T Nation

Troubleshooting Lack of Gains


CT -

Hope this doesn’t fall under cateogry of “personal training” but I think my case may apply to lots of people who have stangant growth.

For me actually, I’m not really sure whats happening with my body. My bodyweight is higher, strength a little bit increases, but physique look way worse (less cuts, muscles water and even having weird water retentionfeeling fat).

This is odd because I don’t think I’m overeating (could be wrong here…) and despite eating the diet that, back in the day, would get me shredded (meat/veggies/fruit during the day and a splurge meal at night), I’m at best modestly toned now, and do not look nearly as impressive.

Basically softer, blobbier & look only strong in a tight t-shirt lol.

Is this simply fat gain?

The irony is I have been training consistently and now I suspect maybe too intensely? Is this overtraining/cortisol?

The single biggest change has been the timing of nutrients…I train 2-3 hours after waking up, have some coffee/stims then only drink a scoop or two of whey. Previoulsy I had some cyclic dex & casein hydroslate.

In both cases though I don’t get the gargantuan pumps I used to. Not really sure whats going on

I’m doing a push/pull split (best training style for naturals) but I basically only use compound lifts & ramp up in sets of 3 rather than just 2 prep sets.

Do you have any words of wisdom here - maybe a training program that will “ground” me again? I’m lifting heavy, clustering etc. but its like body is simply not responding. And motviation to train is down as well…

Lifestyle wise pretty crazy (live in new city now) lots of walking, business stress, and travel. So maybe that is the cause.


*I would say the best way to describe is I feel like I’m training on the nerve, daily, always. Externally, performance looks good (no grinding, seemingly explosive) but internall its like my muscles and nervous system are dead and I"m just pushing it with my soul existence [disassociated feel].


Welcome to being old… stuff is going to suck from now on but hey, you’ll have more patience to deal with it haha

On a serious note, as you get older your body is less forgiving of “splurges”.


30’s the new 50 huh? :wink:

Its weird I don’t know if I’m damaging my body or preventing decline when lifting heavy & intensely day in day out. I think the mental/lifestyle stuff plays a big part on recovery & motivaiton to train…


Your meal pattern, especially with the “splurge” meal is likely the main reason. You are what, 5-7 years older than when you were really lean? Most people more easily get fat when they get older. I know that I can’t get away with barely eating during the day and splurging in the evening anymore.

Plus understand that having cortisol constantly elevated (there is a difference between chronic and acute cortisol elevation) can lead to insulin resistance; which of course makes it easier to pile on fat and harder to gain muscle.

Cortisol breaks down muscle glycogen and frees it up. When that happens during hard training, that’s fine because you will burn that glucose. But if it happens when you are inactive or just walking around (so the cortisol increase is more from psychological/emotional stress… but it still elevate blood glucose). then you elevate blood glucose levels but you don’t burn it. Since the body doesn’t want to have elevated blood glucose levels, it will release insulin to lower glucose back down. If cortisol stays elevated a vicious cycle starts which leaves both your cortisol and insulin pretty much elevated all day long. And when it comes to insulin sensitivity there is nothing worse than having insulin elevated above baseline constantly… a small amount over baseline constantly is WAAAAAYYYYY worse than having a big insulin spike once in a while.

As an asian you naturally have good insulin sensitivity; which likely allowed you to eat a certain way and stay/get lean. But maybe over the past few years you became a lot less sensitive and now as a result you just can’t get away with the things you used to be able to get away with.

Anyway from your post you are doing everything possible to have high cortisol levels (some things you can’t control) and that likely made you more resistant to insulin. Which is only reinforced by your eating pattern. And that splurge meal is having a devastating impact on your body comp.

When I’m in a stressed situation I find that I need a perfect diet to stay lean and avoid water retention. A few years back I could eat whatever (provided that calories were not excessive) but now I simply can’t do that.

Cortisol also makes you retain water. But in your case I think that you are more fat than retaining water. Water retention is a real issue. But few people have a REAL problem with it on a regular basis. I do retain 6-9lbs of water after long trip and look like crap. But that is not something normal. YES my weight fluctuates due to water retention and on some days I look a bit leaner. But if you are lean the normal fluctuations in water retention is not enough to “make you look out of shape” all by itself.

Finally, chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease the T4 to T3 conversion which can decrease your metabolic rate over time. Even worse, it can also elevated Thyroid Binding Protein 3 which can make T3 inactive by binding to it. Of course decreasing metabolic rate even more,

I will tell you this though: when I’m in my high stress periods (when I’m giving seminars 2-3 times per month internationally or have to produce lots of videos and content) my physique does degrade even if I’m doing everything to avoid that. Stress and cortisol is THAT powerful.

That’s why when I prepped for my last photo shoot I took 2 months completely off… no seminars, only one day of video, minimal writing, no traveling. Heck I even started training at a “Bro gym” instead of the performance center I normally go to because the bro gym is 3 minutes away by car while the performance center is 40 min away and I often stuck in traffic!

And that’s why with every seminar I give my physique gets a lot worse in a short time and it takes me 7-10 days upon my return to look and perform close to how I did before I left. I recently was away for 2 weeks and my body weight is the same but my look is not as good. It’s now 7 days after my return and I’m starting to look acceptable again, but it will take me another week to get back to about 95-97%. That is sadly the reality of stress and that’s why I mentioned that my goal this year was to maintain 90-95% of what I achieved at my last photo shoot by the end of beginning of December. If I can do that I have December off and might be able to get back to 97 or even 100%. Then the challenge will be to maintain 90-95% over the first 4 months of 2018, which are pretty crazy for me (Japan, Poland, Brazil, Dubai, etc.).

Trust me it sucks. I wish I could continue on progressing during those stressful months, or at least stay the same. But that’s how bad stress affects me. Note that not everybody is like that. Neurotype 1A individuals are not affected by stress much, My friend and Canada’s strongest man JF Caron will have done a total of 20 strongman competitions this year; travelling all over the world. Heck, when he competed at the Arnold Classic Australia he left Wednesday, arrived Thursday (20 hours flight), competed Friday and finished 3rd (Brian Shaw won), 0.5 pts behind second. The next weekend he was back in Canada, competing and winning. He is not negatively affected by stress at all!

From what I know of you I suspect that you are a type 2A like me. And 2A while not as bad as types 3 at handling stress, are not that good.

That’s why a lot of people who were in great shape in college can never seem to get back to that kind of shape once they start to have more life stress, even if they keep training hard. For these people to reach the same level they easily achieved in their youth they will have to do everything perfect. And even then there is no guarantee. That’s one of the reason why high level bodybuilders and physque competitors don’t have stressful jobs (most rely on sponsorship, coaching and using social medias). Very few can make good progress when their stress level is high, even with all the drugs they are taking.

What am I saying? That your reality is different now. As such you simply cannot have the same success you had in the past using the same methods. you will have to do everything possible to reduce cortisol production. You will have to get rid of all the dietary habits that can lead to inflamation (whether it’s food choices or the amount of food eaten at a meal). You will have to change the way you train because you can’t afford to have the same cortisol release from training. You will have to analyze your reliance on stimulants. Etc.

Can you get back in shape? Sure. But understand that in your current situation it will be a TON harder than it once was.

I worked with a figure competitor. Normally I can take any girl who looks decent and get her in good condition in 12-14 weeks. Take my wife for example. She got photo shoot ready in 8 weeks and she had not trained for a year and was 30lbs overweight.

But the figure girl I mentioned. She came up to me a year before her competition. My plan was to do a 2 months “test” prep to get her near competition shape to see what we needed to work on and how her body reacted. Then take 5 months to build more muscle and 4 months to get contest ready.

Well after the 2 months of “pre cut” she had progressed about as much as my wife did in 3 weeks! And she was doing everything PERFECT!

I got her contest ready, but we needed 10 months to do so!

And she wasn’t fat to start with. She was actually a good athlete. But she had a very stressful job (police officer) and was having relationship problems.

She got in contest shape (got 2nd out of 12) but she had to be perfect for 10 months! Not a single cheat during that time for example.

It took her about 3-4 more time to get in good shape than everybody else I worked with.

That is the reality of stress and “real life”. And that’s why you don’t see that many natural people getting into GREAT shape in between 26-40… physically they should be able to do it. But the stress of life is their worst enemy.

From 18-23 is where you will see the most good looking physques (not huge but looking lean, tight and muscular)

From 24-35 you see less and less because of the stress of “real life”

Oddly enough from 35 to 45 you actually see a bit more people get in great shape. They are more settled in, less stress and still physically capable of improvements

From 45-55 you see less and less people who are in great shape. Some people moved on, but there is the reality of aging that can affect anabolic hormones and it becomes increasingly harder to build muscle and stay lean. At 45 or even 40 I think it’s smarted to focus on getting/staying lean while maintaining muscle mass.

After 55 the reality will have hit pretty much everybody… unless using at least TRT you will lose a lot of muscle and get fatter. You can still be in very good shape… but you will be “in great shape for someone in their 50s”

If I were you; I would focus on getting super lean then go from there (well that’s actually what I did).

Let’s be brutally honest here: If you had the genetics to be “big” you would already be big by now. You’ve been at it seriously for what, 8+ years? If you were build to have a lot of size you would have it.

That having been said you KNOW you can get super lean and you looked awesome when you were lean. I would recommend that you stop chasing something you are not designed to be and focus on what you know you can achieve. Otherwise you just end up like you are now: average in everything.

Then when you do get back to being super lean you can gradually build some muscle in the right places to look better.

Trust me, it is a hard pill to swallow. I always wanted to be something like 260 and lean. Despite being an “expert” the best I could ever achieve as 215 and lean, 222 and “ok” , 228 and soft and 240 fat. Sometimes we are just not built for what we dream of. But now I’m 202 and very lean and although I’m not as big in clothes as I once was, i have one of the best physique everywhere I go, and it’s good enough for me.

Heck I know that in the next few years I will likely VERY slowly get smaller. Unless I were to take big doses of steroids, which I can’t do due to my health condition. That is the reality of aging. Bu you know what? If I stay super lean, even if I go down to 185 (which I haven’t been since high school) I would still be ok with that. BUT If I tried to stay 215 no matter what, I would simply look a little bit worse every year. The bad thing is that you don’t really see it happening until it’s “too late”.

Actually happened to me 3 years ago. Lost some muscle because of my health condition. And as I tried to get back up I only focused on reaching 222 and stay there. I got there but when I took some pictures I noticed that I looked like crap.


That is 100% accurate. In fact it seems to be true for everything.

I do not tolerate alcohol like I once did. I can’t stay up as late without paying the price. I can’t do the same amount of work in the gym. etc.


You are not physically built for heavy lifting (small structure) so it is likely “overusing” your body. If you are a type 2A like I suspect you need:

  1. The change things very frequently… no more than 2 weeks on a “type of program”
  2. Have a neural and a muscular component at every workout, but not a high amount of any of the two.

Neural = heavy, explosive, skill
Muscular = mind-muscle connection, pump


From a muscle building perspective or body comp, yeah it can be. especially when you are natural. But nostly because of the changes in your lifestyle.

I was lucky to be able to build muscle really easily and stay lean without effort right until I was 35. But that is also because my life was very low stress. Writing for T-nation allowed me to train only a small amount of clients, and only people that were fun to work with. When I was working in St-Louis (head strength coach at the Central Institute for Human Performance) my physique constantly degraded because I was coaching 50 hours a week.

YES lifestyle plays a HUGE role in your capacity to get lean and muscular


incredible incredible stuff, appreciate CT. really quite personalized and hit all the points. thanks for taking that time, great things to digest. BTW coming to japan -> tokyo, seminar?

the odd thing was my schedule had way more working hours (regimented, early days, worked 12 hour days everyday) when i was 21-25 but that was also when i had the best physique. i had a schedule…did the intermittent fasting style, worked hard during hte day, ate a p/f & some fruit meal + pre-workout snack. then trained hard (did use plazma) around 5 pm, then late night splurge & repeat all over again.

those were the best gains. and aesthcially i looked the best using EC stack no doubt about it.

now my schedule is more “flexible” but i have more demands in terms of meetings/deals etc. i still use the intermittent fasting style but i train 2-3 hours after waking up…this SHOULD be the ideal time. but after i train i then have meetings/work rest of day, which spikes my cortisol/adrenalin postwkrout.

the 8+ years comment was great lol. yes absolutely right. thats a long time to be chasing “big” but hey i’ve gotten really really proficient at a few compoudn lfits lol.

do you think a protein only (whey/whey isolate) used intra workout and really my first “meal” of the day since I train fasted, 2-3 hrs post waking…do you think this could be an issue?

should i be adding carbs to this? i don’t have cyclic dex at the moment…the convenience stores here have these pre-made protein gels that have some carbs and whey. does this even matter?

training wise - neural/muscular yes exaclty how i like it. i find the best damn style is great (alternating the neural/muscular compound for each body part) as is the push/pull/legs.

it may be purely a fat issue. at 5’5, looked best aroudn 145, now i’m 180 LOL. let me work down to like 165, i think my body will “re-respond” then. its really the lack of PUMP and training motivation that freaks me out.

like back in the day whe i did snatch grip high pull i would feel incredible swelling in posteriior chain and the traps. now i feel like i’m goign through the motion despite increasing poundages & still quite explosive. just an example…same thing with bench press etc. i’m still doing some ring work at the beignning of most workouts (i doubt this is the culprit though)


Oh yeah, totally a fat issue then. I doubt that you gained more than 10lbs of muscle… let’s even say 15 to be SUPER generous. Nobody retains 20lbs of water on a regular basis. The most I’ve ever retained was 10lbs and that was a HUGE rebound from traveling and eating crap. So you gained AT LEAST 15lbs of fat. But my assumption is that you likely gained 5-10lbs of muscle, 20-25lbs of fat and are holding around 3-5lbs of extra water (at the most).

Fat gain is insidious, trust me.3 years ago when I go to a ugly 225 I wouldn’t see myself getting fat… because it was really gradual. To get in really good shape this year for my photo shoot had to lose 25lbs even though I didn’t look really bad at first. It’s really easy to underestimate how much fat we have to lose.


Yes it matters a lot. The quality of nutrients matter. Cyclic dextrins do not cause a huge insulin reponse but still decrease cortisol production. Getting the same amount of carbs in cheaper forms will likely cause a big insulin spike, especially if you are more insulin resistant now.


Osaka I think, yes for a seminar


Very interesting insights on both ends. The more I age, the more I am coming to terms with what CT says about each person having a ‘genetic’ weight that is hard to stray from.

Coming from en endurance sport background (cycling, and martial arts), I’ve only been seriously committed to weightlifting for the past 3-4 years. Now at 33, though stronger than ever, achieving the desired physical changes has been hard (weight gain). During my twenties as an amateur cyclist, I would weigh in 155 (at 5’11) with very low fat, striations, a relatively small upper body compared to lower body. When I tried to add some volume to my frame (mainly the upper body), I managed to go up to 168-170 during my second try at 915, but moving the needle past 170 has been nearly impossible despite massive eating, cutting out cardio, etc. And all this is with very little stress in my life.

Indeed, as CT mentions, I’ve come to realize that it is possible to do body recomp, but only to a certain extent, i.e. according to your natural proportions. I certainly do look ‘larger’ now, and have a much more developed back, traps and shoulders than before, and I am still quite lean and ‘shredded’ to an extent, but I have abandoned the idea of going up to 180 or even 185. Even when I eat massive amounts of food, all I feel is bloated and shitty. Nothing really conducive to a healthy life if you ask me.

Sometimes I joke with my father, who’s an amazing endurance athlete for his age, that he gave me cyclist genes when what I needed were lifting genes.


Totally experiencing a little bit of what I’m reading in this thread. A bit more mid-section fluff, buuuut my arms are a bit more vascular than in my youth. Only 33, but I’m noticing it. I used to have to get VERY lean to have arm veins, and now I can stay a bit above that weight and still have them… Maybe I’ve slowly built some extra mass there, but I think its more the changes I’m reading about above.

I also have a “lean weight” and a “fat weight” that have seemed to remain pretty constant throughout my post-newbie gains period (call it, after my first 5 years of lifting), basically its 165 shredded, 175 lean, 185 hint of six-pack, and anything over 200 is fat. During periods where I had 100% of my life to devote to this maybe I upped all those numbers by 5 pounds, but otherwise they seem pretty constant.


Makes you wonder…all that hoisting of heavy iron day in and day out, crushing joints & nervous system alike. All to maybe optimize 5 lbs of muscle, at that LOL

MIght as well hop on rings at least that is more fun and less draining :wink:

Let a good diet and proper lifestyle (eating, sleep, stress managmenet) take care of the rest…the difference in physique at a lean state, naturally, would probably be the same


It’s not “untrue”.

You know my opinion on rings BUT your message is, I feel, accurate.

Past a certain point how much muscle you can carry naturally is limited by your genetic makeup. Might as well do things you enjoy in the gym.

Regardless of how I train my body weight stays pretty much the same (195-200 shredded, 210-215 lean, 220+ is sloppy) BUT the look will be slightly different. This led to my “muscle migration theory”: we are likely designed to carry a certain limit of muscle tissue. BUT we can carry it differently depending on what we are focusing on.

For example in this year’s photoshoot vs last year’s I was the same body weight. BUT my upper body was better. It’s better because I neglected legs on purpose: I knew we would be wearing shorts. So the total amount of muscle is the same, but it is distributed more in my upper body.

Same as when I focus more on the olympic lifts and lower body strength: I get bigger legs and lower back but a smaller upper body and stay at the same weight.

So what you do in the gym can change your LOOK to some extent and you can create a certain illusion. But the overall muscle mass will be the same.

That’s why if you are shooting for looking good it’s all about creating an illusion by emphasizing the areas that will create that illusion and getting super lean.

See right now when it comes to the upper body I’m focusing on deltoids and traps because that’s what give MY best look. I’m doing more glutes work and less quads work because my quads look good regardless.


Bit of a detour here but is there a relationship/indication coming from “creaking” noises in joints?

FOr instance, if i just roll my neck I hear all sorts of creaking. Similar picking up a grocery bag, or doing amomvement simlar to pulling pants up from the back pocket (like kind of a curl, little shruggin motion) theres all sorts of creaking coming from my shoulder joint and thorasic spine.

I dont feel pain anywhere. But I have noticed over the last few months these creaking noises becoming more prevalend and they are hIGHLY correlated with observations of lacking gains/muscle tone etc.

My movement is also fine, appears great on the outside although a bit jerky. My whole body is kind of jerky now

I should get my sleep in check lol…