Not building Muscle? Here’s Why
1. Not Knowing Ones’ Baseline
Our baseline is our current state of being. This baseline tells us how much food we need to maintain weight, lose weight and gain weight; our baseline also tells us how strong we are, how much 75% of our max is, what we should be lifting for 8 controlled reps, and keeps us in the know.
Without knowing one’s baseline we are constantly shooting in the dark, hoping something sticks. BAD STRATEGY AMIGO! Instead of getting overzealous, take the time to build your foundation, understand what your particular body needs to optimize muscle growth, and learn to be intune with this process. This means mindful lifting – not over doing it, and not underdoing it either; this means eating appropriately, and understanding how hormones can play a criticl role in muscle growth or fat storage.
This also means taking the time to test yourself across the board to know what your current strength and movement capabilities are and realizing less is more initially. Jumping into big lifts and crazy methods and strategies might sound like a good move, but it usually comes with a lot of unpredictability and unneccessary risk. Slowing things down and understanding how to move your body will speed up results greatly.
For calorie intake I use https://www.calculator.net/calorie-calculator.html. This site can give you a general yet practical and useful understanding of what you should be consuming to put on muscle (3500 calories is a typically a lb – thus a 3500 calorie surplus means a lb of weight gain). In terms of lifting, its about getting under the bar, with a controlled eye watching over you of course and focusing on true mind-muscle connection with slow movement patterns, functional strengthening patterns and muscle fibre recruitment.
When you invest the time in the gym, it greatly behooves you to invest time into doing it properly. Knowing your baseline is the first step.
2. Guessing How Much You’re Eating
Muscle growth is brought to fruition in the gym and inside the kitchen. When trying to pack on muscle, guessing is the fastest way to failure and disappointment. I remember being a young grade 9-10 complaining about not gaining weight. I was going hard in the gym, getting stronger, looking better, but still found my self at a light weight. I was frustrated, but I had no right to be. I was assuming – guessing – that I was eating enough. It wasn’t until I started tracking my calorie intake that I realized I was way off what I assumed I was consuming.
I see this often. I saw this when I worked at a supplement store, and I see it all the time with people trying to build muscle. We assume rather than take the time to gain true certainty. Taking the time does take an initial investment, but this investment pays off fast. When you know what your body needs to be in a surplus, nutrition becomes easy and working out becomes even more fun, as results are much more evident and efficient.
As a general rule of thumb when it comes to eating and muscle growth, when you think you’re eating enough, eat more. It’s so easy to misconceive healthy calories going in. It’s the opposite of eating crap, where we always underestimate the calories going in. Healthy foods are generally speaking, calorie deficient. They’re not filled with shitty oils and sugars that jack up the calorie count, they’re filled with healthy nutrients like protein and fibre that tend to be low cal and satiating.
Stop guessing and track or else you’lll be wondering why you look like Robin, when you should be looking like Batman,
3. Going through the Motions, too often
It’s been shown that intensity is much more effective than duration. That’s not to say every workout has to be a crazy high intensity interval style workout, where sweat is being flung from your forehead and your once sport grey shirt, now looks like it’s a light shade of black. Intensity means showing up with intent. Applying intelligent focus to what you’re doing, and not wasting your time when you step into the workout environment.
I’m all about efficiency. If I’m going to actually put my time into doing something, I want to be somewhat good at it – correction, I want to be great at it- that way I can actually get the desired result I want, compared to investing my time, and looking and feeling like the same person months down the road.
Taking the time to understand what the intention of your session is will greatly improve the likelihood of achieving the goal at hand. Why? Because it puts your mind in focus by creating awareness and mindfulness behind your actions. I see people lift weights for 8 controlled reps when the weight is light enough to be used for 15 controlled reps. This type of approach lacks mindfulness and awareness. Transparency is king in the gym. It puts our ego and ignorance aside, and brings out the healthiest approach to that days session.
How can we do this? When you’re lifting, feel your muscle being engaged. When we’re supposed to do a heavy set of 5 reps, lift a weight worthy of 5 reps, when we have a superset to complete, move your ass to the next exercise, and stop allowing yourself to get distracted by things that don’t matter right now and maximize your muscle growth. Put your phone away, listen to music that puts you in the zone and focuses you to attack the session at hand, stop dwelling on what’s to come later, or what happened earlier, be present and maximize your hour. Nothing else should be of concern to you in this session other than optimizing the plan you have set out for yourself. This isn’t selfish, it’s efficient.
Just like date night is about my partner, not the weights, gym time is about the weights, not about Jim getting more opportunities at work than me. Give your head a shake, and dial in. Control what you can control, and when you’re in the gym, all you can control is how focused and intense you are at crushing today’s session. This is what separates half ass results from head turning ones.
4. Scared of Heavy Weights: improper weight selection/management
It’s all too common to see people in the gym scared to pick up heavy weights. Their mind plays tricks on them, thinking, “I can’t lift that!” or saying things like “I don’t want to be that big!” and “The weight I use already is heavy!” No, no it isn’t.
The majority of people have no clue what true heavy weight looks and feels like. If you’re someone who’s worked with a strength coach before, you should know, or if you’re someone who’s specifically worked on strength, than you should have a good idea a well. In my experience and from what the literature will reiterate, 5-6 reps and below is what I and the masses deem strength training weight, ideally, lower the reps, the more ideal for pure strength. This means any load you can only move for 5 reps at a time or less, is worthy of being called a heavy load. That doesn’t mean it’s a weight that feels heavy at 5, but can still be performed for another 3-4 clean reps, I mean at rep number 5, you literally can barely complete the lift, taxing the entire CNS.
I get it, heavy lifting like this can be scary and intense – that’s what growth looks like though. It takes a real “let’s get this!” mindset to walk into a gym and tell yourself, you’re going to put your body under a weight that could crush you, and that you don’t 100% know you can get back up, hence why you use a spotter or pins to protect you. This is also the type of weight that needs the proper headspace when working out. 8-10 rep range intensity -typical hypertrophy rep ranges – can be disguised and hidden from, 5 reps or less, cannot.
Although hypertrophy is traditonally best achieved through that 8-12 rep range, heavy lifting of 6 or less reps is still an essential and necessary part of muscle growth, due to the mechanical tension and motor unit recruitment that takes place. That’s why sprinters look the way they do – JACKED – because they’re performing a consistent exercise that demands an incredible amount of force, power and speed. This equation equals insane muscle stimulation.
Again, this is why putting on muscle, or strength for that matter, can be such a fun, diverse project. It’s like being a mad scientist who gets to create the most effective plan imaginable, by using all the tools or ‘potions’ at their disposal.
My suggestion, get used to lifting heavy and knowing what you can truly push, pull and squat. Knowing these numbers allows you to intelligently reverse engineer your workout plan, making the weights you use for rep ranges of 8-12 to be much more accurate and indicative of what 60-70% of your 1RM (one rep max) is.
Knowing these baseline numbers is the cornerstone to putting together a plan that is truly effective and time sensitive. But as we all know, knowing is only 10% of the game, the rest is application. Now, go lift some heavy weight kid.
5. Lack of Muscle Building Mechanisms: Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress and Muscle Damage
Muscles need 3 types of mechanisms to develop optimally: Mechanical tension, muscle hypertrophy and muscle damage.
Think of mechanical tension as producing a ton of force: Explosive, heavy movements (powerlifting & Olympic lifting). Metabolic stress on the other hand is the burning sensation created through a great deal of volume, think the ‘pump’, where blood flow is at an all time high. The two mechanisms exist in the same ecosystem however, meaning the two often go hand-in-hand: More metabolic stress requires some form of tension, and tension creates stress to the muscle. The third requirement is muscle damage, which is the act of a muscle being given enough stress and stimuli to promote proper adaptations (growth & changes).
Having a variety of said mechanisms is your best bet for an ideal muscle building program. This is why I lift heavy explosive compounds, mixed with slower more controlled compounds as well. I also incorporate the metabolic stress side of things into isolated exercises, where I am trying to target a specific part of the body (gluteus medius, bicep femoris, the biceps, rear delts etc.) or into burnouts where my aim is to go to absolute metabolic failure. If the main goal is to put on more muscle, I would advise a program built around muscle hypertrophy variety, giving the body plenty of unique stimulation to adapt to, along with plenty of repetition to get stronger and better at specific movements.
6. Lack of Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the method of continuously adding stress and stimul to your body to force adaptations. The best and most linear example of this comes from the legendary tale of, Milo of Croton who, as the legend goes, carried a calf on his shoulder everyday until the calf grew to a fully grown bull. Milo’s muscles and body had to adapt to the increased daily weight, eventually forcing an incredible amount of adaptation to the given force his body was being presented.
Oh, how I wish growth and strength was this linear. Unfortunately, the stress and stimuli, at this rate mind you, is far to fast and impractical for the body to adapt quickly enough to. But the general principle itself still holds true.. If we keep adding stress and stimuli to our muslces, we force the muscle to adapt and get stronger and bigger in the process.
What many individuals fail to do, is make their workouts harder: This can be done by adding weight, increasing range of motion, shortening rest, pre fatiguing a muscle, holding static ranges of motion, slowing down the tempo, being more explosive etc. All these methods are great examples of how to to add stress and stimuli to the body, thus creating an environment of progressive overload.
Sticking to 3 sets of 10 at a 1-1-1-1 tempo is not only ineffective but boring as F*ck! If you don’t know how to make your workouts more challenging in an intelligent manner,follow the guidelines above or reach out to a professional. Yes, that means you can message me too 😉
7. Not eating enough protein
Muscle needs protein. Without protein, our muscles degrade (break down), and we find ourselves in a much more catabolic state (break down of muscle) and in connection, increase hormones that are fat storing rather than fat burning, such as cortisol, adrenaline and glucagon (raises glucose levels).
In order to maximize muscle hypertrophy – i.e. muscle growth i.e. get a superhero esc physique, we need to be eating protein much more frequently, and much more of it.
General rule of thumb is .8 g of protein per kg of body weight for the average sedentary individual. I find this low however. And because my readers are mostly exercise enthusiasts, I like to be closer to 1 g of protein per lb of body weight, or 20-30 g below. As a 175 lb male, who workouts hard and often, that would equate to some simple math of 175 g of protein.
Basic rule of thumb I never miss, eat protein with all meals. Protein is satiating, revs our metabolism, keeps us in a anabolic state and aids in strong bones. Chicken, eggs, turkey, lean beef, fish, nut butter, quinoa, legumes, nuts, organic cheeses, cottage cheese, organic greek yogurt, whey protein shakes, vegan protein shakes are all great resources for adequete protein usage.
8. Neglecting Sleep and Stress Management
Increasing muscle mass is a lifestyle habit. There are a handful of variables that can get in the way of creaitng an anabolic, growth hormone esc. state, two of which happen to be ineffecient sleep and chronic stress. Both of these contribute to less recovery, thus less adaptations.
Our body needs time to recover, heal and regenerate. When we workout we create micro tears. Without adequate sleep and consistent elevated stress, our body is in conflict with itself. One of the first things I ask new clients about is their sleep. I want to understand how they’re sleeping, when they’re sleeping and how consistent they are with their sleep routine. Reason being, with insufficient sleep comes elevated stress responses, low energy levels, reduction of growth hormone activation, and a poor environment for your body to handle any new types of stress, thus unable to adapt effectively or optimally.
Working out is a stress. It’s an acute stress though, meaning it doesn’t last. This stress is good when it’s paired with the proper recovery protocols. Without proper recovery practices, our body is out of harmony and left fighting an uphill battle to gain muscle and burn fat, a shapely physique many of us strive for. You’ve heard abs are made in the kitchen, I think the same muscle building protocols can be linked to good sleep and a relaxed state of being. The more relaxed we are, the better sleep we will achieve, and this is where true growth factors take place, during the midnight hours. 3 of the most anabolic hormones: melatonin, testosterone and growth hormone are highest between 10:00 pm and 2:00 am.
My advice, focus on reducing stressful states with breathing techniques, meditation, and calming activities that dismiss you from stimulation and blue light technology. In doing so, you can increase your chances for a good night sleep and reap all the anabolic effects sleep provides.