By Awesome Supplements, Read time: 10 minutes
While it may not be everyone's top goal, building muscle is something that we would wager most Awesome Supplements customers would like to do in some capacity...and for good reason!
Building muscle has a ton of benefits, most of which aren't purely aesthetic, though that is of course a factor for some. Muscle is highly metabolically active tissue and building it requires some pretty hard exercise, meaning that muscle mass (and/or the training that produces it) is protective against various metabolic disorders including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers. Not only that, but muscular strength and power (which is strength plus acceleration or simply the ability to do strength fast) helps with things like posture, righting reflexes and joint stability to avoid falls both in sporting engagements and in older age, and it makes daily tasks just that much easier - who wants to take two trips to bring in the shopping?
Whichever way you cut it, building muscle is basically only going to be beneficial - as Mark Bell said: Strength is never a weakness.
But muscle building is also tricky. You have to balance nutrition and training just right, so let's look at 8 ways that you can ensure you're maximising your results!
1. Lift progressively heavier weights
This might seem like a no brainer but it bears repeating. Many gymgoers can be bought in by things like training to create a pump, doing certain exercises or rep ranges to tone, or doing their training extremely slowly or with dropsets and supersets to get really sore.
But no, the primary thing you need to focus on if muscle building is the goal is being able to lift more weight over time without changes in your form. 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. He also notes in that paper that mechanical tension (dictated by weight on the bar, for the most part) is the principle driver, so lift, lift often, and lift heavy (for you)!
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 5-10% on top of baseline (3). In some cases, if you are very lean and don't have a ton of muscle already, 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 that's nothing that can't be 'tidied up' later. You don't make omelettes without cracking eggs, and while it's not a good idea to superbulk until you gain very large amounts of bodyfat, trying to avoid fat gain entirely will hold you back. Embrace the scale weight increasing, keep it to around 0.5-1.5% of your bodyweight per month, and train hard: you will not be upset with the outcome!
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, or at least aren't important. 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 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is the minimum requirement of protein intake for active people, with 1.6-2.2g/kg being the theorised range for optimising outcomes.
That's more than the average person eats, but it's not as much as many may think, and that means you should have a lot of room left for carbs.
Carbohydrates are important for fuelling your muscles when you are resistance training. Muscle fibres are made up of type 1 (slow twitch), type 2a (in the middle, ish), and type 2b (fast twitch) muscle fibres. Type 2b muscle fibres have the greatest potential for growth but they don't use fats very well due to having very few mitochondria, and so the part of your muscle that actually grows needs carbs!
In short, if you want to be able to train as hard as you need to, 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 gymgoers 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!
As a last note here, don't ignore your fats, either. At least 20% of your calories would ideally come from healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts, fish, seeds, meat, and dairy. This will make getting the calories in easier (as well as other somewhat important things like allowing you to absorb some vitamins properly!). Fats don't really help muscle gain directly but they're important, so get them in!
5. Eat your veggies
Whenever we talk about eating to grow it conjures images of lots of protein (which, as we've already discussed, isn't necessarily true), plenty of carbohydrates, and enough fats to keep you healthy and make your food taste good enough to eat a lot of.
But, while not contributing much to your macros, veggies are important too.
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 the benefits scale upwards all the way to 10 portions. 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 a cold.
6. Compound lifts
If you want to grow bigger muscles you need to get stronger as we've already mentioned (1) therefore, it makes sense to choose movements that allow for the greatest amount of loading...and that's going to be your compound movements. Aside from growing muscles, getting stronger is an essential component of both injury prevention and injury rehab (7). The main compound lifts are typically squats, deadlifts, bench press, and overhead press, though don't be afraid to do variations (make your squats front squats if you prefer, or maybe a lunge, swap deadlifts for any other hip hinge...). 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)Wednesday: RestThursday: PushFriday: Pull
Weekend off, maybe go for a bike ride or play football, rugby/netball, whatever.
There are a ton of programs you can find online, just choose one that looks good and try to get strong for 4-5+ months. If you're struggling this is where a coach can really come in handy!
Compound lifts are great because they allow you to train your whole body (or large chunks of it) at once. Recruit more muscle through natural movement patterns and you avoid imbalances, create balance and stability which reduces injury risk, and as noted you allow for a ton of loading allowing you to get big and strong...but that doesn't mean isolations don't have their place!
Due to differences in leverages, insertions, and so on, two people will get different amounts of, for example, pec stimulation from a given amount of bench pressing. As an illustration, the longer your femurs are, the more you have to lean forward to hit parallel in a squat and so the less your quads are doing in comparison to your glutes and hamstrings. To be clear this doesn't mean your quads aren't doing anything and for most people this won't make a jot of difference - your legs will get big - but if you're a bodybuilder interested in precise symmetry it would make sense to do some quad extensions at the end of your session to pick up the slack, the same goes for longer armed people doing some flyes. Typically this doesn't need to be done with beginner or early intermediate trainees - if you can't squat 1.5x your bodyweight for reps, getting to there will build your legs a lot faster than leg extensions can - but at some point in your training career adding them just makes sense.
In short, if you are struggling to develop one of your compound lifts, or a specific body part, adding in some isolation work to strengthen a chosen muscle group can be very useful. 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, the important thing is that your sets are taken to or at least close to failure as it's here that those type 2b fibres mentioned earlier get stimulated. This can be hard to do, however (if building muscle was easy, everyone in the gym would have done in by now!). Proper training programming and mindset go a long way here, but if you're looking for the extra 5%, this is where a pre-workout comes in
The best supplement to incorporate pre-workout in order to help your intensity is caffeine which can increase power output while reducing how hard your training feels - a double whammy! 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 2-350mg for most people. Awesome Focus comes in 60mg doses to make it easier for you to hit your optimal amount. This 60mg caffeine is paired with 60mg theanine, an extract from green tea which acts as a non-drowsy sedative. When paired with caffeine it's able to 'take the edge off', helping you feel focused and alert rather than jittery and on-edge. Truly a simple yet incredibly effective addition before a hard session!
In addition to this, Awesome Boost, our caffeine-free pre workout is stacked with evidence based substances geared towards increasing your ability to push hard right until the end of the session. Pairing the two will give you your best performances yet!
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, starting with about 5% above baseline should be fine but don't be afraid to creep up if the scale isn't moving
- Get a good night’s sleep, Netfliex 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
- Eat the rainbow, it will help your training and recovery.
- Base your training around compound lifts, hitting each muscle group twice per week
- Use isolation exercises to strengthen weak areas
- Consider a couple of ergogenic pre-workout supplements
Oh, and number 9 - have fun! Training is supposed to be enjoyable, remember....
- 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.