So you want to build some muscle. That’s fantastic! You’re about to join the ranks of men and women who, since the beginning of time, have sought to strengthen their bodies through consistent hard work and discipline.
Even for someone who knows their way around the gym, building muscle can be pretty confusing, especially with all the information out there. No worries, we’re here to help.
Building muscle efficiently requires a holistic or all-around approach. Performing strength training exercises is central to that approach, but it’s not the only piece.
You also have to pay serious attention to your nutrition and supplementation and give your body enough time to rest and recover. But remember: a lot of it is also a mind game, so motivation and discipline are equally critical.
Building muscle offers lots of benefits beyond just improved aesthetics. You’ll also reduce your likelihood of injury, as well as fight off diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and so much more. Some researchers have gone as far as to say that strength training is itself a form of medicine!
That’s why we’ve prepared this ultimate muscle building guide to help you out! In this ultimate muscle building guide, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know in these four areas:
By the end of the article, you’ll have everything you need to know about starting your muscle-building journey.
Let’s get started.
You can’t build muscle without strength training. For most people, in fact, the actual training is probably one of the most fun parts of building muscle in the first place!
In this part of the guide, we’ll dive into:
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Make no mistake about it: there is plenty of science going on when it comes to muscle building.
Still, not all of it is good. You have actual science (like biology), and you have the unsubstantiated ‘bro science’ that you learn from other people around the gym. Of course, it’s always best to stick to the real stuff.
There’s so much science in muscle building, in fact, that you could write whole books about it. But to get started, there’s only one scientific concept you need to know, and that’s ‘hypertrophy’.
Hypertrophy refers to making the tissues in your body bigger by increasing the size of individual cells. And how do you do that when building muscle? You gradually overload and create micro-tears in your muscles through training.
As a result, your muscles will recover stronger and larger than they were before!
So, the bottom line is simple: if you want to build muscle, your purpose is to achieve muscle hypertrophy to make them bigger and stronger every day. How do you do that? Through progressive overload.
Progressive overload is one of those fundamental concepts you’ll want to understand because it applies to pretty much all aspects of strength training.
Let’s say you were to walk into the gym right now and pick up the biggest, heaviest weight you could find. Firstly, you’d probably not be able to get it off the ground. Second, you might even end up hurting yourself if you keep trying too hard. The reason for this is simple: building strong muscles doesn’t happen instantaneously.
Instead, it happens gradually over time. That’s where progressive overload comes into play. To build muscle, whether for size or strength, you have to constantly push your muscles’ limits, but only a bit more than before at a time.
Today, you might only be able to lift a five-pound dumbbell, and that’s alright. But the more you lift it, the easier it’ll get. That’s when you progress to something a bit heavier, like a six-pound dumbbell, for example. Over time, you’ll repeat this process until you’re strong enough to lift a weight you never could lift before.
At this point, it’s already clear that you want to build more muscle. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this guide! Still, there’s one more important distinction that you need to make. Ask yourself which one is more important to you: to build stronger muscles or to build larger muscles?
There are no right or wrong answers here. No matter which one you choose, you’ll still need to lift heavy weights to train your body. However, your priority will require you to train just a little differently depending on whether you’re doing it primarily for strength or size (also referred to as ‘mass’).
Let’s consider two examples. Suppose you’re a firefighter who needs strong muscles to lift heavy equipment around or to carry other people out from burning buildings. Your priority is probably strength more than size because you need strong muscles to do your job well.
However, if you’re interested in becoming a bodybuilder, then your priority might be size first and strength second. You want to be the biggest guy on stage or in the locker room, and that’s awesome!
But how will any of this affect your strength training? Well, as you might know, strength exercises are performed in repetitions (or ‘reps’) bunched together in sets. Even though you’re performing the same exercise, the way you do so will depend on your goal.
Generally, the difference is:
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Now, let’s talk about the fun stuff: strength training exercises. Along your strength training journey, you’ll discover that there is a virtually endless list of exercises that you could use to strengthen various muscles all over your body.
To make things easier, you can categorise those exercises into the following:
Here’s something important to remember: you don’t necessarily need expensive equipment to strengthen your muscles. You can start simple with bodyweight versions of those exercises right in your own bedroom.
If you have access to a gym, you’ll then have the added options of using weights or machines to help you perform them as well.
Don’t know where to start? Then think of the Big Three. These three exercises are often viewed as being the most essential to building muscle. Some people even go as far as to say that you won’t need any other exercises at all if you master these three.
As mentioned earlier, strength training is core to building muscle, but it’s not the only piece to the puzzle. Another crucial part of your muscle-building journey is nutrition and supplementation. Never forget this old piece of muscle-building wisdom that states: muscle is built in the kitchen just as much as it is in the gym.
In this part of the guide, we’ll look at:
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Eating the right types of food is an essential element of building muscle. But what makes a food item right or not right? Well, it all boils down to the macronutrients within.
Macronutrients are basically the categories of nutrients inside food. You’re probably familiar with the three main macronutrients, which are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Depending on your goals, you’ll want to ensure that you’re consuming enough of the necessary macronutrients.
Each macronutrient serves a specific purpose, for instance:
No matter if you’re trying to build muscle, lose weight, or just live a normal life, you’ll need to consume all three of those macronutrients. Still, if you’re interested in building muscle, you’ll want to focus more on protein and carbohydrates.
Still, don’t forget to include fat in your diet as well. You’ll need it to support your body’s regular hormone production, and so it can absorb vitamins from your food efficiently.
When you perform strength training exercises, you’re essentially overloading your muscles. On a cellular level, what’s happening is that your muscles are experiencing micro-tears. When you finish your workout, your body will start using protein to rebuild your muscles bigger and stronger than they were before.
So, in simple terms, protein is so crucial because it acts as the building blocks for your muscles. That’s why you’ll see bodybuilders and other fitness enthusiasts consume lots of food like eggs, chicken, and fish. These are excellent examples of high-protein foods that are affordable and easy to prepare.
No, you don’t need supplements to build muscle. This is an important truth to understand early on in your muscle-building journey because a lot of people end up wasting money on unnecessary powders and pills too early on.
Worse yet, there are a lot of people who want to make money from convincing you that you need these supplements even though you know little about them at first.
Now, don’t get us wrong. Supplements are incredibly helpful to every aspect of muscle building. Protein powders make it easy to fulfil your protein requirements, and supplements like pre-workout drinks (which we’ll discuss below) help you maximise your workouts. Supplements can support your muscle-building goals.
When you’re highly motivated and inspired to start your fitness journey, you’ll feel tempted to buy the best supplements you can afford. Instead of doing that, your attention should be focused on sticking to your muscle-building plan and turning that into a lifestyle.
Still, the point here is that you don’t need to spend all that money to get started. Think about it: Spartans and other muscle-bound warriors of ancient times never had all of these supplements, yet they’ve become timeless symbols of muscle and strength. You can always add supplements to your nutrition plan later on.
If you’d still like to take something to support your workouts, you could start with a simple multivitamin. That will help you to ensure that all of your essential nutrient needs are covered as you embark on this muscle-building journey.
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As you gradually become more familiar with strength training, you’ll come across two specific types of supplements known as pre-workouts and post-workouts. There are many more types of supplements out there, of course, but these are the types most frequently discussed about strength training.
These pre- and post-workout products typically come in the form of powders that you mix into water and drink right before or after your strength training sessions.
Again, you don’t necessarily need any of them when you’re starting out. But it’s helpful to know what they are and how they work.
Simply put, pre-workouts get your body fired up and primed for the workout you’re about to endure. That way, you’ll be able to push harder and finish every rep and set to the best of your abilities. You don’t necessarily need a store-bought supplement to act as your pre-workout. Many people drink a cup of coffee for the same purpose.
A post-workout, on the other hand, is something that helps to replenish your body after you’ve used up all that energy working out. Plus, they help your body kick start its recovery process right after your strength workout. Some people take these in the form of supplements. Others might drink a smoothie or shake of some kind for the same effect.
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Building muscle is more than just about what you eat and how you work out. A large and significant aspect of it is also what goes on in your mind. That’s why we’re devoting the following section strictly to matters related to motivation and discipline.
To be specific, we’re going to discuss:
Each of these is important for keeping your head in the game so that you can stick with the plan long enough to see actual results.
Building muscle is a long-term commitment. That’s why you’ll need to set clear goals early on to make sure that you’re always heading in the right direction. Don’t worry about changing your goals later on, though. The point here is to have goals to start with so that you can focus your effort much more effectively.
There are plenty of goal-setting systems out there, but the most common and straightforward one is to set SMART goals. That acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Here’s what each of them means:
For instance, you can set a goal that you want to gain a certain number of pounds in pure muscle. When your goals are defined that way, it makes it easy to know whether or not you’re making any progress.
That’s awesome, but if they set that goal one week before summer, then it’s not really actionable, is it? In other words, your goal should be doable, at least by normal human standards.
Without a time frame, your goal is just a wish. Milestones and deadlines keep you focused.
This was mentioned before, but it’s worth repeating: goals don’t have to be perfect. The point of a goal is so that you know what you’re working towards. Along the way, you’ll probably make adjustments to your goals here and there, and that’s normal!
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When pursuing your muscle-building goals, you must always track your progress. For starters, that will keep you informed about whether or not you’re moving closer to your goals. More importantly, tracking your progress will let you know if what you’re doing is working or not.
If you consistently see progress, that means you’re on the right track. If not, you might need to make a few adjustments or ask for advice from someone who can help you out.
For muscle building, there are several ways you can track your progress. They include:
There’s a very popular saying in the world of fitness that goes along the lines of: “Motivation gets you started, but discipline keeps you going”.
Being motivated and excited to start your muscle-building journey is fantastic, and it’s very important to keep you going. Still, human nature dictates that our motivation will come and go every day. No matter how motivated and driven you are, there will be some days when you’ll struggle to get out of bed, let alone head to the gym.
That’s why it’s vital to build discipline. Having discipline means sticking to your strength training plan and eating the right food, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.
That’s the secret to success when it comes to muscle-building: you have to stick to the plan, even when doing that isn’t so easy.
Discipline also offers another crucial benefit: it helps you to maintain consistency, which will lead you to progress. Suppose you were to work out only whenever you felt like it. If that’s the case, then you won’t see the results that you’re expecting. For your muscles to grow, they must be challenged on a consistent basis.
By now, it should be clear that building muscle only partially happens in the gym. There are also other aspects to it, such as your nutrition as well as your motivation and discipline. Still, there’s one more aspect that’s equally, if not more important than the others: your rest and recovery.
Remember: when you perform strength training exercises, you’re overloading your muscles and causing micro-tears in them. Once you leave the gym, though, that’s when your muscles start to recover.
That’s why in this final section of the guide, we’ll look at:
After performing strength training, the muscles that you use will need at least 48-72 hours to fully recover. That’s why strength training plans rarely involve training the same muscles two days in a row.
Instead, most plans are structured in some kind of a split. A typical example is a push/pull split, where one day is focused only on pull exercises (discussed in the first part of this article) while the following day only features push exercises. That’s repeated throughout the week, with perhaps one day off to rest.
Your muscles are literally rebuilding themselves while you recover. To make the most of that process, you should make use of both active and passive recovery methods.
Passive recovery is relatively straightforward: you avoid doing the same strength exercise for 48-72 hours and give the tired muscles time to rebuild bigger and stronger. Getting a massage could also be helpful, especially if those muscles feel sore the day after the workout.
On the other hand, active recovery means using the same muscle but with very little resistance involved.
For instance, if your chest is sore from bench pressing a heavy weight the day before, you can help it recover today by doing a bench press with very little weight. Or, perhaps, if you’ve just finished your leg day at the gym, you can ride your bicycle the next day at a leisurely pace to help your leg muscles recover faster.
What active recovery does is that it encourages lots of blood to flow to the muscles to support their recovery. In doing so, that blood brings with it nutrients and everything the muscle needs to recover efficiently. Plus, taking those muscles through their full range of motion also helps to reduce soreness, making your recovery much more pleasant.
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Before thinking too much about active and passive recovery methods, don’t forget to keep your sleep in check. Having enough high-quality sleep is vital for more than just letting your muscles rebuild themselves.
You see, our muscles aren’t the only parts of our bodies that get stressed during a strength workout. Besides that, the central nervous system also experiences a lot of stress as well. That’s why it’s essential to give it a rest so that we avoid burning ourselves out after a while.
Doing that is as simple as making sure that you get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep every night. During that time, your muscles will rebuild themselves, and your nervous system will also relax.
We’ve already covered the topics of nutrition and macronutrients earlier. Still, it’s also crucial to look at them in the context of recovery. When you perform strength exercises, not only are you overloading the muscles involved, but you’re also depleting them of glycogen.
In the simplest of terms, glycogen is stored energy inside the muscle that makes it possible for you to lift those heavy weights. You use up your glycogen very quickly each time you perform strength training.
To maximise your rest and recovery, you’ll also need to keep your eating and drinking in mind. As mentioned earlier, protein is essential for muscle building. At no other time is it more so than when you’re recovering. Without enough protein, your muscles will struggle to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger the way you want them to.
Besides that, you’ll need to replenish those spent muscle glycogen stores with carbohydrates. If you don’t do that, you’ll find that your performance during your next workout won’t be as good as the last.
Lastly, don’t forget about water. Browse through any bodybuilding or fitness magazine, and you’ll see pictures of people at the gym with water bottles, sometimes large enough to carry a gallon of water!
Water is crucial before, during, and after your workout. When it comes to recovery, water plays a vital role in helping your body flush out waste products that result from your workout.
So, what’s the bottom line? Rest, sleep, eat lots of protein and carbs, and drink lots of water when you’re recovering from your workout. That will help you get ready for your next workout on your path towards building muscle.
At the core of it, building muscle is still about lifting heavy things. They can be in the form of metal plates at the gym, or they could also be the natural bodyweight you already have. As long as your muscles are being overloaded progressively over time, they will continue to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger than they were before.
However, it’s important to remember that lifting weights is only one aspect of muscle building. What you eat, how you rest, and what goes on in your mind are equally important as well.
Nutrition ensures that your muscles have what they need to rebuild themselves and so that you have the energy you need to complete your workouts. Sufficient rest allows your body to prepare itself for the next workout.
Lastly, while motivation is excellent to get you started, discipline is the foundation that keeps you going in the long run.
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