There is no need to explain that in order to gain muscle, you need to lift weights or put your body through some other resistance stimulus (bodyweight).
Building muscle is a great way how to get healthier, feel more energized during your day, burn more fat over time (increase your NEAT), enhance your healthy eating habits and discipline, create something to strive for, and last but not least, increase your confidence.
In this post, we’ll look into the 7 most important things you should have in place in order to gain muscle.
know your calorie intake
The number of calories you consume and spend on a daily basis is the make or break of building muscle size. In order to gain muscle, you need to eat at a calorie surplus (optimally ± 200-400 calorie surplus/day).
You can calculate your maintenance level of calories here. Pick the Mifflin-St Jeor formula, as it seems to be the most accurate one. Your result is a solid standpoint from where you should be able to figure out how to add calories accordingly.
Make sure to use a scale to track your weight on a daily basis, while weighing yourself most preferably in the morning and fasted, as that will result in you being able to track your progress with the most accuracy. During the day, you might get a lof of weight fluctuations due to water retention and other factors.
When to slow down
If you find yourself gaining an unnecessary amount of weight that translates to your scale being up and your muscle definition starting to disappear when you look in the mirror, chances are you’ve probably overdone it.
At this point, you have 2 options:
- Either pull back on calories only up to a point where you stop gaining extra fat and keep maintaining your surplus
- Or jump on a mini cut phase, where you (most preferably) increase your cardio and modify the calorie intake to a deficit.
Nevertheless, this will help you remain relatively lean and retain insulin sensitivity while packing on lean mass.
Macronutrients and meal timing matters
Exhausting your muscles in the gym via weight training must be done hand in hand with providing your body the optimal macronutrient intake, so it can allocate a part of all the food and nutrients you’ve eaten to not only repair the muscle tissue but also to build new muscle cells and ultimately grow.
There is a whole another spectrum of micronutrients, vitamins, and hormones you should have in place and balanced, but more on that in another post.
For now, just remember to eat a minimum of 1,5 g of protein per kg of body weight, but for the best results, I’ve always seen 2g+ always worked the best for me.
How much protein, carbs and fats?
From a meal timing perspective, if you are for example a 70 kg athlete, your daily protein intake is 140g, which is 560 calories.
By using the calorie calculator, a 20-year-old athlete, who works out 5 times a week and is about 175 cm tall has his maintenance calories at 2484.
So by subtracting 560 cal from your protein intake from your daily total of 2484, that leaves us with 1924 calories that should come from a balanced amount of carbs and fats.
When to eat
To allow your body muscle-protein synthesis as often as possible, the most optimal eating regime would be to split your meals into 4-5 feedings throughout the day.
What I found to work the best for me is to center my carb intake around my workouts – pre and post specifically.
Keep in mind you don’t want to eat a big, hefty carb-loaded meal just before your training window. That will result in your body trying to digest all the food you just ate, and by you putting it under high physical stress by lifting weights in the gym or doing other strength training, it will either make you throw up or very sick.
Your best bet will be to eat around 90-120 minutes before your training session, as well as as soon you are hungry after your training.
Besides a reasonable amount of protein and carbohydrates, I’d recommend including a portion of fat, as it slows down the digestion of carbs allowing the glycogen to release at a slower rate, so you get a continuous release of energy throughout your entire session.
A great example of this would be a rice mash (cream of rice) with a scoop of protein powder and a nut butter of some sort.
At this point, to replenish your empty glycogen stores and supply your body with enough protein to repair and grow the muscle, make sure to include a high protein, moderate carb meal, sometime after you’ve finished working out. Not that the foods you’ve eaten before are not sufficient for your post-workout muscle protein synthesis, but giving your body fresh nutrition to be able to grab what it needs to repair the muscle cells and grow is definitely for the better.
STAY Consistent for years
Once you find what works for you, it’s beyond important to stay on point with your diet, training, sleep hygiene, and stress management. Let’s face it – anyone can stay consistent for a few weeks or months, but are they able to do it for years on end?
That is, after all, why do you see so many people having the same exact physique without any signs of progress. Why is that?
Well, after you acquire your newbie gains in the first year or two, it will get progressively harder to pack on muscle size year by year. You will have to give your body a better reason to grow than just go to the gym and shoving a couple of meals down.
It’s the guys with tunnel vision who make the most progress. I am not saying you need to be a bodybuilding fanatic, but at the end of the day, fitness is a lifestyle, not just that hour of your day you spend in the gym.
Optimize your body to stay in an anabolic state
Let’s say you got your training and nutrition right, what’s next?
Getting your hormones working correctly and being optimized for growth.
And this especially applies to the “natural guys”. Enhanced athletes that use exogenous compounds have complete control over their hormonal supply, and a constant stream of anabolics allows them to recover and build muscle at a much faster rate.
I would highly suggest you address things like sleep hygiene, stress management, alcohol consumption (alcohol = not only you will feel like crap the next day, but compounds such as ethanol inhibit muscle growth pathways in a negative way as well – in women especially.), and last but not least, address your vitamin and micronutrient intake for optimal balance.
Train with a high frequency and intensity
Your nutrition and sleep might be on point but won’t go a long way in terms of building muscle without training both hard and smart.
From my experience, the most optimal training frequency would be to hit each muscle group 2 times a week.
This training style will give your muscle a chance to grow twice a week as well as allow you to recover for your next training session.
Last but not least, high-frequency multiple muscle group resistance training has a positive effect on reducing myostatin levels. Myostatin is a gene (MSTN), that your body produces in order to regulate how much muscle are you going to build.
In a conclusion, in terms of giving your muscle the maximum opportunity to grow while optimizing your recovery and avoiding overtraining, a 4-6 day training split works the best for most natural lifters in my opinion.
Remember to always train hard and pushing yourself every single session while maintaining a good form. Staying injury-free is important! No gym = no muscles! No muscles = ? You see where this is going..
How should you progress on a training program?
This is where tracking your lifts comes in. In order to increase your performance over time, your next training session should always beat the previous one.
The ways you can apply progressive overload isn’t only by adding weight to your sets, it can also be done by:
- Was your form during the previous session not where you’d like it to be? Overload the muscle by perfecting your form.
- Let’s say you do 30 lb on a dumbbell bench press for a top set of 8 reps. Increase the number of reps or sets you did compared to last time.
- Increase load and perform the same amount of reps.
How do you know if it works?
It is important to track your intensity during your sets. How many reps in reserve do you have?
If you lifted 30 lb one week and 35 lb the other week, for the same amount of reps and can safely say that you’ve had the same amount of reps in reserve (RIR) on both occasions, you’ve surely progressed, as you’ve gotten stronger on that lift.
On the other hand, if you lifted 30 lb and 35 lb dumbells both for 8 reps, but the latter set was a set to a failure compared to the first one where you had 5 RIR, you can’t track your progress with accuracy.
Follow the advice I’ve given above, and you’ll be on your way to achieving your goals of adding muscle size and improving your fitness and visual appearance!