Bulk Failure: Why Your Muscle Building Plan Isn't Working

Steve Shaw
Written By: Steve Shaw
April 17th, 2012
Updated: June 13th, 2020
106.6K Reads
Adding too much fat on your bulk? Or perhaps you're not gaining any muscle or weight at all? Maximize your bulk with hard and smart training, and diet.

Dumbbell curlsYour bulk is failing. You spent weeks planning your workouts and calorie intake, asking questions on the forums, but you're running into one of the following problems:

  1. You're gaining too much fat. You don't seem to be adding much muscle on your bulk, but you are gaining too much fat.
  2. You're not gaining any weight. No matter what you do, the scale isn't moving. You continue to look the same in the mirror.

What's wrong? Good question, with two simple answers: either you aren't training hard and smart enough or you aren't eating enough.

Reason #1 - You Aren't Training Hard and Smart

The first reason your bulk is failing is because you aren't training both hard and smart. Most people that consistently hit the gym are working out hard, but they are not working out smart. They knock out endless miles on the treadmill, and break a good sweat while lifting weights. While this is great for overall health, it often lacks the structure and focus required to build muscle and strength.

Muscle building requires certain core principles and practices to be in place so that you can experience consistent gains. Without these parameters in place your time in the gym is basically a wasted effort. Your workouts will merely be adventures in expending energy and improving body conditioning, and your bulk will simply be extra calories and unwanted fat gain.

Let's look at some reasons why your training is sub-par.

Poor Exercise Selection

Use the most effective exercises possible. Instead of trying to find an easier way to train, ask yourself if there is a more challenging exercise choice. Exercises are like tools. To build muscle in the most efficient manner, you want to utilize the most potent tools in your toolbox. If you focus the majority of your time on inferior lifts your gains will slow. It's really as simple as that.

The following list contains (arguably) the best muscle building exercises. Are you using exercises like this, or instead opting for easier alternatives?


When considering exercises, remember the following rules. Understand they are generalizations, and not hard and fast commandments that must always be obeyed.

  1. Perform the most challenging exercises first in your workout, while you feel fresh.
  2. Compound exercises are generally a better choice than isolation exercises.
  3. When choosing machine, cable and isolation exercises, opt for lifts that allow for the most substantial future weight progression.
  4. Don't underestimate the potency of dips and pullups.

Certain exercises don't allow for much progression or improvement. Think about it. How long will it take you to max out weight on side laterals? Not a heck of a long time, unless you start cheating the exercise. How long will it take you to max out on push presses? Years and years. It stands to reason that push presses are a better exercise choice than side laterals.

You Aren't Pushing Yourself For More Weight

Regarding weight progression, do you have a progression plan? Do you know what progression is? If not there is a good chance your bulk will fail miserably.

Progression is the addition of weight to an exercise over time. Progression is what makes you big, and progression is what makes you strong. It is THE magic, and the main reason why many approaches work, from Dogg Crapp to Wendler's 531. Without progression, or consistent strength gains over the first several years of your training, you won't see much in the way of muscle gains.

This isn't to say that you have to become a powerlifter. You don't. But you do need to push yourself to do more week in and week out. If you do not push yourself, your body will quickly adapt to your current training habits and muscle gains will slow or stall.

Weighted DipsThere are certainly other ways to make a workout more difficult without adding weight, but without the addition of weight these training tools will have a limited impact. For example, it you decide to use supersets to "up your muscle building efforts", your body will most likely respond...for several weeks. After that point you will need to return back to weight progression so that the supersets continue to challenge the body.

The same thing applies for training volume additions. While adding a set or 2 can force the body to respond, as soon as your body adapts to this volume addition you will once again need to focus on weight progression.

The bottom line is this...there are many unique methods that help to trigger muscle growth, from rest pause sets to volume increases, but at some point they all require weight progression to remain effective. You simply can't bench press 135 pounds year in and year out using shock training tactics and expect to build any substantial amount of muscle mass.

There are no weak bodybuilders. Though bodybuilders don't train specifically for strength, strength additions are still the primary and essential tool that drives muscle gains.

Don't understand how to progress? Here's a simple progression rule for compound exercises that any novice can follow:

Using good form push yourself for as many reps as possible on every set. Stop the set when you feel like you may fail on the next rep. When you hit 10 for that set, add weight the next time in the gym.

Do you need to use this, and only this approach? Of course not. But you do need to be pushing yourself. Somewhere after your first year of hard, focused training you should be closing in on the numbers listed below. If you're not, it's time to get serious about progression. Time and time again I've seen hard working lifters hit these numbers in only 12 months of training.

You Keep Making Excuses

Are you making excuses? Minor injuries, aches, pains and strains are part of lifting. Listen to your body and train around them. Stop using every excuse under the sun to miss workouts. Be persistent and hit the gym even if you feel sub-par. Want to know why? Here's why:

Because how you feel has nothing to do with how you will perform. Period.

Am I certain? 100% certain. I have been under the bar for 25 years and know several things to be true:

  1. My best workouts often come on days when I am tired and feeling unmotivated.
  2. 25% of my workouts are sub-par no matter what approach I am using, or how amazing I feel.

Bench Press

The first point tells us this: hit the gym no matter how you feel (unless you are sick or injured of course). The second point is also very important. How many times have you seen a lifter "deload" because they had a bad workout? I suspect more than a few.

Don't schedule a deload every time you have a bad workout. This is a horrible habit to get into. Bad days happen, most times for no apparent reason. Experienced lifters will tell you that they consistently have amazing workouts the day after poor workouts, and vice versa.

So moving on...now that you are using better exercises, pushing for progression and consistently going to the gym, let's look at the second possible reason your bulk is failing.

Reason #2 - You Aren't Eating Enough

Perhaps you're on the other side of the fence: you are training hard but can't seem to add any muscle or strength. What gives? My guess is that you're not eating enough. But, but, but...I am eating enough! No, no, no you're NOT eating enough. If you are training hard, yet your weight continues to stagnate, you need more food. End of story. If you were 140 pounds 6 months ago and weigh 140 pounds today, something is broken.

The BMR Calculator Told Me To Eat...

It's pretty common to see inexperienced lifters basing their daily calorie needs off of a BMR calculator. The problem with this is that for many of you it encourages undereating. While a BMR calculator is a good jumping off point, it tends to underestimate calorie requirements for healthy young men with fast metabolisms.

A skinny 18 year old male who weighs 140 pounds and has a hard time gaining weight may be told to eat 2600 calories by a BMR calculator. There is a real good chance this individual may not be able to gain anything unless they eat over 3500 calories per day.

The point is this...if the scale's not moving, eat more food. It is very possible for a first year lifter who is training hard to add 15 pounds of muscle. While this rate is not linear, it does indicate that you should be gaining somewhere around one pound of muscle each month during year one.

I Don't Want To Get Fat

There is this foolish notion that bulking requires you to get fat. The reason many people fail at bulking is because they aren't training hard enough. If you are training hard, eating a little more food than normal isn't going to turn you into a sumo wrestler. On the other hand, undereating may substantially limit your progress. It's your call...continue to eat like a bird and look like a bird, or eat a little more than normal and make better gains.

During my first 2 years of hard training I ate approximately 4000 to 5000 calories per day while remaining relatively lean. My bodyfat level never went over 16-18%. Granted I was 18 years old with a fast metabolism, but I think you understand the point...eat enough so that you are able to gain.

If 90% of your calorie intake is based around healthy, clean foods, it will be hard to pack on substantial amounts of fat. In addition, if you consider "losing your six pack" to be fat, you may never build any substantial amount of muscle mass.

How Should I Bulk?

How should you bulk? There are many possible methods. Here are some popular options:

  • 3 square meals per day + GOMAD (Gallon of milk per day).
  • Add 1000 calories to what you normally eat each day (John Christy style eating plan).
  • Eat 300 calories over your daily maintenance levels (clean bulk).
  • Eat 500 calories over your daily maintenance levels (more aggressive bulk)
  • Intermittent fasting or Warrior Diet with an appropriate daily calorie intake.
  • Paleo diet with an appropriate daily calorie intake.

Concluding Thoughts

Training hard can overcome some poor eating choices as long as your calorie intake is susbstantial enough. So whatever you do, work your butt off in the gym and get strong on the most potent exercises. On the other hand, a perfect diet will never make up for wimpy gym sessions. If you are still squatting 225 after 5 years of training, there is a reason you haven't built much muscle.

The take home point from this article should be:

Train and eat smart. If you eat big but aren't training hard you may add fat. Extra calories without progressively more challenging workouts are simply extra calories. If you train smart, but aren't eating enough, you're making it harder to build muscle.

For those of you who are hitting it hardcore in the gym, I recommend a more aggressive eating approach. You can always dial things back if needed.

Posted on: Sun, 07/21/2013 - 01:14

What are some good targets for females?

Posted on: Sat, 07/20/2013 - 19:17

Hey Steve, I am a Vegetarian who is trying to cut bodyfat and gain lean muscle. I initially lost 70 lbs and have maintained this weight for about 4 months but I want to gain atleast 10 lbs of muscle. I have been trying to eat clean for about a month now and increase my calorie intake. I have gained strength from lifting but my bodyfat seems to fluctuate . I have been around 16% to 18%. What suggestions or diet ideas should I try to get the small pouch gone as well as gain more lean muscle. Thanks.

Posted on: Mon, 10/22/2012 - 12:28

The numbers you give as a good target for one year are those 1rm or 10rep numbers?

Posted on: Wed, 04/25/2012 - 04:28

Absolutely brilliant article.

Beginners should read it and read it again.

Steve Laing
Posted on: Sat, 04/21/2012 - 23:21

I am a 55 year old with Bi-Lateral hip replacement, 194 pounds and have been weight lifting 2 years since my surgery, I've made very good strides, my arms, shoulders, chest and back are coming along very well, I have made progressive gains in strength for those areas, my problem is everything below the waist except my calfs, I have confidence and have upped the weights as far as calf work, but squats and deadlifts scare me, there is the chance of dislocation 'if', buts that the problem 'if'.

If I lift those moves to heavy, if I lift those moves at the wrong angle, a proper squat demands a greater then 90 degree angle which I cant do safely, a proper deadlift demands weight and I have a mental problem with pushing that because of my hips. There is next to no information on weight lifting with replacement hips, my doctor recommends no more then 50 pounds for any leg move which I believe is ridiculous and effortless, the replacement stem is coated with a substance that allows the bone to grow into it and my xrays for the last 2 years have shown perfect results with no loosening. I have squatted 200 pounds comfortable at maybe a 45 degree angle, my deadlifting is non existent because of fear but I am going to try it with light weights and work my way up.

I can do machine leg extensions, hamstring extensions, calf raises and hack rack calf raises comfortably but not with huge weight.

But while I gain in size in my upper body, I am lagging in the lower body and it's frustrating, I do a solid leg and ab routine but am having a hard time gaining muscle in my thighs and calfs, they are muscular and solid but not growing like the rest of my body, I feel this may be part of the problem as to losing belly fat too.

Do you have any suggestions that could help me, like I said, there is nothing as far as advice or training for Bi-Lateral hip people like me and I'm wining it on my own and dont want to hurt myself but I do want to give my body a solid leg foundation to protect my new hips and add life to them without taking life from them. Dammed if I do, Dammed if I dont.

Thanks for any help you can provide.

Steve Laing

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 04/24/2012 - 12:28

Hi Steve,

I would never recommend using exercises that are potentially dangerous. While squats and deadlifts are the kings of the hill, hard work and dedication with exercises that are safer for you will still yield good results.

I am no expert on lifting post-hip replacement. There simply aren't many people that do so.

High rep squats and leg presses can work wonders if your hips are able to tolerate them.