Someone asked me this the other day: “How is it possible that I work hard in the gym and have done so for a while but I am not getting any bigger? I feel like I know what I am doing, try to eat right, have really good form, but these dudes come in to the gym and have crappy form but they are bigger and more muscular than I am. Is it just genetics or what is going on?”
There are multiple potential reasons why you aren’t getting big. Without knowing more exact details, let’s assess them one by one.
1. You are not eating enough. This is the number one reason why people don’t gain weight (eating too much is the number one reason why people don’t lose weight as well). It is pretty simple, if you want to get big you have to add mass and that extra mass, those extra building blocks, must come from somewhere. You need energy to fuel your training and you need the building blocks to create that new tissue. A super simple guideline is to eat 20 kcal per lb, so a 200 lb male would eat 4000 kcal a day to gain weight. A realistic weight gain guideline is too add ½ to 1 lb of bodyweight, hopefully in the form of muscle, per week. Gain more than that and it is likely fat, if you don’t gain that much it becomes super hard to measure. You can count your macros and figure everything out, which is fine. A simple idea is to find what makes you maintain weight and then add 1-2 quarts of whole milk each day. The bottom line is the scale needs to be moving up if you want to get big. You may gain a little fat in the process, if you put on 10 lbs and 7 lbs are from muscle that is a good trade off. Bottom line: If you are not gaining weight you are not eating enough.
2. You are doing too much work in the gym. I see this commonly with younger males that want to get big, they work hard in the gym (which is good) but they do too much stuff and likely too much fluff and they burn up the extra calories. This is particularly true with someone who is more ectomorphic (thinner and more slender and has a hard time gaining weight). Do the key important stuff but don’t do extra work (in the gym or out of the gym) and understand that you grow when you are recovering. Bottom line: Focus on quality over quantity and intensity over duration; eliminate the extraneous stuff.
3. You are experiencing too much stress. If you are super stressed out, saying going through a divorce or a nightmare job or dealing with a terminally ill person, this can take a toll on your gains. Hopefully this will not last forever but if you are super stressed just focus on maintaining your fitness (which you should be able to with one or two sessions a week) and then once that stressful period goes away then you can redouble your efforts to get big. And if you are super stressed about getting big or other bullshit stuff, don’t be. Literally about a billion people in the world would gladly change places with you – small calves and all – in an instant, so don’t stress about first world problems. Be glad the biggest thing on your to do list is to eat meal six or get 2 more reps on your squat, those are good problems to have. Bottom line: Stress is subjective, try not to stress about the little stuff.
4. You are not strong enough. Being strong makes getting big so much easier because you will use a much more effective weight on all exercises. While one can endlessly debate the idea of “strong enough” I think that the powerlifting class standards found online and in my book lay it out pretty well. Lifters should strive for a Class II lift or better when getting big, if they can’t hit then working on strength is likely a good idea. For other lifts, use my strength standards article. You need to be at the decent level and the good level is preferred to build noticeable size. Bottom line: Become one of the strongest people in your gym and size will follow
5. You are following a crappy program and/or have poor exercise selection. If you want to get big you need to be using good exercises. Excellent choices include the Big 3 along with Leg Press, Inclines, DB Press, Overhead Press, Lateral Raises, Pulldowns and Rows, RDL’s, EZ Bar Curls, DB Curls, Skull Crushers, and Tricep Pushdowns (yes you should do direct arm work, particularly if you are trying to get big. The idea of not doing direct arm work was started by people with small arms trying to come up with a novel idea to sell to you). You might be on a crappy program. If you designed it yourself and it isn’t working, ditch it. One of my favorite size building routines is found on T-nation and is called the Shut Up Program. If you don’t want to follow something from me Wendler’s 5/3/1 or the Cube method are good as well. Bottom line: Focus on the key exercises that get results and follow a well-crafted plan.
6. You are not using good form to build size. Here we have had an interesting switch over in the fitness world. 2 decades ago the main problem was gym goers where using crappy form which was taking away emphasis from the target muscle (and possibly leading to injury). However now the pendulum has swung – particularly with someone who has some education about fitness and training – that the emphasis is too much on “perfect form”. I remember my first day as a personal trainer – oh so long ago – I had to shadow another trainer. This lady coached the hell out of her client doing a seated machine row with 60 lbs, so much so the person was locked in some weird position and couldn’t use appreciable resistance. Then she walked over to the bench press and the form was so bad I almost had to jump in and stop the session. She was focused on the wrong thing. Form is important and form should be good, no one is saying it shouldn’t, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. On the Big 3 it should be solid because when you cheat on those you cheat by altering your biomechanics – which is less than ideal. But on lots of exercises like shoulder press or bicep curls or skull crushers, it is okay to cheat a little bit, to use some momentum or body English, to train the muscle harder. If you aren’t sure what good form looks like, watch Dorian Yates in Blood and Guts or Ronnie Coleman in Unbreakable, they both use very good form yet allow themselves a bit of body English to further stimulate the muscle. Bottom line: If someone could make one of those fail videos of your form, it sucks and you need to learn how to lift. But if you are always trying to match some textbook ideal for form and you don’t cheat a little bit, you need to loosen it up and consequently go much heavier.
7. You are too young. This one you can’t really control. Hopefully you realize that your metabolism is running pretty fast in your teens, generally stays high in the 20’s and then begins to slow in the 30’s and beyond. For most people this is annoying and most people lose muscle and put on fat as they age. However if you have always been a hardgainer (which some refer to as an under-eater) you might find that when you get older as your metabolism slows down it actually enables you to add more mass. One of my friends, who was decent sized but usually quite lean and ripped, (and he was a fellow trainer and lifter so he knew what he was doing) moved away and I didn’t see him for 5 years. When I saw him next he was seriously jacked and his first comment to me was once I hit 30 my metabolism slowed down and I could put on more muscle. Bottom line: As you get older (30’s and 40’s) you may find you can carry more muscle on your frame and you have more muscle maturity
You have significant control over your weight, once you master the variables that affect it. It isn’t easy to get big, just like it isn’t easy to squat 500 lbs, but it can be done. Nutrition is the number one variable that affects your weight, even more so than training, so if getting big is a goal of yours, you need to focus on your diet. Apps and websites like myfitnesspal.com and fitday.com are good places to start. Lift hard, eat well, feed the machine, and gain weight at a slow and steady state. Once you do gain weight (10-20 lbs) spend some time (a few months or more) at that weight to let your body get used to it. The longer you stay at that weight, the easier you will find you can maintain that weight (for better or worse).