This article explores the most common mistakes people make that prevent them from increasing their muscle mass, even if they’re spending hours in the gym every week. We cover practical strategies to address these obstacles, so you can push through your plateau and start making gains!
By Andres Ayesta, MS, RD
- Progressive overload is crucial for muscle growth. Gradually increase the demands placed on your muscles over time.
- Adequate protein intake of 0.8-1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day is necessary for your muscles to grow and repair.
- Post-workout nutrition should focus on repair, refueling, and rehydration: protein, carbohydrates, and water.
- High stress levels increase cortisol production, which hinders muscle growth.
- Sufficient rest between training sessions and quality sleep are essential for muscle repair and growth.
- Poor exercise technique limits muscle activation and increases the risk of injury.
Are you hitting the gym consistently, but not seeing the muscle gains you’re striving for? Building muscle is a multifaceted process that requires a combination of consistent strength training and proper nutrition. Despite your best efforts, there are many factors that can influence your results and keep you from seeing progress.
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s briefly summarize the vast benefits of strength training and muscle gain. It’s not all about having a lean and shredded physique — building muscle offers a host of advantages for your overall health and well-being.
The Benefits of Building Muscle
One of the most important benefits of building muscle is increased functional strength, which allows you to perform daily tasks with greater ease and efficiency. It also improves your physical performance in sports and other physical activities, making you more agile and powerful .
Moreover, strength training plays an essential role in maintaining and improving bone density. As we age, the risk of osteoporosis and fractures increases, but regular resistance training can help counteract this by promoting strong and healthy bones .
Finally, increased muscle mass can boost your metabolism and help reduce body fat, which can help prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic disorders .
And those are just the physical benefits! Hitting the gym for a strength training session can also boost your mood and reduce stress .
Now that we understand the benefits of muscle gain, let's explore six reasons why you might be struggling to achieve the muscle growth you desire.
Reason #1: Lack of Progressive Overload
Progressive overload refers to gradually increasing the demands placed on your muscles over time. By consistently challenging your muscles, they are forced to adapt and grow . A common mistake people make is failing to train with enough intensity; for example, they may choose the same weights each time they perform an exercise, even when it starts to feel easy.
A general recommendation for maximizing muscle growth is to perform multiple sets (3-6) of 6-12 repetitions, with short-to-moderate rest periods (1-2 minutes) and a high level of effort [2,3]. Additionally, frequency of training should be considered; training each muscle group 2-3 times per week is a good starting point .
Once a consistent training program is in place, progressive overload can be achieved by increasing the load (the amount of weight lifted), increasing the number of repetitions of an exercise, or a combination of both. Research has shown that increasing the load while keeping reps consistent and increasing reps while keeping weight consistent both result in similar muscle growth as long as training intensity is high (i.e., you’re pushing yourself hard in the workout) .
Reason #2: Low Protein Intake
Exercise causes the breakdown of muscle proteins. Consuming adequate protein throughout the day is essential to give your body the building blocks it needs to repair and build muscle .
To optimize muscle building, aim to consume 1.8-2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass or 0.8-1.2 grams per pound each day. 1 gram of protein per pound per day is a good place to start for most people. You can read more about the impact of protein on body composition here .
Protein-rich foods that can support your goals include lean meats, poultry, fish, and dairy. Additionally, including a variety of plant-based options, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, and other legumes and grains, can help to boost your protein intake . Whey protein powder or other protein supplements are a convenient way to increase protein when you’re on the go, but whole foods should make up the majority of your protein intake.
Learning the amounts of protein in common foods and tracking your intake can help you avoid the common muscle building mistake of low protein intake. Aim for 20-40 g of protein every 3-4 hours to maximize muscle growth .
Reason #3: Inadequate Recovery Nutrition
When it comes to post-workout nutrition, it’s important to consider the “3 Rs” - Repair, Refuel, and Rehydrate.
For muscle repair and growth, total daily protein intake is the most important factor. To maximize muscle growth and repair, you should also consider consuming a high-quality source of protein within 2 hours of your workout .
Next, refuel with carbohydrates. Your body stores carbohydrates in the form of glycogen in the muscles and liver. When you work out, glycogen in the muscles becomes depleted, so including carbs in your post-workout meal helps replenish these stores . Additionally, having a source of carbs in addition to protein post-workout can further increase muscle protein synthesis (i.e., producing new muscle tissue to repair and grow muscles) .
Finally, drink water before, during, and after each workout to create an environment in the body that is optimal for muscle growth and avoid the negative impacts of dehydration on performance . To maximize hydration, and replace lost electrolytes, consider a supplement like Shifted Hydration.
Reason #4: High Stress Levels
Stress increases the production of cortisol, which is the body’s main stress hormone. With chronic high levels of stress, cortisol causes the breakdown of existing muscle and prevents the body from producing new muscle protein .
Therefore, it’s essential to find ways of reducing stress that work for you, such as meditation, breathwork, journaling, walking, and spending time on activities and hobbies you enjoy. Exercise is also a helpful tool for managing stress, but it should be part of a broader system in place for managing emotional stress in your life .
Reason #5: Inadequate Rest
There are two major components of rest that will influence your muscle-building results: sufficient rest between training sessions and sleep.
Failing to take days off the gym to rest deprives muscles of the necessary time to rpair and rebuild. 3-4 training days per week is sufficient for most intermediate lifters (those with more than 6 months of experience) to build muscle, while leaving time in between training sessions for recovery .
In addition to rest days, sleep is one of the most underrated aspects of muscle-building. Research has shown that sleep deprivation can lead to a greater muscle loss compared to fat loss when in a calorie deficit. It also disrupts hormonal balance, leading to increased cortisol and decreased testosterone, negatively impacting muscle mass and body composition .
Reason #6: Poor Exercise Technique
Incorrect exercise form can limit muscle activation and growth potential. Additionally, poor form increases the risk of injury, which can sideline you for weeks (or more), and get in the way of your muscle-building goals. There are several ways to ensure you’re performing exercises correctly.
First, take some time to educate yourself by watching instructional videos and receiving feedback from a personal trainer if possible.
Second, start with light weights. Put your ego aside! Starting light, or scaling back your weights to improve your form, allows you to focus on technique without compromising your stability and control .
Finally, make sure to control your movements and move through a full range of motion. Avoid using momentum or relying on gravity to move the weight. Slow and controlled movements allow for proper muscle activation and maximize the effectiveness of the exercise .
Building muscle requires a combination of consistent strength training and proper nutrition. Despite putting in effort at the gym, you may not see muscle growth for various reasons, including lack of progressive overload, poor nutrition habits, lifestyle factors like stress and sleep, and improper exercise technique. By identifying which of these factors might be hindering your progress, you can change your approach or tweak your habits to start seeing the body composition changes you’re looking for.
About The Author:
Andres Ayesta is a sports dietitian and the founder of Planos Nutrition, with over 12 years of experience helping people transform their nutrition and lifestyle. He works with busy professionals and parents to help them lose weight, improve their confidence, and show up as the best version of themselves, using a personalized, evidence-based nutrition blueprint.
With a bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Southern Indiana and a master's degree in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition from the University of Central Florida, Andres has earned numerous certifications, including Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). He is a licensed Registered Dietitian in the state of Florida and provides coaching programs worldwide. To connect with Andres, you can find him on TikTok @andresthedietitian or Instagram @andresayesta
- Westcott WL. Build muscle, improve health: benefits associated with resistance exercise. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2015 Jul 1;19(4):22-7. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2015/07000/build_muscle,_improve_health__benefits_associated.6.aspx
- Plotkin D, Coleman M, Van Every D, Maldonado J, Oberlin D, Israetel M, Feather J, Alto A, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ. Progressive overload without progressing load? The effects of load or repetition progression on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2022 Sep 30;10:e14142. https://peerj.com/articles/14142/
- Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2019 Dec;16(24):4897. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6950543/
- American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19204579/
- Tipton KD, Hamilton DL, Gallagher IJ. Assessing the role of muscle protein breakdown in response to nutrition and exercise in humans. Sports Medicine. 2018 Mar;48:53-64. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790854/
- Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011, 29, S29-S38. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22150425/
- Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein–which is best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep;3(3):118. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
- Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Kalman D, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Willoughby D. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14(1):33. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
- Miller SL, Tipton KD, Chinkes DL, Wolf SE, Wolfe RR. Independent and combined effects of amino acids and glucose after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Mar 1;35(3):449-55. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12618575/
- Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010 Aug 1;68(8):439-58. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
- Braun TP, Marks DL. The regulation of muscle mass by endogenous glucocorticoids. Front Physiol. 2015 Feb 3;6:12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315033/
- Jackson EM. Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. 2013 May 1;17(3):14-9. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2013/05000/stress_relief__the_role_of_exercise_in_stress.6.aspx
- Ratamess NA, Alvar BA, Evetoch TE, Housh TJ, Ben Kibler W, Kraemer WJ, Triplett NT. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar 1;41(3):687-708.https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2009/03000/Progression_Models_in_Resistance_Training_for.26.aspx
- Barakat C, Pearson J, Escalante G, Campbell B, De Souza EO. Body recomposition: can trained individuals build muscle and lose fat at the same time?. Strength Cond J. 2020 Oct 1;42(5):7-21. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2020/10000/body_recomposition__can_trained_individuals_build.3.aspx
- Wilk M, Golas A, Stastny P, Nawrocka M, Krzysztofik M, Zajac A. Does tempo of resistance exercise impact training volume?. J Hum Kinet. 2018 Jun;62:241. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6006544/