There is almost nothing that is as frustrating as working your butt off in the gym day in and day out and getting NOTHING in return. It would be one thing to be able to look at your lack of progress and say, “I could have done more” but it’s a different thing entirely to look back at your lack of progress and realize that you literally cannot spend more time or energy towards building the body you want. Part of the reason this is mind numbingly irritating is because most of us have bought into the belief that hard work will conquer all. If your muscles aren’t growing, just workout harder and workout more right? What if I told you this belief was not only NOT true, but it was one of the main reasons people who train daily fail to put on muscle? What if I told you that more wasn’t always better?
Hardgainers (people who are naturally skinny and who struggle to gain weight) are especially vulnerable to falling for the “more is better” approach to muscle building. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because people know that lifting weights is the only way to build muscle, whereas losing weight can be accomplished with diet alone. Who knows? None the less, in my 20 years of experience in fitness, if I see someone who is doing too much and working out too hard its usually a hardgainer. Believe it or not, doing too much and working out too hard will not only slow down your progress, it may actually stop it completely.
Here is an example of what I mean. If we gave two people a task of digging a 3-foot hole and gave one of the people a spoon to use and the other person a backhoe, which person would accomplish the task first? Obviously the second person with the backhoe, even though they worked far less “hard” and spent far less time digging. The reason you aren’t building muscle even though you are working out every day and working out super hard is because you are like the person digging a hole with a spoon. Instead of working out more often or harder, you need to work out SMARTER.
Let’s make one thing clear. Your body needs to be given a good reason to build muscle. Muscle has clear functions in the body. Aside from basic “staying alive purposes” the main functions of muscle are largely to move your body. If you stop using your muscles they atrophy (shrink) very rapidly. I remember learning this first hand as a kid. When I was 14 years old I dislocated my left knee cap and I had to wear a leg brace which limited my left leg's movement for about 6 weeks. When I took the brace off my leg was almost entirely skin and bones. In 6 short weeks my body had gotten rid of most of the muscles of my leg because they weren’t needed. Muscles are also expensive from a calorie standpoint. They need lots of calories just to maintain. In other words, without good reason your body will NOT keep muscle let alone build more of it.
When you lift weights, you are giving your body a reason. The reason is to prevent DAMAGE. Lifting weights with sufficient intensity causes damage and this tells your body to get stronger and BUILD otherwise it will suffer the same amount of damage the next time you lift. The building of muscle is called ADAPTATION. Sounds good right? Not so fast. AS your body adapts and builds it ALSO needs to recover and heal.
Think of recovery and adaptation as two separate things. One is the process of healing and the other is the process of building on top of what you already had. If the damage you cause with your workouts cause too much damage or too frequent damage your body will direct all resources and energy towards healing and none to adaptation. Healing is priority number one. If you are working out every day or you are working out REALLY hard (taking multiple sets to failure each workout for example) you may be preventing the muscle building adaptation process. Put down the spoon and get in the backhoe, it’s time to change your approach and get your body ADAPTING.
Step one is to stop training to failure. It’s too much intensity for most people most of the time. Sure, there is some merit to lifting a weight until you can’t complete another full rep for some people, but those people are usually genetically gifted, or they are on anabolic steroids or both. For the rest of us and especially for hardgainers lifting to failure is too much intensity and will result in too much damage. Instead, stop your sets about 2 reps BEFORE you fail. At the very least use failure training SPARINGLY.
Step two is to stop lifting weights ever day. Instead lift every other day or, at most, try lifting just 4 days a week. Give your body a break and let it recover and adapt some before you hit it again in the gym.
Step three is to not workout in the gym for longer than around sixty minutes (roughly). If your workouts are taking longer than that, you are likely doing too much or wasting time in the gym. Too long of workouts send an endurance signal to the body and long-lasting endurance is the enemy of muscle mass (just look at endurance athletes).
If I am right and your body isn’t growing because you were working our too hard or too long or both then applying the above will give you results within the first 3 weeks. Try it out for 21 days and see for yourself. You have nothing to lose and you may in fact gain some quality muscle.