For months, you’ve been putting in serious hours at the gym, eating all the right things and chugging water like there’s no tomorrow. But whether you want to pack on muscle, get 6-pack abs or squat double your own body weight, you’re just not reaching your goals as quickly as you’d like. So, what’s going on? Provided you’re following a solid plan, are being consistent and aren’t expecting results overnight, one of these surprising culprits could be to blame.
You’re not fuelling your body correctly
Those gigantic, muscly guys chugging protein shakes at your gym aren’t just doing it because they like the taste, or because they think it looks cool (well, hopefully not!) If you want to gain muscle, it’s essential to consume protein within 1-2 hours of your workout. This is because of the ‘anabolic window’ where your body requires protein to rebuild the damaged muscle tissue. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean downing a protein shake right after your workout, it can just be having a protein-rich meal once you get home.
What you eat before your sessions matters, too. Chowing down on complex carbs (think oats, brown rice or sweet potatoes) will give you a slow-release of fuel for your session. Pairing it with a source of protein will also help put you on the front foot for your post-workout recovery.
It’s crucial to ensure you’re eating the right amount of kilojoules for your training goal, too. If you want to lose fat, you need to consume less kilojoules than you burn in a day. If you want to lay down some muscle, you need to be in a kilojoule surplus so that the body can maintain protein synthesis. Unfortunately, you can’t really do both at the same time. There are plenty of online calculators that tell you how many kilojoules you should be eating, based on what you want to achieve. While you don’t want to become too obsessed with kilojoule counting, you might find it useful to track your kilojoule intake for a week to see where you’re at.
You’re doing too much cardio
A common mistake is thinking you need to spend hours on the treadmill to drop body fat and gain muscle. But going overboard on the cardio can actually have the opposite effect. Doing long stretches of steady-state cardio (like jogging or using the elliptical) can release the body’s stress hormone, cortisol. This causes your body to cling onto fat for dear life, especially if you’re already stressed. Overdoing the cardio can also make it really difficult to gain muscle or even cause you to lose it, particularly if you’re not fuelling your body correctly.
For this reason, HIIT (high intensity interval training) is my preferred type of training for my clients. Think 30 seconds of all-out sprints followed by 40 seconds of recovery, repeated for 20 minutes. This type of training boosts the hormones involved in fat burning, as well as increasing the amount of calories the body burns during the 24-hour recovery period.
You’re not getting enough rest
More is not always more when it comes to your training. While it can be tempting to hit the gym every single day when you’ve got your eye on the prize, you could actually be doing yourself a disservice. When you lift weights, your muscles break down — causing microscopic tears. It’s during the rest process that these muscles (as well as the body tissue, nerves and bone) grow back stronger — leading to what we call ‘gains.’ However, if you go back and work the exact same muscle group the next day, they won’t be able to sufficiently regenerate. This is why it’s so crucial to make rest a priority. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least one day before training the same muscle groups.
Sleep is also an incredibly important part of the regenerative process. During REM (the deep part of your sleep cycle) your body produces more of the growth hormone, somatotropin. This is what repairs and rebuilds your muscle. If you’re not getting enough high quality shut-eye, you could be missing out on the muscle-boosting benefits. Plus, when you’re not getting enough sleep, your body produces more cortisol – which as we know, can lead to fat storage! To help you get a decent night’s slumber, it’s a good idea to create a relaxing sleep routine and shut off all electronics at least an hour before bed.
You need to get a grip
Maybe, you actually can lift that heavier barbell or do that extra pull-up. Maybe, you just need to get a grip! Having poor grip strength can really limit your progress in the gym, especially when it comes to upper body exercises. Many of my clients become discouraged because they feel like they can’t lift a certain weight. But often, they actually can — it’s just that their hands give out before their other muscles do! Your hands can be trained just like any other part of your body and a great way to do this is by regularly practicing ‘hangs’— hanging from a bar for as long as possible. I also tell my clients to make sure they grip the weights or pull-up bar the correct way: directly in the crease of the hand, where the palm meets the fingers. This helps to stabilise the hand movement and reduce friction.
It’s also really important to take good care of your hands. They go through a lot — not only in the gym, but also at this time of year when they’re exposed to the cold, wind and artificial heating. Dry hands are more likely to crack and rip, which can make training really uncomfortable. It’s essential to keep them hydrated by moisturising at least twice a week with a high-strength hand cream like Tough Hands. It’s enriched with Vitamin E, AHA’s and Urea, which are all designed to exfoliate away dryness and improve skin texture and suppleness.
By William Dawson – Certified PT and Health& Wellbeing advisor