Why Can’t I Build Muscle?

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“Why Can’t I Build Muscle?”, many people ask.

Most of us will maximize our muscle building potential by the time we’ve been training properly for about four or five years.
Now that does mean training properly.
And a lot of people will train for a decade or two, but not consistently and not using progressive overload.

Beginning Weight Training

Now, when you first start weight training, it’s actually a really great time, especially if you’re doing things properly.

Newbie Gains

You’re gonna get all those newbie gains.
So in that first year, you can build for a male up to 20 or 25 pounds of muscle. And then maybe in that second year, you’ll only get another 10 pounds and then maybe the third year, about five pounds. And then it’s gonna decrease from there.
For a woman, maybe she’s putting on 10 pounds in her newbie year.
And then after that, maybe another five, maybe another two and a half the year after that.

Not Using Progressive Overload

If you’re not building muscle, one of the reasons could be that you’re not using this system of progression.
You’re just doing the same sets and reps and weights, and perhaps even the same exercises over and over and over again. So your muscles are not getting enough stimulus in order to grow.

Don’t Change Your Program TOO Frequently

Now that doesn’t mean that you wanna change your program too frequently, because that can also be a reason why you’re not building muscle.
If you’re constantly changing your muscles, don’t have time to adapt and grow. So generally about four to six weeks is recommended for when you should change your program. And this doesn’t need to be a major change. It may just be sets or reps or it might be changing the muscle groups and how you’re hitting them each week. But if you’re constantly lifting the same weights and only doing the same exercises, then you’re not going to get further muscle growth.
Now I recently did a video about progressive overload.
So I go into more detail there.
Progressive overload is a gradual increase in stress on the muscular skeletal and your nervous system.
And that stress produces muscle adaptation. And that’s what you’re looking for. An increase in muscle size and strength.

Not Training Frequently Enough

Another reason why you’re not building muscle is the frequency of your training.
Ideally you wanna train each muscle group twice a week, but that doesn’t mean just two workouts a week. It’s really hard to do all the muscle groups in one session and then hit them twice. Full body workouts can be a good idea, especially at the beginning because you really don’t have anything that you’re building on yet.
I’ve seen some clients get muscle building results on two workouts per week.
And that’s with a structured progressive program where they’re pushing themselves quite hard. That usually only happens for people at the beginning of their training.
Once you’ve been training for a couple of years, you need to increase the frequency of training.
If you really wanna optimize your muscle building, you need at least those three or four sessions a week. Some people can do up to five and still have good recovery and growth. So you wanna look at how many times you’re training and if you’re not building muscle, maybe it’s not enough.

Training Too Often

It’s also possible that it’s too much training and you’re not giving your muscles a chance to rest and grow. If you’re constantly coming into your sessions really exhausted, then you’re never going to be able to push the kind of loads that are gonna get you muscle growth.
This can particularly be an issue as we get older into our late thirties, forties and beyond our recovery is not as good. So you need more time in between your sessions so that you can really get the maximum muscle building benefit. So I tend to recommend that three to four times a week as an ideal muscle building range.

Doing Too Much Cardio

When we talk about too much of something, cardio can also be an issue.
So I’m not talking about doing a half an hour walk a day because I think that’s a great added benefit in terms of calorie burn. And it’s not going to exhaust you for your weight training sessions.

The Importance Of Recovery If You Can’t Build Muscle

That’s a key part of it. If you’re doing three hit sessions a week and then an hour run on the weekends, then you may not be giving your body enough chance to recover and for your muscles to grow. So while you might burn more calories, if you do a very intense cardio session, quite often, it can be a little overwhelming to your nervous system. Recovery is not just physical, but also nervous system recovery.
And then it becomes a mental thing too. If you’re hitting the gym, but you’re really not able to push yourself, then you’re never gonna be able to get the muscle building results that you want. You need to enter the gym with fairly fresh most of the time so that you can really apply as much intensity as you can to that weight training session.
So you can certainly include cardio as part of your program. But the main thing is that you don’t do so much that it impacts your recovery for your strength training session. It’s actually better to do the lower intensity cardio. So is not to interfere with your weight training.

Not Eating Enough Calories

Another reason why you can’t build muscle could be because you’re not getting in enough calories.
Now, often people who consider themselves hard gainers don’t have the biggest appetite. And I’ve worked with several of these people in the past. And when they tell me what they’re eating, it just isn’t enough. You need to have more than your maintenance if you’re a lean person. So you need to be in a calorie surplus in order to build muscle. Now you may or may not be tracking calories, but if you’re finding that you are staying lean, but you’re not seeing any muscle growth, you’re likely not taking in enough calories to build that muscle. So it’s easy enough to just add about 250 extra calories. It could be a small snack to each day and then see how it adds up.
If you see some changes after two or three weeks in terms of muscle building, then that might be a good indicator that you haven’t been eating enough for people who are naturally very lean. It’s often challenging to get in the number of calories that they really need to build muscle. And it often feels like force feeding yourself food that you don’t want, which is a problem that you know, a lot of people would want. But if your main goal is to put on mass, put on muscle. It often can feel like a chore too.

Not Getting Enough Protein

And particularly the other thing that can prevent you from not building muscle, which is not getting enough protein.
Your muscles need that protein to recover and grow. I generally recommend 0.7 to one gram of protein per pound of body weight. If you’re a person who enjoys protein, you might wanna be on the higher end. If you have a hard time getting that much protein in, definitely put yourself on the lower end and set a goal that’s realistic for you.
Even if you’re not tracking calories, it’s a good idea to at least find out how much protein you’re having on a regular basis. We tend to eat the same things day in, day out. So if you just make sure that you have the right amount of protein per meal, then you’ll often end up okay.

Managing Protein Intake

If you’re not actually getting the numbers for your protein, then an easy way of doing it.
For men two palm-sized amounts of protein per meal. If you have three meals a day, you want two palm-sized amounts of protein. Each time that kind of makes it proportional to your body size as well. So a larger male will have larger hands, larger protein size.
For a woman, probably one palm-sized amount of protein, maybe one and a half. If you’re trying to put on a little bit more muscle.
That gives you kind of a rough idea that you’re getting enough protein.

Getting Additional Protein Through Protein Shakes

Sometimes getting in that much protein can feel like a struggle. So protein shakes can be a reasonable option for many people.
I created a video about choosing a good protein powder. So that might help you out there.

Muscle Building Takes Time

Now, before I get to the most important reason why you’re not building muscle, I wanna remind you of one thing.
Be patient!
Muscle building takes time. It takes a consistent effort with your training, with your protein and the calories in order to see the results.
Weight loss is actually relatively simple. You get yourself into a calorie deficit and you’re gonna start to see that fat come off. But for building muscle, you really need to be consistent with the stimulus that you’re providing for your muscles and with the fuel that you’re giving them as well, gaining muscle takes time.

Not Working Out Hard Enough

And the most common reason why people don’t build muscle is they’re not working out hard enough.
I’ve seen this for years at the gym because people are not doing a true progressive overload or they’re not really doing their sets to failure or at least to fatigue when you’re finished in terms of beginners, we want them to go until their technique starts to get a little bit wobbly when the technique fails. That’s when you stop your set.
But a lot of people are doing three sets of 10 with a weight that they could do for 20 reps. And that’s not gonna get you the result that you want.
A lot of people also spend tons of time scrolling on their phone or distracted. So they’re not really getting that mind muscle connection and pushing their muscles to whatever their muscles can do.

Bad News!

I know people hate to hear this because it does put the onus on you to really push yourself and make sure that you’re getting the most out of your sessions.
But I’ve seen in gyms that most people don’t. So they’re not going to get the muscle building progress, unless they really put the focus and effort into each session. You don’t have to train to complete failure each time, but you need to feel most of your sessions. Obviously there’ll be times when you take it a little bit easier in order for your muscles to recover, but then you need to put in a genuine effort the next time you’re working out.
There may be ups and downs in your training and no one’s expecting linear progress. That doesn’t happen with muscle building. And generally not with weight loss either, but overall it takes a lot of effort.
Building muscle is hard. If you’re not pushing yourself hard, then that might be the reason why you’re not building muscle.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 8-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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