As a coach and strength athlete, I know how frustrating it can be when you struggle to build muscle, but I’ve learned that looking at your training and nutrition from a variety of angles to get to the bottom of your issue is the key to kickstarting muscle growth.
When you struggle to gain muscle, it is often a combination of a lack of training stimulus (not training enough, not training hard enough, or poor technique), not eating enough, and poor consistency. To encourage muscle growth, you must give your muscles a reason to adapt and enough energy (calories) to do so.
In this article, I will discuss 10 potential reasons why you aren’t gaining muscle, and how to fix each one. I will also provide you with a sample 3-day workout routine to help revamp your training to encourage muscle growth.
Related Article: How Much Muscle Can You Gain in 1 Month
10 Reasons You Aren’t Gaining Muscle & How To Fix
Below are 10 reasons why you aren’t gaining muscle, and how you can fix each of them.
1. You Aren’t Training Enough
If you struggle to gain muscle and are only training 1-2 times a week, the reality is you may not be lifting as frequently as you need to deliver enough training stimulus to your muscles.
This is often the case with lifters who move past the beginner phase and into the intermediate and more advanced stages because when you’re a beginner you will build muscle fairly easily, but as you progress beyond this phase it takes more work to build muscle.
How to Fix This
One of the easiest ways to fix this is to add one more day to your training week, and progressively work up to 4-6 workouts a week.
Training 4-6 workouts per week will allow you to train each muscle group at least two times per week, which is optimal for muscle growth. Those who are more advanced (5+ years of training) may even need to add a 6th day of training to work each major muscle group 3 times a week.
2. You Are Failing to Control The Lowering Phase Of Each Movement
Research shows that the eccentric phase of a movement (the lowering phase) is a key factor for muscle growth.
Some examples of the eccentric phase are:
- Lowering into the bottom of a squat
- Controlling the arms back down from overhead in a shoulder press
- Extending the arms back to a straight position in a lat pulldown
This is also the phase that leaves you feeling sore (delayed onset muscle soreness) a few days after training because of increased muscle breakdown.
It is that process that then results in the body repairing itself and creating more muscle tissue to adapt to the new demands being placed upon the muscle.
If you are a lifter who doesn’t focus on controlling the eccentric portion of each lift, you could be missing out on a ton of muscle stimulation and growth potential.
How to Fix This
When performing any movement, slowly lower the weight for a 3-5 second count, making sure to move smoothly and fluidly, feeling the muscles having to work against gravity to slow the weight down.
This will increase the time your muscles spend under tension, and it will also help decrease your risk of injury by strengthening muscle tendons. Controlling the eccentric portion of your movements could be the key to a ton of growth without lifting max loads.
3. Your Technique Falls Apart At The End of Your Sets
When you get tired and your muscles start to get weak, it can be tough to maintain good form and posture during a set, which could be hindering your results.
Typically, as lifters get tired and their muscles fatigue, their last few reps start to look much different than the first few reps. It’s common to have much less control, maybe rely on more momentum, lose form and try to recruit different muscle groups to move the weight.
However, it is this form breakdown that (1) results in a loss of tension in the muscle you are trying to grow, and (2) is usually responsible for injuries (which could take you out of the gym for extended periods).
How to Fix This
Record a set of you doing an exercise. If your first rep of the set looks completely different than your last few reps, then you have an issue.
This doesn’t mean your last reps shouldn’t be strenuous (they certainly should be), but it shouldn’t be so strenuous that you can’t maintain good posture, control of the movement, or proper range of motion.
Learning how to keep the target muscle isolated at the end of a grueling set (rather than compensating with other muscles) is how you can take that muscle to failure and get more growth, without risking injury elsewhere.
4. You Train the Same Rep Ranges Every Workout
Muscles can grow in a variety of rep ranges, which is why some people find they have great growth training 5-10 reps in some movements, and others find that 8-15, or 15-30 reps give them amazing results.
Training some movements in lower rep ranges allows you to build strength and activate a ton of muscle fibers, whereas higher rep training delivers blood flow to the muscle and promotes more hormonal adaptations to boost muscle growth.
Each rep range possesses benefits to maximize growth, which is why you should be training both.
How to Fix This
Research has shown that most people can have great muscle growth training movements in the 6-12 rep range, with each set trained to a challenging intensity (no form breakdowns however).
Research also suggests that low-load high-volume training results in high amounts of muscle growth. In fact, this article suggests it results in MORE growth.
For best results, you should be training some exercises in the 6-12 rep range (using 60-85% of your max), and others in the 15-30 rep range (using 30-50% of your max). I would suggest using machines for the higher rep ranges, and compound for the lower rep ranges.
5. You Switch Exercise Routines Up to Often
Changing workout routines and exercises regularly may help to keep you motivated, but the reality is that you don’t need to switch exercises every 3-4 weeks, and doing so could be limiting muscle growth.
Researchers have found that simply adding more weight or volume (more reps or sets) to a movement over weeks or months results in higher amounts of muscle growth (called progressive overload) than constantly changing movements.
How to Fix This
You can use the same movements in a program for up to 4,6,8,12 weeks, as long as you are not feeling any joint or connective tissue issues. Sometimes, some non-muscle discomfort is one way the body tells you it may be time to switch things up.
If you feel great, are getting stronger, and are getting good muscle activation with an exercise, then there is no need to switch it up.
Simply adding a little load, or adjusting the sets and reps could extend your current routine a few more workouts (if not more), and keep the muscle growth going.
6. You Don’t Progressively Overload
Progressive overload is a term used to describe the process of progressively increasing the stimulus on a muscle over time to bring about muscle growth.
The stimulus most often used in workouts is adding weight, however, you can also increase the demands on a muscle by doing more sets in a workout or throughout the week (4 sets instead of 3, or training legs three days a week instead of two).
You can also add a new stimulus by increasing the range of motion (squatting lower, going all the way down in bicep curls), or increasing the time it takes to complete a rep (slowing down the lowering phase by controlling the eccentric).
This principle has been widely studied and is one of the most important things to do throughout repeated workouts to see muscle growth and increases in strength.
If you aren’t implementing some type of progressive overload to challenge your muscles and encourage them to adapt, then you won’t progress and you will likely plateau.
How to Fix It
Look at each exercise in your current workout routine and ask yourself how you can improve upon it to provide a new stimulus than the week prior.
It may mean adding 5lbs to the bar and doing the same number of reps and sets as last time. It may also mean doing the same weight but adding another set. You could also try squatting all the way down instead of just parallel (this will be more challenging, but will grow your quadriceps more).
The opportunities to implement progressive overload are endless, so as long as you are focusing on a few of them and attacking them each week, you’ll see growth.
7. You Aren’t Training Your Sets with Enough Intensity
When we talk about intense training, I am referring to how hard you are pushing a muscle (not your total body) to failure. A lot of people fail to push a muscle to failure because they are tired or do not have the mental energy or focus to take the muscle to its end.
This reality is you need to train a muscle to the point where it cannot perform the movement without breaking form to see growth.
The lighter the weights you use, the harder you need to train it to failure (contrary to what some lifters think) because the more reps you’ll be able to complete before it “gives out”, which is draining.
If you are not getting the growth you want, ask yourself if you are training the muscle to the point where it burns and feels very weak. If not, you likely need to increase your intensity.
How to Fix This
When training in the 6-12 rep range, I typically tell people to leave 1-2 good reps in the tank, especially if they are performing compound, free-weight movements like squats, bench, or deadlifts.
If they are training more than 10-12 reps, I recommend they train to the point where they can only do 0-1 perfect reps (by the time they hit the end of their set) especially if they’re using machines.
Increasing your intensity to the point where your muscles are genuinely fatigued can increase your potential to see muscle growth.
8. You Aren’t Eating Enough
If you struggle to gain muscle mass and are training hard, it may have nothing to do with your workouts and more to do with a lack of energy from food to put toward muscle growth.
Without eating enough calories, your body will not be able to (1) fuel your progressively harder workouts, (2) recover properly from said workouts, and (3) have enough energy left over to build new muscle tissue.
This is why it is so important to be aware of how many calories you are eating, and where these calories are coming from. The proportion of carbs, fats, and protein that make up the calories you’re consuming will also play a role in muscle growth.
Protein = muscle repair and growth
Carbs = energy for training and recovery
Fats = hormonal health
How to Fix This
If you are unsure if you are eating enough (or eating enough of the right types of foods), take a look at this article that explains how many calories and macros (fats, protein, carbs) you should be eating when trying to build muscle.
It is important to note that beginners and individuals who have more body fat to lose may be able to gain muscle without being in a calorie surplus (consuming more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight).
However the more advanced you are and/or leaner you are, the more important it is to be eating above maintenance (the number of calories you need to maintain weight) to build muscle.
9. You Train Movements, Not Muscles
We all know squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are great compound exercises for muscle growth, but they may not be the best ones for you. Too often, lifters glorify a certain exercise and view it as “THE” exercise to help them build muscle, without understanding that not all squats (or deadlifts or bench presses) are created equal.
When training a movement, you need to ask yourself:
- Am I feeling this in the muscle group that I am trying to target?
- Can I maintain good form at the end of challenging sets with this exercise?
- Does this exercise hurt my joints and connective tissues?
- Is this the most effective exercise for targeting the muscle I want to build?
A good example of this is a back squat, which is known for helping lifters to build bigger quads and glutes; however, so many people who do back squats still have skinny legs.
While this could be related to other issues that are listed above, it may also be caused by an inability to provide enough stimulus to the target muscles.
Maybe their lower back gets tired before their quads so they can’t push their quads close enough to failure, or maybe they can’t squat low enough to get the quads more involved in the movement so their glutes do most of the work.
Whatever the case, recognizing a movement’s limitations and being OK with finding a movement that works better for your body is key.
How to Fix This
This is a challenging one because many lifters only know what they know. This is where taking time to master technique, understanding the joints that move in an exercise, and how that impacts the muscles involved can be incredibly helpful.
If you suspect that the compound exercises you’re doing aren’t resulting in muscle growth then try incorporating more isolating movements that better stimulate the muscle you’re trying to grow (i.e. a leg extension rather than a back squat for quad growth)
Related Article: How To Get Bigger Legs For Skinny Guys (8 Tips)
10. You May Be a Hard Gainer
Hard-gainers are those who struggle to put on muscle despite doing everything correctly. Many people think that they are “hard gainers” but in truth, most people aren’t gaining because they’re not eating enough or not training effectively.
If you really are a hard gainer then the good news is, you can still grow muscle (and lots of it) with the right mindset, focus, and training.
Many of the same rules apply to hard gainers as those who gain muscle more easily, with the exception that your results may be slower, and you will most likely need to work harder than other people to get similar results.
How to Fix This
Other than going back and picking new parents, there is not a whole lot you can do about changing your genes.
The quicker you accept that being a hard gainer (and walking around generally leaner than others, being able to eat more calories and gain a ton of weight, etc) is your cross to bear, the sooner you can view it as yet another obstacle to overcome.
Sample Muscle Building Program
To help ensure you’re training in a way that encourages muscle growth, I’ve created a 3-day muscle-building sample workout program for you to follow.
Most beginners will find a 3-day plan will be enough to get good growth initially, however, more intermediate-to-advanced lifters (2+ years of training) who are struggling to gain muscle may need to bump training up to 4-5 times a week.
If you are not a beginner or struggle to gain muscle lifting three days a week, try this 5-day muscles and strength program.
Note: the workout program below is not written exactly like this in the Fitbod app; however, most of the exercises below can be found in the app. You can use this sample workout plan as a template to help you create your own workout plan based on your schedule, ability levels, and gym access.
Looking to build your own program? Check out the Fitbod app, which gives you the tools you need to build custom workouts (like the one below) based on your ability levels and gym access. The Fitbod app also helps you track and progress your workouts every week!
Day 1 – Legs and Abs
- Back Squat: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 90 seconds between sets
- Leg Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 90 seconds between sets
- Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 90 seconds between sets
- Lying Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Walking Lunge: 4 sets of 20-30 steps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Decline Crunch: 4 sets of 15-20 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
Day 2 – Upper Body
- Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Machine Chest Fly: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Push Up: 4 sets of 10 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Straight Arm Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Incline Dumbbell Curl: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Incline Barbell Skullcrusher: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
Day 3 – Full Body
- Leg Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Walking Lunge: 4 sets of 20-30 reps, rest 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Push Up: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Underhand Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Dumbbell Bicep Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Dumbbell Skullcrusher: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
- Cable Facepulll: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, go directly into next exercise
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 45 seconds between sets
How to Progress These Workouts
This workout program should be done with a rest day in between each workout to allow for recovery.
Progressing your workouts should come by adding some weight each week and doing the same number of reps per set, or doing a few more reps with the same weight (while keeping the number of sets the same).
If you end up being able to do more reps than the prescribed rep range, then you need to add more weight.
Additionally, you will notice that every two weeks you will perform 1-2 more sets on some movements. This will help you increase your overall training volume to encourage muscle growth.
Here’s how I recommend you use the program:
- Week 1-2: Perform the program as written
- Weeks 3-4: Add one set to every exercise on Day 1
- Week 5-6: Add one set to every exercise on Day 2 (and still do the same number or sets you did last week on day 1)
- Week 7-8: Add one set to every exercise on Day 3 (now you should be doing one more set on every exercise on every day above how it is written).
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Other Helpful Resources
- Don’t have access to heavy weights? Fear not! Here is how you can build muscle with light weights!
- Once you have built muscle, it’s time to get lean! Here are some ways to get lean without losing muscle!
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.