During the initial phases of your lifting career, it seems like almost everything works. As long as you train, muscles will grow. Unfortunately, this does not last. As you get more advanced, muscle growth slows down and may even come to a halt.
I learned this the hard way. When I just started off with fitness, I used to train 5 times a week. All I did was isolation exercises with a few compound movements and a drop-set after every single set. I did gain some muscle, but this did not last very long.
In this post, I will be showing you 4 mistakes (which I all made) that could be holding you back as an intermediate or advanced trainee. Preventing these 4 mistakes will help you make better use of your muscular potential. But first, I will be explaining why beginners seem to build muscle faster.
Why ”Newbie-Gains” are real
Muscle growth is not something that just comes along with training hard and eating right. It’s an adaptation to a ”stress”. This stress is provided by resistance training. Someone who is new to the gym, is not used to the stress which resistance training puts on his or her muscles. So these muscles will react very well to the stress by adapting to it.
How do muscles adapt, you ask?
Muscles adapt by becoming bigger and stronger than before, so they can handle future stresses more efficiently.
As you get more advanced though, your body has already adapted quite a bit to stresses from resistance training. Therefore it does not see the need to keep increasing muscular strength and size at the same pace.
For muscles to keep growing, a need for adaptation is critical. That’s why research shows that progressive overload is essential for muscle growth. Progressively putting more tension on your muscles causes a need for adaptation.
Without further ado, here are the top 4 reasons why most intermediate and advanced trainees are not gaining muscle.
Reason #1: You are doing too much
Since childhood, we’ve been told that if we want something, we will have to work hard for it. This somewhat does apply to fitness, a certain level of dedication is required to achieve a great physique. But there definitely is a point where ”more becomes less”.
Increasing volume (more sets and reps) is directly linked to more muscle growth, but this relation is only linear up to a certain point. An extensive research review shows that exceeding a certain amount of volume will actually decrease muscle growth. Other studies show the same exact thing for muscular strength.
The effect of doing more than necessary is often underrated. I used to perform 6 exercises with 4 sets each on chest day, followed with 3 exercises for triceps. I used to think that I was absolutely killing it. But I was doing way too much, and that’s why I plateaued as I got more advanced.
The earlier cited extensive research review, shows that performing 40-70 reps per muscle group 2-3x per week is enough to achieve optimal growth. Sticking to this and adjusting when necessary, will ensure you don’t perform too little or too much volume.
Reason #2: You are relying on ”fancy training tricks” and isolation exercises
Training for muscle growth is actually quite simple and we should keep it that way. The new ”revolutionary” ways of training, which supposedly give you pumps like Arnold and abs like Frank Zane, do not work better than traditional training methods.
Training tools such as drop-sets and supersets cause great fatigue and a good pump. But if achieving a pump is your main goal when training, then you are missing the bigger picture. Achieving overload by progressively putting more stress on the muscle, should be your goal every time you step foot in the gym.
Performing big compound movements and getting stronger will always be the best way to build muscle.
But a stronger muscle isn’t always a bigger one, right?
That’s true, research shows that your body recognizes movement patterns and becomes more efficient in them after performing them consistently. This enables you to lift more weight (get stronger) without actually having bigger muscles. This is called: neuromuscular adaptation.
That said, after mastering a movement your muscles will have no choice but to grow, if you progress. The increased strength will have to come from a bigger and stronger muscle.
Reason #3: You are not eating enough
Building muscle and losing fat at the same time, is possible. But to lose fat, you will need to consume fewer calories than your body burns (energy deficit). This energy deficit somewhat inhibits muscle growth, because it decreases protein synthesis rates and increases protein breakdown rates.
The human body builds (protein synthesis) and breaks down (protein breakdown) muscle proteins constantly. If the amount of muscle proteins you’ve built exceeds the amount of muscle proteins you’ve broken down, you’ve built muscle. So eating at an energy deficit, simply results into less muscle growth.
When you consume slightly more calories than your body needs (like in a bulk), you are ensuring that you are not in a state of breakdown. This way you can make full use of your muscular potential. Maintaining an energy surplus of 200-300 calories is sufficient for optimal growth.
Want to learn more about the proper way of bulking? Read this article.
Reason #4: You are underestimating your potential
Believe it or not, your perception of what is naturally possible has a great effect on your results. Those who think that everyone with a bit of muscle is on steroids, are often very skinny.
They have ”accepted” that they will never be able to achieve great muscular development, without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Clearly, this is not the case.
Having an optimistic mindset and truly believing in your body’s abilities goes a long way.
A very interesting (and kind of funny) study by the Manchester Metropolitan University, shows that a different mindset has great effect on your physical abilities. The volunteers in this study were all powerlifters. The powerlifters received a pill before training, which was presented as a ”fast-acting steroid”. The pill was filled with saccharine, an artificial sweetener.
Basically, they tricked the powerlifters into believing that they were taking steroids. The result? The powerlifters broke their PR’s by an average of 5% in just 1 training session. Considering these were high-level powerlifters, a 5% increase in total weight is ridiculously high. Normally such an increase in weight would take about 6 months of periodized training.
This all just because they truly believed that their body was capable of more. So don’t underestimate your capabilities, as this directly influences your actions.
There you have it, the 4 biggest reasons why some are not gaining muscle. I hope you enjoyed this article and have gotten plenty of insights. If you have any questions or remarks, don’t hesitate to comment below. I will gladly help you out.
If you are interested in learning more about maximizing your muscular potential, check out my new eBook “The Art & Science of Muscle Growth. This book translates the currently available scientific data about muscle growth in “Basic English”, so everyone can start implementing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition.