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, diet and nutrition, exercise selection, 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?
It’s usually for one or more of these common three reasons:
- You diet too frequently and don’t spend long enough in a caloric 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.
First, 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 its REALLY slow.
So unless you have significant fat to lose (which is always priority #1) it’s best to commit to slowly gaining weight.
That doesn’t mean getting in line at the Golden Corral buffet 6 days a week — 300-500 calories will do it.
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.
Second, 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.” 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. Therefore 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.
Next, a reality check: progression at any cost … has a cost.
Especially as you get stronger and the loads get heavier. Just supporting 405 pounds on your back digs a recovery hole, something that wasn’t an issue when you were only squatting 135.
Now go back to the calorie surplus many aren’t comfortable eating. In a perfect world extra calories are exclusively used to create new muscle tissue.
But if you push too hard into the red too often, some of that modest surplus will FIRST go towards recovering from excessive systemic fatigue.
Long story short: Doing more than enough to make progress only digs a deeper hole. (And eating more than the calculator suggests is always a good idea.)
Here’s a bonus. 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-max loads. It’s certainly not a time for chasing the log book or setting lofty body composition goals.
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