Are you lifting weights and eating big and can’t build muscle? Here’s another good question I got.
“Struggling to make sufficient progress. Got stronger & fatter with bulking and then weaker & thinner with cutting. Some days feel that I have made little progress with aspects of my body shape.”
I went through this exact same problem. I got fat when bulking (didn’t gain much muscle) and became skinny and weak after cutting. This went on for years until I finally found the problem.
Let’s assume your lifestyle is fairly decent. You’re healthy-ish, so we can remove bad sleep, hormone issues, stress, inflammation, being sedentary, and other imbalances from the equation.
Now we’re dealing with two main players:
- Training stimulus—so lifting weights to grow
- Nutrition—energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc.
Lack of Workout Stimulus
Let’s say the training stimulus to grow—isn’t enough to cause changes in your body. You’re lifting weights 3x a week, sure, but it’s not pushing you forward. It’s not challenging you.
What will happen if you start “bulking” in terms of nutrition? What will happen when you start throwing tons of calories at the problem?
Will that make your body grow if there is no need to grow? No. Your muscles might grow minimally, but otherwise, it’ll store those precious calories as fat for some other time.
I experimented with tons of different nutritional approaches. I even tried eating over 250g+ of protein each and every day, including 90g whey shakes before and after lifting. And it didn’t help me with new muscle mass as there was no reason for my body to build more muscle because it didn’t need to. My workouts weren’t pushing me to adapt.
Now let’s consider the opposite scenario.
Lack of Nutrition
Let’s assume the training stimulus to grow *is* there. You’re lifting weights in a way that is challenging your body. Your muscles are begging to grow to handle your workouts. You’re putting in the effort, your training is diligent and consistent, and you’re getting sore after your workouts. You get a huge pump while lifting.
What happens if you’re not eating enough because you’re scared of getting fat? Or let’s say you wanted super lean gains, so you shoot yourself in the foot with weird things like only having egg whites (instead of whole eggs) to boost protein macros?
Or you’re counting calories which doesn’t respect your new ravenous appetite. You lifted in the evening, but you had a big breakfast, so you scaled back the calories at dinner so that you don’t “overdo it.” Now your body doesn’t have the nutrition required to recover and rebuild your muscles, especially in those precious hours right after lifting when blood flow to them is high.
The stimulus to grow is there from lifting weights, but the nutrition provided isn’t enough to make adaptations.
A Few Scenarios
So these examples show the main problems.
- Lack of stimulus + nutrient surplus = fat gain
- Lack of stimulus + nutrient maintenance = minor changes
- Lack of stimulus + nutrient deficit = muscle loss
- Enough stimulus + minor nutrient surplus = muscle gain
- Enough stimulus + major nutrient surplus = muscle and fat gain
- Enough stimulus + nutrient maintenance = minor changes
- Enough stimulus + nutrient surplus/energy deficit = fat loss
It gets more complicated. How big the energy surplus will affect the muscle-to-fat gain ratio. A smaller calorie surplus will lead to leaner gains. A larger calorie surplus will speed up results but include more fat.
And there are other factors like nutrient timing. In other articles I wrote on intermittent fasting, I covered a study showing that you could burn 5x more fat while building just as much muscle just through changing the timing of your meals.
Experience Level With Lifting
Someone’s experience seems to change the main problem as well.
- Total beginners—go too hard in the gym, don’t have their diet or lifestyle locked in to help with recovery. It’s a one-way ticket to DOMS-ville.
- Lifted weights for a bit—doing the wrong type or not enough training, they try every possible diet to drive change, and it doesn’t help—they get fat when bulking and get weak when cutting.
- Lifting weights for years and found something that works—they’re doing the right type of training, reached 90% of their goals, everyone around them thinks they’re crazy fit/strong/big, now they’re trying to maximize nutrition/lifestyle/recovery again for those last inches of gains.
For beginners, it’s usually their diet and recovery. For those who have lifted weights before, it’s more than likely a training issue. They’re not getting sore or getting a pump anymore. Once they discover how to get their training locked in, they know how to push themselves enough to adapt, and then it becomes a diet and recovery issue again.
I hope that helps a bit when it comes to problem-solving! If you liked this article, you’ll want to check out the True Gains program.