It’s frustrating when you’re trying to build lean body mass and you’re not satisfied with your progress. Some people are hard-gainers due to genetics. We’ve all heard of the classic ectomorph, the man or woman who stays lean despite eating an all too generous number of calories. Ectomorphs may not put on body fat easily even when they eat a super-size order of French fries, but they struggle to put on muscle too.
There are also people who think they’re doing what they need to do to build muscle but aren’t progressing. A number of things can conspire against you when you’re trying to build lean body mass. Here are some lifestyle and dietary habits that make it harder to get the definition you’re looking for.
Nutrition is the problem for some hard-gainers. It goes without saying you need adequate protein, sometimes as much as twice the recommended amount of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, but you also need enough total calories. When you have the dual goal of losing body fat and gaining muscle, it’s a delicate balancing act. When you restrict calories too much in hopes of shedding body fat, you run the risk that your body will break down muscle for fuel as it enters a catabolic state.
Better to increase your calorie intake by eating more lean sources of protein and whole foods that are less likely to end up as fat stores on your thighs and tummy. The good news? If increasing your calorie intake to a more reasonable level helps you build muscle, you’ll get a metabolism boost that helps you shed body fat.
Too Much Steady-State Cardio
If you’re trying to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, you may not be gaining muscle because you’re overdoing the cardio. Extremely long periods of steady-state cardio (an hour and a half or more) increases cortisol levels, especially if you’re carb-deprived. That not only triggers muscle breakdown but it blocks anabolic hormones like growth hormone. Cardio doesn’t have to be lengthy to be beneficial. Keep your cardio sessions short and intense, substituting high-intensity interval training or a circuit workout for an extra long cardio workout. If you do longer periods of cardio, make sure you’re fueling up with enough carbohydrates to keep your cortisol levels down.
Not Lifting Harding Enough or Focusing on Single-Joint Strength Exercises
You’ll have an easier time building lean body mass if you work a maximal number of muscle fibers with each exercise. That means more compound movements that challenge more than one muscle group like push-ups, squats, dips, deadlifts, military press, etc. rather than isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps kickbacks that challenge a single muscle group. You’ll also activate more growth hormone and increase the calorie burn when you do compound exercises. Fifty-percent or more of your exercises should be compound movements.
You need to be lifting hard enough to challenge your muscles to grow. How hard? Use a weight that’s heavy enough that you can barely complete eight to ten reps. You should feel the burn by the last rep. If you’re able to do fifteen reps, you’re building more muscle endurance, not strength and mass.
Muscles need at least 48 hours of rest to repair microscopic muscle fiber damage that occurs with a resistance-training workout. This repair process is important for growth and change to occur. Don’t get overzealous and work the same muscles two days in a row. Give the muscles you worked at least a day’s rest and two is even better, especially when you’ve worked them hard.
Not Sleeping Enough
Just as overtraining makes it harder to build lean body mass, lack of sleep does too. Too much training and too few calories increase levels of the catabolic hormone cortisol – and so does lack of sleep. When you hit the sack early and sleep for at least seven hours, it has other advantages as well. It ensures the pineal gland in your brain pumps out enough melatonin. This antioxidant hormone aids recovery by protecting muscle cells against free-radical damage.
Doing the Same Old, Same Old
To build muscle, keep challenging them. Once you can easily do the eighth rep, it’s time to increase the weight. It’s also smart to change your routine every six weeks to add variety and stress your muscles in a new way. Growth comes from forcing your muscles to work harder than they’re accustomed to and by giving them new challenges, along with reasonable periods of rest. Some ways to vary your routine are to do supersets, drop sets, negative sets, pyramid sets, add some isometric holds or throw in some new exercises. Don’t let your workout become static.
The Bottom Line?
Even hard-gainers can get results from a focused strength-training program, a healthy lifestyle and proper nutrition. Don’t let factors you have control over hold you back.
Hormones 2003, 2(4):243-249.
Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. McArdle, Katch, and Katch. (2009)
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