Let’s face it, if building muscle were easy, everyone would be walking around jacked to the gills. So what are some of the biggest challenges? In this post I discuss three of the most likely reasons you’re still not making those sweet gains.
Let’s be clear: There could be many reasons you’re not adding appreciable muscle to your physique.
On some level, everything matters. Total volume, training frequency, exercise selection, diet and nutrition, recovery and stress management, sleep quality, hormones, and especially effort. The list can be long.
But all things being equal, with a modest calorie surplus and some consistent hard training, everyone can build some muscle.
So if the gains aren’t coming, what’s the damn problem?
Well, it’s usually for one or more of these common three reasons:
- You diet too frequently and don’t spend long enough in an energy surplus.
- You’re not getting stronger (adding weight or reps to most exercises) over time.
- You overreach in almost every workout and don’t invest enough resources in recovery.
You MUST be in an energy surplus
First—and this is an important one—if you want to add size, you MUST be in an energy surplus.
And before you comment “recomposition” or “lean gains”, the vast majority of people will need to eat more than they think to see meaningful results. More on this later.
For the fat-phobes, YES you CAN build muscle while losing fat—your body will break down body fat to fuel muscle growth—but it’s suboptimal and REALLY slow.
So unless you have significant fat to lose (which is always priority #1) it’s best to commit to slowly gaining weight.
But that doesn’t mean getting in line at the Golden Corral buffet 6 days a week—300-500 extra calories will do it. And that could be as simple as an apple and two tablespoons of peanut butter, and maybe one additional protein shake post training or before bed.
You’re not progressing in your workouts
Too many folks are simply “training hard” and hoping for the best.
You’ve probably read that “as long as you hit failure you’re going to grow.” And while there’s some truth to this, it doesn’t take account of the biggest variable in training—progression.
If you’re not getting even a little bit stronger in most exercises over the long haul, the chances are you’re not building appreciable muscle.
Progressive overload is the single biggest training variable that impacts strength and hypertrophy gains. This is why every successful bodybuilder keeps a training journal or log book and strives to improve on their lifts session to session and week to week.
However, you won’t move forward indefinitely without stalling. This is why most good training programs are broken up into phases or blocks with periods of deloading.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the majority of your training needs to be spent chasing and beating your log book—be that one more pound, one more rep or one more set.
You overreach in almost every workout
Building on the last point, there’s also a significant chance that you are constantly overreaching with your training. It’s all too easy to just keep adding more and more sets, push deeper and deeper into failure or have your training partner doing bent-over rows while you get another 12 assisted presses on the flat bench.
But here’s the rub: That modest surplus we’re trying to create needs to go to repairing and building muscle and is all too easily spent recovering from an excess of systemic fatigue. Moreover, the chances of you avoiding injury and maintaining forward progression on your lifts is significantly reduced when you are pushing so hard in every session.
The key to a successful building phase is to do “just enough” to progress from the previous workout and then focus your efforts on recovery, nutrition and sleep.
Bonus: Acute stress kills gains
And here’s a bonus for you: If you’re experiencing a period of elevated stress—be that from relationships, work, bereavement etc.—all bets are off.
Acute stress negatively impacts your hormones and makes building muscle (or losing fat) significantly harder.
During these times, you are definitely better off either taking a few extra rest days or chasing a different “carrot” such as focusing more on form with sub-maximal loads.
It’s certainly not a time for chasing the log book or setting lofty body composition goals.
Got a different opinion? Drop a comment below with your own experience, email me or send me a DM on Instagram @uncommonsensephysique.
A modified version of this article first appeared on bryankrahn.com.