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7 Reasons You’re Not Gaining Muscles

Many people tend to overlook the importance of nutrition when it comes to their muscle-building efforts. They focus on strength training, but not crucial anabolic (muscle-building) factors like eating enough calories and protein, vitamin D optimization, and sleep quality.

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As a result, many people, some of them call themselves hardgainers, struggle for years with very little muscle gain results to show for it.

In this article, we’ll cover 7 commonly overlooked factors that can keep you from achieving the muscle growth of your dreams.

1. You’re not eating enough calories

The anabolic process requires a lot of energy to build muscles. Your body burns around 2500 – 2800 calories to synthesize each pound of lean muscle. This means you need to consume more calories than you burn. 

First, start with finding out how many calories you burn each day. 

Estimating calorie expenditure could be tricky, especially because the daily requirements vary from person to person. It depends on your activity levels, muscle mass, age, gender, and many other factors. The only way to accurately measure calorie expenditure is to measure all the oxygen and carbon dioxide that comes out of you, which is only possible in a metabolic chamber in a research facility.

Instead, you can plug in a few numbers into a formula that can help you estimate your daily calorie expenditure, such as the Harris-Benedict BMR formula. It’s a relatively good estimate of daily caloric expenditure. However, it may not be accurate for those who are very muscular or very fat. 

pasta plate

There are two steps to calorie calculation through this formula: 

Step 1: Estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR)

  • For men:
  • BMR = 66.47 + (13.75 x weight in kg) + (5.003 x height in cm) – (6.755 x age in years)
  • Or
  • BMR = 66.47 + (13.75 x weight in  pounds x 0.4536) + (5.003 x height in inch x 2.54) – (6.755 x age in years)
  • For women:
  • BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in kg) + (1.850 x height in cm) – (4.676 x age in years)
  • Or
  • BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in pounds x 0.4536) + (1.850 x height in inch x 2.54) – (4.676 x age in years)

Step 2: Estimate your active metabolic rate (AMR)

Multiply your AMR with a specified number for various activity levels. 

  • Sedentary lifestyle AMR = BMR x 1.2
  • Slightly active lifestyle (exercise 1–3 days/week) AMR = BMR x 1.375
  • Moderately active lifestyle (exercise 3–5 days/week) AMR = BMR x 1.55
  • Active lifestyle (exercise 6–7 days/week) AMR = BMR x 1.725
  • Very active lifestyle (hard exercise 6–7 days/week) AMR = BMR x 1.9

So, if you are are a 40-year-old male with a moderately active lifestyle and are 183 cm (72 inches) in height and weigh 85 kg (187.3 lb), then your BMR would be: 

BMR = 66.47 + (13.75 x 85) + (5.003 x 183) – (6.755 x 40)BMR = 1881 calories/dayNow, AMR = BMR x 1.55 = 2916 calories/day

Then, your total daily calorie requirement is therefore 2916 calories if you wish to maintain your current weight. Building muscles would require more calories than 2916. It’s a good idea to start with 500 extra calories per day, so you will consume around 3416 calories/day. Then, monitor for muscle and fat gain after a few weeks and adjust accordingly.

2. You’re not eating enough protein

Protein is the #1 most important macronutrient for muscle gain, weight loss, and better athletic performance. It’s a key nutrient for muscle protein synthesis and helps repair muscle fibers. Protein is a part of several crucial body processes and is also a building block for hormones and enzymes. The amount of muscle proteins in your body exceeds that of other proteins. That’s why adequate protein intake is essential for muscle building and effective muscle functions. Now, how much protein intake do you need?

Protein needs vary from person to person. Factors like activity level, weight, height, and others affect individual protein requirements. Many people rely on the recommended daily allowance (RDAs) to check their micro and macronutrient needs. However, you should remember that RDA is the bare minimal intake. Most people need more to stay healthy, and even more for muscle maintenance and enhancing muscle mass. If you do intense physical activity for muscle building, consider taking 1.6-2.4 g/kg (0.73-1.10 g/lb) protein.

Aside from eating enough protein every day, you should also spread it out across all your meals. How often you eat the protein is also important because the more frequently you cross the mTOR activation threshold, the more often you’ll stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The upper daily intake of 0.998 g/lb body weight/day requires 0.249 g/lb of body weight/meal spread out over four meals. Consider adding protein to each meal of the day. 

Looking for some ways to increase your protein intake? Read our article on 13 Ways to Increase Your Protein Intake. 

woman drinking protein shake

3. You’re not sleeping enough or your sleep quality sucks

Disrupted sleep could lead to fat gain and muscle loss. Persistent sleep loss could be a potent catabolic stressor, which reduces muscle function and may impair muscle protein metabolism. Even one sleepless night can affect the anabolic processes. 

To make matters worse, a single night of sleep deprivation could reduce plasma testosterone—an important hormone for building muscle mass—by 24%. 

Sleep is also important for muscle strength. People with shorter sleep duration tend to be weaker than those sleeping for adequate hours. You must be wondering how many hours count as adequate sleep. 

Seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night is best. If you have a relatively more active lifestyle, aim for the higher end of this range. Note that daytime naps do not replace nighttime sleep, although they might help reduce the effects of sleep deprivation.

While sleep duration is crucial for anabolic muscle growth, sleep quality matters too. Factors like how quickly you fall asleep and the number of times you wake up during the night are also part of your sleep quality. 

Creating healthy sleep habits is a great way to improve both sleep quality and duration. Refer to this article to learn about optimizing your sleep quality: How to Maximize Your Sleep Quality for Optimal Health, Muscles, and Performance.

If nothing you do makes you wake up feeling rested, speak to your doctor about getting a sleep study to rule out sleep disorders. 

4. Your vitamin D levels are low or suboptimal

More than 40% of Americans have insufficient vitamin D levels. It is an important steroid hormone for muscle growth. Low or suboptimal vitamin D can have a negative impact on muscle cell function. Moreover, vitamin D affects leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and fat storage. It is also crucial for muscle mitochondria to provide enough energy for your muscle cells. Besides, vitamin D deficiency can contribute to weak and small muscles.

The sun is a great source of vitamin D. Sadly, for most people, sun exposure is only enough to prevent rickets but it is not enough to achieve optimal health and muscle mass. If you live in colder climates, you’ll most likely need vitamin D supplements to safely optimize your levels. Doses of up to 4,000 IU/day are safe and effective, although some people need higher doses to bring their levels into the optimal range of 30 – 40 ng/mL. Also, vitamin D supplementation may have a favorable effect on testosterone which helps grow muscle mass.

5. Your testosterone is suboptimal

testosterone lab test tub

Testosterone is a hormone that plays an important role in the body. In men, it helps regulate bone mass, fat distribution, muscle strength, sex drive, and more. In both genders, it helps increase muscle protein synthesis and ultimately increases muscle mass. 

Most cases of suboptimal testosterone come from diet and lifestyle factors. So, you want to work on the following factors before considering adding testosterone or other steroid hormone precursors.

Common natural ways to boost testosterone include:

  • Exercise, especially resistance training
  • Diet
  • Adequate sleep and healthy circadian rhythm
  • Ginger extract
  • Vitamin D supplements

Whereas, factors that can reduce testosterone are: 

  • Unmanaged stress
  • Excessive sugar intake and insulin resistance
  • Prolonged calorie deficit
  • Poor sleep and circadian rhythm 
  • Insulin resistance and poor blood sugar control
  • Alcohol
  • Obesity

You may have heard the myth that high-fat foods decrease testosterone levels. The truth is that being fat can reduce testosterone, but eating fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat–calories do! In contrast, a low-fat diet could also reduce testosterone because you need fat and cholesterol to build the hormone. A safer option is to choose healthy fat sources and include some of them in your diet and overall daily calorie limit rather than avoiding fat altogether. 

Foods that help naturally optimize testosterone and muscle mass include:

  • Fatty fish like sardines and salmon
  • Leafy greens
  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Red meat
  • Seafood, since they’re rich in zinc and selenium 

Red meat from grass-fed and pasture-raised sources is also great for testosterone as it is a rich source of arachidonic acid and cholesterol. Cholesterol is a key building block of testosterone. Whereas, arachidonic acid is essential to responses to strength training and is a major component of your muscles. Prostaglandins produced from arachidonic acid promote protein synthesis and skeletal muscle fiber growth. 

Getting your testosterone into optimal range can improve all aspects of your health and well-being. Consider the above-mentioned natural options to boost testosterone before opting for hormone replacement therapy because once you get on it, coming off it can be quite challenging. 

6. Your growth hormone levels are suboptimal

Human growth hormone (HGH) is a hormone produced by a gland in the brain. It is an essential hormone that plays a central role in your growth during childhood and adolescence. Later in adult life, HGH promotes muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth.  Adults with HGH deficiency could develop the following issues:

  • Poor health 
  • Increased body fat
  • Weak muscles and bones

The positive association of HGH with muscle growth makes it popular among athletes and bodybuilders. For the same reason, HGH and drugs that increase it are on a list of banned substances for most sports. However, you can attempt to improve your circulating HGH levels naturally. 

Growth hormone increases during deep sleep, fasting, intensive physical activity like heavy squats, and heat or cold exposure. You can also attempt to boost the growth hormone through foods with amino acids like fish, beans, and dairy. Supplements containing arginine, glutamine, glycine, lysine, and ornithine also help enhance hGH. A 30-minute sauna session is also helpful in increasing HGH levels. Lastly, you want to optimize your sleep to promote the best growth hormone secretion every night.

growth hormone notebook

7. You’re not stimulating your mTOR enough

Mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) is an important protein that participates in controlling various cell functions. It regulates cell growth and protein synthesis. It also helps increase muscle size and strength by facilitating muscle protein synthesis.

One of the powerful mTOR stimulants is the amino acid leucine. An increase in leucine concentration signals to mTOR that adequate dietary protein is available to synthesize new muscle protein. As a result, mTOR gets activated. Leucine-rich foods are one option to boost mTOR. You can usually get enough leucine (3 grams) by eating a serving of protein-rich food that contains about 30 grams of proteins in each meal.

Supplements containing 3 grams of leucine before exercise or consuming enough proteins in each meal can help activate mTOR.


Growing muscles can improve your aesthetics, performance, and longevity. Many people struggle for years to gain muscles because they make the mistakes outlined above. To successfully grow muscles, you need to eat enough calories and protein, sleep well, and pay attention to these other factors.

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