For a few lucky people, building muscle is easy. All they need to do is simply walk into a gym, throw some weights around and by the time you see them next week they’re already big and shredded. We call these people genetic freaks. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re not one of them.
However, for the majority of people, building muscle is hard and it may seem that no matter what they do, their body is not responding. Most of the time the reason is that they just don’t know how to combine all the training variables which trigger muscle growth.
Both men and women find it hard to achieve their goal bodies, because they get a ton of contradicting information from the millions of bodybuilding and fitness magazines, promising them a lean, muscular physique (with some sexy curves for the women), only to find themselves scratching their heads on where and how to start.
That’s what this article is for. It will tell you exactly what you need to do and how to to do it to build muscle and lose fat. The tips provided apply equally to both men and women.
You should get lean before trying to build muscle
A mistake that a lot of people make is to think that they can just pack on some muscle mass first and then easily get rid of the added fat later. In theory, this sounds like a good idea, because the more lean muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate is, however, it’s not that simple: one of the key factors which influences muscle growth is the level of sensitivity of our lean tissues to the hormone insulin.
The sad reality is that the vast majority of people especially in the Western world have some degree of resistance to insulin even if they have a low amount of body fat. Additionally, different body tissues have varying degrees of insulin sensitivity. If this is you, you cannot expect fast results. You won’t be able to change your physique as quickly or as dramatically as someone who is already lean and has a high level of insulin sensitivity.
Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone and will quickly transport the necessary nutrients into your muscle cells, whereas if you’re in an insulin-resistant state it’s much more likely that the food you’ll eat will be stored as fat tissue.
The takeaway point here is that when you get your body to a lean condition, you will create an optimal hormonal environment that will be ready to work in your favor which in turn will make you more muscular in a shorter amount of time.
Multi-joint, compound movements should be the number one priority
One very big mistake that a lot of beginners make is thinking they should train each muscle separately, when in fact they should be doing the opposite. You will get much faster results when you train multiple muscle groups at the same time. This can be achieved by doing multi-joint, compound movements that will allow you to use relatively heavier weights. The “big lifts” as they are popularly known are the deadlift, squat, bench press and the overhead press.
Using heavier weights will ensure that you stress the muscles to a higher degree, which means that you’ll be applying a greater stimulus to the muscle, forcing it to adapt to the added stress and grow.
When you do the “big lifts”, you create a greater amount of metabolic stress causing your body to release hormones which are involved in tissue repair. The key hormones are growth hormone and testosterone (for men), as well as many others which are released in response to the training stimulus which recruits multiple muscle groups.
What’s more, most of the compound movements target the whole body in such a way that it’s applicable in real life, whether it be doing some heavy work, sports, or simply the ability to be flexible and move with speed.
The ideal training frequency when doing most training programs is four times a week using a training split, two days for the upper body muscles and two days for the lower body muscles, to maximize the recovery process.
However, if you’re not able to consistently train for one hour, four days a week, then doing a full-body workout is a good alternative to a body part split. This will greatly optimize your time by training the greatest amount of muscle in the least amount of time, a concept known as “training economy”.
Assistance movements are priority number two
Assistance movements as the name itself implies are meant to assist the main compound movements by bringing balance and targeting your weak points throughout the body. Most people deem them boring which is why they are mostly neglected. Some common examples include unilateral movements such as rotator cuff exercises, step-ups, then some posterior chain exercises such as hyper-extensions, back extensions, etc.
One simple method to identify what your weak points are is to look at the mobility and function of each joint. Your shoulders, knees, and hips should be the first to be examined, proceeding with your elbows, ankles, and wrists as the smaller joints. The best way to do it is by using strength tests, however since that is out of the scope of this article, the next best thing you can do is notice whether you experience pain, restricted range of motion or you have some weird movement patterns when moving the joint.
For example, when performing a single-leg squat, is your knee caving in towards the body? Are you leaning forward too much? Do you get out of balance? If you want to achieve and then maintain a stunning physique, assistance movements are an absolute must, since they help you prevent injury and ultimately help you develop greater strength in the long term. This will allow you to apply greater progressive overload to your muscles, which in turn will allow your continual muscle growth.
Isolation movements are priority number three
For any advanced lifter, incorporating single-joint isolation movements can trigger massive changes in their physique since fast and slow-twitch fibers are scattered throughout different individual muscles. To target these two types of fibers maximally, you’ll need to do targeted movements.
What’s more, some muscle can only be activated when trained in specific positions. For example, the biceps are comprised of two “heads”. The lateral, outside part of the long biceps head is activated when you flex the elbow. The middle portion is activated when you’re doing motions when the palm is facing you. Finally, the short head is activated at the last stage of the biceps curl, when the weight reaches the top, while the long head is more active during the lower part of the movement.
We can safely conclude that isolation movements such as chest flyes, biceps curls, leg curls, calf raises, and many others have their place in your training arsenal. If you have time to spare, you can always try out many variations for the biceps, forearms, calves and grip strength once you’ve finished doing the big lifts and your assistance exercises.
Incur muscle damage with high-volume training
When it comes to optimal muscle-building nothing beats high-volume training. This is why you should make it your primary focus. The general intensity range is 60-80% of your 1-rep-max, with several heavier phases interspersed.
Doing one to three sets, or using light weights that are below 60% of your 1-rep-max isn’t going to provide the necessary stimulus for visible muscle growth unless you’ve been completely physically inactive for several years.
The general recommendation is that you do 4-8 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise, which is the standard for bodybuilding-style of training. Also, divide your training in such a way that you train 70% of your workouts in the 60-80% of your 1-rep-max range, and 30% of your workouts in the 80%+ range.
Train to failure
Training to failure can be defined reaching the point after which you’re no longer able to lift the weight using proper technique. It causes micro-damage to the muscle fibers, which in turn triggers a protein synthesis response which will heal the damaged fibers and make them stronger and bigger.
So, if you haven’t tried this before, next time you go to the gym try lifting to the point where your form starts to break. Don’t cheat and use momentum to lift the weight. The only ones who would benefit from “cheating” are advanced lifters who are intentionally using “cheating methods” as a way to further load the muscles.
Rest for short periods
In addition to muscle damage, the other important factor behind muscle growth is metabolic stress, which can be optimally achieved by employing high-volume training and short rest intervals, in the range of zero rest to 2 minutes. Training to cause metabolic stress also has added benefit of supporting fat loss since it increases the release of fat-burning hormones and post-workout energy expenditure.
In the gym, it’s easy to get distracted by your phone and a myriad of other things and not pay attention to the clock and your rest periods. Well, it is of utmost importance that you do. Get yourself a watch and measure how much you rest. You will get more shredded than your buddies who wing it, or worse, use the gym as a place to chat with their friends.
Count the tempo. Go for longer duration reps for a greater time under tension.
The tempo is defined as the speed at which you do the concentric and eccentric phases of any exercise. The concentric phase is when you pull or press the weight and the eccentric phase is when you lower the weight. A general recommendation for building muscle mass is to do moderate-speed eccentric (3-6 seconds) and fast concentric tempos so that you increase the time “under” the weight, also known as “time under tension“.
This training variable is one of the most important drivers of muscle development. In general, a longer time under tension increases the training stimulus for new muscle to be built and promotes fat loss, whereas shorter time under tension builds strength.
If you haven’t tried slowing down your tempo then you’ll be in for a big surprise. The same weights will feel a lot heavier and you’ll feel a hardness in your muscles that you may not have experienced before. So, when lowering the weight use a longer tempo, also known as negative-enhanced training, and when trying to press or pull the weight do it in a fast and explosive manner.
Eat a lot of food
When it comes to building muscle there is nothing more important than consuming high-quality calories. High-quality calories come from the most nutrient-dense whole (unprocessed) foods in the world. If you are trying to gain muscle, you should strive to eat several meals throughout the day filled with high-quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbs every 2-3 hours.
Studies have shown that to achieve optimal muscle growth, in combination with frequent and intense training you should eat between 40-50 calories per kg of body weight a day. For example, a 150lbs person would have to eat 3000-3450 calories a day.
Calculate your daily protein intake goal and strive to reach it every day
A general recommendation is that you consume upwards of 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight of protein a day. To fully support your muscle-building efforts you should go up to 2.5 grams per kilogram a day.
Employing the strategy of increasing protein consumption to coincide with the muscle-building phases has already been established by numerous studies. It has been shown that in studies that test how multiple protein intakes affect muscle growth, evidence of a so-called “protein change” effect comes up.
Whey protein is a superior protein source for building muscle and strength. Consistent whey supplementation has been shown to produce better results compared to casein, soy or some other plant-based protein sources.
It is strongly recommended that you consume high-quality protein containing at least 10 grams of essential amino acids one hour before and after your workout. Meat, eggs, and fish should be the staples of your diet and main protein sources. You simply cannot expect to make drastic changes to your body unless you strive to consume high-quality protein every day.
Eat more carbohydrates on training days, and less on rest days
If you remember, the first entry on our list was getting lean first and only then starting to building muscle. The reasoning behind this was that you need to make your body as insulin sensitive as possible. When you do that you make it far more likely for the body to take advantage of the high calorie and high carb intake and use them for building new muscle tissue instead of fat. This is where the real magic happens.
It’s worth noting that high carb intake is not essential to protein synthesis, which is the process that needs to occur to make muscle grow, however, there are still several muscle-building benefits to consuming carbs:
They decrease the stress hormone cortisol during training and help you maintain steady cortisol levels throughout the day.
They support the functioning of the thyroid gland, which plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy body composition.
They allow you to exert greater effort during intense and exhausting workouts. Being on a high-carb diet will decrease fatigue and make your workouts feel easier.
The amount of carbs one should eat during the day depends on the individual, but chances are that you’re somewhere in the 150-300 grams-a-day range during training days when ingesting them will be most conducive to muscle building. Again, a precise recommendation about daily carb intake cannot be given since it’s highly individual, depending on personal genetics, the amount of body fat you currently have, how insulin sensitive you are and what your eating habits are.
You should always favor unprocessed, whole foods filled with complex carbs such as starchy vegetables, boiled grains, fruit, and legumes instead of processed junk foods filled with simple carbs. If you consume carbs during your workouts, go for a carb-to-protein ratio of 2:1 to 1:1.
In addition to quality sleep and stress reduction, diet is the third most important factor in regards to recovery. This is why eating nutrient-dense foods is so crucial to the entire effort of building muscle and losing fat. Your body will need a huge supply of antioxidants in your blood to get rid of all the waste compounds produced during workouts. They also decrease inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity.
Fat is the only macronutrient that we haven’t discussed in much detail, however, it is no less important, as it plays an essential role in maintaining hormonal balance and optimizing recovery since it provides crucial minerals and vitamins. High-quality fat sources include all kinds of fish, meat, dairy products and monounsaturated fat sources such as olives, avocados, and nuts.
Besides your genetics, the main determining factor of the speed of your muscular development is the rate at which you recover from an intense workout so that you can hit the same muscle group again.