At its core building muscle couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is follow four basic principles:
- Consume enough dietary protein each day
- Consume a small surplus of calories
- Perform resistance training consistently using the principles of progressive overload.
- Get enough sleep each night
Do those four things day in, day out for weeks on end, and you will grow muscle.
Now, you might be thinking:
“If building muscle is so easy, why isn’t everyone walking around with bulging biceps and a shredded midsection?”
Well, as simple as it might be in theory to build muscle, the truth is that there are a number of mistakes the average fitness enthusiast could make in their quest to get results and improve their body composition.
Today, we discuss six reasons why you can’t grow muscle.
Top 6 Reasons Why You Can’t Grow Muscle
You Aren’t Eating Enough Calories
Calories are king when it comes to losing or gaining weight.
By that we mean that in order to gain weight (and hopefully build muscle), you need to be in a calorie surplus whereby you ingest more calories than you burn in a day. Maintain this surplus consistently and you will gain weight.
Conversely, if you want to lose weight, you need to be in an energy deficit whereby you burn more calories each day than you ingest. Do this consistently (day after day) and you will lose weight.
And, while you might be eating only “clean” foods throughout the day, that’s no guarantee that you’re consuming enough total calories.
The only way to know with relative certainty whether or not you actually are in a surplus (or deficit) is to track your calorie intake.
To do this, you first need to get an estimate of how many calories you need to eat to maintain your weight. You can get an idea of how many calories you need to eat to maintain your weight, build muscle, or lose fat by clicking here.
Once you have this number in hand, you need to start tracking how many calories you eat each day. You can do this using either a smartphone app (such as FitDay or MyFitnessPal) or good old fashioned pen and paper.
Lastly, you need to decide how large of a surplus you’re going to consume.
You’ll find a lot of differing opinions on the matter. Some will say you need a rather large surplus, while others say only a minor one is needed.
To help solve this riddle, it helps to consider a recent review titled “Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training?” which concluded that individuals looking to build mass:
“start conservatively with an energy surplus within the range of ~1,500–2,000 kJ·day−1 and closely monitor response to the intervention, using changes in body composition and functional capacity to further personalize dietary interventions. So long as minimum guidelines for macronutrients advocated for resistance training individuals are achieved, there does not appear to be any metabolic or functional benefit to the source of the energy surplus, affording the practitioner an opportunity to adjust intake based on other variables such as existing energy density of the meal plan, eating occasions and distribution of energy, and macronutrient intake relative to training, plus potential for further increasing food intake.”
The two important takeaways here are that:
- Calorie surplus should be ~350-480 calories per day
- Composition of calorie surplus (protein, carbs, fats) is at the discretion of the lifter (provided they have already satisfied minimum requirements for protein and fat)
Your Macros Are Wrong
After accounting for total calorie intake, the next area many individuals get tripped up is their macronutrient split.
It’s important to not only eat enough quality calories each day, but the way you divide those calories across the three major macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) also matter.
The first macronutrient we set when trying to grow muscle is dietary protein as it is essential to growing muscle. Protein provides the building blocks (amino acids) your muscles need to repair, recover, and grow.
While you’re likely to read all sorts of recommendations regarding how much protein you should eat each day when trying to build muscle, the preponderance of the research to date indicates that resistance-training athletes need to consume between 1.6-2.2g/kg/day of protein, which comes out to ~0.8-1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
Now, if you want to consume more protein (for instance, if you enjoy eating large amounts of fish, chicken, beef, pork, etc), you are more than welcome to do so. Just realize that consuming higher amounts of protein above and beyond the 1 gram per pound recommendation will not make you grow muscle that much faster.
After protein is set, the next macronutrient set is dietary fat.
Fat used to be the stuff of nightmares, but in the decades since Ancel Keyes published his now infamous work, we’ve realized not only should fat not to be feared, but it’s essential to health and wellness.
At the same time, you don’t need to go off the rails with your fat intake and start chugging gallons of olive oil either.
Best practices regarding daily fat intake for those looking to grow muscle are in the range of 0.3-0.6g per pound of bodyweight.
Consuming 0.3 grams of fat per day is the minimum requirement for dietary fat. This amount provides enough fatty acids needed to maintain overall health and proper function. It also leaves a greater amount of calories to be allotted for carbohydrates.
That being said, fat intake can be shifted up slightly higher to 0.5-0.6 grams per pound depending on your individual preferences, satiety, and tolerance.
After protein and fat intakes are set, we finally set carbohydrate intake.
This is determined by taking your total number of calories needed to build muscle (which you calculated above) and subtracting out the calories from protein and fat.
The result is the number of calories from carbohydrates you can eat.
To figure out how many grams of carbohydrates this is, simply divide the carb calories by four (since there are four calories per gram of carbohydrate).
By knowing how much of each macronutrient you need to eat, you have the power to design your meal plan how you see fit. There’s no need to follow cookie cutter nutrition plans that may or may not be right for you and your needs.
You’re Not Following a Training Plan
One of the biggest reasons people struggle to grow muscle is that they lack a solid training plan. Sure, they might be going to the gym regularly, but each time they go, they’re doing different exercises all in the name of “muscle confusion.”
While constantly changing things up in your workout might keep you on your toes more, the truth is that it’s counterproductive for growing muscle.
Progressive overload is a core principle of building muscle. Essentially, progressive overload holds that you must make your muscles do more work each successive workout in order to challenge them and make them grow bigger and stronger.
The only way you can know with relative certainty that you’re actually “doing more” in your workouts is to follow a structured resistance training program and track your progress.
You should be tracking which exercises you’re doing as well as how many sets and reps you’re completing along with how much weight you’re lifting on each exercise.
It’s also helpful to track how long you’re resting between sets and exercises.
By having all of this information, you can see what you’ve previously accomplished and what you need to do in the next training session to challenge your muscles and improve.
Now, we understand this is a lot of information to juggle, and some of you may not have the time or interest or knowledge to design a comprehensive training program.
That’s why we include a complete training program for all contestants who enter our transformation challenge.
You’re Not Sleeping or Recovering Enough
Another big hurdle individuals have trouble surpassing is getting enough sleep.
Make no mistake, getting enough sleep each night is paramount to your ability to recover, rebuild, and grow.
It is when we sleep that our bodies do the vast majority repair and growth.
Intense training breaks down muscle tissue and depletes energy stores. Sleep and recovery replenish these stores and rejuvenate us so that we grow muscle and become more resilient.
It can be tempting to join team “No Days Off”, but the reality is that if you want to grow muscle as quickly as possible, you need to take your recovery and sleep as seriously as your training and nutrition.
If you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep each night, try implementing some of these tips:
- Keep your bedroom cool (~68F) and dark
- Where loose, comfortable clothes to bed
- Avoid blue light exposure (TVs, laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc) 2 hours before bed
- Establish a bedtime ritual
- Avoid checking emails or texts in the hours leading up to bed
You Lack Consistency
If you remember at the outset of this article, we said that consistency was one of the four pillars of growing muscle.
Consistency applies to everything -- nutrition, training, and sleep.
Lack of consistency in any of these three areas will delay your progress, meaning it’ll take that much longer to get the results you want.
Missing meals, skipping workouts (or giving less than 100% effort), and staying up all night all run counter to growing muscle.
If you want to get results, you have to decide how serious is your commitment to your goals and whether or not you’re willing to put in the dedication and work required to achieve those goals.
If you are, then that means you must be consistent.
You will NOT miss a meal. You will NOT skip or half-ass a workout. You will NOT stay up all hours of the night binging NetFlix or playing video games.
You will hit your calorie and macronutrient goals each day.
You will stick to your training plan and give your best effort each time you step foot in the gym.
You will get 7-9 hours of sleep each and every night.
You’re Not Supplementing Optimally
Supplements are by no means required to grow muscle or get results. That’s why they’re called supplements and not “requirements.”
However, using the right supplements can make the process of growing muscle that much easier.
Research has identified a select handful of supplements that are particularly effective in helping individuals get the results they want from their time spent in the gym and in the kitchen.
Those supplements are:
When your diet, training, recovery, and sleep are dialed in, these supplements can help take your results to the next level.
Whey protein is rich in highly bioavailable protein and BCAAs (namely leucine) which support muscle recovery and growth. A number of studies have found that supplementing with whey protein in combination with resistance training significantly enhances training adaptations and muscle growth compared to training alone.
Creatine is another staple supplement for those training hard. Numerous studies have found that not only is creatine effective for boosting performance, lean mass gains, and recovery, but it’s also incredibly safe.
Beta alanine is a great endurance-boosting ingredient that can help you resist the onset of fatigue, ultimately allowing you to complete more work in your training sessions, which supports muscle growth.
Finally, there are BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). These three potent amino acids help stimulate muscle protein synthesis in the body, which is the biological process that fuels muscle recovery and growth.
Beyond that, BCAAs also possess anti-catabolic effects, which help prevent muscle breakdown. Since muscle growth ultimately boils down to muscle protein synthesis outpacing muscle protein breakdown, anything that increases protein synthesis or stops protein breakdown (like BCAAs) supports muscle growth!
- Cintineo HP, Arent MA, Antonio J, Arent SM. Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training. Front Nutr. 2018;5:83. Published 2018 Sep 11. doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00083
- Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z
- Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12:30. Published 2015 Jul 15. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0090-y