Why Can’t I Build Muscle? 7 Reasons Why and What To Do

Woman looking at her flexed bicep. Why can't I build Muscle?

Gaining muscle can be one of the most frustrating things for people who are naturally skinny or anyone trying to get fit. You put in all the hard work at the gym and eat healthy, but you don’t see any results.

So why can’t I build muscle mass?

There could be a number of reasons why, but first, it’s important to understand that everyone’s body is different and some people can gain muscle easier and maybe faster than others. During my own personal fitness journey and experience as a personal trainer, I’ve come to learn and understand the most common reasons why it may seem impossible to gain any muscle mass, no matter how hard you try. 

In this blog post, I’ll go over the top 7 reasons why you can’t seem to gain muscle mass.

1. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein or Carbs

Not eating enough calories to gain weight

Not eating enough is the number one reason why you’re not gaining muscle mass and can’t see any noticeable changes. As a personal trainer, and even during my early lifting days, not eating enough calories was the main reason why I couldn’t build any muscle. 

When you’re exercising to build muscle, you must be sure that you’re always in a caloric surplus. In other words, you want to make sure you’re eating more calories than you burn.

However, it’s not just about eating more calories, it’s about eating enough calories from the right amount of macronutrients. More specifically protein and complex carbs. In order to build muscle, you must eat a sufficient amount of protein and carbs.

Yes, even carbs!

Many people focus on their protein intake, but then completely forget about eating enough carbs.  Don’t worry, I was guilty of this as well. If your body does not have a sufficient amount of carbs for your heavy workouts, then your body will turn to other sources of energy, such as protein from muscle tissue to fuel your workout. Which can hinder muscle growth and recovery.

The process is much more complex, but if you don’t want your body using your hard-earned muscle tissue as fuel, then be sure to eat enough complex carbs such as oatmeal, brown rice, and lentils, in addition to your lean protein.

Here’s What To Do:

Aim to eat 4-7 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight(1) per day (g/kg/day)(1). Complex carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, and oats, provide energy to fuel your intense workouts and should be eaten before and after exercise for optimal results.

In addition, aim to eat at least 1-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day from sources such as beans, eggs, chicken, fish, and protein powder if needed. Start prepping your meals with these simple additions, or buy yourself some healthy snacks to munch on throughout the day. Overall, having a balanced diet of protein and complex carbs is key for a successful muscle-building workout plan. 

2. You’re Not Training Heavy Enough

Not training heavy enough to gain muscle mass

If you’ve been working out for a while and you’re not seeing any results, it could also be because you’re not lifting heavy enough. In order to for your muscles to grow, it’s essential that you lift weights that are actually challenging.

Lifting heavier weights increases the stress on your muscles, causing small tears in your muscle fibers. These small tears trigger a rebuilding process, resulting in stronger muscles and an increase in muscle mass. So stop lifting lightly and pick up some heavier weights.

Here’s What To Do:

So when it’s time for your next workout, challenge yourself by increasing the weight you’re lifting. If you’re always lifting the same amount, you won’t see any muscle growth. Increasing the weights will help give your body a proper stimulus and help your muscles grow.

Aim to lift weights that are within your 75-85% 1 repetition max (1RM) range. In other words, focus on training with weights where you are able to safely lift only between a 6-12 repetition range with proper form.

This means, picking a weight that is light enough to lift 6 reps, but heavy enough to not pass 10 reps. Training within the 6-10 rep range is the optimal range for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth). If you keep the weight heavy enough to only hit 6 reps, even better. Just be sure to select a weight that is challenging for YOU.

If you find that your form is compromised with the heavier weight, perform the exercise with a lighter weight until you can do two extra reps (12 reps), in a full set, with good form.

3. Lack of Progressive Overload

Now that we understand that you may not be lifting heavy enough, it’s also important to understand that in order to build muscle, you must slowly increase the intensity of your workouts. In other words, you must start progressive overloading. This means gradually increasing the weight, reps, or tempo over time, or decreasing your rest periods to allow your muscles to adapt and grow stronger without putting too much stress on them. Progressive overload is very important if you want to build muscle and keep building muscle. Otherwise, if you keep completing your workout with the same weight, reps, and sets, you will not build muscle and plateau.

Here’s What To Do:

Each week, try to do more than you did in the previous week. Always start by doing one or two more reps than you did in the previous week and once you safely get past your rep range, with the correct form, increase the weight. 

For example, if you are working between a 6-12 repetition range and you can safely lift between 12-15 reps, it’s time to increase the weights in order to stay within the hypertrophy range of 6-12 reps. For lower body exercises, focus on increasing the weight by 5-10%, and 2-5% for upper body exercises. 

It is important to remember not to increase the weights too quickly and focus on proper form as well. If you are having difficulty with a particular exercise, lower the weight and work with the correct form until you can safely handle the heavier load. 

4. You’re Not Getting Enough Rest

Sometimes we forget how important rest is when it comes to building muscle. Sure, you can hit the gym hard and lift heavy, but if you don’t give your body enough time to rest and recover, you won’t gain any muscle and make any real progress.

Your muscles need recovery time in order to rebuild themselves and become stronger. Without enough rest days between workouts, your body won’t be able to grow as effectively as it could if it was resting.  This also means that you have to get enough sleep.

A sufficient amount of sleep allows your muscles to recover and see the changes you’re looking for. Research has shown that a lack of sleep can create a catabolic environment in the body, making it easier to break down muscle than build it. So it’s important to get enough rest and sleep!

Here’s What To Do:

Start planning your rest days according to the intensity of each workout. The higher the intensity, the more rest your body is going to need.

Furthermore, don’t hit the same muscle group two days in a row. Give them at least 1-3 days of rest in between, depending on how hard you worked them in a previous workout.

In addition, the amount of rest required increases proportionately with the size of the muscle group. For example, you will need more rest days in between your leg days than your upper body days. 

It’s also important to get an adequate amount of sleep each night — aim for at least 7–8 hours per night. During this time, your body is able to repair itself from the wear and tear of the day before and restore its energy levels for the following day.

Essentially, the heavier you lift, the more rest and recovery that muscle group will need. But as always, be sure to listen to your body.

5. You’re Inconsistent

An overworked woman laying down on her back, beside a set of weights and with her arm over her head. She may be wondering "Why can't I build muscle?"

When it comes to building muscle mass, consistency is key! Without it, you won’t see the results you desire.

Inconsistency can be a major roadblock to your muscle-building goals. It can prevent you from gaining the muscle mass you want, no matter how hard you work out. When you’re inconsistent with your workouts, your body doesn’t have the chance to adapt and grow stronger.

You may also be sabotaging your progress by not sticking to a proper nutrition plan. Inconsistency can also lead to burnout and frustration, which can make it difficult to stay motivated. This is why having a structured workout plan that you can stick to is so important.

Here’s What To Do:

But don’t worry, the good news is that inconsistency can always change in a matter of minutes. To overcome this obstacle, you need to make a commitment to yourself and your goals. Set a schedule and make sure you stick to it.

It may also be helpful to find a workout partner or hire a coach to hold you accountable. Remember, building muscle mass takes time and effort. But with consistency, dedication, and hard work, you can achieve the results you desire.

6. You’re Doing Too Much Cardio

Plus size woman sitting on a treadmill, wiping her face with a towel

Like stated earlier, when building muscle mass, you want to make sure that you are always in a caloric surplus.

Doing too much cardio will put you in a caloric deficit and hinder your muscle growth. Your muscles need calories to remain in an anabolic state, where they are being built, rather than a catabolic state, where they break down.

Here’s What to Do:

If you decide to implement cardio into your routine, simply because you enjoy cardio or you have a goal to improve your cardiovascular health, that’s great! Aerobic activity should never be neglected. 

However, it’s important to maintain a caloric surplus to continue building muscle. As previously mentioned, if you are not eating enough protein and carbs, then your body may turn to your muscle tissue as fuel, which will hinder your muscle growth. 

So be sure to count your macronutrients and stick to them.

7. You Don’t Track Your Workouts

Tracking your progress is another reason why you may not be seeing any gains.  As much as we think that we can remember what we did in our previous workout, the reality is that we often forget – myself included. By tracking your progress, you can easily look back at what exercises and weights worked for you in the past and adjust accordingly.  You should also track how much weight you are lifting over time to ensure that you’re getting stronger each workout. Doing this will help you gain more muscle without hitting a plateau.

Here’s What To Do:

Start tracking all of your workouts! You can use anything from a physical notebook or the notes app on your phone- that’s what I do.

When you’re tracking your workouts be sure to track the following:

  • Exercise and any variations
  • Weights used
  • Sets
  • Repetitions
  • Rest periods
  • Tempo

Keeping track of all the mentioned variables can help you to continue to see progress as you will have more insight as to what can be modified or improved to continue building muscle.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Am I Lifting More But Not Gaining Muscle?

As previously mentioned, there are several possible reasons why you might be able to lift more, and not see an increase in muscle mass.

However, it’s important to understand that when you start resistance training, your nervous system is able to increase muscle fiber activation and recruitment much more effectively during various movements and/or exercises. The improvement in muscle fiber recruitment generates a greater force output, resulting in improved strength and the ability to lift more weights. 

If you want to continue to build more muscle, in addition to strength, take a look again at the top 7 reasons why. If you find that you still don’t have an answer. Please feel free to reach out to me personally here!

How Long Does It Take To Gain Muscle?

The time it takes to gain muscle varies depending on several factors like genetics, age, gender, nutrition, fitness level, and training experience. Typically, most people can expect to see noticeable muscle gains within 8 to 12 weeks of consistent resistance training and proper nutrition.

During the first few weeks of resistance training, your body adapts to the new stress of lifting weights and builds a foundation for muscle growth. After the first 4 weeks, you should start to see a small but noticeable increase in muscle size and definition. However, the rate of muscle gain depends on factors like training intensity, volume, consistency, nutrition, and recovery habits. Muscle growth is a gradual process that requires consistent effort over time, and proper rest and recovery time to allow muscles to repair and grow.

So be sure to stick to a well-structured routine if you want to see any results. 

Final Thoughts

Gaining muscle can be quite the journey but with the proper planning and discipline, it is more than achievable. Be sure to understand your own body and how hard and often you should be training. Ensure that you are taking enough rest days, getting enough quality sleep, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining a caloric surplus to build muscle effectively. With patience, dedication, and consistency, you will eventually reach your goals! 

Good luck! 

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