When you’re new to the gym, just about anything will add muscle to your body. You can simply show-up, try hard and see some pretty decent results. But once the golden period is over and all those newbie gains have dried-up, why can it seem so hard to build any muscle?
Well it goes without saying that if building muscle were easy, we’d all be walking around jacked and invisible lat syndrome would not be a thing. And while there are a lot of variables that go into building muscle, the core principles are well understood and time-tested.
In my experience as a trainer and as someone that’s been around the gym for almost thirty years, here’s three common reasons why you’re not building muscle.
Too much program hopping
The Internet, God bless it, has done great things for the health and fitness industry. Never has there been a time when there has been such free and ready access to an abundance of information about training, diet and nutrition.
But at the same time, that free and ready access has proven to be a disaster. Not only is there too much of it, the quality of the information out there leaves a lot to be desired. And even if you are finding good content, it’s changing at such a pace that you can’t possibly keep up.
Now if you’re reading this, chances are you already frequent a myriad of training and nutrition resources online. And I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that there’s no way on God’s green Earth that you haven’t heard the term muscle confusion.
The premise of muscle confusion is that we quickly adapt to different types of exercise, and that in order to see progress you need to surprise, shock or otherwise “confuse” your muscles by constantly switching-up the exercises in your workout program.
And while there are a few tiny nuggets of possibility in that idea, it’s overwhelmingly nonsense and has simply become a great way for web sites and trainers to sell new programs to people that really don’t need them.
This most frequently manifests as program hopping where you jump to a new program barely three weeks after starting the one you previously downloaded from zee internets.
Now, if I dig too deeply into why program hopping is limiting your gains, we’ll be here all day. So here’s the key reasons you want to stick with a program and see it through.
- Muscles grow (adapt) in response to the ever-increasing demands of an external stimulus (progressive overload). When you hop from program to program you disrupt and frequently regress this critical mechanism of muscle building.
- Maximal performance requires something close to optimal efficiency, and it takes time to become proficient at new movements. So the first few weeks of performing a workout are all about improving the neural connections and becoming proficient. When you bail on a program early, you short that investment and leave gains on the table.
- Building on the point above, when you’re thinking of changing-up your program, chances are you’ve already mentally bailed on the program you have. Unlike muscle confusion the mind-muscle connection IS a real thing, and the lack of focus and connection with your program will limit your performance – and progress.
Find a program you like and stick to it. At least for six weeks and perhaps as long as 8-12 weeks. And if you want to make changes, keep them small and simple! Reorder the movements. Change your grip or foot position. Modify the rep ranges. Just don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
You’re not eating enough
You can train as hard and as long as you want, but if you’re nutrition is in the shitter you’re not making gains. Period. And the biggest nutritional lever you have to pull in support of muscle growth is
That’s right, calories.
Yes, protein is important. But if you’re not in an energy surplus, you’re sure as shit not building any muscle.
Because although you’re unique, you’re just not “special”, and you can’t escape the fundamental mechanisms of fat loss and muscle building:
- To lose fat, you have to be in negative energy balance
- To add muscle, you have to be in positive energy balance
So the first place to look when your gains have dried-up is at total calories. You have to get your body into a caloric surplus, and while that doesn’t have to happen every day, your calories (energy in) needs to exceed your energy expenditure across the training week.
The exact how of that is another entire post (or book), so I’m going to drop you two methods here that anyone can use to rough this out.
Quick and dirty
Eat 18-20+ calories per pound of body weight. Err toward 18 kcals/lb if you are not lean/active, and 20+ kcal/lb if you are lean[er] and active. Monitor weight week to week and adjust up or down as needed.
For those that won’t track calories, you can learn to monitor and manage your hunger. Here are the four states of bodybuilding hunger simplified down to sound-bytes. Diet and hunger management is certainly more nuanced than this, but given time and effort, this approach can serve you well over time.
- Constantly full
- You are bulking and definitely gaining weight. If you train hard enough, a decent amount of this weight will be muscle, but some fat is coming too.
- Not hungry
- You are largely maintaining. You’ll hold your gains, and likely hold your body fat too. Small fluctuations in composition are inevitable week to week, month to month, and care needs to be taken that you don’t drift in to constantly full.
- Hungry for next meal and on waking
- You are leaning out. By paying attention to overall portion sizes and having cut out the majority of your snacking, you are now hungry by meal time and look forward to eating. You’ll also be waking with a decent hunger, and frequently looking leaner and tighter in the morning mirror with that shadowy bathroom light.
- Fucking hungry all the time
- You are pushing for very lean, and perhaps toward shredded. Single digit body fat is within your grasp! You are paying serious attention to meal sizes and composition, and start to eat a lot of the same things. You will not be snacking at all, and you’ll be saving the majority of your calories for post-workout so that you can go to bed feeling satiated. You are often hungry throughout the day, with meals generally leaving you like you wanted more.
To gain muscle you have to be in energy surplus, and that generally means offsetting hard-training and activity with much needed added calories. Prioritize calories, aim for around 0.8-1g/lb of body weight (for gaining muscle), get plenty of healthy, whole-food carbs and don’t drop under 0.3g/lb of fat.
It’s a little banal and somewhat trite, but I’ve said the following to my clients (and anyone else that will listen) at every possible occasion.
Train hard, recover harder!
And it’s advice I frequently fail to heed myself; so I am really not preaching.
But here’s the thing, we are not building muscle when we are training. The training is the stimulus for change, but the adaptation to workout stress (muscle protein synthesis) takes place over a period of hours and depending on the extremity of the stressor, sometimes WEEKS!
So when we continue to accumulate workout stress without letting muscles fully recover, we are again leaving gains on the table – and potentially ALL the gains.
But what is “recovery” I hear you ask.
Well good recovery is a lot of things, but here’s the big three you need to nail to maximize the return on your training investments:
- Nutrition – Related to undereating above, you can’t fully recover from an intense workout if you are not eating enough quality food. This is why we have to be extremely careful when training in a caloric deficit as your ability to recover is stretched. For optimal recovery, eat to your calorie target, get plenty of carbs pre, peri and post workout, and maintain a baseline of 0.8 to 1g/lb of bodyweight for protein.
- Take your rest days – I know it feels like you’re missing out when you take a day off from the gym, but you have to start to shift your mindset to one where you visualize rest day as the time when all the magic happens. And be conscious of cramming in too much cardio on your off days too, especially when muscle building is your goal. While active recovery is a valuable tool, too much cardio can tax your recovery and leave you under-recovered before the next workout.
- Manage stress – We all have it, and we can’t escape it. And I don’t want you stressing about managing stress! But chronic stress wreaks havoc on our body and negatively impacts our sleep quality. So anything and everything you can do to manage and mitigate sources of stress will pay huge dividends in improving the quality of your sleep, and your recovery.
Muscles don’t grow during training, they adapt to the stress of training during periods of rest. If you are not maximizing your recovery, you are short-changing yourself. Get out for a walk in nature, journal your thoughts, meditate or practice focused breathing! It might sound simple and just a tad woo-woo, but I can assure you it all adds up fast – and it all works.
If you are struggling to strip away fat or build muscle and are looking for the support and expertise of a dedicated one-on-one coach, we should talk. I have month-to-month services, packaged coaching at a discount and a Mentorship service for those new to one-on-one coaching or the experienced trainee that needs some focused support and increased accountability.
Let’s start with a conversation.
It’ll cost you nothing but a little of your time, and it might just change your life.