Why You're Not Gaining Muscle (& Strength) in a Calorie Surplus

The aim in the gym is always to be making progress, to be;

  • Fitter

  • Stronger

  • Bigger

  • Faster

Which is why going from smooth and steady progress to feeling like you’re stuck in the mud, can be enough to test even the most experienced gym goer.

Of course, it’s only normal that progress will slow down over time but when you go from slowly increasing your weight on the bar, gaining weight on the scale and seeing progress in the mirror to nothing, you know something is up.

In fact, there are several other reasons you could be seeing a lack in, thankfully they can all be addressed and reversed.

Let me show you how.

Why You’re Not Gaining Muscle & Strength in a Calorie Surplus

As much as some people like to think they can go at this fitness game with no real plan and somehow still get the body they want. The truth is there’s more to it than just working out now and then.

In fact, there are several factors that, if you're ignoring, can bring your progress grinding to a halt.

Let’s tackle them one by one and get you back on track.



You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

Sleep is an important part of daily life, but did you know it can affect the quality of your workouts?

One study (1) showed that participants who were sleep deprived and restricted to 3 hours of sleep a night saw a significant impact on their performance in the bench press, leg press, and deadlift. 

Sure, this is to be expected, 3 hours of sleep is extreme and not something I imagine anyone will be doing, at least not intentionally.

However, if for any reason i.e. travelling you are severely sleep deprived then expect your performance in the gym to suffer until you’re sleeping pattern returns to normal.

On a more realistic scale, another study (2) found that even a small amount of sleep restriction can negatively affect performance (3).

This is backed up by a study (4) that shows, even sleep deprivation of just 1 hour a night during the week can negatively impact body composition and whether weight loss is from fat or muscle, additionally the study discovered that ‘catching up’ on sleep at the weekend does not reverse the effects of missing 1 hour per night during the week.

The Bottom Line

Getting regular, good quality sleep is very important if you’re serious about changing your body.



You’re Not Eating The Right Amount

How much you eat can directly influence your performance in the gym.

If you’re eating in a calorie deficit but expecting to continue gaining both muscle and strength, it’s just not going to work.

However, you also need to be aware that your body can only build so much muscle at a time and at a certain point additional calorie intake will only serve to increase the amount of fat you gain.

The aim is to eat enough to support continued progress in the gym without gaining excess fat. For most people, a surplus of 200 – 300 calories above maintenance calories is enough to stimulate muscle growth (provided your training is doing the same).

The only time I’d recommend eating more than this is;

  • If you’re a beginner (under a year’s lifting experience) in which case, you could probably do with a surplus of 500 calories

  • If you’re losing or maintaining your weight with a surplus of 200 – 300 then you can slowly increase your calories until your gaining weight.

The Bottom Line

Eat enough to support your performance in the gym but not so much that it impacts your health and aesthetics.


You’re Mistaking Slow Progress For No Progress

Progress slows down over time.

The progress you make in your first year won’t be the same as your third. This is ok, in fact, it’s completely normal and natural.

After some time (the amount varies between individuals) you’ll get to the point where even adding a single rep on one exercise in a session is progress. This is not to be ignored, after all, progress is progress.

Remember, even if you’re adding one rep or 1.25kg to the bar you’re still making progress. If this describes your current situation then take a deep breath and relax, you haven’t stopped making progress yet.

The Bottom Line

Be aware that progress will slow down as your experience increases, celebrate the small wins and stay focused on your goal.



You’re Not Applying Progressive Overload

If you’re not applying progressive overload you won’t build muscle, it doesn’t matter how good your training programme is or how well you stick to your diet, if you’re not getting better in the gym it’s all for nothing.

There are numerous methods of applying progressive overload but the 2 I’m most concerned with are either adding weight to the bar or adding reps over time, with the result usually being a mixture of both.

For example; if you do 3 sets of 8 reps with 70kg using the flat bench press on chest day.

The next time you perform the bench press you’ll increase the weight to 72.5kg and work towards 3 sets of 8 reps again before increasing the weight again.

Alternatively, if you don’t have access to 1.25kg plates you’ll build your way up to being able to do 3 sets of 12 reps with 70kg before increasing the weight to 75kg and dropping back down to 3 sets of 8 reps.

The Bottom Line

You can’t turn up and use the exact same weights in every session, you must give your body a reason to adapt.



You’re Not Being Consistent

Consistency is a straightforward one.

If you don’t train regularly and/or don’t stick to your diet you won’t make progress. There’s no way around it and doing one without the other will only ever give you sub-par results.

If you want to change your body you have to be consistent.

The Bottom Line

You get back what you put in, if you only turn up and train a handful of times a month, don’t expect the same results as someone who trains on a consistent basis.


Takeaway Point

When it comes to making consistent progress in the gym, there a number of factors which can impact the quality of your results and even bring them to a grinding halt.

However, as soon as you figure out what it is that’s holding you back and address it your progress will continue.

Happy lifting.

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