1 – You've Stopped Getting Stronger
When you first start training, watching the weight on the bar go up each week is a great feeling. The problem is, once these "newbie gains" wane, most people stop putting an emphasis on strength and start wasting time with so-called advanced protocols that typically leave them spinning their wheels.
Until you reach an advanced level of physique development, your sole focus should be on developing strength in exercises that suit your mechanics, over a wide variety of rep ranges.
Remember, if you're lifting the same weights you were three years ago, chances are you probably look exactly the same. If you've lost your focus on this single most important factor in building muscle, use this method of goal setting to get you back on track:
Pick 2-3 exercises that suit your mechanics best in each of the following movement patterns:
- Upper Body Push: Dumbbell Incline Press, Dip, Military Press
- Upper Body Pull: Bent-Over Row, Chin-Up, Dumbbell Row
- Quad Dominant: Front Squat, Leg Press, Walking Lunge
- Posterior Chain: Romanian Deadlift, Lying Leg Curl, Hip Thrust
Once you've picked your exercises, test your 6-8 and 8-12 rep maxes in each of them. Then train hard for 12 weeks and focus on progressing the lifts as much as possible while maintaining perfect form.
In a world full of fancy training techniques and "cutting edge tricks" to build muscle, it's easy to forget that progression is the foundation of the hypertrophy pyramid. Once you keep this at the forefront, you'll start growing again.
2 – You Can't Feel The Muscle
Gaining strength in the gym comes with one important caveat: You must be able to get stronger while still being able to feel the muscle at all times.
This isn't powerlifting, where strength is defined by moving the weight from point A to point B. Rather, in bodybuilding, you need to be able to keep consistent tension in the belly of the muscle at all times. It's about making the muscles work as hard as possible. When we talk about progressive overload, we're talking about creating increasing tension in the muscles over time.
In order to do this, we need perfect execution and picture-perfect form. This is a critical skill to learn if your aim is muscle growth.
If you can't maintain execution, form, and tension as you increase the weight, you've increased weights too quickly. There's a time and place to push the boundaries and allow a little loose form in order to feel out a new weight, but this is something for advanced lifters. Otherwise, progression should never come at the expense of form. Doing so will lead to achy joints, injuries, plateaus, and no muscle growth.
3 – You're Not Eating Enough
If you speak to anyone who's pushed the boundaries of muscle growth, they'll tell you that the training is the easy bit. Eating 4000 to 6000 calories – day in, day out – is the tough part.
While it seems like a no-brainer, most people struggling to build muscle simply aren't eating enough. So how much should you be eating? A good starting point for most people would be around 16-18 kcals per pound of bodyweight. This'll place you at slightly above-maintenance calories. From here, see how your body responds after 10-14 days and then adjust accordingly.
When setting up your diet for muscle growth, use these guidelines for your macronutrient intake:
- Aim for around 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day
- Aim for around 20-30% calories to come from fat
- Save the remainder of your calories for carbs
For example, if we've got a 175-pound male, these guidelines will give him a starting point of 2800 calories (16 kcal/pound) and goals of 175 grams of protein, 75 grams of fat, and 350 grams of carbs per day.
If you're training hard four days a week and you're in good condition, this number will probably need to go up, but it's always best to start on the lower end of the scale and increase as you go on.
Once you reach the realm of ingesting 20-24 (maybe more) kcals per pound of bodyweight, you may find that you need to push yourself to eat that much food. Providing you're not just getting fat, being consistent with these high calorie intakes will be necessary to spark further muscle growth.
It's at this time that appetite often becomes the limiting factor, which is why you'll hear many hardgainers claiming they eat "loads" but never put on weight. In these scenarios, opting for hyper-palatable/calorie dense foods work well, as well as using more liquid meals in the day. Some good examples include: whey/oats/nut butter blends, olive oil added to food, post-workout cereals, protein shakes, etc.
4 – You're Too Fat or Too Lean
If you think you're doing everything right and still not progressing, 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% body fat 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.
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.
5 – You're Not Patient or Consistent Enough
Building muscle is a marathon, not a sprint. At times it can be so slow and frustrating that it's easy to lose focus and patience.
This is why training and diet "ADD" is at an all-time high. In this age of distraction, social media, and constant comparison, arguably the biggest reason guys aren't building muscle anymore is their inability to stick to ONE plan consistently.
Here's what you need to do:
- Pick one (only one) program that excites you.
- Commit to it for at least 16 weeks.
- Train your balls off and eat a consistent surplus.
- Don't even consider looking at another program until the 16 weeks are up.
- Enjoy the newfound muscle growth!