In a recent Athlean-X video, Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. laid out five “red flags” to look out for that can function as advance warnings that you’re not building muscle. Think of them as signals that you need to follow to get back on the road to gains.
Cavaliere’s first red flag: If you’re not getting a good pump, you’re not making gains. “If you’re not getting a pump from your training because you’re relying on one single method, progressive overload and building strength to produce your size gains, then I advise you to look into other opportunities to train for hypertrophy,” says Cavaliere. The pump he’s referring to is the sensation you get when your muscles fill with blood after you use them, particularly after a high volume of reps.
One of the best ways to do that? Metabolic training, which often involves lighter weights and additional repetitions than your standard workout splits. The potential for gains here is great, and “doesn’t dry up as quickly as the progressive overload route.” Cavaliere adds that placing extra stress on muscle cells via metabolic training can act as a stimulus for hypertrophy.
The second sign you’re not making gains is “the inability to create muscular discomfort under contraction.” In other words, not feeling any kind of soreness when you flex a muscle. Creating muscular discomfort under contraction is important, explains Cavaliere, as it helps to create a mind-muscle connection which will enable you to recruit as many muscle fibres to the action as possible, providing maximum stimulus for growth.
The third red flag is actually a yellow one. According to Cavaliere, the colour of your urine can tell you a lot about your fitness. Ideally, you’ll be peeing mostly clear. If your urine is darker or you’re not going as often, then you’re likely dehydrated. “You cannot build muscle in a dehydrated environment,” he says, “just like you can’t grow a flower really well in a dried out potted plant.”
That said, this can vary from person to person, so don’t take your urine colour to be the end-all be-all out of all these signals. Make sure that you feel out what’s best for you hydration-wise, then proceed accordingly.
The fourth sign that you’re not building muscle is if you’re not recovering from your workouts. Cavaliere’s tip for checking for under-recovery is to pick up an old-fashioned scale and squeeze it each morning, measuring your output. This provides an indication of whether your central nervous system is recovering from each bout of training before your body shows any outward signs. If your strength is dropping by 10 percent or more day to day, then you’re not recovering, and you might need to increase your rest time, or change the focus of your training.
Fifth and finally is your inter-set drop-off. In other words, what does your performance look like from one set to the next? If you’re unable to perform the same number of reps or have to drop the weight by more than 10 to 15 percent, especially early on in the training session, then it’s a strong sign that you’ve started your workout under-recovered.
“Under-recovery is going to be the biggest enemy for trying to get back and build muscle,” says Cavaliere. “Look at how you’re performing from one set to the next as an indicator of that, be honest about it, and be willing to make the change if need be.”