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Lifting Weights but Not Gaining Muscle? You May Be Making One of These Mistakes

Even if you’re working out consistently, these 9 common missteps could be slowing down your progress.

Lifting weights but not gaining muscle

Spending hours each week lifting weights but not gaining muscle can be frustrating—but don’t throw in the towel just yet. Chances are, you’re making one of several common mistakes that can hinder your results. Fortunately, most of these can be easily remedied. 

While some of these missteps may occur during your training, what you do when you’re not lifting is just as important. By dialing in your sleep and nutrition along with your workout routine, you’ll be able to accelerate your progress. 

Here are nine common mistakes that may be stalling your progress and, most importantly, how to fix them.

1. Your Training is Random

If you’re jumping from exercise to exercise or workout to workout without a plan, you shouldn’t expect to see consistent results. 

“Random exercises get you random results,” says Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Joe Rodonis

Gaining strength and muscle is the result of progressive overload, or gradually increasing stress on your body through resistance, volume, or time under tension. When you’re not planning your workouts in advance, you’re likely not balancing out the time you spend on each muscle group or adding stress in a way that’s productive and progressive. 

The Fix: The easiest way to ensure you’re achieving progressive overload—in a way that’s also safe and gradual so you won’t get injured or burn out too soon—is to follow a well-balanced program that fits your goals, works all your major muscle groups each week, and gets progressively challenging. 

Once you’ve picked your program, stick with it and be patient. “Stay consistent for at least two if not four weeks,” says Rodonis. That doesn’t mean your workouts will be boring though. Programs can be varied, without being random. From week to week, small variations in exercise selection or rep range will keep you engaged, while still focusing on the larger goal.

The scientifically-backed programs on Tonal check all the boxes, feature expert coaches guiding you every step of the way, and will safeguard you from lifting weights but not gaining muscle.

2. You’re Underfueling 

You might think that if you’re trying to get lean and see muscle definition, you need to cut calories. But eating too little isn’t the way to go, either. “You can’t drive intensity if you’ve got no gas in the tank,” says Rodonis. “How can you build muscle if you’re depleting it of energy sources?”

The Fix: Instead of restricting calories or following a strict diet, try to include a mix of food groups such as vegetables, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, and legumes), and, most importantly, ample protein.

Protein is essential for muscle growth and should be consumed on workout and rest days. Even though the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day, you should up that number to see big gains. A meta-analysis of studies has shown that if you want to gain muscle mass and strength, you should be eating closer to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

3. You’re Not Doing Enough Accessory Work

Big compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses get a lot of attention—and with good reason. These multi-joint exercises strengthen your body’s largest muscles, improve your functional movement patterns, and boost metabolism by increasing your lean muscle mass. But that doesn’t mean you can forget about strengthening smaller muscles. If you’re lifting weights but not gaining muscle, you might not be doing enough accessory work.

“When we’re talking about building muscles, specifically in hypertrophy, you really want to target more isolation exercises,” says Rodonis. If you need more evidence, Tonal members who performed more tricep-isolation work saw bigger improvements in their bench press strength

The Fix: Continue doing compound exercises but add in accessory moves to round out your training. Along with supercharging your gains in specific areas, accessory work also improves your performance in compound exercises by building supporting muscles. One way to do this is by incorporating isolation exercises to complement your primary lift in a workout. For example, if your main lift is a deadlift, Rodonis suggests adding barbell hip thrusts to isolate the glutes.

Example of accessory exercises to try if you're lifting weight but not gaining muscle.

4. You’re Rushing Your Reps

When you’re looking to see big increases in muscle size, you can’t hurry through your workouts. “Hypertrophy is about mechanical tension,” says Rodonis. “I’m more concerned about time under tension, meaning I feel the weight the entire way down and the entire way up.” In one study, participants who performed leg extensions at a rate of six seconds up and six seconds down saw greater increases in muscle protein synthesis than those who did their reps at a faster tempo of one second up and one second down.

The Fix: Slow down! It can be easy to feel like you’re doing more work by pushing hard and fast, but by increasing your time under tension, you’ll see more hypertrophy gains. Tonal measures this metric so you can compare how much time you’re spending under tension in each workout. Plus, Eccentric Mode on Tonal adds resistance in the lowering phase of an exercise, increasing tension and slowing down your pace. Eccentric training has also been shown to increase muscle growth. Don’t rush your rest periods, either. In one study, participants who rested three minutes between sets saw a greater increase in muscular strength and size compared to those who rested for just one minute.

5. You’re Not Lifting Heavy Enough 

According to Rodonis, if you’re trying to build muscle, you should be lifting heavy enough that you feel like you could do no more than 2 additional reps (known as reps in reserve) when you finish your set. “It’s not hitting failure, but if you feel like you could rip out another 5, 8, or 10 reps, it’s way too light,” he says. “A lot of people underestimate what they can do and they lift a little bit too light.” 

The Fix: Figuring out how much weight to use in a specific exercise to get just close to failure can be confusing. One method is to figure out your 1-rep max for each exercise (the most you can lift for a single rep) and then work at 70 to 80 percent of that weight, the recommended range for hypertrophy training. A 1-rep-max test can be very intense and may require a spotter, so you can also follow Rodonis’s guidelines and estimate how many additional reps you could do at the end of your set. Be honest with yourself—if your reps feel easy and you think you could crank out a bunch more, you likely need to go heavier. 

Tonal takes the guesswork out of the equation by giving you personalized weight recommendations for each exercise and set. As you get stronger and your estimated 1-rep max increases, Tonal will keep bumping up your resistance to maintain the challenge.

6. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

When you break down your muscles during a tough workout, you need enough sleep to recover and work out at full intensity. “People who consistently get less than six hours of sleep have an elevated heart rate and are more prone to injury,” says Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal.

The Fix: While you should be aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep, it’s also important that you get enough deep sleep. That’s where the recovery magic really happens. “The only thing you can do is get more overall time in bed because deep sleep and REM sleep are a percentage of total sleep time,” says sleep specialist Dr. Meeta Singh, a physician and psychiatrist. “You can’t control your stages of sleep, but you can ensure you set aside enough time for sleep.” 

To get the most out of your time spent in bed, Singh suggests keeping your bedroom temperature around 65 degrees and making your room as dark as possible either with blackout shades or an eye mask. Additionally, Clay recommends turning off electronics a minimum of one hour before bed and also consuming your last meal at least two hours before bedtime. 

“If you’re eating super close to bedtime, your body is still trying to digest that food,” he says. “That’s going to inhibit your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.” If you’re having trouble getting enough sleep at night, Singh says there’s nothing wrong with taking naps during the day. “Bank sleep when you can, get well rested when you can, and use naps to play catch up when you can’t, because we all have limitations,” she says.

7. Your Form is Off

Just going through the motions in your lifting and not focusing on your form can easily result in lifting weights but not building muscle. “I think of building muscle like a loaded stretch,” says Rodonis. “I want to feel the elongation of the muscle and then I want to pull through the entire range to complete [the lift].” According to one study, lifting with proper form through your full range of motion is more effective at building strength than working in a smaller range of motion. 

The Fix: Rodonis says taking the time to focus on mobility, before adding resistance, can help with form. If you have limited mobility, try adding an extended warmup to your workouts targeting the areas you plan on working (like the hips and hamstrings for deadlifts), or use your off days from lifting to focus on stretching. Improving your range of motion will help you get the most out of your lifts.

Just like an experienced personal trainer, Tonal offers real-time form corrections as you work out in two ways: First, Form Feedback from Tonal’s cables measures your pace, range of motion, balance, symmetry, and smoothness as you lift; second, with cutting-edge visual technology, Smart View allows you to actually see yourself lift and watch video playback of your workouts to improve your form.

8. You’re Overtraining

More isn’t always better when it comes to lifting. “If you do too much, you’re going to get diminishing returns,” says Rodonis. “Your body is under too much stress, so it can’t recover properly and you won’t see growth.” Think of your muscles like batteries—if you work legs on a Monday, your legs won’t be 100 percent full-charged by Tuesday, so you won’t be able to go as hard on another leg workout. 

The Fix: For hypertrophy, try to build up to at least 10 sets per muscle group per week. “You can spread that out,” says Rodonos. “If I’m hitting chest, I can do 6 sets of chest on Monday and another 6 sets on Thursday and I’ve hit my hypertrophy goal for chest.” He adds that it’s best to give each muscle group 48 hours of rest in between workout days and keep hitting your protein targets.

That doesn’t mean you can’t work out more often—just make sure you’re splitting up the days you’re working on specific body parts or on pushing and pulling muscles. In Rodonis’s program Divide and Conquer: Level Up, you’ll work out five days per week but the muscle group splits ensure you won’t be overloading one area.

9. You’re Drinking Too Much Alcohol

Not to be a buzzkill, but those beers you had with your friends over the weekend or the two glasses of wine you “need” to relax at the end of a long day aren’t doing your gains any good. “It’s empty calories, for one,” says Rodonis, “and two, it messes with your sleep and deteriorates your performance.” Along with adding calories without any nutritious value, alcohol inhibits muscle protein synthesis (even if you are strength training) and spikes the stress hormone cortisol. 

The Fix: Eliminating alcohol entirely is your best bet for optimizing your gains. If that’s not practical for you, though, cutting down your intake is a good place to start. Avoid drinking before bed as alcohol can affect your sleep, and don’t drink on an empty stomach. Eating before drinking will also slow the absorption of alcohol.

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