Are you looking for a straightforward guide to help you build muscle? Look no further! Muscle growth is a complex process and requires an effective training program, adequate nutrition, and proper recovery.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of each of these three components to help you on your journey to building more muscle mass.
Why listen to me?
I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist with a Bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and extensive clinical weight loss experience. I produce evidence-based nutrition content through my blog (Noah’s Nutrition), podcast (Strength Phase Nutrition), and social media. I also run the Lean Blueprint Community.
How to build muscle
When I started my muscle-building journey, I made all the classic mistakes: not eating or lifting nearly hard enough. In addition, I was impatient (What 16 year old isn’t). All of these were lessons for how you build muscle.
Building muscle entails several factors, but at the core are, lifting heavy weights, eating enough, specifically calories and protein, sleeping, and learning to be constant with all three for a long period. (1)
How do you start building muscle?
Newbie Gains – This term refers to the remarkable progress a novice can make when lifting weights within their first year or two of starting.
I reminisce on these times because the progress slows to a turtles pace when you shift from beginner to intermediate. My advice is to take advantage of these times and follow these simple steps:
- Lift heavy! – Constantly lift heavy weights, and push yourself.
- Eat enough! – Constantly consume enough calories and protein eat a day.
- Sleep! – Constantly get 7-8 hours of sleep.
We will cover each of the listed above in that order, training, nutrition and recovery.
There is a list of workouts like yoga, spin class, and CrossFit, but what is the best exercise to build muscle? The answer is weightlifting.
Weight training is the best way to build muscle. Utilizing weights, proper form, and isolating particular muscles, you can take that muscle to its fatigue, causing you to adapt over time. (2)
Let’s delve into lifting, focusing on repetitions (reps), sets, load (weight), and progressive overload. You will build muscle over time by adjusting your routine to include these variables in their ideal ranges.
Lifting weights involves targeting a measure group, adding weight, and taking that muscle group through a full range of motion, then repeating the process. This is also referred to the number of reps, sets, and weights you plan to use.
The reps are the number of movements you plan to do throughout one exercise. Also, consider that you need a heavy enough load to make the number of reps for that exercise challenging.
The rep ranges for stimulating strength development are 3-5, hypertrophy (muscle growth) is 8-12, and endurance is 15 reps or more.
- Optimized for strength adaptation – 3-5 reps
- Optimizes for hypertrophy – AKA muscle-building rep range 8-12 reps
- Optimizes for muscular endurance: 15+ reps
For optimal muscle growth, aim for 8-12 reps in your workouts. Although other rep ranges may have benefits, too, this range will give you the best results if building muscle is your priority. (3)
When I was younger, I broke my arm, and when the cast came off, I was shocked to find that my arm had atrophied and my muscle had disappeared. After months of being immobile, my muscle adapted by shrinking.
We naturally carry the right amount of muscle to satisfy our everyday needs. This can be referred to as your baseline muscle mass. When we include extra resistance, such as weights, our muscles rapidly adapt and grow bigger and stronger. (4,5)
Knowing how much weight to use for your exercises depends on how much you can lift in a single repetition. This is what’s referred to as one rep max. Since more than one rep isn’t possible, we can reduce the load so that multiple reps become doable. (4,5,6)
The current recommendations are as follows:
- Strength: 3-5 reps – 80% – 100% of your one-rep max
- Hypertrophy: 8-12 reps – 60% to 80% of your one-rep max
- Endurance: 15+ reps – >60% of your one-rep max
The sets are the number of times you plan to exercise for a specific number of reps. For example, you plan to do ten reps of squats with 100 pounds, and you intend to repeat that five times. Repeating the process five times is considered the number of sets.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 studies concluded, “The findings indicate a graded dose-response relationship whereby increases in RT (resistance training) volume produce greater gains in muscle hypertrophy.” The number of sets each group did was >5, 5-9, and 10+ sets. (7)
If you start with strength training, begin on the lower end of volume sets (>5 sets per muscle group per week) to squeeze in all the possible gains for the least amount of work. As your strength level advances and grows, feel free to increase your number of sets. (8)
Resistance exercise or weight training is the most optimal exercise to build muscle.
Performing 8-12 repetitions at 60 – 80 percent of your maximum and repeating for 5-10 sets is the most effective.
As you adapt to the load, reps, and sets or total volume, you must increase one of the previously mentioned. Planning your increase can mean intentionally increasing the number of reps, sets, or the total weight for a specific exercise.
This method is considered a progressive overload. It is the prediction that if everything goes accordingly, you will eventually get stronger and need to make it more difficult to continue to see progress. (9)
Above baseline muscle mass cardiovascular training, whether running, biking, walking, or sprinting, does not have nearly the effect of resistance training on muscle development. Cardio provides endurance, which can help you push through longer, harder workouts. (10)
There are two categories I like to put cardio into low impact and high-intensity training. Low-impact cardio includes walking, hiking, and light biking… you get the idea. High-intensity training includes exercise that can only be done in short bouts like sprinting. (10)
By incorporating low-impact and high-intensity training, in addition to your lifting routine, you are optimizing for cardiovascular health (heart, veins, arteries), metabolic health, muscular health, bone density, and much more. (10)
Similar to exercise, providing the optimal environment for building muscle requires adjustments and modifications to your nutrition. The goal is to provide your body with adequate calories, protein, fat, carbohydrate fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Many factors are included in daily calorie recommendations, age, genetics, prior training experience, sex, and body composition. The general recommendation is a ~359 – 478 calorie surplus. This would be in addition to your total daily calories. (11)
Your calories will seem high, and they should be. Here is why:
- Base-level calories are your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). These keep you alive.
- Your active calories include workouts, walking, and working. These will be higher.
- Adding 350 – 500 calories on top. (Calorie surplus)
To give you some context for why your calories seem high, let’s consider we choose to do all the physical requirements listed above. In this case, we would calculate our BMR. This is a base amount of calories but will increase as we build muscle.
Next, we will factor in the activity calories used during the day. This includes everything from when you get out of bed to when you get back into it. Because we are increasing our daily activity to include cardio and lifting, we must increase our calories.
Finally, we add the additional ~350 – ~500 calories on top of our BRM and with our activity factored in. (11)
Identifying the total calories you need to eat per day can be tricky. That’s why I created an article answering the question, How Many Calories to Gain Muscle? After reading this article, you know exactly how many calories you need to eat to build muscle.
Limited by your total daily calories, allocating the right amount of protein, carbs, and fat in your meals could help you build muscle. Macronutrients or macros are the nutrients that provide food with calories.
A typical macro ratio for muscle building would be high protein, carbohydrate, and moderate fat intake.
The grams of protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fats are based on your body weight and lifestyle. It would be too much to explain here, but you can read the Macros For Muscle Gain to learn how to customize your macros.
When it comes to building muscle, protein is widely recognized as essential. But if you could only choose two components from this guide – lifting and protein would be the ones that give you the most gains!
The recommended intake for your average person is about 0.8g per kilogram. When trying to build muscle, that number doubles or triples to 1.6g/kg and 2.2g/kg. That is 0.73 grams to 1 gram per body pound. (12)
Read the Macros For Muscle Gain to learn how much protein to build muscle and lose fat.
Carbohydrates are essential for building muscle. They provide energy to power us through workouts and act as a barrier preventing protein (amino acids) from being used as energy.
Carbs are also stored in the muscles as glycogen and can be used later during intense physical activity.
The recommended intake for strength-trained athletes is four to seven grams of carbs per kilogram. This is around 1.81 grams to 3.18 grams of carbs per body pound. (13)
Read the Macros For Muscle Gain to learn, how many carbs you need to build muscle?
Fats are an essential nutrient regardless if you are building muscle. Fats are pivotal in hormone production, brain health, and heart health. Fats also provide energy, help absorb vitamins and minerals, and add flavor to foods.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a 20-35% fat intake for athletes. This is about 0.45 to 0.8 grams per body pound. (14)
Read the 7 day meal plan for gaining muscle.
Supplements are typically used to compensate for the average person’s nutritional deficits or additional needs. However, when seeking to build muscle mass, supplements can be beneficial in providing specific nutrients at a precise dosage that would not exist naturally.
Two highly researched supplements that are part of my muscle-building routine, and as a dietitian, I vouch for are whey protein powder and creatine monohydrate.
Protein powder has been around for a while, and as it becomes more popular different ingredients and sourcing has started to increase. Regarding protein powder, the research tends to lean toward whey protein because of its amino acid profile.
Studies also show protein powder is most beneficial when supplemented to reach a protein target. Drinking protein powder on top of meeting your protein requirements does not seem to have additional benefits. (15)
Whey protein is not your only option; check out the article on low-calorie protein powders to learn about the options available for protein supplementation.
One of the most popular and researched supplements today is creatine monohydrate. It’s beneficial for strength, performance, and muscle growth.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position on creatine is “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”’ (16)
While whey protein and especially creatine are on the list, several others are not mentioned here. To learn more, read the 7 muscle-building supplements that work. Learn about the top 7 recovery and performance supplements on the market.
You go to the gym or train for an hour daily, and the real muscle growth happens in the following 23 hours. A recovery protocol for muscle growth should include good sleeping habits, nutrition, and rest days.
Several studies have shown that getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night improves strength performance and supports the development of new muscle tissue. Getting enough sleep plays a critical role in overall health, which will help with muscle growth. (17)
Regarding the ideal number of rest days for an individual, opinions vary greatly, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. A popular method is taking 1 or 2 full days off weekly; this generally works as people feel rested enough to start training again.
When starting back into a muscle-building routine, I follow a 2-day split. This means I will train two days in a row and take one day off. Taking this approach allows my body the rest and recovery I need to train with consistency and intensity.
Rest days can feel like you are watching paint dry, but they don’t have to be; I created a guide on what to do on rest days to build muscle. Get tips and tricks for building muscle on your days off.
Frequently Asked Questions
What foods build muscle?
Foods that build muscle are lean proteins like chicken breast, tilapia, and tofu. Add whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy to create a well-balanced diet high in protein and nutrients.
How important is proper nutrition in the muscle-building process?
Proper nutrition is essential for muscle building. Eating balanced meals with adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats will help support the growth and repair process that takes place after every resistance training session. Eating enough carbs to fuel your workouts is also important, as it provides energy for intense exercise.
What are the most effective exercises for building muscle mass?
Resistance training exercises with heavy weights are the most effective way to build muscle mass. Exercises like squats, dumbbell presses, lunges and many more.
What role does protein play in muscle growth and recovery?
Protein plays an important role in muscle growth and recovery by providing the essential building blocks for creating new proteins in the body. Specifically, protein helps repair damaged muscle tissue after a workout and builds new muscles so that they can become stronger and larger.
How much rest and recovery time should I include in my muscle-building routine?
After you meet your nutrition requirements and sleep requirements, your rest time is up to you and how you feel. I know that I like to have at least one day off per week.
Building muscle is a complex process that requires proper nutrition, rest, and recovery, as well as the right supplements.
In this article, we covered exercise, including what type, weight, sets, and reps. Was also covered nutrition, including calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients. We covered the basic supplements and a recovery protocol.
With this guide in mind, you have all the knowledge needed to start creating an effective program from which you’ll see real gains!
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.