4 reasons you’re not building muscle

Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.

Most people struggle to add muscle. We all know that when you first start lifting growth comes quickly. But the more advanced you become the harder it gets. Yet it’s not rocket science. So if you are seeing the physique improvements you want, you’re most likely getting something wrong. And I bet it’s at least one if not a combination of the following four flaws.

1 You don’t train hard enough
In my experience 99.9% of people in gyms don’t train hard enough. And I’m not talking about in commercial gyms where people text or chat to mates between sets. They are the obvious targets. No, I am talking about you. You don’t train hard enough. Before you get your knickers in a twist, let me explain. I see a lot of serious personal trainers come into my gyms for multi-day training courses that cost them thousands of pounds. These are serious guys. Yet watching them train leaves an awful lot to be desired. They simply don’t put their heart and soul in 95% of what they are doing.

I come from a hardcore bodybuilding gym background and I think it’s fair to say I have an all-or-nothing type personality. And I learnt from a very early age watching older and bigger guys around me that success in the weight room doesn’t come from being half-hearted. Nor does it come from taking a training programme and just going through the motions to tick off the sets and reps.

If you are serious about getting as big as possible then you have to bring your training programme to life by pouring every single ounce of energy and passion and heart and soul into it. In other words, you need to stop training like a pussy.

Quality work
During each set you need to milk every single rep for all it’s worth. So many people fall into the trap of starting a set wanting to do X number of reps. And once they’ve done that number they stop, regardless of how the set felt or whether they had given their all.

I’m not saying that every set isn’t over until you’ve done forced reps or reached absolute muscular failure, but you need to finish each set having done high-quality work knowing that you did all you had to do to take a step closer to your ultimate goal.

This mentality becomes more important the longer you have been training because the older your training age the harder it becomes to make progress and add muscle. You have to push even harder to make physique improvements.

It’s why your gym environmental is so important and why I have never set foot in a commercial gym. When I was a very young man I had to catch two buses to and from the closest proper gym to my parent’s house. I eventually got kicked out of that gym for training too hard – by a woman who is now a yoga teacher, I was 15 years old – before finding a real rough and tough Bradford gym that set me down the road of my muscle-building obsession.

All-out effort
Intensity of effort should always be at the forefront of your mind, although it is a learned thing. You can’t walk into a gym as a beginner and train as hard as someone who has been doing it for years, but you need to start learning how to train hard and never stop learning. You may be younger, stronger and fitter than me, but I bet that I train harder than you, because I have learned through years lifting how to smash myself into the ground.

How do you know if you trained hard enough today? It’s simple. If you walk out of the gym knowing in your heart of hearts that you could have done more, you’re a pussy. Of course, if you are sick or injured or on a deload week then this doesn’t apply, but otherwise every single session should see you stride purposefully into the gym but crawl back out.

2 You fear food
If you want to get as big as possible but are constantly watching your waistline then you need to accept that it’s never going to happen. This shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to eat like a pig, which will ultimately be detrimental to your muscle-building ambitions, but you can’t be frightened of food or constantly counting calories if you want to be the biggest guy in the room.

Some pencil-necked expert might well point to a study that says 0.6g of protein per pound of bodyweight is optimal for building muscle, but I live in the real world and years of first-hand experience, both on myself and hundreds of clients, is that the more protein you eat, the more you grow. And the higher the quality of the protein – red meat, eggs, fish – the faster you grow.

You simply can’t maximise muscle growth on two meals per day. The science of protein synthesis doesn’t back this up, nor does my experience. Eating six or seven big meals per day is a real pain in the bum, but if you can digest all that food without any problems you can’t help but grow – provided of course you are training as hard as you should be. The harder you train, the more you can and should eat to fuel muscle growth. It’s a virtuous cycle that leads to an improved anabolic response.

Eat smarter
If you’re not growing eat more protein. If you do and still don’t grow, you need to eat more carbs, and possibly more fats. But again, they need to be of the highest-quality. If you are carb-phobic then you’re never going to grow, but you need to use carbs correctly and I’ve found carb cycling to be one of the most effective strategies to encourage lean muscle mass growth and aid fat loss, because it allows you to maintain insulin sensitivity.

Bodybuilders back in the day used to drink a lot of milk. So I did the same. From the age of 14 to 17 I’d drink a gallon of milk – that’s eight pints – every day without fail. Sometimes I’d be getting ready for bed and still have three pints to drink. I’d do it, then have to get up in the night and pee in the empty bottles because making four toilet trips a night might have ruined my gains (I jest). In those three years, when of course I had had puberty working in my favour, I went from 10 stone at 6’1” to 17 stone at 6’3”. Lots of things were working in my favour so it’s hard to say the exact impact that milk had, but one thing was certain and it’s that I was not skimping on calories.

3 It’s not your priority
To add the maximum amount of muscle you can’t burn the candles at both ends. If you struggle to add size then don’t run when you can walk, don’t stand when you can sit, and don’t sit when you can lie down. And the less you stress the faster you’ll grow. It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest guys I know are also the most chilled out. Cortisol is a killer when trying to build muscle so stay relaxed as often as you can and get rid of all those influences around you that make you want to pull your hair out.

If you’re boozing and partying you’re not growing. It really is that simple. You can’t overstate the importance of getting enough quality sleep. It’s not enough to simply ‘get by’ on sleep. You need more than you think to allow your body the recovery time it needs to grow as much as possible. If you want to grow as fast as a baby then you need to sleep as much as a baby.

A nap in the day will always help, but I appreciate that this is not practical for most, which makes sleeping at night even more important. You should go to bed at the same time every night, and always wake up before your alarm. That’s how you know you are getting enough shut-eye. It’s about priorities. What do you want more: to be as big as strong as possible or go out boozing and partying? Because you can’t do both.

4 You’re over-thinking it
There’s a growing trend in the fitness industry where excuse-seekers and attention-seekers prattle on about evidence-based training. Before I get started I want to make it clear that I love science and have the utmost respect for those who use it as a tool for bettering our understanding of the human body. And it’s really important that you use your brain when training to make sure your efforts are always moving you forward in the right direction.

My problem lies when constant over-thinking and constant over-analysis means that your brain stops your heart and soul from giving everything they’ve got in the pursuit of hypertrophy. So instead of getting into the gym and smashing their muscles to oblivion and make them shake and scream and burn, which is what you have to do to make them grow, they spend their time over-analysing every single last detail because they aren’t prepared to do the really hard graft of lifting.

I regularly get abused and criticised and called out on social media and at industry events by these so-called evidence-based gurus. I’m not going to name them here and give them the attention they so desperately crave. And I ignore most of it, but it’s no coincidence that these gurus almost always look like they’ve never even lifted a weight. The dweeb factor is high at these conferences, but the muscle factor is low. Wouldn’t it be better to be a jacked nerd so that you words are more than hot air?

Give it a rest
Here’s one example of how they always seem to miss the point. You’ve probably heard about the studies that claim that the duration of rest periods between sets don’t matter when training to add muscle. You can rest 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 180 seconds or however many seconds between sets and it has no effect on hypertrophy. Excuse me? What? I can not get my head around how anyone could ever come to these findings, let alone believe them. But then it suddenly made sense. Because the subjects weren’t training hard enough, just like the gurus don’t train hard enough, just like 99% of people don’t train hard enough.

Rest intervals mean nothing if you train like a pussy, but if you train like you mean it then don’t tell me that there is not a huge impact on the quality and type of work that you can do if you manipulate rest intervals by something as seemingly innocuous as adding or subtracting 30 seconds. It takes me back to my first point: if you train like a pussy it really doesn’t matter how long you rest between sets. The result will be the same. And that result is that you won’t build any muscle.