Aside from looking fantastic and boosting your confidence, having a well-developed, muscular physique provides other great health benefits – such as a faster metabolism, stronger bones, and better hormonal balance.
Unfortunately, many people struggle with building muscle because of poor scientific information. This often leads to discouragement as well as injury.
Don’t fret though, building muscle is simple as long as you follow a few, science-backed recommendations; like the ones found below.
1. Lift weights
To build muscle, you need to place enough stress on your muscles to force them to adapt; and lifting weights is the perfect solution. According to research, resistance training places your muscles under enough tension and plays a crucial role in muscle development.
While resistance training can be done with your bodyweight, it’s best completed with weights – especially if your goal is to build muscle. This is because weight lifting places your muscles under a high degree of stress, allowing for more micro tears in the muscle fibres.
Besides the muscle boosting benefits, lifting weights also makes you stronger, strengthens your immune system, builds stronger bones, protects your joints, and increases your anabolic hormone production.
2. Don’t lift too heavy, or too light
When you’re focusing on gaining muscle, you want the weight to be heavy, but not too heavy. Light weight won’t build muscle effectively, but lifting weight that is too heavy will focus more on building you strength and less on building mass.
According to a 2016 study, moderate loads are better for muscular hypertrophy (size) while heavier loads are better for muscular strength.
The best recommendation is as follows: make sure the weight is heavy and light enough to keep you in the 8-12 rep range. The weight should be light enough for you to get 8 reps but heavy enough to not allow you to go past 12 reps between each set.
3. Follow the principle of progressive overload
The human body is a marvellous piece of machinery, and excels at adaptation. It’s one of the main reasons we can live in so many different environments without issues. However, this is a big challenge for muscle growth since it means you need to consistently increase the weight to continue to see results. This is known as the progressive overload principle.
Each workout you should try and add a little more weight or a few more reps to each set. Even 1-2lbs is enough. While it seems inconsequential, over time this compounds into massive muscle and strength gains.
4. Increase your training volume
Low volume training is excellent for building muscle when you start out. However, once you’re an advanced lifter, increasing your volume is imperative to get past any plateaus. A 2019 study showed that higher training volume can generate more muscle hypertrophy than other forms of training.
You want to be wary not to use too much volume though, or you risk overtraining. The volume should be enough for you to make progress, but not to the point of injury. For example, if you usually do two sets of bicep curls, increase it to three sets, not five or six sets.
5. Focus on compound movements
Compound lifts are multi-joint movements, such as squats and bench press, that work multiple muscles and target the larger muscles in your body. Research from 2012 shows that these movements will give you the bulk of your muscle growth and should take up the vast majority of your workout regimen.
However, one study showed that untrained men showed a similar increase in strength from multi-joint movements as they did from single-joint movements.
If you’re a beginner it shouldn’t affect you much. If you’re an advanced lifter, it’s important that you place an emphasis on the big movements, such as barbell flat or incline bench press, barbell squats, and barbell deadlifts (all forms).
6. Eat a caloric surplus
Calories are the energy for our body, helping to determine how much weight we gain or lose. Eating more calories than you burn can cause you to gain weight. When you combine a slight caloric increase with weight lifting, the gains can be turned into muscle, and not a spare tire around your waist.
The key here is a slight caloric surplus, as research shows going too high in calories can add a layer of fat on you that will cover up your hard-earned muscle. 300-500 calories above your caloric maintenance is a good starting point to build muscle and avoid gaining fat.
7. Eat more protein
Protein is the building block of muscle, and you need to consume an adequate amount of it to maximize muscle growth and support recovery. This can be a struggle for many.
However, contrary to many popular belief, studies show that you only need 0.82 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for maximal muscle growth. This is around 150g for a 180 pound male.
8. Get adequate rest
Your muscles grow when they’re resting and recovering, not when they’re being worked. That’s why you must take plenty of days off to make sure your muscles are fully rested and recovered between lifts. This is why training too often will only hinder your progress in the gym.
Since muscle soreness can peak two days post-exercise, a good rule of thumb is to rest at least 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.
This is especially true if you’re a beginner. One meta-analysis showed that untrained individuals need more rest and shouldn’t train as intensely.
9. Sleep More
Sleep is the cornerstone of rest and recovery. Without adequate sleep (7-9 hours each night), your body will suffer, and it will be hard to pack on muscle.
One 2011 study discovered that people who slept only 5.5 hours per night had 60% less muscle mass than those who slept 8.5 hours.
Other studies show that sleep-deprived university students displayed a decrease in muscle strength.
10. Decrease the rest between sets
Research claims that when you’re training for strength you want your rest periods between 3-5 minutes between sets, but shortening your rest periods to 30-60 seconds is more effective for muscle size.
Since compound lifts work larger muscles, you should rest for a longer time. When you train your accessory muscles, like triceps and biceps, take shorter rest periods to maximize hypertrophy. For example, if you want to grow your chest and triceps, rest between 30-60 seconds on the barbell bench press between each set, but on cable triceps extension, rest for less than 30 seconds between sets.
11. Focus on eccentric lifting
There are 2 types of lifting patterns: eccentric and concentric. Eccentric lifting is when your muscles lengthen and concentric lifting is when your muscles shorten.
Studies show that eccentric lifting is an effective protocol to use to gain muscle, especially for the elderly and people with diseases. This is because it forces you to go slower on your lifts, so you have more control.
However, be careful when doing this style of lifting because it increases the likelihood of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
12. Practice intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting is the process of abstaining from calories for a certain period of time, ranging from 8 hours to 5 or more days. Fasting for 16 hours (including sleeping) has shown a plethora of health benefits including faster weight loss, increased energy, improved insulin resistance, and lowering your risk for diabetes.
Another powerful benefit of intermittent fasting is that it increases your circulating anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone. Both hormones help to build muscle and speed up recovery.
Although intermittent fasting has you go a timeframe without eating, those meals are larger and you can make your meals extra-large if you’re trying to pack on size and muscle. If you have difficulty consuming enough calories in a day, you may want to avoid intermittent fasting.
13. Stay consistent
Staying consistent and limiting how many days you skip will make all the difference in the world. In fact, some muscle building experts argue that it’s better to haphazardly do your workouts consistently than to do the best workout routine on and off.
A study published in Sports Medicine found that the biggest impact on women’s strength and muscle mass came down to their workout frequency.
14. Perform barbell movements
Barbell exercises include bench press, squats, and deadlifts and allow you to use much heavier weights than cables or dumbbells. This allows for greater gains in strength, muscle mass, and athleticism.
For example, you may be able to bench press 225 pounds with a 45-pound barbell and two 45 pound plates on each side of the bar. However, for you to be able to lift 225 pounds on the dumbbell bench press, you would need 112.5 pounds in each hand; which would be much more difficult and increase your chances of injury.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), barbell movements such as deadlifts are great at increasing your overall athletic performance.
15. Add healthy fats to your diet
Fats have a positive effect on your testosterone, and therefore can help increase your muscle mass.
Fats also contain 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbs only contain 4 calories per gram. This means that fats will make it easier for you to get into a caloric surplus, which is essential for muscle growth.
16. Eat whole foods
Whole foods are more nutrient-dense than processed foods, so they will contain more of what your body needs to function optimally and build muscle. Also, whole foods tend to contain more complex carbohydrates and protein to maximize muscle mass.
One study found that whole foods such as bananas were among the best for post-workout recovery compared to sports drinks and water. But a warning on eating too much fruit, even though it’s a natural sugar, sugar is still recognized as sugar in the body. Too much and any excess will get stored as fat.
17. Drink water
Drinking water is imperative to keep your body and muscles hydrated. When you sweat, you lose magnesium, potassium, and other important electrolytes that fuel your muscles and body. The more hydrated your body is, the better performance and recovery you’ll have in the gym.
Dehydration can also cause your muscles to lose volume, which can make them appear flat and small.
18. Train with a partner
Having a partner to train with gives you accountability to never miss a workout and will help motivate you in the gym. This will help you lift more weight and push yourself harder. Studies even show that a workout partner can help double workout performance.
Another benefit is being able to lift more weight since you know that your partner will be there to catch it if you fail.
19. Use proper form
Proper form is imperative for building muscle mass and preventing injury. Using bad form risks an unwanted injury that could potentially set you back for weeks or months and get rid of any progress you’ve made. Also, bad technique results in muscular imbalances throughout your body, which could further lead to an injury later down the road.
A 2015 study on elite fencers demonstrated that excessive lunging while fencing, which is considered poor technique, creates a muscular imbalance in the upper and lower body.
20. Slow down your lifting
Lifting heavier weights is one way to increase the stress on your muscles, but slowing down the rate at which you lift is another way to increase the time your muscles are under tension, and it’s great to get past any plateaus. If you don’t have access to heavy weight, this is an excellent tool to utilize.
One study showed that the time your muscle is under tension is important for maximal muscle growth, and a greater time under tension leads to an increase in protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is when protein is produced to repair damaged muscle tissue from exercise, and it’s an important process for muscle growth to take place.
Warming up is critical to preparing your muscles for your workout so that you don’t get injured. The best way to warm up is through dynamic stretching, followed by light weight before using heavier weight on big lifts. Dynamic stretching is moving while you warm up, for example, bodyweight squats before barbell squats.
Static stretching, which is a popular warm up method, can actually decrease your workout performance, which is why it’s not recommended. It’s best to save static stretching for the end of your workout.
22. Follow periodization
Periodization is a training principle that puts you through different training phases. For example, phase I could focus on power, phase II could focus on strength training, and phase III could focus on hypertrophy. Each phase is typically several weeks long and allows for a variety of movements, reps, sets, and workout protocols so that your body never adapts and keeps growing.
This muscle confusion principle is what the foundation of P90x was built on. Many meta-analyses have found periodized resistance training to be more effective for increasing muscular strength than non-periodized resistance training.
23. Avoid overtraining at all costs
Overtraining is caused by excessive exercise without adequate rest.
Although you may want to increase your training volume and pack on muscle, you need to be careful not to overdo it. Doing too much volume is harmful to your muscles, joints, tendons and overall progress.
24. Change up your workouts and rep schemes
It’s important that you periodically mix up the exercises you’re doing. Sticking to an exercise long enough allows your body to adapt and get comfortable. After about 4-6 weeks though, switching the exercises up will keep you progressing.
A 2014 article established that changing the exercises up is more effective than your loading scheme, which is your exercise intensity and volume. This prevents plateauing and targets other minor muscles you haven’t been hitting as much. This can be as simple as switching from a flat bench press to an incline bench press.
25. Track your progress
There’s a common saying that what gets measured gets managed. This is important in both life and the gym. Tracking your lifts is important so that you see how far you’ve come. You’ll also want to track other metrics like your weight, body fat, and some key tape measurements, like your waist, chest, arms, and legs.
These measurements will allow you to see your muscle and strength gains as well as fat loss. Thankfully, with today’s technology it’s easier than ever to track all of your workouts and keep track of your health metrics through an app. According to research, tracking your health data shows an increase in results.
26. Perform full-body workout routine
Full-body workouts will allow you to work your muscle groups more often than a split routine. This also saves you a lot of time in the gym because split routines have you in the gym 4-6 days a week.
Studies show that 36 hours after lifting your rate of protein synthesis is increased, which means you’ll gain more muscle during this timeframe. When you do full-body workouts, you can work out the same muscle group three days a week.
This means you’ll have protein synthesis spikes three times a week for your entire body, whereas when you do split routines, you’re only increasing your protein synthesis 1-2 times a week per muscle group. Furthermore, another study found that those who did full-body workouts lost more body fat than those who did a split routine.
Full-body workouts allow your body adequate recovery because it’s recommended you take at least one day off between workouts to allow your body to fully rest and recover. With split routines, you have to work out multiple days in a row, or you won’t be able to work all of your muscles each week. For most people, this isn’t enough time to rest.
27. Work the big muscle groups first
It’s important that you work your largest muscles first and your smallest muscles last, as this allows for the greatest muscle damage and anabolic hormone release.
Also, compound movements, which are the exercises you should do mainly, work your smaller muscles as secondary muscles. When you work your smaller muscles first, you risk exhausting them which can hinder your performance with big compound movements.
Happy muscle building!