3 Reasons Why You're NOT Building Muscle (And Exactly What to Do About It!)

You're frustrated.

You've been doing everything "right," but the gains still aren't coming on the way you thought they would.

I've been there.

I totally get it; it's not fun.

What if I told you that you're probably making one of four very common muscle-building mistakes?

With all of the shirtless, fitness "influencers" out there on IG posting their obnoxious workouts, nutrition tips, and "Mass-Gainer 5000" supplements, it's so easy to get overwhelmed with information.

How do you truly know that you're going about building muscle the right way?

By the end of this blog, you'll have a crystal clear picture of what mistakes you were making that were killing your gains, AND exactly what you can do going forward to avoid them, taking your muscle gains to the next level.

The #1 Cardinal Sin of Muscle Building

Before we get into the actual reasons that I'm going to discuss with you today, I want to talk about one, overarching requirement for any significant results...

Having a plan.

I hate to break it to you, but "winging it" isn't going to fly when it comes to making gains.

The most successful transformations start with a solid plan, in regard to both training and nutrition.

Now, don't take this to mean that your plan needs to be perfect. That's not the case at all.

Often times, you'll start off on a plan and realize that things need to be adjusted along the way.

The main purpose of having a plan in place is to provide direction. Without this, how do you know if you're truly making steps towards your goals?

You don't.

Having a plan is crucial for both nutrition and training is crucial, since they are not mutually exclusive when it comes to getting you the results you want so badly (i.e. "you can't out-train a bad diet").

Now, assuming you have a plan in place (if you don't, shoot me a DM on IG and I'd be more than happy to help get you started in the right direction), let's get into the 4 reasons why you're not building muscle...

Reason #1: You're not eating enough calories!

When it comes to building muscle, energy balance is king.

If you don't have this taken care of, good luck seeing any significant muscle growth.

So, what exactly is energy balance?

Energy balance is the principle that weight change is driven by the balance between energy (calories) being taken in via food and energy being burned by the body.

When you are taking in more calories than you are burning, you are in a caloric surplus.

In the vast majority of cases, a caloric surplus is absolutely essential for muscle growth.

Think about it. You can't expect your body to build muscle without raw materials around to build from.

That surplus of calories is your body's stash of raw materials that it will use to facilitate muscle growth.

"But, I eat so much already! I'm always full. But I'm still not gaining muscle..."

Then you're not in a caloric surplus, my man...

I've seen so many cases where someone says this, I have them track their food for a couple days, and then it turns out that in reality, they were eating somewhere around 1800 calories per day, for example.

I don't know about you, but I have yet to meet a grown man that will legitimately put on muscle eating 1800 calories per day.

As far as how many calories YOU should be eating... that's very individual and beyond the scope of this particular blog. In short, you want to be in a 300-500 calorie surplus. This means that you'll be eating 300-500 calories over your maintenance calories for the day.

So, if my maintenance calories are at 3000, then I would eat 300-500cals in order to create that caloric surplus.

I get it, when you're a "hardgainer" (bro-speak for someone who struggles to put on muscle and usually has that ectomorph body type), it can feel like a chore to get those calories in, especially those first few days/weeks of ramping up the calories.

As someone who had to crush 4200 calories to put on size, I totally understand where you're coming from.

With that being said, all the empathy in the world won't change the laws of thermodynamics...

So, it's up to us to find a way to get those calories in.

The great thing is that when you do start to feed your body the calories it needs, the feeling of being full all the time will subside (or at least decrease to some extent) over the course of the first few days and weeks. It's just a matter of powering through that little under comfortable period (in this case, getting out of your comfort zone is literally necessary for growth).

After this initial period, your body will start to adapt to this new caloric intake and your appetite will likely increase.

I like to look at this as a similar situation to when you're lifting weights.

When you lift weights that push you outside of what's "comfortable," you allow your muscles to grow and adapt to lift heavier weights.

When you increase your calorie intake, you allow your appetite to increase over time and your body to become more comfortable with taking in that amount of food.

High-Calorie Hacks

While you may need to be a little uncomfortable eating that much at first, there are definitely some little "hacks" that you can implement to make life a little easier for you as you're looking to pack on the gains!

Power Shakes

If you're struggling to get the calories down, implementing a shake throughout your day is pretty much a must.

Liquid calories make it so much easier to get the calories in without feeling bloated as f***.

Now, when I say shakes, I'm not talking about those bulls*** weight gainers that you see at GNC. No matter how much they try to convince you, professional bodybuilders don't actually use those to put on mass (anabolic steroids are a hell of a lot more effective when it comes to that, lol).

When I'm talking about shakes, I mean one that you make yourself, at home.

You'd be surprised at how many calories you can fit into one of those. My record as of now is 1200 calories in one shake (definitely don't chug that one down in one go).

In these power shakes, prioritize using whole food ingredients such as fruit, milk/almond milk (depending on what you tolerate), coconut oil, nut butters, oats, different types of seeds (chia, hemp, flax, etc), and veggies (spinach is my go-to; it literally does not change the taste of the shake at all!).

You can also feel free to add a high-quality protein powder to your shake to bump up the protein content. I definitely do this all the time.

It's super important that you choose a reputable brand that uses clean ingredients. This will save you a lot of time and discomfort down the line. Some of my favorite brands are Legion, Garden of Life, and Naked.

Be aware that there are different types of protein powders out there. Whey isolate seems to be the most effective when it comes rot promoting muscle growth. However, some people don't tolerate whey all that great (I'm one of them).

In that case, you'll want to opt for a plant based protein. These include pea protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein, etc. The brand Legion, that I mentioned above has a great, plant-based protein (I'm not sponsored by them, just really like their product).

Definitely feel free to invoke your creative license when it comes to recipes for these. Switch up different combos of ingredients and find what works best for you.

Eat calorie dense foods

If you're bulking, trying to get a majority of your calories through spinach and broccoli probably isn't going to work out to well for you.

While you 100%, definitely, for sure should be including ample sources of fruits and veggies in your diet (gotta get those antioxidants in to manage inflammation and promote recovery!), they don't work all that well as a way of bumping up your calories during a bulk.

This is because they're not calorically dense. You have to eat a high volume of them to get a significant amount of calories in.

When bulking and going through a muscle growth phase, especially if you're a hard gainer, including calorically dense foods in your nutrition plan is going to make it so much easier to hit your daily calorie goal and see those gains.

What foods tend to be calorically dense?

Healthy fats are much more calorically dense than carbs and protein. They contain 9 calorie per gram whereas protein and carbs only contain 4 calories per gram.

Adding healthy fats to your meals is a great way to skyrocket the calories and not feel like you're absolutely gorging yourself with food.

One of my absolute favorite ways to do this is to drizzle extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) over my veggies. EVOO is packed with monounsaturated fats and polyphenols that are awesome for brain health. Not to mention, just 1tbs contains 120 calories!

Some other healthy fat options include: Nuts, nut butters, coconut oil, avocado, avocado oil, seeds, fatty fish like salmon/sardines, and fattier cuts of meat.

Now, while healthy fats are a great way to increase your calories, if bulking and packing on muscle is your goal then you're going to want to still leave plenty of room for carbs in your calories.

By no means am I advocating going Keto on a bulk, lol.

You still want to leave plenty of room for carbohydrates in your plan, since the are going to be what fuels your workouts, give your muscles that "full" look, and promote recovery by decreasing the stress response.

While carbs are not as calorically dense, like we already discussed, there are ways that you can make it a lot easier to get adequate carbs in without feeling bloated 24/7.

Firstly, it comes down to getting your carbs from whole, unprocessed sources. That alone will mitigate much of the bloating/gas you feel, since whole foods simply aren't as inflammatory to your gut.

Second, you're going to want to find carbs that are easy for YOU to digest. This is largely individual to the person and will require a little bit of experimentation. One carb source that seems to be universally easily digestible is white rice. In my personal experience, white rice is super easy to eat in high amounts without feeling overly full.

Alright, now that we've got that down, let's move onto the next reason why you're not currently building muscle...

Reason #2: You don't lift, bro.

Do you even lift, bro?

Odds are, if you don't, you're not building a significant amount of muscle mass.

Lifting provides the stimulus for your body to adapt. Obviously, the adaptation that we are hoping for is muscle growth.

A calorie surplus is nice and all, but if you're not lifting on a regular basis, you're not putting those raw materials obtained from food to good use!

Now, I'm not at all saying that you need to be in the weight room every single day to see gains.

In fact, 3-4 days per week is really all you need (and all most people should be doing) to see significant increases in muscle gain.

How should you split up those 3-4 days?

If you're only able to get in the gym 3 days each week, then I would suggest doing three, full-body workouts. If you choose this option, leave one day between your workouts, so you allow your muscles to recover. For example:

Monday: Full-body workout

Tuesday: OFF

Wednesday: Full-body workout

Thursday: OFF

Friday: Full-body workout

Sat/Sun: OFF

If you opt for 4 days, then I would recommend doing an upper-lower split. For example:

Monday: Upper

Tuesday: Lower

Wednesday: OFF

Thursday: Upper

Friday: Lower

Sat/Sun: OFF

What exercises should you be doing?

This is largely individual, and since my expertise isn't programming, I hesitate to get too specific when it comes to listing an actual workout.

However, I can give you some guiding principles that will help you structure your workouts and know how to assess progress.

First of all, you want to make sure you are doing at least one compound lift each training session. Compound lifts are lifts that work multiple muscles at once, and have been shown to be superior when it comes to building muscle.

These include squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, etc.

Don't fall into the trap of just doing biceps and triceps the whole time you're in the gym... we've all been there lol.

You're definitely going to want to add in accessory lifts (like the beloved bicep curl) into your regimen as well, they just shouldn't be the centerpiece of your plan.

Next, make sure that you are keeping track of progress in the gym.

Progress comes in many forms, the most obvious of which is increasing the weight that you're able to lift.

It's important to recognize the other facets of progress as well, such as reps you're able to do with a given weight as well as improvement in form!

It's super important that you have a way to keep track of this progress, whether its on paper or an app on your phone.

Regardless of the method you choose, just make sure to do it.

You don't want to be that guy lifting the same weight for months on end wondering where the f*** your gains are...

Lastly, please make sure you're lifting with proper form. Do your due diligence and do your research to make sure that you are performing the lift correctly.

You definitely won't be making any gains if you're injured.

If you're interested in learning more about the strength training and the programming side of things, here are some awesome pros to learn from:

-Cody McBroom (@cody.boomboom on IG)

-Ben Racke (@benracke on IG)

-Mind Pump (@mindpumpmedia on IG)

-Eric Helms (@helms3dmj on IG)

-Danny Matranga (@dynamic.danny on IG)

Alright, now let's get into the third reason why you're not currently building muscle!

Reason #3: Your sleep schedule is f**** up.

You could have the perfect calorie and macronutrient prescription, the most "optimal" training split, and the most researched supplement out there, but if sleep isn't taken care of, good luck building and significant muscle in the long run.

See, when we train, we stress our bodies. This is a good thing, and it's necessary to stimulate adaptation.

In this case, the adaptation we are aiming for is muscle growth.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the gains are made in the gym, but in reality, what you do (or fail to do) outside of the weight room has just as big of an impact on muscle growth.

To truly achieve the adaptation that we are after, it is necessary to allow your body to recover adequately. It is during this period of recover that the growth actually occurs.

And there is no better recover activity than some good old, high-quality sleep!

To get a better picture of why sleep is so important, let's take a look at what is going on behind the scenes during your training.

Like we established, training is a stressor.

When your body experiences stress, the hormone cortisol is elevated.

Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks things down. In this case, it is breaking down stored resources (hopefully) and liberating them to be used as fuel.

If all runs smoothly, cortisol does its job and then lowers back down to pre-workout levels. When its levels lowers, it allows our body to recover and begin the anabolic (building) process of muscle growth.

Where does sleep come into play?

It's been shown that lack of sleep can cause elevated cortisol. Given what we've discussed about the catabolic properties of cortisol, that doesn't seem like a hormone you want elevated longer than it should be!

Not to mention, chronically elevated cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, your body's inability to properly partition nutrients it receives from food.

In more serious, prolonged cases this can lead to diabetes. But in the short term context of muscle growth, this insulin resistance makes your body much less efficient when it comes to mainlining nutrients into the cells that are necessary for growth.

What can I do about my lack of sleep?

All this information is great and all, but what can you actually do to improve your sleep and maximize your gains?

Ideally, the goal is for you to sleep 8-9 hours per night.

Now, if you're currently getting far below that amount, don't worry.

I don't expect you to make that jump right away!

Expecting you to do that would be like telling someone who's currently eating 2000 calories that they actually need to be eating 3500 calories to see muscle growth.

While it may be true, it'd be silly to preach from the mountaintop and expect you to make that jump right away.

Just like we would with the calories, the key with sleep is to making subtle increases over the course of weeks (even months), until you are at your goal sleeping duration of 8-9 hours per night.

What's the best way to go about this?

As with anything, it varies per person.

If you're feeling ambitious, you could go for an hour increase each week.

Or you could go to bed half an hour earlier each week.

Hell, you can go to sleep 15 minutes earlier each week!

I know 15 minutes doesn't seem like a significant amount, but after a few weeks and months, your sleeping habits will be night and day (you thought you could make it through this without a pun...) from what they were before.

Here are some tips for falling asleep more easily:

-Keep your room as dark as possible (consider black out shades or a sleeping mask).

-Keep your room relatively cool at night (~65 degrees seems to be the optimal temperature)

-Limit electronic use before bed. The blue light suppresses melatonin and makes it more difficult to fall asleep.

-Try not to do anything stressful directly before bed. Ideally, you don't want to hop into bed right after a stressful experience (cramming for a test, finishing a last minute work assignment, arguing with your girlfriend, etc)

Implement these simply tips, and your sleep duration/quality will be headed in the right direction (and so will your gains!).

The Takeaways

-Without a plan, long-term progress is unlikely.

-To gain muscle, it is usually (like 99.9999% of the time) necessary to be in a calorie surplus. This means that you are eating more calories than you are burning.

-A lot of the time, especially when it comes to "hard gainers," people think that they are in a calorie surplus simply because they feel full. If you're not gaining consistently, you're likely not in a surplus.

-A well-programmed weight lifting regimen along with your nutrition plan will help to accelerate and maximize your muscle growth.

-Aim to lift 3-4 times per week in either a full-body or upper/lower split.

-Focus on increasing weights/reps each week to stimulate adaptation.

-If you are sleeping less than 7 hours per night, you are simply not maximizing muscle growth, no matter how "optimal" your nutrition or training programs are.

-Focus on getting in bed 15-30 minutes earlier every week until you are getting 8-9 hours of sleep per night!

Thank you so much for reading! I have no doubt that if you implement these concepts, you'll be well on your way to blasting through that muscle growth plateau.

If you're interested in 100% individualized nutrition coaching that is tailored to your goals, shoot me an email or a DM on Instagram at @tclarknutrition! I'm currently taking on roughly 5 new clients. I love helping people find that confidence that comes along with building muscle. There's nothing like it! If you're feeling frustrated and stuck when it comes to your progress, just holler at me and we'll get you set up on the right plan for YOU.

P.S. Given that Black Friday is right around the corner, I've got a little special put together for you ;)