Gym Progress Stalling? Here’s Why


Being very tall and skinny the majority of my life I thought my body type simply didn’t support gaining weight. I put on ten pounds then never made it past that over the course of three years while training on and off! Eventually I lost it when I stopped training for a few months then gained a little back. It was a vicious cycle. I literally thought that the only way to get stronger was to lift heavier weights. Wrong! Let me spare you my past ignorance: I simply had to eat more.

If you want to get stronger you have to lean to eat! I was eating 2500 calories when I needed to be eating 3500. It wasn’t until I tracked my calories that I realized how little I was actually eating. I felt full at the time and felt like I was pushing myself. Sometimes we need a hard dose of reality. I was actually living well within my comfort zone. I had to redefine my limits. Spaced out properly eating a lot is not too difficult. I will write a post specifically addressing this, but suffice to say when you train hard the work you put into the gym helps immensely to stimulate your hunger.

That wasn’t my only problem. Growing up in track and then trying to gain weight I was so worried about gaining fat I would workout then go for a long run. Had I been eating enough it probably would not have made a big difference at the time. But my training intensity has probably quadrupled since than. I would hold myself back if I tried that today. Overdoing cardio is all too common….

“Why are you doing so much cardio?”

“I’m trying to cut. I need to keep carbs super low and do cardio for at least an hour after my heaving lifting session. I don’t want to get fat.”

This makes me want to scream! Guess what? By eating so little food, hitting the weights then hitting the cardio you are destroying your body’s ability to lose fat. Even if you find a level of success at losing fat you have seriously jeopardized the muscle you might have gained prior to cutting.

When you think about getting lean you need to think about your metabolism. Your body is built to survive. If you start training hard and adding in cardio while eating very little your body will work to compensate and keep you alive. As your metabolism slows down losing any weight takes way more effort, and you have to keep eating less and less. At this point there is no realistic possibility of maintaining this diet in the long run. Inevitably, you will increase your calories and that fat is going to come back. Only this time you have even less muscle. Having muscle is one of the best ways to keep a fast metabolism. Now you really screwed yourself. It’s too common to hear of women training for competition who have gone on severely low carb and fat diets that end up suffering permanent thyroid damage.  Do not sacrifice your health for some quick fat losses! The quickest route to success in fitness is long term sensible dieting and consistency.

In both cases there is one uniting concept that you need to be aware of if you want to maximize your progress in the gym. Eat more food!! Not only does eating more help build muscle–the number one best goal to have if you want to stay lean and burn the most calories outside of the gym–it also will help boost your metabolism. You need to look at training like this: train like an athlete and eat like an athlete. I promise you if you learn to eat more you will push past those plateaus that might have plagued you. Your lifts will go up and you will feel great.

I’m not saying you should be eating at a caloric surplus if you are trying to lose fat. What I am saying is you should be focusing on training hard so you don’t need to compromise your metabolism by dieting down to absurd levels. 1,000 calories a day is not enough to support your body if you are training on top of that! But let’s say you do want to lose fat. That’s awesome! With a sensible approach of eating a little under maintenance calories each day and training hard you can do it.

When dieting down as a beginner you can gain some muscle. But that will be limited. Eventually you will need to think about increasing your calories. Even if you are a man or women putting on lean body mass is one of the most important goals you can have. It doesn’t mean trying to look like a bodybuilder or figure competitor (though I certainly salute anyone who wants to). It just means utilizing one of nature’s greatest gifts. When you go through life in a trained state with a fit body everything changes. Pain goes away, your posture improves, you are not so tired and you crave nutritious food to name a few examples. Staying in shape is far easier than getting there. Just having that extra lean body mass will help keep your metabolism boosted and fat will be harder to come by. You literally burn more calories just by walking!

And the quickest way to accomplish all this is by eating enough calories!! Part of the problem is you can’t just eat more. You need to have the proper training load to make that extra food work for you. And food is your ally. It is not something to be avoided. I pretty much live on the concept that 80% of my diet is healthy and the extra 20% is whatever I want. Those occasional high calorie meals from junk food can actually help stimulate your metabolism. That being said, I might not eat junk food for two weeks. Then I might eat it for 4 days in a row. The point is I do not have an unhealthy attachment to my food. I allow myself freedom. When I eat something “bad” I am not thinking to myself how this is hurting my diet. I’m probably thinking about the texture and taste. I’m enjoying the moment!

On that thought have you every tried chocolate meditation? Everyone should try this. Take some good chocolate. Preferably not some cheap Hershey’s stuff (though that will work) and find a quiet place. Put it in your mouth and focus on nothing else in the world but that chocolate. Notice how it melts, how the texture changes. Absorb every ounce of sensory input from your mouth. If you’ve ever meditated or would like to try, this is a great place to start. Beginners at meditation are taught to clear their mind by focusing on the feeling of the air coming in and out of their nose. This is the same thing, only with chocolate. What could be better!?

You need to be training hard if you want your food to work for you, not against you. That has always been one of the main concepts I’ve implemented into my training lifestyle. It has helped me make more progress as a natural body builder in 2.5 years than many people make in their life of training. This is not to say I am on a path to get fat. In fact, you want to be gaining as little fat as possible. For most men starting out that is going to be about 3,000 or so calories and women more like 2,500 a day assuming your are training most days of the week. Personally, I made most of my progress eating 3,500-4,000 calories a day. But I am 6’4 so being taller I will need to eat a few hundred more calories a day. I will always cut down my calories if I feel like I am getting too fat. Why? Eventually I’m going to have to go into a small caloric deficit to lose that fat. The longer I spend losing fat the longer I could spend losing some amount of muscle as well! Not to mention, if I spend all my time trying to get rid of fat I’m certainly not spending that time maximizing my muscle gains.

Recently I spent 4 months eating 5,000-6,000 calories a day. During this entire time I never really went over 10% body fat. Were I to continue eating like this I would end up getting too fat. However, I did this because I know I had to really push my diet to break through some plateaus. The second I feel like I am gaining too much fat it is easy to simply eat less. Instead I put myself in an amazing position. By training so hard and eating so much I was gaining weight but not too quickly. Muscle is built over months while fat is far easier to obtain and can be gained in weeks. Now that I want to look a bit leaner I can still eat well over 3,000 calories a day and be losing weight! I managed to keep my metabolism running on full throttle by eating so much. And I’ve made some nice strength gains to top it off.

So what are you waiting for? Start thinking about your training as if you are an athlete. Then go refuel like one.

TL;DR Eat more.