Ladies: 7 Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle

Gaining muscle as a woman is NOT easy, but there are many mistakes that I commonly see women make that make it even harder. 

The fact is, most women(there are exceptions, as always) need to work WAY harder than men to build muscle due to our lower testosterone. It takes years and years of concentrated focus and consistent training and eating with the sole intention of building muscle to ever achieve a muscular physique. 

And remember, if your goal is to be “toned”, then your goal is to build muscle. Without muscle, you will either be skinny, fat, or skinny fat…but you will not be toned.

Here are a few reasons why you may not be gaining muscle: 

1. You’re doing too much cardio(seriously, cut it back and focus on lifting). 

Women often make cardio the focus of their training. They mistakenly think that they need to be dripping in sweat or keeping their heart rate elevated throughout their whole workout for it to be effective. Cardio is NOT bad, but it should be secondary to weight lifting if muscle building is the goal. I think most women would be amazed at what would happen if they cut back on the hours of running, or spin classes, or elliptical workouts they’re doing and instead put their focus and effort into lifting weights and building muscle.  A few days of cardio or short HIIT workouts won’t hurt you, but excessive cardio will definitely hinder muscle building.

2. You’re not lifting heavy enough and getting STRONGER on the basic, compound lifts.

Many women just don’t train heavy enough with the right exercises to force the muscles to grow. Muscles need progressive overload, meaning as you get stronger, you must challenge them in new ways. Over time, you should be getting stronger and adding more weight to the bar, little by little. No, you may not be able to go up in weight every week, especially the more advanced you are, but if you’re getting stronger on the compound lifts over time, you’re going to be much more successful at building muscle than if all you focus on is feeling the “burn”. 

3.You never train with lower reps.

Have you been training in the 12-15 rep range for as long as you can remember? That seems to be the rep range most women get “stuck” in, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a fear of getting injured with heavier weights, or it’s just what they’ve been told is the best rep range for “toning”. Regardless, by never training with heavier weights in the lower rep range, you are definitely holding yourself back from making progress. I’ve found some of my greatest muscle gains were made in the 5-8 rep range with heavy weights. Higher reps most definitely can be effective, but you should make sure to include some lower rep training into your workouts as well.

4. You don’t take rest days.

Here’s the thing: you’re not actually building muscle in the gym. Your muscles grow OUTSIDE of the gym with adequate sleep, food, rest and recovery. Taking a few days off from the gym to allow the muscles to repair themselves will NOT hinder your progress, but most likely will enhance it. I’ve found 4-5 days in the gym to be plenty for most women. Don’t fear rest days!

5. You’re not eating enough CARBS. 

For so many women, it is ingrained in their minds that carbs are bad and will make them fat. Ladies, it is NOT true! Repeat after me: “Carbs are not bad. They will not make me fat.” Yes, you need to balance your caloric intake between protein, carbs, and fats, but CARBS are the muscle’s best friend! You will only be spinning your wheels if you are trying to gain muscle while only eating protein, fats and vegetables. If you want to gain muscle, start by adding in some carbs before and after a workout. Then slowly work up from there, and watch the gains commence.

6. You don’t eat before and after workouts.

If you want to build muscle, you need to fuel your body properly before and after workouts. Training fasted may be okay for low intensity exercise, or for fat loss, but it is NOT ideal for muscle building. Muscles use glucose(stored carbohydrates) as energy to contract when lifting weights. Having a carbohydrate and protein based meal will give you the energy your body needs to push harder during your workouts. Also, because weight training depletes muscle glycogen, you want to make sure that you replenish those glycogen stores after a workout with another protein and carbohydrate based meal soon after working out. Feel the muscles!

7. You’re scared of gaining body fat. 

This is a big one. It’s extremely hard to build muscle while trying to stay super lean. Many women make the mistake of constantly trying to diet for fat loss but build muscle at the same time. Men may be able to get away with this, but for most women, it’s next to impossible. I know, I know, you want abs, but look-they aren’t going anywhere. Your abs will always be there to be revealed at a later time if you so choose to. The thing is, anyone can lean down. But it takes HARD WORK to build your body UP and to create a solid, muscular physique. If you want fuller glutes, rounder shoulders, and bigger biceps, you may have to sacrifice those 6 pack abs for a while.

A Day Of Eating

This is what a day of eating normally looks like for me on a training day. I no longer meticulously track macros, but from doing so in the past, I do have an idea of what I’m taking in and how many calories I’m getting. The main guidelines I follow are to include a protein, carb and fat source at almost every meal, and consuming the highest amount of carbs post workout.
8:00 Meal 1(pre workout):
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1/2-3/4 cup oats, 1/2 banana, 1 spoonful of peanut butter, 1 scoop MuscleTech platinum whey protein, coffee with half &half
 11:30-ish Meal 2(post workout)
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Platinum Iso-whey protein with almond milk and either 2 cups of cereal, English muffin topped with banana, or a fruit smoothie
 1:30 Meal 3
2 eggs, 2 egg whites scrambled with mushrooms and sprinkled with mozzarella cheese, 6 oz(ish?) red potatoes roasted in olive oil
4:30 Meal 4
3-4 oz chicken (sometimes on a small salad of romaine lettuce with lite Italian or Bolthouse Ranch dressing) serving of fruit on the side
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7:30 Meal 5
1 cup Basmati rice mixed with about 4 oz ground turkey(mix of 93/99%) and 2 spoonfuls of salsa OR 1 cup whole wheat pasta and no added sugar pasta sauce mixed with ground turkey or lean beef
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10:30 Meal 6
1/2-1 cup of cottage cheese, 2 spoonfuls peanut butter, one rice cake
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From Rice Cakes to Cupcakes: A Bikini Competitor’s Journey to Food Freedom

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: fitness and nutrition should not make you miserable.

I am NOT against clean eating. I’m NOT against tracking macros. I’mNOT against losing fat or wanting to improve your physique. I’m NOTagainst competing in fitness competitions.

What I AM against is when any of these things begin to take over your life and CONSUMEyou.

What I’m against is when it gets to the point where your eating and training adds MOREstress to your life, rather than enhancing your life.

What I’m against is being a slave to food and workouts.

What I’m against is punishing yourself for eating “bad”, or feeling guilt over having a piece of cake at a birthday party.

What I’m against is when your abs, or your muscles, or your weight, or your body fat percentage, or the way you eat, or how much you can lift becomes where your find your identity and fulfillment.

It’s because I’ve been there myself that I feel so passionate about helping others realize that there is MORE TO LIFE. Fitness is and always will be a big part of my life; it’s just something that I LOVE. But there is a difference between wanting to be fit and strong and healthy and being obsessed and consumed by it. What I want to show is that you absolutely CAN enjoy life, not stress and obsess about training and nutrition, and eat LOTS of yummy foods, all the while still reaching your goals AND having the physique you desire.

As I’ve mentioned before, I frequently receive E-mails and Facebook messages from women asking me for advice, or just thanking me for the things I post about finding balance when it comes to fitness and nutrition. One such person contacted me a few years ago because she found my blog and related to my story. I can’t tell you how many women have contacted me over the years asking for advice, and I’m always happy to help and to respond. Usually they thank me for the response, and that’s that. But for some reason, Kristen and I just clicked, and we have since then become good friends and still talk to this day.

In the past few years, I’ve learned about her story and her history with competing, her struggles and issues with food and “clean” eating, and I asked if she would like to share some of that with my blog readers. I thought it would be helpful to others who have been through or are currently going through a similar situation, to show that you CAN find balance, and that you CAN find freedom.

Here is Kristen’s story:

I first became interested in fitness when I saw Alicia Marie on the cover of Oxygen magazine. I was amazed at her sculpted arms and chiseled abs and decided right then and there that I wanted to achieve that physique.
Even at 18, I had a body that resembled a 12 year old boy with scrawny arms and legs and no hips or butt, and I had been teased about my small stature on several occasions. I immediately bought a gym membership and followed the workouts that were posted in Oxygen magazine religiously.
Not too long after I started working out did I receive several compliments from other gym goers on how good I looked. I was even told that I should compete in bodybuilding. At the time I had no clue what competing entailed or what these competitors even looked like, so I did my research and fell in love with the idea of stepping on stage in a sparkly bikini and flexing my hard earned muscles.
However, I still thought I looked so small compared to these girls! And it was then that I started my first “bulk.” I successfully gained 10 pounds in the matter of three months. I had definitely put on a lot of muscle, but also some fat as well, although I didn’t view myself as fat at all since I had only received positive comments thus far. I felt ready to compete!
I contacted the guy who ran a local NPC bodybuilding competition near me and made an appointment to meet with him. During the meeting he said I looked incredible, and after assessing my physique, determined that I should start out in the bikini division.
My first competition turned out great! I had an amazing time and placed third. The judges said that I looked incredible, and I was immediately hooked and decided to do another competition the weekend after.
It was at that competition that my self-image turned for the worst. I received positive feedback from these judges as well about my physique, except for one. He said I carried way too much fat in my glutes and thighs. Even though the majority of the judges said I looked good, that negative comment was what stuck with me.
From that point on my life revolved around clean eating and training. My diet consisted of chicken, turkey, beef, eggs and egg whites, whey protein, oats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, nuts, olive oil, peanut butter, fruits, and veggies. And that was it. Everything was weighed and measured and logged into My Fitness Pal. I refused to eat out at restaurants and packed my food in Tupperware to family events. I lifted 6 days a week and did conditioning every day, sometimes twice a day if the number on the scale was not where I wanted it to be.
I was still not satisfied with my progress and decided to hire a coach, who got me more shredded than I could ever imagine. My diet became even more limited, with grapefruit being my only fruit source. At 4 weeks out my whey protein and peanut butter were cut and I subsisted on 1000 calories a day in addition to my intense training. I was extremely tired and hungry all the time, but being lean was more important to me than my health. Plus, isn’t this what it took? Everything I had read even told me that it is normal to feel this way during contest prep.
No matter how much I wanted to quit I stuck to my diet and training. The most I ever “cheated” was after eating my rice cake, eating the crumbs that were left at the bottom of the package and crying hysterically because I thought I was a failure for eating more than my allotted rice cake. The ironic thing was, I placed third in that competition as well.
After the final judging, I was craving sugar like crazy but settled for an apple until the competition was over and I could go out to eat. I immediately felt nauseous because my body was not used to the sugar and I ended up going straight home. It took a while for my body to get used to eating a normal amount again as well as getting my strength to return, yet competing had become such a huge part of my life that I didn’t know any other way to live. I was so used to following a meal plan and strict training program.
I decided I wanted to start prepping for another competition. My former coach no longer worked at my gym, but one of the other members at my gym offered to be my coach. However, the relationship turned into more than a coach/client one. We ended up dating until he suddenly found someone he was more interested in. Needless to say he also no longer wanted to be my coach.
Even though we only dated briefly I was devastated. While many girls handle a broken heart by drowning their sorrows in a carton of Ben and Jerrys, I used the gym as a means of coping. My usual one hour workouts turned into 4. I was addicted to sprinting until my legs burned and lifting until my muscles felt like they were going to explode. I felt the need to punish myself for not being “good enough” for that guy.
One day when I was on Facebook, I came across an article that featured Lindsay, with a link to her blog. Her blog featured her workouts and what she ate, and I was intrigued. I didn’t understand how she could look so great while only lifting a few days a week and eating foods like cereal and ice cream!
Even more importantly, she looked HAPPY. Whereas I, on the other hand, was miserable choking down tilapia and asparagus and spending all of my spare time in the gym. So I decided to reach out to her and soon enough, we became friends and were communicating on a regular basis.
She helped me transition from working out 4 hours a day to 4 hours a week and slowly introduce foods into my diet that I hadn’t eaten in 3 years, such as bread and yogurt (and later on, cereal and ice cream). I cannot begin to thank her enough as to how much she has helped me these past 3 years.
I actually look forward to going to the gym. I no longer dread my workouts, and sure, the workouts are challenging, but not near to the point where I feel like I am going to die! I also enjoy all of my meals and include way more variety than I ever imagined possible. I am now able to go out to eat and take days off from the gym.
I am slowly learning that there is more to life than fitness. I am currently dating someone whose life does not revolve around meal prepping and lifting, and I admire him for this. He loves to travel and try new foods, and I look forward to learning more about life outside of the gym.

I do still struggle with body image, but I am also slowly learning that being healthy is more important than having shredded abs. I hope that by sharing my story I can help others to come to these realizations as well.

I think it’s so awesome that Kristen went from eating a very low carb, low calorie, super strict “clean eating” meal plan, to now eating bread, cereal, and many other previously “forbidden” foods. She now eats enough to fuel her heavy lifting and is no longer a slave to her food scale or MyFitnessPal. She is healthier, stronger, and much happier now, and I am just glad to have been able to help her in some way to reach this point. I’m so proud of her for how far she has come.

I truly hope that the days of coaches giving out cookie cutter, 1000 calorie meals plans consisting of egg whites, fish, asparagus, and grapefruit are over. If you are thinking about hiring a nutrition coach or doing a show, please do your research. If the meal plan looks like that, say “Thanks, but no thanks,” and run far, far away. Losing fat and getting shredded is NOT worth damaging your health and/or ruining your relationship with food in the long run.