Now that you have learned why building muscle is so important in the context of modern life, let’s go over how to build muscle.
Building muscle really isn’t a complicated process. If you get 2-3 things right, you WILL build muscle. Now obviously there’s some variance from person to person but these big rocks are generally true and applicable to almost everyone. Humans are adaptation machines and as long as the adaptation signal to build muscle is being sent to your body, your body will search for a way to build muscle.
There’s tons of false information that has people confused about what it actually takes to build muscle. I’ve seen the stupid ads marketing “t-boosters”, seemingly magic protein drinks or powder, or workout routines of programs that will help you ‘put muscle on fast’ ‘. These products are 95% marketing. Don’t let yourself fall prey to these snake oil products. They just want your money and won’t deliver the results they market.
If you’ve been working to build muscle and aren’t seeing results, the first thing to look at is how closely you are actually following the steps below. If there is another signal that is being sent and it is stronger than the muscle-building signal you won’t build muscle. Most commonly the more powerful signal is elevated stress caused by inadequate sleep or your job. Another reason why you may not see the results that you would like is that you aren’t being completely honest with yourself. Most people embellish their actions in their mind when it comes to nutrition and training, you must be honest with yourself if you’re wondering why you aren’t seeing results.
The message that I want to make most clear is that building muscle is easier than you think.
The requirements for you to build muscle are:
- Regular resistance training
- Adequate protein intake
- Quality recovery (sleep, stress management, active recovery)
- Moderate energy balance
Regular resistance training
This is the most commonly thought of step to building muscle. It’s not a surprise that you need to use your muscles to get them to grow. Our bodies are constantly adapting. When you lift weights, you are sending the adaptation signal to build muscle.
A lot of people get lost in the weeds when it comes to this. The most important thing when it comes to resistance training is to be consistent. The second is to follow a program. All rep ranges build muscle, 1-5, 6-8, 8-12, 13-15+. The rep range that will be most effective for you will largely depend on your training past. If you have never lifted weights before I would recommend starting with lower rep ranges for the first 6 months to a year and focus on the big, compound movements.
The main benefit of following a program is that you are able to ensure that you are able to progressively overload. Progressive overload means that you are continually adding new and additional stimulus to your muscles by either adding more weight or doing more reps with the same weight. The best form of progressive overload is double progression to ensure you are regularly adding additional stimulus to your muscles. Double progression uses both weight and reps. Say you’re working in a rep range of 4-6 when you have a weight that you hit 6 reps in a set, you add weight. With the new weight maybe now you can only do 4 reps. You start from there and once you reach 6 reps with the new weight you add weight again.
Strength training is the cornerstone of building muscle. Trying to build muscle without strength training is like trying to bake bread without flour. That said, it can be very easy to overdo it. Most weeks I only lift 2-3 times per week and I have added 4 pounds of muscle in the past 2 months with this frequency. The more advanced you become and the closer you get to your genetic ceiling, the more frequently you’ll need to lift to continue adding muscle. If your goal is simply maintaining your current muscle, it is much easier to maintain than it is to gain.
If you are new to tracking your food, specifically your protein, chances are you are under-eating the protein needed for muscle growth. Women in particular struggle with adequate protein intake.
What is adequate protein? You can find a huge range online from “it doesn’t matter” to 2 grams per pound of body weight. If you’ve ever tried to eat 200+ grams of protein in a day, it isn’t very easy or sustainable. While it is true that most people don’t eat enough protein each day, you don’t need to eat piles and piles of it. A more reasonable and realistic target is the recommendation of 0.6-0.8 grams per pound of lean body mass. This amount is more than enough to build muscle and is very doable.
Some strategies to eat more protein are to eat some at every meal, supplement with protein powders, eat high protein foods like eggs, greek yogurt, and cottage cheese.
In order for your body to take the muscle-building signal from your resistance training and build muscle, you need to also send the signal that your body is safe to dedicate the resources to build muscle. If you have excess levels of stress, you won’t see the results that you want.
The best ways to ensure you are recovered between workouts are to:
- Eat nourishing foods. Things like vegetables, meat, seeds, fruit, multivitamin, etc.
- Get quality and adequate amounts of sleep by following a nighttime routine.
- Use walks and NEAT to manage stress and increase the circulation of nutrient-rich blood through the tissues that need to recover.
Generally, building muscle requires that you eat at a calorie surplus. Someone who is completely untrained can sometimes experience some muscle gain while in a calorie deficit, but after a couple of months, even they will need to be in a calorie surplus in order to gain weight. A calorie surplus isn’t eating as much as you want, of whatever you want. It is simply eating a little bit more than your body uses. The rule of needing to eat nutrient-dense foods still applies. If you are in a calorie surplus and are eating loads of food you will gain muscle but you’ll gain just as much or more fat. Ideally, you want to be eating 150-200 Calories more per day. This gives your body the energy to build more muscle.
Takeaways for Building Muscle
- Use progressive overload and consistent resistance training
- Eat nutrient-rich foods and .6-.8g of protein per pound of lean body mass
- Muscles are actually built while we rest. Make your recovery top-notch with great sleep and lots of low-level activity. Things like chores around the house or light walks.
- A calorie surplus or positive energy balance is needed to build muscle. Keep eating your normal, healthy foods as before and just add around 150 Calories each day.
- Patience and consistency.