How to build muscle
LAST UPDATED: Sep 21, 2021
6 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
If you want to know how to build muscle, you need to understand that muscle is an adaptation. To pack on pounds of muscle, you have to challenge your body with tasks that demand more size and strength. For example, weightlifting and other forms of resistance training are tasks that require strength and muscle. But not all approaches are equal if you want to build muscle mass.
Also, lifting weights is just one part of the muscle-building equation. Your diet, use of supplements, and other factors matter if you’re trying to add muscle.
How to build muscle: the basics
Training and nutrition are the two essential ingredients in muscle hypertrophy (a.k.a., muscle building) (Andersen, 2005).
To add muscle, you have to challenge your body in ways that encourage it to add strength. You also have to give your body the nutrients it needs to synthesize (make) new muscle cells.
There are almost endless ways to combine different workout plans and diets if you want to add muscle. But research on bodybuilders suggests that a combination of resistance training and protein-rich diets may be optimal (Schoenfeld-a, 2018).
Resistance training builds muscle
A training program that involves weights or some other type of resistance (as opposed to cardio exercises, such as running) is the best way to build strength and muscle (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
Resistance training (also known as strength training or weight training) is a form of overload stimulus. That means it’s asking your muscles to handle loads that are greater than what they’re used to handling. This overload stimulus causes minor damage and new activity in the cells and fibers of your muscle tissues. Both this damage and activity can stimulate the growth of new sarcomeres, the microscopic structures that make up muscle (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
As you would expect, lifting weights with specific muscles leads to growth in those muscles. That means if you want to build muscle in your biceps, chest, thighs, or other parts of your body, you’ll want to pick resistance exercises that engage and challenge those muscle groups.
Resistance training exercises are usually broken down into sets and repetitions (reps). For example, if you curled a dumbbell or barbell eight times before taking a break, each one of those eight curls would be one “rep.” All eight reps together would be one “set” (Lopes, 2017).
Tips for proper resistance training
Again, there are countless ways that you could approach strength training. But some training methods are more likely to help you maximize muscle growth and healthy weight gain.
Train to failure
When lifting weights or completing other resistance exercises (such as pull-ups or push-ups), “failure” is the point at which you can no longer complete another rep using proper form.
Some research has found that each time you complete a set, training to failure may better stimulate muscle growth compared to stopping before you reach failure (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
Aim for moderate intensity
When you’re lifting weights, “intensity” refers to the number of reps you can complete before reaching muscle failure. Low intensity is usually defined as 1-5 reps, moderate intensity is 6-12 reps, and high intensity is anything above 12 reps.
Low- and moderate-intensity weightlifting promotes greater muscle gains than high-intensity weightlifting. Researchers haven’t yet nailed down which is best—low or moderate—but many believe aiming for moderate intensity is probably optimal. To increase intensity, you need to lift heavier weights (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
Increase your training volume
Training “volume” refers to the total number of sets and repetitions that you complete during a given period of time. For example, if you completed four sets of bicep curls—each of them 10 reps—this would be a higher volume than if you completed just two sets of 10 reps. Higher training volume is associated with greater muscle gains (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
You might think that you have to go to the gym or lift weights every day (or most days) if you want to maximize your muscle gains. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Research has found that if the total number of sets and repetitions you complete is the same—in other words, if your training volume is the same—it doesn’t matter if you’re training one day a week or over three days a week (Schoenfeld-a, 2018). In other words, if you go to the gym one day a week and train for four hours, spreading that workout over four days and four one-hour sessions won’t lead to greater muscle growth.
That said, the same study found that training more days a week often leads to a higher total volume of training, which would lead to increased muscle gains (Schoenfeld-a, 2018).
Switch things up
Your muscles are made up of different structures and “compartments.” Even slight changes to your workouts—for example, completing a bench press on a small incline, as opposed to flat on your back—can train different parts of your muscles.
Research has found that the more different types of exercises you complete, the greater the muscle gains. In other words, if you want to beef up your chest, you’re better off completing several different chest exercises—as opposed to completing more sets of a single chest exercise (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
The importance of rest
The breaks you take in between sets matter when it comes to muscle growth. Researchers have found that breaking for 1-2.5 minutes between sets—as opposed to shorter or longer rest intervals—may be optimal when it comes to adding muscle (Schoenfeld-b, 2010).
What to eat to gain muscle
The cells in your muscles are constantly turning over. That means old cells break down while new cells grow. This cycle is sometimes called protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis.
As you age, the balance of breakdown-to-growth tends to tilt in a way that increases muscle loss. If you want to add lean muscle, you have to replace the cells that are breaking down while also encouraging the growth of additional cells (Anderson, 2017).
The cells and tissues of your muscles are made up of amino acids. Your body can make some of these amino acids by itself. But others, known as “essential” amino acids, have to come from your diet (Wolfe, 2017). You need these building blocks if you want to add muscle.
Protein for muscle gain
Since proteins are chains of amino acids, protein-rich foods contain more amino acids than carbohydrate- or fat-rich foods. Animal-based foods (meat, fish, dairy, etc.) tend to contain all of the essential amino acids, while many plant foods do not. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are some exceptions to this rule (Mariotti, 2019).
If you want to add muscle, you need to eat protein. But how much? A lot of research has tried to answer this question. Some research has found that to maximize muscle growth and lean mass and limit body fat, you need to eat a minimum of 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day (1.6 g/kg/day). If you weigh 175 pounds, that works out to roughly 80 g of protein intake per day. On the other hand, you don’t want to eat more than 2.2 g/kg/day (Schoenfeld-c, 2018).
Some examples of protein-rich foods include (Bradlee, 2017):
Meats such as beef, lamb, and pork
Poultry (chicken breast, turkey)
Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
Legumes (beans and peanuts), soy, nuts, and seeds
Protein powders and supplements
Carbs and fats for muscle growth
When it comes to carbs, research on muscle building has found that you should aim to eat 4-7 g/kg/day of carbohydrate foods (Slater, 2019).
Some examples of carb-rich foods are fruits, vegetables, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, and whole-grain foods such as quinoa or brown rice (Englyst, 2007). The remaining 20-35% of your calories should come from fats (Slater, 2019).
Some examples of fats are olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish (such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines). Peanut butter, nut butters, and dairy products (such as cheese, milk, butter, and Greek yogurt) are also sources of fat, but the research is mixed regarding the health effects of these foods (Liu, 2017).
Supplements for building muscle
Supplements can help you hit your daily protein targets. There are thousands of supplements to choose from. Most have not been well studied—especially when it comes to their long-term health effects (Valenzuela, 2019).
On the other hand, research has shown that some are effective. Used in moderation, these can help you add muscle without major health risks (Iraki, 2019).
Whey protein, which is a complete source of essential amino acids. Research has linked whey protein shakes and supplementation to improved muscle and strength gains (Valenzuela, 2019).
Creatine, which acts as an energy source in skeletal muscle. Research suggests taking 3 g daily is enough to support bulking without undue health risks (Iraki, 2019).
Beta-alanine, which can support strength training for bodybuilders. Taking 3-5 g daily during training may help improve performance, and therefore gains (Iraki, 2019).
Citrulline malate, which supports strength training performance. Taking 8 g/day just before lifting may be beneficial (Iraki, 2019).
You can add muscle, but it will take some planning and effort. Training is the most important step toward a bigger, more muscular physique. But the foods and supplements you take can also help you build muscle.
Before embarking on a muscle-gaining exercise regimen and changing your diet or consumption of supplements, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider to ensure that no modifications to your routine are needed.
Andersen, L. L., Tufekovic, G., Zebis, M. K., Crameri, R. M., Verlaan, G., Kjaer, M., Suetta, C., Magnusson, P., & Aagaard, P. (2005). The effect of resistance training combined with timed ingestion of protein on muscle fiber size and muscle strength. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 54 (2), 151–156. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2004.07.012. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15690307/
Anderson, L. J., Liu, H., & Garcia, J. M. (2017). Sex Differences in Muscle Wasting. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 1043, 153–197. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-70178-3_9. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-70178-3_9
Bradlee, M. L., Mustafa, J., Singer, M. R., & Moore, L. L. (2017). High-Protein Foods and Physical Activity Protect Against Age-Related Muscle Loss and Functional Decline. The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 73 (1), 88–94. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glx070. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28549098/
Englyst, K. N., Liu, S., & Englyst, H. N. (2007). Nutritional characterization and measurement of dietary carbohydrates. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61 Suppl 1, S19–S39. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602937. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17992185/
Iraki, J., Fitschen, P., Espinar, S., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7 (7), 154. doi: 10.3390/sports7070154. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31247944/
Liu, A. G., Ford, N. A., Hu, F. B., Zelman, K. M., Mozaffarian, D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2017). A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition Journal, 16 (1). doi: 10.1186/s12937-017-0271-4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28854932/
Lopes, C. R., Aoki, M. S., Crisp, A. H., de Mattos, R. S., Lins, M. A., da Mota, G. R., et al. (2017). The Effect of Different Resistance Training Load Schemes on Strength and Body Composition in Trained Men. Journal of Human Kinetics, 58, 177-186. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0081. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548165/
Mariotti, F., & Gardner, C. D. (2019). Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets-A Review. Nutrients, 11 (11), 2661. doi: 10.3390/nu11112661. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893534/
Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., & Krieger, J. (Schoenfeld)-a. (2019). How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37 (11), 1286–1295. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30558493/
Schoenfeld B. J. (Schoenfeld)-b. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (10), 2857–2872. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20847704/
Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (Schoenfeld)-c. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15,
doi: 10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29497353/
Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6,
doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00131. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6710320/
Wolfe R. R. (2017). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14,
doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9. Retrieved from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9/