8 Reasons Why You Look Like You Don’t Lift

A common question I get is, why am I not seeing better results from the gym? It’s no secret that the biggest reason many of us train is to look super jacked. Yet, despite hours spent in the gym and meticulous attention to nutrition, many fall short of their desired physique.

In some cases, this lack of progress even leads to one of the worst questions a man can get—Do you even lift, bro? Sorry, I had to.

In this article, I will cover the eight most common obstacles to your progress. From misconceptions about training to dietary slip-ups, understanding what’s going wrong is the first step to unleashing your true potential.

So, if you’re ready to stop feeling overlooked and start seeing real results, keep reading to uncover the secrets to achieving a physique that reflects your dedication and discipline to the gym.

1: Not Devoting Enough Time To Building Muscle

The biggest reason you don’t look like you lift is that you need to spend more time building muscle. Sounds obvious, right? Well, not exactly.

Contrary to popular belief, the key to looking like you lift is not a shredded six-pack but instead spending time building muscle. The misconception that being lean is the only way to show your gains is holding you back. It’s time to shift your focus from immediate aesthetics to long-term muscle development.

Making gains as a natural lifter takes a lot of time. No really. You have to do everything right for years to build a good physique. Part of doing everything right is eating enough. One must be in a calorie surplus to create an optimal muscle-building environment. In other words, you can gain muscle by eating at maintenance or even in a calorie deficit under the right conditions, but you can only maximize muscle growth with a surplus of energy (calories).

If you’re overly concerned with staying lean, you may miss out on maximizing muscle growth. But here’s the good news: a 2023 study by Helms and colleagues found that you don’t need to go on a drastic bulk to build muscle.¹

In fact, a 5-20% increase in calories above maintenance is enough to maximize growth. For someone with a daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories, 5-20% would translate to an increase of only 100-400 calories daily.

So, the first step to looking like you lift is to spend time in a 5-20% calorie surplus. You don’t need to do this year around, but commit to at least 3-6 months. For the rest of the year, you can eat at maintenance.

Whatever you do, don’t cut. There will be plenty of time for that. Your abs will still be there after you put some muscle on your frame. Except now, they will actually look impressive.

2: Lack of Effort

Alright, I’m about to rustle some jimmies.

I have a question for you. How hard do you train? Be honest. How much effort do you put into your workouts? Yours or anyone’s effort is challenging to measure since it’s mostly subjective. Need proof? Just chat with some people at the gym about how hard they’re working.

Come back to me when you find someone willing to admit they’re holding back. Most people check all of the boxes except effort. They have a good training plan, an ice-cold energy drink, and fancy gym clothes. The problem is they need to push themselves harder to see any progress.

Please don’t take what I’m saying personally. It’s not even your fault. It’s the fault of the evidence-based fitness community. For years, people “in the know” have pointed out that you don’t need to train to failure to build muscle.

On the surface, research shows that training to failure is not required for gains in strength and muscle size.² However, the caveat is you need to train close to failure to see gains, likely within 1 to 3 reps

A cool study in 2021 looked at this issue.³ The researchers took 160 trained men and asked them the following question: “What weight do you usually lift for ten repetitions on a free-weight bench press exercise?” Then, after a warmup, the subjects were instructed to go to failure using the weight they usually do ten reps with. On average, the subjects completed 16 reps.

Figure 1: Barbosa-Netto, S., et al. (2021)

So, based on this, people leave around six reps in the tank. That is too many. If you were in the study, how many reps would you get with the weight you usually use for ten reps? Ideally, it would be around 10-13.

Look, it doesn’t matter how advanced your training program is on paper. The effort you put in will determine how much progress you make. If you leave six or more reps in the tank on every set of every exercise, it will add up.

Embrace the challenge of taking each set close to failure. Keep a record of your workouts and strive to surpass your previous numbers. The goal is to progressively increase the weights or the number of reps in every workout. You won’t always outperform your logbook, but the intent to surpass it should always be there. It’s this intent that keeps you honest.

3: Doing a Bunch of Junk Volume

The debate on training volume has a rich history. In the era of Arnold Schwarzenegger, high-volume training was the trend. These athletes would engage in marathon workouts, sometimes lasting 4 or 5 hours a day, six days a week.

On the other hand, in the 80s and 90s, there were proponents of high-intensity training like Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates, who focused on shorter, more intense sessions of 30-45 minutes, 3 or 4 days a week. While both approaches have their merits, the optimal solution for most individuals lies somewhere in between.

An effective training program is all about balance. It provides enough training volume to stimulate gains without pushing it too far. Research indicates a good starting point is around ten weekly sets per muscle group.

Figure 2: Schoenfeld, B., et al. (2017)

From there, you can add sets until you reach a top range of around twenty to twenty-five weekly sets. Beyond that, it approaches what is called junk volume. Junk volume refers to any additional training volume beyond necessary to stimulate muscle growth or adaptation.

The issue with junk volume is diminishing returns and wasted time. If you train six days a week for three hours each workout, you spend eighteen hours a week in the gym. Compare this to someone who trains for one hour each workout four days a week. That person only spends four hours a week in the gym. It’s four hours compared to eighteen. It’s hard to justify spending 12 more hours weekly in the gym for minimal (if any) additional progress. Unfortunately, you don’t get bonus points for doing a lot of low-quality work.

4: No Clear Goals

If you don’t look like you lift, it might be because you need to spend more time moving in one direction. If one week, you are bodybuilding, the next, you are powerlifting, and the one after that, you are preparing for a marathon, you will just spin your wheels. Can some people build incredible physiques as “hybrid athletes?” Yes, of course. But chances are, that’s not you.

You need to make up your mind. Do you want to look like you lift or not? Because if you do, you have to prioritize hypertrophy training. That must be your goal. I’m not saying you need to jump on stage and compete in bodybuilding, but the bodybuilders have it right. They know how to build muscle. Get on a bodybuilding program and stick with it. Stay disciplined.

The second issue we need to discuss is program hopping. I get it; we all get tempted by the shiny object syndrome, always looking for a new or better way to do things. But if you are always trying new programs, how will you know when you find one that works? You won’t.

hypertrophy program

Prepare to maximize your gains with our exclusive 12-week hypertrophy training program. Choose between a 4 or 5 day training split and gain 2-12 pounds of muscle over 90 days…

5: Using Bad Form

Most gymgoers would be better off trying to impress others with good technique rather than lifting heavy weights. At least I’m more impressed when I see picture-perfect technique. Maybe because it’s so rare?

Bad form comes in a variety of conditions. It exists on a continuum. On one end, you have the type of form that makes you fear for a person’s life. On the other hand, you have a technique that looks good to the average observer, but it’s off enough to reduce the stimulus on the target muscle. I want to focus on the latter.

There are a few key points when talking about technique. One of the most significant is load. I see many people who use good form with light weights, only to have it all fall apart when going heavy. There needs to be a consistent standard of technique from set to set. If you can’t maintain the standard, you can’t increase the weight.

In addition, placing the greatest amount of force on the muscle and the least amount of stress on the joints and connective tissues is another essential aspect of good form.

The bench press is an excellent example of this. If you don’t feel a bench press in your chest, chances are you are doing it wrong. With a good setup and proper technique, the bench press can effectively target the chest while minimizing joint stress. However, benching with a flat back, flared elbows, and poor bar positioning can take all the tension from the chest and distribute it to the tendons and ligaments. Not only is this dangerous, but it makes the movement less effective.

6: Not Resting Long Enough Between Sets

It may surprise you, but resting longer between sets is best for muscle growth and goes hand in hand with beating the logbook. Improving performance will be challenging if your goal is to speed through your workouts. Give yourself time to rest between sets.

Allow two to five minutes of rest between sets for the compound movements (squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc.). You can get by taking a one- to two-minute break from the isolation exercises.

Here’s a final reminder. Five minutes may seem like a long time, but it’s not. It’s not enough time to get distracted by your phone, take a leisurely bathroom break, refill your water bottle, or talk with your buddies. While you don’t need to watch the clock constantly, use this time to sit down, hydrate, and mentally prepare for the next set. 

7: Doing Too Much Cardio

First, I love cardio. Aside from all the health benefits, being in good cardiovascular shape can also benefit your weight training. That said, as with all things, just because some is good doesn’t mean more is better.

There are two concerns with cardio – how much you do and when you do it. How much you do comes down to calories in versus calories out. There is a reason why we add cardio during a fat-loss phase: it helps burn calories. However, when you aim to build muscle, an abundance of cardio will cut into your calorie surplus. In low to moderate amounts, this is nothing to worry about.

As a rule of thumb, keep the total time you spend doing cardio half as much as you spend lifting weights. For example, if you lift weights for four hours per week, the total time spent on cardio should be two hours or less. Most of your cardio should be low to moderate intensity because that is easy to recover from, but if you enjoy HIIT, you can throw some in, too.

The interference effect is a scientific term describing how cardio and resistance training can hinder muscle gains when done together. These two types of exercises can trigger conflicting physiological adaptations and signaling pathways, leading to less muscle hypertrophy and strength than performing them separately. It’s why you don’t see many bodybuilders running in marathons.

Before you get scared away from doing cardio again, hear me out. 

In 2017, a meta-analysis demonstrated that the timing of cardiovascular exercise significantly influences the interference effect. In the paper, the researchers found that doing cardio before lifting decreased performance.

There are no surprises there. However, the interesting part of the study showed that in terms of the adaptations from cardio, the benefits were the same if you did cardio before or after lifting

Here are the take-home points:

  • Limit cardio to half the amount of time you spend lifting weights. 
  • Try to separate your cardio and weightlifting sessions as far apart as possible. The best time to do cardio is on a rest day from lifting weights. The second best time is six hours before or after a lifting session. If you have to do them in the same workout, lift first, then do cardio.

Still want to know more? Read our full article on if Cardio Kills Gains.

8: Not Prioritizing Your Arms, Side Delts, Traps and Calves

I’m all for training the big muscles. Having a big chest, back, and legs is important. However, in a t-shirt and shorts, your arms, shoulders, traps, and calves stand out above everything else.

If you don’t look like you lift, you might be weak in a few key muscles. I don’t care how big your back is. If you have puny arms, you are going to look small. 

Let’s analyze your training program. First, do you train all of the muscles I listed? I bet you train your arms, but what about your side delts, traps, and calves?

Next, if you do train them, how well?

For a muscle to grow, it needs volume, intensity, and progression. Throwing a couple of lazy sets at the end of a long leg workout is not enough to build big calves.

Here is what I want you to do. Follow the workouts below for the next few months. I don’t care what else you include but do these exercises first in your routine. Push these exercises hard, and look for week-to-week progression wherever possible.

Push Day: 

  • Close Grip Bench Press: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
  • EZ Bar Lying Triceps Extensions: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Overhead Cable Triceps Extensions: 3 sets x 10-12 reps  
  • Dumbbell Side Raise: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Cable or Machine Side Raise: 3 sets x 10-12 reps 

Pull Day: 

  • Hammer Curl: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Incline Curl: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • EZ Bar Preacher Curl: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Dumbbell Shrug: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Smith Machine Shrug: 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Leg day: 

  • Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Conclusion

As we wrap up, I have one more question for you. Are you sure you don’t look like you lift? Or are you comparing your physique to a sauced-up bodybuilder you follow on Instagram? It’s an important question to ask.

You need to have realistic expectations. Look, this isn’t an excuse to lower your standards, but expecting to look like a fitness model who has been on gear for a decade is a recipe for disappointment.

After taking a realistic view of your physique, the next thing to do is analyze what you are doing. Are you making any of the mistakes I went over in the article? There is no shame in it. I’ve made some of these mistakes before. It happens to the best of us. The key is recognizing it and making changes. A better physique is in the cards for you. I know it. All you have to do is put the recommendations from this article into practice. Start today. Good luck! 

References

  1. Helms, E. R., et al., (2023). Effect of Small and Large Energy Surpluses on Strength, Muscle, and Skinfold Thickness in Resistance-Trained Individuals: A Parallel Groups Design. Sports medicine – open, 9(1), 102. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-023-00651-y
  2. Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Orazem, J., & Sabol, F. (2022). Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 11(2), 202-211. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2021.01.007
  3. Barbosa-Netto, S., d’Acelino-E-Porto, O. S., & Almeida, M. B. (2021). Self-Selected Resistance Exercise Load: Implications for Research and Prescription. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(Suppl 1), S166–S172. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002287
  4. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197
  5. Murlasits, Z., Kneffel, Z., & Thalib, L. (2018). The physiological effects of concurrent strength and endurance training sequence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 36(11), 1212–1219. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2017.1364405

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