Feeling discouraged with weightlifting - vegetarian edition
September 28, 2013 4:58 PM   Subscribe

I started lifting weights at the gym about 8 months ago. Initially I made some small gains, but I quickly plateaued and now I feel like I'm putting way more in than I'm getting out of it. As a vegetarian, should I drink like 4 protein shakes a day?

I started out pretty weak - I've never been athletic. I was 6'1", 165lbs when I started, and still am today. I'm a male in my early 30s. I am not fat, but I'm soft all over and a little flabby - I have no muscle definition at all. I've been an ovo-lacto vegetarian (no fish) almost my whole life.

I haven't been totally consistent, but I'm currently doing sort of a modified 5x5 with squats, deadlifts and dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell rows, and various isolation exercises on various days, plus a decent amount of cardio due to lifestyle and preference. I go 3 nights a week.

At different times I have eaten a lot of food, or less food, or cut back on carbs, or not paid any attention to it, but I feel like I eat a lot in general. I eat tons of eggs. I have almost completely cut out alcohol (I used to drink a lot), and the last 2 months have totally cut out desserts too (my default is to eat a lot of sugar). I eat out a lot, but never fast food. So now I am both socially boring because I can't drink, and sad because I can't eat ice cream.

I'm completely sick of spending hours poring over forums and bro-ey weightlifting sites that all contradict each other. I don't care if I'm getting the most efficient results possible - I just want to feel confident that this is going to pay off at some point.

Without going into a ton of detail into my workout, what seems fair to me is that if I go in 3 nights a week and lift heavy weights at basically my limit, I should see some difference, in something, somewhere. My friend says that I should be eating a ton of protein powder every day, but I don't really want to since they are all full of aspartame and other bullshit ingredients, they are not real food, there are conflicting reports as to whether they do anything at all, and I don't really want to give my money to the companies that make them.

So, do you guys think that lack of protein is the missing link? Or is it possible that despite lifting heavy weights 3 nights a week, I am somehow not doing the right combination of things to see any gains? My goal is to both get stronger and look better. I'm assuming that will involve losing some fat and gaining a bunch of muscle. I understand that it's hard to do both at once, but whatever, I don't care which one happens as long as something happens.

Or is this what it's supposed to feel like? Are genetics going to make this a pointless uphill battle? Should I just eat ice cream until I die?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How many calories a day are you eating? Because your body needs calories to build muscle. And if you've cut out a few big high-calorie food groups, even if you've done so for very good, healthy reasons, I think you need to look at what else you're eating to make sure you're getting adequate calories to support your activity level.
posted by decathecting at 5:00 PM on September 28, 2013

You need to weigh and measure your food intake for a week. You need an idea of exactly how many calories and grams of protein you're eating. Otherwise we can't help. People are terrible at estimating their calorie intake--you need real data.
posted by schroedinger at 5:05 PM on September 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You need to eat enough for your body to have more than what's needed to maintain its current composition. (Like schroedinger wrote, keep track of what you eating, both calorie-wise and protein-wise). You need to get enough rest (sleep). It is possible that the cardio that you are doing is working against what you are trying to accomplish.

Initially, if I were you, I would not worry about losing fat. I would make sure that I eat enough to gain weight (say between 5 and 10 pounds) and see what happens in terms of strength. This might mean really increasing your food intake and cutting down on cardio for a while.
posted by aroberge at 5:16 PM on September 28, 2013

Take a picture of everything you eat and drink, every day, for a week.

You also, also your build, need ~1 gram of protein per lb of weight, and about 3000 calories, if you want to put on weight.
posted by irishcoffee at 5:17 PM on September 28, 2013

Also, don't discount genetics. Whatever it would take for the "average" person to make certain gains, you may just have to do more. What are your family members' builds like? I'm a girl, a vegetarian since childhood, probably don't get as much protein as I should, and don't eat a ton in general, but it is trivially easy for me to gain strength and muscle. My brother is a carnivore, but doesn't eat healthily, and fairly sedentary, and he is a muscular hulk. Don't get discouraged just because you're "supposed" to have certain results after certain amount of things. You might just personally have to put more in.
posted by cairdeas at 5:32 PM on September 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't say anywhere how much protein you're taking now. You need to start by baselining that.

It definitely might be genetics - some people are very hard gainers - but let's make sure you're not taking too little protein, first.
posted by ftm at 5:49 PM on September 28, 2013

You might hit the YLLS forum on Something Awful. It's full of skinny nerds getting swole with only ironic bro-ness once in awhile.
posted by thylacine at 6:21 PM on September 28, 2013

If you've been lifting for 8 months and you've plateued, then it's probably time for you to move onto intermediate programming. Something like 5/3/1, texas method, etc. These intermediate programs typically don't have you lifting at your max all the time, they go through cycles. The gains are slower, like on 5/3/1 you're typically aiming at adding, say, 5lb/mo to your bench. But this is a natural result of getting past the beginner gains, where you can add 5 or 10lb/week for a while.

The 1g/lb of LBM is a good estimate and I imagine it can be hard to get that as a vegetarian. A few thoughts:

1. you don't have to take only whey - there are other types like soy, casein, hemp etc.
2. you don't have to take flavored powder (most of them will have some artificial sweetener). There are unflavored ones, they are fine in like smoothies and stuff.
3. you don't have to get ALL your protein from protein powder. But it's very easy to get like and extra 30-40g/day with one shake a day. I too prefer to eat food but it's draining to be eating all the time.

There are plenty of forums dedicated to weight lifting for less bro-y types. reddit's fitness thing, 2+2's health and fitness forum, etc.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:51 PM on September 28, 2013

Yes. You need about .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight for baseline, and should be shooting for probably .9-1.1 grams per pound to gain muscle. This is something that I find difficult to do as an omnivore without supplementation with protein. After I started drinking protein shakes I had a lot more energy and got much bigger improvements in my lifting. I didn't actually gain much muscle bulk because I kept my caloric intake the same but I dropped 2 pants size while staying at the same weight.

There's a good breakdown of various protein powders here. I use one with no artificial sweeteners and it works well. You don't have to go that route, but you definitely should take a look at how much protein you're actually getting per day and see how far off the mark you are.
posted by hindmost at 7:06 PM on September 28, 2013

I'm far from an expert but I just wanted to share my anecdotal experience as a naturally skinny guy. I think you have the right idea with not wanting to take protein supplements. I've been successful at adding about 12 pounds to my frame over the last four months, and I don't take any protein supplements at all. I just eat a lot, and I document what I eat and how I'm progressing in my exercise. I think that's the key difference from my previous unsuccessful attempts where I was gagging down protein powder, but wasn't eating enough real food and just guesstimating if I had eaten enough. I think protein has become so overemphasized we forget that our bodies still need other nutrients to grow muscle. In the end, if you burn more calories than you consume, you'll never gain weight.

The other thing I would suggest is document everything - food, exercise reps and sets, daily weight, take pictures of yourself, and measure yourself weekly - chest, waist, biceps, etc. The scale can be a poor measure of progress. Sometimes I notice that my muscles get bigger or I was able to do more reps even if I didn't gain weight.

I shoot for .8g protein/lb bodyweight per this article but I'm not a vegetarian. But you mentioned you eat dairy products, and I drink a ton of kefir. It's fermented milk, tastes great, and it has even more protein than milk does: 12g per cup. Or you could just drink lots of normal milk. There is such a thing as the "GOMAD" program (google it). Whatever you do, make sure to document everything and estimate the protein and calorie content so you can be sure you get enough each day. This calculator will give you an idea of the minimum calories you need to consume to not lose weight.

So honestly, my recommendation is just eat. Be the bid for leftovers at the office. Stuff your face with an egg and cheese omelette every morning. Drink tons of milk. If you eat enough, you will definitely gain weight. And at least some of it will be muscle.
posted by pravit at 10:25 PM on September 28, 2013

I haven't been totally consistent, but I'm currently doing sort of a modified 5x5 with squats, deadlifts and dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell rows, and various isolation exercises on various days, plus a decent amount of cardio due to lifestyle and preference. I go 3 nights a week.

At different times I have eaten a lot of food, or less food, or cut back on carbs, or not paid any attention to it, but I feel like I eat a lot in general.

Without going into a ton of detail into my workout, what seems fair to me is that if I go in 3 nights a week and lift heavy weights at basically my limit, I should see some difference, in something, somewhere.
No, let's go into detail on your workout and diet, because that appears to be the problem. You're inconsistent with your workouts and your diet yet you expect results because you think it's "fair"? Come on. How many workouts did you miss or cut short? Don't tell me about your "limit", that could mean a dozen different things. What weights did you lift, when, and how many times? How did you modify the 5x5 routine, specifically? What exactly, no really I mean exactly, did you eat every day this past week? "Tons" of eggs is not accurate enough. Your feelings about your food intake don't really matter. Are you writing these things down?

Barring injury or disability, a linearly progressing 5x5 routine where you squat, bench, deadlift, row, and eat enough for eight months produces a double bodyweight deadlifting monster. So we kind of need to know what about that program you didn't follow: is it that you got injured, or didn't eat what you "feel" you did, or didn't add weight to the bar, or didn't do all the workouts, or changed the program a couple times, or you're running a total of 15k every week, what?

You should be able to see, quite clearly, where you went wrong just by scanning your workout log. "Oh, I went on vacation and drank screwdrivers for a week. Right." Or, "Look, all of July I was chasing that girl and only went to the gym twice." Or, "Well, it appears that I had a hard time finishing the set of 5x5 squats on Tuesday. I wonder why." (That's where a second set of eyes helps: maybe you did 5 sets of deadlifts instead of 1 in the previous workout, or you went running the day between two heavy squat days, or you slept 4 hours a night that week--whatever.) Lifting is not rocket science. You lift, you rest, you eat, you lift more. If that's not working then you need to review the process.

I'm being a little harsh here because you're saying that you've been inconsistent, you made up your own novice program because you apparently feel more qualified in the realm of strength training than Lon Kilgore and Dan John and Glenn Pendlay, you run enough to interfere with lifting because you prefer to, you feel like you eat a lot but you don't keep track and sometimes you don't and for a while you were on a no-carb diet, and you refuse to eat fish or meat or supplemental protein powder (the latter of which I agree would be a last resort). Then you describe the situation in terms of your feelings without giving us the details of your programming or diet.

I hear you when you say you want to get bigger and stronger. It just doesn't sound like you're making it a priority.
posted by daveliepmann at 1:26 AM on September 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm a woman who only lift weights as part of a BodyPump class to help my running- but reading your post, my go-to recommendation for sports nutrition is Nancy Clark's Sport's Nutrition Guidebook basically, the gist of her message is - you need a well-balanced diet and more calories to build muscle. Protein shakes are optional and it is perfectly possible to get the protein you need from "real" food. And I would agree with people above that you need a bit more consistency and accountability in your approach - My Fitness Pal is your friend when it comes to logging your food intake and getting a true picture of what happens and what needs tweaking.
posted by coffee_monster at 2:01 AM on September 29, 2013

Let me take another crack at this that takes the "discouraged" and "sadness" tags more into consideration.

Take the people saying "it's just your genetics, you'll never be big", pick them up over your head, and throw them at your squat rack. And when the voice in your head tells you that you've been doing this for months and what do you have to show for it, go warm up, deadlift, eat an omelette and a quart of yogurt and some chocolate and go for a walk with a friend and feel awesome again. You can absolutely do this. You can be strong. You can be muscular. Fitness is for everyone.

Suppose your genetics are terrible for this (though I see no reason to say so), and you did start a bit late in life (though your early 30s is still a lot of time compared to some). So what? Remember Thoreau: Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Be the strongest, most ripped, gorgeous Anonymous you can be.

How? Well, the number one thing that looks like it isn't happening is consistent, recorded adherence to a proven strength and conditioning program. It looks like you haven't been doing that. I believe that if you do that for three straight months then you will see drastic physical results. With more details about your current programming and diet, we can try to debug what's specifically going on. You can memail me or have a mod send me contact details to go over specifics if you want.

It's normal to feel discouraged every few months in the iron game. We get injured, we can't make a few workouts because of our job or family stuff, whatever. Life happens. It's normal for that to happen and it's normal to feel bad about it. Keep your goals in mind: consistency. Detailed records. A proven strength and conditioning program. Your discouraged state will be crushed beneath these.
posted by daveliepmann at 2:28 AM on September 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Get your hormone levels tested (testosterone and estrogen). You might be low-T.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 5:53 AM on September 29, 2013

There's not enough to go on here. Nobody can tell you whether or not your progress has been worse than typical without knowing details about your diet (e.g. caloric intake and macronutrients) and how your lifts have advanced so far. You're increasing your lifts, right?

Anyway, unless you are particularly genetically gifted -- which we know from your question that you aren't -- you can't expect serious results without serious consistency and dedication, so that sounds like it's probably the source of your problem.

If I had to guess, again without having any idea where your lifts are, I would imagine that your training effort is the weak link more than your diet. It doesn't take a massive amount of protein to make progress (.6-.8g/lb should be fine), and especially at the beginner level you can still see gains even if your diet isn't perfectly dialed in. That said, if your diet is bad, it's certainly not going to help, so make sure it's in order and that's one less disadvantage to deal with.

Being vegetarian ultimately makes no difference as long as your diet is appropriately balanced. And protein powder is real food; that's all it is. Its only advantage is convenience. Whether you get your protein via food or powder makes no difference (but if you got all of it via powder you could miss out on other nutrients, so it should only be used as a supplement when needed to hit your target).

This page is a good overview of training and diet with lots of citations if that's what you're into, but it's probably nothing that will surprise you. It sounds like you just need to pay more attention to your diet (i.e. use a food scale, stick to calorie/macro goals) and be more consistent/dedicated to your training program.

If it were easy, everyone would do it.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:45 AM on September 29, 2013

Hey, it seems like a lot of people are concerned about the consistency of your training, while you've been focused mostly on the effects of your diet.

If your training regime has been more consistent than it sounds, I have some worthwhile information for you, because I also started lifting 8 months ago, 3 days a week, on a similar but slightly easier program, the main difference being I eat anything and have been getting 150-200 grams of protein a day (which felt like a lot at first). I'm not a "double bodyweight deadlifting monster" but I have seen real change and am still making a lot of progress. I'd guess your diet is a major factor and I'd definitely try more protein.
posted by doteatop at 8:52 AM on September 29, 2013

A lot of good advice in here already. I just wanna chime in to ask why you say that protein powder is "not real food." Yes, there are brands out there full of unnecessary flavourings and what-not, but there are also basic protein powders that are basically powdered forms of real food. I mean, it's "whey" as in "curds and." Whey is a byproduct of the cheese-making process, and is an extremely bio-available protein (that is to say, your body can use it very easily). If you're not vegan, I say have-at. And if you are vegan, or simply if you prefer it, there are plenty of soy and hemp protein powders out there. These are most definitely "food" as "real" as bread, or cheese, or jam, and are an extremely convenient way to boost your protein intake if that's lagging.
posted by erlking at 2:06 PM on October 1, 2013

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