If you asked gym goers what their number one goal was, chances are ‘building muscle’ would crop up pretty frequently. Contrary to what you might think, building muscle isn’t all about aesthetics – far from it. Increasing your body’s muscle mass can help you perform day-to-day tasks more easily, boost your metabolism, enhance your immune system and improve your posture. But how do you actually go about building muscle? Sometimes the amount of information (and misinformation) out there can be overwhelming, so we’ve drawn on our expert knowledge to provide you with this muscle building 101!
At the forefront of muscle building is progressive overload. Put simply, your body will only respond and adapt to the stimulus you place on it. Gradually increase the intensity of your workouts and your body will adapt and grow in response. If you don’t adequately increase intensity, your body won’t be forced to adapt. However, progressive overload doesn’t mean you have to set a new 1 rep max every single session. While load is the most common stimulus to change, it’s not your only option. Below are a few ways you could change up your workout to promote muscle gain:
While progressive overload is key, it is vital that you don’t overdo it. Increasing intensity too drastically or rapidly can lead to overtraining or injury due to sacrificing form and technique for the sake of lifting a heavier weight.
In the pursuit of increased strength and muscle size, it’s all too common to see a lifter’s attention to technique start to slip. Not only does this lead to increased risk of injury, but it’s also likely to hinder your gains. Each exercise you perform targets a specific muscle or muscle group. When your technique starts to slip, the exercise becomes less targeted and therefore the stimulus on the muscle decreases. For example, performing slow, controlled bicep curls at 10kg will be more effective for bicep development than ‘cheat’ reps at 15kg where the shoulders and hips swing the weight up and take the focus away from the biceps entirely.
As well as keeping your technique on point and gradually overloading your muscles, it’s also really important that you give yourself enough time to recover. Muscle growth doesn’t happen in the gym, it happens while you rest. After a hard workout, your body needs time to rebuild the muscle tissues that you’ve broken down, so you can come back stronger next time. When you’re first starting out, 3 full body sessions focusing on compound movements is plenty to stimulate muscle growth. As you become more experienced and get past your first ‘beginner gains’, you can start to experiment with different workout splits and ramp up your training frequency.
But what do you do when you’re training hard, focusing on your technique and not skimping on you recovery… And still not seeing an increase in muscle tone? Chances are you’re missing a vital piece of the puzzle: calories. Put simply, your body can’t build something from nothing, so if you want to build muscle you need to be in a caloric surplus. That doesn’t mean you can eat everything in sight (just because the Rock consumes 6000 kcals a day doesn’t mean you need to!) nor does it require a complex meal schedule. Your best bet is to keep things simple, at least to start with. Your trainer can sit down with you and work out your maintenance calories (the amount of calories you need to stay in the current state you’re in) and what surplus (additional calories) you need to eat to gain the muscle you want. This will depend on a range of variables including your body fat percentage and your level of training experience. Make sure to keep tracking your progress, via body composition scanning, progress pictures and your performance in the gym. If you’re not seeing any changes after a few weeks, bump up your calories moderately. There is no need to get into extreme bulking and cutting cycles. Aside from being dangerous, these cycles can leave you feeling as though you’re alternating between stuffing and starving yourself. Maintaining a steady caloric surplus is your best bet for consistent gains while still feeling your best.
Another common question when you’re focusing on muscle and strength gain is whether or not you should cut out cardio. You might have heard that ‘cardio kills gains’ and that it’s got no place in a dedicated muscle building programme. However, it’s important not to neglect your cardiovascular fitness and the truth is that as long as you maintain a surplus of calories, keeping cardio in your routine isn’t going to hurt your muscle gains. In fact, the right kind of cardio training can not only aid recovery, but also help build muscle. Try including 10-15 rounds of sprint intervals on a rower or 20-40 minutes light jogging (keeping to around 65-75% of max heart rate) a few times a week.
Fitness magazines and questionable ‘experts’ might try and sell you on quick fixes, but the truth is building muscle takes hard work, dedication and most importantly: time. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing results straight away. Find a routine that works for you and that you enjoy and learn to love the journey. Trust the process and, if you’re willing to put in the work, those gains will come!