So you have spent the last 3 months sweating enough to fill a lake and feeling sore as if God himself been raping you in a very perverted way and yet… you haven’t gained any muscle.
Now you have a full-on post-traumatic shock — you don’t know why you’re progressing at the same speed as tectonic drift and you’re thinking about quitting the whole PumpTheIron thing.
Hold on, my hypothetical reader friend. I have 8 reasons why you’re not gaining muscle. Go over them.
If none of them applies to you, screw it, you can quit. Then, I dunno, go play curling or something.
1. You’re Not Training Within Your Volume Landmarks
Volume is the total amount of work done per workout/week/month. For the sake of this example, volume is the number of sets per muscle group per week.
We also have minimum effective volume (MEV) — the minimum amount of training required to stimulate muscle growth and maximum recoverable volume (MRV) — the amount of training at which no further muscle growth will occur if done consistently (source):
So if you’re not seeing muscle growth, you might not be training between your MEV and MRV. Anything below MEV and over MRV is going to be suboptimal or ineffective even:
Now, all of us have different MEVs and MRVs and I can’t give a magic voodoo volume number specifically for you. So it’s crucial that you find it yourself.
The general recommendation is 10–20 sets per major muscle group per week. And these are more specific recommendations based on your training status:
Adjust from there based on results and body responses:
- Not getting any muscle soreness or disruption? You might be training below your MEV. Do more sets.
- Do your workouts leave you so sore that you can’t train the same muscle group 2-3 days later? You are over your MRV.
- Do you get no pumps in target muscles? You could be below your MEV.
Further reading: How To Build Muscle: A Practical Checklist
2. You’re Not Managing Fatigue
Every workout results in increased fatigue and eventually (e.g. five weeks into training), you’re going to carry some degree of cumulative fatigue:
If not managed, a monster from the planet Zarg will come and will kick your ass. Just kidding — it will kill your gains:
This means eight or more hours of sleep, proper nutrition, and low stress level. Also taking deloads every 4-8 weeks.
A deload is a full week of recovery training that will reduce fatigue and help your joints recover after beating the living crap out of them with multiple weeks of heavy resistance training:
So make sure to either take a full week off training or even better, cut sets, repetitions, and/or load in half.
Further reading: 10 Training Related Reasons You’re Not Gaining Muscle
3. You’re Ignoring Stimulus to Fatigue Ratio
Stimulus to fatigue ratio (SFR) is something I first learned from Dr. Mike Israetel. SFR tells how much muscle growth stimulus a particular exercise gives you for the fatigue it generates.
Let’s take a conventional deadlift as an example:
Many sweaty gym dudes think that a conventional deadlift is a great muscle builder. Sorry to burst your bubble, buddy, but… it’s a shit muscle builder.
Don’t look at me as if I just tried to fart in your handbag. Listen…
Yes, it’s a very stimulative exercise but the cost of fatigue makes it not worth doing for hypertrophy purposes (unless you only train once or twice per week and recovery isn’t an issue for you).
If you do heavy deadlifts, it takes so much out of everything else that the rest of your workout is total crap — poor mind-muscle connection on the following exercises and lower intensity and volume on subsequent workouts that week.
There’s a reason why deadlift is called a “joker” exercise — where the hell do you put it into your program? It just fucks everything up.
So that’s an example of an exercise with poor SFR.
On the other hand, we have bent over barbell row:
Not only do rows train lats directly which means more direct stimulus to grow but they also generate less fatigue. This is handy because you’re able to do more effective training throughout the rest of the workout and week.
So make sure that your workouts aren’t a big pile of deadlifts, squats, lunges, and bench presses. Instead, pick exercises that maximize stimulus and minimize fatigue.
Here’s how to determine if an exercise has a good stimulus:
- Good mind-muscle connection — if you do a bicep curl and all that you feel is the burn in your forearms, you might want to look for another exercise (after ensuring technique is on point).
- Good pump — if you do 3 sets of deadlift for lats but you feel no pump in lats, guess what? You probably are not going to grow lats. Ensure that you feel an exercise in a target muscle.
- Muscle disruption — if you, say, do dumbbell chest flies and you feel no chest soreness or any kind of disruption such as stiffness or weakness a day or two later, it might have a poor stimulus.
4. Your Technique Is Crap
Poor technique makes you use other muscles rather than target muscles. Again, it generates a crapload of fatigue but not enough stimulus for a target muscle.
I believe lousy technique is the most important factor preventing folks from getting bigger. And the worst part is that many of us *believe* that our technique is picture-perfect. Like Zac Efron’s privates (don’t say you never learned anything from me).
Regularly evaluate your technique — hire a coach or film yourself. These are objective methods. None of that “Go away. I know what I’m doing” egotistical nonsense.
5. You’re Eating Like You’re On Your Way To Electric Chair
Is it okay to use “fuck” in blogs? Anyone? Well, I used it a coupla of time before so fuck it.
You can have the best training program in the world but if your regular diet consists of fucking ice cream or a box of Oreos (or both), you need to sort that out:
Start by nailing the big rocks:
- Eat at a calorie surplus
Along with muscle mass, you’ll gain some fat. Deal with it. If you choose to stay super lean year-round, you probably won’t make great gains (unless you are an overfat beginner, detrained, or on drugs — they can build muscle and lose fat at the same time).
- Consume 0.8–1 g of protein per pound of body weight (1.6–2.2 g/kg). That’s non-negotiable.
- Consume no less than 0.3 g of fat per pound of body weight (0.65 g/kg). Fat is important for overall health.
- Allocate the rest of your calories to carbohydrates.
They help you perform at your best in the gym. Also, carbs spike insulin which is awesome because insulin shuttles “muscle building materials” to the cells to build muscle (yup, insulin IS NOT a fat-storage hormone. It’s a REGULATORY hormone.)
6. You’re Not Patient
Everyone wants bigger muscles yesterday. Even if they didn’t know they wanted them until today. They want it NOW.
You’re not going to build 10 pounds in a month. Not even in two. It’s outside the realm of reality. So deal with it.
Here are realistic rates of muscle gain you should strive for:
So while you’re on your journey to becoming the next Arnie, keep reminding yourself that it takes time. It’s easy to become disillusioned when you don’t see the results as quickly as you would like.
Be patient because you can’t force muscle growth. Your body will grow when it wants to grow, not when you want it to grow.
7. Your Goal Is Unrealistic
Ever heard about the expectation-reality mismatch?
It’s when your expectation of gaining 10 pounds of muscle in two months is mismatched by the reality of achieving that goal because it actually required 5 months.
You then become demotivated, throw your training plan in defeat, and eat junk food until it’s coming out your ears.
It’s cool that instead of being a typical lazy human zealot you want to build muscle. However, you also have to be realistic about the time it will take.
That said, take another LOOOONG look at this fancy-pants infographic:
8. You’re Not Consistent
The key to a competition-worthy physique is consistency. Take a look at this image:
If you cannot follow through with your training, diet, and sleep consistently, you cannot expect results.
So make a commitment to yourself to train, eat, and recover just “good enough” for at least twelve months.
If you do, I guarantee you will come out of it a completely new person. You will build muscle and you will be able to look back at the end of that year and see how far you’ve come.
Aristotle once said: “If you’re not gaining muscle, you need to sort that shit out.” Except, you know, way more eloquent.
And the above 8 things are what you should start with. Alternatively, you could start my 8Weeks2Lean Program.
Originally published by me on Medium on June 30, 2021.