I have yet to meet someone who didn’t make mistakes when they first started bodybuilding. Maybe they trained arms every day or ate 500g of protein per day. We all have some crazy early methods that likely weren’t very productive for our future goals. I made some specific mistakes as well, but I will share with you the big picture ones because those will be more helpful.
Not Hiring a Coach
Many, if not all, of my nutrition and training errors could have been resolved with just doing this alone. This is at the top of my list because it had such an impact on my progress when I finally hired a coach. Although I made some good progress in the four years I went without one, I could have made that progress much faster. If you think about how many Pros have coaches, it makes sense that an amateur would need even more coaching. I can’t say I have regrets, though, because it forced me to read everything I could and learn the reasons behind what I was doing.
I realize that money might be an issue, especially as a newcomer to the sport. The diet, supplements, and suits, and then a coach on top of that is very expensive. However, you need to prioritize what will help you the most and cut costs where you can. I know I could have cut down my supplement budget and been more efficient with food choices in order to afford a coach. Check out my “Big on a Budget” to learn how to make a bodybuilding diet for a week on just $50.
If hiring a coach is out of the question, seek out a mentor or talk to people. You can even message coaches or Pros in the sport. Build relationships with these people. You would be surprised at the information you can get if you really approach someone the right way. When I first started powerlifting, I found the strongest guys I could in San Antonio and started training with them. This was free, but invaluable to my success.
Realistic Time Frames
Everyone thinks they have more muscle and less fat than they really do. This leads to starting a prep without enough time to diet and an inadequate rate of fat loss during the prep. In my early years, I would give myself enough time in the off-season to grow, but prep was a different story. For whatever reason I thought 14 weeks was a good starting point. This wasn’t close to what I really needed. Add another 4 weeks on to that and I would have gotten it right. Many new competitors come to me for coaching at 12 weeks or even 10 weeks out, oblivious to the fact that this isn’t enough time. Most preps are now starting at 20-24 weeks, which gives you a grace period in case progress stalls. Also, getting lean early and maintaining it is a lot better than not being ready and racing at the end.
Ask competitors to look at you 24-28 weeks out. They might be able to tell you whether or not this is a good timeline for you. Stop by the animalpak.com forum, post up your pics, and let some experienced competitors give you feedback. Another option is to find pictures of a good competitor at 20 weeks out and put your picture next to theirs. Do you look close to their conditioning? Are you leaner or softer? You can use this to gauge a time frame for dieting for a show.
Not Enough Recovery
I remember vividly being 4 weeks out from my first show when I was in college and having to stop halfway on my walk to class. My legs were so fried from the excessive cardio and weight training that I didn’t think I couldn’t take another step. I made prep very hard on myself. Now, I am not saying it won’t be hard, but more suffering doesn’t always mean a more shredded physique. I would do 2 hours of cardio, mostly HIIT style, with no rest days to get in shape. It worked, but I was run down. Looking back, I should have taken a rest day and possibly implemented an occasional re-feed day.
I am reluctant to recommend the kind of recovery where you back off of training because many people just don’t train hard enough. So, if that is the case with you, I would tell you to train harder and do less for the best result. You also need to factor in sleep, stress, and nutrition when trying to optimize your recovery.
Focusing Too Much on the Scale
This caused me to get too fat in the off-season and hold out during prep. In the off-season, I rarely took progress pictures and just went by the numbers on the scale. I wanted to see slow steady weight gain, but if you aren’t looking at yourself enough this will lead to a sumo wrestler body type. Focus on progress pictures and compare back over several weeks because progress can be slow. Look back to pictures when you were 16 weeks out—do not let yourself get softer than this look in the off-season.
The scale during prep can mess with your mind, especially if the number isn’t dropping. You must look at pictures to check progress. Weight will change depending on sleep, fluid status, nutrition for the day, stress, and hormone changes to name a few factors. Scale weight isn’t an accurate tool to use for fat loss. Also, many people have a goal weight in mind. This usually leads to you not being lean enough because most people underestimate how much body fat they really have. Focus on achieving a look. Find pictures of competitors 1 week out and work toward that look.
Even though these are beginner mistakes, advanced competitors still make them. Do your best to assess areas for improvement and make the changes needed to better yourself. I would have progressed much faster with more self-reflection. And don't forget, above all, to be consistent and intense.