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Hardgainers, Resistance Training

Why Can't I Build Any Muscle?

By Joe Talarico on May 8, 2020 8:30:28 AM
6 Minutes Reading Time

There are a whole host of reasons people struggle putting on muscle. Over the course of the next couple weeks, I’ll be going through each of them individually, so that I can get a little more in depth. So be on the lookout for those articles as they come up.

For today, I’d like to focus on two reasons -

1. Program Hopping
2. Not Focusing on Compound Lifts

Program Hopping

One program promises to add 3 inches to your arms in 4 weeks, so you do it for two weeks. Then you see another article promises to add 100 pounds to your squat in 4 weeks, so you switch over cause you like the sound of that. Two weeks later, you realize you want both, so you make a bastardized program doing two specializations, and most likely getting nothing out of it. What gives?

All this switching back and forth is distracting you from the core tenets of what makes a successful program. That is, sticking on the main lifts, and focusing on constant progression and making sure your strength is going up. Once you pass your first couple years as a novice lifter, building muscle takes time. You are going to have to stick to ONE program longer than 4 weeks to see any change. All of the top bodybuilders, and coaches will tell you any physique that has a bigger than average amount of muscle on it takes years, not months to build.  


Any program you start, you must stick with at minimum 3 months. Ideally 3-6. That doesn’t mean do the same, exact thing. You can change the reps and the exercises (as long as they’re hitting the same muscles), but you must keep the overall concept of that program. If it’s geared towards powerlifting, then make sure it’s focusing on bringing up the powerlifting movements, and don't turn it into a bodybuilding program. If it’s a bodybuilding program, don’t try to shorten the amount of days in the gym because it's convenient. Do the workouts AS intended. Adjust different variables of your program, only once you start hard plateauing on certain elements of the program. 

Compound Lifts 

This leads me to my next point. As natural lifters, and just assuming we can’t get our bodyfat tested by an expensive machine, we don’t have a whole ton to go off of when adding size. Dieting is easy. Week to week, you can see if you are losing weight or getting leaner. Adding size is a different ballgame. The only other measures we have are if the scale is going up, or if our strength in the gym is going up.  

To make that even more confusing, even if those increase those aren’t necessarily direct indicators you got bigger. You could have just gained weight because you got fat for instance. Then your numbers went up on your squat, because the extra weight added leverage, and cushion to your joints. Either way, this is what we have to go by.

We can safely assume if our numbers on a couple main lifts continually go up over the course of a year, we probably gained some muscle. I can guarantee you if they don’t, then you most likely didn’t add on size. This is why having some staple exercises in rotation is key. They give us something to track, but they also are the best bang for our buck exercises. I’ve mentioned this in other articles before so I won’t get too into it, but the squat for instance, hits your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. A leg extension only hits the quads. If growth is your goal, which do you think you are better off doing?

I see too many scrawny guys curling in the squat rack, and hovering towards the isolation machines because they are too afraid to look weak, and work on their squat or deadlift. Listen. No one cares. We’ve all been there at one point or another. And let's get real for a moment. All the guys in the gym probably have such big egos, they’re more worried about how good they look, versus how much weight you’re putting on.


Spend more time on bigger lifts. You are already struggling to put on size. Spending all your time trying to hit small muscle groups isn’t going to get you to your goal. You need to be focusing on the bigger bang for your buck movements that stimulate as much muscle as possible. You want your body priming itself for BUILDING muscle, and having compound movements as staples in your program is a must. Hell, that’s a must for any body type.  

Focus on the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, rows, and pull-ups before starting to include smaller muscles like shoulders, biceps and triceps. Make sure your form is good, and you are steadily progressing in weight throughout the year. This will help us keep track of your progress.

Also, just because I say you need to keep staple exercises in your program, doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. Again, using the squats you can change from a narrow to wide stance, a higher or lower bar approach, a box squat to a front squat, the list goes on. The point is, there are many ways to keep the squat in the program, but change up the style so it doesn’t get boring, and allows you to change the stimulus on your muscles.

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Joe Talarico

Joe is a certified Precision Nutrition and strength & conditioning coach. He assisted the UCLA Women’s Tennis team in winning their 2014 NCAA Championship Title, as well as study under the great strength coaches at Pepperdine University. He was a collegiate rower at the University of Rhode Island (where he got his Kinesiology degree) as well as an amateur physique competitor. He is currently the master trainer at Upgrade Labs in Santa Monica where he is combining his years of training clients in the gym with newer technology to optimize their performance and recovery. He also cohosts The RelationSH*T Show Podcast with his fiancée where they discuss all relationship topics unfiltered from who pays on dates, to open relationships.

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