For most of us, getting ripped is about having noticeable muscle definition and a lean, athletic physique, not looking like a bodybuilder. I call this body sculpting and I’ve been working on it for years. While weight training can definitely get you there, clean eating is also a must.
Maybe you’re already lean and just don’t have a lot of muscle yet. Or you have muscle but it’s under a layer of fat. Regardless, let’s assume having a lean physique with standout muscle definition is where you want to be. In this post I’ll talk about some common mistakes when training for killer muscle definition, also known as “muscle tone” (wink).
You do only heavy squats
It might sound odd for me to say that only doing heavy squats is a mistake, because we’re urged to squat for muscle. But a recent tweet by Dr. Layne Norton made me stop and think:
As you can see, this statement was retweeted by at least 321 people. At first glance you might agree –squats are king. Maybe, but this is a blanket statement that doesn’t apply to everyone.
If you gain muscle very easily and think your legs look bulky, you should not do heavy squats all the time. There are other ways to isolate your glutes without building up your quads. However, if your legs are thin and you want to build muscle, by all means do heavy squatting in addition to other exercises, as I’ll explain later. (By the way, if you have a diagnosed knee pathology, heavy, deep squats are not your friend, no matter what “squats are king” proponents say.)
You do 8+ exercises per body part
It was only after I became a personal trainer that I learned this lesson. As I discuss here, training volume has everything to do with your progress. More is not always better. You’ll have the best progress doing three to four exercises per large muscle and two to three for smaller ones. There are exceptions to everything, of course, but as a general rule don’t waste your time doing workouts over about 60 minutes. Focus on a few big, compound movements like deadlifts, squats, lunges, bench presses, pull ups, and overhead presses, and supplement with isolation work where needed – that is, where you want to hone your muscle definition.
Everyone knows supersets are smart – you save time and burn more calories. And supersets are appropriate for many people’s goals. But when doing supersets, you should be sure you have enough gas left in the tank to bring it hard every set.
For example, if you want to build your lats but you’re supersetting back exercises with legs, you won’t be able to lift as much for either muscle group. Theoretically, your back muscles are “resting” while you’re working legs, but you’ll still be more worn out before you start your next back set. So if you want to build muscle, use straight sets with appropriate rest in between at least some of the time so you can go heavy.
You only do circuits
If you already have a solid base of muscle and you need to lose some body fat, then do integrate circuit training into your workout week. Concentrate on getting lean and then start a heavy strength program. But if you do not have fat to lose, why are you still doing circuits or stringing more than two exercises in a row?
Circuit training burns fat but isn’t as good at building muscle. By the time you’re done with four or six or eight exercises, the muscles used in the first exercise have had too much rest. Sure, circuits can be arranged to hit your whole body or even a select number of muscles, but again, you can’t go as heavy because you’re worn out.
As you may have noticed, going heavy is a common theme here. You need to lift weight that is challenging in different repetition ranges to build strength and muscle.
This is where Dr. Norton is 100 percent correct. Lifting baby weights – that is, weights you can lift for 15 reps or more – will not give you crazy muscle definition. You need bigger muscles in order for them to stand out on your hot, lean body, and they’ll get bigger by heavy lifting. Most women I talk to in the gym say they’re doing 30 reps of this, or 10 sets of that. You can’t lift heavy if you’re doing that many reps.
Women often fear bulking up and thus resist lifting heavy, but we just don’t have the testosterone needed to get huge. Most people have trouble building muscle and work very hard at it, so don’t expect to have a bodybuilder physique just by lifting heavy weights. To put it in perspective, I do triceps kickbacks with 27-30 pounds per arm and consider my arms to be one of my best, most defined features.
Your diet is out of whack
Building muscle requires extra calories. That’s why if you have body fat to lose it’s best to pay attention to that area first. Once you’re happy with your body fat it’s time to increase the intensity of your strength-training program and also increase the calories by 250-500 kcals, depending on your size, gender, and how many calories you burn. If you’re training hard, getting enough calories will come naturally because you’ll be hungrier. Just don’t go overboard and start gaining the fat back.
Muscle definition requires a lower body fat percentage. Notice I didn’t say “low.” Gals can have 20+ percent body fat and look defined. Guys can have even higher. You don’t have to be at starvation levels to enjoy muscle toning, as it’s called.
You also need to get enough protein. Aim for 1 gram protein per pound of body weight (if you weigh 120 pounds, that’s 120 grams of protein per day). Just get lean protein at every meal and you’ll accomplish this easily. Check out my list of lean protein sources and ideas.
You do the wrong exercises
I agree with Dr. Norton again here – plyometrics are not good muscle builders. Plyometrics are fantastic for burning calories and will definitely train you for strength and power, but they’re not meant to build muscle.
Isolation exercises have a place at the end of your workout as “pump” finishers or to bring out the definition in an area you’re focusing on. Bicep curls, tricep extensions, calf raises – all good if you’re trying to develop those areas and are also doing pull ups, dips, and lunges. But generally you should rely mostly upon big, compound exercises to build muscle. Forget leg extensions, the hip adductor/abductor machines, and front raises. When I see a gal crushing it in the gym with deadlifts or squats and then walk over to the hip adductor/abductor machine, I immediately lose respect. Why? This demonstrates a lack of understanding that the squats and deadlifts already trained her hip complex.
This list isn’t all-inclusive; there are plenty of other mistakes people make when trying to attain muscle definition. Hit me up with questions and download my free 65 Simple Truths and Do-Anywhere Workout for more tips and a bodyweight workout you can use on the go. And if you’re ready for a customized, structured program, contact me for details about online personal training.