Building muscle is why most of us constantly return to the gym. It’s the beacon of light that continues to drive our effort-driven workouts that many consider us crazy for, but how do we build muscle effectively? That’s the question that trips up so many lifters.
Muscle size increases when a person continually challenges the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight. This process is known as muscle hypertrophy.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases the mass and size of the muscles.
Certain hormones, including testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin growth factor, also play a role in muscle growth and repair.
The physical act of building muscle is easier said than done because in order to build muscle we need to have multiple variables aligned both in regard to our training and nutrition.
A great starting point for everyone on the quest of adding mass to their frame is to first define what muscle building actually is. The act of muscle building, or purposely causing muscle to grow through resistance training, is often referred to as muscle hypertrophy.
Muscle hypertrophy is the adaptation our muscles experience from continual exposure to progressively overloaded forms of resistance training, which then results in an increase in our muscle fiber size, both in diameter and length. Essentially, muscle hypertrophy is the process through which our muscles get physically larger through the act of strategically consistent and harder workouts.
Remember, effort is one of the most definitive drivers of muscle gain over time.
If you note the definition above, progressive overload was mentioned as being needed for adding mass and muscle to your frame. Progressive overload entails creating some form of increased, strategic effort based on the style of training you’re doing.
Sure, change takes time, but if you’re trying to grow and build muscle and aren’t seeing obvious size increases from month to month, it’s a sign that your approach is off. And a workout is a terrible thing to waste. Plus, even if you are seeing progress, there’s no reason you can’t see more.
Tips To Help You Build Muscle
Maximize Muscle Building
The more protein your body stores—in a process called protein synthesis—the larger your muscles grow. But your body is constantly draining its protein reserves for other uses—making hormones, for instance.
The result is less protein available for muscle building. To counteract that, you need to “build and store new proteins faster than your body breaks down old proteins,” says Michael Houston, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Virginia Tech University.
Shoot for about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which is roughly the maximum amount your body can use in a day, according to a landmark study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
For example, a 160-pound man should consume 160 grams of protein a day—the amount he’d get from an 8-ounce chicken breast, 1 cup of cottage cheese, a roast-beef sandwich, two eggs, a glass of milk, and 2 ounces of peanuts. Split the rest of your daily calories equally between carbohydrates and fats.
Don’t Just Focus Heavy Lifts
Building strength and building muscle mass are often thought of as the same thing, but actually, they may require different training techniques. Muscle contraction is the result of motor neurons activated by your central nervous system – your brain sends an electrical signal to your muscles to excite muscle fibers and cause them to contract. And some research suggests that heavier lifting may engage your central nervous system more, resulting in increases in strength and power with training (28).
Heavier lifting relies on quick, powerful lifts (within a 3 to 5 rep range), with a focus on the external force you can exert on an external weight. Hypertrophy training, on the other hand, relies more on time under tension to stress the muscle for longer.
It is well documented that mechanical tension is a major proponent to muscle growth, so it would make sense the more longer you can create mechanical tension on your muscle (AKA the number of reps), the more muscle you will be able to build (29,30).
Increasing muscle size can often result in increased strength – mainly because you have more muscle fibers to engage in lifting heavier weights. But for muscle gain purposes, aiming to lift as heavy as possible or using max weight often is likely not be an effective approach to hypertrophy.
Increase Your Reps But Not Your Intensity
According to research the sweet spot for focusing on growth may lie somewhere in the range of 60 to 85% of max effort, and roughly 8 to 12 reps per set (31,32,33,34). Because this is based on a percent of effort, the amount of weight can look drastically different from one individual to the next. Beginners may be able to build muscle using just body weight, but the more advanced you become, you’ll need to adjust the weight accordingly.
Your body cant handle 85% and above for long periods of time, and lifting too heavy gives you less time under tension. However, many still argue that heavier weight, close to 85% max at 5 to 8 reps can still produce significant gains, and the research supports this (35,36,37,38). The reality is there may not be an exact rep amount to strive for across all styles of lifts and individuals differences will always be at play.
Eat Every Three Hours
EAT EVERY THREE HOURSEating the right thing at the right time is crucial for helping you boost your muscle mass. The easiest way is to eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner as usual, interspersed with meals post workout, pre-bed and with two snacks in between. By keeping your food intake up, it will mean you won’t be as hungry, because eating smaller meals more often versus a few big meals will decrease your stomach size. You’ll feel full more quickly and your waist will trim, while you’ll also have fewer cravings. Not eating for long periods can cause you to over-eat at the next meal or topping yourself up with unhealthy snacks from the vending machine. So to stop any cravings, eat at fixed times every day and your body will get hungry at those fixed times.
Eat Protein With Each Meal To Boost Your Muscle Mass
You need protein to build and maintain muscle. To achieve this, you should be looking to eat at least 1g per 454g of body-weight. That’s 200g/day if you weigh 91kg. The easiest way to get this amount is to eat a whole protein source with each meal. These include:
• Red meat. Beef, pork, lamb, etc.
• Poultry. Chicken, turkey, duck, etc.
• Fish. Tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, etc.
• Eggs. Don’t believe the cholesterol myths. Eat the yolk.
• Dairy. Milk, cheese, cottage cheese, quark, yogurt, etc.
• Whey. Not necessary but great for easy post workout shakes.
• Try vegan options too, such as lentils, tofu, seeds and nuts.
Don’t Always Go Hard
Your body should move every day, but that doesn’t mean your workouts should take you to fatigue and exhaustion. “If you train your hardest every day, your body doesn’t get a chance to grow,” says Samuel. “Pick your spots to attack.” Aim to finish every workout feeling good, not dead. Limit your weight room workouts to 12-16 total sets of work, and never go beyond that.
This doesn’t mean you can’t take on a brutal workout every so often. But limit workouts that take your body to its breaking point to three times a week, never on back-to-back days. “You need recovery to grow,” says Samuel. “Constantly training to the point of exhaustion will be counterproductive to the recovery you need for muscle growth.”
Focus on the Eccentric Phase
When lifting any weight, you’ve got a concentric (hard) and eccentric (easy) phase. For instance, as you lower into a squat, you’re performing an eccentric action. When you return to standing, that’s concentric. And, according to research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, eccentric work is far better at triggering hypertrophy.
To increase the amount of eccentric effort in your workout, you can do two things: either slow down the eccentric phase of each exercise you perform or integrate eccentric-only variations into your routine.
Take the squat, for example: To make it eccentric-only, you would lower to the floor, and end the exercise there. Note: If you’re trying eccentric-only exercises, you’ll need to substantially increase the weight that you use. Physiologically, muscles are far stronger moving eccentrically than they are concentrically.
Ever thought about how much cardio can you do without losing muscle? Stick by this: You can do up to two days of light jogging on the treadmill, but keep it to around 30 minutes per session. To lose fat while sparing muscle, you’d do even better to perform sprint intervals; for instance, running all-out for a minute, then backing off to a light jog for two minutes. Do this for 30 minutes, three times a week.
Allow Time for Rest
When it comes to weight lifting frequency, more is not always better. Training the same muscles every day or even twice a day has not been shown to result in more muscle gains overall, especially in newbies. How quickly you can build mass is more dependent on how quickly you can recover – since MPS occurs after training.
In one study, training once a week was adequate in supporting muscle growth. But for more seasoned lifters, training more frequently might be more beneficial for growth, since they are able to recover quickly and can stimulate more MPS with more frequent training.
Overtraining doesn’t really exist, but under recovering does. Recovery is more than just sleep and time off the gym; you should also be massaging your muscle and working out the tissue to keep it healthy. Can train all day every day if you can recover just as much. A good rule of thumb is: the time you put in working should equal your recovery.
Eat Carbs Only After Your Workout
While you need carbs for energy, most people eat more than they need. Limit your carbohydrate intake to after your workout only.
• Eat fruit and vegetables with all meals. These contain few carbohydrates compared to whole grains with the exception of corn, carrots and raisins.
• Another Carbs Post Workout Only. This is rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, quinoa, oats, etc. Avoid white carbs and eat whole grain.
Have Milk Before Bed
Eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein 30 minutes before you go to bed. The calories are more likely to stick with you during sleep and reduce protein breakdown in your muscles, says Kalman.
Try a cup of raisin bran with a cup of skim milk or a cup of cottage cheese and a small bowl of fruit. Eat again as soon as you wake up.
Get More Sleep
Muscle recovery requires more than the right nutrition. It takes time—roughly eight hours per night—dedicated to recovery, Fitzgerald says. After all, when you sleep, your body releases human growth hormone, which helps grow muscle and keeps levels of the stress hormone cortisol in check.
Plus, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sleeping for five hours, as opposed to eight hours, per night for just one week cuts muscle-building testosterone levels by a whopping 10 to 15 percent.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults ages 18 to 64 sleep seven to nine hours per night. No excuses.