The Ultimate Guide to Building Muscle
So you’ve made the decision to strengthen and define your body shape, but how do you do it? What is the safest and most effective way of building muscle?
Are you looking for strength or are you looking to build up your muscle mass? What sort of exercise plan should you follow, and what about nutrition?
Let’s start by breaking down the fundamental components of building muscle.
What is Muscle?
There are more than 600 muscles in a human body. They carry out a variety of functions, from pumping blood around the body, to moving bones, to allowing us to do simple tasks like lifting and bending.
The three different types of muscles in our body are:
- Skeletal muscle – the most important group for building muscle mass. These are voluntary muscles, meaning we control their movements. They work with our bones to give our body power and strength, so we use them whenever we go for a walk, stand up or lift something.
- Smooth muscles – these are involuntary muscles that we can’t control, but they’re at work in our body all the time. Examples of smooth muscles can be found in our stomach, digestive system and bladder.
- Cardiac muscle – the heart is a huge, complex muscle. It’s responsible for pumping blood and oxygen around the body.
How Muscles Work
For the purposes of muscle building, we’ll concentrate on the skeletal muscles.
They have two main types of muscle fibres: slow twitch and fast twitch. We use both of these during exercise.
- Slow twitch fibres function best during low-intensity exercises, such as walking and jogging, as they can be supplied with oxygen.
- Fast twitch fibres become more active during anaerobic activity, such as weight lifting and sprinting, to create bursts of power. They create more force than slow twitch fibres but are more quickly exhausted.
How to Build Muscle
The first step to building muscle is to decide what results you’re after.
Are you looking for muscle mass or strength? They are quite different goals. Do you want to be big, or do you want to be strong?
To train for strength your program will consist of very low repetitions (between one and six reps) and heavy weights – aim for 80 to 100 percent of your one-rep maximum (1RM) and three to five sets.
To train for building muscle mass, your program will work at a much higher rep level (around eight to 15 reps) using lighter weights of 65 to 85 percent of your 1RM.
- You’ll need to dedicate four to six days a week to weight training, performing between three and 10 sets per exercise.
- You should take only short recovery periods - of around 30 to 60 seconds between sets - in this type of training.
Working at a higher rep level causes maximum micro-trauma and blood flow into the muscles. The result of causing micro-trauma is that the muscles will be sore for a few days, but the flip side is that the body will adapt to the trauma by growing bigger and stronger.
It is best to concentrate on one or two muscle groups each day when building muscle. For example, try to focus on your chest and biceps, back and triceps, or legs and abs. Give a muscle group at least two days to recover before working it again. It’s important to understand that rest is just as important as the training itself, because if you don’t give your muscles time to grow and respond to your workouts, you will just go backwards.
Want Fast Results?
The exercises that build muscles faster are compound ones that use multiple muscle groups at once. These exercises use more than one joint at a time, meaning you get more of a workout per rep, boosting muscle fibre growth.
Examples of beneficial compound exercises are squats and deadlifts. Other effective compound exercises for the upper body include:
- Chin up – This exercise primarily trains your lats and biceps.
- Bench press – your pectorals, shoulders and triceps will get a great workout with this.
- Tricep dip – this will target the triceps and pectorals.
- Shoulder press - this targets the anterior deltoids (the front part of your shoulders) and your triceps, and will also use some of your back and chest muscles.
If you’re looking to provide a great pump to the upper body, add in some different styles of resistance training such as the following:
- Super sets are an advanced way to lift weights that involve doing two different exercises, one after the other, with no rest in between. They are an excellent way to add variety to your workout, as well as saving time.
- Compound sets are two exercises done back to back, working the same group of muscles. The advantage of this technique is working the same muscles from different angles.
- Drop sets are performed by exercising a muscle to failure and then simply dropping the weight and performing another set of the same exercise. This really works your muscles hard.
- Pyramid sets involve using a lighter weight for many reps, resting and then moving on to progressively heavier weights and performing fewer reps in turn until you’re doing only two or three reps at a heavy weight - so it’s as if you’re climbing a pyramid. You’ll then work back down the pyramid by choosing lighter and lighter weights, with more reps, until you do 12 or 15 sets at a much lighter weight. Working out this way provides variety and can really push you out of your comfort zone.
These sets are designed to get maximum blood flow to the muscles in a short period of time and stimulate growth, adding greater variety to your workout and further challenging your muscles and body.
Factors Affecting Building Muscle
For the majority of people it can be really hard to put on even a kilogram of lean muscle mass.
Having a lot of testosterone helps builds muscle mass, which is why men tend to put on muscle mass faster than women, why some men will gain muscle faster than their mates, and why women won’t bulk up to a massive extent without drugs – they simply don’t have enough testosterone.
Resting and eating properly will also affect your ability to build muscle.
If building muscle is your primary objective, don’t do long bouts of cardiovascular work as this can inhibit muscle growth. Instead, do cardio for shorter periods in the form of sprints on the bike, rower or treadmill, spliced into your weights sessions.
Some commonly used workouts that are a combination of strength and muscle building involve between eight and 12 reps and three sets at 70 to 85 percent of your 1RM. Pyramid sets are also useful here, as they allow you to push closer to your 1RM to improve your strength. Exercises used for this can include:
- Bench press
- Power clean
Additional exercises include:
- Dead lift
- Incline dumbbell press
- Dumbbell flys
- Chin ups
- Bent over rows
- Military press
- Dumbbell shoulder press
- Bicep curls with a barbell
- Overhead tricep extension
For optimal results, you’ll need a combination of exercises targeting different parts of the body, such as chest workouts, bicep workouts and leg workouts. And don’t forget to include some abdominal exercises.
The key to building muscles is good nutrition, so you’ll have to pay very close attention to what goes in your mouth.
Ensure you eat enough clean and lean protein, such as organic eggs, lean cuts of meat like kangaroo, chicken or beef, plenty of fish and/or vegetarian alternatives such as tofu.
Protein helps repair and rebuild muscle tissue that is broken down during exercise. It is the basic building material for muscle tissue, so you need to consume more protein than usual when strength training.
According to 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore, a good guideline for protein requirements is:
- 1.2g to 1.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 70kg, it’s suggested you eat 84g to 119g of protein a day.
Research has shown that consuming protein immediately after exercise enhances the muscles’ uptake and retention of amino acids and that the effect of post-exercise protein is best seen when the protein is combined with carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates stimulate an increase in the hormone insulin, which stimulates the muscles to take up amino acids. You should also try to keep your carb intake high enough to replenish muscle glycogen, which also means you’ll recover faster and be ready for your next workout.
Having a protein/carbohydrate snack after a workout is great for muscle repair and to provide fuel to muscles to restore glycogen levels.
As mentioned, including carbohydrates in your diet is really important so that your body has the correct amount of fuel to train hard day after day. Some great sources of carbohydrates include brown rice, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, and beans and legumes.
Carbohydrate intake should be increased to match your increase in activity. This will help maximise the outcomes of your training session and promote recovery between sessions. You will find that when your carbohydrate stores don’t meet the fuel needs of your training program you will experience fatigue, will be unable to train hard and will also lose weight, because your body will use protein as its fuel source. Studies by the Australian Institute of Sport report that you may also notice a reduction in immune system function.
Be careful not to overdo the carbs, though. Too many and you are likely to increase fatty weight gain. For a moderate exercise program of around an hour a day, Georgie recommends a carbohydrate intake of:
- 4g to 7g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 70kg, that’s 280g to 490g of carbs a day.
Benefits of Building Muscle
Building muscle will make you look good, and it helps your insides too! Numerous studies have come up with the following findings:
- Because your muscles are attached to your bones, resistance exercises improve bone density and strength. This can help prevent falls and breaks.
- Strong muscles use oxygen and nutrients from the blood much more efficiently than weak ones.
- Strong muscles better absorb sugar in the blood, helping your body stay sensitive to insulin.
- Strong muscles help with weight control, because having greater lean muscle mass increases your basal metabolic rate (ie: the number of calories you burn while at rest).
- Resistance exercises boost your metabolism, which can help to prevent or control health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
Points to Remember:
- Learn proper technique – if you’re new to weight training, work with a fitness professional to learn the correct technique. Even advanced weight lifters could do with a professional recap every now and then.
- Use the proper weight – be sure to match the weight to the exercise. Be mindful of the number of reps you’ll be completing and the amount of muscle fatigue you want to accomplish.
- Start slowly – if you’re a beginner, you may find you’re only able to lift a few kilograms at first. Stick with it. Once your muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt to weight training, you will notice a change.
- Take time to rest - to give your muscles time to recover, rest for at least two full days between exercising each specific muscle group.
The Importance of Rest and Recovery
A fundamental element in building muscle is getting plenty of rest, recovery and sleep. Your body will actually put on muscle when you rest! The amount of muscle you gain will depend on how hard you’ve trained.
Your body releases the majority of its growth hormone during long, deep sleeps (seven to eight hours). You will notice that when professional body builders are not training hard or monitoring their nutritional intake, they’re making sure they get enough rest and a lot of good-quality sleep.
Building muscle is about consistent practice combined with good nutrition, following good form and getting plenty of rest in between workouts. It’s that simple!