Why do certain athletes struggle to put on quality mass?
My goal here is to provide some scientific explanations regarding this topic and also to provide some opinion based statements from my own life observations.
Dietary factors are probably an absolutely enormous driver of this inability, but in this particular article, I would like to keep the focus on training.
To tackle this topic, identifying the factors involving individual differences and training variables leading to hypertrophy will first be addressed and will dominate the line of reasoning.
The phenotype is the outward expression of the genome. The primary component of the phenotype are the protein molecules making up the organism. The combined structural and functional organization and operation of proteins lead to the size, shape, behavior, and attitude of the life form.
When discussing factors that lead to altering body composition, the discussion very rapidly becomes one that centers on affecting the genome, and witnessing a different phenotypic expression coming from that creature.
The genome of life forms is found inside the nucleus within the cell. Within the nucleus resides the DNA, and the proteins that provide the structural framework, and the unraveling agents for the nucleic acid double helix and its 4 bases. There are 23 chromosomes for a sapien, and approximately 24,000 genes coding for the entirety of our species, thus roughly 1,000 genes per chromosome.
These 24,000 genes interact, splice, and provide the blueprints for the approximately 120,000 different proteins that organize to make a human.
Biology as its own distinct scientific discipline came into existence about 100 years after the influential time period of Isaac Newton’s career (around 1800). Since the introduction of the field of biology, scientists were interested in determining what the factors were that led to inheritance of traits by the offspring from the parents.
Within approximately 150 years, researchers unraveled the mystery and Watson and Crick had modeled the double helix pairing of DNA strands. Modern biological scientists have managed to sequence the entire human genome, and in the era that we currently find ourselves, we are in the infancy of figuring out what to do with this genomic information.
The smartest minds in the biological world are working feverishly to do things like build specific drugs for specific kinds of cancer, genetically modify life forms, and understand the intricacies of polygenic interactions for the diseases that plague our society.
Wrapped up in all of this prestigious research are the answers to the questions we have about getting jacked and tan, and why some people are, “hard gainers”.
Despite the paucity of specific knowledge regarding the exact mechanisms of being able to know exactly what genes need to be acted on in exactly what way, there are some concepts we can take away from the world of genetics to help guide our path here.
Two Key Factors for Muscle Growth
First and foremost, a simple truth:
You’re going to look a lot like your parents, and you’re never going to be able to escape your own individual genome.
Some humans are advantaged in the realm of building muscle tissue compared to others.
Some people were born with pocket Aces, while others have mismatched 4s and 8s.
You were dealt a hand that you can’t change; however, you do get to play your hand.
How you choose to play your hand matters. Every genome responds to the environment that the organism finds itself in.
The environment writes itself into the marginalia of the genome via signaling through proteins, and ultimately highlights certain sections of the genome while downplaying the activity of other genes.
From a big picture standpoint, who you are as a being is the product of the environment signaling to proteins, the proteins chemically switching on and off certain parts of the genome, the genome coding for the building of new proteins, new proteins being assembled that should be able to interact with the specific environment in a more advantageous way…and a cyclic loop forms from there.
The two poles of this circular system are the environment and the genome. Environments are easier to manipulate than genomes are, and because of this fact, the very first thing that anyone who has struggled with putting mass on should do is think about how they can change their environment.
So what kinds of environments are probably disadvantageous for building muscle?
Training somewhere like a Planet Fitness is probably not a great environment to put yourself in if you want to build muscle.
That environment actively discourages people from trying hard and lifting weights with intensity.
Training at a sports training facility that is dominated by traditional physical therapy thinking is probably not a great environment to put yourself in either. The people training in such a place are probably incredibly conscious of the relationships of every joint in the body during every repetition of every set, and are terrified of any moment where a dysynchronous firing pattern might be perceived to take place.
Private training facilities in Manhattan where the women are all 6’2”, 110 pounds, and the men are too are also likely not places where the collective vibe of the surrounding atmosphere will drive one towards Gainesville at a vigorous speed.
What you need to do first is find a facility with people who are trying really hard, seem to have fun, the equipment is legitimate, and the squat racks are not congregated with people performing curls or taking selfies in them.
Another environmental influence that I think is critical is actually having a program or a coach.
If you do not have a plan, you’re just doing random workouts, and people who, “workout” usually complain about lack of progress. What you need to do is, train.
Training is deliberate practice that has a systematic approach, and a strategic way to progressively overload the system in a thought through manner.
When people are participating in organized training, they are much more likely to consistently exercise.
And consistency is the least sexy, but most important variable to sure up in the entire environmental manipulation game plan.
A lot of weak, unimpressive looking people I overhear talking about their inability to make progress are too busy deloading and focusing on recovering from exercise of low magnitude than they are actually training.
Deloads happen because life gets in the way of training.
You’ll probably make much more progress actually climbing the mountain than climbing up halfway only to climb a quarter of the way back down so you can start again.
Now let’s shift gears and talk X’s and O’s.
Two Critical Variables of Hypertrophy Training
Program design is an incredibly interesting topic. There are millions of different kinds of programs that lead people towards results. The more well thought through the program is, the more belief the participant will have in that program.
The greater the belief behind the participant, the greater the effort.
The greater the effort, the greater the rate of change, and the greater the results.
Programs that are the most thoughtful and draw out the greatest effort from the participant are ones that allow the participant to reach meaningful, specific goals. Meaningful goals are met when the participant was previously unable to do something, but gains the ability to do that task as a result of the training.
If you can make someone become accustomed to success and progress, they will begin to crave it. Once the element of craving progress is imparted into the participant, they will do whatever they have to do in order to get better.
Variable #1 – Time
One of the most critical environmental factors that is incredibly easy to manipulate is time.
Every time I have introduced timing to the rest and/or work components of a training session, the results have been drastically different as compared to not timing things.
Left to their own devices, humans will work at a pace that is slow, and they will dawdle between sets.
I’m a huge believer in creating time confines within which you should be trying to finish a certain number of reps, and I’m absolutely going to time your rest window. When you time things, an exponential increase in the amount of work that gets done is accomplished.
Variable #2 – Work
The biggest training variable to focus on with trying to design exercise that will add mass to people is mechanical work.
When mechanical work goes beyond the threshold to easily manage homeostasis of that person, an overload stimulus is imparted on that organism.
The organism will then call on the adaptive responses to alter the physical body to handle that same mechanical workload more effectively.
In order to continually force the organism to adapt, more mechanical work has to be consistently doled out in the program design.
In my day to day experience inside gyms in NYC, I see a lot of trainers choosing exercises that do not feature large amounts of mechanical work.
Exercises that feature large amounts of mechanical work include all the variants of squatting, split squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and pulling.
In my opinion, 90% or more of your fitness should be the movements listed in the previous sentence if you want to add mass.
If you’re worried because you’re not doing enough direct arm or calf work in such a plan, I’ve got a feeling you are probably shopping in the slim fit section of H&M.
You need to load up the compound movements and work.
You need to minimize your rest so you’re not wasting time.
You need to sweat, you need to push, and you need to do this day after day after day.
When mechanical work reaches incredibly high levels, the possibility of chronic pain syndromes and feelings of burnout start to manifest. This is where intelligence in program design becomes increasingly more important.
For mass gains without injury, I recommend incorporating more variety of loaded movements in every session rather than focusing on only a few specific exercises.
The other reason I recommend this approach is that as fatigue rises, biomechanical proficiency decreases.
The more you do the same motion over and over again in a fatigued setting, the greater the deleterious effects on the tissues doing that motion.
If people are going to be fatiguing in a session, have them do a variety of motions so that the effects of bad biomechanics are more spread out.
When you do a lot of different movements, you do not have to be particularly good at those movements to avoid injury.
If you are going to do only a few movements, you have to be masterful at them to avoid injury.
Volume will decrease the ability to display mastery over specific movements. At certain points in training, participants should focus on specific movements to get better at them, but this should be done with less mechanical work and fatigue.
If you’re going to grow tissue, you are going to have to push the mechanical work.
People end up becoming the embodiment of the actions that they display on a daily basis.
You start with an idea.
The idea can morph into a plan.
The next step is incredibly critical, because this is where you start to put thoughts into action.
When actions are repeated again and again, they start to become who you are.
As my older Irish relatives have been saying for years, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Everybody I hear not doing things has a plan, and they talk a big game…but I wonder about what they’re actually doing.
People that accomplish things are doers.
What are you doing?
About the Author
Pat Davidson, Ph.D, is an independent trainer, consultant, author, and lecturer in NYC. Pat is the former Director of Training Methodology and Continuing Education for Peak Performance, and former Professor of Exercise Science at Springfield College and Brooklyn College.
Pat is also a former 175 pound strongman competitor who finished top 10 in the USA twice, competed in two World Championships, and finished top 10 in the world once. Pat is interested in all realms of human organism improvement, and is relentless in pursuing education.
If you have athletes struggling to gain body weight, make sure to check out Pat’s MASS Training System. It’s a 16-week program that will help you take your strength and size to the next level!