If you've been hitting the weights for a while and don't seem to be putting on more muscle — no matter how much you increase the volume of your workouts — you might be wondering what gives?
Sometimes your ability to build more muscle has nothing to do with what you're doing in the gym and everything to do with what you're doing outside of your workouts.
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Here are five factors that might be holding you back from packing on lean mass and what you can do about it.
1. You've Been Training for a Long Time
If you've been strength training for some time, it's harder — but not impossible — to put on a significant amount of muscle the way a beginner would.
In a widely cited May 2003 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, new lifters gained three times as much muscle over 21 weeks compared to other lifters with a year or more of training experience.
After you lift weights, a chemical process called "muscle protein synthesis" (muscle building) spikes. When you're new to strength training, muscle protein synthesis stays elevated for around two days after each workout, compared to less than a day in more advanced athletes, according to this June 2015 research review in Sports Medicine.
The reason for this isn't totally clear, but experts hypothesize that it may have something to do with changes in mRNA (an acid involved in protein synthesis) from training and sensitivity to the signaling pathways that activate exercise-induced muscle protein synthesis, among other factors, according to an October 2005 study in The Journal of Physiology.
How to Fix It
The longer you train, the harder it is to build muscle quickly. You may want to adjust your goals, such as focusing on maintaining the muscle you've built, or revealing more of it by losing body fat to get leaner. You can also change your focus to building overall strength, rather than increasing muscle size.
If you're still hoping to increase muscle size, consider changing the way you train. In an October 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that experienced exercisers were able to gain muscle by training with heavy weights and doing 8 to 12 reps in each set, or by using lighter weights with high reps (25 to 35 per set), as long as they lifted to failure (until they couldn't do more reps).
So if you've been lifting low loads for lots of reps, try flipping the script — or vice versa.
2. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Protein is what your body uses to build muscle, so it's important to ensure you're getting enough of it throughout the day and especially after your workouts to support muscle repair and growth.
"You want to eat at least one gram of protein for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight each day. In other words, eat at least half your body weight in grams of protein. That's at a minimum," says Nick Tumminello, CPT, a personal trainer based in Florida and author of Strength Zone Training.
For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should aim to eat 90 grams of protein daily.
In a small June 2020 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, female lifters who ate 1.13 grams of protein per pound of their body weight gained an average of 4.6 pounds of muscle over eight weeks.
Other lifters who ate 0.4 grams of protein per pound of their body weight over that same period only gained 1.3 pounds of muscle. The higher-protein group also lost more body fat over the same period.
How to Fix It
Use an app to keep track of your daily protein intake. If possible, weigh your protein portions before eating them.To maximize the amount of protein your body absorbs, spread your intake evenly across different meals and snacks throughout the day.
According to a small February 2018 study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you can only absorb 30 to 40 grams of protein from a single meal. So if you're aiming for 90 grams per day, spread it evenly across three meals and snacks.
Besides lean proteins like fish, chicken and beef, one easy way to add around 30 grams of protein to your daily diet is with a post-workout shake made with whey protein powder.
Whey is ideal post-workout because it goes to work quickly: According to a March 2003 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, your body can digest whey within 20 minutes. The rapid digestion paired with a spike in amino acid levels will help kick-start your body's muscle-building process.
3. You’re Not Eating Enough Calories
If your goals are to gain muscle and lose weight, it's possible — but it isn't easy to do simultaneously.
"When you're in a caloric deficit and you're not eating enough to maintain size, what the body is going to do post-training first is repair. Then it's going to prioritize all the regular biological processes," says Alex Viada, CPT, owner of Complete Human Performance.
"If there are still resources leftover and if there's enough stimulus, it's going to put some effort into building muscle."
And by "enough stimulus," we mean you've got to put in extra work to build muscle while losing weight. In a March 2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists were able to help men lose weight and gain muscle by increasing their protein intake and doing intense exercise.
That said, "people can be eating enough protein, and not taking in enough overall calories needed for muscle growth," says Meredith Mack, a personal trainer and professional bodybuilder based in New York. The other calories need to come from carbs and fat.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the way your cells store and use energy. In order to have enough ATP within a cell to grow muscle, you need to have glycogen in the cell, which is made of carbohydrates.
"So you need those carbohydrates to keep the energy levels in every individual cell in the body topped up in order to actually grow," Viada says.
Diets that are too low in carbs (less than 30 percent of calories) and fat (less than 25 percent of calories) are associated with lower levels of the muscle-building hormone testosterone, according to a July 2019 research review in Sports (Basel).
How to Fix It
It’s easier to gain muscle when you’re eating more than you’re burning. In order to gain muscle weight rather than fat, experts recommend a daily caloric surplus of 200 to 300 calories per day, according to the July 2019 review in Sports (Basel).
In this review, scientists found that around one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day was ideal when combined with 20 to 35 percent of total calories from fat — and the rest from carbohydrates. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, such as those found in nuts and fatty fishes like salmon, can help with muscle growth.
But you don't necessarily have to eat more to reach this calorie surplus; you can choose nutritious, calorie-dense foods. For example, a three-ounce portion of salmon and 10 raw almonds adds almost 250 calories into your daily diet.
Using an app can help you keep track of your meals and ensure you're eating enough and getting the right nutrients to support your fitness goals.
4. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
When you don't get enough sleep, your mental and physical wellbeing suffers. And so does your ability to build muscle.
Getting less than seven hours per night decreases testosterone levels, reduces muscle protein synthesis and increases cortisol levels, according to a January 2021 study in Physiology Reports. Testosterone is a hormone that your body needs to build muscle, and elevated cortisol levels make it difficult to put on lean mass. Lack of sleep also shortens the amount of time muscle protein synthesis happens.
"You don't need to get [eight hours] each night, but you do want to average eight hours of sleep each night throughout the week," Tumminello says. That could mean seven hours one night, and nine on another.
The quality of your sleep matters, too, Viada says. Restorative zzz's at night are what you need for muscle recovery and growth.
"Six hours with good quality sleep architecture is probably better than eight hours of absolute garbage sleep," he says. Sleep architecture refers to the amount of time you spend in the different phases of sleep: light sleep, rapid eye motion (or REM) sleep and deep (or slow-wave) sleep.
"The sleep phases all have different effects on melatonin and antioxidant release. Without sufficient antioxidant release in the gut, you start to get a build-up of reactive oxygen species (the molecules that cause inflammation in the body). When there's inflammation, your body is less likely to build muscle," Viada says.
How to Fix It
First, make sleep a priority: “You’re only too busy for what you don’t prioritize,” Tumminello says. “Find ways to take naps during the day and help yourself relax at night.”
Creating an environment where you can relax before bed can help with the quality of the shuteye you’re able to get. Here are some ways to do that, according to the National Sleep Foundation:
- Schedule a nightly shutdown to turn off all electronics, including keeping your phone out of reach, before bed. The blue light produced by your phone is similar to the color of daylight, which can suppress the natural release of melatonin, a hormone that should increase as you head to sleep.
- Limit your caffeine intake during the day.
- Keep your bedroom cool — the ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule — even on the weekends — where you get up and go to bed around the same time each day.
5. You’re Stressed Out
Whether it's world events, work deadlines or personal issues, increased stress not only messes with your head but your muscle growth, too.
"The biochemistry of stress absolutely puts your body in a state where actual anabolic processes, including muscle building and sex drive. All those things are plummeting," Viada says.
Chronic stress shifts your hormonal balance, lowering levels of anabolic hormones that promote the growth of skeletal and lean mass, and increasing the levels of muscle-destroying hormones, according to a March 2015 study in Biodemography and Social Biology.
Stress even makes your muscles do a poor job of contracting. In a small January 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, researchers found that when people were experiencing more stress, their muscles weren't able to contract as hard or as well, which is essential for their growth.
How to Fix It
Try some of these stress-relief tips, such as doing breathing exercises and journaling, to help you relax.
Yoga can provide stress relief and a muscle-building stimulus at the same time. In a February 2020 research review in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, scientists found that multiple types of yoga provided stress-relief benefits.
If your fitness goals are a source of your stress, remember that you're progressing, even if you can't always see physical changes daily.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "Nutrition for Competition Cycle"
- European Journal of Applied Physiology: "Muscle Hypertrophy, Hormonal Adaptations and Strength Development During Strength Training in Strength-Trained and Untrained Men"
- Sports Medicine: "A Review of Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Their Contribution to Hypertrophy"
- The Journal of Physiology: "Fasted-State Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis After Resistance Exercise Is Altered With Training"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men"
- International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: "Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Higher Compared With Lower Dietary Protein During an Energy Deficit Combined With Intense Exercise Promotes Greater Lean Mass Gain and Fat Mass Loss: A Randomized Trial"
- Sports (Basel): "Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review"
- Physiology Reports: "The Effect of Acute Sleep Deprivation on Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and the Hormonal Environment"
- Biodemogrpahy and Social Biology: "Stress Responsive Biochemical Anabolic/Catabolic Ratio and Telomere Length in Older Adults"
- Journal of Clinical Diagnostic: "Study of The Effect of Stress on Skeletal Muscle Function in Geriatrics"
- Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine: "Effects of Yoga on Stress Among Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review"
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: "Independent and Combined Effects of Amino Acids and Glucose After Resistance Exercise"