Written by Coach Charlotte Jones
Contrary to popular belief, building muscle is not always easy — and if you have found your way here, you likely will agree with that statement. Muscle growth takes time, energy, and intentionality with your efforts in the gym, the kitchen, and life. Nevertheless, this should not prevent you from pursuing these goals but rather let you know that if you’re struggling on your muscle-building journey, there are likely things you can change that will keep the ball rolling in the direction you want.
Today, we’re going to discuss a few things that you may be unintentionally doing (or not doing) inside and outside of the gym that may be sabotaging your muscle gains.
Doing Too Much at Once
When we are not getting what we want out of our efforts, it’s easy to assume that we are not doing enough. While there are certainly cases where this is true, when it comes to muscle building, more movements, or more sets and reps, will not always equate to better results. We may end up feeling sorer this way, but soreness is not an accurate indication that we are achieving hypertrophy (muscle growth).
In the case of being sorer from our workouts, it would likely be the body telling us that we have done something new or have done too much and are unable to recover from what we’ve asked the body to do. Going beyond this ceiling of what the body can handle for an extended period can lead to fatigue and poor gym performance along with further downstream effects — like an upset digestive system, disrupted sleep, and even muscle atrophy (loss of muscle).
If you perform 10-12 exercises per session and reach for 20-30+ reps per set, you may want to dial it back a little bit and focus on getting more quality muscle engagement out of fewer sets and reps. A good way of doing this can entail slowing down rep tempo, performing fewer reps so you can pick up a heavier load, or nailing down exercise technique to ensure the intended muscle(s) are the ones actually moving the weight.
Life can also take its toll. Stress can be tough to avoid — as so many of us are busy individuals handling an array of responsibilities — but to your body, stress itself is, well, stressful.
Think of it this way: Your body’s ability to handle stress is like a bucket filling up with water. The bucket is designed to handle a certain amount of water, but fill it too high, and the water will spill over the sides, creating a cascade of issues around it. If you notice your stress bucket is filling up, try and take a training deload — reducing the amount of total stress your body is receiving. Less can be more, especially when it comes to building muscle.
Not Having a Plan
Resistance training is essential to signal to our body that we want to increase lean muscle tissue. When getting started in the gym, it’s common to choose random exercises. Most often, people will gravitate towards what makes them comfortable. Which for all intents and purposes, this is great. But the more time you’re spending in the gym pursuing your goals of building muscle, the more thoughtful you need to be when it comes to your program design.
Following a structured program that repeats sessions for at least several weeks will allow you to apply progressive overload to your training. It also gives you the best chance to track the progress that you’re making in the gym each week which we will discuss more in the next section. Choosing random exercises each time you walk into the gym will not give you the same opportunity to practice and get better at the same movements each week.
Not Using a Training Journal
You’ve likely heard the phrase: what gets measured gets managed. This can certainly apply to many things in life and your training sessions in the gym. Without measuring and keeping track of what you are doing in the gym, you cannot accurately gauge if you’re able to do more or improve your performance over time — essential to increasing muscle growth. Our recommended methods of doing so would be a logbook or training journal, cellphone app, or excel spreadsheet. These tools allow you to note down the weights you used, how they felt, any comments about the training session, questions for your coach, etc.
By relying on your brain to keep track of all of these things each week, your chances of not remembering the weight you used last time are much higher, and you may miss out on opportunities to push yourself with a heavier load or an increased total of reps. Having a written record of this will also give you tangible progress that you are progressing within your workouts, otherwise you may be just guessing.
Underfueling Your Training Sessions
The nutrition surrounding your workout can be an essential component of your overall performance, recovery, and subsequent muscle growth. So fueling your training sessions well is a good idea if you’re looking to optimize your gains in the gym.
It may help to have a protein and carb-based meal or snack roughly 1-3 hours before training to best fuel your workout. The larger and denser the meal is, the longer you should give yourself before that day’s training session to make sure it has enough time to digest prior to exercise.
If you enjoy having a protein shake immediately after training, you could meet your post-workout needs in this way. However, if you do not want this, you can go home and have a full meal while still obtaining the same benefits. If you are someone who likes to train early in the morning and has a hard time getting a complete meal in before, a quick snack like some fruit or a few rice cakes is going to put you in a better spot to feel energized and perform well than going to the gym on an empty stomach.
A Lack of Patience
Building muscle is hard work, and it takes time — often longer than most of us would prefer. It can also come with days of discomfort as you may be eating more food than you’re used to, clothes may fit a bit differently, and you may be seeing the scale increase.
As one gets further into pursuing their muscle-building goals, the desire to decrease calories and jump into a fat loss phase to feel more comfortable can start to increase. There is undoubtedly a time when this can be implemented; however, more often than not, they will jump on these initial feelings of discomfort when they first start to notice them and end up cutting themselves short of their original goal of building muscle. This is especially common among women but can happen to anyone.
While the desire to feel more comfortable in your skin is entirely valid, jumping into a dieting phase too quickly before giving yourself the chance to build more muscle will only put you right back in your original position. It’s important to understand that these phases can come with days where you may feel a bit more full, but these things do not mean that you are not accomplishing your goal or need to change your approach. In all likelihood, it’s a better indication that you are moving in the right direction and will be best served by staying the course.
Putting It All Together
As we have discussed, building muscle is hard work and it will not happen by accident. If you are putting in the effort and still feel as though you are coming up short, we hope that this list has given you a handful of different variables to consider to get you moving in the right direction. The fact that there are many variables to consider in this process should not deter you from chasing these goals but rather let you know that even if you think you are doing “everything right”, you can likely adjust something within your approach and see better results.
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Written by Coach Charlotte Jones