Your body’s muscles truly do the most. With every movement, whether you’re running down the street or blinking your eyes, they’re literally doing the heavy lifting to ensure you get where you need to go. Keeping your muscles strong means more than just chiseled abs—it also helps your posture, mobility, and bones.
But how to build muscle, you ask? If you’re a fitness beginner — or someone looking to make more gains at the gym — you’ve come to the right place. Check out these top tips for building muscle efficiently and effectively.
1. Get serious about strength training
You can’t develop muscle without weight training. This type of training is the key to success, because it forces your muscles to adapt to moving with resistance, whether it’s in the form of dumbbells or just bodyweight. This makes them adapt, get stronger, and bulk up, especially as you continue to challenge it with heavier weights or longer training sessions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all adults do strength training exercises at least two days a week. The easiest way to achieve this is through full-body workouts. These workouts train multiple muscle groups at once, allowing you to build strength more quickly and efficiently. Squats are a great total body exercise, because they work the thighs and glutes as well as the arms and abs. Deadlifts, pull-ups, bench presses, and shoulder presses are also very effective muscle-building moves.
2. Bulk up on protein
All of the cells in your body, including muscle cells, are made up primarily of protein. The protein that you eat is used to build and repair damaged cells. Exercising stresses and damages your muscles, and the protein you eat helps rebuild that muscle to be even stronger. But if you’re going hard at the gym but not eating enough protein to compensate, you’re not going to see a lot of muscle gains.
In order to properly build muscle, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends that you eat 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So if you’re 150 pounds, that means you should eat 75 to 120 grams of protein every single day. The body can only absorb about 25 grams in one sitting, so space out your intake rather than trying to cram tons of protein in one meal—although some new research suggests eating protein earlier in the day might improve muscle function. Other experts say eating protein right after a workout can help better build muscle. But if the timing aspect is stressing you out, just remember that the total amount of protein, eaten consistently throughout the day, is what matters most.
Related: An athlete’s guide to whey and plant proteinsAlso: If you want to build muscle, now is not the time to cut calories! Consuming an excess of calories is the key to developing muscle, because your body needs more energy than it burns to do so. The surplus of fuel will inflate your muscles directly.
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3. Slowly increase the weight you lift
You might think that starting off with super heavy weights will give you the quickest results. But being too ambitious will get you nowhere (except super, super sore). Instead, start with smaller loads and a low number of sets and reps (the American Cancer Society says eight to 12 reps is enough for most people) to learn how to build muscle with each exercise.
You should pick weights that are light enough for you to handle but heavy enough that you can’t complete another repetition after six to 12 reps of the same move. If that’s a super light weight, that’s okay — continued training will allow you to handle heavier weights over time. If you can do 20 reps with ease, it’s time to add more weight to better challenge your muscles.
If you want to get even more out of every move, try increasing the “time under tension” with each rep. All this means is slowing down the movement. So if you’re doing bicep curls, for example, you take a few seconds longer to lower the weight back down than you normally would. Research has shown this better activates your muscles, which makes moves more effective at bulking up.
That said, clean technique should always come before increasing weight or reps to ensure you’re doing the moves properly and not straining your muscles or joints. And whenever you’re in doubt, ask a trainer or an instructor to guide you in the right direction, or watch video tutorials from trusted sources like the NASM, the American Council of Exercise (ACE), or your favorite health site.
Your body adapts very quickly to stimuli like new exercises. From the very beginning of your strength training journey, you’ll be rewarded with visible progress. But don’t rest on your laurels. As soon as your musculoskeletal system gets used to a stimulus, your performance may begin to stagnate.
Don’t freak out. All you need to do is adjust your training plan to give your body the little something new it was looking for. Increased intensity and lengths of workout will get you out of your rut in no time. Similarly, try variations on moves to work different muscle groups, or try out different equipment to shake things up.
5. Don’t forget to rest
Rest is one of the most important aspects of learning how to build muscle. When you lift weights daily with no breaks, you’re opening the door to muscle soreness, decreased performance, exhaustion, and all the other symptoms of overtraining. You may even end up stagnating or leaving yourself more prone to injury.
Muscles grow during rest, not training, so you need to take time off if you want to see progress. Be sure to prioritize your sleep, as well, since poor sleep may actually make muscle growth more difficult. Give yourself a 48-hour break before working any given muscle group again. For example, if you went really hard on leg training on a Monday, you should not train those muscles again until Wednesday.
Building muscle takes time and patience. Don’t be frustrated if you’re not seeing instant results. If you can lift more weights than you used to be able to, then your program is probably working! If you’ve completed a program and still aren’t seeing many gains, don’t fret. Learning how to build muscle and putting that plan into action are slow and steady steps on your journey.
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