One of the most common reasons athletes, Crossfitters and "skinny guys" come to see me in clinic is to add more lean muscle mass to their frame. They'll often complain that “no matter how much I eat, I just can’t gain any weight!” Naturally taller and leaner body types who find it easy to stay slim often struggle with adding more size. There are number of factors that can make it more difficult for you to add 10-15 lb. of additional muscle so you can raise your performance in the gym or on the playing field (or just look good naked).
Let’s take a closer look at five common roadblocks that prevent you from gaining lean muscle.
1. Your Body Type
There are three general somatotypes – the technical term for classifying body types – that play a major role in determining your capacity to add muscle to your physique. An ectomorph body type is classically long and lean, with a robust metabolism and thyroid function that prevents them from gaining much fat, but also limits their muscle-building potential, as well.
There are 3 general body types – ectomorphs are long and lean and tend to have a hard time putting on weight
Compare this to the endomorph or pear-shaped body type – naturally rounder and heavier individuals – who gain muscle more easily but also accumulate more body fat as well. (Mesomorphs are the naturally athletic, solid and strong somatotype that gain muscle easily and burn fat easily… the genetic jackpot winners!).
Does this mean if you’re an ectomorph you’re doomed to “pipe-cleaner” arms or minimal curves forever? Absolutely not. But it does mean you’ll need to make a more substantial effort with how you eat and be more precise with how you train to achieve your muscle-building goals.
Ectomorphs typically have greater sympathetic nervous system dominance, lower testosterone levels, and slightly weaker digestive function, which can lead to a lack of anabolic muscle-building hormonal terrain, a mild drawback for adding weight.
Likewise, a revved up metabolism means you have a higher caloric need and digging a little deeper on the nutrition front will help you nail down some macronutrient (i.e. protein, fat and carb) targets to help you achieve your goal. While these are generalities, they provide a framework to let you know you may need to do things a little differently than your friend or coworker to find the best diet and exercise plan for you to add more lean muscle.
2. Not Enough Calories
You may think you already eat a lot, but if you struggle to add lean muscle you’re probably not consuming enough calories. It’s not just protein you need to build more muscle (I’ll cover that next) but a surplus of calories to create an anabolic environment in the body. If you don’t achieve your total intake of calories, you’ll never have enough “bricks” to build the body you want.
One common pitfall that Paleo-dieters fall into is a low-carb approach to eating. Because an ancestral or Paleo approach lends itself so well to a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet, it’s easy to get pulled toward this macronutrient balance, leading to a shortfall in not only your carb intake, but total calories, as well.
While LCHF is a fantastic way to lose weight and improve your health if you’re overweight, it’s not the best approach to trigger muscle growth and the caloric excess you need to create an anabolic, muscle-building environment. Carbohydrates also help stimulate the release of insulin, and when combined with strength training and a caloric surplus, provides the ideal terrain for building muscle. Not only that, carbs are the fuel you need to refill muscle glycogen – the carb stores in your muscle tissue – and when training at high intensity, carbs are your primary fuel, so don’t cut yourself short.
Start adding more Paleo-friendly carbs like yams, sweet potatoes, plantains yucca, and root vegetables to all your meals. If you consume shakes pre- or post-exercise, try adding unpasteurized honey (1-3 tbsp) to add more “low-fermentable” carbs to your nutrition arsenal.
3. Not Enough Protein
The common refrain in sports nutrition is to aim for about one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day to meet your muscle-building needs, while the research indicates that you only need 20g of protein post-exercise to stimulate lean muscle protein synthesis. However, there is more to the story. Expert researcher Dr. Bob Wolfe, PhD, has recently shown that when you consume protein in greater amounts, you dramatically reduce the rate at which your body breaks down protein. (1)
Consider for a moment a 154lb male who might break down anywhere from 300-400g of protein in a day. A metabolically gifted ectomorph will likely be more toward the top end of this range. Eating more than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, or more than 20-30g post-exercise, doesn’t help you build more muscle directly, but dramatically slowing down the rate at which you break down muscle will help you build and maintain a more athletic and muscular body type.
A recent study of individuals consuming 3g per kilogram of body weight (1g per 1.36 pounds) over the course of a year showed no adverse effects on kidney function (a common concern for those adopting a high-protein diet) and superior body composition results to others in the study at lower protein intakes. (2) Be sure to achieve at least 1.0-1.35 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight if you struggle to add lean muscle.
4. Not Enough Compound Lifts
A common mistake many people make in the gym is not including enough compound exercises in their regime. They opt instead for more isolation work to improve their physique. While biceps curls and leg extensions might be a good way to improve your muscular definition, they don’t create the anabolic environment you really need to pack on muscle.
Testosterone is a major anabolic hormone in the body, triggering the growth of lean muscle mass when paired with strength training and caloric surplus. Major lifts like squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts and their variations trigger much greater increases in testosterone compared to isolation exercises. (3)
Studies show the lifts performed in higher volume (10 sets of 10) or at higher intensity (1RM x 6-10 sets better than 1RM for 3 sets) can both trigger tremendous increases in testosterone, which means both novice and advanced trainees have effective options. (4)
Perform at least two compound lifts at the start of every training session, training 3-5 times weekly, to stimulate the testosterone and anabolic response needed to add lean muscle.
5. Too Much Cardio
Now that we’ve covered the right eating and exercise strategies, we need to make sure you’re not sabotaging those gains with excessive exercise. Athletes often engage in long training sessions or a large number of sessions in a week believing that “more is better.” If you struggle to add muscle, it’s not necessarily more exercise you need, but more exercise efficiency.
When it comes to exercise, more is not always better.
On the cardio side of things, be sure not to add long, steady state exercise days while training to gain lean muscle. This will more rapidly raise stress hormone levels and catabolize your lean muscle. Furthermore, if you’ve already been training this way, more sessions of high volume, long distance work is not likely to make you fitter, either.
You need to change your mindset and think like a sprinter. Shorter, more intense bursts are what you need to build more power in your strong posterior chain muscles – glutes and hamstrings – that help to build a strong, powerful and athletic body. (5)
Ditch the steady-state cardio and add more sprints to your regime. Aim for two days per week and sprint at a distance of 50 and 100 meters for 5-6 sets. Be sure to rest at least two minutes between sets, as your goal is to run as fast as possible and not “feel the burn” during your workouts.
If adding lean muscle is your top priority and you’ve struggled to achieve your goal, get back to basics. You don’t need any fancy equipment or elaborate eating strategy. Increase your protein and caloric intake and pair it with compound movements and sprints to maximize your anabolic hormones, build lean muscle and achieve your desired weight.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS