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Why You Can't Gain Muscle and How to Fix It

gain muscle

Building muscle mass is one of the main goals of lifters in any given gym.  Despite this, many individuals in the gym look pretty much the same from year to year.  Many are confused as to why they are not making progress and as a result one of the most common questions I am asked is what to do to build muscle and why an individual is not progressing.

There are many potential culprits blunting an individual’s gains.  Below are 7 potential reasons why you are not making the gains you had hoped.

1. Not Eating Enough

When someone mentions to me that they cannot gain weight, the first thing I ask them is how many calories per day they are eating.  In most circumstances, the individual has no idea and will throw out some ungodly high number (e.g. 10,000kcal/day).  As someone who has a relatively quick metabolism myself, (in my late teens/early 20’s I required 5000+ kcal/day to gain weight) I am usually pretty quick to sniff out this over-exaggeration.

My general advice to those who are struggling to gain weight is to track everything you eat for 7 days while eating normally and also monitor your weight during this time.  If your average daily caloric intake while eating normally is around 3000kcal/day and you are not gaining, try increasing to 3300-3500kcal/day and see if that is enough to gain.  If that is enough, increase further.  Eventually you will hit a caloric intake where you will start to gain.  At that point, adjust your rate of gain based upon your progress and goals.

In addition, I would make sure you are consuming an adequate protein intake.  An intake of roughly 1g protein / lb bodyweight is going to be more than sufficient for building muscle.  If you find that your caloric intake is getting extremely high, I would consider increasing protein intake to ensure that you are able to eat at least some compete sources of protein throughout the day and do not get all of it from incomplete sources as a result of your high carbohydrate and fat intake.

2. Not Focusing on Progression

When it comes to strength training for muscle growth progressive overload is the name of the game.  This can occur through many mechanisms: increasing weight, increasing reps, increasing overall training volume, or even performing the same weight/reps/sets with quicker bar speed and/or better form.

Strength progress will be quicker for an individual who is just starting out in the gym compared to a seasoned veteran and may not necessarily always be linear.  However, as a natural who has been training for a while if you are not stronger than you were 6, 12, 24, etc. months ago, you likely are not bigger either.

Therefore, I would ensure that your weightlifting plan is focused on progressive overload over time using appropriate form to ensure you are staying injury-free.

3. Doing The Wrong Amount of Volume

Bodybuilding is a sport of extremes in terms of both muscle mass and body fat percentage.  As a result, it is no surprise that many go to extremes in their approaches in the gym; however, with most things the best approach lies somewhere in the middle.

This is the case when it comes to training volume.  On one side, you have those who advocate HIT training and swear you will overtrain if you do more than 1 hard working set to failure whereas on the other side you have the crew that is in the gym pumping out set after set for hours on end.

Looking at the literature, it does appear that multiple set protocols are superior to single set protocols.  Moreover, 10+ sets weekly per muscle group appears to be superior to <10 sets for muscle growth.

However, this does not mean that more is necessarily that more is better.  As an individual increases training volume, eventually they will reach a point of diminished returns where they will not see any additional growth with added volume.  If training volume is pushed even further beyond this point they may even reach a place where less progress is made if the additional training volume results in decreased performance due to impaired recovered or even worse if it results in injury.

For optimal muscle growth, train with enough volume to make progress, but not so much that are unable to recover and/or get beat up.

4. Relying Too Heavily on Supplements

When an individual is struggling to build muscle mass, one of the first places they turn are supplements.  I think we all know that person in our gym that brings a bag full of supplements that they take around their workout.  However, that same person often has no idea how many calories they are consuming daily or what they are doing in the gym to ensure progression.

This would be considered putting the cart before the horse.  While there are supplements that can help when it comes to building muscle, the magnitude of benefit from a supplement is going to be significantly less than the magnitude of benefit of a proper diet and training plan.

Prior to considering supplements to accelerate progress, ensure that you are consistent with a sound nutrition and training plan.

5. Doing Too Much Cardio

Endurance exercise has a number of health benefits; however, for an individual struggling to add muscle mass, it represents an additional source of caloric expenditure.  This means that even more calories will need to be consumed to offset the number of calories burned during cardio.  For an individual doing a large amount of cardio, the increased caloric requirement may be significant.

In addition, adding a significant amount of cardio to a resistance training protocol may result in less strength and size gains.  In general, the longer duration, lower intensity and greater frequency of cardio the more interference with gains.

Therefore, for those struggling to add muscle mass it may be advisable to keep cardio duration and frequency minimal sticking to higher intensity/shorter duration forms (e.g. HIIT) if cardio is done.

6. Sweating The Small Stuff

Oftentimes those who struggle to add muscle mass stress about all of the small details.  Just yesterday, I had a younger male approach me in the gym and ask a number of questions about meal frequency, food sources, rest periods between sets, eccentric duration, post-workout shake and a number of other topics.  While these topics may have arguable importance to strength and size gains, just talking to this individual stressed me out so I can only imagine how stressed out he is when it comes to all of these details.

Never did he ask about some of the big picture factors affecting muscle growth (e.g. calorie intake, protein intake, training progression, training programming, etc.).  Based upon his questioning I could tell he was unable to see the forest through the trees.  He was so focused on small details that may or may not provide a small benefit that he was losing focus of the basics that result in a majority of progress.  Moreover, the amount of stress he had over all of these small details may have been enough to offset any small benefit he may have received from them.

Before considering some of the small details and deciding if they are something you want to consider implementing, be sure you are consistently nailing the basics as that is where a majority of progress is made.

7. Not Enjoying The Process

One thing that is often overlooked in the process of designing nutrition and training plans is an individual’s enjoyment of them.  If someone enjoys what they are doing, they are going to work harder and stay more consistent.  If they work hard and stay consistent they will make more progress (assuming what they are doing is reasonable for their goals).

I could write someone the most “optimal” plan for gains; however, if they hate it, they likely will not make as much progress as a plan that may not be quite as optimal that they enjoy.

We lift weights because it is our hobby and we enjoy it.  Have fun with the process and embrace the lifestyle.  Not only are you going to be a happier individual, you may even make more progress.

I hope these tips gave you some things to think about in your approach and hopefully you have uncovered the potential reason why you are not making gains at the rate you would like.  Best of luck to everyone in achieving their muscle gains.  Eat up, train hard, and have fun!

About The Author

Peter Fitschen has a PhD in Nutritional Science from the University of Illinois as well as a BS in Biochemistry and MS in Biology with a Physiology Concentration from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and also a professional natural bodybuilder who has competing in natural bodybuilding since 2004. Peter works as a physique consultant through his company, Fitbody and Physique LLC.

You can contact him at -


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