5 Biggest Mistakes I Made Trying To Gain Muscle - Dean McMenamin

5 Biggest Mistakes I Made Trying To Gain Muscle

I’m your typical ‘hard gainer’

Always been the skinny guy who struggled to build muscle. But yet, still easily got soft and flabby looking too. Here I am back in 2006, weighing in at the low 60 kilos and in great need of a new chest and set of arms to fill out my uniform:











I was never happy as a skinny kid. In my early 20s, I made a few attempts at hitting the gym…

Then fell off the wagon

Then back on it again. I had a really bad case of stop-start behavior.

In the past few years however, I’ve been more consistent with weight training. My body’s changed quite a bit along the way, not all for the better, though…

I’ve been skinny, skinny fat and also bigger but still on the chubby side (All whilst being consistent with training hard).

It was so frustrating but still, I was determined to figure it all out and finally crack the code to getting in better shape.

Turns out, despite being very consistent with training, I was making a few big ignorant mistakes that I’ll share with you in this article. When I fixed these 5 things, it changed everything. If you’re on the same journey?

I hope they’ll help you…

Mistake #1: “I’m skinny, I can eat what I want. I’ll never get fat”


^^ I call this the ‘skinny guy mindset’.

A belief I had that because I didn’t need to lose weight (and would never need to), I could eat whatever I wanted. So I did just that. Every day.

Don’t get me wrong, I ate all the good stuff too… Meats, fish, eggs, potatoes, rice, veggies, fruit. I ate tonnes of that stuff.

But I was also smashing Ben & Jerries ice-cream by the buckets, Greggs pastries, KFC, pizzas and cakes with no second thoughts at all. There was also plenty of weekend booze ups in the mix too.

The plan was simply to get bigger at any costs.

I did get ‘bigger’ (and stronger). But somehow, just never seemed to get the look I wanted.

“Just need to keep trying. These muscles will show through eventually”

Unfortunately, they didn’t. The truth is, you’re body can only build and repair the muscle it has to after any given workout. Any more calories than you need? will just get stored as fat. And I was eating way more than I needed.

This was me at 80kg after a 2 years of consistent training. 20 kg Bigger than before, yes, but looking really soft:

At this point, I finally realized I was starting to get fat, and it was time to say goodbye to all the junk. Well, most of it anyway 🙁 Meeeeh!

Something had to change…

Here’s another snap shot around 5 months later and 10kg lighter. Looking and feeling so much sharper (I know, that beard game’s coming on strong).

Let that be a reminder to us… And lesson #1: You’ll never outwork a bad diet


Mistake #2: “This Protein Shake Is Gonna Be A Game Changer”

This takes me back to the times I first really started trying hard to gain muscle and change my body. I’d go through short bursts of enthusiasm. Hitting the gym for a few months…

Then sack it, then back on it. And so on…

Anytime I got started again? I spent more time researching protein shakes than I did my workout plans or improving my diet.

And it’s why I struggled to see any gains at all. I honestly thought that all you need to do is lift weights, have a protein shake and that’s it. Your body builds muscle.

In reality, it doesn’t work like that. Although protein is an important part of the diet, everything else is equally important…

The carbs, fats, vitamins & minerals. You also need to be eating more calories from food in general to grow.

So when it comes down to it, unless the fundamentals are in place…

  1.  Consistent, progressive weight training routine.
  2. The every day meals with all the healthy components.
  3. Eating ENOUGH food to gain muscle (without ripping the hole out of it).

A protein shake (or any supplement) shouldn’t be a priority (yet).

And that’s lesson #2: Supplements are only the ‘next step’ of progress after nailing basic workout and eating habits


Mistake #3: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”



For a long time, I was running on an average of 5 hours sleep each night whilst training a hard 9 hours per week.

I’ve always worked hard, long days. So I’d spend my evenings winding down by watching TV or pissing around on my phone. At this point, I was pretty ignorant to the fact that…

  1. Your ability to build muscle is determined by your ability to recover from your workout.
  2. Sleep is the #1 most important part of your recovery and source of general good health.
  3. Artificial light at night and staring at screens until late, or in my case… Until your mind numbs so much that your body shuts down is the #1 way to ruin your chances of the quality sleep.

It’s of no surprise to me (now) that I was constantly dealing with niggling injuries that would put me out of training for weeks (Sometimes even months).

Of course, my terrible diet didn’t help either.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and the quality of sleep I get with some bed time rituals in place has been life-changing.

In honest, this part needs it’s own dedicated article. I know there’s books dedicated to sleep & recovery, but here’s the basics of what I do every night:

With a slight exception on the weekend  (cus Netflix & Chill).

It looks like this…

  • 21:30 Screens off, WI-FI & phones off, brush teeth
  • 21:35 Lights dimmed & reading in bed
  • 22:00 Lights out

Simple. I’m out for the count and up at 05:30 AM like clock work feeling ready to dominate every day.

It’s been the best investment in my health and daily energy to date.

(And I’ve wasted thousands on supplements over the years btw)

Lesson #3: No sleep? No gains my friend 


Mistake #4: “I’ll be happy when I get to 80kg”



Like I mentioned earlier, at one point in life I was a skinny weakling weighing 60kgs. The only thing that mattered to me was chasing the number on the scales. I didn’t care less if I gained some fat along the way, I kinda needed that too.

This led me to doing some pretty stupid shit to get those numbers up…

Like the ‘GOMAD’ diet. (Gallon Of Milk A DAY)

^^ That’s 4 Litres of whole milk a day on top of your current diet. I done it every day for 4 weeks straight before I decided to grind it out no more. It was horrendous. I don’t recommend it.

“When I get to 80 I’ll be stronger, bigger , confident”

But when I got there? That wasn’t the case. Because the process I used was sloppy.

Other focus points would have served me better, like the habit-based goals we all have direct control over…

  • 3-4 x strength workouts per week
  • 5-7 daily portions of fruit & veg
  • Lean protein with every meal
  • 2L water daily
  • 2 x stretching & mobility sessions per week
  • Performance goals in workouts
  • Bed time routines

The lesson from #4?

-> Focus on the QUALITY of the process and the introduction of the positive DAILY habits. Have patience. 

The desired outcomes will follow


Mistake#5: “Must Grind – Every Day”

I’ve got a very addictive personality. When I get in the zone for something, I can let it negatively impact other important things…

Like family, career, social life.

Despite my busy lifestyle with less than the average family time already, I’d often make the mistakes of diving head first into a new routine of hitting the gym 5-6 times per week.

(Another reason I probably wasn’t growing very well).

Eventually the inevitable happened…

Relationships and work start to suffer. Not just on a time basis but a quality basis too. Half asleep during family time and no fun to be around.

Again… This is also linked to poor recovery and diet. Which I used to suck at.

Now, I’ve had to have several deep conversations with myself about what really matters and what was both realistic and sustainable in order to ‘crack the code’.

It’s still a work in progress, but I do know…

I’m not a competitive athlete in any sport, I simply want fitness to enhance my life, not be detrimental to the other parts of it.

I’m a firm believer in always pushing for better with fitness, but I equally want to push for these principles in all areas.

To be a great Dad, partner, coach and maintain a healthy social life with my life long friends.

So, figuring out a way that works for you (and not just the way that got some guy on the front cover of Mens Fitness in 12 weeks) is absolutely vital.

Truth is, heavy lifting in the gym doesn’t need to be anywhere near as often as you might think.

There’s more to fitness than just lifting weights…

Like playing sports, jogging, hiking, swimming and doing the fun stuff with other people. These other physical activities are actually great for your recovery too.

The weights room can be super effective for gaining strength and muscle in small doses. In fact…

At one point I was so busy with study, business and life that I knew I could only dedicate 3 x 45 minute gym sessions a week for a few months and nothing else at all.

So I followed a really simple 5×5 strength building routine with dumbells only (Because the only 3 barbells in the gym were being used too often and I didn’t have time to wait or piss about).

I didn’t expect too much from it, but to my surprise…

After around 4 months I got more compliments on my shape in one week than I’d ever experienced in my life.

And ‘apparently’ 5×5 strength work is LESS optimal for building muscle than say… Higher reps in the 6-12 rep ranges.

So why did it work so well for me?

My logic says…

  1. It was really simple and easy to follow with no more than 4-5 exercises per workout -> So I was able to go really hard on those.
  2. I had WAY more recovery time so I actually allowed my body to grow a little.
  3. It didn’t interfere with spending quality time with my family, developing my coaching practice and helping my clients so I enjoyed it more too – Hence staying consistent.

So I was able to stick with it (and make progress in strength) consistently without any hiccups over a long period of time.

Lesson #5? –> Fitness should enhance your life, not define it. 

If your current training plan screws with that law ^^

You might need to re-evaluate.

To summarise the key lessons…

  1. Anyone can get fat. You can still enjoy what life has to offer in limited doses but if you’re serious about getting in better shape. Keep most of your diet filled with wholesome, nutritious and minimally processed foods. Earn your treats… Don’t sedate in them.
  2. Supplements can help… But they’re exactly what they say on the tin: SUPPLEMENTARY to an already healthy lifestyle.
  3. Sleep is the main source of all your growth. Not just for your muscle, but your energy, mood, health and longevity. Aim for 7-9 hours per night.
  4. Focus on introducing (and maintaining) good habits that are directly related to building muscle… Not the body weight your carrying.
  5. Keep training simple, practical and fun . Don’t sweat it if you can’t get to the gym as much as you’d like, just go hard on the days that you can. The most important factor is PROGRESS in your training over time.



Train smart, eat well, have fun


About the Author Dean McMenamin

Dean McMenamin is an Army veteran, father, dog-lover and body transformation coach to every day men all over the UK & Ireland. He's also a big eater of ice-cream.

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