When it comes to building muscle, there are numerous theories, methods, and preferences. Whether the goal is improved health, aesthetics, performance, or a combination of all three, there is no shortage of advice to help you get there. So much so that it can sometimes become overly complicated and you forget about the basic facts. But, it’s simpler than it seems.
Getting stronger isn’t just about what takes place in the gym, though that’s a key component. How you tackle the rest of your day and night, including sleep, goes a long way to determining how or if you build muscle.
Here are the 15 most basic facts about muscle building from how to eat, train, live, and more.
1. It takes protein
Protein is vital to have with every meal because it builds and maintains muscles. Aim for one gram of protein per pound of body weight a day — less active people need less — and that should be spread out over five or six small meals.
Don’t go overboard, though. Excess protein, especially from animal sources, has been linked to kidney stones.
2. It takes carbs
Protein will only be used to build muscle if you consume enough carbohydrate calories to provide your body with energy. Otherwise, your body will tap into the protein for that fuel. Carbs provide energy for muscle function and act as the fuel for the brain. Go with minimally processed carbs such as veggies, steel-cut oats, and quinoa.
3. It requires frequent eating
Eating five or six small meals a day keeps your body’s metabolism firing. If you don’t eat often, the most readily available substance for the body to consume is muscle—not fat. The body is resistant to fat loss and will turn to attacking lean muscle first. Keep plenty of fuel in the tank so muscle is not consumed.
4. Sleep is key
It’s difficult to build muscle without adequate sleep—seven hours a night, preferably eight. Sleep is when most of your hormones, such as growth hormone and testosterone, are released, allowing your body to recover and grow. Without adequate sleep, you’re sabotaging your efforts to build muscle.
5. The foundation is important
Beach muscles and Olympic lifts draw more attention. But the many little stabilizer muscles around your shoulders, hips, and midsection — collectively the core — provide a strong foundation. Challenging the stability and mobility of these key muscles with medicine balls, physioballs, mini-bands, and rotational movements (lifting, chopping) pays huge dividends.
6. Routine is the enemy
Training at a consistent time of day is a great thing. But having a routine workout is not since the body quickly adapts. Constantly challenge yourself by adding different movements. When you do turn to a familiar exercise, aim for a personal best.
7. It’s about the rear view
Our sedentary, technology-based culture has produced a population of hunched over people with tight hips and bad backs from too much sitting. Building muscle effectively is difficult without a properly functioning set of glutes. By learning to move through the hips and activate and fire your glutes, you’ll be well on your way to moving properly and building muscle efficiently and with less risk of injury.
8. Women won’t get too ‘bulky’
Contrary to popular belief, women won’t get overly muscular unless they take steroids or other harmful supplements. Women lack the testosterone needed to put on that type of muscle.
9. Timing is important
At the end of your workout, your body is screaming for nutrients. The sooner you refuel the tank, the quicker your body will recover and your muscles will grow. One simple strategy is to place in your gym bag a post-workout recovery mix and a shaker bottle that you can mix immediately following the workout.
10. So is getting wet
Water sports such as swimming, surfing, and stand-up paddleboarding are great ways to build muscle. But however you train, drinking sufficient water is essential to building muscle. Drinking enough water before, during, and after exercise can increase performance up to 25 percent. Drink ½ to one ounce of water per pound of body weight per day to maintain hydration.
11. It’s not just about lifting
You can build muscle from carrying logs, flipping tires, hauling jugs of water, paddling, navigating monkey bars and countless other ways. The best muscle-building exercises are those that mimic everyday movements. They’re also more fun and prepare you for obstacle races, if you’re so inclined.
12. The more muscle involved, the better
Why spend your time on an isolated exercise like a bicep curl or leg extension when you can get much more benefit from movements that pull in more of the body? Think in terms of rotational, chopping, and swinging movements that provide much more range of motion.
13. It takes intensity
Smart phones produce dumb workouts. Don’t be the person in the gym playing with the phone for two minutes between sets. You’ll lose the focus and intensity required to build muscle. Better yet, don’t rest between sets. Superset with a pushing exercise, like a set of pushups followed immediately with a pulling exercise like a dumbbell row. You’ll produce better performance since the non-working muscles recover faster while their opposing muscles work.
14. It takes (active) rest
The body recovers and muscles grow on off days. Rest is a good strategy but active rest promotes recovery. Rolling on a foam roller provides deep compression to roll out muscle spasms that develop over time. This allows the muscles to relax and loosen, gets the blood flowing, and helps the body recover more quickly.
15. It’s never too late
We tend to lose muscle mass as we age, starting in our thirties and especially as we hit our fifties. That doesn’t mean we can’t slow down the process and retain what we have. Strength training is an effective way to retain mobility and independence into the latter years.