This is the question I was asked this week by one of my teenage clients. As a GAA player with inter-county ambitions, functional muscle size is important to him.

There are many possible reasons why a male athlete may not be gaining his desired muscle size increases. Let’s go through the key factors in increasing muscle strength and size, before spending money on products not necessarily needed. They fall into four categories – genetics, training habits, age, and nutrition.


Have you ever noticed how some people have that enviable washboard stomach, that no matter how hard they try, others can’t seem to achieve? The fact is that we are all genetically predisposed to certain body shapes and sizes. Our athletic prowess is limited by our DNA. Does this mean that we cannot improve how we look? Absolutely not! We can all strive to make the best of what we have. Genetic types are usually divided into ectomorphs (thin, hard gainers), mesomorphs (muscular, easy gainers), and endomorphs (fat, easy gainers). Pure types are rare. Most men are an ecto-meso mix, and can expect to gain about 15% of muscle weight after a year of excellent nutrition and training. – Dr Michael Colgan (Optimum Sports Nutrition

Training for strength and hypertrophy:

  1.  Generally when doing strength training, people want to see the results in the mirror as well as gaining functional strength. This article is not so much for bodybuilders, however, who will do specific exercises to isolate muscles, but for the regular gym-goer who just wants to develop functional strength and look good. Some factors that affect muscle growth and strength:
  2. The amount of weight you lift is a key factor if you desire muscle growth (hypertrophy). In each set the number of repetitions largely determines the result, whether it is to develop maximal strength or improve muscular appearance and general strength. For example, lifting extremely heavy weights that permit only 1-2 repetitions is not the way to go for hypertrophy. According to Thomas Kurz (Science of Sport training, 2001) “strength training with maximal and close to maximal resistance causes very little hypertrophy because the number of repetitions with such great resistance is very small and does not cause sufficient breakdown of muscle proteins to stimulate rebuilding them in excess after work.”  However, lifting weights that permits 6-8 repetitions does produce the desired neuromuscular effect. Also performing the exercises at a slow pace “increases” the resistance by eliminating the momentum of the weight and thus developing hypertrophy (Pawluk1985). Generally, strength gains arise as a result of hypertrophy.
  3. Muscle is built during rest periods, not during workouts. In fact, during a workout you are breaking muscle down, stimulating it to grow bigger and stronger. But this actual growth is done in the interim period between workouts. Exercisers who fail to take adequate rest are constantly breaking down muscle tissue, not allowing adequate time for recuperation and growth. Some athletes activities lead to overtraining, e.g. by going to the gym 4-5 days a week, especially if each workout is identical. To avoid this trap, concentrate on certain exercises for specific days, allowing enough time to rest before repeating the same workout and it is usually advised to not train more than four days in a row.
  4. Change your workout at the first signs of plateau. The human body is highly adaptable and will quickly learn to become resilient to your efforts. Thomas Kurz recommends changing your workout program every 2-6 weeks. However there is no need to change if a program is continuously giving you improvements.

Developmental Age:

A young athlete may have a developmental age different ho his chronological age, i.e. be an early-bloomer or late-bloomer. For boys, one of the key factors in adolescence is the increased amount of testosterone being produced. Testosterone is like “rocket fuel” to young men and facilitates increases in muscle size and strength. Similarly, lack of it in a late-bloomer may frustrate him if gains are less than expected. Patience is required here.


Before rushing out to buy protein supplements, it is worth looking at what you are doing with your diet currently, first. The traditionally recommended ratio of carbohydrates:protein:fats is 40:30:20. Generally, according to nutrition guides, you need 15-25% of good quality protein in your diet. People who are doing plenty of training obviously need to lean toward the higher end of this scale. However you should check that you are getting enough low-GI carbohydrates into your diet to fuel your workouts. If you are not, then the protein in your diet may be broken down and used for energy instead of being used to power muscle growth, and other metabolic reactions.
According to Dr Colgan, the ideal protein intake for weight training lies somewhere between 1.7 and 2.4grams/kg of bodyweight. This is supported by various other studies, e.g. Dr Peter Lennon et al at Kent State University, U.S. concluded that daily protein intake should be 1.7 grams/Kg of bodyweight.

In summary, look at the various factors that affect your training results and make changes where necessary. It is worth your while spending time reading up on sports nutrition, as this is one of the greatest investments you can make if you are serious about optimum health. You may well benefit from adding extra protein into your diet by eating more lean meat, fish, eggs, etc… If you really feel you need a protein powder to supplement your diet, then please read the ingredient list carefully. Many brands are loaded with potentially toxic ingredients like MSG, aspartame, etc… As a general rule, when it comes to ingredients: if you can’t pronounce it, avoid it.

Want to learn more about rational training and nutrition, while you have time to spare over the holidays? Check out my book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports.” Digital version is also available. See