Building muscle typically involves engaging in regular strength training exercises, such as weightlifting, and eating a diet that is high in protein to support muscle growth. It is also important to get enough rest and recovery time between workouts to allow the muscles to repair and grow. A consistent exercise plan, progressive overload and good nutrition are key to building muscle. A personal trainer or a fitness professional can help you create a personalized workout plan that meets your goals.
How to Gain Muscle, No Matter Who You Are
When it comes to physique improvements, muscle building is often a top priority.
Added muscle mass will increase the definition of your muscles, improve your lean body mass, and add bulk and size to your frame in all the right places.
Muscle growth takes time, persistence, and a long-term commitment to the process.
While gaining large amounts of muscle may seem daunting, with proper training programs and adequate consumption of certain foods, serious muscle building is possible for most people.
This article breaks down everything you need to know when it comes to building muscle, including how to work out, what to eat, and recovery protocols.
While many types of exercise offer health benefits, the only way to reliably drive muscle growth is by using your muscles against moderate to heavy resistance. In addition, muscle growth is specific to the muscles being used.
10 Muscle-Building Fundamentals You Need to Learn
1. 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.
2. Eat More
In addition to adequate protein, you need more calories. Use the following formula to calculate the number you need to take in daily to gain 1 pound a week. (Give yourself 2 weeks for results to show up on the bathroom scale. If you haven’t gained by then, increase your calories by 500 a day.)
3. Work Big, Not Small
Yes, biceps curls are fun, but if you want to put on muscle, you have to do more to challenge your body. And one key to doing that, says Samuel, is working through so-called “multi-joint” movements. “Yes, isolation training has value,” says Samuel, “but it can’t be the backbone of your training.”
Instead, you want to do exercises that challenge multiple joints and muscles at once. Take, for example, a dumbbell row. Every row rep challenges biceps, lats, and abs. Using multiple muscle groups allows you to lift more weight, says Samuel, a key stimulator of growth (more on that later). And it pushes you to use muscles together, just as you do in real life. “Multi-joint moves are key in your workouts,” he says.
Make sure moves like squats, deadlifts, pullups, and bench presses are in your workout to take advantage of that. All will stimulate multiple muscle groups at the same time, and in order to grow, you want to do that.
4. Train Heavy
If you want to build muscle and strength, you have to train heavy, says Curtis Shannon, C.S.C.S. “Training heavy, safely and efficiently, has many benefits,” says Shannon. “Heavy training challenges the muscles not only concentrically but eccentrically. If dont right, the stimulus of heavy weight going down with control and going back up will cause greater muscle tear and rebuild.”
That means not every set you do should have you pumping out 10-15 reps. Yes, high-rep sets can have value, but for multi-joint moves like squats and bench presses, and deadlifts, don’t be afraid to do sets of, say, 5 reps. That’ll allow you to use more weight, building more pure strength, says Samuel. And as you progress, that new strength will allow you to lift heavier weights for more reps.
One way you can approach this in your training: Lead off every workout with an exercise that lets you train low-rep. Do 4 sets of 3-5 reps on your first exercise, then do 3 sets of 10-12 reps for every move after that. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Samuel, “letting you build pure strength early, then pile up reps later.”
5. Have a Drink First
A 2001 study at the University of Texas found that lifters who drank a shake containing amino acids and carbohydrates before working out increased their protein synthesis more than lifters who drank the same shake after exercising.
6. Don’t Always Go Hard
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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.”
7. Down the Carbs After Your Workout
Research shows that you’ll rebuild muscle faster on your rest days if you feed your body carbohydrates.
“Post-workout meals with carbs increase your insulin levels,” which, in turn, slows the rate of protein breakdown, says Kalman. Have a banana, a sports drink, a peanut-butter sandwich.
8. Challenge Yourself with Progressive Overload
As we mentioned earlier, one major key to muscle-building is pushing your muscles to handle progressively greater challenges. In general, most gym-goers think that means you must lift heavier in every single workout. That’s simply not the case, says Samuel. “There comes a point where it becomes harder to just put more weight on the bar,” he says. “If that wasn’t the case, everyone would be benching 300 pounds.”
9. Maximize Time Under Tension
One sometimes-forgotten way to progressively overload your muscles is to leave them under more of something called “time under tension”. When you’re muscles are working, whether they’re under a bench press bar, or whether your biceps is working to curl a dumbbell upwards, they’re under “tension” from the weight. You can feel this too: If you stand holding dumbbells at your sides, your biceps aren’t under tension. The moment you begin to curl them upwards, you’ll feel them flex against the “tension” of the dumbbells.
Experienced lifters often use this tension to their advantage. Instead of just lifting and lowering a weight (on say, that biceps curl), they lift with a specific tempo. They might curl up as fast as they can, for example, and then lower the weight for 3 focused seconds with good form on every rep.
Doing this leaves your muscles under tension for longer than a typical set, in which you might lift and lower the weight without any specific timing. And that extra time under tension during a set can help spark muscle growth.
Note that you can do this on almost any strength exercise. It doesn’t work for explosive exercises, like kettlebell swings, snatches, and cleans. But squats, deadlifts, curls, pullups and pushups (and many other moves) can be tweaked to add more time-under-tension, pushing your muscles farther on every rep.
10. Sleep At Least 6 Hours
Sleep is often the forgotten variable in the journey to muscle. You spend plenty of time training, but what you often don’t realize is this: When you’re asleep, your muscles are recovering and your body is growing. It’s also during this period that muscle-growing hormones are secreted.
You know by now that, ideally, you want to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep. That, of course, doesn’t always happen, but you want to do what you can to maximize the quality of the hours you do get, if you can’t hit 8 hours.
So think about your sleep setup if you’re serious about muscle. Try to go to bed at the same time every day and try to rise at the same time every day. And sleep in a fully dark, fully quiet cool room. All these little things optimize sleep quality and that can have an underrated effect on your ability to build muscle.