Strength training is one of the most effective ways to get stronger, build muscle, and lose fat. Done correctly, it can help you build the physique you’ve always wanted, improve functionality, and enhance your health. But the results you get from strength training and how much muscle you gain depends on how you train and the rest of your lifestyle. If you’re training and your muscles aren’t growing, you may not be following some fundamental tenets for muscle growth or hypertrophy.
If you’re not getting the muscle development you expect, don’t completely overhaul your training routine. Rather than add new exercises, get back to basics and make sure you’re following three fundamental principles that help your muscles grow. It’s back to basics!
Are You Using Progressive Overload?
There’s nothing more vital to building muscles than the concept of progressive overload. What is it? It’s the gradual increase in resistance training overload (weight lifted, sets, repetitions, speed of contraction, etc.) that forces the body to get bigger and stronger. Progressive overload means adjusting the duration, frequency, and intensity of the exercises you do. In some cases, it means adding new exercises.
Progressive overload is an important principle of muscle growth that helps you keep getting stronger, leaner, and gain muscle definition. If you don’t increase the intensity of your training over time, your body adapts to the demand you’re putting on it and your performance plateaus. Even with continued training, you’ll get fewer benefits and muscle growth since your muscles lack a new stimulus for growth. In short, your body stops getting stronger and muscle hypertrophy plateaus.
How can you avoid this? Ensure that you are training at or near your maximum ability, or at least not slacking off by doing the same workout at the same intensity each time you train. This is a common-sense concept, yet most people who begin working out don’t realize that to build muscle they must push outside their comfort zone and continue to do so over time. Often, people only lift the same weight for the same reps for weeks, or even months or years and wonder why they aren’t gaining muscle.
The principle of progressive overload is one you don’t want to violate if your goal is muscle hypertrophy. Progressive overload is the most important part of any program that you do, as it is what will determine if you gain muscle.
Are You Eating Enough Calories?
Even if you want to lose body fat, calorie restriction isn’t the best approach if you’re trying to hypertrophy your muscles. To build muscle, your body needs a slight calorie surplus. This doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind and eat whatever you want. If you’re training consistently with weights, a calorie surplus of 10% above maintenance is a good place to start. You can adjust this number based on your individual needs, such as training intensity and age. So don’t be a calorie restricter and expect to gain muscle. Eat a surplus of calories, but don’t overdo it.
Keep the quality of your diet high, whole foods as opposed to ultra-processed junk. A good rule of thumb for protein intake is: 1 gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight. If you’re serious about building muscle, consume at least this much protein each day, along with fiber-rich carbohydrates and healthy sources of fat. Choose nutrient-dense foods to ensure you’re getting the micronutrients your muscles need for muscle growth. Stay away from empty calories like added sugar.
Are You Getting Enough Rest?
Building muscle doesn’t mean you can push your body to the limits every day that you train. Getting plenty of sleep and taking time off from exercise are important too. Muscle repair and growth take place during the recovery between strength-training sessions. When you sleep, your brain and endocrine system release hormones and anabolic growth factors, like growth hormone, that boost muscle growth and prevent muscle breakdown. Sleeping at least eight hours each night also helps you to have the energy to push hard on your tough days. Studies also link a lack of sleep with fat gains. According to Sleep.org, elite athletes need closer to 9 hours of sleep per night due to the intensity of their training.
Taking breaks from training and doing recovery exercises, like yoga, helps reduce stress, which leads to an increase in muscle growth. If you don’t give your body breaks from high-intensity training, the stress hormone cortisol can rise and lead to muscle breakdown. In contrast, regular rest and giving your body enough recovery time between sessions helps tame cortisol.
Don’t forget about basic stress management too. Everyone needs a way to manage stress. Some people benefit from relaxational exercises like yoga and stretching. Meditation and walks in nature are also effective ways to manage stress and reduce worry. Chronic stress leads to a rise in cortisol which, as mentioned, is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue. So, if you’re pushing too hard and not getting enough sleep, you’ll likely lose muscle or at least limit your gains. Balance your training with relaxing activities that give your mind and body a rest.
The Bottom Line
If you’re working hard on your strength-training program and still only gaining small amounts of muscle, it’s time to reassess your strength-training program and make sure you’re not violating these tenets of muscle growth. Be patient too. It takes time and consistent training to see results. Make strength training a part of your life from this day forward. It’s one of the best anti-aging medicines there is and one that doesn’t require a prescription.
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- org. “Why Sleep is an Essential Component to Muscle Growth and Recovery”