Troubleshooting Muscle Growth: 8 Reasons Why You're not Building Muscle
January 12, 2017
Most of my blog posts so far have been about fat loss. This time let's talk about muscle growth.
Compared to gaining muscle mass, fat loss is fairly straight-forward. In simplified terms, weight loss is all about creating a calorie deficit over time. Weight loss can be achieved with or without dietary changes and with or without exercise. Measurable results can be achieved fairly quickly, usually as early as the first week.
Muscle growth is more complicated. Muscles require an anabolic (constructive) environment in order to grow. Unlike weight loss, muscle growth requires adequate nutrients, appropriate load, and rest. Initially, strength gains may be noticeable quickly but the building of muscle size is slower.
Let’s look at some reasons for failing to achieve muscle size gains:
1. Inadequate calorie consumption
Increasing muscle size requires energy in excess of what is needed to sustain life and what is used for daily activities. A sustained calorie surplus provides the energy needed for muscles to grow. Being in a state of a caloric surplus means that more calories are consumed than what is required for one's resting metabolic rate (RMR) and daily activities, combined.
An estimated calorie requirement calculator can give you an idea of how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. Keep in mind, in order to add muscle mass your daily calorie consumption needs to exceed this number.
Provided that you adequately stimulate your muscles to grow during training, any surplus of calories will help them grow. The tricky part is estimating how large the surplus should be. Eating too much will result in an increase in fat mass, while a small surplus will result in smaller muscle gains, but minimal increase in fat mass. So when quick weight gain is top priority, a larger calorie surplus will make muscles grow faster. If only lean gains are desired a smaller calorie surplus is the way to go, but it comes at the cost of rate of muscle gain.
2. Inadequate protein consumption
Proteins provide the amino acids necessary to build muscle. In order to grow muscle we must make sure our bodies are in a positive nitrogen balance, meaning we are consuming more amino acids (which all contain nitrogen, thus the wording) than we excrete, providing a steady supply of building blocks for our muscles. According to research the protein requirement for muscle growth is about 0.7 g/lbs[body weight]/day or about 1.6 g/kg[body weight]/day.(1)(2)(3)
3. Ineffective workouts
We must stress the muscles enough to make them grow, and keep increasing the load progressively to avoid stagnation and facilitate further growth. After years of training reaching a plateau (i.e. stagnation in strength, power, or muscle growth) is inevitable. Switch up your routine when you are no longer making progress. This can be in the form of changing exercises, number of reps or sets, or type of workout.
4. Infrequent workouts
Stop and go is the killer of progress. Inconsistent training can be adequate for maintenance, but continuous effort is needed to make progress.
Below is an illustration based on Nikolai Yakovlev’s training adaptation model showing how workout timing can make or break progress in strength performance, which is related to muscle size. Infrequent training (undertraining), demonstrated in blue, with 2c representing the second workout (Training 2) after full recovery from Training 1 and return to baseline performance. As we can see from the illustration, a training pattern such as this fails to elicit improvement in performance and muscle mass:
Opposite of infrequent training is training hard and too frequently, not giving muscles enough time to recover. In the illustration above 2a represents Training 2 during the recovery phase of Training 1. Breaking the recovery after a bout of training results in lack of performance and gains, as illustrated by the red dotted line, especially if repeated over time.
The ideal time for a second bout of training would be at peak performance right after recovery, as illustrated by 2b and the green dotted line.
The effort in the gym is wasted if you don’t give your muscles time to adapt to the load they had to sustain. It is during rest that your muscles grow. Heavy training and inadequate rest can lead to overtraining and injuries, both of which are detrimental to health and muscle growth.
6. Hormonal contraceptives
Research has shown that hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill may impair muscle gains in women who are using them. One study on oral contraceptives and muscle mass gain showed that women not taking oral contraceptives had 60% more muscle mass gain than women who were taking oral contraceptives. Women taking oral contraceptives also had lower blood levels of anabolic hormones and higher levels of cortisol, a catabolic (destructive) hormone.(4)
If you are a woman and building muscle is high priority, you may want to look into non-hormonal birth control alternatives.
7. Hormonal disturbances
A number of hormonal disturbances, such as hypothyroidism, adrenal insufficiency, or low testosterone, can impair your ability to train and/or recover from training. Based on your signs and symptoms your doctor will tell you which, if any, test are necessary to identify the cause of your training troubles.
Muscle growth depends on many variables. Some on them we can control, such as training type, intensity, frequency, and rest. Others, such as biological sex and genetic makeup, we cannot. The rate of muscle growth is highly individual and can be hard to predict. Building muscle is a test of patience, discipline, and perseverance.
Don't let lack of results discourage you. With a few adjustments you could be one step closer to reaching your fitness goal.
Happy muscle building!
1. Phillips, S., & Loon, V. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: From requirements to optimum adaptation.Journal of sports sciences. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22150425
2. Lemon, P., Tarnopolsky, M., MacDougall, J., & Atkinson, S. (1992). Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985)., 73(2), 767–75. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1400008
3. Cataldo, D., & Blair, M. (2015). Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance. Retrieved January 11, 2017, from American College of Sports Medicine, https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/brochures/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
4. Oral contraceptives impair muscle gains in young women. (2009, April 17). Retrieved January 11, 2017, from EurekAlert!, https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-04/aps-oci041509.php