Gaining muscle can be extremely frustrating.
We see new clients all the time coming to us at Ultimate Performance with complicated reasons as to why they’re not making any progress.
However, the problem is usually a lot simpler, and is typically rooted in one of these five mistakes:
1. You’re Not Eating Enough
This seems like a no-brainer, but most people struggling to build muscle simply aren’t eating enough.
When we initially speak to our muscle-building clients, one of the first things we’ll ask for is a food diary.
Almost every time, the calories are nowhere near the amount they need to be to change their body in a meaningful way.
When a skinny person tells you they’re eating ‘a lot’, what you’ll commonly see is they eat one or two large meals and be so full from them they ‘think’ they’re eating a lot of overall calories.
This is where meal frequency becomes important, and why intermittent fasting and bodybuilding probably shouldn’t be placed in the same sentence. A good starting point on a muscle building plan is anywhere from 18-20 calories per pound bodyweight, and perhaps more if you’re extremely ectomorphic. For a 200lb male, this could mean a total calorie intake of around 3600-4000 calories.
Trying to fit this into 2-3 meals with high-quality food is simply not going to happen. More than anything, your digestive system will hate you.
You need to be eating regularly and consistently over the course of the day, which is where splitting total calories into 5-6 meals can be useful.
The muscle meal plan that Made In Chelsea’s Oliver Proudlock (see number 4) used to put on 6 kg of muscle in 6 weeks, you’ll see how we set up muscle building diets, and just how high the calories need to go in some cases.
In Oliver’s case (the extreme ectomorph!), we used ‘spike days’ to ensure his calorie requirements were met over the course of the week. This meant picking 1-2 days in the week where calories would go as high as 50% above the normal intake.
2. You’re Not Getting Stronger
If you’re lifting the same weights as you were 5 years ago, your physique probably hasn’t changed either.
One of the number one messages our seminar attendees from the recent UP Hypertrophy Seminar in Hong Kong received was the importance of getting stronger for increased muscle gains.
Now, it’s important to add here that we want to get stronger in the right rep ranges. This isn’t Olympic lifting or Powerlifting, so we aren’t necessarily interested in 1 rep maxes (although maximal strength methods can have their place for muscle building for short phases). For hypertrophy, we want to focus our efforts in the 6-12 rep range. For certain muscle groups, such as quads, setting personal bests in rep ranges as high as 20 to 50 also works very well.
A simple method for focusing your training to build muscle is as follows:
1. Pick 4 exercises that suit your body best:
- 1 upper body push, e.g. incline dumbbell press
- 1 upper body pull, e.g. chin-up
- 1 lower body push, e.g. back squat
- 1 lower body pull, e.g. Romanian deadlift
2. Test your current 6-8 rep max
3. Set a 12-week deadline
4. Put your focus into progressing your previous 6-8RM as much as possible
With all the latest fancy training techniques out there, it can be easy to forget what the foundation of your training should always be: progression.
3. You Can’t Feel The Muscle
Whilst gaining strength is number one, it comes with a caveat. You must be able to get stronger whilst being able to feel the muscle at all times. This isn’t about hoisting and heaving weights from A to B. Doing so will only lead to achy joints, injuries and zero muscle growth.
Being able to execute heavy sets with picture-perfect form is a skill, but one which is essential to learn if maximal muscle growth and longevity is the aim.
This is one of the limiting factors in online training, and why we encourage our online clients to try and visit a U.P. gym at least once to be able to learn the technique required for the best progress.
If you’re struggling to feel a muscle, activation drills prior to the workout can work well.
For example, many trainees struggle to feel their lats when they perform exercises such as chin-ups and rows. A simple activation trick involving the use of a partner can work well:
- Keep your arms bent by your sides (like you’re halfway through a curl)
- Ask your partner to apply pressure from behind on the back of your arms
- Resist the pressure by driving elbows back
- Hold the resistance for 6 seconds, and perform 3 to 6 sets. You should start to feel your lats!
As with any activation drill, the key is in being able to integrate the isolated feeling into a compound movement. To do so, you may need to lower the weight initially before applying progression.
Remember, we want progressive overload in hypertrophy rep ranges with perfect technique whilst always feeling the target muscle
4. You’re At The Wrong Body Fat Percentage
When it comes to building muscle, everyone seems to have a body fat percentage ‘sweet spot’ where they grow optimally.
This is usually in the 8-15% range.
The problem is, most people are at the wrong body fat percentage.
If you’re too lean (i.e. trying to stay ripped at 6% whilst attempting to gain muscle), it’s an easy fix and you just need to eat more. However, if you’re over 15% body fat, you need to rein it in before or continuing to eat for muscle growth.
Your insulin sensitivity, nutrient partitioning and hormonal environment will all be running sub-optimally, and when you compound it with a calorie surplus, it’s a quick recipe for rapid fat gain.
The best way to approach this is to always start lean, in the 8-10% body fat range. Once you’re lean, aim for anywhere between 0.25 pound to 1 pound gain in bodyweight per week until you reach the upper end of your optimal body fat range.
The rate at which you gain will depend on your body type. An ectomorph like Oliver Proudlock (image below) should aim for the upper end (maybe higher, depending on how lean they stay), whereas a more thickset endomorph should stay at the lower end.
After 12-24 weeks of steady gaining, performing mini-diets for 4-8 weeks to ‘tidy up’ any additional fluff is a good way to keep your hormonal profile running optimally.
The key with the gaining phase is to be able to string it out as long as you can. If you rush the process with an unnecessarily large calorie surplus, you’ll just get fat very quickly.
If you don’t have callipers, the best way to gauge your upper end is that you should always maintain a general outline of your abdominals and have a visible serratus (muscles highlighted in red in the image below).
Another good indicator is the pumps you get during training. If you’re training and your hydration, electrolyte intake and recovery is all dialled in, but you’re not getting a pump, you may have just gotten too fat.
Exact prescriptions can be difficult to give here, as the response different individuals have to a calorie surplus is extremely variable.
5. You Can’t Stick To A Plan
If you read our 5 REASONS YOU’RE NOT LOSING FAT article, you’ll be well aware of the need for consistency.
Muscle growth can be a painstakingly slow process at times and is never linear, driving the need for consistency week in, week out ever more important.
Training and diet together is more prominent now than ever. And this may be the downfall for many trainees with muscle building ambitions.
An inability to stick to ONE training and diet plan means the body never experiences the most important factor in muscle growth: progression.
“This ‘grass is greener’ syndrome leaves trainees constantly switching programmes and goals in the hope of finding the ‘secret’ that’s been holding them back.”
The problem is, if you don’t stick to a programme for long enough you can’t honestly say if it worked or not. You need to give it time and allow progression to occur.
Do you want to know the reason why so many clients have such great success at UP? And why books like the 12 Week Body Plan worked so well? Or essentially why any sensible long-term programme works well?
All the guesswork is gone! No thinking is required. All you need to do is show up, train hard, eat your required food and repeat.
There’s also an unwavering focus towards one goal for an extended period of time.
That’s the real secret.