You think you’re doing all the right things in the gym and still you’re not making the lean mass gains that you want to see.
The word “gains” gets tossed around a lot in the fitness community, but what does that even mean? Well, for each person, it’s going to look differently. If you’re new to the world of lifting weights, then maybe a gain for you is to do five strict pull ups. Maybe you’re an intermediate lifter and really want to bench your bodyweight. Or maybe you’ve been at it for a while and are really trying for that 225 kg deadlift. The point is that you have to personally define your own goals and then make adjustments from there.
Gains means something different for everyone but even the most experienced lifters reach plateaus now and again where nothing seems to be changing. So, no matter if you’re fresh to fitness or you’ve been at it for a while, there are some things you can do to help achieve those gains you want to see.
Let’s break it down between what you’re doing in the gym and what you’re doing outside of it. This way you’ll get a clear idea of the real reason you’re not making gains and you’re better equipped to make the right changes.
INSIDE THE GYM
Hypertrophy Process & Inaccurate Training Approaches
If you’re trying to build muscle, you have to lift weights. It sounds so simple, but there’s a vast majority of the gym population that shies away from this concept. Workloads that challenge your body are essential to make muscles grow.
Every single time you set foot in the gym, you need to be lifting with intensity and power. Go hard and heavy, not just through the motions. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time. Remember that challenging your body above and beyond its normal capacity is key.
Hypertrophy-specific training is an approach that is designed to specifically encourage muscle growth. When you exercise a muscle, there’s an increase in the nerve impulses.
This causes your muscle to contract and produces strength gains but not necessarily physical gains. As you continue to exercise the muscle over time, your body adapts by increasing protein synthesis. The result is muscle cells that are not only stronger, but also larger. In short, this is how you make gains.
The exercises that are most beneficial for hypertrophic training are those that force your muscle to repeatedly contract. This means that strutting your ego in the gym and lifting as heavy as possible every training session isn’t going to give you the gains you want to see.
Realistically, a comprehensive program should include varying levels of resistance along with both free weights and bodyweight sessions.
Muscles need both stimulation and repair to grow. If you’re not making the gains you want to see in the gym, it’s likely that one of these two factors are your core issue. Correction can come from either refocusing on diet or recovery or re-evaluating your program.
You break down your muscles every time you wrap your hands around a barbell or dumbbell. Then, when you’re resting, muscle fibre repair happens. New fibres are produced to help replace and repair what you’ve just done. Once more fibres are produced, actual growth takes place.
There’s some complex anatomy that’s taking place when you’re pushing muscles to grow, but the long and short is that specialised cells replicate by division and fuse to muscle fibres. This fusion forms new muscle protein strands and help repair damaged fibres, which will ultimately help the muscles grow.
Your training approach is going to directly impact the kind of results you see. If you’re heading into a lift without any idea of what you plan to do when you arrive, you need to stop, turn around, and go home.
Writing out a program or finding a program you like and are willing to follow, is the only way to make gains. That’s because a program is going to serve as the framework for tracking your numbers. If you don’t know what you lifted last week or you have no idea your PR numbers for any compound lift, how can you ever follow a plan to get bigger, stronger, faster? It’s impossible.
Fortunately, there are a wealth of programs available online, most of which are free. You are going to have to dedicate some time to figuring out what kind of program is going to work best for you and your life, but the reality is that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Make sure that the program you choose doesn’t focus too much on isolation. Compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups at once are going to be far more useful for you than isolation or accessory work. Larger muscle groups can lift heavier loads, and heavier loads ultimately put you on the path to gains.
In order to grow muscles and make real gains, you need to have a program that pushes you to your limits and you need to stay vigilant with your efforts every single day. In short, to build the muscle you want, you have to lift hard and heavy and fuel your body appropriately.
If you’re serious about making gains, then you need to be serious about your goals. Consistency is key here. You can’t give 100 percent inside the gym and then only 50 percent outside of it.
There’s a line here between becoming obsessive about your gains and realizing that life happens. There are always going to be Happy Hours and stag parties and football matches. Curries and chips and pints at the pub still might be a part of your life while you’re on your quest for gains.
The point here is to remain consistent but to also give yourself a little slack. Sometimes you’re going to want to go out and let loose – and that’s okay as long as those occasions don’t become the norm and you stick to your training goals.
Doing the same rep scheme and set sequence every single day for six months isn’t going to do anything for you if you’re not varying your approach. Depending on your goals (powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or bodybuilder) you’re already following a specific set and rep sequence but a general rule to make gains is that 3-4 sets at 8-12 is best for hypertrophy.
You need to add resistance so muscles consistently need to adapt to heavier weight. Most experts suggest switching up your program every four to six weeks to ensure you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can. If you’re working with a program that isn’t challenging, your muscles aren’t going to respond.
Focusing on Cardio
Let’s imagine you’ve nailed down the ideal rep and set sequence for you to keep your muscles constantly tearing and then rebuilding.
If you’re just starting out or are training for a specific competition-type physique, this might be a 5×20 scheme or maybe something more common like 4×8. You’re starting to see some gains finally, so you decide to add in another day of cardio to your t raining program.
If you’re already lifting and you’ve curbed your overall calories, adding cardio and expending more energy is going to make gains virtually impossible to achieve.
That said, there is absolutely a way to lift and do cardio and still make gains, but your first focus should be on lifting, not on keeping your heart rate in caloric burning zones. If you’re set on adding in cardio, most trainers suggest two short fasted cardio sessions a week to help maintain your muscle mass and trigger fat loss.
OUTSIDE THE GYM
Saying No to Rest: Sleeping and Off Days
In order for your muscles to repair themselves, you need proper rest. That’s because the major hormone responsible for muscle regeneration is human growth hormone (HGH) and our HGH is highest when we’re sleeping. HGH production isn’t the only thing keeping you from seeing gains.
You could have the best nutrition in the world and the most perfectly designed program but if you’re not sleeping, you’re not going to see gains. Sleep deprivation can cause you to gain weight and can alter the production of appetite suppression hormones leptin and ghrelin.
There’s a real connection between a lack of sleep and an increase in cortisol levels. Cortisol is a super important hormone that is produced in response to stress. So, if you’re not sleeping enough, your body produces cortisol to keep you alert and focused. High levels of cortisol can cause you to gain weight and break down muscle tissue – the exact opposite of what you want if you’re trying to make gains. Just like you charge your devices at night, you need to charge your body too.
A note here on active recovery, since that’s a critical part of optimal gym performance as well. Going hard in the gym seven days a week might work for a month, or two if you’re lucky. The truth is that your muscles need rest, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a sloth and stay in watching shows all day. Inadequate rest can lead to over-training, which is your body’s way of refusing to recover.
Excessive amounts of exercise without the right rest means you’re going to see a decrease in your performance generalised fatigue, poor sleeping patterns, and mood swings. This is basically your body telling you to step it down a notch, especially when you’re trying to make gains.
On your days off from the gym, make sure you’re doing something – take a walk, go for a short bike ride, or even practice some low impact yoga. Not moving isn’t any more helpful than being in the gym every day.
Supplements shouldn’t be your main focus when you’re pushing for gains in the gym, but they make a big difference. The thing to remember here is that you can’t rely on supplements to earn your gains, but when stacked correctly, supplements can make a huge difference in your numbers.
Of course, the best place to source all of your vitamins is from whole, fresh foods. This helps to reduce the need for a daily multivitamin. If you’re in the gym consistently and you’re pushing hard, you’re probably already paying close (or closer) attention to your nutrition.
Some experts suggest taking a multi until you have a good solid year of training and nutrition under your belt, but this is definitely a personal issue. If you know that your macros are optimal, skip the multi and spend your supplement money on things that will really help you out.
Everyone is going to suggest a different group of supplements because no one stack works for everyone. As a general rule, here are seven supplements worth exploring within the framework of your own personal plan.
Remember that your specific situation might not call for all of these, so you have to do your own due diligence and vet these supplements first.
The best protein powder is essential to help you build and maintain muscle. It helps with muscle repair and aids in the production of enzymatic processes and hormones. Current research shows that using protein immediately after a weight training session can help you see the gains you’re working so hard for in the gym. Take a look at the next section for a detailed explanation of how and why protein is so important for your progress.
If you add one extra supplement to your toolkit, it should be some good BCAAs. A group of three amino acids that are most often found in protein sources, BCAAs are essential for muscle growth. Research shows that BCAAs can improve muscle gains.
An amino acid that helps reduce fatigue and might improve your overall performance. More research is needed, but early studies show that it can be helpful in promoting muscle growth in both strength and HIIT training programs.
Provides energy for muscles and tissues. Helps to improve muscle strength but can also increase water content in muscle cells. It might be helpful in increasing hormone levels to promote muscle growth, but more research is needed.
Probably most beneficial for the over 30 crowd, glutamine helps maintain muscle mass and can aid in recovery.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate is a molecule produced when your body processes BCAAs. Supplementing with HMB allows for higher concentrations of it to stockpile in your body and can help improve lean body mass.
It’s amazing how many athletes and serious lifters don’t rely on ZMA as part of their training supplementation. ZMA is a combo supplement of zinc, magnesium, and B6. Zinc keeps your immune system working well, magnesium is essential for creating appropriate energy levels, and B6 is needed for nutrient metabolism.
Deficiencies in any of these might compromise your performance in the gym. Many gym-goers use this in the evening as part of overnight recovery to help aid in sleep and ensure muscle gains continue to happen.
Finally, a word about quality. There are plenty of supplements on the market, and like everything else, you get what you pay for. Splurging on a supplement from a reputable brand that’s been around for a while is probably going to give you better results than the cheaper option. Ultimately, that’s your call to make, so use caution when beginning any supplement stack.
Not Eating Enough & Too Little Protein
Just like keeping your heart rate in a cardio zone is going to derail your gains efforts, so too is not eating enough. If there are only two things you take away from this guide, it’s that you need a keen eye on your nutrition, and you need to follow a plan.
The more you’re asking of your body, the more you need to fuel it with proper adequate sources. Ditch the fad diets that suggest eating no carbs or lots of fats and focus on your protein. Let that be your primary goal and everything else will fall into place.
Muscles don’t happen simply because you want them to be there. The right amount of nutrients are required to encourage muscle growth, so that means a balanced diet of carbs, fats, and protein. If you’re not eating enough, or you’re eating at a caloric deficit, your body simply doesn’t have the resources it needs to make it grow. There’s a very easy way to fix this and that’s to first determine the amount of calories you need in a day and then track your diet. Countless apps exist to make this a simple and easy process and will give you a detailed view of how much or how little you’re eating. Discovering how to plan your meals and eating at a surplus will get you one step closer to the gains you want to see.
Contrary to the fad diets of the moment, your body actually does need carbohydrates for energy. Depending on the type of program you push, you might need more or less carbohydrates. For example, endurance athletes like marathoners and serious cyclists need a ton of carbohydrates to act as energy sources to fuel their programs. If your primary focus is gaining mass, then you need to focus on protein. Not having enough will make it impossible for your body to repair and rebuild tissues.
The reason is basic nutrition. Proteins are made up of amino acids that form long chains and there are 20 essential amino acids your body needs to form the thousands of different types of proteins in your body. Protein is key for every single cell in your body. You use it to build and repair muscles and tissues, and to make enzymes, hormones and all the other chemicals your body needs to run properly.
Cells inside your body are in a constant state of turnover. That means that at any given time, there’s an area of your body that is relying on protein to repair and rebuild. It’s a key component in the growth and maintenance of tissues.
Protein causes biochemical reactions in your body through the formation and dispersing of enzymes. For athletes, digestive enzymes are critical to help you process the foods you eat.
In addition to these uses, protein helps to balance fluid, create cell structure, and keep your immunity strong. If you’re pushing hard in the gym for any length of time, your body is going to require more protein to handle all of these responsibilities. That’s why the key component to making gains is eating the right amount of protein.
Protein needs are going to vary based on your gender, age, and level of exercise intensity. It seems that every few years a new study emerges that negates earlier findings regarding adequate protein levels alongside some claims that excess protein can be damaging to your liver and kidneys. The truth is that protein should fall somewhere in the following range, with room for fluidity.
The average adult needs 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight per day.
To see gains, you should up that to anywhere from 1.4 – 2.0 grams per kg of bodyweight per day.
Keep in mind that everyone is different so your range might be on the lower or higher end. This is all very personalised, so it might take some trial and error to find your sweet spot. Another important caveat is that while protein powders, bars, and other pre-packaged foods can offer you a quick dose of protein when you need it, it’s best to try to stick to whole food protein sources.
For those key times when you need to kick-start the repair process, a high quality whey protein powder is your go-to source. It’s much more practical than carrying around a Tupperware of food, though we know plenty of athletes that do that too! When you’re picking bars and other pre-packaged protein sources, look for the lowest sugar content you can find to avoid eating unnecessary calories.
The reality is that making gains is something that happens both inside and outside of the gym. You’re of no service to yourself if you’re only concentrating your efforts inside the gym and then let loose once you leave. The opposite is also true. If you’re not showing up and giving your best every single time you’re training, then you’re never going to see the results you want.
Once you’re past the early stage of muscle gains, the progress slows down significantly This doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong; it’s just the nature of anatomy. But that also doesn’t mean you can release the throttle on your efforts. You have to show up every day and not make excuses. Be in charge of your own motivation; don’t let it come from anywhere else.
The best program isn’t going to work unless you work. Hit the gym hard every day and don’t lie to yourself about why you’re not seeing progress. Remember that there’s a huge difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation is the desire to do something, discipline is actually showing up and doing it even when you don’t want to be there. Just like every other thing in life, discipline is an active habit that requires training and consistency. A “bad” workout is better than a missed workout.
Clearly identifying the goals you want to set and how you’re going to reach those gains is just as important as making sure you’re ready to show up for yourself every day. One of the most delightful aspects of weight training is that it’s a personalised experience. It’s you versus the iron every single day. As Rollins once said, “Two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”