With Summer coming to an end, how many people out there will be transitioning from 'Summer shredding' to 'Winter bulking'? My guess would be around 50% of the fitness industry!
Now, don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this - however, I'm also pretty certain that many people out there attempting to 'bulk' are going to struggle. They may have been following this cycle of cutting and bulking for a few years with seeing any significant muscle gain - so why is this? Although building muscle does take time, if you are struggling to see progress or increase your muscle mass after a few years, my guess is that you are doing one (or more) of the following:
1) You aren't Eating Enough!
This is going to be the most significant reason for most people, and that's why it's number one! To grow, you need to be in a surplus. This doesn't mean eating so much that you are gaining a lot of excess body fat, but it does mean eating a decent amount more than you burn (200-500Kcals more) on a consistent basis. This is so that your body has enough to repair and recover as well as grow. I read an analogy recently which the trainer Alex Carneiro uses with his clients. It goes:
"Can you build a house with blueprints, construction workers, but no raw materials? Nope."
2) You don't put enough effort into your training
Some sessions aren't going to be your best - sometimes you're going to be worn down, exhausted or have other things on your mind, and that's ok. But think of your average session: are you skimping out on some reps or sets or choosing not to add those few extra pounds to your lift because you can't be bothered? If you want to build muscle, you need to put the effort into your training session. You need to use the principle of progressive overload to continue to challenge your body by either lifting heavier, adding more sets or adding more reps: you can't just go through the motions.
3) You aren't training with purpose
This brings me to point three: you are not training with purpose or power. You go into the gym and just 'wing it', or don't think about your training before you get to the gym. You need to be engaged in the process as a whole. You need to think about your training over the course of the week and beyond. Planning your sessions so that you can go in and make the most of them. Think about activating your muscles in each exercise and making that mind-muscle connection strong. You need to be switched on to get the most out of your workout.
4) You aren't recovering properly
Ultimately, we don't progress while we are in the gym, or while we are training. Our exercise and training sessions are the stimulus our bodies need to improve, but the improvements come in-between training sessions. So, if you aren't recovering effectively, the chances are you wont be progressing as you should. Proper recovery means getting enough sleep, enough protein each day and in general enough food (yes food again, it’s a crucial part of muscle growth). Plan your recovery as you would plan your sessions: they are as important as each other.
5) You’re not committed to your goal
A lot of people set out with the idea of wanting to bulk, but struggle to really commit to it. They go back and forth between a calorie surplus and a calorie deficit, and have difficulty in staying in a calorie surplus for a significant period of time. If you really want to bulk (which isn't for everyone, by the way) then you need to commit to, and trust, the process. It can be hard, particularly if you are starting out very lean, to accept the increased body fat percentage that comes with bulking. However, if it's what you want, then you need to accept this and push on, staying in a surplus for a good amount of time (I suggest 3-6 months).
6) You aren't consistent
Just like any health or fitness-related goal, consistency is the key. You need to be consistent with your nutrition, your training and your recovery to get results. This does not mean you need to be dedicated to the gym and hitting your macros every hour of every day of every month. What it does mean is you need to be on track 80-90% of the time; you can’t train hard for a week and then fall off the wagon because you’re busy with work (or you’re at college and spend a week partying). It is not a '3 day on / 4 day off' business, unfortunately.
7) You are doing too much cardio
Cardio training is great for your cardiovascular health and general fitness levels. However, when you think that the most common problem people have when trying to bulk is not eating enough, you can see how cardio can exacerbate this issue. Cardiovascular training can be a great form of exercise, but when trying to build muscle, expending even more energy is going to make staying in a calorie surplus even harder. Similarly, excess cardio training can hinder recovery - another big part of the equation. So, while there is always a place for cardio, make sure it is well programmed (and not too extensive) when you are trying to bulk.
8) You aren't training for size
When it comes to training, the single biggest factor for hypertrophy (building muscle) is your total training volume. To maximise your training volume you want to be doing 4-6 sets of 8-12 reps. However, it's not uncommon seeing people trying to gain size but performing 3-5 rep sets, or the classic 5x5 routine. This is perfect for increasing your strength (and will provide some hypertrophy), but you aren't optimising your training to add size. If you want to grow, get your sets and reps right to make the most of it.
9) You're ego lifting
AKA you're trying to lift too much weight and aren't using proper form.There are too many people out there who are more interested with the amount they are lifting than with the quality of the lift. You see guyus and girls trying to out-lift the person next to them, or show off in the gym by adding as many plates as possible... but all this usually leads to is bad technique and a limited range of motion. Not only are you opening yourself up to increased risk of injury but, trust me, you won’t get the same leg growth doing knee bends instead of parallel squats, or elbow bends instead of full ROM chest press.
10) You aren't tracking your progress
In order to keep progressing, you need to keep a log of the exercises you do, the weight you use and the number of sets and reps. Doing so will allow you to programme in progressive overload, monitor your recovery, avoid overtraining and get the most out of your training sessions. Similarly, keeping track of body composition data - such as weight and circumference measurements - will help you see that you are progressing at the desired weight. You will be able to see if you are gaining weight too slowly (or too quickly) and if you are adding size to the areas you want to.
So, hopefully you can see from these 10 tips where you might be falling down in your attempts to build muscle, and make the corrections and adjustments necessary to keep growing!