Wanting to build muscle is viewed as a vain goal for less-intelligent “meatheads” by a lot of people that don’t get it. Those of us that have looked into how to build muscle mass understand that it’s usually ago something greater. Maybe we’re tired of feeling small and week, maybe we want attention from the people we have feelings for, or maybe we’ve been hurt by someone we cared about.
Regardless of why we start, we’re all doing it to take control of something in our lives. Purposefully changing our lives with the goal of building muscle is the beginning of a lifelong journey of self-improvement. People that are actively trying to build muscle are disciplined, motivated, and strong. Traits we all should want to embody.
It seems so easy when you look at it from the outside:
- Go to gym everyday
- Pick up heavy things
- Drink a lot of protein shakes
But as you’ve probably figured out by now, building muscle isn’t such a simple process. Yes, you can just flail around in the gym for an hour every day and you will see some results. But you won’t see the kind of results that get your friends asking you for advice, people at the grocery story commenting on your physique, or improve your confidence when talking to that special someone. For those kinds of results you need to understand the process of muscle growth and how best to drive that process. In this article we’ll break down the main factors of muscle growth into Training, Nutrition, and Recovery; looking at each of these sections in detail to determine the guidelines that will promote optimal muscle gains.
- There are three main effects training has that can stimulate muscle growth: Muscle Tension, Metabolic Stress, and Muscle Damage.
- Total volume seems to be the determining factor of hypertrophy. Moderate intensity for higher reps can be just as effective as high intensity/low rep lifting at stimulating hypertrophy and can take significantly less time in the gym. So if you’re short on time train in the 8-12 rep range with 30-60 second rests.
- A mild calorie surplus of 150 – 500 calories is great to build muscle while minimizing fat gain.
- You may not need as much protein as you think. 1.5 g/kg (~0.7 g/lb of bodyweight) of bodyweight per day is the average for most athletes and can yield great results. However, if you’re trying to gain as much muscle as possible 2.2g/kg (1.0 g/lb) of bodyweight per day is a good goal.
- Protein Powders are useful tools to aid in reaching a daily protein goal. I recommend Whey+ and Thrive from Legion Athletics.
- Vegetarians and people that eat a low-moderate protein diet may benefit from supplementing with BCAAs, specifically L-Leucine. People that eat a high protein diet with plenty of animal proteins probably won’t see any benefit.
- Testosterone Boosters and Mass Gainers tend to be giant wastes of money.
- Rest days aren’t for the weak. Ensure you are allowing each muscle group 3-4 days to fully recover before training it again.
- Ample sleep is necessary to have muscle growth, aim for 7-8 hours per night as a basis.]
Training for Muscle Gain
Training for muscle gain is bodybuilding. Even if you aren’t aspiring to look like the guys on muscle beach, you are aspiring to literally build your body up by adding on muscle mass. Many times in this article I will reference ‘Bodybuilders’ which means you.
In general, if you’re completely new to any sort of resistance training (less than 6 months of experience) than you can build muscle by doing literally any kind of training. However, once your body adapts to a more active lifestyle it helps to take a more educated approach.
In this section we are going to take an overview of the principle of Progressive Overload, how training causes muscle growth (Training Effects), and how you can manipulate your training to maximize muscle gains (Training Parameters). The information presented here will often using weightlifting as an example, however these principles are not limited pumping iron and can be applied to calisthenics, banded training, and much more.
Progressive Overload is a repeated and gradual increase in stress placed on the muscles through training over time. The concept is very simple: muscles are regularly pushed to, or just beyond, their limits. When the tissue is recovered it adapts by becoming stronger. Thereby, being capable of withstanding greater stress.
Progressive overload is very common in weightlifting circles and it relates directly to muscular development quite well. There are many methods of progressively overloading muscles such as linear periodization, in which training is meticulously planned out ahead of time, and training within rep ranges, in which the weight is increased when a certain number of reps can be performed. For example, if I am working out in the 8-12 rep range I should increase the weights if I can perform 12+ reps, or decrease if I can’t perform at least 8.
Progressive Overload can also apply to other bodily tissues, albeit on a much slower time scale. For instance, people that train with weights typically exhibit greater bone density over time. Presumably, this is an adaptation in the bones when exposed to high stress over long periods of time. However, if the load is large enough to break the bone, adaptation clearly does not occur.
Similarly, connective tissue adaptations, commonly seen in gymnastics or rock climbing, can also occur as a result progressive overload. These changes do not happen nearly as fast as muscle though. GymnasticBodies founder, Christopher Sommer, has frequently stated that it takes 210 days for connective tissue to fully heal. For context, muscle takes 3-4 days to heal.
According to Brad Schoenfeld, PhD there are three main factors that drive muscle hypertrophy:
- Mechanical Tension
- Metabolic Stress
- Muscle Damage
After reading this section it should be easy to understand how you can build muscle using bodyweight training, weight training, or any other type of resistance training. Additionally, it should be easy to see why people that train with weights generally can build more muscle than people that train solely with bodyweight exercises.
Mechanical Tension is the tension directly experienced by the muscle during physical activity. The process of force production and forced stretch under weight seems disrupt the equilibrium of muscle tissue. This disruption causes changes at the cellular level that begins the proliferation of muscular cells – thereby triggering muscle growth.
Intuitively, the relationship of ”Heavier Weights maximizes Mechanical Tension” follows from this notion. However, lifting heavy is not the only way to maximize muscle tension. Muscular tension can intensify over time if a lighter weight is lifted for longer, thereby stimulating muscle growth with lighter weights. A popular bodybuilding training method that utilizes this principle is called Time Under Tension (TUT) training.
However, it remains to be seen if lifting lighter weights for longer durations generates a similar magnitude of mechanical tension as simply lifting heavy. It makes sense that lifting heavy weights can produce greater mechanical tension overall but using lighter weights for more repetitions may be a better driver of the next factor of muscle growth:
“Feeling the Burn” is a result of Metabolic Stress. It is the build up of metabolites in your muscle tissue as you train, especially if you are doing anaerobic training (i.e. Lifting Weights). As suggested at the end of the last section high repetition training can stimulate hypertrophy by facilitating a buildup of metabolites.
High repetition training is not the only method available to maximizing metabolic stress. Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training has been shown to cause an acute metabolite build up and stimulate significant hypertrophy when compared to a control. This makes BFR training a useful tool in the bodybuilding arsenal, however, BFR is not recommended for inexperienced trainees.
Muscle Damage is exactly what it sounds like – it is the small, localized damage, also called ‘Microtraumas,’ occurring to the muscle tissue as we train. The theory behind why this drives hypertrophy is that as the muscle is damaged the body has a response similar to any other injury. As the body perceives the injury it sends out various growth factors to stimulate recovery, which in turn can also stimulate further growth.
It is important to note that there is a point of muscle damage at which more damage does not equal more hypertrophy. This is why soreness is not a good indicator that you maximized hypertrophy within a given workout. So you don’t need to be crawling out of the gym after every leg day. Simply train hard enough to cause some muscle damage and stop there.
Training parameters are the variables we can manipulate when planning out our training. Here are quick definitions of each:
- Frequency – How often a particular muscle group is worked (e.g. 2x per week)
- Intensity – The magnitude of the weight being lifted per rep
- Volume – Total weight lifted over the training session (Sets x Reps x Weight)
These parameters are the variables we manipulate when planning out our training. For instance, linear periodization will gradually increase intensity or volume over time to progressively overload the muscle. In general, periodic overload from volume is regarded as the most effective way to stimulate hypertrophy but it is not the only way.
Frequency is the rate at which a particular muscle group is trained. Research supports the notion that increased frequency leads to greater hypertrophy. It may seem straightforward that the more often we work a muscle group the bigger it will grow but it’s not that simple. Training a muscle group twice a week has been shown to be more beneficial for hypertrophy than training once a week but the data is not so clear of more than twice is better.
Frequency must be balanced with optimal recovery. Most people feel fully recovered from a training session 3-4 days afterwards. If the recovery process is when the muscle tissue grows, then it makes sense that the tissue will not grow any more once it is recovered. So if we train the muscle as soon as it’s fully recovered we get the benefits of full recovery and minimize the time we are not stimulating muscle growth.
Intensity is a measure of how heavy the weight we are using during training is. Typically, intensity is represented as a percentage of your 1 Rep Max (1RM) – which is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single rep.
High intensity is a clear driver of hypertrophy as it results is maximal muscular tension. Examples of this kind of high intensity work would be something like heavy squats, deadlifts, bench press, or curls for 3-8 reps. However, high intensity is not necessary to instigate hypertrophy and it may not be optimal.
In a study comparing high intensity (7 sets of 3) and moderate intensity (3 sets of 10) – volume was held constant – researchers found no significant difference in hypertrophy between groups. They did find that the high intensity group had much greater improvements in their strength gains though. This suggests that high intensity is necessary for optimal strength gains but the variable predominantly responsible for hypertrophy is volume.
So you may be wondering “Why not just always lift heavy to get bigger muscles and stronger?!” Well because a lot of that has to do with your time commitment. Moderate intensity sets of 8-12 reps do not result in the same magnitude of exhaustion as high intensity sets of 1-5.
Typically, high intensity training requires rest periods of 2-3 minutes between sets while moderate intensity training can have rest periods as low as 30 seconds between sets. So if you only have an hour to train and you want to maximize hypertrophy you’re better off training in the moderate intensity range and minimizing your rest periods to maximize volume.
Volume is defined as the total amount of weight lifted per session (Sets x Reps x Weight). Increased volume may actually be the primary training variable driving hypertrophy. Therefore, it makes sense that a primary goal of maximizing hypertrophy means maximizing volume.
Like frequency, manipulating volume is not as simple as saying “I can lift 200 lbs for 3 reps or I can lift 25 lbs for 24 reps.” You will not likely see similar levels of hypertrophy when comparing extremely low and high intensities. However, when comparing equal volume in moderate vs. high intensity groups we can start to see similar levels of growth, as we stated in the Intensity section.
Additionally, we cannot just expand our volume ad infinitum and see a direct increase in muscle gains the whole time. Dr. Mike Israetel (Instagram) describes Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV) as the maximum amount of volume a person can do and still recover from fully. Essentially, anything less than the MRV leaves some potential gains on the table and anything more is wasted effort.
Determining your actual MRV is not something we can accurately do currently. However, it does bring up an interesting point: is it better to underwork and leave gains on the table or overwork and possibly waste some energy. The answer to this is largely up to the individual. Personally, I tend to the side of lower volume because there is less injury risk and I train for personal fitness as opposed to competition.
Eating for Muscle Gain
Building muscle is not all about the time spent in the gym. In fact, that is a very small part of the total equation. The majority of your day is spent recovering from the stress of your workouts and as such you need to ensure you have sufficient nutrition to recover fully.
The components of eating for muscle gain are a necessary caloric surplus, eating adequate protein intake, and supplementing (when necessary). In this section we dive into each of these topics in detail.
“If you want to get big you gotta eat big” is a common saying when people are starting to “bulk” up. This saying isn’t technically wrong but it tends towards going way over where we want to be. I used to love hitting 4000 calories per day when I was a newbie in the name of a “dirty gain” and I did make some minor muscle gains, but they were really hard to see under all the fat I had gained as well.
I’ve since learned that it’s best to make small conservative increases in calorie intake when trying to gain muscle mass. In general, most people only need an additional 150-500 calories per day over their TDEE to make consistent muscle gain.
What determines the amount of additional calories you can eat and effectively turn into muscle varies wildly at the individual level. This is best determined at the individual level through self-experimentation. Start with a mild increase (say 150 calories) over your TDEE, continue to increase it a little bit every week, and monitor your progress. When you start to look a little too fluffy go back a few steps for your sweet spot.
Protein is the highest regarded nutrient when it comes to muscle gain and for good reason. Research has repeatedly shown that an adequate protein intake is necessary, along with exercise, to promote muscle gain. In regards to eating protein there are often three questions people wonder:
- How much protein do I need to eat?
- When should I eat my protein?
- What kind of protein?
In this section we answer each of these questions.
How much protein?
Building muscle and protein go hand in hand. Studies have repeatedly shown that high protein intake supports greater hypertrophy than controls. Currently, the bodybuilding recommendation of eating 2.2g per kg of bodyweight (1g per pound) of protein per day has been very popular for a number of years. While this is a very easy-to-prescribe recommendation, and many people see good results with it, this number may be something of an overshoot.
In a study on athletes the mean protein intake was found to be 1.5g per kg (0.68 g/lb). A more recent study on bodybuilders found that Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) was maximized between 1.7 and 2.2 g/kg (0.77 and 1.0 g/lb). Taking these data together we can come to the conclusion that following the 2.2g/kg (1g/lb bodyweight) recommendation can certainly maximize MPS but may not be entirely necessary, especially if you’re not a bodybuilder.
In short, you don’t have to eat ridiculous amounts of protein to maximize your gains. You can still see great results on less than 2.2 g/kg despite what you may hear online. In fact, it’s likely that there is some level of protein intake after which more does not result in any further MPS, or may even hinder it. As a general rule of thumb I start my diets, and the diets of my clients, around 1.5 g/kg and adjust accordingly.
When should I eat my protein?
The next consideration with protein is when to take it. Protein timing is a hotly debated topic, with sides claiming it’s critical and others claiming total protein is all that matters. My experience, and general takeaway from the research, has been that protein timing does have an effect of muscle growth – but it’s not as large as you might hope.
Stu Phillips’ research supports the notion that it is beneficial for hypertrophy to ingest 20-25g of high quality protein around exercise to maximally stimulate MPS. However, you can have it before or after your workout, there isn’t really a difference. This is good news for those of you wondering if it is worth taking a protein shake after your workout. It is! (Or you can do it prior).
With protein timing, the hope is that there are specific slivers in time, little anabolic windows, in which the protein we ingest is more likely to go straight to our muscles. There is some truth to this, especially post-workout. When we train we are breaking our muscles down and we require new amino acids to heal and grow. That’s why we are more likely to use ingested protein for MPS after we work out but that window actually spans into the next day, not just for an hour after our workout.
In general, total protein does matter more than protein timing. However, it does seem that 20-25g of protein at a time stimulates MPS more effectively than less so it is advisable to ingest protein in large boluses as opposed to small increments throughout the day. For example, on an average day I have about 4 meals and will eat ~35g of protein in each of those meals.
What kind of protein?
Animal protein has repeatedly been shown to be more effective at simulating MPS – Dairy Vs. Plant, Anabolic Response in Animal Vs. Plant Proteins. However, this does not mean vegetarians are doomed to have less muscle mass. Much of this research simply suggests that vegetarians may simply require more of their protein to achieve similar levels of muscle protein synthesis. This is thought to be a result of the amino acid composition of plant proteins lacking certain amino acids directly reported to stimulate MPS – such as leucine, which we discuss further in the “supplements” section.
One way you can tell someone is a training newbie without even looking at them is to look at their google history. You’ll undoubtedly see “Supplements for muscle building” or something along those lines. If this is you there’s absolutely no shame in it, we were all at that point once.
Hopefully everything leading up to this point in the article has enlightened you to the fact that resistance training, a calorie surplus, and adequate protein are the real game changers when it comes to muscle growth, not supplements. However, certain supplements can be helpful in making sure you are meeting these three factors effectively.
First and foremost – Protein powder is great for ensuring you’re getting enough protein to build muscle overall, and in individual meals. Supplementing with protein also makes it easier to boost your calorie intake into a surplus as most are about 120 calories per serving.
Not all protein powders are created equally. There is whey, casein, plant based, beef based, egg based, and probably more that I’m not thinking of. The point is there are lots of options.
The most popular protein powder is whey protein. Whey is one of two milk-derived proteins, the other being casein, and is the more rapidly digested of the two. Ease and speed of digestion are both big reasons why whey protein is particularly favored by strength athletes and bodybuilders.
Casein Protein is the second most popular protein supplement, is the other milk protein, and is known as the more slowly digestible of the two. Casein protein is commonly used as a pre-sleep protein supplement to ensure protein digestion occurs throughout the night. This may be a useful way to boost total muscle protein synthesis while sleeping but it is far from necessary.
Although whey and casein are the most popular forms of protein supplement they are not for everyone. People that are averse to dairy for any reason may want to look into a protein supplement other than whey or casein. The two most common alternatives are brown rice and pea blend plant protein, and egg-based protein powders. Of the two, plant proteins are often regarded as the faster digesting of the two, while egg-based is more similar in it’s digestion rate to casein.
With any protein supplement it is important to emphasize quality. Not all protein supplements are created equal and there are many bad products available on the market. Don’t worry about trying everything and trying to figure out what’s best, there are great resources for that such as LabDoor which are operated independently and grade various supplements based on their purity, label accuracy, and nutritional content.
Whey+ and Thrive Plant Protein by Legion Athletics are high quality protein, supplemented with additional leucine to drive muscle protein synthesis. I recommend Legion Athletics Supplements because they are high quality and, more importantly, they are the most transparent supplement brand I have ever come across. This is an affiliate link and if you purchase any supplements through this link you will help to support the blog!
Branch Chained Amino Acids (BCAAs)
There are three BCAAs: Leucine, Isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are often marketed as some sort of magical source of muscle growth. For the most part, this is marketing hype. However, there is a small basis in fact for the way BCAAs are promoted.
Of the three BCAAs; Leucine is the star that is suggested to directly influence muscle growth. Leucine has been shown to increase MPS in the absence of sufficient amounts of protein. However, there is a key bit of wording there:
”Sufficient amounts of protein”
In short, BCAA supplementation is not necessary in most high-protein diets because we get plenty of BCAAs, specifically leucine, from the food we eat along with other essential amino acids (EAAs). So in short, BCAA supplementation is only beneficial for people that do not get ample amounts from their diet (i.e. Low-Moderate Protein Dieters, and Vegetarians).
When it comes to supplementing BCAAs – you may not need isoleucine or valine, leucine seems to work better on it’s own than when it’s taken with the other BCAAs. Some high quality protein powders, like Whey+, have additional l-leucine added to their formulations in order to ensure maximal MPS with each feeding. Personally, I do supplement with 3-5g of l-leucine on days that my protein intake may be lower or is primarily from plant sources.
Wastes of Money
Natural “Testosterone Boosters” show little to no peer-reviewed evidence at being effective at improving muscle mass. Some have evidence for mediocre improvements in testosterone levels when you already have low test levels but this does little to drive muscle gain. While improvements in testosterone are known to improve muscle mass, the level to which testosterone has to be increased is beyond the abilities of any natural supplement.
Mass Gainers are not all complete wastes of money, however most are. A good mass gainer contains adequate amounts of protein in the form of a protein powder plus additional calories from quality carbs and fats. Unfortunately, most supplement companies simply take a protein powder and add large amounts of a cheap sugar, such as dextrose, to bump up the calorie count. With Mass Gainers you’re better off making your own by blending protein powder, bananas, and peanut butter. It’s cheaper and tastier.
Recovering for Muscle Gain
Gaining muscle isn’t all about lifting big, and eating big. You have to recover big too. This side of the equation is the least glamorous and often overlooked, however it is certainly worth paying attention to. In a world where two people may eat the same and train the same but recover differently, it’s easy to guess who would gain more muscle in the long run.
It’s easy to get lulled into the thought process of “more time in the gym means more gains” but it’s not as black and white as that. As we saw in the Training section under Frequency we may see greater muscle gain from training a body part 2x a week vs. 1x a week, however training more than 2x per week may yield diminishing returns.
It’s smart to remember that muscles grow when they recovery, thus taking advantage of rest days to make sure they recovery fully will likely lead to maximal muscle gain. Rest days should be implemented as needed to ensure each body part is getting sufficient rest, and muscles take about 3-4 days to completely recover from a given training session. So, the more body parts you train in a single session, the more rest days you’ll probably have over the course of your week.
For example, if you train with whole body workouts then you may want to only train 2-3x per week because you need to allow sufficient time for all your muscles to heal. On the other side of things, if you use a body part split then you can train 5-6x per week because you are still giving each body part sufficient time to recover while you train other parts.
It’s easy to think that a lack of sleep will impair your muscle growth because it will make you tired and less able to train to your fullest potential but that’s only a part of it. Sleep debt will actually directly impair your rates of protein synthesis over time. Additionally, growth hormone is released in larger amounts during sleep, giving real weight to the saying “when you sleep, you grow.”
When you think about it it’s pretty simple – you need to get good sleep to get good gains. For most people this is 7-8 hours of sleep but there are always the outliers that can get away with 6 or need at least 9. No matter what any study says about how much sleep you need, you are going to have to experiment to find out what works best for you.
That’s Everything You Need
This article is the culmination of many years of self-experimenting, reading research, and about 30 hours of writing. If you want to gain muscle effectively, take every lesson in this article and apply it. Soon you’ll have everyone asking you how you did it.