So your goal is to build muscle? The first step is you need to start resistance training. Resistance training is the only form of exercise that builds muscles. Another term for muscle growth that you might have heard of is hypertrophy. If your goal is to build muscle, then you will benefit from being in a caloric surplus. This is because tissue building is expensive and needs the nutrients and energy to repair and grow. Ideally this is done with a higher protein intake and carbs. The third step is not talked about enough but it should be, it’s a big step and that is recovery. What this doesn’t mean is doing absolutely nothing, what I mean by recovery is giving your body appropriate resources to adapt. This is with your nutrition, and also low intense movement like walking, mobility, foam rolling, etc. The movement should be just enough to provide extra blood flow to the muscles without stressing the body.
With resistance training there are a few mechanisms for hypertrophy, you get mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Mechanical tension is when you are lifting heavy weights, while metabolic stress is working with higher reps and getting the pump. Muscle damage is microscopic tears in the muscle fiber, this happens from a combination of the two. Now for most people who are looking to build muscle and want to improve health, a full body routine focusing on the main movement patterns is enough. What are movement patterns? Movement patterns are key movements that our body performs in daily activities. The body can do 6 movements: squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, and twist. You can put these movements together to perform certain activities like walking up and down stairs, climbing, running, crawling, etc. A quote from Gary Gray “If we train movement, muscles will never be forgotten. If we train muscles, movement is sure to be forgotten.” This is important to know because if you go into the gym and lift weights purely on muscle group, you could be strengthening an undesirable movement just to target a muscle. This could create dysfunctional movement, which increases your risk of injury overtime.
When we talk about resistance training, we have to talk about the sets, reps, and rest for the exercises. Technically every rep range will build muscle, but if you stick to a specific rep range for too long then your body can adapt. That is why you should periodize your reps every 4-6 weeks to provide your body a new stimulus. What this will look like is for 4 weeks you are training in a rep range of 12-15 reps. The next 4 weeks will be 4-6 reps and after that you can train in the middle of 8-10 reps. This will provide your body to adapt in each rep range and not plateau. You will want to pick a weight that is challenging but not so much you fail on the last rep. Ideally, you want to leave 2 reps in the tank for each set. This will allow you to maintain good form for each rep and be able to perform every set without fail. The rest is also an important variable that most people overlook. If you are wanting to build muscle, you are going to need to rest anywhere between a minute and 3 minutes. In that rest time you can hydrate, do some light mobility work and complete rest. This gives your body an adequate amount of time to replenish energy stores so you can perform your set. Lower rest times you are just doing cardio with weight, causing fatigue and putting you at risk of not being able to perform and increase risk of form breakdown.
We cannot talk about resistance training without speaking about progressive overload. Progressive overload is when you increase the demand on the musculoskeletal system that will result in an increase of strength, size, and endurance. You can progressively overload an exercise by multiple methods, you can: increase weight, increase reps, increase sets, increase time under tension, mess with rest time, increase range of motion, better form, change the center of mass. As you can see, there are many ways to progress with an exercise that is not just adding weight. If you want to see results, you have to progressive overload.
Recovery is just as important as the actual work in the gym. The training tears the muscle down, the recovery is what actually builds the muscle and adapt to the stresses from training. When I say recovery, I do not mean doing nothing the next day, that will actually slow down the recovery process. You still need movement that increases blood flow to the muscles, which help provide the nutrients and oxygen that the muscle needs to rebuild. So what should you do to help facilitate recovery? You would want to choose an activity that is low in stress for the body. Examples would be a mobility flow targeting the major joints, going for a walk, easy bike ride, hike, yard work. All of these activities are getting your body to move, heart rate to spike just a little but not stressing the body. It is meant to rejuvenate the body and get you to feel better.
When we speak about recovery, we have to talk about nutrition and sleep. When it comes to building muscle and nutrition you have to think about your protein intake and calorie intake. Building tissue is expensive for the body so you have to provide the extra nutrients and protein is the building blocks for muscle. Your body needs a certain amount of protein just to function, and extra in order for it to grow. So how much do you need to grow muscle? It kinda depends on the person, it could be anywhere between 0.7g-1.0g of protein per pound of bodyweight. You should definitely play with the amount of protein levels based on how you feel, for example, 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight might feel too much and hard to consume. Protein is important but you also have to be in a small caloric surplus of about 200-500 calories above maintenance. The extra calories will help provide the body the nutrients it needs to grow and fuel your body for your training.
Sleep has to be a priority, not just for your recovery but for your health. The majority of your recovery is done while you are sleeping, and without proper sleep the body will take longer to recover. This can hinder your performance in the gym making it harder to see results. Lack of sleep can also mess with your hormone profile, less testosterone, increased cortisol, etc. This will not just mess with your goals but also your health. Your behavior around food can also change when you lack sleep. The increase of cortisol in the body is due to stress, increased stress signals you to eat high carbohydrates and fats. This means the days you don’t sleep well your cravings for high carbs and fats increase making it harder on your body to see results.
Building muscle can take some time and plenty of hard work. Just like fat loss you need to be consistent with your training and nutrition to see results. With your training, be sure to progressively overload the body to keep challenging the body to adapt. Protein has to be a priority with your nutrition with a small surplus in calories over maintenance and staying hydrated. When you are not training you are in recovery so continue doing some form of low intensity activity like walking, mobility, etc. The goal of activity for recovery is to get your body moving to feel better, increase blood flow, and to keep moving. Do not undervalue the power of sleep, without proper sleep your recovery will be slower and your performance will also suffer, limiting your results.