I'm not sure how many times I've heard the following statement...
"I don't look like I lift... but I do lift."
...but it comes up constantly in my DMs and conversations with brand new online clients.
The truth is that there are a lot of factors that go into what someone looks like.
You might be doing all the right things in the gym, but if you aren't eating properly or sleeping enough then your body isn't going to reflect it.
Or maybe you're training hard enough, but not following the right program for you.
In this blog post we'll explore some of these reasons why you don't look like you lift, even though you may be working really hard at the gym.
If you train hard but don't look like you lift, there are a few most common culprits...
1. You don't have enough muscle on your frame - So even if you have successfully dieted to the point where you're very lean, you don't look strong and athletic... just skinny.
2. You're not lean enough - You have successfully built a good amount of muscle, but aren't lean enough for it to show. So rather than looking like someone who trains as hard as you do, you just look a bit fluffy.
Let's dig into the six mistakes you're making that are causing you to fall into one of these two camps.
Not paying enough attention to nutrition is the most common mistake we see new clients who've struggled with "I don't look like I lift-itis" (it's a pandemic).
This isn't just a mistake made by newbies... most of the clients we bring onboard who are coaches themselves and/or have been training for years are making the exact same mistake.
Most new online clients struggling to build the physiques they want (despite working hard in the gym) will say something along the lines of...
"What's my diet like? I eat healthy... for the most part. Sometimes I don't do so great on the weekends. My macros are currently somewhere around ____."
...but when Coach Andrea or I go through their nutrition assessment, we'll see that macros are being tracked very inconsistently (1-3 days per week), and despite having macro targets, they're not being hit.
You're not alone.
Most people love to push themselves in the gym, but still never look like they lift because their nutrition doesn’t match the way they train.
Your training is like the gas pedal. But your nutrition is the fuel in the tank. Without proper (or enough) fuel, you’ll never go far... no matter how hard you push the pedal.
So for most people crushing themselves in the gym, but not seeing the results reflected in the mirror, a smart nutrition strategy is the missing piece killing their results.
This is why we require all of our online clients to track their macros while we work together - we coach people who want a very specific (I.e. photoshoot level of lean, achieving sub 10% body fat, etc.), and well above-average result.
And doing things at random with your nutrition will never yield the exact result you want.
Holding you accountable to tracking your macros allows us to ensure that you're fueling your body properly to create the changes you want to see in the mirror.
Remember, it doesn't matter how hard you push the gas pedal (training)... if you don't have fuel in the tank, you won't go anywhere.
This goes very hand-in-hand with mistake #1... we can usually correct both at the same time.
This is again just as prevalent in more advanced trainees as it is newbies.
Most people who've been training for a few years know they need to be eating ~1 gram of protein per pound of body weight... but aren't tracking their nutrition well enough to know that they're falling short.
This is a problem when it comes to building a great physique for a few reasons:
→ Protein is the "raw material" your muscles are built from - Without adequate protein, it doesn't matter how hard you train... you won't build much muscle.
Your body converts dietary protein into muscle protein through a process called muscle protein synthesis.
But if the amount of protein coming in is too small, your effort in the gym won't be reflected in the mirror.
→ Protein burns lots of calories during digestion - 20-35% of the calories you consume via protein are actually burned off during digestion. We call this "the thermic effect of food".
As you can see, this is much higher than the other macronutrients - meaning even if you keep calories the same, simply increasing the amount of those calories that come from protein equates to you burning more calories daily.
By shifting your macros to include more protein, we're increasing your metabolism, which makes getting (and staying) lean easier.
→ Protein seems to be less likely for your body to store as fat - It seems protein is less likely to be stored as body fat than fat or carbs - even if you're eating more calories due to increased protein.
This study took 48 randomized, resistance-trained men and women and had them either:
a.) Consume 1.36g/lb+ of protein daily
b.) Maintain current dietary habits
Both groups did this for eight weeks while undergoing a standardized resistance training program designed to build muscle.
If you'd like that translated to English:
The high-protein group ate ~490 calories more than the lower protein group, and lost more fat.
Basically, the process of protein being converted to a substrate that can be stored as fat is very energy expensive, time consuming, and inefficient for your body - thus it's less likely to happen compared to carbs or fats.
→ Protein is the most filling macronutrient - Lean proteins are very filling per calorie consumed.
The biggest reason most people struggle on a diet? Hunger is too high.
Prioritizing protein helps you manage hunger, and actually get lean enough to show all of the muscle you've built in the gym.
Again, if you train hard but don't look like you lift, it's probably because either...
a.) You don't have enough muscle on your frame
b.) You're not lean enough
Protein is very helpful for both getting leaner and building muscle, so prioritizing it is essential to your results.
Most of our clients focused on aesthetics make carbs a priority.
Look, your body needs protein (as discussed) and fat to stay healthy.
So none of this is to downplay the importance of either macro. Because you should be hitting your protein needs (1-1.5g/lb) and fat needs (.3g/lb+).
But past this point, eating more carbs will actually provide you an exponential amount of benefits for improving your physique... likely much larger benefits than you’d experience from increasing protein or fat intake instead of carbohydrate intake.
To understand why, you first need to gain a quick understanding of your energy systems:
If you look closely at the energy system that creates energy for the majority of intense activity from ~15-60 seconds (the anaerobic-lactic system), you'll see that it's fueled by carbs.
If your goal is to improve aesthetics, a good amount of your training will be fueled by this energy system. A lower carb approach means that this energy system will essentially be "short on fuel" - your ability to train intensely will suffer. As a result, you'll struggle achieving the levels of performance & adding the lean muscle needed for the physique you want.
This is a common mistake made by both women and men, and is exactly why most of our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process are typically following a higher carb approach.
Not only are carbs your body's preferred fuel source for training, but they also aid your recovery and ability to build more muscle.
Carbs stimulate the release of the hormone insulin in your body. Insulin has an inverse relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone), meaning that as insulin increases, cortisol decreases.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone - it's primary role is breaking things down for energy.
Now, while cortisol isn't "bad" (like all things, it's very context dependent), spending too much time in a catabolic state will of course hinder your ability to build lean muscle.
Due to the insulin and cortisol relationship, adding more carbs to your diet can help get your body out of a catabolic state, and recovering better/quicker.
This is really the most common mistake we see with most people's training in general.
We're talking things like...
- Circuit style training, with very short or no rest periods and lighter weights.
As you've probably picked up by this point, most women and men who "train hard, but don't look like they lift" either...
1. Haven't built enough muscle yet
2. Aren't lean enough to show the muscle they have built
3. Need to build a bit more muscle and lose a bit of fat to look the way they want (most common)
So the issue with these styles of training?
Regardless of how much you crush yourself in the gym, you just don't burn that many calories in the gym.
Generally, calories burned through exercise accounts for a measly 5-7% of your total daily calorie burn:
So yeah... pretty damn hard to "burn it off".
Workouts designed to burn calories aren't doing much for your fat loss... and they're also not very effective for building muscle or strength (we'll talk about why in a second).
You know that saying about sporks?
...They're not really a good spoon or fork? Same concept applies here.
Basically, you're spending a lot of time in the gym, but neither burning enough calories to significantly impact fat loss nor training in a manner that'll stimulate muscle growth.
One of the fundamental things you need to understand to build muscle in your training is a concept called Reps In Reserve (commonly referred to as RIR).
RIR gauges how many reps you have in the tank at the end of a set:
This is the tool we insert into our online client's training programs to ensure they use to make sure they're using the appropriate amount of effort.
TO GAUGE YOUR REPS IN RESERVE (RIR):
Ask yourself at the end of a set...
“How many more reps could I have squeezed out if I absolutely had to?”
Your answer is your Reps In Reserve (RIR), or how many reps you feel you had left before failure.
Utilizing reps in reserve properly ensures your training is providing an effective stimulus for growth.
See, the closer you take a set to failure, the more muscle fibers you recruit and fatigue.
It’s thought that the last few reps of a set are by far the ones you get the most out of... the most "effective reps", because they do the most to disrupt homeostasis and stimulate new muscle growth. (This is the concept of "effective reps").
The mistake most people are making, is simply stopping when they hit the top end of the rep range assigned to the current lift they're doing... but don't ever think about how close they truly are to failure.
For many men and women this means that they are training... but aren't taking sets close enough to failure to stimulate new muscle growth.
To build muscle, it’s smart to spend the majority of your time training around a 2 RIR (most sets end with two reps in the tank).
Pure beginners to can often go to the gym without any structure or plan, and still make great gains... for a few months.
But once you're past the beginner stage (as most of our online clients are), have a clear plan for your training to is the only way to ensure that you're giving your body the appropriate dose of training stimulus it needs to continue adding muscle.
Much of muscle growth comes from progressively challenging a muscle a bit more over time, encouraging it to keep growing in response to the increased stress placed on it. This is often called progressive overload.
That said, if you don't have a clear structure to the way you're training, you're going to be constantly doing different movements when you go to the gym.
If you're constantly doing something different, how do you ever know if you're improving, or applying more stress to your muscles than the previous week?
So while going to the gym and doing random things might feel challenging, and you'll get very sore (new, novel exercises create a lot of muscle soreness), you won't build nearly as much muscle as you would with a structured training program focused on progressive overload.
[If you need help designing your own program to build muscle, check out our Hypertrophy Training Guide and The Best "Push Pull Legs" Split For Building Muscle.]
If you're sick of spinning your wheels in the gym and making these same mistakes over and over, click here now to apply for Online Coaching with our team.
You'll get fully customized training + nutrition protocols fit to your specific goals & lifestyle, and expert guidance and accountability through every step of the process.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.
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