In our last article, we talked about dietary factors related to building muscle. Now let’s talk about the myriad of factors that influence muscle growth other than what you eat. While food is undoubtedly a significant influence on one’s ability to build muscle mass, we see at least as many people with non-food roadblocks to muscle growth as those that are simply not eating, digesting and absorbing enough nutritious food. In most cases, these non-food issues all orbit around the concept of stress. We’ve written about stress here, here and here. If you think you’ve adequately addressed the nutritional and digestive aspect of your desire to gain muscle, read on.
Here are some common reasons why you may be struggling to gain muscle mass that have little to nothing to do with what you eat:
One: You are a (scrawny) ball of stress. You’re anxious, negative, compulsive, nervous. Type-A personality. Or Type D. You work too hard. You tell yourself negative stories about what other people think of you (you’re mostly wrong, by the way). You can’t take more than 24 hours off from hard training without feeling like a caged animal. You have strained relationships with family and friends. You have unaddressed emotional trauma or ongoing life drama – or both. The end result of all these situations is the same: you have an exaggerated and chronic stress response (that increases cortisol secretion), and that, over time, alters your adrenal and anabolic hormone levels, tilting the anabolism-catabolism balance towards more breakdown than building. That means no muscle gain – and often means erosion of bone and connective tissue integrity, too. (How’s that patellar tendonitis feeling?) This is a major and common limitation for muscle gain in people (both men and women) who struggle to gain muscle. Here’s the thing: you need to change your behavior. Meditate. Cut yourself some slack. Get help; talk to your therapist (or find one that you really connect with and get started). Even if it has no short-term effect on your body composition, it will improve your quality of life overall – and that is no small thing. Find a IFM functional medicine practitioner near you or work directly with Dallas to help your recalibrate your lifestyle and restore normalcy to your hormone levels, digestive function, neurological function, and detoxification system.
Two: You overuse caffeine. Caffeine is not typically of benefit for people struggling to gain muscle. It stimulates the stress response pathways, disrupts sleep (even many hours later – especially for the majority of the population that metabolizes caffeine slowly), and blunts appetite – none of which are good things to support muscle growth. Take a Caffeine Holiday and curtail consumption overall. View your coffee pot with suspicion, and please don’t make me make a case against caffeinated energy drinks. And no, Buttery Coffee™ is not magical.
Three: Your testosterone levels are low. This certainly happens, but the best solution is not immediate use of synthetic steroids. Most often in the folks that I work with, low testosterone (and related hormone imbalances) is a direct product of long-term unhealthy lifestyle choices that deplete adrenal hormones (the building blocks for testosterone) and impair the body’s ability to produce appropriate amounts of anabolic (growth) hormones. If you don’t address the sources of chronic stress and damaging lifestyle choices, you’ve got no business thinking about hormone replacement. It is a useful tool, yes, but asking your doc for T is not a good long-term solution to your skinny woes. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that testosterone is important for muscle growth in women, too, and chronic stress can depress anabolic hormones in women just as it can in men.
Four: You don’t sleep enough (or well enough). Sleep is the single most important period of time to create and maintain an anabolic environment. If you don’t sleep enough, you might as well save yourself the effort of training hard. Prioritize sleep – even over training sometimes if your sleep has been restricted. Sleep facilitates testosterone and growth hormone secretion, and trying to gain muscle without enough testosterone and growth hormone is going to be very frustrating.
Five: You’re doing the wrong kind of training. Running, cycling, triathlons, CrossFit, Insanity, and other training approaches that drive a large stress response are not very effective mass gain plans (and sometimes will directly cause muscle loss). If you want to gain muscle, emphasize big, heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, pressing, heavy pulling, dragging, carrying, and limit your amount of conditioning work. Train like a strongman competitor. Then rest. As an additional comment, while Olympic weightlifting is a great tool to build powerful people, the relatively short time-under-tension and typically lower training volume is not the best way to send an anabolic signal. Think more powerlifting and strongman stuff – and somewhat less emphasis on Olympic weightlifting – at first. I also need to reiterate this: CrossFit is not the best way to gain muscle mass. Either you really want to do CrossFit, or you really want to gain muscle mass – but one has to take precedence. Remember, the massive, lean competitors are not the ones who really struggle to gain small amounts of muscle mass. (Their genetic potential gave them a nice head start.) So thinking that doing CrossFit will make you look like Jason Khalipa is just plain wrong.
Six: You train harder, not smarter. You think that recovery is just taking a day off occasionally. You don’t take days off, even when you’re All Banged Up. You’re convinced that training hard more often is the key to progress, when the reverse is probably closer to the truth. Training hard with “too much” recovery in between sessions is better than too little recovery. Yes, really.
Seven: You’re trying to lose fat or stay lean while gaining muscle. Despite all the promises that supplement companies and bloggers and fitness magazines make, this is a wholly ineffective strategy for people committed to gaining muscle mass. In my most dedicated mass gain phases, I actually try to gain fat as a general indicator that I am getting enough nutrient-dense food into my body. If losing your six-pack while trying to gain muscle totally freaks you out, you probably value leanness over muscle mass, and you’ll be unsuccessful at gaining significant amounts of muscle. You can’t have it all – or at least not all at once.
Eight: You eat at the wrong times (skipping breakfast and eating a ton at night). You skip meals or practice intermittent fasting. Just stop. Seriously.
Nine: You rely too heavily on supplements like protein shakes or creatine…instead of laying a nutritious, consistent foundation of Real Food. Call it convenient or whatever you want, but relying on supplements is a poor strategy to grow bigger, stronger muscles.
Ten: You have a thyroid problem. This isn’t too common, but a thyroid dysfunction like some early “versions” of Hashimoto’s disease or other hyperthyroid conditions (or self-prescribing thyroid supplements like Armour) can make you “run hot” to the degree that gaining muscle is nearly impossible. Don’t self-diagnose or self-prescribe, and talk to a good functional medicine practitioner if you think this might be your situation.
Eleven: You have unrealistic expectations about the magnitude or speed of change. While many people describe themselves as “hardgainers”, this is rarely fully accurate. What is far more common is that the person has not addressed some of these limiting factors (perhaps because of confusion or misinformation) or simply isn’t willing to do the slow, hard work to earn the results. In my experience, the vast majority of people can be successful with muscle gain once they’ve addressed all of these potential roadblocks. At the end of the day, how badly do you want to achieve these goals? Only you can answer that. But gaining 15 pounds of muscle in a few months is likely not a realistic goal for us ectomorphs.
Twelve: Your body type does not lend itself to additional muscle gain beyond where you are now. This is where it gets real, people. Going from 130 pounds to 150 pounds is very different than the same person going from 150 pounds to 170 pounds. Some people are not meant to be massive, muscular people (due to their genetic makeup). It doesn’t make you a failure as a person, but at some point, we all need to confront the realities of our life. If you are pushing the upper limits of your body’s inherent limitations, it might be time to recalibrate your expectations, and to critically and thoughtfully examine why gaining more muscle is so important to you.
So that’s that. Hopefully we’ve provided some insight into how you might proceed towards reaching your goals. We’d love to hear your thoughts on some of the recommendations, and check in with us after applying them for a few months. Go forth and grow!
Related article: Weight Gain 101
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Great series of articles! I have one comment regarding point #10. Armour thyroid isn’t a thyroid supplement that one can self prescribe. Armour thyroid is a thyroid hormone “medication” that can only be prescribed by a physician or qualified health care practitioner. I can certainly relate as # 10 in this article is directly tied to #3 in the 101 article and it certainly takes time to work through these issues with a health practitioner.
Dallas @Whole9 says
Angie, your point is a good one. I shouldn’t have mentioned Armour specifically. I’ve edited it to reflect my more general point: don’t self-prescribe with thyroid glandulars. Thanks for the correction.
Morten G says
There’s no link in the 101 article to the 201 article, is there? Seems like an oversight. Oh wait, there it is under ‘Trackbacks’.
Anyway, great article.
Thanks for article. Points 1 – 4 hit awfully close to home.
Jens Butch @ellipticalguy says
this is a great list. It helped me to detect some issuses I struggle with. An other reason why one may fail to build muscle is when one often change the training system or program.
Not only does intense negativity hold one back from weight and muscle gain, it also prematurely ages people and probably shaves years off life expectancy … try seeing the glass half full as the article suggests …. the gains are numerous!
James Betts @ Treadmill Coach says
I also think that sleep is probably an issue with me, I generally sleep long enough but not intense enough. What do you recommend for better sleep(without the use of pills)?
This was a very informative article, I’ve already passed it on to a few people. My only real issue is the same one that Angie brought up back in April, which is that Armour is not something you can self-prescribe. I am currently on Armour for hypothyroidism and it was something that I had to see a physician for and be tested for, before it was prescribed to me. My frustration is that Dallas immediately responded to Angie’s comment and claimed that he edited the article to omit the comment about Armour specifically but here I am reading the article 4 months later and it is still there, obviously with no editing having been done.
Karen @ Healthy Green Flamingo says
Dallas, I love reading these articles because they help to put some things into perspective. It’s funny that some of these factors also play a role in weight gain or the inability to lose weight too. Anyways I’m particularly interested in weight gain for my father – he’s 72, a throat cancer survivor who consumes most of his good through a feeding tube. I convinced him to start blending and consuming real food instead of the sugary formula that the doctors give him but he still can’t seem to gain much weight. He can only eat so often because his stomach gets full so I recommended calorie dense foods like avocados, fullfat coconut milk, and nut butter. With the real food, he feels amazing and hasn’t gotten sick in months (he had been getting sick every other week or so). Though he used to train with weights pretty regularly before the cancer, his current training consists of walking at least 20 minutes a day. Anyways, you don’t have to respond (unless you’d like to offer some advice). I understand that this article would not really apply to his situation since he’s not trying to gain mass for strength purposes, but it gives us some things to think about. This is just my long winded way of saying “thanks”. You (and Melissa) have been more help to us than any medical professional we’ve talked to in the past 15 years. Thank you for your guidance in the right direction. :)