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Why You Aren’t Gaining Muscle (and What to Do About It)

That fitness expert on Instagram with glutes that seem to defy gravity can make you wonder, “How does she do that?!” It’s true, everyone’s body is built differently and doesn’t put on muscle the same way. By learning more about your muscles, you’ll discover the best way to get that lifted booty.

1. Muscle Can Maintain Your Weight

Functionally, muscles protect your bones, organs, and tissues—and even help you heal quickly. Kathryn Sansone, a certified fitness trainer and the founder of GreekGirl Beauty Protein, adds that muscles can also be important to maintain your weight. “Muscle requires more energy and therefore burns more calories than fat,” she says. “The more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism is.” More muscle means burning more at rest, plus being able to work harder during your workouts. Double-win.

2. It Can Also Cause Gains, So Don’t Panic

Women might worry when they see the number on the scale go up. “A pound is a pound no matter what, but the volume of one pound of muscle is much smaller than one pound of fat,” says Jacklyn Sklaver, NASM personal trainer and CISSN sports nutritionist. Instead, measure your waist, your hips, and your body fat percentage to keep track of your physical progress.

3. Strength-Train for Optimal Results

Sklaver recommends women strength-train four times a week to see results. “Some women can stick to only weight training with no cardio,” she explains. “Others may need to do cardio 30 minutes a day three to five times a week for the best results.” Sklaver adds that it’s also beneficial to add compound movements (total-body exercises) to burn more calories. “Full-body workouts are ideal for maximum muscle growth,” she says. “The more a body part is used, the more hypertrophy that occurs.” Focus on working the largest muscle groups in the body: the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Training the upper body in conjunction helps create an hourglass shape. You can cut back on that treadmill time, too—Sklaver says too much cardio can lead to difficulty gaining muscle.

4. “Bulking Up” Is Rarely a Thing

Don’t be afraid that you’ll come out of the weight room looking like John Cena. “Women who are ‘bulky’ are following a nutritional plan, have been working out for many many years, and may have goals of increasing strength rather than body composition,” says Sklaver. It takes A LOT more effort to gain muscle than to gain or lose fat. Meaning if you lift weights, you won’t become huge right away. If you are prone to bulking up, Sklaver advises focusing on your nutrition. “Find a daily caloric and macronutrient intake, meal prep, and eat for performance and recovery.”

5. Men Build It More Easily Than Women

Our male counterparts produce more testosterone—the hormone responsible for growth, and are also genetically built to have bigger muscle fibers, which helps them gain more mass. Women produce more estrogen, which means our bodies naturally carry more body fat than lean muscle. Body type and genetics can also play a role in that body composition, but fortunately so can nutrition.

6. Your Diet Plays a Major Part

“Muscle requires the right amount of nutrients to grow. That includes protein, carbs, and fat,” says Lisa Avellino, director of fitness at NY Health & Wellness. She suggests keeping a training and food diary to minimize guesswork and measure your results. Sklaver agrees with Avellino and adds that starving yourself and not eating enough protein can keep you from seeing results. “Muscles are made of protein, so they need protein to grow,” Sklaver says. “Complete proteins are any lean animal source, dairy, eggs, fish, and some protein powders.” For vegetarians, opt for quinoa, buckwheat, or soybeans, or combine nuts with whole grains to make a complete protein. Many plant-based foods are incomplete proteins, making it harder for the body to absorb enough nutrients. “A good rule of thumb is that you have to eat 30 percent more of an incomplete protein to equal the same benefit of a complete protein source,” she explains.

7. Check for Underlying Health Conditions

Sometimes your inability to put on muscle could have to do with health conditions you may not be aware of. Sklaver says it’s important to find out if you have any conditions that may affect your metabolism, endocrine system, or thyroid. You should also make sure you’re getting enough sleepto cut your recovery time. According to Avellino, our human growth hormone (HGH) levels are highest when we are asleep. “Many studies suggest an association between a lack of sleep and high cortisol levels,” she explains. “Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that is linked with stress and can break down muscle tissue.” Building muscle and reducing stress go hand in hand.

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