How to build muscle is the question that most of you have often googled. Everyone would love to build that lean and muscular physique they see in the fitness magazines or in films. But gaining muscle isn’t always easy – particularly if you’re a classic ‘hardgainer’.
How to build muscle in 10 easy-to-follow steps
Even skinny guys need to start somewhere, so making sure you’ve got the muscle-building fundamentals in place is vital to making progress towards your muscle building goals. These 10 simple strength training commandments from Ultimate Performance will set you on the way to mountains of new muscle mass if you follow them consistently to the letter.
1. Create your plan
Your goal is to maximize your muscle. But a goal without a clear and structure plan is doomed to end in failure.
So with your goal of how to build muscle in mind, now you need a step by step plan that will incrementally progress you towards that goal.
Turning up at the gym every day and just doing random activities is not the right way to approach hypertrophy.
It’s all too common to see someone one day do boxing, another day do swimming, then the following day doing sit-ups and bench press, then wonder after weeks and weeks why they’re not building any tangible muscle.
You need a logical diet and training plan that will support your muscle building goal and ensure that you’re constantly building strength and muscle consistently week to week.
Don’t waste your time with a random and scattergun approach in the gym, make a specific plan.
Plan your diet, your meals, your daily calorie need and your macronutrient balance for optimum muscle.
Then plan your training programme to ensure you’re getting stronger on specific exercises.
2. Get lean
If you want to know how to build muscle optimally, it helps to get as lean as possible first.
Every one of our clients at Ultimate Performance will go through a cut to get lean before we begin any ‘bulking’ phase.
We can begin adding some quality lean muscle once we get them leaner – anywhere from 12 per cent to 14 per cent body fat, but ideally under 10 per cent.
The biggest benefit of leaning up before any muscle building phase is that your cells become much more insulin sensitive and your body is much more receptive to an increase in carbohydrates.
Conversely, the more body fat you are carrying, the less receptive your cells are likely to be to carbohydrate intake and the more likely you will be to store body fat.
3. Always think quality before quantity
If we’re talking about ‘adding size’, we are talking specifically about quality lean muscle as opposed to just piles of body fat on top of muscle.
The benefits are few in the out-dated ‘dirty bulk’ from the old days of bodybuilding which meant eating huge amount of calories from less-than-optimal sources like chocolate, ice cream and chips.
Instead of helping build lean muscle, this is a recipe for rapid fat gain which will not help us in the long run.
If you’re following this bulking method, it will likely result in a lower strength-to-bodyweight ratio where increasing strength will help increase muscle mass. It also leans to lower testosterone levels (an anabolic hormone) and will also lead to higher insulin resistance, which will then make it much more difficult to get leaner in the future.
When thinking about the calories you consume, it’s important to bear in mind that not all calories are created equal.
It’s evident that 500 calories from lean meat and green vegetables will have a very different effect on body composition than eating 500 calories from pizza and ice cream.
While it’s true that we need to increase calories to gain muscle, these calories should be coming from optimal sources – lean protein, healthy fats, and low glycemic load carbs and vegetables – not just empty calories from junk food which will quickly add fat rather than lean muscle.
4. Track your progress
If there’s one thing that will help you see measurable progress towards your muscle building goals, it’s this.
However, it’s something that so many people asking how to build muscle never do – so they don’t get the results they are aiming for.
Tracking key performance and progress markers week to week will ensure you’re heading in the right direction towards your goal.
Tracking provides you with the information you need to show whether what you’re doing in both the gym and the kitchen is working or whether adjustments need to be made rather than just hitting and hoping.
The more things you track across performance, diet and your own body, the clearer the picture you will be able to build – and there’s nothing more satisfying and motivating than seeing you’re making gains in black and white.
What should you track then?
- Body fat measurements
- Morning bodyweight (before you eat)
- Sleep quality and duration
- Daily calorie total
- Macronutrients: Protein, Fats and Carbs (in grams)
- Water Intake
What about tracking training? Keep a training log on…
- Training Frequency
- Training Volume
- Rate of perceived exertion (intensity level – how hard you feel your body is working)
- Daily activity levels
- Take weekly progress photos (front, back and side)
5. Eat more calories
If you’re one of those people who struggle to add any real muscle, there could be one factor staring you right in the face.
It could be that you’re not consuming anywhere near the calories needed to make your muscles grow.
The answer is to slowly up your daily calorie intake and see how your body responds. It’s always good to start small – try adding between 50-100 calories each day and measure the results.
If muscle building is your goal, it’s very important that you up your calories in a consistent and progressive manner to get the results you want.
It sounds obvious, but so many people who struggle to put on any real size are likely not eating anywhere near the amount of calories their bodies need to gain muscle.
What’s the answer? Try and consume a small surplus of calories each day over what your body needs – between 50-100 calories each day works well at first, then take it from there.
If you want to build muscle, it’s vital that you consistently and progressively increase calories over time to get the right results.
Protein is a key macronutrient that supports the growth of muscle tissue – and often many men aren’t getting enough in their daily diet.
For most men, anywhere between 1-2g of protein per pound of bodyweight is a good target to aim for.
Carbs too are a key essential to include in your diet if you’re chasing down more muscle.
However, your body must be primed to utilize these carbs effectively – this is why
getting lean and becoming more insulin sensitive before a muscle building phase is vital.
The best sources of carbs to eat are things like sweet potatoes, rice, oats and fruit – avoiding processed carbs and carbs with a high glycemic load.
Healthy fats should also be part of a muscle building diet – they’re necessary for
hormone production, cell membrane health, fat soluble vitamin absorption and the health of various body tissues and immunity, which we need to add muscle mass.
Sources including avocado, nuts, oily fish, coconut oil, grass-fed ghee and eggs all support testosterone production.
It’s also worth noting that fat contains nine calories for every gram compared with just four calories per gram for carbs and protein. This makes healthy fats a useful tool in the dieting arsenal when trying to increase hypertrophy.
6. How to build muscle by training harder
Are you training hard enough to build the muscle you want?
This is a question everyone should ask themselves if muscle growth is the goal.
It’s often the case that people simply aren’t pushing themselves hard enough in the gym to get the results they want.
Simply turning up, going through the motions and doing the same as you did last week and the week before won’t force your body to grow.
Training with 100% commitment, intensity, focus and drive every single session until you have nothing left in the tank is what’s required.
Don’t leave anything on the gym floor when you train. But equally don’t confuse ‘training often’ with ‘training hard’.
Training two hours a day every single day won’t do you any favours – and actually, with the right programme and training intensity, we get results at Ultimate Performance with as little as three hours a week in the gym.
One thing you should never compromise on when training for muscle is technique.
Executing exercises with the proper form an ensuring that you’re working the muscle correctly will help you make every single rep count.
You won’t get anywhere if you’re simply going to the gym and mindlessly throwing weights without perfecting form, optimizing tempo and contracting the right muscles.
How do you know if your technique needs work? Well, if you cannot properly feel the muscle working that you’re intending to train, your technique will probably need some attention.
The bottom line is that correct technique will enable you to get the most out of every rep. If you’re perfecting every rep and challenging your body progressively, you will get stronger and build more muscle.
8. The principle of progressive overload
This is a fundamental of every muscle building programme.
The principle of ‘progressive overload’ refers to the gradual increase in frequency, volume or intensity session to session to keep stimulating and challenging the body to grow.
Your body needs fresh stimuli to adapt and grow. That can mean more reps, more sets, more weight lifted or more intensity to keep challenging the body.
Muscles grow in response to training stimulus when the demands placed on it are increased over time.
Keep doing what you’ve always done in the gym, and your body will quickly adapt to it. Always challenge your body to do more.
9. Compound vs Isolation Exercises
If you want to know how to build muscle, know that the right exercises to perform are crucial.
As we explained in the progressive overload section, to force your body to grow and develop, it needs to be put under stress in the gym.
Big multi-joint ‘compound’ exercises are the best method to do this – you will get far more bang for your buck with a big lift hitting multiple muscles than you will isolating a small muscle like the biceps.
Exercises including squats, deadlifts, split squats and lunges, chin-ups, dips, and chest and shoulder presses are much more effective when it comes to muscle building than exercises like triceps extensions or calf raises.
This isn’t to rubbish isolation exercises – they should have a place in your training programme – but build your programme around big exercises which test the body and will help you get stronger, faster.
10. Sleep quality and quantity are key
Sleep is a necessity for optimal health for everyone. But if you’re wondering how to build muscle, it becomes even more important.
Yet sleep is often the first thing many of us sacrifice for our work or social life – but it has a huge effect on muscle building, body composition, recovery and general health.
You should aim for between 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night if you’re chasing down more muscle.
Why? A lack of sleep can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol and when chronically elevated, this will lower your levels of testosterone.
You also produce peak levels of growth hormone while you sleep which helps in the repair and recovery of your muscles.