10 steps to build more muscle
You are reading a blog on the site of a sports nutrition supplement company, therefore, it’s safe to assume that you have an interest in sporting performance.
Of course, we know that you are most likely to be a keen gym goer, someone who likes wearing stringer vests, booty shorts or lycra. You train with weights because you care about how you look. In some cases, you might care about how strong you are. You might even have a genuine sporting reason for building strength and muscle size. But, either way, you have in interest in building muscle. We get it, you like to look good naked, you wanna be the most ripped guy or girl on the beach and, when the summer festival season rolls around, you want to party with your shirt off and own the mosh pit. So, with that said let’s look at 8 steps to build more muscle.
1. Lift weights
This might seem like a no brainer to you, but some people seem confused over how exactly to create the body shape they desire. Women, in particular seem to be conditioned to believe that weights will make them ‘bulky’ and that they need to be doing hours of sweaty cardio instead. That’s fine if cardiovascular health is your goal, but we know it isn’t. Even if you simply want to ‘tone’ up you have to build lean mass, and this means resistance training.
But, we have already established that you know this and are, most likely already doing this, so make sure you are getting it right. Brad Schoenfeld is the man when it comes to research on hypertrophy and his 2010 paper, The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training (1) recommends that for optimal results you train each muscle group at least twice per week, aim for a minimum of 40 reps per muscle group, per session and lift weight at at-least 65% of your one rep max.
2. Eat more
Simply stimulating the muscles with resistance is enough to promote adaptations in cell growth and hormone secretion. Lifting weights, even in a deficit, will reduce the reduction of muscle mass and, for those new to weight training resistance training alone is often enough to promote hypertrophy. Bodybuilding recommendations tend to focus more on leanness than size and therefore the discussion is usually based around caloric restriction and muscle maintenance rather than growth (2). But, your muscles will repair and grow while you recover and being in an energy deficit will compromise this. Therefore, an energy surplus is required, usually an additional 5% on top of baseline (3). In some cases, if you are very lean and very skinny, you may need to go higher so push that number up incrementally to meet your metabolic needs. Expect to gain a little body fat during this phase but, if you are already very lean that won’t matter too much. If you are body composition conscious maybe do this during the winter months before leaning back down through spring, ready for the summer chest-fest.
Speaking of recovery, adequate sleep is really important for a number of physiological benefits. Regarding its role in hypertrophy sleep deprivation seems to hinder anabolic processes by decreasing muscle protein synthesis, increasing cortisol output and reducing testosterone production (4). Although the catabolic effects are likely to be worse if you aren’t utilising resistance training (5) an ideal combination of resistance training AND a good night’s sleep is going to help you reach your goals a lot more easily than without.
4. Protein and carbs = gains
In this crazy fitness world, we live in, zealotry and dogma rule the roost and it’s easy to be misled into believing that carbohydrates are bad for you. Most, though not all, do seem to agree that protein is important and yes, it really is. However, you don’t need a huge amount of protein to make your muscles grow if you are also in an energy surplus. 1.2 g/kg BW is the minimum requirement of protein intake for active people. The more you exercise and the higher the intensity of that exercise stimulus, the more protein you may need. However, a Calorie surplus means that you have plenty of energy to spare, hormone production and cell growth is un-thwarted, and this means that a moderate intake of protein will be enough to maintain anabolism. Somewhere around 1.4 to 2 g/kg BW (3) is fine, you can go higher if you like and that won’t be harmful, for most recreationally trained individuals 1.6 g/kg is fine. Remember, the higher protein recommendations are aimed at lean, well trained athletes in a hypocaloric state (2,3).
Carbohydrates are important for fuelling your muscles when you are resistance training. Although low carb diets have been shown to increase feelings of satiety, which may lead to an intuitive reduction in calorie intake, there is no sound evidence to confirm any metabolic advantage to low carb dieting (3). But, you want to grow, not shrink so you need to be filling up your muscles with glycogen. Not only will it help you to train harder but it could also attenuate muscle protein breakdown (6). Most gym bunnies have no trouble hitting their protein needs and if you want adequate carbohydrates to both fuel your training and improve anabolic potential just workout out your protein and fat intake and assure that the remaining Calories are from carbohydrates. Simples!
5. Eat your veggies
Whenever we talk about vegetables it always brings to mind the quote by coach Dan John – “eat like an adult.” We know that a lot of your typical recreational gym goers are young, late teens to mid-twenties. It does seem these days that adolescence is prolonged because we see a lot of young adults (and even some “mature” ones) who still eat like a child. Lots of sweets, cookie dough, sweetened beverages, whipped cream and marshmallows on a hot chocolate and goodness knows what else. This is fine if it’s a rare indulgence, but if you have conditioned your taste buds to the point that the thought of eating vegetables disgusts you, you still have a lot of growing up to do.
The UK government still recommend that we consume 5 portions of fresh fruit and veg per day, while the world health organisation and now suggesting that number should be 10. There’s no doubt that eating more micronutrient rich foods is good for your health, everyone knows this. But how can it help you to build muscle? Vegetables contain essential minerals, spinach, chard, almonds and black beans for example are great sources of magnesium. Wheatgerm, spinach (again) and mushrooms, for example, are rich in zinc. Pumpkins, celery and lettuce plus fruits like oranges, pears and bananas contain aspartate. Do you see what I just did there? ZMA in a plate full of plant foods!
Aside from that the number of antioxidants in plant foods will aid with recovery, energy release and immune function. You won’t build any muscle if you’re laid up with man-flu.
6. Compound lifts
If you want to grow bigger muscles you need to get stronger (1) therefore, it makes sense that you ought to do more compound lifts. Aside from growing muscles, getting stronger is an essential component of both injury prevention and injury rehab (7). The main compound lifts being squats, deadlift, bench press, overhead press. Add into that some rows, pulls or pull ups and incorporate them into a push/pull split or, if you are more advanced, push/pull/legs.
A push pull split will see you hit each muscle group twice per week, if programmed correctly, over 4 sessions per week. For example;
Monday: Push (squats, bench, overhead press)
Tuesday: Pull (deadlifts, hamstring curls, rows)
Weekend off, maybe go for a bike ride or play football, rugby/netball, whatever.
If you use the push/pull/legs split this will be either a 5 or 6 day split depending on whether you include 1 or 2 leg days.
Traditionally, body building programs have used a lot of isolation type exercises and body part splits. This is fine if you enjoy it, and you might get reasonable results this way but you will get much better results if you include at least one compound lift per session. The big problem with body part splits is that the body has a kind of sixth sense called proprioception. Because of proprioception your body doesn’t really understand individual muscles, it only understands movement. This is a big part of the reason why body part splits are mostly confined to the scrap heap in favour of movement splits, as mentioned above. We’ll save the prime human movements for another blog sometime, but suffice to say that if you are using a push/pull style of programming you will incorporate squats and hinges into your push/pull routines.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t be using isolation exercises? Absolutely not, of course there is a still a time and a place for isolations and even machine exercises If you are struggling to develop one of your compound lifts adding in some isolation work to strengthen a chosen muscle group can be very useful. If you are very physique conscious and have a need for developing better aesthetic symmetry isolation exercises are useful here. Besides, who doesn’t like a few sets of arm curls to pump up their guns?
8. Training intensity (pre-workout)
Lastly, training intensity. We’ve already mentioned this but let’s get a little more specific. To stimulate adaptations to hypertrophy it is, as previously mentioned, regarded that training at at least 65% of 1RM is optimal, which is how the 8-12 rep range recommendation comes about, with intensities above 80% fitting into the strength range of 1-5 reps. However, if maximal strength gains aren’t your thing there is now some compelling evidence that hypertrophy can occur at lighter weights, using rep ranges usually reserved for development of muscular endurance (8).
Whichever suits you, it’s fair to say that you want to train as hard as you can (within reason) and so this is where supplements may be considered. Well, you didn’t think we would get through an entire article without mentioning supplements did you?
The best supplement to incorporate pre-workout is caffeine. See this article for more on that topic. You want to take your caffeine supplement at least 30-minutes prior to training to allow it to take effect. Aim for between 3-6mg of caffeine per kg of lean mass, which is around 250-400mg for most people. Our caffeine tabs come in 60mg doses to make it easier for you to hit your optimal amount.
In addition to this we also do a beetroot based pre-workout shot which is packed full of natural, ergogenic aids to help increase workout intensity. The shots use evidence based dosages to ensure that they actually work, many similar products are actually under dosed, so they might contain the correct ingredients but at ineffective dosages.
Well, there you have it, 8 simple steps to building more muscle. Let’s recap, shall we?
- Lift weights, it’s the only way to grow
- Get those Calories in about 5% above baseline should be fine
- Get a good night’s sleep, insomnia is killing your gains (If you just work on getting these 3 points spot-on you’ll be just fine)
- Eat protein at around 1.6 g/kg if in an energy surplus and enough carbs to fuel your training and avoid MPB.
- Eat the rainbow, it will help your training and recovery.
- Base your training around compound lifts and use a push/pull split.
- Use isolation exercises to strengthen weak areas and to grow your biceps.
- Consider a couple of ergogenic pre-workout supplements.
- Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), pp.2857-2872.
- Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2014;11:20. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-20.
- Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ, Wildman R, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14:16. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y.
- Dattilo, M., Antunes, H., Medeiros, A., Mônico Neto, M., Souza, H., Tufik, S. and de Mello, M. (2011). Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Medical Hypotheses, 77(2), pp.220-222.
- Resistance training minimizes catabolic effects induced by sleep deprivation in rats.Mônico-Neto M, Antunes HK, Lee KS, Phillips SM, Giampá SQ, Souza Hde S, Dáttilo M, Medeiros A, de Moraes WM, Tufik S, et al.Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Nov; 40(11):1143-50. Epub 2015 Jul 21.
- AA, T. (2017). Improving muscle mass: response of muscle metabolism to exercise, nutrition and anabolic agents. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18384284 [Accessed 8 Nov. 2017].
- Reiman MP, Lorenz DS. INTEGRATION OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PRINCIPLES INTO A REHABILITATION PROGRAM. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2011;6(3):241-253.
- Schoenfeld, B., Peterson, M., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B. and Sonmez, G. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), pp.2954-2963.