After switching up your diet and workout routine, you finally started to pack on some solid muscle—and people were noticing. But then, disaster struck! Despite your continued efforts, your shoulders started to shrink, your biceps became less buldging and your quads refused to grow any bigger. Unsure of what went wrong, you were simply left thinking, “Now what?”
A number of factors influence the body’s ability to pack on gains—your sleep schedule, your diet, your fitness program, even your state of mind. You could seriously go crazy trying to figure out what went wrong. To help you get to the bottom of things, we checked in with personal trainer and registered dietitian, Jim White, and celebrity personal trainer and star of ABC's My Diet is Better than Yours, Jay Cardiello. Read on to learn what they had to say, adjust your program, and you’ll be back to building that jacked physique you crave in no time.
Plain and simple: If you’re not getting quality sleep each evening, your muscles will not grow. “Lack of sleep increases your body's level of cortisol (a stress hormone), wreaks havoc on the body's human growth hormone and inhibits the body from properly storing glycogen—all things that can have a negative impact on muscle growth,” Cardiello says. “Plus, if you're not sleeping, you're not training at 100 percent and you’re not improving.”
The Rx: Cardiello suggests aiming for seven and a half hours of shut-eye each evening. He also advises keeping stress levels low before hitting the sheets. That means shutting down all electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. If you typically have trouble dozing off, you might want to consider taking a hot bath or shower before bedtime, too.
If you want to look more pumped, you need to pump up the protein. The reason: protein contains amino acids, the compounds that help build and repair muscle tissue. “If you don’t consume enough amino acids it can hinder your muscle growth,” warns White.
The Rx: White suggests shooting for 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day. That means a 200-pound man should get between 109 and 154 grams daily. And remember, it doesn’t all have to come from things like chicken, fish, red meat, and eggs. Like their animal-based counterparts, quinoa and Ezekiel bread (to name but a couple) are both sources of plant-based complete proteins, meaning they contain all eight amino acids the body needs to fuel your muscles but cannot produce on its own.
“It’s fine to enjoy a cold one every once in a while, but throwing back too many inhibits the body’s ability to help muscles recover,” says Cardiello. How? “When you drink alcohol, the body calls on antioxidants that are typically used for muscle growth to help metabolize the alcohol.”
The Rx: If you want all of your hard work to pay off, Cardiello suggests cutting out the booze altogether. Not an option? Limit yourself to one evening of indulgence per week and follow each round with a glass of water to slow your pace and reduce the number of drinks you down throughout the evening. Better yet, cut yourself off after three drinks—beers, cocktails, or shots, it doesn't matter; three's the magic number. Simply knowing your drink limit ahead of time can help you stay on track with your goals.
If you recently upped your weekly mileage or started taking a weekly spin class with your girlfriend (no judgment!), that could be the reason you’re looking a little on the puny side. “While cardio is great for body fat loss, if you do too much of it, it can put your body in a catabolic, or muscle-burning state,” warns White.
The Rx: “If your goals are to increase size and strength, cardio workouts should not dominate your program,” says White. “HIIT workouts and easy cardio sessions can be slotted into your program, but your first priority should be fitting in three or four weight training days. If you don’t tend to get too sore between workouts, feel free to add in a cardio session here or there, but not at the expense of your recovery.”
Not only does over training up your risk of injury and workout boredom, it can hinder your progress, too. “Many guys think the harder they go, the bigger the gains, and that’s not true,” Cardiello tells us. “If you're not taking time away from the gym, your body doesn’t have time to rebuild itself stronger and bigger than it was before. When I worked as a strength coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we always worked in rest days throughout the players training cycle.”
The Rx: Cardiello suggests taking one or two days off for every seven days of training.
While nutrient-void sources of carbs (candy, pizza, white bread, etc.) shouldn’t regularly make an appearance in your diet, it’s important to remember that all carbs are not the enemy. In fact, cutting back on carbs too harshly may be the very reason your flex is starting to look a bit flabby. “When you are low on carbs you’re not giving your muscles the glycogen they need to hit the weights hard. This can affect muscle growth and make you feel weak,” explains White.
The Rx: Keep complex, slow-digesting carbs in your diet plan (oatmeal, Ezekiel bread, whole grains, quinoa, beans, and fruit) and limit the processed starchy junk, says White.
“When gaining muscle mass is the goal, it’s common for people to focus on ingesting carbs and proteins. But when it comes to water and adequate hydration, many guys leave their muscles out to dry,” says Cardiello. “Water is crucial for digestion so when you don’t get enough of it, it can negatively impact this process.” The result: Your muscles won’t be fed the nutrients they need to grow. “Plus when you’re not adequately hydrated, it’s more difficult to go all out at the gym, which can further impact your results.”
The Rx: “Make sure that you’re throwing back half of your body weight in ounces of water per day,” advises Cardiello. (That means a 200 pound guy should sip 100 ounces, or 12.5 cups of H20 daily.) “And if you're thirsty, you're dehydrated. So even if you’ve already hit your water quota, drink up!”
“Your muscles need to be worked at different angles, volumes and intensities to remain challenged. Working the same muscles, in the same way, can limit your gains,” White says.
The Rx: Weather you’re an intermediate lifter or more advanced, you’ll likely need to change up your program every six to eight weeks, says White. “If you notice that your strength or physical results are starting to plateau, it’s a good time to weave in some new exercises and mix up your rep and weight selections. To challenge yourself further, make sure to include exercises that focus on your areas of weakness, whether that be quad strength or flexibility.”
“Stress increases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that increases appetite and fat storage. It also inhibits the use of glucose by the body’s cells,” explains Cardiello. This can cause muscle proteins to break down, inhibiting muscle growth, according to a study in Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise.
The Rx: Pinpoint the stressor in your life and squish it like a bug. “That might mean ditching a high drama girlfriend, asking your boss to decrease your workload, or enrolling in a yoga class,” suggests Cardiello. “Sipping rooibos tea can also help. It contains a flavonoid called Aspalathin, which has been shown to reduce stress hormones.”
If you only train what you can flaunt at the beach (i.e. biceps and abs) it won’t help you increase overall mass, warns White. “The legs and back are two of your biggest muscles. If you don’t train them, you’re not tapping into your full muscle growth potential. Plus, only training your trophy muscles can create injury-causing imbalances that could keep you out of the gym long term.”
The Rx: Work all areas of your physique in equal amounts—and don’t forget to incorporate forward, backward, and lateral movements, and things like mobility training, says White.