So, underachiever, how do you feel today? Let me guess:
You got up, went to work, flirted with co-workers, hit the gym on your way home, had a kick-ass workout, and watched telly. Now, The Big Bang Theory is on and you’re reading this, thinking why after months of training you’ve gained little to no muscle.
It’s OK, I’ve been there too. I’ve made heaps of galactically stupid mistakes in my training. Even god makes mistakes. Remember when he created the flamingo? What a screw-up—making an idiotic bird with legs that are far too long. We all make mistakes.
But unlike God, I fixed my training mistakes. And so will you after reading this article. Here’s why you’re not gaining muscle and how to fix it.
1. Too Much Variety
Variation can be misapplied in both directions:
If you change your exercises from session to session, you never learn and become neurologically efficient to overload the exercise. You end up cycling through different motor unit patterns and never give a repeated stimulus to grow.
So changing exercises too often is a very fucking stupid idea because you’re not giving your body a chance to progress in those exercises.1
On the other hand, if you stick to the same exercise variation for two hundred years, your body won’t respond to training either. So you should vary something from time to time.
I’d say you should vary compound exercises every 3–6 months while isolation exercises more frequently.2 This could be done through varying:
- Rep range;
- Different feet/hand positions for the same exercise;
- Range of motion;
- Exercise/exercise variation itself;
2. Not Using Full Range of Motion
This is a full range of motion (ROM) squat:
And this is a partial ROM squat:
Don’t squat partially or you’ll die. Ok, you won’t but don’t squat like that. Here’s why:
Studies investigating partial to full range of motion squats,3 biceps curls,4 and leg training5 have all repeatedly shown greater muscle growth using full ROM. That’s despite the partial ROM groups lifted heavier weights.
Also, full ROM makes tracking performance and progressive overload easier. Let’s take squat as an example:
When you squat with full ROM you have a standardized ROM. It’s going to be the same every week. But if you squat only to about parallel, how do you know if you got stronger this week? Yeah, maybe you’ve done two reps more this week but… maybe you simply cut a few inches and didn’t go to the same depth as you did last week?
If you don’t train with full ROM, you should have a good reason for that. If you’re a powerlifter and you only need to squat to a parallel, cool, don’t squat with full ROM. If you have a history of injuries that limit your ROM, don’t train with full ROM. Train with full range of motion you have.
But if you simply lack the mobility to train through full ROM, then improve mobility or adjust foot angle, stance width, push your knees over your toes more, or make other changes that might improve your safe range of motion.
Then train with full ROM.
Ditch your ego, lower the weight, and train through full ROM with strict form. Don’t try to impress mealy-mouthed little minds in the gym by cutting ROM for a few additional plates on the bar.
3. Junk Volume
Let’s say you do heavy deadlifts at the start of your session. They absolutely kill you, you feel as if you just had a vasectomy—you’re generally tired all over the body (systemic fatigue).
You then decide to train back. But since you’re so tired, you now have to use much lighter weights for your back exercises. You also struggle to feel back muscles working.
At this point, you’re half-assing back training and you’re better off just going home because a target muscle (back) is being used but not in a way that best elicits growth. You’re training back with light weight and don’t even feel it working.
That’s junk volume—sets & reps that add fatigue but don’t contribute to muscle growth.
Another example is training to failure:
Say you decide to be stupid and do bicep curls until you no longer can—to failure. For all 4 sets. Then you go to bicep preacher curls. Your biceps are now so fucked up from those 4 sets taken to failure that you need to use super light weight to hit a planned rep range.
Since the weight is so light the exercise causes no stimulus to grow whatsoever. You’re just spinning your wheels instead of training. Go home, reassess your training, and come back another day.
So makes sure your training is specific to muscle growth (it’s heavy enough but not too heavy), you’re training within 0-5 repetitions in reserve (RIR), and not taking every set to failure.
Further reading: How Heavy Should You Train For Hypertrophy
4. Insufficient Rest Between Sets
You want to achieve local muscle fatigue, not systemic when muscle growth is the goal. For example, after every barbell bench press set, you want to feel a pump in the target muscle—chest—rather than stop a set because your triceps gave up first or you’re out of breath.
If you do a set of bench press and then rest only a minute, you’re likely to stop your next set due to being gassed out rather than because the chest got a massive pump and burn. This limits exposure of the chest to its optimal growth stimulus.
Another deeply, deeply uncool thing is that excessively short periods may reduce total volume (reps performed) which sucks all the donkey balls in the world ‘cuz volume seems to be the key factor of muscle growth.
Say you do 4 sets of bench press. You do 10 reps on your first set and rest for a minute. You then manage to perform only 8, 7, 6 reps on subsequent sets due to insufficient rest. That’s 31 reps in total.
You could have taken a 2.5-minute rest and you’d have done 10, 9, 8, 8 reps. That’s 35 reps. More volume = possibly more muscle growth.
So auto-regulate6 rest periods—rest until you feel ready to perform at your best on the next set.
However, if you find yourself always rushing into the next set, becuz’ fuck it, why not, gotta CrossFit, clock your rest periods. Take a 1.5-minute rest between smaller muscle groups and at least a 2.5-minute rest7,8 between compound lifts.
5. Ignoring Exercise Order
Train muscle group first in the workout that you care the most about.
Heaps of women crave better glute development and yet they start their sessions with silly booty blasters rather than barbell hip thrusts.
Similarly, a crapload of men want to have wider shoulders and yet they start with bench press rather than lateral shoulder raises. You can’t grow your side delts optimally if you always give them the short end of the stick.
Always train a prioritized muscle group first in a session.
6. Insufficient Stimulus
If you always train within the 8-12 rep range, you’re missing out on a fraction of growth that you’d get training in 6-8 and 12-20 rep ranges.
If you only train with 8 sets per major muscle group per week, you’re skipping on gains you’d get with 10-20 sets per week.
If you never come close to failure, I mean TRUE failure, you’re not going to grow much too. As I noted before, you don’t have to train to failure and turn into a wastoid who has nothing left over for the next exercise but you do need to train within 0-5 reps in reserve.
Follow these recommendations and you’ll do fine:
7. Heavier-Is-Better Thinking
Cast your mind back to point 3 where I said that you need to lift heavy enough but not too heavy.
Yes, you’ll grow some muscle by doing 1-5 heavy rep training but it won’t be the most optimal way to gain muscle over the long-term. Just look at powerlifters—they’re much stronger than bodybuilders but bodybuilders tend to have more muscle.
So make sure that most of your training comes in the 6-12 rep range because remember, if you want to get bigger, you train for reps. Not only you’ll grow more but you’ll save your joints from a higher risk of injury that comes with chronically heavy training.
8. Not Taking a Dealod Week
Every workout results in increased fatigue and eventually (e.g. four weeks into training), you’re going to carry some degree of cumulative fatigue.
You might feel psychological discomfort such as dreading the gym (even chewing on polystyrene seems more enticing) and/or physical discomfort such as nagging pain that won’t heal in a few days.
That’s when you take a full week of recovery sessions—a “dealod.”
Taking a deload not only reduces fatigue from lifting but helps ligaments and joints to recover after beating the living crap out of them with weeks of heavy training.
When I design training programs for my clients, I pre-plan deloads. They get a program and see that after four weeks of training they’re going to have a deload week. I tend to prescribe the same exercises as before a deaload except that I cut sets and the reps in half. Sometimes, weights too.
For example, if you bench pressed with 150lb for 4×10 (four sets of ten reps) before a deload, your deload bench press will be 150lb for 2×5 (two sets of five reps).
Don’t be a zealot gym rat—don’t assume you don’t need a deload because fuck it, you can push through nagging pains. Pre-plan a friggn dealod into your training—it’ll prepare you for the future training and make it more effective.
9. Training Beyond Failure
Imagine you’re lifting with a spotter and he helps you lift the weight when you’re totally gassed out during a set so you can squeeze out one or more extra reps after the point when you’d normally have to stop. This is training beyond failure aka forced reps.
This generates a shitload of fatigue that can negatively affect your progress in the future. For example, if you do 4 sets of squat beyond failure, there’s no chance you’ll be able to train legs two days later (which you should be able to do).
Another problem is progress tracking. If your spotter helped you to do 3 extra reps last week and 2 reps this week, maybe your partner simply helped you less this week? How do you put that into your training log?
Instead of going beyond failure, why don’t you just do one or two additional sets? It solves the tracking problem, it’s safer, it doesn’t impede subsequent workouts, and you don’t need a freakn training partner shouting “One more! It’s ALL you, bro!” like a farmyard animal.
P.S. Training beyond failure can be done occasionally. For example, a week before a deload on safe isolation exercises that don’t expose you to a potential risk of injury.
Further reading: On This Day, You’ll Stop Training To Failure
10. Ignoring Nutrition
“But, Egis, you said this article will be training-related?” Well, I lied. So get over it. But don’t worry, I’ll be quick. So…
Although not an aspect of training, nutrition plays a crucial part in muscle growth. As Mike Israetel, Ph.D. in Sport Physiology, once noted,
If you don’t want to spend months building muscle only to end up looking more like Gollum than Adonis, you need to detox from years of a Cheetos-based diet. Read How To Build Muscle: A Practical Checklist article for a full nutrition checklist.
(You see? I squeezed the nutrition part into 9 sentences.)
If you live to be 70, you only have 600,000 hours to play with and you shouldn’t spend even a tiny fraction of that doing these mistakes. If you feel overwhelmed, keep it simple:
- Train heavy enough with the goal of progressive overload;
- Train with full ROM and strict form (if you can & need to);
- Avoid junk volume;
- Employ sufficient variation;
- Limit training to failure;
- Manage fatigue by deloading every 4-5 weeks;
- And for the love of god, don’t be completely stupid with your diet.
Take care of the above and you’ll make gains. If not, you can always hire me to coach you.