When I have clients or friends tell me they have a hard time gaining muscle, they tend to think there is something wrong with their workout plan or dedication. The reality is more often than not, the culprit tends to be more straightforward than that.
You MUST Be In a Surplus
You cannot expect to gain weight (and muscle), without being in at least a small surplus. Individuals who struggle to gain muscle tend to have one trait in common – they are naturally lean individuals who I’ve seen needed WAY more calories than they were consuming. On top of that, they weren’t eating a lot of calories even compared to the average individual.
To give you a comparison, I consider my genetics to be fairly average. If I eat 2500 calories, the scale will start to move. Those who struggle adding mass I’ve had eating a MINIMUM of 3500 calories. That’s as a baseline. By the end of their bulk they tend to eat 4000+ calories! That is a LOT of food. To make matters worse, when I have them track at the beginning of their diet, I find they aren’t eating much more than 2500 calories. So as you can see you may be eating HALF as many calories as you need to put on even a single pound.
The other issue I find is that once this goal is established, it is hard for these individuals to hit even 3000 calories. They don’t tend to have big appetites. For this, I recommend breaking your meals up into smaller, more frequent meals so that you aren’t overwhelmed with bigger meals. You should definitely stick to whole foods, but at a certain point eating 3500+ calories is close to impossible to do without adding in some food hacks. This might look like actually needing to turn maybe 10-15% of your intake into more processed, calorically dense food, just to bring the overall volume down for your limited appetite. It’s not the typical advice, but at this point you do not have typical goals anymore. The other trick you can try is making super shakes blending higher calorie items like nut butters, whey, oats, etc so you can down more calories without feeling full.
Send The Right Muscle Building Stimulus
Now that you’ve got your diet in order, we can take a look at your lifting routine. You should be lifting at least 2-3 days a week. You can choose your preference on what type of workout split you want, but you need to make sure you are incorporating some form of progression week to week. This means adding 5lbs to the bar, or doing one more rep than you did the week before. If you aren’t constantly keeping track of this, there is no way of knowing whether you are getting stronger. If you aren’t getting stronger, then you can’t expect to magically put on weight. You do not need to train to failure. Stay 1-2 reps shy of failure as this will prevent overstressing your central nervous system, and allow for proper recovery. The final tip I will give is make sure you can actually feel the intended muscle working on each exercise. If you do a bench press for example, and your chest isn’t getting tired or feeling any of the work, then more focus needs to be placed on technique and the mind muscle connection.
There was a study done showing when individuals slept 5 hours a night for 5 days, they gained body fat and couldn’t recover. This is the opposite of what we want. Sleep is the most critical aspect of ensuring the previous two steps solidify. Sleep is when our body can recover, and build our muscles. Lifting weights in the gym only tears muscles down. It’s the time after where we are actually growing. Our muscle can only grow if we are eating enough, and sleeping enough to allow for our body to respond to the stimulus placed on it.