14 min read

Help! I Can't Put On Muscle

Follow along as I answer a reader's question about struggling to gain mass. There is probably something in here that will help you too!
Help! I Can't Put On Muscle

Reaching into the old ‘mail bag’ today for some muscle insight. I need to get back on a regular schedule of writing and then publishing stuff here for all of you.

“I have been doing gym the last three years. The majority of the time I try to eat clean during the day and I make sure that I’m getting double the amount of protein in grams as my body weight (I include oats, 10-12 egg whites, lean meats, protein shakes, peanut butter). My real concern is I still don’t see any muscle growth. I want to see it in my body, but I still have a good amount of fat in my body. I easily gain fat in my body it seems. I can’t figure out where am I making the mistake. I’m good at lifting weights, doing drop sets and super sets and following multi joint exercises. I hit each body part with my exercise selection. Please help me through this situation.”

Realistically speaking, you’re all over the place and you really need to reel yourself in. That said five things immediately jump out at me.

  1. I doubt you know if you gained muscle or lost fat because you’re probably not tracking it and you’re just going off your ‘gut’ or ‘feeling’ → bad idea ...
  2. What does ‘eating clean’ mean? And why is it only during the day?
  3. You’ll all over the place in your questioning/reasoning, so you probably have a difficult time focusing on doing one thing well and seeing how it goes.
  4. You’re drawing a correlation between protein intake and total intake. Not the same thing.
  5. Since when does using a particular strategy like drop sets, super sets or multi-joint exercises mean that you’re good at lifting weights?

Muscle Tracking

I won’t talk about this ad nauseam because I already have. Please read this:

Measuring What’s Important
[https://flic.kr/p/cmJSB5]If you’re a competitive body-builder, or high-levelathlete, then being really specific with what you keep track of makes sense. If you train to train, then yes, keeping track of every little thing that goeson in your training program or in your mouth might be a good i…

How do you know if you gained muscle or fat?

Because without fail the number one thing I discover during my initial client info/discovery sessions is people aren't tracking the results with anything meaningful beyond scale weight. The scale is unreliable on it's own.

If you’re not tracking you’re just guessing.

In other words, you probably have no idea if you’ve gained muscle mass or lost fat if you don’t have a way of tracking those things — at a minimum this should be girth and weight, not just weight like everyone relies too heavily on.

Then you have to use that actual, real, hard data that can’t lie to you. And base future changes to your diet/exercise plan based on what it tells you.

If your arm girth is going down, you're probably losing fat in that area, because if you're lifting we'd expect this area to go up. You may want to add arm volume or change your approach to arm training a bit if that were the case.

Likewise for basically all areas of your body save your neck/waist. These are areas in your body that we expect to stay relatively the same unless you're gaining fat mass.

So start actually tracking with numbers already and stop relying on how you look or feel or what the scale says, because that scale and your intuition are probably wrong.

We all do it. Like every other human being, you’re biased. Whether your realize that or not, so if you have body image issues like many of us do, you’re probably always going to ‘feel skinny’ or ‘look skinny.’

And the flip side could be said about someone who wants to lose fat and isn’t managing their psychology. If you feel or look fat in your mind, you could lose 10 or 20 or 30 pounds and still look or feel ‘fat’ in your own mind, even if everyone else around you has noticed you’re looking great!

You have to not only track, but manage your psychology.

Clean Eating

Is such a garbage term. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but it is. It's too subjective. Every time a person tells me ‘they eat clean’ I have to ask them what that means because it means different things to different people.

If a term can change it's meaning from person to person like that, that easily, it's not concrete enough to be useful as a descriptor.

A garbage term is something that holds no real meaning, or at least has no consistent meaning from person to person.

All the foods you list are on the better side of the spectrum in my books but that’s likely only a very small part of what you're actually eating consistently. That you mention that you only do this during the day, suggests it falls apart in the evening. That could very well be a big part of your problem.

You could eat a ton of low spectrum foods at night for all I know and completely revert the effects of any high spectrum foods you might eat during the day.

People tend to exclude all the things they know they shouldn’t be eating when they casually or mentally review what they eat.

That’s why you do a food log and log everything that you eat over a period of time. So you have a real sense of what you actually eat and not just a perception.

It’s really hard to be honest with yourself, but you have to be.

While I'm not big on calorie counting per se, they do matter. Eating high quality foods is a step in the right direction, but even high quality ingredients can tip you above or below your needs.

And clearly that's the case here. You're probably still not eating enough to build muscle. This is probably the #1 mistake I see when it comes to people trying to build muscle mass. They simply aren't eating enough.

They all think they are, but if they were, you'd see that in the results. If your training is good and the scale weight isn't going up, you've got to eat more still. No matter what that macro or calorie counter online told you. You can rely on the real-world results, not estimated formulas.

Lack of Focus

When things aren't going well it's really easy for your mind to lose focus. You bounce from issue to issue, thought to thought, looking for anything that seems plausibly wrong. Only to find nothing.

The best thing to do is to zero in on the one thing you're pretty confident improving upon will make a difference. Then ruthlessly focus your energy on that one thing for a few weeks or even a month or two.

You need time to know if changes are working, and if you don't give yourself that time and space to focus on improving one thing, you'll never know what changes you've made lead to the improvement.

You want precision, not a shotgun approach.

If your protein is as dialled in as you claim, then obviously that’s not the issue, so it doesn’t really bear mentioning. You mentioned several times all the things you’re more or less ‘doing right.’

Again, if you were doing everything right as you claim, that would be reflected in the results. There is clearly room for improvement.

I get a number of inquiries like this every month and digging deeper, without fail, there is something you're doing poorly that you've convinced yourself you're doing right.

If you assume what you're doing is right, despite the evidence telling you otherwise, then you're in the wrong mental space for solving this problem.

And it's not like you're being dishonest or lying to me (or yourself) either. It's that you've blinded yourself to the reality of the situation.

It's called denial, and it's a very real human mentality designed to protect us from ourselves and our egos. It's perfectly natural and normal. It's how the human brain tends to rationalize things around it, that it doesn't or can't fully comprehend. Usually brought on by a lack of awareness. Hopefully this post is bringing you some awareness.

Look, I do this professionally. I know more about what I’m doing in this regard than most and I still often make mistakes. It's okay to make mistakes, so long as you learn and grow from them.

It find it best to assume you're not doing things right, because there are always areas you can improve upon if you keep an open mind.

That means don’t focus on the stuff you already think you’re doing well because you’re already doing it well, focus on improving some other thing.

One other thing only.

In this case, maybe it is protein intake, but it could be carb intake, it could be fat intake, maybe it’s post-workout nutrition. I’ll get to the workout bit in a sec, but more than likely you’re just not getting enough calories in because that’s what 90% of the people I see in this situation fail to do.

That or you are gaining weight, you’re just not happy that it comes with some fat. Lean gains are tough. See my point about managing your psychology above.

Goal Dilution

The other component of that lack of focus comes down to something called goal dilution, which I discussed here.

"He who chases two hares, leaves one and loses the other." ~ Ancient Chinese Proverb

Whenever you have more than one goal, you dilute your chances of succeeding at either of them. You’re appear to be a little too concerned about gaining some fat along with muscle. You can’t serve two masters and well gaining some fat along with the muscle is probably going to happen anyway, despite your best efforts. That's very often how it works.

That or your neuroticism and precision have to be so incredibly dialled in that you have no time for nearly anything else but eating and training. Most people simply don't have that kind of time or energy.

It’s hard to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time if you're not a beginner. And if you’re been training for 3 years, you’re shouldn’t be a beginner anymore. Meaning those days of gaining some muscle and losing fat at the same time just by chance are probably over. Assuming your training is up to snuff as you indicate.

Unfortunately for you, if you want to gain muscle, some fat is usually going to come along for the ride. You don’t really get to selectively choose what tissue your body creates when in energy excess.

You can favour lean mass gains by lifting weights and keeping protein intake high, but you’ll either gain weight painfully slow by minimizing fat gain (small calorie surplus) or some fat gain is going to come along for the ride (big calorie surplus).

Note: Fat loss readers, the same can be said for fat loss. Often people lose some muscle mass when they lose weight, which isn’t desirable but it happens. Something to keep in mind, it’s also one reason it’s important to track more than just weight.

You probably need to focus on just one goal. And if you’re tracking progress or lack-there-of well (see above) then you’ll see when it may be time to switch to a fat loss goal, and vice versa.


Not much more to be said here, your protein intake according to you is either 2 grams per kilogram (probably about right) or 2 grams per pound (probably overkill but certainly not doing any harm). Both should be fine.

Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash (You don't need to eat ALL the meats)

However, high protein intakes largely maintain muscle mass and prevent muscle loss, they don’t help you gain muscle mass unless you lift (more on that below) and ALSO eat an excess of energy from carbs and/or fat.

Without an excess there isn’t any energy leftover to build muscle.

It’s doubtful that you’re getting enough excess energy intake, just from protein.

Honestly, it’s hard for people to reach high protein intakes and still reach excess energy intakes because most protein sources are so satiating. Protein also converts poorly into energy or for fat storage. What I often see is people ramp up protein intake, only for their total food intake to drop dramatically. It’s kind of a catch 22.

Protein is really satiating, so when you prioritize it, it's not uncommon to dramatically drop your intakes of carbs and/or fats in the process. Those are much better sources of energy for your surplus.

This is another reason increasing protein intake is so effective for fat loss (among other reasons).

Ultimately if your protein intake is really high, it might be lowering your true calorie intake by mistake in the process. Protein intakes should still be reasonably high but you also have to be very careful that your total intake doesn’t drop either. You may have to rely on some lower spectrum foods for this that most people would not call 'clean eating.'

Sometimes the faster digesting carbs or the fattier cuts of meat have a purpose and this might be one such purpose, to help people get their intakes up high enough for gains. Training hard gives you a lot more buffer for these fun foods.

There is generally some cognitive dissonance in this regard. A very real problem with people focusing intently on "eating clean" which generally translates into whole foods. Well whole foods are a lot harder to consume 5000 kcal of. Sorry but it's true.

And you may have to resort to some lower spectrum foods to fill in the difference some of the time, or at the very least consider some liquid calories.

Depending on who you talk to it will still require at least a few hundred extra calories above your needs per day to gain mass. Larger excessive intakes, lead to faster results generally, but come with more fat gains and smaller excessive intakes lead to slower results generally, but tend to minimize fat gains.

It's a choice to take the longer slower road. But a lot of people opt for faster, knowing they can probably shift their eating and training and lose fat easier with less muscle loss along the way by comparison.

It’s really up to you what path you want to take, but you might want to consider at least looking at your real intake by tracking your food for a few days. Then also using a formula to get your estimated needs too. Then tweak from there.

As a starting point 16 kcal x your bodyweight in pounds (x2.2 if you’re starting with kilograms) but it could be up to 18, or more in some cases (highly active individual for instance) or as low as 14 kcal in other cases (smaller women for example, or people who want to add mass more slowly with less fat gains).

I’m a fan of the Cunningham equation for more accuracy but it’s still only an estimate.

You still have to track to make sure you gain girth/weight and I find that’s the better thing to focus on. It tells you what the real world results are, because your numbers are probably wrong anyway.

That’s not to say they aren’t worth figuring out sometimes, but rather most people do a calculation and assume it’s right, when 99% of the time it isn’t. Plus it changes as you lose and/or gain muscle mass or other weight.

If your protein intake remains high and you’re lifting, then that’s about the best you can do for encouraging as much of it to be muscle mass as most people can. So take a deeper look at your total intake.

The easiest things to do for most skinny people trying to gain muscle mass:

  1. Ramp up how quickly they eat (most eat way too slowly so they don’t get enough food in at each sitting).
  2. Bump up liquid calorie intake (milk/dairy and/or protein shakes) to fight feeling too full all the time from all the other food you have to eat to maintain a reasonably balanced diet.

Weight Training for Muscle

Since when does doing drop sets or supersets mean you’re good at weight lifting? These are warm and fuzzy training methodologies that people use to mask what really matters. They certainly feel hard and both can make training very time efficient but the methods don't tell us a lot about the things that matter.

Load on the Bar. Or in your hand, or on the weight stack…etc…

Realistically speaking, drop sets and supersets aren’t always that great and most research suggests they are about as effective as traditional sets when they don't manage to increase training volume and can obviously take less time to complete – the latter being their principle advantage in the grand scheme of things. A fun way to mix up your training if you're more of an intermediate lifter, sure. But they don't absolve you from sticking to the basic principles of progressive overload.


  1. Volume Load of Training = Reps x Sets x Weight Lifted
  2. Volume of Training = # of Sets

That you include these training approaches doesn't tell me anything about how good a lifter you are.

Supersets, same thing. Are they paired sets? Or same-muscle-group supersets? Because the latter probably isn't as effective as you might believe.

If you’re doing them the way I recommend (as in paired sets) whereby you use them to save time, then fine. That still doesn’t tell me if you’re a good lifter or not.

I get the suspicion that you use them in a far more common bodybuilding manner — also called pre-exhaustion sets.

In the latter case, you’d do bench press, then chest flies, then tricep pushdown for example. Effectively training all the same muscle groups back to back working from big to small in this case — though you could do them the other direction too.

Again research suggests this is only a good way to increase volume, but tells me nothing about how good a lifter you actually are. If you match supersets by volume to more conventional training, more conventional training tends to win.

Bottomline: You don’t need a fancy or cool-sounding training protocol to gain muscle mass 9 times out of 10.

Nor do these training approaches indicate how advanced you are as a lifter. Weight on the bar predominantly tells me that.

Realistically, you sound like a beginner with advanced aspirations. One who is convinced they are much more advanced than they are. I’m almost positive you’re doing some crazy 4-6 day split too that hits muscles once a week, ignoring the fact you’re a natural lifter. You'd likely benefit from a frequency of 2x a week.

Keep it simple and add load. You don't need anything that fancy to be effective and the most effective stuff is decidedly unsexy.

If you’ve been lifting weight for 3 years you should be an intermediate level relative to your bodyweight on these charts.

If you are, then you can probably forget everything else I said above.

OK maybe not everything…

In Closing

Long story short, most of us lie to ourselves about how well we’re doing (or even how poorly we’re doing) whether we realize we are or not. That’s the most important pattern you have to remove yourself from. The pattern of denial.

I can easily see a few places you probably need improvement. But the number one thing you need to start doing is being more honest with yourself. Particularly how well you’ve progressed with your nutrition and how good a lifter you actually are.

Again, if you're doing well, that will be reflected in your results. If you're not doing well, you won't see much in the way of results. That's your clue.

Once you accept that you’re likely not doing everything right (few are, not even me) you’ll make your life easier. Then you’ll start working to improve things.

Go back to the drawing board and attack things one at a time.