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Nutrition Mistakes That Hinder Muscle Growth


Nutrition Mistakes That Hinder Muscle Growth

Key Takeaways

  • Building muscle can help strengthen your bones, improve your balance, and decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
  • Many factors play a role in how you can build muscle, including nutrition, genetics, and training.
  • Experts say that some common mistakes can hinder muscle growth, like not eating enough protein, not consuming enough calories, overtraining, or having poor form and technique.

Muscle growth is an important element of an overall fitness and exercise routine. Building muscle enhances strength and speed and can also reduce the risk of injuries or falls as you age. If you’ve been attempting to build muscle but aren’t seeing results, there may be a few things that you’re doing—or not doing—that are affecting your ability to achieve meaningful muscle gains.

Building muscle (hypertrophy) is a complicated process. In fact, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building muscle, since it depends on factors like what you eat, how you work out, and your genetics.

Here’s why building muscle is important for overall health, the top mistakes that could be holding you back from serious muscle growth, and how to get back on track, according to dietitians and trainers.

Factors That Affect Muscle Growth 

Several factors determine your ability to grow and build muscles, including genetics, nutrition, and training, Danielle Crumble Smith, RDN, a certified registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching, told Verywell.

Genetics: Your genes play a significant role in how easily you can build muscle. Some people may have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have greater growth potential.

The natural distribution of muscle and body fat also varies among individuals, which Crumble Smith explained can affect the speed and location of muscle growth. There are also differences in recovery capabilities that can influence the frequency and intensity of a person’s training sessions.

Nutrition: Nutrition matters too. To build muscle, you need to eat enough protein for muscle repair and growth. You may need to consume more calories than you burn to create an energy surplus. At the same time, you need to eat enough carbohydrates and fats to fuel your workouts and help with recovery.

Training: Crumble Smith said the most important element of gaining muscle is doing regular resistance or strength training exercises.

“This type of exercise causes microtears in muscle fibers, which then repair and grow back stronger and larger,” she said.

The key principles of effective resistance training are consistency, intensity, recovery, and progressive overload. Progressive overload means gradually increasing the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your routine to challenge your muscles.

Muscle Strength Matters for Healthy Aging

Research shows that exercises that build muscle mass can slow age-related cognitive decline and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Muscle-building exercise can also improve heart health and lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Nutritional Mistakes That Could Be Sabotaging Muscle Gains

When you’re trying to gain muscle, you’ll probably run into some challenges or roadblocks that can affect your progress. Here are some of the most common mistakes that can hinder muscle growth and how to correct them, according to experts.

Not Eating Enough Protein

Eating protein, such as lean meats, dairy products, and seafood, is crucial for muscle repair and growth. If you don’t consume enough protein, your body will be unable to grow new muscles, and you’ll see suboptimal improvements.

Make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet from various sources like beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, and plant-based proteins throughout the day. Crumble Smith said the recommendation is 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for muscle building.

“There is a limit to how much protein the body can use effectively at one time for muscle protein synthesis,” she said. “For this reason, it is recommended to distribute protein intake evenly throughout the day, aiming for about 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein in each meal.”

Eating Too Few Calories

Muscles need a calorie surplus to grow. Eldayrie said that if your body is in a caloric deficit, its ability to grow muscle is limited. Insufficient calorie intake can create energy deficits, prompting your body to use muscle for energy instead of growth.

To fix this, you’ll need to consume more calories than you burn. It can be helpful to track your calorie intake with an app, so you can make adjustments as needed. If you are still having trouble boosting your calorie intake or if you have questions about what your body needs, talk to a registered dietitian.

Not Eating Enough Carbs

Carbs are the body’s main energy source during high-intensity workouts. Not eating enough of them can lead to reduced performance and slower recovery.

Crumble Smith recommends including a variety of whole grains and minimally processed carbohydrates in your diet, such as quinoa, brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and oats.

If you’re doing regular, moderate-to-intense training, carb recommendations can range from 3 to 7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. If you’re doing endurance or intense frequency training routines, you may need to be on the higher end of this range.

Not Hydrating Enough

Water is key for all bodily functions, including muscle contraction and repair. Dehydration comes with symptoms like muscle cramps, fatigue, and decreased exercise performance.

Not sure how much water you need? Crumble Smith recommends using half your body weight as a starting point to figure out how many ounces per day to drink. If you weigh 140 pounds, your baseline hydration goal could be 70 ounces of water (or about 8 cups) per day, and you can adjust according to your activity.

Water Intake Recommendations

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the recommended total fluid intake from food and drinks varies by age and sex. However, the general recommendation is about 11.5 cups per day for women and 15.5 cups for adult men. For just water alone, women need about nine cups of fluid per day, and men need about 13 cups to replace fluids that are lost throughout the day. But again, the exact amount of water needed to stay adequately hydrated also depends on a person’s activity level and overall health.

To prevent dehydration, sip water consistently throughout the day, especially before, during, and after workouts. Remember that foods with a high water content (like some fruit) can also help you reach your daily hydration goal.

Ignoring Healthy Fats

If you aren’t including enough healthy fats in your diet, your body may not be able to produce enough hormones, such as testosterone, that support muscle growth. Relying too heavily on supplements rather than getting nutrients from whole foods can also lead to nutrient deficiencies and/or imbalances. Plus, eating too many protein bars or shakes can also lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects.

Crumble Smith suggests adding more healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), and olive oil, to your diet. In general, prioritize a balanced diet rich in whole foods and use supplements as an addition to—not a replacement for—whole foods.

Neglecting Post-Workout Nutrition 

After a workout, your body is in a prime state to absorb nutrients and start the process of muscle repair and growth.

“Your body needs nutrients to kick-start recovery post-exercise,” Crumble Smith said. If you don’t give your body nutrition after working out, it could lead to slower muscle growth and more fatigue.

She recommends having a balanced meal of proteins and carbohydrates after your workouts and training sessions. If you are not able to go home after a workout, pack a balance of protein and carbs with you to refuel.

Training Mistakes Can Set You Back, Too 

Undertraining or engaging in low-intensity workouts can also hinder muscle growth. If you’re not overloading your muscles (for example, if you’re using weights that are too light), they won’t be broken down. If your muscle is not breaking down, it won’t get the chance to grow back stronger.

“A lack of microdamage to the muscle means muscle growth will be much slower,” George Eldayrie, MD, a sports medicine physician at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute, told Verywell.

Muscle overload requires rest. Make sure you take at least one day of rest per week and avoid strength training in the same muscle group two days in a row.

As you create a lifting plan, don’t forget about compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, Crumble Smith said. These exercises work with multiple muscle groups and are highly effective for building strength and muscle.

Your training routine should include a variety of compound movements, like lunges, Bulgarian split squats, leg presses, pull-downs, upright rows, and push-ups. If you are unsure of which compound exercises to include, ask a personal trainer or physical therapist.

What This Means For You

Easily-overlooked nutritional mistakes like not eating enough protein or carbs and underhydrating can prevent you from gaining muscle. If you want to increase muscle mass more efficiently, fix these mistakes and maintain consistency and commitment to both exercise and nutrition.

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