If you can’t build muscle and are not seeing results, the first place you should look at is your diet. Diet, or nutrition, plays a crucial role in muscle growth.
Nutrition is the principal element in fitness. Regardless whether we are talking about weight loss or muscle growth, your diet plan is of extremely importance.
Sadly, muscle doesn’t just magically appear on your body.
It requires the right amount, and type, of nutrients in order to grow – this includes carbs, protein and fats.
You can lift weights all you want at the gym, you can gain immense strength, do reps until you turn blue, but until you have your diet in check you’re not really going to see any improvements.
Your goal needs to be a small caloric surplus. Enough to create an anabolic effect and elevate muscle hypertrophy but not too much to make you gain fat, which can be disadvantageous both hormonally and psychologically (as I explain in better detail further in the article).
According to Dr. Jacob Wilson, who ran a number of experiments, extra calories can have an anabolic effect, however there is a ceiling for their positive effects. I really recommend you read his article “Is Bulking Really Necessary?“ where he explains everything in greater detail.
Dr. Wilson also states that you can gain muscle mass without being in a caloric surplus, thus preventing any excess fat gain – it’s just not going to be as much. And as I’ve already touched on the subject you can even build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
He also claims that in his study the group that was overfed a moderate 800 calories received the best results. Essentially presenting the notion that an 800 calorie surplus is an ideal place to be at.
That may be confusing for many as there are quite a lot of fitness experts who claim that a surplus of 300 calories is ideal and more than enough to ensure great results.
I always advocate experimenting – try and see which one delivers the best muscle building results with the least fat gain consequence.
So here’s the thing:
A great place to start is a calorie calculator which you can use to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) (here is a good one). Your TDEE shows you how many calories does your body require for its daily activity. This number is based on your age, gender, weight and weekly activity. Being in a caloric surplus of 300-800 calories will help deliver the best muscle building results while mitigating fat gain.
Remember that no calorie calculator out there is going to give you an exact number. You need to find out for yourself how much is too much and how much is too little.
Use a scale and other tools to find out whether you’re gaining weight faster or slower than expected. Consequently, if faster lower your caloric intake, if slower consider increasing it.
Fitness is a learning process. You experiment with different things and based on how YOUR body reacts to certain foods and workouts you make assumptions and apply the necessary controlled action.
Diet plays a crucial part in muscle growth. Use a calorie calculator to measure your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and be in a 300-800 caloric surplus. This will ensure that you are allowing your body to safely build muscle whilst lowering the amount of body fat you gain.
#2: You’re Not Maximizing Protein Synthesis
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the main driver of muscle growth (study, source). Without it muscles won’t grow.
It’s a constant thug of war between protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). The ratio between MPS to MPB determines whether muscle is gained or lost.
MPS lasts for about 36 to 48 hours after exercise.
If you are following a traditional workout split (also known as a bro split) where you exercise one muscle group once per week you are not fully maximizing your protein synthesis potential.
Let me give you an example:
If you train your chest on Monday (obviously), and we know that protein synthesis lasts about 36 to 48 hours, that means that MPS will carry out until Thursday. But you’ve only trained your chest on Monday and have not repeated that muscle group. So, that means that you have missed out on a second MPS window and you have the opportunity to double your muscle growth.
So you just add another chest day to your workout, right?
It’s not that easy.
The hard part when building your workout program is making sure that you give your muscles enough time to rest, which is about 48 hours between workouts. It gets even more complicated when you think about the muscles that intersect each other.
For example, you use your triceps and shoulders when you work out your chest. And you exercise your biceps and traps when you work out your back.
If you don’t give your muscles enough time to rest you are risking over training, slowing down muscle growth or even losing muscle. Not to mention that your workout performance will also go down. If you train your chest and then train your triceps, your triceps would not have fully recovered from your chest session.
So what are you supposed to do?
Probably one of the best workout splits that you can follow that gives your muscles enough time to rest and lets you fully maximize on MPS is the push/pull/legs.
It’s a simple grouping strategy where you group your pushing muscles (chest, triceps and shoulders), pulling muscles (biceps and back), and legs.
I have made a 6 week muscle building workout plan that follow the same split. Check it out if you want.
Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is the main driver of muscle growth. Without it you will not gain muscle. It occurs every 36 to 48 hours and as such you need to make sure that you exercise each muscle group more than once per week. A pull/push/legs split is ideal for maximizing MPS.
#3: You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Protein is the most important nutrient for building muscle. If you are eating too little of it, you are running the risk of not gaining muscle and potentially even losing muscle.
In order for you to grow you need to have an adequate amount of protein in your diet.
Protein is the one macro nutrient responsible for muscle protein synthesis. In fact, it’s the only nutrient required to optimize the anabolic response to protein turnover (study).
Here is what is interesting:
You would think that with all of the various online fitness gurus, fitness athletes, even fitness companies telling us over, and over, and over again how important protein is, we still tend to not eat enough.
I, myself, have fallen victim to inadequate protein consumption.
What I noticed was quite stressful:
No matter what I did, how hard I trained, or how many calories I ate, I can’t build muscle.
I was confused, I was frustrated and I was pretty close to giving up. It was just not making any sense to me.
In my case:
The main culprit to blame was dietary fiber. I was eating too much fiber that stuffed me up and made it really hard to eat anything else that is an adequate source of protein.
Obviously enough, the lack of protein in my diet was causing me to see no muscle gains.
When it comes to how much protein is enough…
Different experts will provide you with different “protein-benchmarks” that you need to hit in order to grow in size and strength.
According to Alex Carneiro an appropriate amount for people who are trying to pack on some size is approximately 1.3 – 1.5 grams of protein per 1lbs of your body-weight.
However, the most famous rule of thumb out there is that the best place to start is eating 1 gram per 1lbs.
What that means is that if you weigh 180lbs (81.6kg) you should consume anywhere from 180g to 270g of protein.
The truth, however, is not that simple. Not every person is the same.
We all have different genetic constructs and as a result we all operate differently.
What works for you, might not work as well for others and vice versa.
The recommended amount might also be different based on your daily activity and lifestyle. For example, if you’re the type of person who works a physically demanding job, you would probably want to make sure that you eat a bit more protein in order to successfully facilitate muscle development and prevent muscle loss.
Perhaps even consider using supplements such as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) if you want be more safe.
The best measure to take is to calculate your necessary protein consumption, using a protein calculator, so that you have a rough idea how much protein you will need to eat on a daily basis.
And from there on you can start tweaking your diet so that you are receiving the right amount of protein that matches your body structure and lifestyle.
Protein is the most important nutrient for muscle growth. Eating too little protein may be the reason why you are not gaining muscle. Try and eat about 1g per 1lbs. For example, if you weigh 160lbs you should eat 160g of protein.
#4: You Have Bad Form
Good form doesn’t just prevent injury. It also make sure that you are maximizing your muscle’s potential. As a result it will help boost muscle growth.
Also, good form is not just limited to keeping your chest out, feet at shoulder width and your back straight. It goes beyond that.
Insufficient range of motion, bad lifting tempo, no attention to eccentric contraction. Those elements play an extremely important role in muscle building.
If you are using sloppy form, then that could explain why you can’t build muscle.
Don’t just go to the gym, pick a random weight and start lifting it chaotically. Rather focus on that mind-muscle connection. Control the weight as its going up or down.
Squeezing the weight at the top of the movement has been shown to be beneficial for muscle growth (study, study).
One of the biggest benefits of full range of motion (ROM) is that it allows you to really focus on the eccentric contraction. If you are going to pick up on anything from this section then that should be that you need to focus on the eccentric contraction.
Eccentric contraction is where you apply resistance, or weight, to a stretched/stretching muscle.
Think of lowering the barbell to your hips when doing biceps curls. Eccentric contraction is considered to be one of the drivers for muscle growth (study, study).
Even if it didn’t carry the importance that it does, think about it. If you are just paying attention to lifting the weight and then you just “drop it” down, you are only doing 50% of the exercise.
Control the weight as you are lowering it down and you are going to skyrocket your muscle building progress.
Good form will benefit muscle growth greatly. Focus on going for full range of motion, squeezing the muscle at the top of the movement, controlling the weight for eccentric contraction, and a slow tempo.
#5: You’re Might Be Over-Training
Rober DiMaggio from Bodybuilding.com put it really nicely
“Overtrain if you don’t want to gain!”
It is the bogeyman of the bodybuilding world.
Over-training leads to an overproduction of Cortisol. I have described how bad Cortisol is for muscle building in more detail down below.
But in summary:
When released in excess, Cortisol can do some nasty damage to our muscle progress. It is catabolic, which means that they encourage the breakdown of non-essential tissues. Muscle and bone are not considred to be as vital to the body’s survival as organ functions, respiration and brain function.
Pretty scary stuff, huh?
Now that we know what are the consequences of over-training, how do we avoid it?
There are two main culprits that lead to over-training: frequency and volume.
Frequency refers to the amount of time you visit the gym during the week and volume is the amount of time you spend at the gym when working out.
How do we solve frequency: The main issue with training frequency is giving our muscles enough time to rest. As I mentioned previously, you need to give your muscles about 48 hours of rest before exercising them again. If you don’t do so and you just keep increasing the frequency of your workouts, you are running the risk of over-training.
How to solve volume: When you’re at the gym and you are exercising you are already catabolic. That’s when muscle breakdown happens. Don’t worry, it’s the good type of breakdown that you need to build muscle. You don’t need to stay at the gym for 2 hours. Maintaining this level of physical stress for so long will lead to over-training. The optimal time to leave the gym is about 45-60 minutes.
You should also focus on giving yourself at least 60-90 seconds between sets. This will not only prevent the risk of over-training, but will also help improve workout performance.
Over-training will lead to an excess production of Cortisol. Cortisol signals the body to breakdown “non-essential tissue” such as muscle and bone. To avoid over-training, give your muscles enough time to rest (about 48h between workouts). Try and keep your workouts short – for about 45 to 60 minutes.
#6: You’re Too Impatient
If it were up to me, I would say that the number one reason why people give up on their muscle building quest is because they are too impatient and have unrealistic expectations.
They want fast and visible results, NOW!
They start working out and dieting with these extremely high expectations and once they are unmet, and they notice how hard it actually is to build muscle, they give up.
It’s not that they can’t build muscle, it’s that they give up before they start seeing results. Muscle growth is a slow process. It takes time.
To be fair, the fitness industry is to blame for this. Specifically social media.
Seeing those amazing and quick results by which fitness gurus swear, claiming that anybody can have a sizzled body within weeks of working out and dieting.
Not to mention all of the Photoshop that some models use to augment their results and claim to be real, or…
The fact that there are those who use steroids and other substances to inflate their muscle results and afterwords claim that they are completely natural.
It is important for you to understand that muscle-building is a slow process!
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Only those who are patient enough are the ones who can enjoy having a ripped physique.
According to Dr. Michael Colgan the most muscle gained over the course of a year ever recorded (on an athlete) is 18 and 1/4 lbs (read more).
Dr. Stuart Phillips claims that he has never seen average muscle gains exceed half a pound per week (read more).
“Rome was not built in a day”, people!
Building muscle is a slow process. Realistically, you can expect to build about half a pound of muscle per week or 2lbs per month.
#7: You’re Lifting Too Heavy
You’ve probably heard of it before:
It’s when guys go to the gym with the intentions of having a good and productive workout. But as soon as they lie down on the bench or curl up the first dumbbell they start lifting heavier and heavier, until they reach to the point where the weight is too heavy for them to manage with proper form and range of motion rendering the whole exercise meaningless.
Some do it because they want to impress their peers.
Others do it because they believe that the heavier they lift the better the gains.
And third do it because it feels good – a sense of self-achievement if you will.
Whatever the case might be, lifting too heavy is never a good thing!
You’re incapable of maintaining proper form, your range of motion sucks because you’re trying to pump as many reps as you possibly can, your rep max is poor, and you’re training towards building strength, not muscle (yes those two things don’t always go hand-in-hand).
Not to mention the high risk of injury!
The rational thing to do is stop giving a damn about what other people think about your lifts.
Or, even better, stop believing that others actually give a damn about how heavy you lift compared to themselves.
To make matters even worse, lifting heavy primes your body to develop more in strength than in size. What that means is that you are not gaining muscle but rather strength (source, source).
Slow down and start controlling the weights in order to achieve that muscle-mind connectivity that everybody’s been talking about.
Try and aim for 8-12 reps per set, proper form, proper ROM, and proper rest – anywhere from 60-120 seconds between sets and 120-240 between exercises (depending on what your goals are and how heavy you’re lifting that specific set).
And for everybody who are ego-lifting:
Try and remember that you are not in competition with everybody in the gym, but rather with yourself.
Lifting too heavy can decrease your muscle growth. It can also increase the risk of injury. You are also priming your body for strength rather than muscle growth – the structure of your workout could be the reason why you are not seeing good results.
#8: No Compound Exercises
Curls, quad extensions, lateral raises, and pull downs are all great exercises but are not going to really change your muscle building game as much as you are hoping.
Compound exercises are the staple to a great physique!
They help build physiological symmetry and proportionality, burn calories like crazy, and help build muscle in areas that you’ve not even heard of.
Compound exercises are also great for improving testosterone and HGH production, which are hormones linked with muscle growth.
Furthermore, they are great for building strength, which will help you out with your other exercises.
By improving your pull-ups you are essentially improving your pulling strength and thus will be able to increase the lifting load on your curls;
Improving your dips (chest or triceps) improves your pushing mobility thus helps you enhance your bench, push-ups, and other push-related-exercises.
In other words:
Compound exercises have a trickle-down effect where they don’t just improve muscle development themselves but also elevate the impact that other exercises poses on growth.
Compound exercises are fundamental for muscle growth. They help build a more symmetrical physique and are shown to improve testosterone and HGH production.
#9: Skipping Legs
I completely understand the struggles of having to go to the gym to train those puppies downstairs.
But you might want to start hitting them legs a bit more often that you are used to.
Ask yourself this:
Have you ever seen a muscular guy that never trains legs at the gym?
The answer is probably yes, right? Think of the veterans who have lost their legs in war.
Some of them have HUGE upper-bodies – big arms, basketball-shaped deltoids, pecs so big i can lose my change between them.
You get the picture.
So this is prime evidence that training legs is unnecessary for a strong and big upper-body right? Well, not exactly.
Legs are a big muscle group, correct?
When you train big muscle groups your body responds by producing more testosterone, HGH and other anabolic hormones that benefit your whole body and promotes more muscle growth.
So next time you go to the gym, don’t forget to give your two sticks downstairs some attention, they’ll repay you.
Neglecting your lower body can slow down muscle growth or stop it stop it altogether. Adding a leg day to your workout can help improve HGH production.
#10: You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Muscle is not built when at the gym, but rather when resting and in deep asleep.
It is when our HGH and testosterone levels are at their peak.
Human growth hormone (HGH) is produced by the pituitary gland. It plays a key role in growth, body composition, cell repair, metabolism, muscle growth and strength. You could say that it’s one of the most important hormones for muscle growth. It makes sense that you want to keep it as high as possible.
Poor sleep can reduce the amount of HGH the body produces (study).
Moreover, when you deprive your body of rest you also increase Cortisol levels.
Cortisol can single handedly can make it so you can’t gain muscle. Or can even lead to muscle loss.
Straight from a gym horror story, I know!
Poor sleep can be cause by using your phone, laptop, TV, or any other blue light emitting tech before bed.
They are shown to suppress the release of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep (source). As well as reducing the quality of sleep (study). According to experts, setting a “tech curfew” that is anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of no screens before bed will benefit you and your sleep.
Having too much caffeinated drinks during the day might be disrupting your sleep too (source). Or if you have them later in the day.
Just like you plug your phone to the charger and let it charge overnight, do the same for yourself.
I discuss the infamous diabolical hormone Cortisol in more detail later in the article – so keep reading.
Poor sleep can also contribute to overtraining – making it a double whammy of trouble. So catch those Zs.
Lack of sleep can be the single reason why you can’t gain muscle. Muscle growth occurs during sleep when our body’s testosterone and HGH production is at its highest – poor sleep will lower their release. Sleep deprivation can also elevate cortisol, can cause muscle tissue breakdown and increase fat storage.
#11: Your Workouts Lack Variety
One of the main reasons why there are so many guys and girls out there are not gaining muscle is because they deprive their workouts of variety.
They are stuck in an inertia where they do the same thing over, and over, and over again.
And we’re not just talking about exercise variety, we’re talking about execution variety –
Like for example, longer ROM, negative sets, failure reps, drop-sets, etc.
The more variety there is in your workout, the more stress/pressure you’re putting your muscles through.
And as Arnold infamously said:
“Muscle grows under stress”
Sort of like a diamond, quite poetic.
The best advice I can provide you with is:
Progressively add variation to your workouts that will shock your muscle.
Use different exercises that target the same muscle, different grips, different weights, different executions of the exercises (negative sets, drop sets, failure reps) to really push your muscle to grow
Make sure that every week when walk through the doors of your gym you do something different.
Having variability to your workout will help improve muscle growth. Start by adding small alterations to your exercises like your ROM or adding negative and drop sets.
#12: Too Much Stress
Stress and the inability to build muscle go hand in hand.
You’re having troubles at home, at school or at work.
You’re stressed and you start noticing changes in your body that you’re not so happy about – specifically that you’ve plateaued and you are not gaining any muscle.
Higher stress levels – namely as a consequence of higher Cortisol levels – can have a number of disadvantageous effects on muscle hypertrophy, such as:
Inhibiting protein synthesis, increasing protein breakdown (muscle catabolism) and decreasing the amino acid uptake by muscles, and have a negative impact on testosterone production (read here and here).
In 2006, Stephen Bird, carried out a study that helped paint a clear picture of the hormonal affects of Cortisol and how different nutritional interventions impact these changes.
He divided people into four groups:
Those who after their workout drank a placebo (plain water), those who took carbohydrates, those who took essential amino acids, and lastly those who took a combination of the two.
What he found out was quite interesting…
The studies showed that the group which drank only water had an increase in muscle breakdown 48 hours after the training session.
While the group that was taking EAA and Carbohydrates managed to combat the catabolic effect of Cortisol.
This is an important and thought-provoking piece of information because of two main reasons:
First it shows how powerful are the negative effects of Cortisol on protein breakdown.
And more importantly it shows how through appropriate supplementation (and obviously dieting) those who exhibit higher Cortisol levels can revers its effects on muscle growth.
The diabolical stress hormone also has indirect effects:
Heightened stress levels may lead to severe psychological effects – such as lack in desire to exercise and diet.
People often fall victim to “Comfort foods” that are packed with sugar, fats and other bad nutrients that lower muscle growth and make them gain a lot of body fat.
Not to mention that it can cause increased insulin production and decreased testosterone in the body:
Which as you could probably guess can cause some people to be trapped in a scenario where they can’t gain muscle no matter what they do.
Lowering and maintaining low stress levels can be hard. However, There are number of helpful exercises and techniques, and, as we saw, some supplements that can help lower its inhibiting effects on muscle growth.
Stress can slow down or even stop muscle growth. Try and focusing on lowering your daily stress. Seek professional help if you suffer from chronic stress.
#13: Eating Too Dirty
The amount of times I have heard the phrase “It’s OK, I’m bulkng” is insane.
As a matter of fact, that phrase is now so popular that it became a meme:
We all know that one guy (or are) who slams pizzas, burgers, ice cream and various other dirty calories.
It’s quite easy to fall victim to a dirty diet, simply because it’s… easier.
Junk food is easy to digest, cheap, grants a large number of calories and is somewhat rich in macro-nutrients which makes it possible to reach your daily macro goal.
Not to mention how incredibly tasty it is!
The only downside is that it does more harm than good – the cons definitely outweigh the pros (if any).
The main disadvantage obviously is the drastic increase in body fat.
This again leads to lowered testosterone and growth hormone production which means that you will end up not gaining any muscle mass.
Not to mention that you will, sooner or later, have to enter a cutting phase.
A cutting phase essentially means that you will have to decrease your daily calories in a deficit and place yourself in a workout regime that is designed to help you burn fat and less focused on building muscle.
You also put yourself in that mental mind-set.
So basically what you end up doing is getting stuck in a loophole where you’re really not building muscle.
It’s important to remember that your diet is of high importance. What you eat will ultimately determine your muscle building success.
This is why you really need to make sure that the food you put on your plate is packed with valuable micro and macro-nutrients that will enhance muscle growth.
I understand how hard it may be to stay away from such foods as they are quite addictive – but if you’re hoping to grow bigger and stronger it would be important that you try your best to limit or stop your consumption of dirty calories.
Having a “dirty” diet can lead to excess body fat, which can lower testosterone and HGH production. This will lead to lower or no muscle gains.
So there you have it – hopefully these 13 muscle-building mistakes will shine some light and help you answer the question “Why am I not gaining muscle mass?”.
Something worth remembering from this article is that as soon as you notice that your progress is slacking and that you’re not building muscle, it’s time to calm down and assess your diet and workout.
The primary purpose behind this post is so that you have an easy check list that you can use of the top 10 most common muscle building mistakes that usually cause muscle growth plateaus to find out what could potentially be hindering your progress.
Obviously, there could be far more than what appears on the surface and if that is the case then I would strongly recommend you seek advise from an expert who will provide you with far more detailed feedback on your situation and what could be stopping you from building muscle.
Tell me what you think
In the comments bellow let me know what you think about the list. Can you think of any other infamous muscle-building mistakes that you would like to share with us
Also, can you recommend any potential solutions [that have worked for you] to the ones already listed in the post
Let me know!
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