Building muscle, losing weight, and getting lean can be hard, even when you think you’re doing all the right things.
To better understand why, we interviewed two experts: Will Lanier, CrossFit coach and general manager of BRICK New York, and Albert Matheny, C.S.C.S., co-founder of Soho Strength Lab and advisor at Naked Nutrition. They pointed out these 12 possible reasons you may not be achieving your health and fitness goals, despite all your hard work.
1. First, you need to make sure you’re eating enough.
You probably know that if you want to lose weight, you should be burning more calories than you’re eating. But skipping meals isn’t a smart way to do this. “Your body needs fuel, period,” Lanier tells BuzzFeed Life.
If your goal is to build muscle and get lean, you need to take in more fuel. If you’re looking to lose weight, you have to take in the right kind of fuel. If you don’t eat enough of the right stuff, when you work out, your body will have to take energy from your muscles, which hurts your metabolism.
Do this: Instead of cutting meals and eating like a bird, pay more attention to the TYPE of calories you’re eating. For example, your body turns unused carbs into fat, so try sticking to a low-carb diet on the days you know you won’t be exercising.
2. Know that cardio is not the holy grail of getting lean.
“If you just do cardio [such as steady-state bicycling or running], you’re not going to build muscle,” Matheny says. “While cardio will burn calories, it won’t increase your resting metabolic rate the way having more muscle does. Basically, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn naturally each day.”
Do this: Add a few days of weightlifting and bodyweight exercises into your fitness routine.
3. That being said. Don’t lift just any weights.
“You have to make sure you’re challenging yourself,” Matheny says. “While you can’t go 100% every day (it will burn you out and increase your chance of injury), you’re not going to see improvement by curling 10 [pound weights] when your body could easily do 15 [pound weights].” The general rule of thumb is that if on a given set you could do 2 more perfect reps, you need to be lifting heavier weights.
Do this: Matheny advises doing exercises that require total body movement such as squats, deadlifts, and pull ups — in which you use multiple muscle groups and multiple joints. This will help your body see results faster than single-joint exercises like biceps curls.
4. Longer workouts are not necessarily better.
“The key to getting lean and seeing fitness improvement is varying up the intensity of your workout,” Matheny says. “Going on an occasional long jog is fine, but a higher intensity workout will engage more muscles, which will help increase your metabolism in the long run.”
Do this: Make sure you’re getting in a lot of high-intensity circuit training and high-intensity interval training.
5. You may not be doing your workouts in the right order.
“If you do intense cardio training, you may have less energy left over for lifting and won’t be able to train as hard,” Matheny says. “So you may need to lift before getting in your cardio in order to get the most out of each.”
Do this: After you warm up, lift weights first, then do cardio.
6. You might have plateaued with your workout routine.
“Eventually, if you do the same workout day in and day out, you’ll not only inevitably hit a plateau…you will get so, so, so bored,” Lanier says. “The changes to your daily routine could be as easy as changing up what you’re doing for cardio. It could be attending a new class that you’ve never done. Your body needs different stimuli — get out of your comfort zone.”
Do this: Try making a schedule with different workouts planned for specific days of the week. This way it’s easy to keep track of what muscle groups you’re working, how much cardio you’re doing, and how often you switch up your workouts.
7. Make sure to eat before you work out.
“Fueling pre-workout is a must,” Lanier says. “Your body (and your brain) need carbs to do work. Having an adequate energy source in your system will allow you to work harder and burn more calories.”
Do this: Everyone’s body is different and it takes some experimenting to figure out what you should eat before a workout – there’s no single formula. But Matheny’s recommendation is having a balanced meal around three hours before a long workout and maybe even a small snack 30 minutes before.
8. And make sure you’re getting enough protein after.
“An active person [someone who works out around three to five times per week] should have one gram of protein per pound of body weight,” Matheny says. “When you work out, you break down muscle tissue and your body absolutely depends on protein in order to build that muscle back up. And muscle is the key to increasing your metabolism.”
Do this: Matheny suggests getting a quick protein-heavy snack in within a window of 30 minutes after working out. He also says if you’re eating a well-balanced diet but are chronically sore and/or fatigued it could be from not getting enough protein. A lot of people recommend eating Greek yogurt after a workout for this reason.
9. Muscle definition depends largely on how you’re eating.
“If you don’t have muscle you’re not going to see definition and if you do have muscle and you’re not seeing definition, it’s largely because of your diet,” Matheny says. “The important thing for people to understand is it’s not the fat intake that’s the problem. It’s usually that they are taking in too many carbs.”
Do this: If you care about muscle definition, building muscle and eating fewer carbs will help. Here are low-carb breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you might want to try.
10. You’re working out too much and/or not sleeping enough.
“Sleep plays a big role in determining your health and weight,” Matheny says. “Getting the right amount of rest will help to regulate hormone levels, hunger and fullness cues as well as help with managing stress.”
Do this: Listen to your body. Skipping a workout to relax and catch up on some much-needed sleep will be worth it in the long run.
11. You’re eating WAY more calories than you’ve burned.
“Not eating after a workout is horrible for your body,” Matheny says. “But you also don’t want to eat significantly more than the calories you’ve burned, which is a big mistake people make [if their goal is to lean down].”
Do this: Matheny advises you have a snack directly after a workout if you’re not eating a meal. If you don’t eat anything you’ll make yourself extra hungry later, which will lead to consuming more calories. If your goal is to lean down, try to get 20 to 25 grams of protein after a workout.
All that being said, make sure your expectations are REALISTIC.
Results take time. It’s going to take more than a few weeks at the gym to get to where you want to be. In the meantime, take time to be celebrate little successes and be proud of yourself for being proactive about your fitness and your health.