It’s frustrating when your goal is to gain muscle size and your muscles refuse to grow or grow at a snail’s pace! Of course, you’re working within a genetic framework and you can’t change that. Some of us have a stronger tendency to gain muscle than others. If you have a classic ectomorphic build – you’re lean with long limbs and little body fat or muscle, putting on muscle will typically take longer and require a greater focus on training and nutrition compared to someone who’s genetically primed to build muscle.
What’s your body type? If you have a mesomorphic build and are naturally a bit muscular, you might have an easy time gaining muscle mass. The third body type, endomorphic, is marked by a tendency to carry more body fat. Yet, even endomorphs have an easier time gaining muscle than ectomorphs. The downside is it’s harder to see that muscle under a thicker layer of body fat.
Still, regardless of your genetics, we all have the capacity to build muscle tissue as our muscles adapt to the stress we place on them by growing and becoming stronger. So, what if you’ve tried and aren’t progressing as rapidly as you’d like? Here are some of the most common reasons you’re having problems increasing the size of your muscles and getting the strong, defined muscles you’re working toward.
You’re Focusing Too Much on Cardio
How much cardio are you doing? Yes, you need cardio. To work on building skeletal muscle, while ignoring the most important muscle, the heart, would be short-sighted. Yet, women, in particular, have a tendency to overdo the cardio. Think about the lanky limbs of a long-distance runner. You don’t see a lot of muscle mass, do you? Long-distance runners spend the majority of their training time running at a moderate intensity and, although it burns fat, it does nothing to preserve muscle tissue.
Now, think about the limbs of a sprinter. Here, you see muscle development. Sprinters do shorter periods of intense exercise that tap into their anaerobic energy pathways. If you’re trying to build muscle size, pattern your cardio after sprinters. Keep your cardio workouts shorter and more intense, and incorporate high-intensity interval training into your routine. You also don’t have to do cardio every day. In fact, daily cardio can make it more difficult to meet your hypertrophy goals. Remember, cardio is catabolic and you’re trying to build muscle. Three sessions of cardio weekly are sufficient for aerobic conditioning and is less likely to interfere with muscle growth.
You’re Not Lifting Heavy Enough to Build Muscle
Lifting too light is one of the biggest reasons women fail to make muscle gains. For hypertrophy benefits, train with a resistance that’s between 60 and 80% of your one-rep max. A weight this heavy should allow you to complete 8 to 12 reps before fatiguing your muscles. When you lift lighter than this and do more reps, you’re mainly building muscle endurance rather than size. Yes, there are studies showing you can lift lighter and hypertrophy the muscles you’re working, but you must lift until fatigue, almost failure. If you’re using a light weight, it will take a while to do that. Plus, you won’t make substantial strength gains. It’s more time expedient to use a resistance that’s challenging enough that you can’t complete more than 8 to 12 reps. Your muscles should feel fatigued as if completing another rep with good form would be a struggle.
You’re Not Using Progressive Overload
Are you adjusting the resistance you use upward as you become stronger? It’s easy to become complacent and grab the same weight you’ve always used and are comfortable with. This violates an important principle for muscle growth – progressive overload. Muscles only continue to grow when they’re challenged enough that they have to change. What caused your muscles to grow in the beginning isn’t enough of a challenge to stimulate growth 6 months down the line. It’s important to challenge yourself by picking up a heavier weight and see how many reps you can do.
You’re Not Minding Your Nutrition
If you do either endurance exercise or strength training, you need more protein than a sedentary person, somewhere in the range of 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you’re of average weight, that’s equivalent to 80 to 110 grams of protein per day, depending on your body weight. Are you getting that much? It’s also vital that you don’t skimp too much on calories. It’s difficult to build muscle when you’re in a calorie deficit. Try tracking your calories and macros for a few weeks to make sure you really ARE getting enough protein and calories.
You’re Doing the Same Exercises Over and Over
To keep your muscles growing, you need to work them from a variety of angles. You also need to change the volume and intensity to challenge the muscles you’re working differently. To keep making gains, you’ll want to change your routine every six to eight weeks by adding new exercises or using more advanced training techniques.
Another option is to periodize your workouts, so you’re regularly varying the stimulus you place on your muscles. This will help you avoid overtraining as well. Surprisingly, training too hard without giving your muscles enough rest and recovery time can also limit your muscle gains.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the most common reasons people fail to gain muscle or don’t gain it quickly enough. This isn’t an exhaustive list. Other factors like stress, lack of sleep, inconsistent training, using poor form when you train are other factors that can limit your gains. However, if you address and correct all these factors, you’ll have a much higher chance of getting the results you’re looking for. Be patient though! It takes time to build muscle, especially if you’re a hard-gainer with an ectomorphic build. Some people have to work a little harder and longer to get muscle development – but it’s worth it!
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Thomas R. Baechle, Roger W. Earle. Second edition.