Some people walk into a gym, throw a few weights around, and muscles will appear. For others, no matter what they do, they find their bodies don’t respond.
Then there are those who just don’t quite know how to put all the variables that influence muscle growth together.
Or maybe we’re talking about a female who wants to create some lovely curves, and she hasn’t a clue what to do because, let’s face it, the nonsense women get about how to change their bodies is everywhere.
This article will tell you what you need to do and how you need to do it to build muscle. We’ll provide tips for both men and women.
#1: Get lean first.
A common mistake people make is to think that they’ll just pack on some muscle and then worry about their body fat later.
Nice idea because the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate, but there’s a catch: One of the most important factors that influences muscle growth is the sensitivity of the lean tissues in the body to the hormone insulin.
The sad truth is that the vast majority of the population has some degree of insulin resistance even if they’re lean. Plus, different tissues in the body have varying degrees of sensitivity to insulin.
If this is you, results will be slow. You won’t change your body as dramatically or as quickly as someone who is lean and insulin sensitive.
Insulin is a very anabolic hormone and it will drive nutrients into muscle cells, whereas in an insulin resistant state you are much more likely to store the food you eat as fat.
By getting to your fighting weight first, you’ll have a hormonal environment that is ready to work for you so that you will get far superior muscle development in shorter time.
#2: Multi-joint lifts are priority number one: Squats, deads, bench, chin-ups, etc.
A huge time waster for the average person is to train each muscle separately. Your muscles will get bigger faster by training multi-joint lifts because you can use heavier weights.
This allows you to overload the muscle to a greater degree, which means you’re applying a larger stimulus to the muscle, telling it to adapt and grow.
Favoring the “big” lifts allows you to create a lot of metabolic stress so that your body produces hormones that are involved in tissue repair. Growth hormone, testosterone (for men), and other hormones are released in response to workouts that recruit a lot of muscle.
Furthermore, most of the big lifts work the whole body in a way that is useful for real life, whether it be sports, doing heavy hard work, or just the ability to move with speed and grace.
Ideally, you should train four times a week using training splits (two days upper body and two days lower) to maximize recovery.
However, if you’re not consistently able to devote one hour, four days a week to training, you should do total body workouts rather than body part splits. This will maximize your time by training the greatest amount of muscle in the least time.
#3: Assistance lifts are priority number two.
Assistance lifts are exercises that promote balance throughout the body and target your weaknesses. They are boring so people don’t train them. We’re talking about unilateral lifts like step-ups, rotator cuff exercises, and so on.
A simple way to identify your weaknesses are is to look at the function and mobility around each joint: The knees, shoulders, and hips are your first line of attack, but you’ll want to get the ankles, elbows, and wrists in their eventually.
The best way to assess this is to use actual strength tests, but that is out of the scope of this article, so a simple thing you can do is notice if you have pain, restricted range-of-motion or funky movement patterns.
For instance, when doing a single-leg squat, is your knee caving in towards your body? Are you leaning forward? How’s your balance?
If you want to sustain your awesome body once you get it, assistance lifts are critical because they help you avoid injury AND they’ll allow you to develop greater strength in the long run. This means you’ll be able to apply greater overload to the muscles, which means muscle growth will continue.
#4: Isolation lifts are priority number three.
For advanced trainees, single-joint training can make a big difference in their size because fast- and slow-twitch motor units are scattered throughout individual muscles. To train all the muscle fibers maximally, you need targeted lifts.
Further, some muscles are only active when trained in certain positions.
For example, your biceps has two “heads.” The lateral, outside portion of the long head is recruited when you flex your elbow.
The middle part is recruited during motions when your palm faces you. Finally, the short head is more active in the later part of the biceps curl (when the weight is near the top), whereas the long head is more active in the early phase.
Isolation lifts like bicep curls, chest flys, and calf raises are not without merit. If you’ve got the time, feel free to get fancy with variations for the biceps, calf, forearm and grip once you’ve put in the work on your big lifts and your assistance exercises.
#5: Train for muscle damage with high volume.
Volume is the be-all, end-all of muscle building and it should be your primary focus. The basic intensity range is 65 to 85 percent of the 1RM, with limited heavier phases.
Pittering around with 1 to 3 set training, or using light weights that are below 65 percent of the maximal amount you can lift is not going to produce significant muscle growth unless you’re completely out of shape.
In general, do 4 to 8 sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise. Train 70 percent of your workouts in the 65 to 85 percent of the 1RM range and 30 percent of your workouts at a higher intensity.
#6: Train to failure.
Failure occurs when you lift to the point where you can’t go anymore using proper technique. It produces muscle damage and a large protein synthesis response that will lead to greater muscle development.
Lift to the point where you’re form begins to break. Don’t cheat or use momentum to raise the weights. The one exception to this rule is advanced trainees who are using intentional “cheating” methods to further overload the muscles.
#7: Use short rest periods.
Besides muscle damage, the driving force behind muscle growth is metabolic stress, which is best achieved with high volume and short rest, ranging between zero rest and 2 minutes.
Training to produce metabolic stress has the added bonus of supporting fat loss because it elevates fat burning hormones and raises post-workout energy expenditure.
It’s easy to get into the habit of ignoring the clock and not timing rest periods. Don’t do it. Get a watch and measure your rest. You will get more ripped than your peers who wing it, or worse, socialize during rest periods.
#8: Count tempo. Favor longer ones for greater TUT.
Tempo refers to the speed with which you perform the up and down phases of any lift. A general principal for building muscle is to favor moderate eccentric (3 to 6 seconds) and fast concentric tempos so that you spend a longer time “under” the weight.
The technical term for this is “time under tension” or “TUT,” and it’s a huge driver of muscle development. Generally, longer time under tension builds muscle and leads to fat loss, and shorter time under tension builds strength.
Always count tempo. Do eccentric-enhanced training that uses a longer tempo in the down motion of the lift and shorter tempo (1 to 2 seconds) for the concentric or up motion.
#9: Eat. A. Lot.
High-quality calories are king when it comes to muscle building. High quality means the most nutrient-dense whole (not processed) foods on the planet. See this list of affordable superfoods for a guide.
Opt for a high meal frequency in which you eat or consume protein, beneficial fat, and vegetables every 2 to 3 hours.
Research suggests that for maximal muscle growth to occur in conjunction with intense, frequent training, you should eat between 44 to 50 calories per kg of body weight daily. For a 150-pound person, that’s 3,000 to 3,450 calories a day.
#10: Pick a protein goal and hit it every single day.
Shoot for upwards of 1.6 g/kg of bodyweight of protein a day. Up to 2.4 g/kg a day may be beneficial for putting on muscle.
Strategically increasing the amount of protein you eat to coincide with muscle building phases is indicated by the literature. Research shows that in studies that test the effect of multiple protein intakes on muscular growth, there is evidence of a “protein change” effect.
Whey is a superior protein source for developing muscle and strength. Supplementing with it consistently produces better results than casein, soy, or other plant-based proteins.
Eat high-quality protein containing at least 10 grams of essential amino acids in the two hours before and after training. Meat, fish, and eggs should be your whole protein standbys because there’s evidence that there is something about “the meat itself” that yields maximal muscle gain.
#11: Eat more carbs on training days, less on off days.
Remember that the first thing we talked about was getting lean first before putting on muscle?
The reason was to make your body as insulin sensitive as possible because doing so prepares the body to take advantage of the higher calories and carbs so that you put on muscle instead of fat. Here is where the magic happens.
You should know that carb intake is not imperative for protein synthesis, which is what needs to happen for muscles to grow, but there are some muscle building benefits to eating carbs:
- They reduce cortisol during training and help you achieve a balanced cortisol curve.
- They support thyroid function, which is involved in the regulation of body composition.
- They allow you to generate greater force during exhausting training. Eating a higher carb diet will reduce fatigue and your workouts will “feel” easier.
We can’t tell you exactly how many carbs to eat, but chances are, you’ll be in the 150 to 300 gram-a-day range on training days when building muscle.
This is going to be an individual choice based on genetics, how lean and insulin sensitive you are, and how you prefer to eat.
Whatever you decide to do, favor whole food carbs like starchy vegetables, fruit, boiled grains, and legumes rather than processed junk carbs. If you take carbs during training, try a carb-to- protein ratio between 2:1 and 1:1.
#12: Optimize recovery.
Besides sleep and stress reduction, diet influences recovery the most. This is the reason that nutrient-rich food is so critical when you’re trying to put on muscle.
You need a huge pool of antioxidants in your blood to remove waste products produced during training. They also reduce inflammation and promote insulin sensitivity.
Fat is the one macronutrient we haven’t talked about yet, but it’s essential for hormone balance and recovery because it provides crucial vitamins and nutrients. Eat a variety of beneficial fats from fish, meat, whole dairy, and monounsaturated sources like avocado, olives, and nuts.
Besides genetics, the true indicator of muscle development is your ability to recover rapidly so you can hit it hard again in the gym.