Here’s a question I see time and time again in online bodybuilding & fitness forums:
“Hi, I have been working out for __ [insert long time period here] months and I have only gained __ [insert small amount of weight here] pounds. I train hard and have been taking XYZ supplements. I can’t gain weight or get stronger! Please help!”
This is an all too common story for people with no experience or knowledge on how to build muscle and gain weight. In most cases, after trying to gain weight for several months the person will quit. That’s a pity, because the only thing stopping the person from progressing is knowledge.
In this article I’m going to discuss in detail the possible reasons why you’re not building muscle. I’ve got 15 reasons listed below, which covers 99% of reasons why you’re not growing. If you feel you’re doing everything I’ve talked about here, and you’re still not growing, let’s take it one step further and talk about it on our forum.
Reasons why you’re not building muscle:
1. You’re not getting enough calories
Calorie consumption is the solution to about 90% of the complaints lifters have about not being about to get bigger and/or stronger. Your body requires a certain number of calories to maintain your current weight. This figure is known as basal metabolic rate (BMR), and varies from person to person depending on your weight, muscle mass, activity level, age etc. If your calorie intake is lower than BMR, you will lose weight. This is known as a calorie deficit. If your daily calorie intake is higher than your BMR, you will gain weight. This is known as a calorie surplus.
How do you know how many calories your body needs?
The easiest way to calculate your BMR is to use our BMR calculator. This calculator uses the Harris Benedict Formula (one of the most accurate methods) to calculate your daily calorie requirements. Go over to the calculator and work out your daily calorie requirements. Most people are surprised at how many calories they need just for maintenance!
Let’s focus on your goal. You want to build muscle and gain weight, so your calorie intake needs to be more than your expenditure. Take the figure the calculator gave you and add 500. This is how many calories you should be eating every day to build muscle.
- Your calculated BMR is 2,760 calories
- You require 3,260 calories for weight gain
- You require 2,260 calories for weight loss
2. You’re not eating the right foods
Generally speaking, if you’re eating excess calories every day and training with a decent workout you’ll grow. But, if you’re not eating the right foods, the chances are that you’ll be limiting your potential, putting on excess body fat, and not growing enough lean muscle.
The best way to plan your muscle building diet is to split it up into protein/carbohydrate/fat (P/C/F) ratios. Arguably the best ratio of muscle growth is 30/50/20. This mean you’re getting 30% of your total calories from protein, 50% from carbohydrates and 20% from fats.
So let’s look at our 3,260 calorie diet from above and break it up:
30% of 3,260 is 980 calories from protein.
Divide by 4, and that’s 244g protein per day
50% of 3,260 is 1630 calories from carbs.
Divide by 4, and that’s 408g carbs per day
20% of 3,260 is 650 calories from fat.
Divide by 9, and that’s 72g fat per day
Now all you need to do is spread those amounts over 6-7 meals per day. For more detailed information on building a diet see our how to create a bodybuilding diet article.
3. You’re not eating enough meals
When you eat is just as important as what you eat. The days of eating “3 square meals” are long gone. Research has shown that eating more smaller meals is not only great for promoting a fast metabolism, but helps maintain, lose, and gain weight. Think of your body like a log fire. If you put too much wood on at once, the fire burns slow and sluggish. But if you gradually add more wood as the fire gets bigger, it burns more efficiently and gets bigger.
You should be aiming for a minimum for 6 meals spread at even intervals throughout the day. You want to make these meals as even as possible, but it’s OK to eat a bit more at breakfast/lunch/dinner if you don’t have time during the other breaks.
So you’re probably thinking, “I don’t have time to eat all those meals”. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that I could retire. The truth is you can, it just requires a bit for forward planning. There are endless ways you can cook and store food for meals throughout the day. Spend a few hours on a Sunday afternoon cooking up your lunches and snacks for the week. Use your imagination. Here’s some examples of foods you can cook, then freeze or refrigerate.
- Stir fry
- Mexican chicken & potatoes
- Pasta bowls
- Potato and chicken salad
- Beef stew
The other option is weight gain shakes. There’s nothing easier than banging some water into a shaker with some powder, having a shake, and drinking. Good meal replacement shakes usually contain around 600 calories with good amounts of protein, BCAAs, glutamine and carbohydrates. It’s literally a meal in a cup. All you need is a few shaker bottles, add the powder before work, then just add water and drink on the job. Simple.
4. You’re not getting enough water
Water is nature’s wonder supplement, it’s essential for a whole host of bodily functions. Many lifters underestimate the importance of being hydrated well before they step into the gym. If you feel dehydrated just before you’re about to train, it’s too late, you won’t be able to rehydrate yourself time. Keeping yourself hydrated should be a priority from the moment you get out of bed. Dehydration is a serious problem, and in extreme cases can lead to death. Here are some signs of dehydration you should look out for:
- Feeling thirsty (obviously)
- Fatigue. Feeling tired for no apparent reason.
- Dry mouth and possible sore throat
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine with strong odor
Drinking an adequate amount of water is easy, and there’s no excuse why you cannot do it. Just take a bottle wherever you go and keep sipping out of it throughout the day.
Some supplements, like creatine, may lead to dehydration. If you’re using creatine monohydrate you should increase the amount of water your consuming.
5. Your workout routine sucks
Choosing the right routine to suit your body type, training experience and goal is vital. Many new lifters get their workout routines from magazines and articles written by professional bodybuilders. These workouts are not designed for beginners, and will only lead to a lot of wasted time, energy and frustration.
A good workout routine needs the following:
- Training days arranged to allow for adequate rest
- Muscle groups arranged so overtraining does not occur
- Muscle groups arranged so that each muscle can be worked to maximum effect
- A good selection of compound and isolation exercises
- Good warm up and cool down
We have a big database of workouts on this site that have been designed for beginners right through to advanced lifters. Check out our workouts section.
It’s also important to know and understand the characteristics of your body type. Different body types respond to different methods of training. What works for your friends may not work for you. For more information on body types see our “which of the body types are you?” article.
6. You’ve been using the same workout too long
Building muscle is simply the process of the body reacting to increased stress. You put stress on your muscles in the gym, and they grow bigger to cope with the stress. The body is very quick to adapt to any changes, this includes your workout. Once your body adapts to your workout routine, it will not see the need to build more muscle or get stronger. You have to change.
As a general rule you should change your workout when you stop getting stronger or heavier, or after about 8-10 weeks. If you’ve been doing your workout for 12 weeks and you’re still growing, don’t change it, everyone is different – if you’re still growing, stick to it. We have plenty of great workouts on this site for all experience levels. Check out the workouts section.
7. You’re not focused on progression
Progression builds muscle, without it you won’t grow. Progression is the constant increase of weight, stress and intensity required to tell your body that it needs to grow more muscle.
You should aim to improve at least one aspect of your workout every week. It could be increasing the weight, it could be your increase the reps, but it has to be something. This is where a training log becomes so important. Before every workout you should look back at what you did the previous week, exact weights and reps. Choose the areas you want to improve, and get in the gym and do it.
8. Your exercise technique is bad
You’re doing the right exercises, but are you doing them right? If you want to place the maximum amount of stress on the muscle, and prevent serious injuries, you have to execute every movement with good form. Don’t copy what others are doing in the gym, this is how bad habits spread. Here are a few general rules that apply to most exercises:
- Keep your reps slow and controlled
- Don’t use momentum to move weight (no swinging!)
- Use a full range of motion
- Don’t lock joints out at the top of movements
Check out the exercises section on this site for instructional videos on how to do all the muscle building exercises correctly.
9. You’re doing the wrong exercises
This goes hand in hand with a solid workout routine. Doing the wrong exercises is a common mistake made by new lifters. Usually, the lifter is either doing too many isolation exercises and not enough compounds, or only doing exercises they “like”.
Big compound movements recruit the most muscle fibers and place the most stress on the body. These are your big muscle builders. A good compound to isolation ratio is 2-1, or 3-1. So for every 2-3 compound exercises you do, you do 1 isolation. This of course does not apply to arms, forearms, and calves where most exercises are isolation movements. Here are some big mass builders that you should be including in your routine:
- Wide grip pull up
- Chin up
- Bench press (dumbbell and/or barbell)
- Shoulder press (dumbbell or barbell)
Check out the exercises section for instruction on these exercises.
10. You’re not training your legs
Want to increase your bench, increase your squat. Yeah, yeah, I know we all want big biceps and chests, but here’s 2 reasons why you should train your legs just as hard as the rest of your body.
Firstly, think long term here. Do you want to get the ostrich look?! A big upper body on thin legs does not look good, in fact I’ve seen it in extremes, and it’s laughable! Secondly, exercises like squats have an impact on your whole body. Not only does it use most of your upper body muscles in the movement, but this exercise is so stressful that the body releases growth hormone to try and cope with the load. This effects the entire body.
Leg training is hard, but essential for a well developed physique. See the leg exercises section for detailed instructions on how to do leg exercises using strict technique.
11. You’re not getting enough rest
This point kind of goes back to point #5, your workout routine does not allow for adequate rest. Rest is just as important as training. Many people believe that muscle building takes place in the gym, but it’s actually the opposite. Weight training is actually creating millions of tears in the muscle tissue. In effect, you’re actually damaging the muscle. Your muscles get “pumped up” because of the swelling caused and increased blood flow to the area. The actual muscle building (repair and growth of new muscle tissue) takes place out of the gym, when you’re resting and sleeping.
There are 2 ways you may not be getting enough rest. First, you are training too many days without taking as day off. Although you may not feel it, you body needs days of complete rest to recover from hard training sessions. It’s not just the muscles that need to recover, it’s your whole neurological system, tendons, joints, even your brain need rest.
Secondly, and this comes back to your workout routine again, you may not be allowing muscle groups to fully recover between training sessions. If you do not allow enough recovery time, your muscles will not grow. It’s that simple. If your muscle group is still sore from the previous workout, don’t train it. For most muscle groups, one training session per week is adequate. Some smaller muscle groups like calves and abs may be trained twice, but still need at least 2 days of rest between sessions.
12. You’re not getting enough sleep
Sleeping is you body’s time to recharge. For you, the weight trainer, it’s your body’s time to repair damaged muscle tissue, and grow more muscle. As I discussed in the previous point, no rest, no muscle. Aim to get around 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night. Here’s some tips on how to get a good night’s rest:
- Only sleep when you’re tired. There’s no point it trying to when you’re not.
- Develop sleeping rituals, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.
- Refrain from stressful activities for 1-2 hours before bed
- Don’t take stimulates within 4-6 hours before bed time
- Have a light snack before bed
13. Your post workout nutrition sucks
Your post workout shake/meal is arguably the most important meal of the day. When you finish your workout, your muscles are crying out for nutrients that were lost during training. Your protein levels are down, creatine levels are down, and glycogen is depleted. Most people think that a simple whey protein shake is all that’s needed after your workout. This is not true. While a protein shake is better than nothing, it still falls well short of a good post workout shake. Here’s what would be better:
Shake containing the following:
- 30-40g of whey protein powder
- 5g of creatine
- 60-70g of dextrose
1 hour later:
A well rounded meal containing protein, complex carbs and fats.
You see above I’ve pimped out your post workout shake by adding dextrose and creatine. Dextrose is the simplest of simple carbohydrates. Studies have shown that taking dextrose in these doses creates a huge spike of insulin in the body. Insulin is an extremely anabolic hormone and helps move nutrients quickly throughout the body. This means that the creatine, protein and BCAAs are quickly absorbed into muscle cells where they’re needed for muscle repair to begin.
14. Your pre-workout nutrition sucks
Carbohydrates are the key to having adequate fuel in your tank for a hard workout. There are 2 types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates (like dextrose mentioned above) are quickly converted into energy for use in the body. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest and process, but provide you with long lasting energy. Complex carbohydrates are your primary fuel source for your workouts.
What you eat throughout the day, and 1.5-3 hours before your workout is going to affect how much energy you have. Like I mentioned at the start of this article, you need to space your meals out evenly throughout the day. If you eat a big breakfast, a big lunch, then train after work, you’re probably going to feel tired and sluggish. What would be better a better approach would be to eat a small breakfast, mid morning meal, smaller lunch, afternoon meal, then train after work. This gives you about 2 hours between your last meal and training, which is ideal.
So what should you have in your pre workout meal? This meal should be well rounded, containing protein, complex carbohydrate and fats. The amount of calories in the meal depends on your personal diet plan. Try and keep the protein/carbs/fats (PCF) ratio to around 30/50/20. Here is some examples of quality sources of complex carbohydrates:
- Brown rice
- Brown bread
- Pita bread
15. You’re not motivated
Finally, if you’re not gaining it may be due to lack of motivation. Can you honestly say you put in 100% every time you hit the gym? There are several ways you can help yourself stay motivated and focused on your goals.
- Keep a training diary
- Set small bi-weekly achievable goals (use your training diary to record results, good or bad)
- Take before and after pictures
- Get a picture of someone you want to look like and stick it someplace you’ll see it all the time.
- Get involved with discussions about muscle building and learn more (check out our forum)
- Watch training and workout videos from the pros before you train
- Fire yourself up before a session with some music that gets you going
OK, let’s recap.
Let’s quickly recap what I’ve just talked about in this article. So if you want to build muscle and gain weight you need to…
- Know how many calories your body needs, then eat 500 more than that every day.
- Eat the right amount of protein, carbs and fats in your diet.
- Eat 6-7 meals spread out evenly throughout the day.
- Keep yourself hydrated all day, whether you’re working out or not.
- Get a good workout routine to suit your goals.
- If you’re not growing, change your routine.
- Make sure you’re progressively adding more weight.
- Always use correct exercise technique
- Do the right exercises for your goal
- Train your legs as hard as the rest of your body
- Get enough rest between workouts and muscle groups
- Get enough sleep
- Have good post workout nutrition and supplementation
- Have good pre workout nutrition
- Keep motivated!
I hope this article has shown you the light, and you can see where you’ve been going wrong. If not, you can always head over to our muscle building forum and ask one of our experienced members for some advice on your training, workout, supplements or diet.
Good luck with reaching your goals!