It can be pretty frustrating when you're hitting the gym consistently and feel like you're doing all the right things but you're still not seeing the muscle growth you were hoping for. All that sweat, all those tears, and for what?! All jokes aside, we understand your frustration. To gain muscle mass, you need to be consistent and extremely patient... But if it's been a few months since you've seen progress then chances are you're missing something in your weight training routine or you could be doing something wrong... whatever the case is, we're going to help you figure out why you're not building muscle by giving you seven reasons why you may have hit a wall and what you can do to fix it!
You aren't practicing progressive overload
Everyone should know that you have to push yourself a little harder each training session if you want to make progress. This fitness concept is commonly known as progressive overload. It involves overloading your body enough it drives progression, this can be done by lifting heavier weights, increasing the volume of your workout, changing up the intensity, and more. If you're not working hard enough during your workout then chances are you're not giving your muscles the challenges they need to continue growing. And even if you feel like you are, are you tracking your progress?
Relying on your memory is not the best way to track your progress because you might think you're pushing yourself hard enough when in reality you're still at the same intensity as you were last week! So, practice progressive overload by actually tracking your progress. Use a notebook or a fitness app to track the exercises you're doing, how many sets, reps, and the amount of weight used for each set. This will help not only help you keep track of your progress, but also help you plan your workouts better. Having a place to track your progress will visually show you where you need to improve, be it increasing the weight, sets, reps, or even changing the intensity of exercise. For example, if you've been performing deadlifts is one of your main exercises for 6+ weeks then it might be time to swap it out for another variation or different exercise like a single-leg deadlift.
The bottom line is - track your progress and aim to improve at least one part of your workout every week. And if you have been tracking and practicing progressive overload, then maybe you're doing too much.
You're not getting enough rest
Most would think that not working out enough is the cause for hitting a training plateau when in most cases, it can be the opposite! Although you might think more is better, it's actually not. Why?
There are two reasons... First, rest is when the real muscle-building happens. High-intensity training, be it lifting weights or high-intensity cardio, causes millions of microscopic tears in the muscle tissue, basically damaging the muscles and causing them to swell. Giving you that muscle pump effect everybody loves! But that pump won't last forever, and if you're not allowing a particular body part adequate rest then the muscle tissue won't recover or repair effectively to build into the beautiful lean muscle you want it to be. Second, you'll burn yourself out, affecting your future training performance and possibly cause overtraining syndrome (OTS). Overtraining is serious and can cause you to lose motivation, joint or muscle pain, sore muscle, and can even cause mood swings.
So, try to resist pushing yourself too hard and listen to your body. To avoid overtraining, prioritize your recovery and make sure you have sufficient rest days in your strength training program. If you're not sure how many rest days you should take, a good rule to follow is to take one or two full rest days after training for 7 days. For those who implement a training split, make sure you're allowing 24-48 hours for the specific muscle group you trained to rest. This means if you normally train your legs on Monday then schedule your next leg day until Thursday. Lastly, get enough sleep, and make sure it's good sleep! Your body is actively recovering while you're in a deep sleep phase, so try your best to get 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Your grip is limiting your lifts
Have you been itching to hit the heavier weights, but are afraid of your grip giving in? Stop letting your grip strength limit the amount of weight you lift! If the muscles in your forearms fail first then the targeted muscle isn't going to reach fatigue which is necessary for hypertrophy, aka muscle-building.
Aside from working on developing better grip strength, use lifting straps for your really heavy lifts! Lifting straps can make all the difference when hitting heavy weights. They look like what they sound like, they're straps that are approximately 1" to 1-1/2" wide, 12" to 22" long, and feature a closed-loop design to help secure your hand around the weight. This will provide your wrist support and support your grip so you're able to lift heavier for longer. Don't hesitate to grab a pair of this weightlifting gear - they're inexpensive and can easily fit into any gym bag!
You're focusing too much or too little on isolation exercises
There's an endless silly debate between compound versus isolation exercises. Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work more than one muscle at a time. Isolation exercises are the opposite, they work one muscle group at a time. Although a bulk of your workout routine should include various compound exercises, don't neglect isolation exercises. Compound exercises are great because they allow you to push and pull heavier weights which recruit more muscle fibers for better hypertrophy. However, isolation exercises, like bicep curls and tricep extensions, allow you to hit certain gaps left by big compound movements. This will help you target a specific muscle group that you want to grow more or is weaker than the rest. So, try to maintain a good balance of compound and isolation exercises.
Your form and technique is off
You're practicing progressive overload and are choosing the right exercises for your goals, but you're still not making progress... If this is you then it's time to take a second look at your form and technique. Remember, to drive results you want to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible and work them until they fatigue. This is usually done by lifting heavier or doing more reps and sets, but if your sacrificing your form in order to lift heavy then other muscles will begin to pick up the slack. This means the muscle you intended to target is not working until it's fatigued. Aside from your form, you also want to make sure you're focusing on the workout itself. Being distracted by conversations or other things can take your mental focus away from your form and the muscle you're targeting. Instead of focusing on a story someone's telling you, focus on the muscle lifting or pushing the weight.
So, if you want to build muscle focus on your workout and form! Focusing on the muscles at work will help create tension in the right muscle to effectively grow it. Here are some other tips for your form and technique to apply when working out:
- Move slow and controlled throughout the exercise: Avoid using momentum to move the weight, so don't swing it around.
- Go through the full range of motion: To maximize hypertrophy, aim to go through the full range of motion, meaning don't do partial reps. However, if you're a beginner it might be hard doing this at first. So, work your way up to it. For example, you might not be able to do a deep barbell squat at first, but you can practice by using your body weight, and then when you train with the barbell work on going deeper each training session.
- Don't lock your joints at the top of movements: When performing upper body exercises that involve elbow extension and flexion (for example, bench presses), avoid locking your elbows. Straighten your arms, but don't lock them. Doing so will cause unnecessary stress on your elbow joint and can lead to an injury. The same goes for lower body exercises that involve the knee joint. You don't want to fully lock your knees to keep keep the tension on the muscle, not on the joint.
You're not eating enough of the right foods
Are you eating enough? But most importantly, are you eating enough of the right foods? Most people cut back or increase the amount of food they eat depending on their goals. Those wanting to achieve weight loss will need to be in a slight calorie deficit, while those who want to build muscle will need to be in a slight calorie surplus. What often happens is that both groups end up cutting back too much or not enough to get adequate results. However, it's less to do with results and more about fueling your body properly with the nutrients it needs for sustainable energy and enhanced recovery.
A great way to make sure you're eating enough for your goals and fueling yourself properly is by calculating your macronutrients and tracking them. Use a macro calculator to calculate the number of carbohydrates, protein, and fats you need to be eating, and calories (if this is something you'd like to track). Tracking your macros as opposed to only your calories will allow you to prioritize the important nutrients needed to build muscle (protein), for fuel (carbs), and maintain balanced hormone levels (healthy fats).
So, calculate your macros and track them if you really want to maximize your muscle-building efforts! Make sure you're eating enough protein for your goals, but also all the other good stuff like leafy greens, fruits, complex carbs, healthy fats, and probiotics that keep your body healthy and happy!
You're not using supplements effectively
Do you need supplements? Not necessarily, but knowing how to supplement can make a pretty big difference in your training. For example, if you're having trouble hitting your daily protein intake you can use a whey protein powder to help increase your intake. This doesn't mean you should rely on protein powder, it simply means to use it when you actually need it. The same goes for other popular supplements, like BCAAs can help enhance recovery, but do you need to take it every day? Probably not! You can save it for your high-intensity training days, or for when you feel you need it the most. Supplements like protein powder, creatine, pre-workout, amino acids, can help make sure you're not missing out on key nutrients needed for better muscle growth. Just make sure to get supplements that align with your goals, and choose wisely! You want to pick supplements with optimal doses of the ingredients listed or else they may not be as effective as they claim to be. If you're not sure what supplements to take and how to take them check out our Beginners Guide to Choosing the Right Workout Supplements!
Hopefully, this helps you break through your training plateau so you can continue building muscle and hitting new heights on your fitness journey! And if you need supplements with optimal doses of performance and recovery enhancing ingredients then don't forget to check out the 373 Lab Collection – Whey Protein Isolate Powder, BCAA's, and Pre-workout.