As men, it is encoded in our DNA to want big muscles. They make us feel strong and powerful … and they look great too!
Heck, when I saw the picture of myself five years ago on the beach, it was a lack of muscles that signaled to me that something had to change. And thus, my life was changed through fitness.
For many men, much like myself when I started, I had always had a hard time gaining size. Five years into it, I’ve figured out the main reasons why muscle growth hadn’t happened for me previously.
Here are the 3 reasons you might not be gaining the muscles you want.
1. You’re not training the right way
I once had a client come to me because he was having trouble building muscle and adding weight. Been there!
He told me he was hitting the gym six days a week for about an hour each time, and that he was doing all of the major compound lifts that you should be doing to add muscle (more on that in a bit). He was clearly committed to putting in the time at the gym.
However, when I asked him exactly what he was doing in terms of sets and reps, that’s where the problem showed up. He was lifting heavy weight for 3-6 reps, for 5 sets.
It was no shock to me that his lift numbers had gone up, but he hadn’t seen the muscular gains he wanted.
That’s because he was in a Strength phase of his training and not a Hypertrophy phase.
There’s a reason powerlifters look different from bodybuilders. They train to achieve very different results. When you are lifting for pure strength, it is less about how big your muscles are and more about how well your neuromuscular system activates your muscle fibers for movement. Simply put: How can you move as much weight as fast as possible?
As a result, powerlifters – those looking for pure strength – lift heavier and heavier weight for just a few reps at a moderate amount of sets.
Hypertrophy, on the other hand, is all about applying enough tension to your muscles that they enlarge (i.e. grow bigger) in response to being activated for a prolonged period. This is bodybuilding.
If you want to gain muscle, as a foundation, you need to lift in the 8-12 rep range for 3-5 sets per exercise. I’m a huge fan of supersets in this rep and set range, which are plentiful in my 8-week muscle-building guide, Project Size.
And you must be doing the major lifts: bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press. But understand that as a personal trainer, I value proper form and moving the weight for its intended purpose (i.e. mind-muscle connection) over lifting super heavy weight when it comes to building muscle.
2. You’re not eating the right way
I am not a nutritionist or dietician; however, there are some basic nutritional guidelines that I can share that have worked for me, and there are also some myths that I’d like to debunk.
The most solid piece of nutritional advice that I can give you is this: eat real food.
I shouldn’t have to explain this any further, as I believe you know exactly what I mean by that statement. You know what is healthy food and what is unhealthy food. You know that a grilled chicken wrap that you make at home is healthier than a fast food burger.
We can debate the healthiness of one food over another, but the point is that eating real food means eating food your body can use. Not stuff that has been processed, packaged or manipulated to no end.
Fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats – food that is as close to the way nature made it at the moment you consume it.
And if you’re trying to gain muscle, you need to eat enough of it. Track your caloric intake, and shoot for a macros breakdown of 50% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 20% fats.
Regarding protein: ditch the bro science that tells you you need to eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. In reality, you really only need about 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day to be in the proper balance.
Regarding carbs and fats: I am wary of any diet that tries to radically alter the way your body was naturally made to perform. That’s why I am hugely skeptical of, for instance, the Keto diet, which essentially removes all carbs from your diet in an effort to get your body to tap into fat reserves for energy. In theory, this works. I worry about what will happen to the bodies of the athletes who eat that way, particularly since high protein, high fat diets can increase risks of heart disease and cardiovascular problems, and its alternating the natural way our bodies store and use energy.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred and best source of energy for athletic performance. But again, eating the right types of carbs is crucial. Things like brown rice, quinoa, oats, sweet potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables, provide the most benefits, while carbs like processed breads and pastas, refined sugars, and juices are to be avoided.
3. You’re not thinking the right way
This is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn.
The lie that fitness can be achieved with a quick fix is told over and over again. A 30-day shred here. A restrictive diet program there. A wrap, a pill, a machine, a procedure everywhere.
The most important thing to remember with any fitness goal, if you want it to produce real, long-lasting results, is that you must have patience. The kind of results that set you up for the long haul take a long time to achieve.
That’s why its so often said: There is no finish line.
If you’re not seeing the results you want or expect, first evaluate how much time you’ve given yourself, and ask yourself if you’ve been at it long enough for it to matter. Then, evaluate your methods.
Interestingly enough, when lifting to gain muscle size (hypertrophy), results are often not visible for up to 8 weeks, despite the fact that your body is actively responding to the resistance. Nearly two months to see results?! If you’re not patient, this is exactly the window of time when most people quit.
Don’t look at visible results as validation of your efforts. Understand and know that those will come. Play the long game knowing that you’re not in this for the 30-day results; but rather, you’re creating something to last you the rest of your life as a fit dad.