Why aren't my muscles growing?

This week, I want to talk about overtraining, undertraining, and how you can have both simultaneously. All three of these cases will frustrate you and can be a big reason you’re training consistently but you’re not seeing muscle growth.

We tend to believe that if some is good, more is better. And that’s just not true when it comes to most things, including exercise. 

I know I’m a broken record with this, but I think it sometimes needs to be said in many different ways for you to understand and let it sink in fully. 

There is a dose-response relationship with exercise. A certain dose will yield positive results, but too little or too much will either do nothing or yield negative results. 

Exercise is medicine, yes. And any medicine can be overdosed and see adverse side effects, or underdosed and see no changes. Exercise is no exception. 

Let’s talk about the signs and symptoms of overtraining, undertraining, and undertraining from overtraining. I’ll split up each scenario so you can see which camp you fall into (if at all) and leave you with my suggestions on where to go from here, depending on where you land.

Let’s start with overtraining because I think many of you may fall into this category. 

I’ve talked a lot about WHY too much exercise will backslide you, but I’ll summarize it again here. 

If you’re at the point where you are consistent in your workouts, and yet you do not see the dial move, or maybe you’re even GAINING fat, it could be because you’re doing way too much. 

When your body senses it’s in constant danger because of too much stressful exercise, it goes into fat-storing mode. This is a hormonal response to keep energy stores handy. Check out my episode about cortisol if you want to learn the nitty-gritty behind this. 

But, cortisol, or the stress hormone, is constantly in circulation because of intense daily exercise, which can be overly stressful on your body. Your body releases more insulin as a response. With chronic over-exercise, you start to develop insulin resistance, making you feel hungrier, making you eat more than you need, thus gaining fat and maybe having changes in your body composition. 

This doesn’t happen to everyone, so if you’re exercising an amount where you’re feeling good and see progress, keep going. I want to make sure my podcasts are not to scare you into stopping something that’s working well for you but rather educate you on what to do if you feel like it’s NOT working for you. 

Your genetics will partially dictate how much exercise you can tolerate, but a lot to do with the other stressors in your life. Going back to our previous blog posts, this can include much cortisol your body releases, whether that is because of a stressful job, relationships, eating too many processed foods, drinking a lot, etc. 

If you’re already stressing your system with a lot of that, too much intense exercise or cardio can set you over the edge, mess with your hormones, and put you into storage mode. 

The typical person prone to overexercise and thus these issues tends to be the highly productive, type-a person who is a super hard worker. And although this is a fantastic quality in many areas of life, remember that exercise is like medicine - we want enough to see desirable changes but not so much that we fall backward. So just because some activity is great, it doesn’t mean that more is better. 

Here are some symptoms to watch for if you think you may be overtraining:

  • Constantly tired and never feeling well-rested
  • In joint pain all the time
  • Constant or severe muscle soreness
  • Unstable mood 
  • Sleep issues or insomnia
  • Craving sugar/bread 
  • Weight gain, especially around your midsection
  • If you’re a woman, sometimes you’ll lose your period 
  • Muscle weakness - like you can’t lift as heavy as you feel like you should 
  • Constant, all over tightness 
  • Digestive issues

If you are training the right amount, you should see the opposite of all these symptoms. You should see an increase in energy, strength, mood, sleep, strength, hormonal balance, and a decrease in pain, tightness, cravings, and soreness.

So if you have three or more of these symptoms and you’re working out almost every day, you could be overtraining, and we need to address that. 

Because, remember that when your body is in this overflowed stress place, this isn’t a place where your body thrives and where you see great results and health. 

You’re just in survival mode, trying to get by. Your stress hormones can inhibit you from entering into a parasympathetic state, where your muscles recover and grow stronger. 

So if you aren’t able to enter into that state for long enough for your nervous system to lay down more muscle, you can spin in chronic inflammation and not see the desired results. 

If you have chronic inflammation in your tissues, the wiring to those tissues isn’t as sharp, and your reps become less effective. 

Because muscle contraction is an electrical system, you can think of a fully contracted muscle like a string of Christmas lights. If the electrical signal or the wiring to each bulb is weak, some of the bulbs may not shine as bright, and others not at all. Your muscles are the same way. If they don’t have good electrical signals from the nervous system via your brain, they don’t fire as effectively, and you won’t see the best results. 

This is where the paradox of undertraining from overtraining comes in. You’re spending the time in the gym, you’re trying to work your muscles, but your results don’t seem to match the time and effort you’re putting in because you cannot get quality muscular contractions.

If you’re spending more than about 1 hour/day exercising, you are probably overtraining and under training at the same time. And I know this sounds counter-intuitive. But this might mean you aren’t able to give enough energy to each rep you’re completing. Essentially, you are spreading out the work into a longer session, which can often dilute your repetitions and the effectiveness of any given exercise. 

Because if you are training every day for an hour or longer, you may not give your muscles the space to recover from your workout yesterday. 

And if you don’t have the gas in the tank to complete your workout today, you can’t show up with enough vigor to complete your exercises with intensity and high effort. This means you aren’t fully getting the benefit of your workout since you’re showing up with half-recovered muscles, depleted hormones, and low energy. 

A workout is only as effective as every exercise inside that workout. If you only have so much gas in your tank, you want to empty your tank on fewer but higher quality exercises and sets rather than more work at a lower quality. Another perk of exercising that way is that you will probably have less wear and tear on your body for two reasons:

  1. When you choose better quality exercises, they will load your muscles more and your joints less.
  2. When you put in more effort for your reps, you have to do fewer reps, which is essentially less mileage on your body.

So what are some signs that you could be undertraining by overtraining? Here are a few I look for:

Not feeling your muscles contract in exercises. This is often because of the chronic inflammation that blocks effective muscular contractions. Is it hard for you to feel like your muscles “turn on”? Are there certain muscle groups that you never really feel that “burn” in? Of course, this can be for other reasons than overtraining (like trauma or dehydration), but often overtraining or overuse of that specific muscle group will cause this. 

Feeling systemically low-energy and “weak” after your workouts but not feeling worked or fatigued in your muscles. This is often a symptom of undertraining due to overtraining. 

Inroading is a temporary weakness that occurs in your muscles after they are effectively loaded. So you want to feel fatigued in your muscles but not completely exhausted like you want to take a nap. You also want to feel fresh and supple in your joints, not like it would be painful to walk down the stairs. 

I have a helpful little tool for you to evaluate if you’ve fatigued your muscles enough after your workout. I do what’s called the hairdryer and the stairs test after my upper and lower body workouts. If it would feel difficult to dry your hair within about 30 minutes of finishing your upper body workout or challenging to go up or downstairs within about 30 minutes of your lower body workout, you have successfully inroded your muscles and have most likely given them enough stimulus. 

I add my own Shannon twist and say that you only pass the hairdryer and stairs test if those activities are comfortable, AND your joints don’t hurt. Because if your joints are hurting after your workout, you may need to reconsider some of the exercises within that workout. 

You’re working out for an extended period of time 6-7x/week. As I mentioned before, the long workouts are often filled with less intentional and effortful repetition, which is a form of undertraining. I’m not saying a longer workout here, and there is terrible, but you could be overtraining and undertraining if that’s your regular routine. 

So now that we know the signs of overtraining, how do we know if we’re undertraining? Check back on Thursday this week, and we’ll chat more!


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