When it comes to building muscle, there is a lot of misinformation out there. It seems every fitness website has its own theory about what it takes to build muscle, and they’re often incompatible with one another. To help you filter through the ever entangled web of good and bad workout advice, below are some facts the National Academy of Sports Medicine teaches all of its Certified Personal Trainers so their clients get the very best results as quickly and safely as possible.
- Muscles are 72% water. That should immediately communicate how important staying hydrated is if one of your goals is to build or maintain muscle mass.
- 1lb of muscle only contains 100 grams of protein. That should tell you how silly those 300g of protein a day diet plans are.
- Protein synthesis works on an all-or-none basis, meaning if the protein you’re consuming doesn’t contain the entire essential amino acid profile, synthesis won’t occur.
- There are 3 different muscle fibers to consider when muscle building: Type 1, Type 2a and Type 2x. Depending on if you’re training for muscular endurance, muscle size, or maximum strength, you will want to factor in training for these different muscle fibers.
- More volume does NOT equal more muscle gains. Ever heard the phrase 1 step forwards, 2 steps backwards? That’s what too much volume can do.
The Smart Approach
So how should you approach your muscle building training? Preferably with as much expert advice and guidance as possible, but for those creating their own workout programs and nutrition plans, here are some guidelines to follow.
Don’t focus too much on which day of the week to workout which muscle group. What’s most important is that you give each muscle group its due diligence, and its due rest. Whether you want to do one or two exercises for each muscle group every time you workout, or you’d rather commit each session to focusing one just one or two muscles, the important thing is to challenge yourself with every exercise, and allow the muscles you’ve work to rest for 2-3 days before working them again. Training each muscle group once a week will yield great results, but for those who are more advanced, rotating each muscle group behind the other with minimal days off and enough time for recovery will likely see faster progress. Keep in mind that nutrition, rest, and the level of conditioning in the muscles will play a key factor in one’s ability to sustain more intense training intervals.
Sets, Reps, Etc.
Before doing anything, do your warm-up. It’s very important to get blood circulating, your heart rate up, your core temperature up, and everything primed for a challenging workout. Once you’ve spent 5-10 minutes warming up, do some lightweight exercises for the muscle group you’re about to train. This will pump some extra blood into the muscles, loosen them up, and ready them for the work you’re about to put in.
Once your heart rate is up, your blood is pumping, and your muscles are warm, you’re ready to rock. Hit your compound exercise(s) first (the one that requires more of your body to perform). If you’re training for muscle endurance (smaller, leaner, more toned muscles), you will likely want to keep your reps high, and your sets low. This will target your Type 1 muscle fibers, which are smaller in size but higher performers when it comes to longer workouts. Aim for rep ranges of 15-30, and try to keep the rest period between those sets to only 30-60 seconds.
If you’re training for muscle mass, you’re going to be targeting your Type 2a muscle fibers, which are larger than Type 1, and better at making stronger contractions but for shorter durations. To stimulate growth, you’ll want to push these fibers to their limits, which has been scientifically shown to be around 8-12 reps with a weight or resistance that takes you to failure within that rep range. You’ll need to give yourself a good minute or two of rest after each set, but try to perform 3-4 sets, working until failure somewhere between 8-12 reps. If you are able to execute more than 12 reps at any point, increase the weight. If you’re unable to reach 8 reps, which may happen towards the final set, drop the weight so you’re able to fail within the 8-12 rep range.
For those focused on strength, you’ll also be targeting the larger Type 2 fibers, particularly the Type 2x. These produce the strongest contractions, but fail the fastest. Think 1 rep max. At the appropriate weight, you’ll only be able to execute a few reps at most, and you’ll need to rest for up to several minutes between sets, but try to perform 4-6 sets. Depending on the exercise and the weight you train with, you may want to perform extra warm-up sets prior to your working sets, gradually increasing the weight closer and closer to what your working weight will be.
Whatever muscle building goals you have, keep in mind that if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Your workouts need to be intense. If they’re not and all you’re doing is counting reps and barely breaking a sweat, you’re not stimulating change, you’re staying the same. Focus on what you’re working towards. Picture your muscles growing with every rep. Allow both the concentric and eccentric portions of every rep to stress the muscle fibers. Push yourself to the point of what you can’t do, so that one day you can.
Like it or not, but protein is the most crucial component in your diet for both building and maintaining muscle tissue. Basically everything in your body is built from protein; muscles, bones, organs, even your hair. When we don’t get enough protein to maintain normal biological processes, our bodies will turn to expendable tissue it can use to make up for what they’re lacking. What is usually first to go, is your muscle tissue.
The fitness industry can be an intimidating place, and the word protein can easily become synonymous with massive bodybuilders that resemble nothing like you or anyone you know will every look like. It’s important, however, to understand that protein does not equal giant muscles. Developing larger than average muscle mass requires a lot of time and dedication to a strict fitness regimen of heavy weight lifting, optimal diet, and most likely some supplementation (preferably legal). Protein is for everyone. Everyone needs it, and everyone eats it. When it comes to building muscle, we just have to come to terms with the fact that the amount of protein needed to do so is higher than when we’re not looking to grow.
Now that we can agree that protein isn’t a bad thing, let’s talk about how to structure your daily food intake. Without getting into meal timing or frequency, what you need to know are the recommended proportions of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. The healthy recommended range of protein intake a day is 10%-35% of your total calories (1 gram of protein contains 4 calories). Considering that we’re talking about building muscle, 25%-35% would be the recommended minimum (on a 2,000 calorie/day diet, that’d be 125g-175g of protein each day).
Fats are the next crucial nutrient unit you want to make sure you’re getting daily. 1 gram of fat actually contains 9 calories, versus the 4 you get from 1g of protein or carbohydrate, so it takes fewer grams of fat to get your recommended calorie percentage each day. The recommended healthy range for fat intake is 20%-35% (44g-78g/day on a 2,000 calorie/day diet). Fats perform some vital functions for our body, like lubricate joints, insulate organs, and provide energy, so don’t be scared of getting some healthy fats into your diet.
Carbohydrates are the final component of the nutrient profile. Our brains run off of carbohydrates, so they’re equally important to our overall food intake. Our muscles also store carbohydrates for later energy use, so our muscles can actually look more full if we regularly consume a healthy amount of carbs. There are recommended proportions for carbohydrate calorie consumption, but considering that a minimal amount of fats and proteins are necessary and everyone should have a daily caloric limit, you should only consume as many calories from carbs as you have left in your caloric budget.
Ideally, everyone should track how many grams of each nutrient in they consume each day, therefore informing them whether or not they met their protein goal and minimum fat intake without going over their calorie goal. Realistically, very few will have the discipline or even the ability to do this, so the majority of people should do their best to make sure a meat, dairy or egg product is part of each meal along with with a serving or two of starchy carbohydrates. Fats tend to naturally come into place in the diet, whether from the protein sources or the light use of oil during the cooking process, so it’s often unnecessary to force the fats into your diet.
Rest and Repeat
You’ve put in the work, you’ve fueled the growth with your diet, now you need to allow the body to regenerate. Getting a quality 6-8+ hours every night allows the body’s growth hormones to do their work and repair those tired muscles. Beginners will likely recover slower than those with more conditioning, but it’s good advice for anyone to wait at least 48 hours before hitting a muscle group again. It’s also good advice to make sure you hit that muscle group at least once a week. Rest, then repetition of all of the above is a guaranteed path to growth.