The question: I read your column a few weeks ago where you explain how to get stronger without getting bulky, but I want some bulk. I have lifted weights for years but I can't seem to put on any muscle. What am I doing wrong?
The answer: The fact that genetics can predispose the body to react to training in specific ways can be extremely frustrating. I know how disheartening it is for my clients who struggle to put on muscle.
I have my personal frustration with genetics: I am not a naturally gifted triathlete. I have to work extremely hard for even small improvements. Other athletes seem to get faster by simply dreaming about cycling.
My advice? Don't throw in the towel just yet. Instead, do what I do: Set realistic training expectations based on your own body. Then, be prepared. You will have to work proportionally harder than your naturally muscular friends to get the same results.
Basically, you have almost no margin for error. You have to train smart, and that means the majority of your training should be done within the eight-to-12 repetition range with appropriate weight. Here's what not do do: If you do 10 reps of an exercise with a weight you can actually do 20 reps with, you will not get a hypertrophic (i.e. mass-building) response.
In addition, aim for a minimum of three exercises per body part. Consider breaking up your training routine over three or four days. Focus on each section of your body individually. For example, train your legs on one day, your chest and triceps on another and your back and biceps on the third day.
If you are new to weight training, start by doing two to three sets of each exercise. After six months, do three to six sets.
Take one to two days off between body parts. Your muscles recover and get stronger when you rest. If you train two days in a row, try to train your upper body one day, then your lower body the next.
Lastly, don't underestimate the importance of your diet! To gain muscle size, you need to eat the right kind of calories. If you eat cookies all day, the weight you gain will be fat, not muscle.
Trainer's tip: Regardless of how you aesthetically react to exercise, moving will make you feel better. Don't compare yourself to other people or to an "ideal" version of yourself. Just move.
Kathleen Trotter has been a personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for 10 years. Her website is www.kathleentrotter.com.