He can dream, but if he doesn’t change his routine he’ll never get those muscles.
Ahhh, muscle gains! The holy grail of the seeker of the fit, athletic body. Many dream of looking like they belong on the cover of a fitness magazine, but they can’t seem to get their muscles to grow. After months or years of regular training, is it possible that some people really just can’t put on muscle?
Although there can be significant genetic limitations with respect to muscle gains, everyone is able to put on some muscle mass. Even elderly men and women (in research) have shown improvements in both strength and, to a lesser extent, muscle size with appropriate weight training programs. I was able to put on muscle as breastfeeding mom (definitely not optimal hormones for muscle building!) in her late 30s. I’m convinced that just about anyone can put on muscle with the right training program and nutrition. Still, many people have a tough time building muscle because they don’t have an effective strategy in place for achieving muscle gains.
If you’re struggling to put on muscle, here’s what you might be doing wrong:
1) You Don’t Progressively Increase The Weight You’re Lifting
Fooled by the “muscle confusion” nonsense, many people bounce around from workout to workout without a definite plan to build muscle. The body responds to progressive overload, increasing the weight you lift over time. To stimulate the muscles to grow, you need to increase the work that they’re forced to do.
Initially you’ll make progress with just about any workout routine. If you’ve been fairly inactive, just getting to the gym and doing some bodyweight exercise is going to give you results. That doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective way to get results, or that you’ll continue to make changes to your body that way.
Working in the 6-12 range is most useful for muscle hypertrophy (growth!), which is what you should be aiming for. If you just keep using the same weight over and over then you won’t see any changes to your physique. Your body ADAPTS to the training stimulus that you give it, but probably not as quickly as most people think. The longer you’ve been working out, the more quickly your body will adapt. Beginners (less than one year of training) can keep doing the same workout for a couple of months before their bodies stop adapting. There’s some individual variation, but if you’ve been working out for 4 or 5 years (or longer!), you will probably need to change your workout program every 4-6 weeks to keep seeing improvements.
So if you’ve been shoulder pressing 20 or 30 pounds in each arm for a few weeks, then you need to start working with heavier weights to build those delts further.
2) You’re Not Eating Enough Calories
‘Tis the season for gains, my slender friend! While all your friends are avoiding the extra food lying everywhere at this time of year, you should be rejoicing if you’re looking to gain muscle. Putting on muscle mass requires that you get your body into a calorie surplus. Many people are worried about eating too much because they’re afraid of putting on fat while trying to gain muscle. Check out THIS BLOG if that’s your concern.
Other naturally-slim people just aren’t used to eat the amount of calories it takes to make gains. If you don’t get enough calories in, or just meet your current nutritional needs (keeping things in balance), there won’t be anything left for your body to build muscle with. A lot of “hard-gainers” just don’t eat enough to build muscle size. Years of not eating enough can be tough to get over. Eating more calorie-dense foods, like nuts, meat, and higher-fat dairy products, can be a big help for getting those extra calories in palatably.
3) You’re Not Getting Enough Protein
Along the same lines, muscle gain requires that you have adequate protein for muscle recovery and growth. Many active people aren’t getting the 0.8-1g per pound of body weight that’s ideal for maximal muscle growth. You can only build muscle when your body is taking in enough fuel to repair and build new muscle tissue, in both quantity (calories) and quality (protein).
If you want to put on serious muscle mass, you often need to eat on the clock. You need to eat when you’re not hungry. Sometimes you need to eat when you think another chicken breast or potato will make you puke. As a side note, if you’re eating a lot of protein you should also be eating lots of vegetables. The antioxidants and micronutrients in a variety of vegetable sources will impact your long-term health. Vegetables also provide necessary fibre to keep you full and keep your digestion running smoothly.
4) You Don’t Work Out Hard Enough
Building a decent amount of muscle requires consistent effort in the gym. Sorry bud, but 10 reps followed by 5 minutes scrolling through your Facebook feed isn’t going to cut it. If you actually want to make progress, you need to be focused on your workout when you’re at the gym. No chatting to your gym friends about your weekend or debating the latest political controversy. Don’t be “THAT GUY”:
Many people who come to me for coaching will tell me that they’ve been weight training for years. They do one session with me and realize that they haven’t really been pushing themselves. Most people go through the motions at the gym, doing 3 sets of 10 of the same exercises over and over again. A lot of the time, they’re doing a weight that isn’t really pushing their muscles to adapt and change. Again, at the beginning you’ll see results from doing practically anything at the gym. After about a year of solid training though, you need to push yourself harder to get results. So if you’ve been doing the same weights for months you won’t see progress. And if you’re doing 10 reps with a weight that you could do 20 reps with, you’re far from maximizing your potential.
Two things are important to maximizing your workout efforts:
- Are you lifting heavy enough? Is the weight you’re doing the most you can do for the rep range you’ve chosen?
- Are you taking the right rest period? For hypertrophy, 30-90secs is generally accepted, although up to 2mins is also effective. More than that and you’re not maximizing your muscle growth and focusing primarily on strength gains. And you’re wasting a lot of time too!
5) You’re Cutting Carbs Too Much
While going low carb can be a great initial strategy for getting lean, carbs are needed to optimize your muscle recovery and to replenish your muscle glycogen stores between weight training sessions. If you’re falling short of carbs you’ll never get the most from your weight training sessions and that means you’ll limit your gains.
If you’re a true hard-gainer, and are pretty lean (under 15% for men and under 20% for women), then you’ll need more carbs than your heavier friends. The best time to have those carbs is around the time you’re working out. A small amount of carbs, perhaps 50-100g, for a lean individual looking to put on mass can be used before your workout, in conjunction with a lean protein. Another serving of carbs post-workout, high-glycemic sources like potatoes, white rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, or perhaps some berries, can help replenish your muscle’s glycogen stores and make sure that you have the strength for your next weights session.
6) You Spend Too Much Time Foam Rolling, Stretching, Mobilizing, Etc. And Not Enough Time Weight Training
If your time were unlimited, it might be useful to spend 30 minutes a day on stretching and foam rolling tight areas. A little bit of pre-workout stretching (after a dynamic warm-up, preferably) is ok, but don’t spend half your workout time lying on the floor breathing in and out slowly trying to loosen up your hamstrings.
For most people, it’s not necessary to spend a long time working out. One hour, on the floor and then back out the door, is sufficient and most people will do well with only 40-45 minutes. I actually set a timer when I start my workout so that I don’t get carried away.
Use your time wisely! Allowing 5-10 minutes for warm-up and stretching a couple of tight areas at the beginning and perhaps 5 minutes at the end to stretch tight areas, gives you 45-50 minutes of QUALITY workout time. Make sure you’re spending that time pushing weights with the right intensity (weight) and rest periods. Maybe squeeze in 10 minutes of foam rolling at night before you go to sleep!
7) You Do Too Much Cardio
If you’re working out to build muscle you need to limit the amount of cardio you do. By “cardio” I’m referring to steady-state medium/high intensity cardiovascular exercise such as jogging, cycling, and using the elliptical machine. Cardio can interfere with your ability to put on muscle. Not only are you affecting your energy levels and recovery for your weight training sessions, where your muscle growth is coming from, but you’re also requiring even more calories to sustain yourself. You’ll just be forcing yourself to eat more to try to get yourself into a calorie surplus.
If you overdo cardio, say 40 minutes to an hour 4 times a week or more, you won’t optimize your hormonal balance for muscle building. Your testosterone levels may drop from excessive stress (T-levels control your ability to build muscle AND stay lean) and your thyroid function may be impaired. The thyroid, by the way, controls the rate of all your bodily functions…essentially your metabolism. So you don’t want to mess with your thyroid!
This doesn’t mean you should freak out about walking 20 minutes to the local grocery store, especially if you’re going there to pick up a case of chicken breasts and some lean beef. Walking is actually a great way to maintain your cardiovascular fitness while minimizing muscle breakdown. Yes, it’s ok to move around; and you should. Spending too many hours sitting behind a desk can put a serious damper on your energy levels (you need those to push hard at the gym!) and can contribute to tight muscles that don’t perform well during lifting.
8) You’re Not Resting Enough
Many people assume that to build more muscle you need to train several hours every day. That’s what the pro bodybuilders do, right? Well yes, but they have the benefit of endogenous hormones that not only help them build muscle but also Actually, your potential to train with the intensity needed for maximum muscle growth starts to dwindle after just over an hour or so of weight training. And muscles don’t actually grow during your workout session (despite the blood-engorged pump you feel during a great workout), they grow when you’re resting afterwards. You tear down those muscle fibers and then they repair themselves and getting bigger and stronger.
So how often should you train as a natural athlete? It’s important to have at least one day off a week, and for more muscle mass I normally recommend training 5 days a week. If you’re over 35 or so, it may be helpful to stick to 4 weight training sessions a week (with a gap after 2 days in a row), since older lifters tend to need more recovery time for growth.
There are a few other limitations that could be working against your ability to build muscle:
I suppose I could have thrown in genetics as a reason why you’re not building muscle, or at least the muscle you want. Everyone has the potential to muscle. How big those muscles ultimately are is genetically-determined, to a significant extent. Still, there are lots of natural bodybuilders out there who overcame inferior genetics to have very impressive physiques. Even natural ectomorphs (the body type normally described as long and lean) can put on significant muscle with the right training and nutrition. So don’t use genetics as an excuse.
Your potential to build muscle decreases as you get older. According to the National Association of Sports Medicine, we lose 0.5-1% of our muscle mass each year after age 35. Keep in mind that estimate is on the condition that you don’t do anything about it (i.e. train with weights). It’s still possible to make some muscle mass increase in your 40s and 50s, and beyond, with the right training methodology and some consistency. Most people don’t train effectively for most of their lives so correctly those issues will bring new results.
I’ve left perhaps the most impactful criteria to last. Being female does in fact limit your ability to build muscle. Testosterone, the primary androgen (male hormone), is at least 18x higher when comparing a female with the highest level of normal testosterone to a male with the lowest level of normal testosterone. A male with high normal T levels can have 70 times the testosterone of a female with low testosterone!
So yes, being a female significantly impacts your ability to build muscle. It’s one of the reasons we tell women not to worry so much about “bulking up” from weight training. Even those of us who try often aren’t able to!
What about those massive fitness ladies you see competing in bodybuilding shows? They start off with great mesomorphic genes (the muscular body type) and often have higher natural levels of testosterone. They also train their butts off for years, and often decades. And at the higher level, in the professional bodybuilding scene, they’re also using performance-enhancing drugs to help build and maintain their muscle.
With the right training and nutrition approach though, women can see a visible increase in their levels of muscle.
What Can YOU Expect?
I’m a strong believer that practically anyone can build more muscle than they already have. Most people don’t optimize their training and nutrition to maximize their muscle gains. If you’re following all the guidelines I’ve mentioned, you’ll be on your way to building the muscle you’ve been aiming for. Have patience and be consistent. Gains are on the way!