It can be frustrating to hit the gym multiple times a week but still not see the results you’re looking for. Contrary to popular belief, it’s usually not because you’re not working hard enough.
So what’s going on? We talked to a few experts about why you’re not seeing gains at the gym — and how you can remedy the problem.
1. You’re dehydrated
Water is the single most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. It’s critical for nearly every function in the body to occur and helps to lubricate our joints, improve cell-to-cell communication, and remove toxic waste. When we’re not drinking enough water, these functions break down, which means we’re not performing at optimal levels.
“If you feel dehydrated just before you’re about to train, it’s already too late,” says Dr. Farrah Jiwa. “You won’t be able to rehydrate yourself in time. Instead, keeping yourself hydrated should be a priority from the moment you get out of bed.”
As a general rule, you want to drink half of your body weight in ounces. That said, if you’re training, living in a hot climate, or drinking diuretics like coffee, tea, or alcohol, you’ll need to add more.
2. You’re not eating enough
“Calorie consumption is the solution to the majority of complaints lifters have about not being about to get bigger and/or stronger,” says Dr. Jiwa. “The human body requires a certain number of calories to maintain its current weight. This figure is known as basal metabolic rate (BMR), and varies from person to person depending on their weight, muscle mass, activity level, and age.”
If you’re not seeing the gains you’d like, or if you’ve hit a plateau, try increasing the quantity of food you’re ingesting. Aim for high-quality proteins and healthy fats, such as grass-fed beef and avocado, which will keep your cells fueled with more sustainable energy than fast-acting carbs.
3. You’re not sleeping
Our bodies repair and recover when we’re sleeping, so if you’re not getting your recommended seven to eight hours, your body may not have time to recuperate between sessions. This lack of rebuilding time means you could hit a wall with your progress.
“After exercise, the body uses the next 48 to 72 hours to repair the muscle that was broken down. It also uses this time to build additional muscle in anticipation of greater loads in the future,” says Robert Herbst, a 19-time world champion powerlifter and personal trainer.
Herbst says that most of this repair occurs during sleep when testosterone and human growth hormone levels are the highest. “If someone isn’t getting enough sleep, this process doesn’t occur and the body isn’t able to catch up with the needed growth and repair. In that case, progress stalls or regresses, and the lack of sleep can even lead to injury,” he warns.
4. You’re stressed
Research shows that working out is a great way to de-stress. But if you’re finding yourself bottoming out, stress could be to blame. Under acute stress, like a fight with your partner or a big presentation, a good, hard workout could be just what the doctor ordered. With chronic stress, however, intense workouts can make the issue worse.
“Chronic stress is when stress is ever-present and the body is constantly in a state of high cortisol,” explains Allan Misner, certified personal trainer and host of the podcast 40+ Fitness. “What many people forget is that exercise is a stressor, so when we’re already under chronic stress, we’re putting extra pressure on an adrenal system that’s already maxed out.”
Chronically high cortisol can also lead to catabolism by the adrenals, which means cortisol will break down muscle as a defense mechanism that prepares the body to deal with the cause of the stress. “High stress will slow your progress, so it is better to deal with the stress rather than adding to it with intense exercise,” Misner says. “I always recommend clients stick to lighter activities during times of chronic stress.”
5. Your hormones are out of whack
As mentioned above, cortisol can inhibit the repair of tissue, which prevents muscle growth. In addition, cortisol also has the power to “steal” from other hormonal systems, leading to larger imbalances.
“The body will take resources from other hormones to produce enough cortisol, preventing those hormones from repairing and healing muscle, as well as the many other roles hormones play,” says certified health coach and personal trainer Amanda Gabbert.
What we eat and how we digest also supports hormone production. “Making sure our digestion is optimized so we absorb critical nutrients like vitamin D, and eating enough fats helps our body produce key hormones, as well,” Gabbert says. “When we’re not fueling ourselves appropriately and operating at high stress levels all the time, we’re putting our whole hormonal cascade in jeopardy, which leads to a loss of gains.”
6. You have leaky gut
Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, can occur for a number of reasons, including food intolerances, stress, and inadequate digestion. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same: bacteria, parasites, toxins, and undigested food particles enter the bloodstream where the immune system mounts an attack.
How can this hurt your gains? If your body is busy fighting invaders, it has fewer resources available to build and repair muscle. Additionally, leaky gut can also put stress on organs like the liver and adrenals, or throw hormones out of balance, leading to a vicious downward spiral.
7. You’re being repetitive
Building muscle is simply the process of the body reacting to increased physical stress. “You put stress on your muscles and they grow bigger to cope with that stress,” says Dr. Jiwa. “The body is very quick to adapt to any changes, and this also includes your workouts. Once your body adapts to a routine, it doesn’t see the need to build more muscle or get stronger.”
When this happens, you need to change it up to keep gaining. Dr. Jiwa says it’s also important to know and understand the characteristics of your body type. “Different body types respond to different methods of training, so what works for your friends may not work for you,” she adds.