Sooner or later, everyone hits a plateau where gains come slower or grind to a halt altogether. That can be very frustrating and lead to a vicious circle where you get less motivated to put in the effort needed to progress.
Let’s take a look at our top five reasons why you’re not gaining muscle mass.
1. Lack of Progression
If you want to get bigger, stronger, faster, or improve your physical performance somehow, you need to give your body and muscles a reason to improve.
If you do the same thing, workout after workout, week after week, your body has no reason to build muscle or get stronger. Why should it? It can already handle everything you’re throwing at it!
Progressive overload is the fundamental factor for gaining mass and strength. Over time, you need to constantly challenge your muscles to force them to adapt by growing bigger and stronger. You need to work harder to get better. The exception is if you’re overtraining. Then you need to cut back on training and give your body a break.
The solution is to make it harder for yourself. Don’t get stagnant. Add weight to the bar when you can, or do an extra rep with the weight you’re using. Slowly add volume to your workout over time. Intensity, how heavy you train, is one of the most crucial aspects of gaining muscle and strength.1 You should always try to lift a little heavier than before. Without sacrificing form, of course.
Now, can you improve in some way workout after workout, indefinitely? No, probably not. But always strive to challenge yourself by adding a little weight here and a rep there. The exception is if you’re in a dedicated recovery phase of your training. If you don’t, your gains will come to a halt, your body satisfied with the size and strength of its muscles.
2. You Don’t Sleep Enough
A lot of people sleep less than the recommended seven or more hours per night.
Today’s society often glorifies sleep deprivation. You see successful people claiming to feel great while only sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night, giving them time to pursue other, more important (or so they think) endeavors.
The same goes for the fitness industry. Watch a random day-in-the-life YouTube video of a successful bodybuilder, and chances are they are up at dawn and yet are still busy close to midnight getting that last muscle-building feeding in.
Some people seem to get by on little sleep without any noticeable side effects, but we can’t overstate the importance of a healthy sleep pattern to get strong and build muscle.
What you do in the gym tells your body to build muscle, but when you’re recovering from those efforts, that’s when the magic happens. And nothing is better for your recovery than sleep.
Not sleeping enough and poor sleep quality are associated with less muscle mass. When you don’t get enough sleep, your muscle protein breakdown might increase, maybe even to the point where you break down more muscle than you build.
In an interesting study from 2011, middle-aged men and women dieted for 14 days.2 They did this two times, at least three months apart. During one of the diets, the participants slept for 8.5 hours per night, and the other time the scientists only allowed them 5.5 hours. They lost the same amount of weight both times, but when someone shook them awake after 5.5 hours every night, they lost less body fat and more muscle mass. The difference was remarkable: sleep deprivation led to 55% less body weight lost as fat while increasing muscle loss by 60%. The study was very well-controlled. The participants were locked up in a lab for the study duration, so they couldn’t cheat on their diet or otherwise deviate from the protocol.
You probably already know how important testosterone is for muscle growth. A single week of sleep restriction lowers your testosterone levels by a whopping 10 to 15%.3 Young healthy men who switched from 8.5 hours of sleep per night to 5 saw their testosterone levels drop dramatically. Or rather, the researchers noticed it. This was also a well-controlled study in a lab, not relying on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable. If your testosterone levels go down by 15% in just one week, sleeping too little year after year can likely really screw with your gains.
Sleep deprivation also increases the inflammation in your body.4 Systemic and chronic low-grade inflammation is linked to less muscle mass.5 One of the best things you can do to reduce inflammation is regularly getting a good night’s sleep. In turn, that likely gives your muscles a better opportunity to respond to your training by growing bigger and stronger.
Last but not least, if you don’t sleep enough, your performance will suffer. If you can’t perform your best, you’ll not grow your best. Simple as that. You’re not the lifter you could be if you’re constantly hitting the gym in a tired and sleep-deprived state, and your results will suffer for it.
Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done. If you don’t sleep enough because you’re up and about prioritizing non-essential things, do something about it. On the other hand, some factors, like small children and many medical conditions, make it hard or impossible to get the hours of sleep-time you’d like. The first is a blessing, the other a curse, but it is what is in both cases, and you’ll have to do the best of the situation.
3. You Don’t Eat Enough
Most of us wouldn’t say no to being semi-shredded year-round. However, that’s not realistic for most people who want to build muscle and get stronger.
You can build muscle even on a caloric deficit, but it is much more difficult. You need your diet, training, and life, in general, to be on point to do so. Also, how easily your gains come varies a lot from person to person, and while your favorite fitness Instagram star might be able to gain muscle in a caloric deficit, maybe you can’t. Instead of wasting time trying to emulate someone who might or might not even be natural, consider sacrificing the year-round shredded look and give your muscles what they need to grow: food.
We’re not saying you should bulk like crazy and get fat. On the contrary, getting fat won’t help you gain muscle, and sooner or later, that fat has to come off if you want to see the muscle you built. Stay reasonably lean, but don’t obsess over razor-sharp abs. You need to give your body a surplus of energy to provide it with optimal conditions for muscle growth. You don’t need a giant surplus, though. The only extra gains you’ll see is fat.
Plenty of lifters focus so much on their protein intake, macros, and micros that they forget about the number of calories they eat. However, evidence suggests that your energy intake is just as important, if not even more so.6 Not eating enough calories lowers your muscle protein synthesis, i.e., the rate by which your body creates new muscle, with up to 20%.7
Many so-called “hardgainers” find the eating part of building muscle more difficult than the training part. However, you can’t let that stop you if you want to get big and strong. You need to put in the effort, not just in the gym but also in the kitchen.
4. You’re Not Consistent in Your Training
Consistency is a multi-faceted aspect. You need everything from your nutrition to your training, recovery, and mindset to be on point. While you don’t want to make fitness and building muscle an obsession, you need to be consistent about it.
If you train because you enjoy it, for the social aspects, and the health benefits, you don’t have to make a big deal out of any of the above factors. But if you’re looking for serious gains, you need to put in close to 100 % most of the time. If not, you’re not going to get close to 100 % out of your efforts.
It’s OK to eat crap once in a while, but most days, you should aim to get enough calories, protein, and nutrients in to support muscle growth.
If you go to the gym and do random stuff, expect random results. Follow a progressive training program, preferably a tried-and-true program tailored to your own needs.
Those are just two examples. If you want long-term results, consistency is the key. Building muscle takes time, and only consistency and dedication will give you the results you desire.
5. You’re Not Tracking Your Progress
We might be biased, but if you don’t track your workouts, how can you make sure you’re consistently making progress? None of us can keep track of how many reps we did with a certain weight for more than a workout or two, at most.
By keeping a detailed log of your workout, you always know what you did last time and what you have to beat. You can also look back over the weeks, months, and years and see what worked and what didn’t. That practice allows you to make the proper adjustments to your current training to keep gaining.
You can bring a notebook and a pen to the gym or use a dedicated workout log app, like our StrengthLog app for Android and iOS. Feel free to try it out – all the basic functionality is free and ad-free forever. If you like it, you can take the step up for the Premium experience.
There you have it: our top five reasons you’re not gaining muscle. Of course, those are not the only reasons your gains can grind to a halt, far from it. But before you start worrying about the details, look at the big picture. Are you adding weight to the bar regularly and making sure you eat and sleep enough? If not, that’s where you’ll need to make some changes, not adding post-workout BCAAs or trivial things like that.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 10 – p 2857-2872. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.
- Ann Intern Med. 2010 Oct 5; 153(7): 435–441. Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity.
- JAMA. 2011 Jun 1; 305(21): 2173–2174. Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men.
- Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2010 Oct; 24(5): 775–784. Sleep Loss and Inflammation.
- Neuroendocrinology. 2021 Jul 27. The potential role of sleep in promoting a healthy body composition: Underlying mechanisms determining muscle, fat, and bone mass and their association to sleep.
- J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):65-79. Protein and amino acids for athletes.
- J Nutr. 2010 Apr;140(4):745-51. Acute energy deprivation affects skeletal muscle protein synthesis and associated intracellular signaling proteins in physically active adults.