Perhaps you’ve started working out, you’ve changed your diet, and started to sleep more… but no matter what you’ve tried, you can’t gain muscle. Why is that happening? Inside we’ll take a look at 8 common solutions to not being able to gain muscle.
Troubleshooting Not Being Able To Gain Muscle:
Are all of your muscles not gaining? Or just a few? If all of your muscles won’t budge, you’re experiencing a systemic plateau. While a systemic problem might be workout-related (try making big changes and experimenting), it is likely something related to the foundation of muscle growth—meat, energy, inflammation, hormones, sunshine, sleep, etc.
A local plateau is when you see muscle growth in one area but not in another. This is something I ran into a lot when my legs were exploding while my upper body muscles were lagging behind with virtually no growth. I was only experiencing a local plateau. If it’s a systemic plateau, skip to the next section.
Local Plateau Fixes
❑ Local plateau: Reorder your workouts
Why this works: Whatever exercise you do first will get the most stimulus and leave less energy for each follow-up exercise. In the past, I always started with a deadlift or a squat, leaving little energy left for my overhead presses, pull-ups, curls, tricep work, etc. Since I’ve learned this, all the Outlive full-body workouts have been modelled on Steve Reeve’s top-to-bottom approach. Shoulders, chest, back, arms, and THEN legs. The legs are the biggest muscle in the body, so it makes sense they would hog all your energy if you do them first in your workout.
❑ Local plateau: Swap the volume to the stubborn area
Why this works: If a muscle is stubborn, it needs more stimulus. If you are doing easy workouts, you may be able to add more volume to the area to get the muscle growing again. But sometimes, the workouts you’re doing are already challenging enough. At that point, you can remove sets from a muscle area you are happy with and give them to the struggling area. Frank Zane, one of the top most respected bodybuilders from the Golden Age, mentioned that in the winter, his training capacity would shrink. So he wouldn’t try and grow his whole body. He would do “specialization” phases. He would do maintenance work full-body and then move all the extra volume to one area that he wanted to focus on, such as arms or shoulders. After the winter passed and he felt more energetic, he would taper the overall volume back up.
❑ Local plateau: Muscle variety
Why this works: Our muscles adapt to the stimulus of lifting, and eventually, they’re fully adapted, so they don’t need to change anymore. Changing the progression scheme, switching the lift to a new variation to hit slightly different muscle fibres, expanding or shrinking the range of motion, or switching from full-body to a split (or vice versa) can change the stimulus placed on a muscle. Variety is the key to pushing your muscles to adapt. This idea got a bad rap from the term “muscle confusion.” You don’t need to confuse and trick your muscles and change your workouts every day. You just need to give your training some variety when things start to stick, which places a new stimulus on them.
Systemic Plateau Fixes
❑ Eat more meat
Why this works: With the adage to eat what you want to heal, it suddenly makes a lot of sense to a lot of muscles if you want to have big muscles. Not only will you get “protein,” you’ll get every other co-factor needed for muscle. This includes other things that muscles need, like creatine, carnosine, taurine, anserine, glycine, etc. (2020). As a skinny guy, I used to rely on getting over 100g of my protein needs through whey isolate. After switching to more meat, muscle gain became much easier.
❑ Eat more easy-to-digest carbs during lifting & two meals afterwards
Why this works: Carbs are an essential part of creating ATP, a type of energy we need for muscle contractions and muscle recovery. So it helps to have good carbs going through the blood as you’re working out. However, not all carbs are the same. Some are notoriously difficult to digest.
A piece of fruit pre-workout goes a long way. An old-school intra-workout drink was heaping tablespoons of raw honey mixed with raw orange juice with collagen powder. Then, after lifting, lots of easy-to-digest carbs can help with recovery when blood flow is currently high to repair the muscles. Some of my favourites right now are sourdough bread garlic toast, white rice, oven-baked apples topped with maple syrup/cinnamon, etc.
❑ Remove inflammatory food from your diet as an experiment
Why this works: Sometimes, the burden of inflammation is too high on the body to spend “energy” to build new muscle. One time I plateaued, I thought that I was missing something. I was adding in *more* food to get the calories up—that I later found out was wildly inflammatory for my digestive system. I was adding in *more* supplements, thinking I could close a gap in nutrition with pharmaceutically-produced ingredients. Then I tried playing with taking things *out* of my diet, and I finally unlocked the bottleneck by clearing up inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by a lot of things, but a big driver is food intolerance. The biggest food intolerances in all the research I’ve seen are:
- bird eggs
- pasteurized dairy
- white flour
- grains in general
- nuts and seeds
❑ Sleep 8-10 hours a night
Why this works: Building muscle is temporarily rough on the body. We spend 45-60 minutes in the gym tearing that muscle down. Now the hard work of repairing it bigger and stronger begins. Don’t expect to get great muscle gains if you’re only getting the minimum of 7 hours a night of sleep, which you need just to be functional—let alone rebuild stronger. Experiment with 8 or 9 hours at a minimum. I sleep without an alarm clock, and when I am doing heavy training/bulking, I find that my body needs an extra hour of sleep. So 8.5-9 hours of optimal sleep for me turns into 9.5–10 hours a night when going through a period of rapid muscle gain.
❑ Shotgun approach to optimizing testosterone
Why this works: Testosterone makes building muscle and staying lean easier. Men today have critically low levels, with some men having 1/4 of what a normal man should have. What happened? Well, a lot of things. In the Skinny Fat Fix program, I include a guide to naturally boosting testosterone. A shotgun approach is helpful as everyone is in a different context. The big ones are a
- lack of sunshine
- fluoridated water and drinks (sodas)
- low daily steps
- high intake of restaurant foods
- high intake of white flour
- low level of animal-based fats in the diet
If you’re stuck, try changing a lot of things at once until you see progress in your workouts again.