Why you aren’t gaining muscle

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This week’s article is all about gaining muscle. For some people, gaining muscle can be a real challenge. Although this is often down to genetics and diet, there is quite often large flaws in training preventing people from achieving muscle growth. I will be discussing some of the big issues I see in people’s training and ways they can change things to experience greater muscle growth.

Before we move onto some of the reasons you aren’t gaining muscle, it is important that we understand some of the mechanisms behind muscle growth. In the 2010 paper “The Mechanisms for Muscle Hypertrophy, and Their Application to Resistance Training” by Brad Schofield, he outlines three main mechanisms of muscle growth; mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress. Mechanical tension is thought to be the most essential driver of hypertrophy. Mechanical tension comes from the stretch and force production of a muscle and requires the lifting of heavy weights. Muscle damage is also important. When you lift weights, you induce microscopic tears to the muscle. The main driver of muscle damage is training volume (the total amount of work you do on a muscle). The final mechanism is metabolic stress. It is not necessary for muscle growth but has been shown in studies to increase muscle growth. Metabolic stress occurs when you put the muscle under tension for an extended period of time and happens when you feel “the pump” in your muscles.

Now that we understand the mechanisms behind muscle growth we can start to look at people’s training and use this information to come to a conclusion as to how effective this training might be.

Incorrect intensity

Intensity (in this instance) describes the amount of weight used on a particular exercise as a percentage of 1 rep max. There are two very different mistakes people make when it comes to choosing intensity. One is either using a weight that is too light or too heavy. Most of your training should be in the rep range of 6-12 reps. Any heavier than this and it is unlikely that your nervous system will be able to cope with the amount of volume needed for muscle growth. This is why strength athletes may be stronger than bodybuilders but might not have more muscle mass. Lighter reps for higher reps can be used at certain times in training but should not make up the majority of your training. This type of training is known as metabolite training and works by inducing large amounts of metabolic stress. When doing this type of training, however, you must go close to technical failure in order to cause enough metabolic stress for hypertrophy.

Not training hard enough

Another simple but often overlooked flaw in people’s training is not training hard enough. This can happen through a number of ways. One way can be not training heavy enough (as I discussed earlier). If training isn’t heavy then the amount of mechanical stress that can be achieved is limited. Another way was also discussed earlier in this article and that is not going close enough to failure when using light weights. To induce the amount of metabolic stress necessary for hypertrophy, you must go close to technical failure. This means that training must either be heavy or be close to failure; there is no way to avoid the pain of hard training. Another aspect of training is training volume. It is possible to do too  much volume but this is often not the case as it is very difficult to overtrain for an extended period of time without getting injured or ill. The main issue I see is not doing enough total volume. Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) is a concept theorised by Dr Mike Israetel. It describes the minimum amount of work that you must do to induce the desired effect from training. In terms of muscle growth, this means that if you are not reaching your MEV then you will not gain muscle.

Trying to do too many things at once

Another issue is when people have too many goals at once. They want to gain muscle but also want to lose fat, run a marathon and squat a new 1 rep max all in the next month. If you want to gain muscle then losing fat is only going to be possible in certain circumstances as I have discussed in previous articles. If your goal is to get leaner and more muscular then go through a muscle gain phase and then a fat loss phase as this is going to be more effective than trying to achieve both things at once. It is also important to consider the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). If you are trying to train for long distance running then this is going to require the body to make different adaptations than heavy resistance training. Doing too much non-specific training (any training other than hypertrophy training) will also cause unwanted fatigue and could mean that you can not reach your MRV in your hypertrophy training.  My advice is to pick a goal and pursue that until you are satisfied and then pursue a different goal.

Hopefully you are now aware of some of the considerations that need to be made when training for muscle growth and can use this information to help optimise your own training programme.

Speak to you all again soon.

Albie

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