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Muscle Building for Beginners: Your 5-step guide

How to build muscle - one way is to do exercises like this white man holding a barbell at his collarbones doing squats.
Content Editor & Certified Trainer
Lisa studied journalism and is a certified fitness and health trainer, as well as a meditation coach! She spent many years working for different lifestyle and fitness magazines, and she writes articles for us on the topics of working out, fitness, lifestyle and mind.

If you want to know how to build muscle, but aren’t sure how to get started, we have you covered! Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about making gains, from eating to training.

Let’s start you off with a freebie tip. You know what cannot be missing from your meal plan? That’s right: Protein. Proteins contribute to muscle growth, making them a must-have for anyone wanting to learn how to build muscle, from beginner to muscle-building pro. If you want to speed things up, our Vegan Protein and Whey Protein shakes are a great place to start*.

Step 1: Set Goals

Before you can begin building muscle, you have to know why you’re doing. You don’t build a house by starting with the roof. Setting a goal is the first step toward successful strength training. But it needs to be deeper than simply wanting to do it.

Try using the SMART method to help you find a goal that actually motivates you when the going gets tough. SMART is a scientifically developed method to produce results. It’s an acronym that stands for the following:

  • Specific: Your goal is formulated in a concrete way and broken down into distinct steps that you simply have to follow.
  • Measurable: You can check whether you have reached your goal with simple means.
  • Achievable: Your goal is within your reach.
  • Realistic: Your goal is relevant.
  • Timely: You set a deadline by which you must achieve your goal.

Here is an example of a SMART goal: I would like to be able to do a pull-up in three months. To achieve this goal, I’m going to the gym three times a week now and following an adapted training program.

Alternatively, it could be something like gaining a specific amount of muscle mass in a certain amount of time. Plus, how you’d go about achieving it.

Our tip: Start by committing to small goals. Gaining one pound of muscle mass in one month may seem much less impressive than gaining five pounds in six months, but it’s a lot easier to accomplish. And having that win under your belt may well motivate you to keep pushing.

Now that you’ve got a SMART goal (or several smaller SMART goals) set, you’re ready to get started!

A blonde-haired white woman does a bench press - how to build muscle, learn more here
©foodspring

Step 2: Measure Your Progress

Checking your muscle growth regularly is the best way to see if you’re on track to meet your goals. Plus, seeing the progression action can be extremely motivating! And if you start to stagnate, knowing what’s going on will better allow you to correct it.

But don’t base your success on numbers alone. What really counts is how you feel in your body!

To see the progression of how you’re feeling, keep a training log and jot down quick reminders. Make a note of whether you feel super tired or energized after a workout, as well as how much you lifted or how long you worked out for. There are several ways to measure your physiological changes.

#1: The Scale

If you’re tracking your body weight, it’s important to weigh yourself at the right moment. Stick to doing it once a week and always at the same time. Right when you wake up is a great time to get a read on your body before taking on the day. It’s best if you’re not wearing any clothing. That way it’s a) easier to hop on just before you get into the shower and b) the weight of your jeans or your jacket doesn’t impact the number on your screen.

Remember: The scale weighs your entire body, including all of your organs, blood, and bones. Keep in mind that a higher weight doesn’t necessarily mean you’re building muscle. It could be caused by external factors, too, from fluid retention to hormones to not having used the toilet recently.

Our tip: An impedance meter is a scale that uses electrical currents to measure body fat. Owning one of these will make it possible to determine whether your weight gain was muscle or fat.

#2: The Tape Measure

Using a tape measure is another great way to find out if you’re building muscle. But these kinds of changes aren’t always very rapid, so you’ll only need to take measurements every two to three weeks. Take pictures along with your measurements so you can see the progression, too.

Here are some of the types of measurements you can take:

  • Arm circumference: Let your arm hang freely and position the tape measure at the widest point of the biceps.
  • Waist circumference: Exhale, relax your stomach muscles, and measure at your belly button (slightly above).
  • Hip circumference: Stand up with your legs straight and your feet together and measure at the side bump formed by the tips of your thigh bones.
  • Thigh circumference: Stand up straight, relax your thighs, and take the measurement directly under your glutes, at the widest point.

Always take your measurements in the same place (e.g. always use your right arm, don’t switch sides!) and, if possible, in the morning when you get out of bed, preferably without clothes on.

These measurements only tell you how your body has visibly changed.They don’t tell you if you’ve gained fat or muscle or how healthy or not you feel. That’s why you should always rely on your feelings over numbers. If you wake up with a bunch of energy or appear to have firmer skin, these could be signs you’re getting closer to your goal.

#3: Strength Test

A strength test is the surest way to find out if you’ve developed muscle or not. 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. Muscle growth takes time to see great results. Learning how to build muscle and putting that plan into action are slow and steady steps on your journey.

A short-haired man of color does goblet squats with kettlebells.
©FreshSplash

Step 3: Start Strength Training

You can’t develop muscle without weight training. This type of training is the key to success, because your body has to be stronger in order to respond to the new, more difficult stimuli. Our bodies adapt quickly and build up muscle mass as a result.

For successful training, follow these five rules.

Rule #1: Consistency

Nothing comes from nothing. Regularity and perseverance are what will allow you to obtain results. The optimal amount of training for both beginners and experienced athletes is two to three sessions per week1.

Rule #2: Engage Your Entire Body

Beginners should start their muscle building journey with full-body workouts. These workouts put the focus on building up core strength to make other activities, like weight lifting, easier to handle. The good news is that the more muscle groups you train, the more testosterone your body releases. And that’s exactly the growth hormone you need to build muscle.

That’s also why your training program should include as many compound exercises as possible, since they allow you to activate several muscles at once. 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 just as effective. Clearly, these exercises build more muscle mass than isolation exercises2.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore isolation exercises entirely.  Biceps curls, triceps curls, and leg curls can be just as beneficial as squats and pull-ups. But they need to be combined with a well-structured workout plan to build muscle.

Rule #3: Master the Technique

Being too ambitious will get you nowhere. Instead, start with smaller loads and a low number of sets and reps to learn how to build muscle with each exercise. Gradually increase the amount over time. If you overload your body, you’ll make mistakes more easily and put yourself at a greater risk of injury.

Clean technique should always come before increasing weight or reps. And whenever you’re in doubt about your technique, ask a trainer or an instructor to guide you in the right direction.

Rule #4: Variety and Progression

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.

Our tip: Make sure that the last repetition of each set is always performed with the correct technique. If you can do two to three more reps, increase the intensity.

Rule #5: Warm-up and cool-down

An effective strength training session always features a warm-up and cool-down. Even if your time is valuable and you prefer to get right to it, taking this extra time guarantees progress and reduces risk of injury. Studies show that a good warm-up can significantly improve training performance, provided it doesn’t overtax your body either3.

A specific warm-up before the session can make all the difference and help you work out harder and longer. Most importantly, the warm-up is ideal to prepare you mentally for the workout.

Here are our most important warm-up rules. Plus our favorite warm-up exercises to do at home and in the gym.

Overview of what to remember for weight training sessions:

  • Sessions per week: 2 to 3 full-body workouts
  • Number of exercises per session: 4 to 6, including 3 to 4 compound exercises and 1 to 2 isolation exercises
  • Repetitions: 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise
  • Sets: 3 sets with approx. 120 seconds of rest

Step 4: Recovery

Rest is one of the most important aspects of learning how to build muscle. When you lift weights daily, 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. The process of muscle growth during rest is known as overcompensation. After your workout, your body compensates for the new stimuli and increases its performance capabilities beyond the starting level.

In other words, give yourself a 48-hour break before working any given muscle group again.

Step 5: Eat Well

Another essential pillar of muscle growth is nutrition. It’s almost more important than lifting and working out in the gym. Your body needs energy and nutrients to perform well.

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. During your training program, you’re advised to eat an extra 300 to 500 calories a day. And we’ve got a free Body Check to get you started on the numbers.

A white woman with two French braids stands in front of a kitchen table cutting vegetables
©Matt Lincoln

Carbohydrates, Proteins, Fats

When it comes to nutrition, athletes are advised to eat a diet of 50-65% carbohydrates, 15-25% protein, and 20-30% fat.

It’s crucial that you provide your body with enough carbohydrates after exercise to induce recovery. And your muscles need protein to grow. In general, athletes are advised to eat about 1.5 to 2g of protein per day per kilo of body weight. Healthy fats are also essential for creating feelings of fullness.

Staying hydrated is also extremely important, especially if you consume a lot of protein. Excess protein is excreted by the kidneys, so the body needs plenty of fluids to ensure this organ functions properly.

Carbohydrates (50 to 65 %) Protein (15 to 25 %) Fats (20 to 30 %)
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole grain products
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Pulses
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Chicken
  • Fish like salmon or mackerel
  • Plant proteins like beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, broccoli and soy-based products
  • Protein shakes
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts like almonds or hazelnuts
  • Flaxseed
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Avocado

Lucky you! Our nutritionists have figured out a step-by-step plan on how to build muscle. We have a sustainable and effective nutrition program for building muscle mass. Start now!

Summary

  • Set a SMART goal that you want to achieve with your training.
  • Record your muscle building progress and measurements in a training log.
  • Train regularly, ideally three times a week.
  • Beginners should start with a full-body training program.
  • Gradually increase the intensity of your workout and change your program every twelve weeks to give your body new training stimuli.
  • Use rest days to recover.
  • Adjust your diet and eat mostly carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods.
  • Drink enough water every day.

More healthy living reading from foodspring:

*Protein contributes to muscle building and retention.

Article sources
We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • 1https://www.germanjournalsportsmedicine.com/fileadmin/content/archiv2007/heft06/178-183.pdf

  • 2https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11782267/

  • 3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19996770/

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