At first, intentionally gaining weight in the form of muscle mass might sound easy, but promoting muscle growth can be tricky for a lot of people. It requires an optimal balance of diet, training, rest, and consideration of a number of individual factors. It's not as simple as eating more food and lifting weights.
So regardless of where you are with your muscle-building goals, this key information — backed by the latest science and experts — will help you get the most gains possible.
How to Build Muscle 101
Muscle growth is the act of increasing the physical size of your lean tissue, which can be accomplished through a combination of training, fueling, and lifestyle. Even when fat loss occurs simultaneously and your overall body weight decreases, increasing the size of your muscles will automatically mean increasing the weight of your lean mass.
Any weight gain in a calorie surplus will involve some amount of muscle and some increases in body fat. The key is to tip the odds in favor of more muscle mass than fat. This results in better body composition and fitness outcomes.
How to Build Muscle
Muscles respond to calories, protein, training, and rest, and the balance of these key components can determine how efficiently you can gain muscle. In short, to promote muscle growth you need to eat more calories (including protein), train your muscles, and allow time for recovery and rebuilding of tissue: eat, lift, and rest.
But this explanation is drastically simplified, and muscle growth tends to be fairly complex. The amount of muscle you can actually gain (and how quickly) is determined by many factors, including genetics, food choices, training level, and hormones. (Your starting body composition may also be an important factor to consider.)
How Growth Hormones Come Into Play
The key hormones that regulate muscle growth include:
- Growth Hormone (GH)
- Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1)
Resistance training stimulates the release of GH, which then stimulates the release of IGF-1 from the liver, promoting the use of fat for energy in the growth process, preserving stored glucose in muscles, and stimulating the absorption of amino acids for use. Sleep can also help release GH.
Testosterone works to further enhance this process and stimulate more muscle fiber engagement to promote growth.
Cortisol is also released after training to promote recovery. But too much cortisol can negatively affect muscle growth, since it promotes the breakdown of protein to preserve glycogen stores.
The Most Important Muscle-Building Training Factors
As it turns out just about any type of strength training can lead to muscle growth, since hypertrophy is the result of mechanical tension. However, your focus should be on training volume or "time under tension" rather than how heavy you are lifting. The longer and more often you can stress your muscles, the more effective your hypertrophy training is. You can build muscle using body weight, light weight, or heavy weight; it all depends on your personal strength and fitness level.
So if you are just getting started, don't feel like you need to jump right into Olympic lifts and heavy squats. Instead, take time to build your foundation and find a muscle-building workout plan that meets your personal needs.
1. Establishing a Mind-Body Connection
You can establish a better mind-body connection by learning where you should "feel" each movement. If you are squatting to increase glute size or bench pressing to grow your chest muscles, make sure you can feel these specific muscles working before adding weight. It's not about how fast you can lift, how many reps you can do, or even how heavy you can lift if you aren't targeting and engaging the muscles you want.
2. Focus on Compound Lifts
Compound lifts are multi-joint movements that engage more than one large muscle group at a time. Examples of popular compound lifts include squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pull-ups. Compared to isolation exercises — like a dumbbell hammer curl — compound lifts are an efficient way to engage your full body and build more muscle, faster.
3. Don't Just Focus on Heavy Lifts
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 of muscle growth, so it would make sense that the longer you can create mechanical tension on your muscle (or the number of reps), the more muscle you will be able to build.
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 an effective approach to hypertrophy.
4. Allow Adequate Rest Time
When it comes to weightlifting 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 muscle protein synthesis (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.
“Experienced lifters can train more frequently than beginners," Christian Ampania, NASM-CPT, NASM-BCS, PN-1, OTA, says. "Give yourself a day or two rest if you’re a beginner. If advanced, rest every other day."
Muscle-Building Meal Plans
When it comes to gaining weight, the amount of food you eat is the most important thing to consider. Eating more calories than you burn will lead to weight gain. But the type of weight you gain — muscle vs. fat — can be heavily influenced by the quality of your calories.
In other words, gaining muscle isn't a license to eat whatever you want.
Starting Body Composition
Step one before heading into any goal around changing your body composition should involve assessing your starting body fat percentage.
If you are lean from the start, you may be more likely to put on muscle than those who are less lean. Also, if you have excess body fat to begin with, it might be worth starting with a cut to lose some body fat before thinking about bulking.
For newbies, a higher starting body fat percentage might not be as detrimental since they might be able to lose fat and gain mass at the same time. However, this process would ultimately require a calorie deficit, not a traditional muscle gain diet.
How Many Calories Should You Eat to Gain Muscle?
You might have heard the common saying that it takes cutting 3,500 calories from your diet to lose a pound of fat. Many see this and assume that eating the same amount will result in one pound of muscle gain, but calorie control for weight gain is not the same as cutting calories for fat loss. While it is easy to simplify the calorie equation and assume excess calories automatically turn into weight gain, it's not a clear-cut as you'd think.
When you don't get enough calories from food, your body is able to release stored calories for energy (typically in the form of body fat). This process doesn't require a ton of energy. Weight gain, on the other hand, does require energy, and gaining muscle requires more energy than fat: turning food into muscle requires more metabolic processes than just releasing body fat stores for fuel. In addition, protein provides less than half as many calories per gram as fat. (Fat provides nine calories per gram, while protein provides only four calories per gram.)
It has been documented in numerous research studies that somewhere between 2,500 to 2,800 excess calories are needed to produce one pound of lean mass. However, this amount can vary depending on your fitness level, body composition, and nutrition. For most, adding 100 to 300 calories per day is sufficient in promoting healthy weight gain, but others may require much higher intakes.
And How Many of Them Should Come From Protein?
Your protein needs are most closely related to how much lean mass you have and how much you use your muscles. Protein is not just for building mass; it also helps maintain existing muscle, so the more muscle you have and the more you put wear and tear on them, the more protein you need.
Common bodybuilder advice recommends you eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of total body weight, but the research varies on this topic depending on age, fitness level, and overall body composition goals.
This suggestion is supported by recent studies indicating that at least 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight is needed.
Based on cumulative research and expert recommendations, as high as 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound may be necessary when looking to add lean mass using a calorie surplus.
Excess protein is needed to support muscle protein synthesis. If there isn't enough protein available, muscle growth is severely limited. Thus, additional protein intakes are needed to gain muscle.
How to Gain More of the Muscle You Want (and Less of the Fat You Don't)
Lean Bulk Vs. Dirty Bulk
There are two main types of muscle building diets: clean bulk/lean bulk and dirty bulk. A dirty bulk typically involves eating a lot of extra calories from high-calorie foods to promote quick weight gain, while a clean bulk uses a more moderate increase in calories in addition to healthier food choices.
A dirty bulk can seem more appealing to many because of the less restricted dietary choices and potential ability to gain weight more quickly. However, research suggests that a lean bulk may lead to better body composition, in the end, resulting in less body fat gain. A lean bulk also supports more nutritious food choices, which can benefit muscle growth in other ways.
Other Macros for Building Muscle
Fat is a beneficial addition to higher-calorie diets because it is the most energy-dense macronutrient. This also means that fat provides calories for less volume of food, which can also be of benefit to those who have a hard time eating enough healthy food in a bulking diet. In addition, fat plays a key role in hormone production.
However, excess fat, beyond your recommended amount (30% of your calories) may not provide any additional advantages. Fat is easily stored as body fat in a calorie surplus, and according to research, some individuals may be more prone to fat storage. The type of fat you choose also matters, with some research suggesting unsaturated fat may be less likely to promote fat storage.
Carbs, on the other hand, are slightly more difficult to convert to body fat than dietary fat, and contribute to muscle gain in unique ways. Higher carb intake promotes increases in glycogen storage, which supports your training and may also help with muscle recovery. Moreover, carbs (in addition to protein) generate an insulin response, which is beneficial to weight gain.
Pre- and Post-Workout Meals
Pre- and post-workout nutrition is dependent on when you are training. If you tend to train first thing in the morning, not having anything before a workout means you are in a fairly fasted state. For some, this can negatively impact your output and endurance, while others will have no issue. However, some research indicates pre-workout meals might also help curve some muscle damage by supplying additional protein.
What to Eat Before a Workout to Build Muscle
So if you are training in the morning, consider playing with a couple of pre-workout meal options. Try a combination of simple carbs and protein and see if it impacts your training for the better. Great options include a sports drink with protein powder, chocolate milk, peanut butter toast, and yogurt with honey. If you're finding eating too close to training causes nausea, try juice, sports gels, gummies, and other simple sugars.
What to Eat After a Workout to Build Muscle
If you choose to work out fasted — especially in the morning — your post-workout recovery becomes even more important. While the supposed "anabolic window" may not be as tight as we once assumed (most can benefit from adequate recovery eating within a few hours of training and throughout the day), prolonging a fasted state even further likely won't do you any favors for muscle gains. Aim to get about 30 grams of quality protein after a strength training workout to supply your muscles with the amino acids they need to promote MPS. Great options include protein shakes and bars, greek yogurt, and full meals.
What about protein absorption? For years there has been much debate around how much protein you can absorb and utilize from one meal, with some research suggesting that no more than 25 to 30 grams of protein can be absorbed in one sitting. However, this is dependent on the type of protein and individual factors, not to mention that there are numerous benefits of protein consumption beyond just MPS, so you should not feel limited to that amount.
A more recent review suggests that to maximize anabolism, 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per meal is recommended, four times per day to reach the minimum suggested protein intake for muscle growth (1.5 grams of protein/kilogram). So, a 200-pound adult (91 kilograms) should eat 36 grams of protein per meal, or at least 145 grams of protein per day.
What we can learn from this research is that spreading out your protein intake throughout the day, and timing it around training needs, is likely an effective approach to supporting more MPS. And if you are only eating a few times a day or less, you might be limiting yourself.
Can Muscle Turn Into Fat, and Vice Versa?
It's not possible for existing mass — either fatty tissue or muscle — to transform into another type of mass. Muscle can be lost through activity, decreased protein intake, and decreased calories, and fat can be lost through cutting calories alone. But lost mass is used as energy or broken down into usable amino acids, it is not automatically rebuilt and restored as something else.
Summary and Evidence-Based Recommendations
Based on existing science and evidence-based practices, here are the key components you should be focusing on when it comes to curating your muscle-building game plan.
- Fine-tune your calories and macros to supply adequate energy and protein.
- Eat a generally healthy meal plan that includes four or more balanced meals each day.
- Include strength training two to three days a week, with moderate weight (60 to 85% of your max) and at least 5 to 6 reps per set.
- Include at least one recovery day, or include light stretching and foam rolling after your workouts.
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep each night
This article was originally published on TrifectaNutrition.com.