So you’ve been busting your you-know-what in the weight room for months now, and the coveted muscle you’ve been working for is still M.I.A. What’s the deal?
The idea is that when you put resistance on your muscles (say in the form of a dumbbell or barbell), they adapt over time by producing more of the proteins inside of them that help them contract. And that leads to larger muscles. In science speak, this gain in muscle size is called ‘hypertrophy.’
Here’s the thing, though: The equation is a little more complicated than ‘lift weights equals get big.’ From nutrition to workout design to plain ol’ genetics, there are a number of factors that might be standing between you and building muscle.
But there’s hope for you yet! Here are six of the most common muscle-building saboteurs—and what you can do to finally start making gains.
1. You’re Doing Too Many Reps
If your goal is to build muscle, you need to apply enough stimulus to your muscles to force them to grow.
What does that look like in the gym? Low to moderate rep ranges with heavier weight (like between three and 12 reps)—and not higher rep ranges with lighter weight (like upwards of 20 reps), according to a review published in Kinesiology.
There’s quite a bit of back-and-forth in the research about using certain rep ranges and seeing muscle growth—but the studies do suggest that sticking to 12 or less reps is key.
One study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, for example, found that guys who lifted in an eight to 12 rep range for eight weeks saw similar muscle gains to those who lifted in a two to six rep range. Meanwhile, a study published in Physiological Reports, for example, found that guys who lifted heavy for four sets of three to five reps made greater muscle gains in eight weeks than those who lifted moderate weight for four sets of 10 to 12 reps.
So if you’re lifting to put on size, there’s a place for lifting heavy weight for six or fewer reps (which is known for building strength) and lifting moderate weight for eight to 12 reps (which is known for pure hypertrophy).
“Strength and hypertrophy are related so it is just as important to build strength in order to be able to do more repetitions at a heavier load, which will result in continued hypertrophy,” suggests N. Travis Triplett, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D., F.N.S.C.A., professor of exercise science at Appalachian State University.
The key takeaway: Performing tons and tons of reps builds muscular endurance, but not the strength and size you’re looking for.
2. You Were Born With A Lot Of Type I Muscle Fibers
Our muscles are made up of two main types of muscle fibers: type I muscle fibers, which are better at using oxygen for energy and have higher endurance for activities like running, and type II fibers, which rely on glycogen (stored carbs) for energy and are better suited for explosive movements (like plyometrics), and strength training. Type II fibers are naturally larger than type I fibers and give a muscle it’s size, shape, definition, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
The proportion of type I and type II muscle fibers we have comes down to genetics—and often determines what sports and activities we gravitate towards. (Picture your classic lean runner versus a more brawny football player.)
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, your potential for making serious gains in muscle size may be determined by the amount of type II fibers you have.
That said, just because you might be type I-dominant doesn’t mean you can’t train and develop the type II fibers you do have. By focusing your workout routine on heavy resistance training and explosive movements, you can recruit more of those type II muscle fibers, according to ACE. Focusing on HIIT (high-intensity interval training) over moderate steady-state cardio can also help you call those type II fibers into action.
3. You’re Overtraining
Ultimately, working out puts stress on our bodies, and we see the best results when we apply enough stress to adapt and reach our full potential, but not so much that we run ourselves into the ground. When you can’t bounce back from that stress you enter a state called ‘overtraining’—which can wreck your performance and sabotage muscle gain. Basically, you’re in breakdown mode.
Training too often or too hard, missing out on ample rest, and falling short on nutrition can all lead to overtraining, which is often marked by persistent fatigue, loss of appetite, and crummy mood, according to a paper published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
If you’re inexplicably sick, have an unusually high resting heart rate, see a decrease in strength, or feel unusually fatigued over a period of weeks or months, chances are you’re overtraining.
The American College of Sports Medicine and European College of Sport Science recommend taking at least one full rest day per week and prioritizing ample sleep throughout the week. Proper hydration and carb intake are also key for keeping your body out of the stressed state of overtraining, they say. Though many people trying to keep body fat at bay often shun carbs, our bodies need them—especially after exercise—to replenish the glycogen in our muscles so that we can continue to perform and build muscle, according to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine.
4. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
When you lift weights (and go hard), your body burns through its stored carbs and begins to break down protein (like that in your muscles) for energy. If you want to build muscle, you need your body to build up more protein than it breaks down. And to do that, you need to eat protein.
Someone training hard to gain muscle may need anywhere up to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, says Triplett. (That’s a little more than one gram per pound of body weight.)
Reach your daily needs by including protein in every meal and keeping protein and amino acid supplements handy for on-the-go. Triplett suggests first bumping up the protein in each of your meals, and then turning to supplements like protein powders and bars to reach your daily needs.
And don’t forget to fuel up before or after you train. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism found that supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein before or after training boosted exercisers’ levels of amino acids (the molecules proteins are made of), so that they had the positive amino acid balance necessary to build muscle.
“For best results, consume protein within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing your workout,” Triplett recommends.
5. You’re Not Following A Structured Training Plan
You could have years of gym time under your belt and still not have even scratched the surface of your muscle potential—and that goes for both strength and size!
Showing up to the gym and just winging workouts won’t yield maximum muscle gains. It’s possible to gain some size from doing random workouts a few times a week, but to really make the most of your gym time, you need to have a long-term plan in mind. (You’ll often hear this referred to as ‘periodization.’) Within your year-long plan at the gym you should have cycles of shorter-term plans to help you reach your goals, according to the International Sports Sciences Association.
So if you’re main goal is to build muscle, you’ll need to alternate between phases of lifting to build strength and phases of lifting for pure hypertrophy. You might dedicate four weeks to high-weight, low-rep training to build up strength, then four weeks of moderate-weight, moderate-rep training to maximize your muscle-gain. You’ll continue to alternate between these two training styles to prevent plateaus and keep your muscles growing.
In your high-weight, low-rep strength cycles, you’ll perform sets of six reps or less with weight that’s between 70 and 85 percent of your one-rep max, according to the NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training. In your moderate-weight, moderate-rep hypertrophy cycles, you’ll perform sets of eight to 12 reps with a weight that’s between 60 and 80 percent of your one-rep max, suggests Triplett. How many times a week you train depends on your lifestyle, but make sure your workouts include staple exercises like barbell bench presses, back squats, deadlifts, power cleans, overhead presses, push presses, and pullups.
Why? “Hypertrophy is best developed by stressing a muscle group with a variety of exercises,” says Triplett. So incorporating a mix of single-joint and multi-joint exercises (which tax your body even more) into your routine is best way to promote muscle growth. So dumbbell rows and squats both deserve a slot!
6. You’re Not Using Intensity Techniques
Even with consistent and well-rounded training, your muscle growth can still plateau. Consider it a very frustrating sign of your progress: Your muscles have adapted to the stress you’ve been putting on them!
To get back on the gain train, up the intensity of your workouts with techniques such as drop-sets, eccentric reps, or occlusion training.
Drop-sets: The next time you’re doing bicep curls (say for three sets with heavy weight), tack on an extra fourth set. In that extra set—your drop-set—you’ll slash the weight you lift and perform the usual number of reps with that lighter weight. Drop-sets further fatigue your muscles and lead to additional damage of working muscle fibers, which can spur further muscle growth, according to ACE.
Eccentric training: This focuses on the lowering action or ‘negative’ part of an exercise. This can help you make muscle gains that would be otherwise impossible. That’s because your muscles can support more weight when, say, uncurling a dumbbell versus curling it, so you can do eccentric training with heavier weights than you can use for standard concentric training, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). You can use a squat rack or spotter to use eccentric training on big movements, like the squat, with a super-heavy weight (around 110 percent of your one-rep max). In the squat, for example, you’ll start in standing position with the barbell on your back and slowly lower the weight until the spotter or squat rack safety bars catch it. Instead of squatting that weight back up, you’ll take plates off the bar or work with your spotter to re-rack it in starting position. You can also employ eccentric training with weights you normally use by shifting the timing of your reps. Using a moderate weight, lift the weight and contract at your usual pace, and then take three to five seconds to slowly lower that weight. This way, the emphasis is on the eccentric part of the movement.
Occlusion training: This sort of training requires you to wrap a strap, band, or cuff around the top of muscle that you’re training in order to block blood flow to the area. You’ll then train those muscles with light weight (20 to 50 percent of your one-rep max). The theory is that blood-flow restriction training forces you to use type II muscle fibers when you would normally recruit type I fibers, according to a review published in Strength and Conditioning Journal.