If you think you're doing everything right in the gym and still not gaining muscle, chances are you might be at the wrong body fat percentage.
Everyone has their own sweet spot where they grow optimally. For most, it's in the 8-15% range. If you're trying to stay at 6% body fat while attempting to gain muscle, you just need to eat more.
For most, though, it's typically that you're too fat to be on a muscle-building diet in the first place. When you're too fat, your insulin sensitivity, digestion, inflammatory markers, and hormones are all out of whack. When you combine these factors with a calorie surplus, it's a quick recipe for fat gain.
The Push/Back Off Approach
There comes a point, though, when your body becomes really good at getting fat. This is why people who want to build muscle should get lean first. Your body will be more sensitive to growth and you'll allow yourself more space to grow into.
So if you're 15% body fat, start with an initial 6-10 week diet to get into shape before transitioning into a muscle-building phase. Once you begin adding calories in again, aim to gain between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of bodyweight per week until you reach the upper end of your optimal body fat range.
If you're not sure how fat "too fat" is, here are some good signs:
- Your appetite is completely shot
- You can't get a good pump in the gym
- Your joints are always hurting
- You've lost the faint line of your abs/obliques/serratus
At this point, taking the foot off the gas and starting a quick mini-diet can be beneficial:
- It trims up excess body fat
- It helps ramp up appetite again
- It gives the digestive system a break
- It re-sensitizes your body to nutrients
After running this for 2 to 6 weeks (depending on body fat), you should be in a much better place to start building muscle again. This "push/back off" approach works extremely well in building a lot of muscle mass over a long period of time.