So, you want to build some muscle, huh? Great! But, what do you need to do to make those biceps pop? Let’s break down some key muscle building tactics that are proven to work.
Disclaimer: Ladies, gaining muscle will not make you bulky. The only way you’ll get bulky is if you want to get bulky. Check out an article I wrote about why women should lift weights here.
To be clear, before you start reading the article know that there is nothing quick or easy about building muscle. There is no magic pill contrary to what late night infomercials want us to believe.
Have you ever thought about what body type you have? This can be key when writing programs but especially when looking at caloric intake and prescription. All the different body types build muscle in the same ways, the difference lies in how long it takes to do it.
Ectomorph: Typically long and lean(ish), often called “lanky”. When you hear someone refer to themselves or someone else as a “hard gainer” they are probably talking about an ectomorph. Characterized by thin arms and legs and can sometimes be referred to as “skinny fat” because while they are thin they normally don’t have tons of muscle either which can lead to the little belly pooch.
Mesomorph: Characterized by having the most lean mass of the 3 body types. We all have that friend that can eat whatever they want when they want and still have magazine worthy abs. I’m not saying I hate mesomorphs — but I kind of hate mesomorphs. I know you feel me, unless you’re blessed to be one.
Endomorph: Endomorphs tend to be the heaviest of the 3 body types, at least when it comes to fat mass. Fat loss tends to be more difficult for endomorphs compared to the others. All is not lost, though. Endomorphs while having large amounts of fat also tend to have a good amount of muscle too. This means that a successful fat loss diet (caloric deficit while keeping protein high) can help show off that muscle that you’ve had all along.
OK, we’ve established your body type. Here are 4 of the things you must do to gain muscle:
1. Be Patient. Being patient sounds simple, but for many of us patience wasn’t a natural gift. I know dang well I struggle with patience, probably worse than anyone I know. So if you struggle with it too, I feel you!
Like anything that is worth it and done correctly, building muscle take time and a heck of a lot of effort. How to gain it may be simple — but the plan in action can be quite another animal. Most research says muscle gain can happen at a pace of about 1-3lbs/month and slows down as your training age increases (i.e. how long you’ve been working out consistently). If you’re gaining more than 3lbs/month it would behoove you to keep a solid grasp on your body fat percentage and not just assume that an increase in scale weight means lean body mass.
Depending on your body type, training history, intensity, nutrition discipline gaining 15lbs of muscle can take 5-15 months. That’s probably not what you want to hear, and that’s okay. I’m not one to sugar coat something just to make you feel better. I’d rather you come to grips with the truth now than believe something completely wrong and be disappointed and quit.
2. Get Sufficient Protein. Does this mean you need to buy a dog food size bag of protein? Uh, no. Is protein powder the devil? Also no.
What I mean is that if you’re getting sufficient protein from plant and animal sources protein powder may not be necessary and you can save your money. However, protein powder is handy so it doesn’t hurt to have some hiding in the pantry. Protein is the primary building block for muscle. Without it, all the hard work in the gym isn’t going to matter. Feed those muscles the protein they need and they will grow. And growth is good, y’all.
How much protein you say? That depends. Everyone is different, just like one workout shouldn’t be considered one size fits all, protein recommendations (or diet recommendations period) shouldn’t be met with a blanket standardized answer.
What we know is this: the RDA recommendation of .8g/kg of bodyweight is typically a trash recommendation when talking about active people, especially those trying to gain muscle. What we also know: the BroScience recommendation of 2-3g/lb of bodyweight is also trash.
Where does that leave us? Just so you don’t leave here without any clue as to protein consumption I’ll give you a range that has worked well for my clients. I’m aware I just talked all kinds of trash about blanket recommendations but this blanket is pretty good and cuddly in my experience. Cool? Here’s the best blanket I have; aim to consume between .8-1.2g/lb of bodyweight in complete proteins per day.
3. Train for Change. “But what do you mean by this, Chris? I go to the gym every day and hit it hard for 2 hours. I am training for change.” –Guy who has been trying to gain muscle for 3 years but looks the same.
That “guy” is hypothetical, but I have had many conversations like that. Maybe not that exaggerated but close. When training to build muscle (hypertrophy training) it is important to structure your workouts to fit that goal. If you have been doing bodyweight metabolic finishers as your workouts and want to gain muscle, it should be no surprise that progress is not present or at a snail’s pace at best.
Training needs to be optimized not only for hypertrophy, but for your specific needs as well. The workouts you do have to be difficult enough to illicit change. This doesn’t mean that you must feel like you were hit by a MAC truck after every workout but it does probably mean you will be sore.
Again, everyone is different and will respond in different ways to training but below is an example of rep ranges that have been proven to best to build muscle. It’s important to note, though, that training for muscle gains/hypertrophy is not the same thing as training for max strength. Can you train heavy while also training to gain muscle? Yes. Will busting out 3-5 rep maxes on every lift lead to significant muscle growth compared to traditional hypertrophy based programs? No.
Notice that there is only one line devoted to hypertrophy. For most, these rep ranges will be sufficient for muscle gain. But, I like to have 1-2 “main moves” in my programs that call for you to go a little heavier and do less reps. Rest times for the lower reps will be a little longer (60-75sec) and rest times for the hypertrophy range will be anywhere from 45-60sec depending on your fatigue level.
4. Make Recovery a Priority. This is from an article I wrote last year that was specifically about recovery. You can read the full article here.
Here is a list of some components of recovery/regeneration:
- Sleep– shoot for 6-8 hours every night, preferably around the same time with the same wake time, and for max performance try to get to bed earlier than midnight. As if you need another reason to get more sleep (who doesn’t love sleep, anyway?) research suggests that sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol — which can lead to excess fat retention especially in the midsection. Lack of sleep also leads to fatigue, slower recovery, low energy, poor focus etc.
- Nutrition– think of food being the fuel you need to hit the gym and grab all of the gainZ — let me know if you want a free resource I have called “nutrition for athletes”, don’t let the name catch you off guard. Everyone is an athlete in their own regard and this eBook has a TON of valuable information… oh and its FREE! If you want a copy just let me know
- Mental Unloading– can be in the form of meditation, visualization, breathing techniques etc. — Check out this excerpt from an article on MedicalDaily.com, “Perhaps one of the most fascinating studies published on meditation is one from several years ago — but one that is good to keep in mind if you’re interested in mental health and brain plasticity. The study, led by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), found that meditating for only 8 weeks significantly changed the brain’s grey matter — a major part of the central nervous system that is associated with processing information, as well as providing nutrients and energy to neurons. This is why, the authors believe, that meditation has shown evidence in improving memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress relief.”
- Massage– self massage (foam rolling, lacrosse ball, massage stick etc), see a professional masseuse. — there are many types of massage you can get, here are a few that are worth checking out; Swedish massage, deep massage, sports massage, trigger point massage. Here are a few of the many possible benefits of massage that the Mayo Clinic has listed on their website: Anxiety, Digestive disorders, Fibromyalgia, Headaches, Insomnia related to stress, Myofascial pain syndrome, Soft tissue strains or injuries, Sports injuries, Temporomandibular joint pain
- Stretching– static (long holds), dynamic stretching (active, short or minimal hold) — be on the lookout VERYsoon for a video demonstrating the movement prep movements I put my athletes/online coaching clients through before our sessions.
- Hydrotherapy– ice bath/cold plunge, contrast shower, contrast hydrotherapy
- Active Rest– low impact aerobic activity, general movement, not structured, should be enjoyable and not feel like “work”
Recovery/Regeneration should get as much attention as your workout program itself. I mean seriously, why would you want to tear yourself down in the gym Every.Single.Day with no break anyway? That’s not what I signed up for when I started my fitness journey and I am sure it’s not what you signed up for either.
It’s time to put this 4-piece puzzle together and start on the road to the body you want. It won’t be fast, it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
Until next week, team!