“How do I build muscle?”
“I want to get stronger, but I don’t know what to do”
“I’ve been lifting for a while but I’m no closer to the body I want”
These are some of the more popular questions and statements I’ve been asked over the years. With the never-ending onslaught of fitness information in the media today, it’s really easy to get confused on what to do and what works.
Fortunately, building muscle and getting fit aren’t as complicated as you might think. If you find yourself working hard in the gym, wondering “how do I build muscle?” but not seeing the progress you want, you’re going to want to keep reading…
The first thought that comes to mind when dealing with slow progress is usually “I need to do more!”
More workouts, more exercises, more time in the gym.
While it is common to think more is better, you’d be surprised by the results you can get with only a few focused hours in the gym a few days a week.
That’s right, you don’t need to train for 2+ hours at a time and workout every day to be strong and fit.
More time does not equal better results.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against anyone’s desire to spend more time doing what makes you happy. If you have the time to spend, go for it! I think there would be a lot more happy people out there if they knew the benefits and had an interest in resistance training.
We all have lives and other things that take priority. Work, family time, school, and other hobbies and interests. My goal is to help you get the most from the time you’re currently spending so that you get all the benefits of training without taking time away from other areas of your life.
Before you add more days in the gym, more time to your workouts, or more exercises, get the most mileage from what you’re already doing.
The following four points make up the foundation of a successful training program. If you find yourself asking “how do I build muscle” and you’re not doing these, it’s time to start!
1. Train hard, but train smart too.
Train consistently and challenge yourself to do a little more each time you hit the gym. Use more weight, perform more sets, and get more good reps. Be smart about it, though. Everyone loves the feel of a great muscle pump, but this isn’t always the best indicator of progress or quality workouts.
Don’t obsess over the pump, how much you’re able to sweat, or how hard it is to get down the stairs after a workout. Get obsessed with making progress in areas that matter!
- Record your workouts to keep track of your progress
- Make small increases in weight each session
- Good muscle contractions on all reps
- Develop and always use good lifting technique
- Do more sets and reps
Paying attention to these along with your appearance in the mirror are better judges of your progress than how sore or pumped you are after training.
2.Use the best exercises for the job
Gaining a noticeable amount of muscle doesn’t happen randomly, and hitting the gym for a few sets of your favorite exercises isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Taking the “to do” list from above and applying it to the right exercises is the answer to the “how do I build muscle” question
The best place to start is to spend more time on exercises that have the most impact on building muscle. This means rows, vertical or horizontal presses, squats, lunges, and other multi-joint exercises.
Each of these exercises has several variations too. You don’t need to do them all in each session, but make sure to rotate new exercises and movements into your program every few weeks. This gives your muscles something new to adapt to and keeps the program from getting too repetitive.
3. Don’t skip your warm up!
Maybe you’ve been training for a while but are unsatisfied with your progress so far. Instead of adding more sets, reps, and training longer or more often, organize your workouts to maximize your time and effort.
As mentioned above, you want to give priority to multi-joint exercises early in your sessions. But before you jump straight to your working weight for the day, start with some warm up exercises and sets to get your joints and muscles ready for the stress you’re about to put them through.
Think of your warm up as preparation to get your body ready to work, and an opportunity to work on your technique. Good form and quality reps that carry over to the “meat” of your training session reduce the likelihood of injury and lead to better performance and overall results.
Take a second and think of the first exercise you did from a recent workout…
Ever notice how your first set feels a little rough, second set feels better, and the third feels great? This is because your body is finally ready to work after the first two sets. Consider the first two sets a warm up. Don’t stop here just because you’ve completed 3 sets, this is where your workout begins!
To explain how this works in the gym, here are two examples of a bench press workout:
In this example, there’s barely an opportunity to get warm before moving on to other exercises. There’s maybe one good set, and 28 reps total, but there’s a lot left on the table here!
Compare that to the workout below:
Here you have two dedicated warm up sets building to four work sets at a target weight for the day. More weight is used, more work is performed, and this doesn’t include the warm up sets. 32 reps for the working sets alone compared to 28 for the entire workout in the first example. This is where the magic happens, and this is what you want to aim for in all your training sessions!
From a lifting standpoint, the previous 2 sections answer the question how do I build muscle in the gym. If you did nothing else but apply these ideas to your training, it is all but guaranteed that you’d eventually see better progress.
Then next two sections explain what you need to do outside of the gym.
3. Eat Well
Most of the time when someone asks me “how do I build muscle?”, they want to know what the best supplements are. More often than not they find my response a disappointment.
Supplements help, but good nutrition is the foundation of a successful training program no matter the goal. It provides the nutrients needed to build a better physique, energy to sustain a high level of physical performance, and can be changed to create a caloric deficit for fat loss.
When building muscle, the goal is to create an environment where muscle protein synthesis is greater than protein breakdown. As the saying goes, you must eat if you want to grow.
Consistent meals and an adequate intake of dietary protein help improve muscle protein synthesis. Your protein needs are based on your current body weight, but according to a research summary by examine.com, somewhere between 1.4-3.3g/kg is a good place to start.
It’s more than simply eating enough protein though. Keep an eye on the big picture: carbs, fats, and total caloric intake . Most of your intake should come from real food. Supplements come in handy for getting enough protein, eating on the go, and assisting the muscle building process. They aren’t a replacement for real food, so make sure you eat!
Aside from getting enough protein, carbs, and fats, make sure you stay hydrated
Water plays an important role in the muscle building process. Hydration is often overlooked but it has a big impact on your ability to train at your best.
If that wasn’t enough, it can take 24 hours or longer to recover from a dehydrated state. This means one day of slight dehydration can negatively impact your workouts for several days  .
There is also evidence that dehydration may contribute to increased risk of injury.
Bottom line: your workouts will suffer and you’ll see less progress if you aren’t drinking enough water.
With a few simple steps, you can stay hydrated and steer clear of the negative effects of dehydration:
- Drink regularly throughout the day before training and before you get thirsty.
- Continue drinking while exercising.
- After training, continue consuming fluids to replace what was lost during exercise.
As far as how much water you should drink in a day, there’s no exact rule.
Your needs may change depending on factors like temperature, humidity, activity level, and how much you sweat. The best thing to do is pick a starting point (half gallon, for example), see how you respond, and adjust your intake as needed.
4. Rest & recover
Fitness recovery is a hot topic right now. There are tons of equipment and accessories available to give you a performance edge in your workouts, and even specialized businesses are offering services meant to help you recover faster so you can keep training.
You spend significantly more time out of the gym than you do training, so what you’re doing outside the gym matters.
You can only grow bigger, better, faster, and stronger if you’re able to recover from the stress of training.
As mentioned above, nutrition and hydration are important for performance and recovery. Getting plenty of sleep so you’re well rested and stress management are the other parts of a successful recovery plan. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, stay hydrated, well fed, and find activities you enjoy to help clear your mind so you’re not stressed out all the time.
Getting results and the body you desire doesn’t have to be complicated. By paying attention to the areas mentioned here and the right combination of hard work, patience, persistence, and smarts you can have all the success you want and more.
1.Dan Benardot. “Chapter 1: Energy Nutrients.” Advanced Sports Nutrition, 2nd ed., Human Kinetics, 2012.
2.Dan Benardot. “Chapter 3: Fluids and Electrolytes.” Advanced Sports Nutrition, 2nd ed., Human Kinetics, 2012.