It’s a question I see asked all the time, “Why Am I Getting Stronger But Not Gaining Muscle?”
We all know just how important it is to train for strength.
But, in reality what we all want to see is massive muscle gains.
So, there’s probably nothing more frustrating than seeing your lifts go up every week, and yet you look no different from when you started.
Allow me to explain what’s going on here and what you can do about it.
Why Am I Getting Stronger But Not Gaining Muscle?
One of the main reasons you’re getting stronger but not gaining muscle is because you’re not eating enough. You can typically get stronger in just about every lift week-on-week over the course of a few months while your Central Nervous System adapts. However, to get bigger you have to take on more calories. Additionally, you are probably training for strength, as opposed to hypertrophy. This may include training at lower volumes, longer rest periods, and perhaps you’re not even taking a movement through the full range of motion.
1. You’re Not Eating Enough
If you’re gaining in strength, but not muscle, then the first place I suggest you look is at your nutrition.
This is especially true if you are an experienced lifter.
In fact, I would say that it is extremely common to not be eating enough to build muscle.
Basically, if you want to get bigger then you’ll need to consume more calories.
With that being said, this doesn’t mean you need to start eating like a horse.
As an example, if you’re suddenly adding 800-1,000 calories to your normal daily food consumption this will probably lead to fat gain rather than muscle.
As with most things, you’ll want to start off slowly and progressively increase your calorie intake if and when needed.
For many people, an additional 200-300 calories a day could be enough to start realising muscle gains.
However, it’s important to remember that we are all different, and our bodies react differently too.
So, start off by adding no more than 10-15% to your daily calories and see where that gets you.
It is actually perfectly possible to remain the same weight, or even lose weight, and get stronger.
But, if you’re looking to gain size then you have to start eating accordingly.
2. Central Nervous System Adaptation
I’ve just mentioned that it is possible for you to not put on weight, or even lose weight, and become stronger.
This is especially true if you’re new to lifting.
However, you can also be an experienced lifter and see this happen.
This is down to Central Nervous System Adaptation.
Basically, if you’re new to an exercise, you will get stronger at it very quickly.
What’s happening here is that your body is adapting to the new stimulus.
So, let’s say for example that you are an experienced lifter, but you have specifically been training for hypertrophy for a long time.
You now decide to take on a 5×5 workout for the foreseeable future.
You will typically see a lot of changes quite rapidly, as your body adapts to the new form of training, i.e. heavier weight with fewer reps.
Additionally, your brain also has an active role to play.
Once you start lifting those heavy weights your brain literally tells your body, “Right, this is obviously our new thing, so you better get used to it, and quickly.”
This entire brain and body process is known as Central Nervous System Adaptation.
This process will generally last for 8-12 weeks for most individuals.
You’ll eventually get to a plateau of pure strength gains.
So, after this any strength gains you do make will be due to increased muscle.
3. You’re Not Using Enough Volume
Now, when I talk about volume I don’t simply mean the number of reps you’re performing.
With that being said, the easiest way to increase volume is to obviously increase the number of reps that you’re doing.
I guess you know that strength, hypertrophy, and muscle endurance will all typically have certain rep ranges.
So, in effect, if you’re lifting very heavy weights for 2 to 5 reps then you’re mainly training for strength.
But, if you’re lifting for 6-12 reps you’re hitting hypertrophy, and anything above 15 reps is typically muscle endurance.
However, volume can also incorporate how often you train a certain muscle group.
Plus, it can also mean the number of exercises you use to train that muscle group.
So, as an example if you’re hitting squats, deadlifts, and bench press once a week, and you train them each for 6-12 reps, this isn’t particularly effective for muscle building.
Firstly, you’ll want to train each exercise more frequently, say perhaps 2-3 times a week.
However, none of the “Big 3” is considered the best exercise for the main muscle groups they focus on.
In fact, it is often the accessory lifts that will pack on more muscle.
So, 3 completely different exercises that target the same “main” muscle group could be leg extensions, Romanian deadlifts, and incline dumbbell chest press.
The second set of 3 exercises are far more focused on isolating a particular muscle.
Plus, they are not as neurologically demanding.
So, in reality, if you’re looking to pack on muscle you need to up your volume.
This should incorporate higher reps, hitting the muscle groups with more frequency, while using a variety of exercises.
This could even mean that if you’re currently training the “bro-split” of training one muscle group a day, it may be time to change things up a bit.
How Much Volume For Hypertrophy Training?
4. You’re Resting Too Long
I guess rest periods are closely related to the amount of weight you’re lifting and the specific training protocol you’re following.
If you’ve become used to hitting extremely heavy weights and resting for 3-5 minutes between sets, you’re once again more focused on strength training.
Strength training will generally involve the muscles almost completely recovering before you hit your next set.
This makes a lot of sense because lifting such a heavy weight is both demanding on the body and the Central Nervous System.
So, without adequate rest you simply won’t be ready to go again, plus this can also be a safety issue.
However, when it comes to training for muscle, you will typically be using a much lighter weight and performing higher reps.
This means that the first few reps of a set aren’t actually that effective for muscle building.
But, the last 5-6 reps of each set is when the magic happens in terms of building muscle.
So, you could actually use exactly the same weight for 3 sets, but the number of reps you perform decreases with each set.
This is absolutely fine as the muscles are becoming more fatigued as the workout continues.
Therefore, they haven’t had ample time to “fully recover”.
This is actually what you want when training for muscle.
So, depending on your workout, you’ll want to keep your rest periods to 30-90 seconds when training for muscle.
5. You’re Using a Decreased Range of Motion
The final thing to consider is the range of motion you’re taking a weight through.
In fact, you may even find that you’re “cheating” yourself of strength gains.
I’m not saying this is always the case, but we generally take a lighter weight through a greater range of motion.
As an example, heavy squats may see you not wanting to drop down as low for fear of not coming back up again.
In essence, you’re not taking your muscles through the full range of motion.
I will also say that this will also impact on your strength gains, as you’re probably only getting stronger in the top half of the squat.
Plus, there is more chance of using momentum and body movement to shift an especially heavy weight.
You could look at the bench press as an example, as I’m sure you’ve seen many people squirming all over the place to get the bar back up.
In fact, can you honestly say you’ve never done this yourself?
Even if you’re using a much lighter weight for higher reps you still need to be wary of your range of motion.
So, not fully straightening your arms on bicep curls, or stopping a little too high on the dumbbell chest press could make all the difference.
We’re talking a tiny difference here, but that extra half inch of movement could be the difference between you adding more muscle or not.
Now, I understand that partial reps and not using a full range of motion can also build muscle.
However, this doesn’t mean you should be doing this for every rep, set, and exercise.
You’ll want to check out this video from John Meadows to understand “range of motion” a little better.
What is the Best Range of Motion For Optimal Gains?
There are various reasons why you’re getting stronger but not gaining muscle. The most obvious of these is that you’re simply not enough to stimulate growth. However, if you’re new to a particular exercise then your brain and body are likely going through Central Nervous System adaptation. You will also want to train at higher volumes, while taking less rest when training for muscle. Finally, ensure you’re not “cheating” a movement and take it through it’s full range of motion.
Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.