You know what it’s like you train hard for months and make some progress in muscle size and strength, but after a while the results seem to taper off and gains seem to be slow or non-existent!
There can be a number of reasons why muscle gains slow. Firstly let’s look into each possibility a little further to assess the most likely causes.
Muscle size is directly related to muscle strength. The stronger a muscle becomes the bigger that muscle will grow, this is one of the reasons why many bodybuilders train for strength in the off season as any gain in strength will mean a gain in muscle mass. Equally any loss in strength will often mean a loss in muscle mass, although this will be a small loss and usually goes unnoticed, the problem is if you are in a catabolic state (body breaking down more protein than being deposited) then you cannot be in an anabolic state (building up) which means you WON’T be gaining muscle. The fact is big muscles can only be built if the body is in an almost constant state of anabolism.
But if you are training hard then surely muscle gains should be constant, right? Wrong!
Let’s go through some reasons why strength and thus muscle gains slow:
Muscle recovery has not occurred before the next workout
Not enough quality nutrition
Not enough energy stores of carbohydrates in muscles
Incorrect training / incorrect application of training
Illness or injury
1. Muscle Recovery
Muscle recovery is one of the most overlooked principles in muscle building, it is also one of the most important because if a muscle is not fully recovered then you cannot possibly make further muscle gains no matter how scientific the training. Muscles can only grow bigger AFTER they have fully recovered. The reason for this is because muscles actually break down when they are worked hard, protein filaments within the muscle fiber shatter under the stress of the workload. After a workout the muscles are a little smaller than before the training – yes, when we train muscles do seem larger but this is caused from the increased blood in and around the working muscle. The blood is needed to remove waste products from energy metabolism (Lactic Acid) as well as fragments from the breakdown of protein. – Now all lost protein within the cells must be replaced and this occurs during rest. ONLY AFTER full recovery do our muscles become larger through an over-compensation process where the cells take in more protein than the pre-workout state. It does this because if the muscle ever goes through that same level of stress again there will be more protein available to break down, at this stage the muscle has adapted to the stress. The result of muscles containing more protein is a greater volume of fluid within the cells, thus muscles are bigger.
Muscle growth slows when we don’t give them enough time to fully recover. It is also important to state here that the more muscle you build the longer recovery takes, simply because you will be training harder. When I was at my peak of strength in squatting I could only train on squats once every ten days unless I reduced the poundage of course!
2. Not Enough Nutrition
The most important principle in muscle building is nutrition. Many top bodybuilders have stated that at least half the battle in their bodybuilding career is learning about their individual nutritional needs and making sure the body is nourished with the right amounts to support muscular growth. The timing when providing certain nutrients has also got to be right or these nutrients may be used for many other processes rather than protein deposition.
After training has stimulated muscles to grow all the cells must gain sufficient nutrients as well as energy for the chemical reactions necessary for growth to occur. If the correct nutrients are not present the muscles cannot deposit the extra protein for recovery and growth. Think about this analogy, a new house cannot possibly be built properly if there are not enough bricks available. Only when the builders receive enough bricks can the house grow into full development!
The same diet
Many weight trainers stick to the same diet and believe that just because they are eating a healthy diet with good quality protein their muscle will keep growing after each successful workout. The problems here are that the body requires high quality protein and extra energy constantly throughout the day for all basic bodily needs as well as for muscular growth. The fact is that once you build some muscle you must supply extra nutrition (mostly protein and energy) in order to grow additional muscle mass. Think about those huge bodybuilders who consume over 6000 calories per day they never started bodybuilding by consuming that amount of nutrition they simply worked up to it as their body and strength levels grew. Additional growth will require additional nutrients, if you think about the house analogy again; a bigger house will always need more bricks – nutrients are the bricks!
As just stated some protein will be used to maintain muscle that has already been built from previous workouts, protein will also be needed to maintain all other tissues and other types of muscle, such as smooth muscle and cardiac muscle, also our body needs proteins to make antibodies and thousands of enzymes everyday to help with numerous chemical reactions including those reactions that actually build the muscle. If the same diet is used over months or even years the protein intake must be used for many other chemical reactions because these reactions are more important for survival than building muscle to look good, thus there won’t be enough protein left for further muscular growth. Sticking to the same diet simply means the muscles can only recover back to the pre-workout state without any additional growth. One trick is to adjust the diet by consuming more quality protein and calories every time you increase your strength levels by about 5%.
However it’s not as simple as eating more food there are “nutritional rules” that need to be applied in order to maximize the effects of your nutritional intake. For maximum effects around 30 grams of high quality protein must be supplied every 3 hours in order to keep the body’s amino acid pool topped up full. This doesn’t include time asleep, although many top bodybuilders actually set an alarm during the night and have a protein meal ready to eat. This may help some people who through work/responsibility issues find it hard to eat enough meals during the day; however this tactic won’t be necessary if the amino acid pool is kept high during the day as there will be sufficient protein available for muscles to grow during sleep.
It’s not an easy answer to simply eat more protein either because the body also needs the correct nutritional and energy supply to help along the chemical reactions required for muscle cells to lay down additional protein. For fast muscular growth the body also needs to be supplied with quality nutrients at regular intervals throughout the day and in the correct quantity in order to limit possible fat storage. There needs to be a fine balancing act to maximize growth from the training but also to limit fat weight gains.
But how do I obtain so much protein without feeling stuffed?
You may believe that constantly increasing protein and energy intake may mean eating more food than your stomach can handle but there are some tricks to use so you don’t need to keep eating expensive meats or fish. It’s possible to obtain high quality protein sources by combining cheap vegetable food sources together within a meal. Some vegetable sources are only classed as poor quality protein because they lack one or two of the nine essential amino acids in its structure. However if these foods are combined with another vegetable food source that contains the missing essential amino acids in high amounts then the protein can be transformed into a high quality source if eaten at the same meal.
3. Limited Energy (carb) stores in muscles
Weight training is anaerobic exercise which means muscles will burn carbohydrates for energy during the exercise. The muscle cells can only store a limited amount of this energy source, and if these levels are lower than normal it will affect the strength levels on all exercises. Even though the muscles will probably not be smaller because the problem is energy related and not loss of protein, it may result in a poor workout and reduce the chance of stimulating muscular growth. Low carb levels will render any workout ineffective for stimulation of muscle growth, one reason why you should never do aerobic exercise before weights. Stretching and lighter sets of the same exercise should be enough to warm up a muscle. Sufficient energy must be present in cells in order to generate enough intensity of effort during the exercise. The intensity level is what actually causes stimulation of growth. If you are only just maintaining the muscle previously built then muscle growth will slow.
4. Incorrect training
Incorrect training is a common reason why results start to diminish. In fact it’s more often incorrect application of the training rather than simply doing the wrong exercise. Intensity of effort is the key to stimulating muscular growth, which means you need to train the muscles harder at each workout, this is necessary because the muscles always adapt to the last level of stress by becoming stronger and bigger. If you can perform ten repetitions but last session only managed eight before reaching failure then your muscle have grown and become stronger, you train for strength it’s as simple as that!
Many experts believe that too much high intensity training will eventually stop growth and I agree, but it is not the process of constantly training harder which is the problem, it is more to do with the issue of recovery. As a muscle is trained harder it always takes longer to recover, remember the statement above “the more physical stress a muscle receives the more it is broken down!”
This is the reason why many top coaches make athletes train in cycles, the body gets chance to recover fully at the end of each cycle. The human body tends to adapt better in cycles and this type of training usually brings constant results over the whole course of the cycle. Strength and muscle gains are a classic example of this phenomenon. When Power lifters start a new cycle they attempt to push the level of intensity up at a gradual rate until they peak just in time for a competition. Many rest for a whole week or more after peaking.
5. Illness and Injury
Having an illness such as the common cold will often cause the muscles to weaken and become slightly smaller. The reason is because protein turnover is directed more towards creating antibodies for the defence against the illness. Defending against a virus is more important for survival than building muscle thus it is inevitable that our body will take some protein from muscle and use it for the manufacture of antibodies. It must be stressed that this is not a direct process; it’s a case that antibodies are created from the amino acids that circulate in the blood pool, thus the body tends to break down muscle protein to keep the pool maintained. The net result is less protein within muscle cells giving a weakened state, and of course slightly smaller muscles.
An injury can have a similar effect on muscle loss. The protein turnover is increased and directed more towards repairing the injury with the net effect of muscle protein being broken down to maintain the bloods amino acid pool.
6. Emotional Stress
Relationship problems, family issues and many other forms of emotional stress can cause an indirect loss of muscle. Stress of this type can result in a loss of appetite and/or force the body to use up more energy than the regular diet provides, energy used up by constant worrying or the way many people cannot settle when something is on their mind. Ok this may seem like very slight energy usage, indeed it is, but because it is usually a constant process over days it adds up to a lot of calories. In cases of emotional stress any gradual loss in muscle will result from insufficient nutritional intake as discussed above.
In conclusion to the issues of slow muscle growth I believe the most important factor from the list is adequate nutrition, after all it’s sometimes possible to gain muscle even if we lose out on some sleep but if nutrition is down then the body must use proteins from our stores.
Building muscle mass is so much more complicated than just visiting the gym a few times each week, it’s a science, and if you want to maintain constant muscular growth you must use scientific principles, not only the correct principles in training but also the use of correct nutritional needs for each individual. If you’re training hard then you’re half-way there and no reason why you should not be building muscle at a constant rate, if muscle growth slows then you'll need to recalculate and adjust the diet accordingly.
Good Luck & never give up!