I’ll be honest, there is so much confusion, speculation and just plain BS on how to actually build muscle. Fitness magazines, infomercials selling their useless products and believe it or not some professional bodybuilders giving out their advice!
Buying these useless products, reading these magazines and following professional bodybuilder routines will not make you grow muscle as effectively as you could be. Professional bodybuilders are genetically gifted, take steroids and do not build muscle by following workout programs in magazines or use useless products from infomercials.
The majority of us (myself included) will not be able to accomplish what bodybuilders have accomplished, we need muscle building routines that prevent physical and mental over-training, which happens when you train too much and with little rest and recovery.
How Do We Build Muscle?
Okay, so you may be asking yourself “how do I build muscle then?”, well there are three simple steps you need to remember in order to pack on muscle: (1. Signal, 2. Supply & 3. Recovery) and they are all equally important, miss one of these crucial steps and your muscle building efforts will suffer!
Step 1 Signal
“When you attempt to build muscle, the signal is the progressive overload that is placed on the muscles via weight training. The weight training acts as the signal to the body that tells it the muscle needs to be built.”
1. Become Stronger – By becoming stronger you build muscle. Every time you perform a weight lifting routine you must increase the weight or perform additional repetitions from the previous weight lifting session. This is known as “progressive resistance” and is the key to ensuring you build muscle!
An example of progressive resistance: Let’s say you Bench press 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions, the first session you manage 10 reps on the first set, 9 reps on the second and 8 reps on the third. Now the week after you lift 10 reps on the first set, 9 reps on the second set and 9 reps on the third set. Congratulations, by performing that 1 additional rep on the last set you have successfully increased your strength, thereby on the correct path to increasing your muscle mass.
The other way of course would have been to increase the weight lifted from the previous session, as long as either of these progression types continue you will build muscle.
2. Do Compound Exercises – I love the saying “You have to build the foundation before you put the roof on” because it applies to so much in life, especially weight lifting. You must build a strong foundation: back, chest, legs, shoulders and arms by performing compound exercises. Once you have built this foundation (and it takes years of hard training) you can begin to introduce a small number of isolation exercises into your workout routine.
Compound exercises work several muscle groups at the same time, which ensures your muscle building efforts are not squandered. Whilst I do perform some isolation exercises in my workout routine, such as dumbbell curls, triceps extensions etc I do not spend much time on them, 95% of my workout routine consist of heavy compound exercises. Some examples of compound exercises are:
Chest: Barbell Bench Press, Upright Dips, Push Ups
Back: Deadlifts, Cable Rows, Bent Over Rows, Wide Grip Pull Ups
Legs: Full Barbell Squats, Barbell Lunges
Shoulders: Clean & Press, Military Press, Arnold Press
Arms: Close Grip Chin Ups, Bench Dips, close grip bench press, Barbell Bicep Curls
3. Lift Free Weights – Your workout routine should mainly consist of free weights (Barbells and Dumbbells) Free weights place greater strain on the muscle compared to machine weights, which means the muscle will grow faster using free weights. Using free weights forces you to stabilize yourself during exercise, so the surrounding muscles are worked. Machines force you into strict unnatural movements, in fact the only type of machine I use and recommend you use is a cable machine, but only for a limited number of exercises such as cable flyes.
4. Cardio – Okay cardio does not have a direct relation to packing on muscle mass but you shouldn’t neglect cardio workouts. Running on a treadmill, pedalling on an exercise cycle or using an indoor rower, swimming etc are all ways to increase your cardio vascular fitness. Increasing your cardio vascular fitness makes you more efficient at lifting weights and also helps you burn some additional calories and shed fat, after all there is no point in building all that muscle if its hidden under layers of fat.
I perform a 5-10 minute cardio workout before I start my full body workout routine, as it gets my heart rate up and my blood flowing ready for lifting some serious weights. Of course after the cardio exercise I still warm up with weights, but the cardio helps get me started. I also have cardio days to help maintain my body fat and also improve my overall health. In fact since introducing cardio I have found weight lifting a lot easier and find I have more stamina to really push my body to its muscular limits.
Step 2. Supply
“You need to supply your muscles with energy so they can grow and repair as efficiently as possible, this energy comes from diet. A good diet is required to build muscle fast. A diet consisting of mainly fast or processed foods will put a road block in your muscle building goals!“
1. Eat Real Food – Eat foods that actually have nutritional value, stop eating processed or fast foods, chocolate, candy, pastry foods, energy drinks etc. Stick to lean meats, wholegrain foods, vegetables, fruit, fish, dairy products, and of course drink plenty of water. Real foods also have fewer calories in comparison to processed foods, so this simple change will help aid weight loss and reduce your body fat percentage making you look more athletic.
Whilst I do not eat 100% healthy all day every day I would not expect you to either. The occasional beer, candy bar or fast food meal won’t hurt your progress, but do try to eat healthy as much as possible (especially important before and after a workout).
2. Pre-Workout & Post Workout Meals – When trying to gain muscle mass the pre workout and post workout meals are the most important. Make sure you consume a good amount of food containing complex carbohydrates and some protein approximately one hour before a workout, my post workout meal is around 200 – 300 calories. Your post workout meal should consist of a decent amount of complex carbohydrates but with more emphasis on protein, (examples of these foods are shown below in point 3 and 4).
3. Protein – You need protein to build muscle, protein is used to repair your muscles after a workout, and this happens when you rest. If you don’t consume enough protein your muscles will not fully repair and grow to their maximum ability. If you want to build muscle it’s recommended that you consume approximately 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. So if you weight 200 lbs you need approximately 200g of protein every day.
Try to eat protein with each meal, examples of proteins are: Fish, red meats, unsalted nuts, beans, dairy, poultry, eggs, Soya etc. Whilst I know a lot of people who take whey protein as a supplement, I do not take it myself because I believe all proteins should come from natural sources (regardless of what some supplement companies tell you to sell their products). So, try to consume some of the above foods on a daily basis to ensure adequate protein intake.
4. Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are often associated with weight gain, but actually carbohydrates provide you with energy, energy to help you build muscle. Carbohydrates break down into glucose molecules, when used as energy carbohydrates become fuel for your muscles and brain. When your body has no use for the glucose it is stored in the liver and the muscles as an energy reserve, but of course if you over consume too many carbohydrates it will turn into fat, and the same goes for proteins and fats. There are 2 types of carbohydrates that you must ensure are part of your bodybuilding diet:
Simple Carbohydrates – Foods containing simple carbohydrates generally have a sweet taste, they are already close to being in the digested form, so they pass into your bloodstream almost straight away. Examples of good simple carbohydrates are: Apples, Blueberries, blackcurrants, Cherries, Kiwi, Oranges, Peaches, Pears, Plums, and Strawberries etc.
Complex Carbohydrates – Complex carbohydrates are found in foods prepared in wholegrain or vegetables. Complex carbohydrates provide you with additional advantages over simple carbohydrates, such as additional minerals, vitamins and fibre, which is required for overall health and performance. Examples of good complex carbohydrates are: Wheatgerm, Barley, Maize, Bran, Oatmeal, Buckwheat, Wholegrain rice, wholegrain pasta, sweet potatoes, porridge oats, muesli, granary bread, lentils, beans, Yams, weetabix etc
5. Fat – Everyone gives fat a bad reputation, but natural non-saturated fats are essential for good health. There are numerous health benefits to natural (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) fats such as:
- Cushions and protects internal organs.
- It transports fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K throughout the body.
- Fat is a concentrated source of energy.
- Essential fatty acids benefit your immune system, heart and metabolism.
The best examples of these types of fats which should be in your diet are: flax oil, hemp seed oil, canola oil, salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, unsalted nuts etc.
Step 3. Recovery
“You need recovery from lifting all those weights! You do not build muscle when you’re in the gym lifting weights, you build muscle when you sleep. When you sleep several chemical reactions occur and your muscle repairs itself and becomes bigger (this process is known as hypertrophy).“
If you are new to weight lifting or bodybuilding you will need more rest than a professional bodybuilder who trains 5 or 6 times per week. For a beginner, two full body workouts per week will be enough. More recovery is needed at first, if you are a beginner looking to build muscle you should stick to this schedule until you are ready to up your training to 3 workouts per week with 48 hours rest between workouts. If you have been weight training for over 6 months you can workout 3 times per week. There are several steps to recovery that you must be aware of:
1. Sleep – When you sleep your body releases growth hormone, growth hormone is responsible for building muscles so you should aim for at least 8 hours sleep per day.
If like me you train in the evenings after work, you should do as I do, I come home, eat my post workout meal then about 2 hours later I have a protein filled snack and jump in the sack. Don’t stay up late watching mindless television or waste time on the computer, get some much needed rest and build those muscles!
2. Rest – I love resting and I love powernaps, but like most people I don’t get much time to do them, if you can rest or powernap before a workout go for it. A quick 30 minute nap or rest before a workout will make you more rested and ready to do some serious lifting. I find a good way to rest is to read a book, maybe just a chapter or two.
3. Drink Water – Drinking water avoids dehydration and will help towards muscle recovery, it is especially important to drink water with each meal as it helps with digestion. Also when you workout make sure you drink water, but take small sips not big gulps, I often have a few sips of water between exercises and sometimes between sets.
4. Eat, Eat and Eat Some More – You won’t be able to pack on muscle if you don’t consume enough calories to gain weight. Aim for 5-6 smaller meals throughout the day rather than 3 big meals, this will increase your metabolism and reduce blood sugar spikes which can make you feel tired and bloated. Make sure you eat your pre and post workout meals. If you want to get big muscles you need to eat over your daily caloric maintenance levels (consume more calories than you burn).
Persistence, Patience and Progress
“The final steps in the muscle building process are also important, you must continue to work out on a weekly basis, be patient with muscle growth and always track and monitor your progress.”
1. Persistence – You want to gain muscle right? Well then you need to stick with your weight lifting routine week after week, your heart must be in it and you must persist!
2. Patience – I’m as impatient as the next person, but after years of serious weight lifting I have learnt to become patient with progress. No matter what supplement companies or fitness magazines tell you, you will not gain 10lbs of solid muscle month after month, if this were the case most of us would look like professional bodybuilders after just one year of weight lifting!
For those of us drug free bodybuilders and weight lifters with realistic goals, we can expect to gain about 5 lbs of muscle per year with hard work and dedication. Whilst this may seem slow, imagine in just 5 short years of training you would gain 25lbs of muscle which would entirely transform your body.
3. Progress – It annoys me when people try one weight lifting program, then try another, then another, the whole time never measuring the results. You need to stick with a program for at least 3 months and write things down. In every workout you do write down the weight you lifted and the number of reps for each set, do this for every exercise, if you don’t do this how do you know if you’re making true progress.
Keep all the workout routines printed out and see where you have or haven’t improved every 4-6 weeks. Calculate the percentage increase in the weight you lifted every 4-6 weeks. For more detailed information on tracking progress see my workout routines page.