Hitting the gym on the regular isn’t the only thing you need to do to make gains. That’s because muscle gain, or hypertrophy, is actually pretty complicated. And there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation for how much you can expect to gain, either.
Muscle growth depends on a lot of things, says fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, head of the Human Performance Laboratory at Lehman College in the Bronx. Things like genetics, type of training, years of training, and how you respond to training all contribute to the amount of muscle you can expect to gain.
But here’s a benchmark: An average guy who’s just started lifting has the potential to put on two to three pounds muscle per month. But someone who’s been lifting for 20 years may only be able to put on two pounds of muscle a year, he says. As for the average guy in the middle of the range? He can maybe put on a pound or two of muscle a month.
So it’s possible the amount of muscle you want to gain isn’t really realistic. But if your goal falls into the possible amount? Then you might want to look at how you’re training if your muscle gains keep coming up short.
Here, five workout mistakes that are holding you back from serious muscle growth—and some simple ways to get right back on track (It’s not just about what you’re doing at the gym, either—these other mistakes could be holding back muscle growth, too).
“If you train too heavy all the time, it can have a negative impact on your joints and other soft tissue structures,” says Schoenfeld. This can lead to injury and overtraining, both of which, decrease your ability to build muscle.
Having some lighter load training—say, in the 15 to 20 rep range—helps to alleviate this and increase recovery. Both of which, of course, have a positive effect on muscle growth.
Emerging research shows that lighter loads produce very similar increases in muscle mass compared to heavier loads.
“There is some evidence that light loads target type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers and that heavier loads target type II (fast-twitch),” says Schoenfeld. All fibers are not alike when it comes to contractile performance and basic physiological characteristics. Your nervous system activates muscle fibers based on how much force you need to produce.
This would indicate a benefit to combining repetition ranges fashion to optimize the whole muscle response and maximize growth.
So let’s say you’re following a three-day-a-week training plan. Make day 1 your heavy day, with exercises performed in the 3 to 5 rep range. Day 2 will be moderate, in the 8 to 12 rep range. Then Day 3 will be light, with exercises in the 15 to 20 rep range, Schoenfeld recommends.
You may think you’re getting a solid workout in, but if you’re frequently stopping four or five reps short of failure, then you’re just going through the motions. Now, does that mean you always have to train to failure? No.
But, Schoenfeld says you have to at least go close to muscle failure on most of your sets (For an at-home workout that will keep challenging you, try The 21-Day Metashred from Men’s Health).
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the guys who go all-out every single time they hit the gym. Here’s the deal: Training too hard can bring about overtraining, which is a negative response when you’re pushing your body too hard.
While the body is very adaptive, at some point, you hit a threshold and the hours of training you’re doing becomes counterproductive—which triggers a stall or decrease in muscle mass.
Overtraining can bring about mood changes, fatigue, chronic muscle soreness, an increased risk of injury, a drop in performance, and a desire to skip workouts. In other words, you have an imbalance of work and recovery. When you put too much stress on your muscles and don’t give them proper rest, you limit their ability to grow.
Schoenfeld says if you’re taking every set to a level 10 or you’re not giving your body sufficient rest days, there’s a good chance you’ve entered into overtraining mode. Back off the intensity, vary the rep range, and consider a de-loading week, which is a short planned period of recovery where you take your training slightly lighter or work out less.
How often you plan a recovery week depends on how hard you’re lifting. Some people can go eight to 10 weeks before they need one, while others need to take one every four to six weeks. You should also make sure to have at least two to three days of rest per week.
Guys eager to get lean may opt to slave away on cardio machines several times a week, not knowing they’re actually sabotaging muscle gains.
Up to a certain point, there’s not going to be much of an interference—if any— between combining cardio and strength training sessions, says Schoenfeld. In fact, he says that in the early stages of training, cardio can actually be beneficial on muscle growth.
But, as you get more experienced with your lifting, meaning you are lifting heavier or challenging yourself more, those intense cardio sessions may start to tap into your recovery—a major mistake if you’re goal is to gain muscle.
So, what should you do instead? Limit the frequency, intensity, and duration of your aerobic workouts. And when you do choose to sweat it out on your favorite cardio machine, stick to moderate intensity levels. A general guideline is to limit steady state cardio to no more than about three to four weekly bouts lasting 30 to 40 minutes. If you opt for high-intensity interval training instead, it is prudent to limit your sessions to two to three, 20 minutes workouts a week.
If you notice your energy levels dipping or you’ve hit a plateau with your muscle growth, cut back on the cardio volume.
When you consider that volume—the total weight lifted in a training session—is a main driver of hypertrophy, it makes sense that you must hit a certain volume level in order to maximize muscular gains.
In other words, if you want to grow, you have to put in the work to make it happen.
So, what is this ideal volume level?
“Research has shown that on average, 10 sets per muscle group per week seems to be the lower threshold at which muscle growth is maximized,” says Schoenfeld. For example, if you’re training chest, you might do 3 sets of bench press and 2 sets of flys on Monday and Thursday, which equates to 10 sets of chest exercises for the week.
As for how you structure a workout, that’s up to you, but Schoenfeld does recommend training your muscles at least twice per week. “If you’re doing a split, for example, you should utilize a split that allows you to work each muscle group at least twice per week. When you’re only training a particular muscle once per week, the research shows a reduced hypertrophic response”
He also points out there’s not much evidence that says training a muscle more than twice a week is better than training it only twice per week.