Five Reasons You Aren’t Gaining Muscle
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Strength training without seeing any visible results is incredibly frustrating. While it is true that it takes time to see any real changes in muscle mass, after months of training, there should definitely be some clear progress. There are many reasons one may
not experience expected gains. Not eating enough, especially protein and/or carbs, lack of
sleep, improper training stimulus, too much cardio, or inconsistency could all be to blame. I will touch on each potential cause and give suggestions for improvements which may help you get back to building.
In order to build muscle, the body needs an adequate supply of protein in the diet. Not eating enough protein and carbs can limit the building of muscle mass, as these nutrients are needed for the growth and repair of muscles. There are different intake requirements for people who train in different activities and at different levels. The NSCA states that general fitness participants will meet protein needs at 0.8 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 183). Strength athletes need between 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p.183). Therefore, if you are a 130-pound woman, you need to be eating AT LEAST 83 grams of protein per day for muscle building. A 180-pound man would need to be eating at least 115 grams per day. Even higher intake of protein is suggested for athletes who are trying to lose fat, in order to spare muscle loss. The NSCA recommends between 1.8 to 2.7 grams per kilogram of body weight each day, in this specific scenario (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 190).
Carbohydrates can contribute to better performance in aerobic endurance events, improved work output in high-intensity intermittent sports, and help spare the use of protein for fuel and therefore reduces muscle breakdown (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 188). The NSCA recommends strength and sprint athletes consume between 5-6 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 188). For example, a 130-pound woman would need a minimum of 295 grams of carbs and a 180-pound man would need 409 grams per day.
To get more protein in the diet, spread out protein intake across all meals. Protein also contributes to a feeling of fullness, meaning that eating it regularly throughout the day can help reduce overeating. Good sources include chicken, fish, red meat, eggs, beans, lentils, and quinoa. While the best protein sources are foods, protein powders can be used to help get in more protein if it is too difficult to consume required amounts with food.
Carbs are best to be consumed before and after training, to be better utilized for training demands and recovery. While the carb intake suggestion from the NSCA is high, the organization makes a point that at least half of grains consumed should be whole grains. Further guidelines for carbohydrates include increasing consumption of a diverse range of vegetables and fruit and reducing intake of refined grains and added sugars (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 190).
Sleep is absolutely essential to health and the recovery processes needed for muscle building. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults between 18 and 60 get at least 7 hours of quality sleep per night (“How Much Sleep Do I Need?”, 2017). Some tips for better quality sleep include removing electronics from the bedroom, maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake up time, creating a dark and quiet room to sleep, exercising regularly, and avoiding caffeine, large meals, and alcohol before bed (“Sleep Hygiene Tips”, 2016).
As far as training adaptations, the body needs to be challenged by proper stimuli and training methods to see changes in muscle growth. For example, if a person’s training goal is to build muscle size, they will not be able to achieve their goal by training in rep ranges that best build strength, or by performing a sport like basketball or cardio exercise like running. The body responds with adaptation to the training stimulus—a body challenged to train lifts in a rep range of 3-5 will primarily see improved strength, not size (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 590). It is widely accepted that the best method to realize muscle building is to lift at low to moderate intensities (50-75% of 1RM) and at higher volumes (3-6 sets of 8-20 reps) (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 589).
Important to note, simultaneously performing high levels of cardio while attempting to build muscle can reduce gains in muscle mass. During long periods of cardio, the body eventually has to breakdown muscle to use for fuel (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 203). Eating higher levels of carbs can help reduce this process but continually performing a large amount of both lifting and conditioning asks the body to use resources to recover from both. Recovery, which allows the rebuild of muscle from the breakdown of the tissues during strength training, is not as effective when the body also needs to use nutrients to perform cardio. Periodization is generally recommended to cycle between different training goals like muscle building and fat loss and/or increased endurance performance (Haff & Triplett, 2016, p. 584).
Lastly, to see muscle gain, there must be a consistent effort with training and nutrition. Strength training several days per week, over several weeks, will be necessary to see visible muscle gain. All of the previously mentioned variables are important to achieving results over the long term. Therefore, to build muscle a person must consistently eat enough protein and/or carbs, get quality sleep, use the proper training stimulus, and refrain from performing excessive levels of cardio. Many other elements can potentially affect training results but staying consistent with each of these components will cover the most important aspects and get you on your way to being jacked!
CDC - How Much Sleep Do I Need? - Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2017, March 2). Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
CDC - Sleep Hygiene Tips - Sleep and Sleep Disorders. (2016, July 15). Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning
(4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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