getting upset seeing the picture is your own way of saying you are unhappy with your current situation…..maybe if you tried asking some empowering questions and changed your outlook on the situation you could handle seeing that guy in a less stressful way?

      I hope that helps

  23. “For one, muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re successful at gaining muscle you will likely gain weight.”

    A pound is a pound is a pound. A pound of fat, a pound of feathers and a pound of muscle are all still a pound.

    1. Do me a favor. Take a pound of feathers and compare that to the size of a pound of bricks. Then come back and tell us which one takes up more space. They are speaking about the weight of equal volumes of both. Density of an object makes all the difference in weight. A specific volume of muscle weighs more than an equal volume of fat, it’s a fact.

  24. Does the cold plunges advice stretch to cold showers? I find them really refreshing, especially after training but don’t want to impede muscle growth. Any ideas? Cheers!

    1. I would like to know this as well. I always take a cold shower after I workout and I am wondering if it is impeding my muscle growth. Anyone have any thoughts?

      1. Same here… I never knew cold showers were hindering my progress. 🙁 🙁 🙁

  25. You forgot to include post-workout meals. Many of those who train don’t eat the right post-workout meal. It’s also the reason they don’t gain muscle. Overall, good article.

  26. While this may not be good for everyone (and certainly not purely primal/paleo), I’ve found that white rice is the perfect caloric increase for muscle building. It’s non toxic, unlike other rice and has loads of carbs to feed the muscles post workout. This is more for bodybuilding than general fitness.

    It’s very difficult to get the carb content required otherwise, unless you eat bowls of fruit.

  27. I started strength training 2 years ago – improved quick & started competing in powerlifting competitions & set some records – it was super awesome. I have an injury that is keeping me from lifting right now but I am continuing with body weight exercises & then added boxing as something new to learn. I ended up with about 10 extra lbs of fat & I’m not sure what I should be doing nutritionally – I kind of kept eating like when I was lifting trying to maintain muscle & now I’m not sure if I should base my calorie reduction on what I was eating or what iifym calculates & should I include the calories burned from boxing in my calculations.

  28. Wowwwwww

    What an amazing post!

    All points are superbly defined and easy to understand worth reading this post till end. Your tips are so helpful for me to achieve my goal of muscle gain! I am so glad that I have come across such wonderful blog!

    Thank you so much for sharing such an informational post! look forward to read many more and definitely going to share with my friends.