Building significant amounts of muscle mass is a difficult venture regardless of your background and ability. Add in any number of different variables and sometimes it can feel downright impossible.
Luckily, this guide is here to help. We’re going to take a look at some specific variables that you may be overlooking and attempt to help you build the muscle you want. Let’s take a look and see if maybe one of these is your roadblock.
1. Have a Clear Plan of Action
Even if you’ve already started training, it’s smart to sit down and plan out exactly what your goals are and then figure out the exact plan of action to get you there.
When it comes to changing body composition, whether that be putting on muscle mass, increasing strength or losing body fat, a clear plan of action is required to ensure that you are taking the necessary steps to actually achieve those goals.
Without having a solid plan of action, you run the risk of training and eating in ways that aren’t conducive to your goals.
For example, if your primary goal is to significantly increase muscle mass, without having a focus on progressively increasing total volume over time, you might not provide your body with the necessary stimulus it needs to actually increase muscle mass.
Additionally, if you’re severely restricting calories, it’s possible that you aren’t providing your body with the necessary nutrients required to put on the amount of muscle that you’re hoping for.
Of course, since building muscle is dependent on a wide range of variables, things may cause you to tweak your plan to fit with your current ability, but having initial guidelines will allow you to pinpoint exactly what you need to change rather than simply guessing.
After sitting down and determining exactly what you goals are, you can determine the best plan of action for your own body with regards to how you will train, including specific exercises, rep ranges, your frequency of training and how often you’ll rest.
This also extends to how your nutrition will be manipulated based on your current eating habits and your primary goal.
Whether you put on size with ease or consider yourself a hard gainer, these variables determine just how much or how little you’ll need to eat in order to maximize progress.
As you can see, there are many different variables that go into your success, no matter what your goal is. Without having a clear plan of action, it’s possible that you aren’t even training to increase muscle mass, even though that’s what you’re hoping for.
Sit down and determine your goals and then decide exactly what you need to do to achieve them.
2. You’re Not Practicing Progressive Overload
We’ve all seen that person in the gym that always does the same thing, day in and day out and hasn’t changed their body composition for years. The reason for this is that they aren’t practicing what is known as progressive overload.
Progressive overload is a theory based on the idea that increasing total volume (weight x reps x sets) is a major determinant of increasing muscle size and strength.
I like to think of building muscle mass as the ability to view evolution on a short-term scale.
With typical evolution, we’re presented with a stressor, which then forces our bodies to adapt to that stressor in order to survive. In my opinion, and based on the research, increasing muscle mass is no different.
When you go to the gym and lift weights, you are presenting the body with a stressor, which then causes the body to adapt by getting bigger and stronger. However, eventually you’ve fully adapted, meaning if you continue to do the same thing over and over again, you won’t grow anymore.
This is a major mistake that many people make, especially when trying to put on muscle. You’re simply not giving the body a reason to get bigger.
To practice progressive overload, it’s smart to make sure when you are creating your plan of action, that you program specific periods of time when you’ll increase one of the three variables of progressive overload (weight, reps and sets).
Doing so will ensure that you consistently provide the body with enough stress to force an adaptation such as increased muscle growth.
Further, I strongly suggest keeping a training journal. Doing so will allow you to view your previous performance and then improve each time you repeat workouts or exercises.
Progressively overloading the body and muscle is essential for growth. If you don’t practice this principle, you can expect to never increase muscle mass.
3. You’re Using The Same Rep Ranges
We’ve all heard of the typical “bodybuilding range” of repetitions that you should be completing if your goal is to increase muscle mass.
While training in the rep ranges of 8-12 can certainly provide the ability to increase total volume with ease, it’s quite possible that your body has adapted to this rep range, slowing progress.
Fortunately, research has indicated that different rep ranges, whether high or low, can provide similar, yet different growth responses when taken close to failure.
For example, a recent study by leading researcher Brad Schoenfeld and his colleagues determined that subjects training with very light weight, were able to stimulate a similar growth response to lower, heavier rep ranges when taken close to failure (1).
This means that the old notion of sticking to a single rep range for muscle growth is a thing of the past and might actually be holding you back from reaching your full potential.
That’s not to say that the original bodybuilding range of 8-12 isn’t optimal, it simply means that using different rep ranges taken close to failure might provide a novel enough stimulus to promote an increase in muscle growth.
Keep in mind, however, that while using different rep ranges can be beneficial, you should spend a majority of your time training specifically for your goals. For example, while lightweight taken to failure can elicit a growth response, it won’t be optimal if your primary goal is to increase strength maximally.
A great way to use this theory is to practice what is known as Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP). This is a method of training in which you use similar exercises every week, but vary the rep, weight and set ranges, based on previous workout sessions.
Using this method can provide the necessary stimulus for growth by encouraging the use of different rep and weight ranges while still allowing for progressive overload.
While your training should be specific to your goals, having varied weight and rep ranges can certainly be beneficial by providing a novel stimulus to promote an increase in growth.
4. You’re Using The Same Exercises Too Often
As with specific rep ranges, the body can adapt to certain exercises. While improving the efficiency of certain movements like the bench and squat can allow you to use more weight safely, doing so can mean that the adaptation response is minimal.
This means muscle growth can be slowed.
While progressive overload is likely the primary determinant of growth, providing a novel stimulus in terms of exercise can certainly provide enough stress to encourage further muscle growth. As with sticking to the same rep range all of the time, sticking with the same exercises can do the same.
In fact a study, by Fonseca et al. in 2014, showed that trained individuals had greatest increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy when variations of exercises were used (2).
It was even the case when compared to maintaining certain exercises and increasing weight. Therefore, even when weight is similar, just by simply varying the type of exercise, the body can be provided with the necessary stimulus to grow.
However, to be clear, this is quite different from the misinformed idea of muscle confusion. Having too varied exercises and rep ranges all of the time can actually inhibit growth as the body doesn’t know how to adapt.
Rather than drastically changing exercises every day, it’s a much better idea to use different variations of exercises occasionally.
For example, rather than going from squatting all of the time to never squatting again, it’s a better idea to continue squatting, but use different variations. Try using high bar, then low bar, narrow stance and wide stance, etc.
Doing so will allow you to practice skill intensive exercises, improving efficiency, but target different positions of the muscle groups involved, providing a novel stimulus to encourage further growth.
Sticking with the same movements over and over again can result in adaptation, meaning a reduced growth response. Using different variations of exercises every so often to continue improving skill will also provide a stimulus to continue growing along with it.
5. You’re Not Eating Appropriately For Your Goals
Many people often consider eating to be a one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, you can’t search online for the right amount of calories and macronutrients you should consume, despite how much you want to.
Individual diets are just that - based on the individual.
The amount of calories and macronutrients you should be consuming are dependent on literally hundreds of different variables including how much you normally eat (maintenance), your goals, your ability to lose or gain weight, how much you exercise, the intensity at which you exercise… you get the idea.
When it comes to increasing muscle mass, if you’ve found that you’re not progressing, it’s likely you simply aren’t eating in ways that are conducive to that goal.
Many times you hear that you need to increase calories significantly in order to pack on muscle. While eating adequate calories and macronutrients is important, it’s a much better idea to eat enough to promote growth, but not so much that you get fat.
Your best line of action is to first find your maintenance calorie intake. This means, the amount of calories that you can consume on a daily basis and neither lose nor gain weight.
I suggest weighing yourself in the morning and then track total calorie and macronutrient intake for a period of 5-7 days. Once the week is complete, weigh yourself again under the same conditions as the first time.
If you’ve maintained your body weight within a pound or so, it’s safe to say the average of your calorie intake over the course of the week is your maintenance.
Based on finding this number, you can determine if you’re actually eating enough food to put on muscle and can then adjust your intake accordingly (3).
I always suggest when starting a muscle growth phase that you consume maintenance calories while increasing training and then adjust accordingly. By doing so, you’ll provide adequate calories but not so much that you put on body fat.
If, after a week or so muscle mass hasn’t changed, you can begin to slowly increase calories by 10-15% and consistently monitor your progress.
If you’re having difficulty putting on muscle mass, it’s quite possible that you’re simply not eating enough to promote growth. Depending on if weight gain is difficult for you, you may need to significantly increase food intake.
According to your primary goal, find your maintenance calorie intake and then adjust accordingly to begin promoting the growth response you desire.
So What Did We Learn?
There’s no denying that increasing muscle mass can often be a difficult task. However, it’s quite likely that there is a sound explanation for why it’s so difficult.
Ensuring that you have a clear plan of action while practicing different techniques to ensure progressive overload is essential for continued progress and increased muscle growth.
Using the above techniques should allow you to pinpoint why you’re not building muscle and then find a way to address it.
Rudy Mawer is a sports scientist, researcher and sports nutritionist. He's worked and consulted with NBA athletes, Hollywood Celebs, MLB athletes, Gold Medalists, World Record Holders, Pro Bodybuilders and even the US Navy. He specializes in the latest science then applying it to fat loss, hormones and female specific transformations. He has over 500,000 members on his famous physique plans and helps educate personal trainers on his seminars around the world.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Vigotsky, A. D., & Peterson, M. (2016). Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(4), 715.
- Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., ... & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(11), 3085-3092.
- Spiegelman, B. M., & Flier, J. S. (2001). Obesity and the regulation of energy balance. Cell, 104(4), 531-543.
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