If it's any comfort, you're not the only one riding this struggle bus — Hannah Davis creator of Body By Hannah, says she sees this happen all the time. There's a number of factors that could be stifling your fitness progress; it's just a matter of honing in on the problem.
Here's what Hannah asks her clients, if they complain they're not gaining muscle.
How intense are your workouts?
It's one thing to go through the motions of a workout, and it's another to actually challenge your body. "I have many clients who are fearful of lifting heavier, but you really need to be training at a higher intensity in order to see progress," she says. So if you've been sticking with those 10 pound dumbbells for upper body exercises, stop underestimating yourself—grab those heavier weights.
That said, don't go from 10 to 50 in one week; challenge yourself gradually. "A great guideline is, for upper body, go up five pounds at a time. With the lower body, go up 10 pounds at a time," says Davis. "Feel comfortable, spend a week or so doing that. And then go up."
She notes that you'll eventually hit a point where you feel you've hit your maximum weight, but you'll probably be surprised by how much weight you can actually handle. You'll know you're lifting enough when the last two reps of every set (Hannah recommends 8 to 20 reps, btw) feel like a struggle. "Don't be scared if it's a little rough—get uncomfortable!"
Are you training consistently?
"Two days of [strength training] is great, one day is fine, but I recommend women train three to five days a week," says Davis. "It’s really important that you're giving your body that much consistency, especially if you notice you’re not getting stronger."
And while there are a number of ways to split up your weekly workouts, Davis is a fan of doing an efficient, full-body routine during each of those three to five training days. "Most people are not going to overdo it doing upper body a few days a week," she says. "That said, if there’s a part of your body that feels sore, steer clear of it in the next workout to avoid overtraining."
And consistency doesn't need to mean hour long workouts five days a week. "If it’s three days a week, stick to an hour; five days a week 45 minutes; if it's every day, go for 20 or 30 minutes," she recommends. Another tip: You don't need to complete all of your fitness minutes in one sesh: Try doing half the time in the morning and half at night, if that's easier to squeeze in.
Are you choosing the right movements?
While regularly cranking out any strength training exercises is great, if you're not seeing a lot of muscle gains, turn your attention to the move selection in your routine. Davis says that while it's great to do exercises that focus on specific muscles if you have the time—like biceps curls and leg extensions—you shouldn't prioritise them.
Instead, go for multi-joint (multiple muscle group) movements. "The number one example is deadlift—it works your core, back, posterior chain," says Davis. "Pair that with a pushup or dumbbell press. That’s your entire body right there."
She adds that lower body movements are always going to help you build more muscle overall—so deadlifts, squats, and lunges are prime. Then add presses (chest press, overhead press, pushup) and any kind of pull (lat pulldown) to round out your total-body workout.
Are you really doing enough?
Ultimately, Davis says it all comes down to volume, or the amount you're working all parts of your body. For example, if you're trying to build your legs, "but you're only doing one leg movement in a week, that’s probably not enough volume to see results." The solution: Throw more exercises training your legs into your week. Or, if you are doing a decent number of moves, be sure that your rep and weight count are challenging enough.
Essentially, your workout volume is the culmination of your consistency, intensity, and exercise choices. "You need the volume to actually build muscle," she says. "If you’re not increasing your volume in some way, in either reps or weight, then you’re not going to make gains."
Are you taking care of your body outside of the gym?
If you're doing all of the above correctly, and still struggling to build muscle, it may have nothing to do with your actual strength training. "Then we need to look at your stress," says Davis. "That encompasses nutrition and sleep. Those components cannot be overlooked, because they can trump all of your training."
For nutrition, that means drinking plenty of water and eating enough healthy, nutrient-dense foods throughout the day to help fuel your workouts. Davis says she often sees clients who barely eat all day long, and then eat a big meal before bed. "Not eating enough will prevent you from building muscle—you need protein and carbs to get stronger," she says. You don't necessarily need to fuel right before a workout (although if you do, Davis says an apple is her go-to), but you do need to eat enough to keep your body energized, and promote muscle-building.
Sleep is also crucial for your body's recovery and performance. Davis recommends putting screens away an hour before bed, keeping you room dark and cool, and aiming for six to eight hours of quality sleep per night. That means, don't cut out a few hours of sleep to make time for a morning workout: "Skipping sleep is only going to hurt your progress."
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US