What is the best way to build muscle? How do I build muscle effectively?
I’ve been asked questions like this dozens of times and for a long time, it used to be me who asked them! That’s why I decided to put together a list of the most effective techniques I've tried out and seen results from.
I’m guessing this isn’t your first source of information on how to build muscle. But before we dive into ways to build muscle if you're naturally skinny, lets cover the most popular (and important) pieces of advice you normally hear.
This is probably the most known one. It means slowly but consistently placing more stress on your muscles. You can do so by simply adding more weight to an exercise every 3-4 weeks or so.
Weight is not the only thing you can use to create progressive overload though! You can also take fewer seconds rest in between sets or add extra repetitions at the end of each set. Basically anything that will make your training more challenging would qualify as progressive overload.
High protein intake
Protein is the macronutrient that's necessary to build muscle. It repairs them when we damage them during workouts and also fuels them while we train (together with carbs). So it's definitely a non-negotiable in our game.
Muscles do not grow at the gym, they grow when you rest. Aside from this, sleep is probably the most important factor in our lives. You can do all of the above, but if you don't sleep enough, you’re done. Level of performance, mood, drive, health and much more is affected when we don’t get enough sleep. So here we have another non-negotiable, and not just in the muscle building game.
These three points are the basics and whether you're a newbie or an experienced lifter, you should never compromise there. In fact, the more advanced you become, the more you’re going to need them.
This gets me to my next point; why a newbie might make great progress without a great training plan, enough sleep, or loads of protein in their diet.
The difference between newbie and experienced lifters
Someone who's new to lifting has the potential to build about 10-15kg of muscle mass in their first year if they’re a man, and 5-7.5kg if they’re a woman (that’s more than twice as much as an experienced lifter). Therefore, despite following a crappy training plan and not being that strict with your diet and sleep, you’re still very likely to make some serious gains in your first year. If you’re a newbie, you also have this great ability of using the stored energy in your fat cells, which allows you to build muscle even in a caloric deficit. Amazing, right?
It becomes significantly more difficult to make progress in building muscle or strength later on in your fitness journey. The details that you don’t have to care about as a beginner are becoming more and more relevant. In fact, you might not be able to move any further forward without focusing on them. That brings us to the main point of this article.
Let's dive into the details of how we can support building new lean muscle mass after your first year at the gym.
What worked for me
Genetics plays a big role in building muscle. That’s not an excuse, that’s a fact. So when you become a more experienced lifter with poor genetic predispositions for muscle building, it’s a real pickle.
It’s not the end of the world, it’s just a reason to work SMARTER!
It took me over 10 years to make enough mistakes and spend enough time working on myself to learn this. I’m not quite there yet and I don’t think I'll ever be. It’s a learning process full of observing, experimenting, and improving that never ends.
So, how do you continue to build lean muscle mass?
I decided to call it the “5 times higher” theory. Simply because I take 5 important factors when it comes to building muscles, and take them that bit “higher”.
1. Higher reps with slower tempo
This increases TUT (time under tension). When people say “you should do 8-12 reps to build muscle”, it’s not actually those reps which help you progress, it’s the time you spend doing those reps that matters.
Let's do the math: 8-12 reps times 3 seconds for each rep gives you 24-36 seconds per set.
That’s not a bad TUT (for some people). Some people, like me, might need more than that. Just by prolonging your reps by 2 seconds, you get to 40-60 seconds per set.
That’s pretty much what helped me to achieve one of my best progressions. Interestingly, it was during the first lockdown. By slowing down the lowering phase of a pistol squat to at least 4-5 seconds, I made my quads work incredibly hard.
To give you an idea of how strong my legs got, when I came back to heavy squats after 5 months without touching the weights, my RM (repetition maximum) had not changed, even though I shredded down about 8kg of body fat.
In conclusion, stimulating muscles by implementing larger TUT has proven itself to be a very effective tool, as some individuals simply require larger stimulus for their muscles to grow than others.
2. Higher protein intake
How much protein we should consume is a very popular topic nowadays. There are dozens of studies (and even more opinions) out there and they’re all true to some extent and to some people.
Let's look into some of those recommendations:
To maintain muscle mass and health for a healthy adult, the recommendation is to consume 1.6-2.2g per kg of lean mass.
This is the most commonly used recommendation that I've come across. You’ll hear a lot of people say that you shouldn't exceed this amount of protein unless you want some serious health issues.
Well, I dare to disagree.
This study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests:
“Eight weeks of a high protein diet (>3 g/kg/day) coupled with a periodized heavy resistance training program has been shown to positively affect body composition with no deleterious effects on health.”
In other words, the more protein the better!
The reason for pointing out this general recommendation, and the study above that disproves it is simple.
Been there, done that!
I started somewhere around 1.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight. While that might be enough for some individuals, it definitely wasn't for me. Over the years of experimenting with my protein intake, I’ve noticed one thing. The higher the percentage of protein in my daily calorie intake, the better the results.
As most of my fitness journey was like a hunting trip for muscle gains, I didn’t hesitate to keep increasing my intake when I saw it working.
Today I eat about 2.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight when cutting and 2.4g per kg in a bulking period.
No discomfort or health problems, just better gains and feeling full. So, if you are a healthy individual who struggles to gain those few kilos of muscle, this might be the way.
3. Higher focus on execution
You might think I meant to say focus on higher weights, but no. Execution over weights when it comes to building muscle. Why? There are few reasons, and I’m gonna point out the ones that made the biggest difference for me.
Larger range of motion (ROM) - when we talk about proper technique, we surely should not forget about full range of motion. It increases time under tension, places more stress on the muscle we are targeting, increases likelihood of proper muscle contraction and might even be safer as it allows you to use lighter weight.
Make sure you check your form with a coach, or against a good source on YouTube!
Engagement of the right muscles - sometimes, people just bang the weights up and down with whatever muscles have the energy to do so at that moment. They do a lot of reps and probably even lift quite heavy too, but are those really the non-negotiables we are looking for?
What we want is to engage and contract the muscle, or group of muscles, that we’ve got programmed for that day. So if I bench press 100kg for 8 reps, using mostly my front delts and triceps, my pecs aren't going to be happy about it. Slowing down, lowering the weight and adjusting your technique will do magic for you.
You have to suppress your ego a little. You might have to lower the weight by a few kilos, maybe even 20-30% of the load you are lifting now, but it’s worth it! Eventually, you’ll build back up to the weights you used to lift, but with unrecognizable form and physique.
It’s safer, it’s more effective, it’s badass.
4. Higher level of programming
"You train more, you gain more."
If this was true, it wouldn't be that difficult to build muscle. But the truth is that you can cause quite a lot of harm just by incorrectly structuring your training plan.
Let's define the few most common mistakes:
This is the one I come across the most. People will train three times a week, which could be fine for a lot of individuals. It’s the choice of their training split where things start to go wrong.
A typical example would be a guy or girl, who trains three times a week, to follow Push-Pull-Legs, or some other split with a lot of volume on specific muscles in one workout.
The problem here is frequency. While you get a pretty good feeling after pumping your chest and triceps, you’ll not hit those muscles again for a week. So the total weekly volume placed on one muscle or group of muscles is pretty low.
There is something called overcompensation in the muscle building game. It simply means that after your muscles get damaged and weaker from a workout, within 48-72 hours (while they are recovering), they will get a little stronger than before. This is the perfect time for you to damage them again so the whole process can repeat. If you don't do so, the muscle will eventually come back to where it was and you will end up in a loop with no results.
So if you train three times a week, a better choice would be three full body (FB) workouts, where each of them will be slightly focused on a specific group of muscles. For example: FB - legs focused, FB - chest focused, FB - back focused.
It’s enough for you to add one more leg exercise to a FB workout for it to be legs focused. The same applies for chest or back.
The result will be three times higher frequency for each muscle per week, less soreness and better stimulus for growth.
As I mentioned before, it’s not the more you train the better. You can actually jeopardize your progress by training too frequently or not allowing enough time for your muscles to recover.
Building on what I said above about the undertraining issue, you need 48-72 hours for your muscles to recover depending on the type and intensity of the workout. Therefore, if you hit your pecs on Monday and then again on Tuesday, you cause more damage than good.
Not Changing Training Plans Often Enough
Whether we talk about muscle endurance, growth or strength, it's your muscles adapting to the stress placed on them that actually makes the progress. Therefore, logically, once they adapt, they will need new stimuli to adapt again. It usually takes about 6-12 weeks before things need changing.
Let's define a few ways in which programs can be changed or made more challenging:
You can change the split
You can change the exercises
You can change the tempo
You can change the rep range
You can shorten the resting period
You can do A LOT…
All this provides you with progressive overload in some way. (We defined progressive overload at the beginning of this article).
Changing Training Plans Too Often
You have to respect, and provide the time needed, for adaptation. Meaning that if you change your workout structure every week, your muscles won't get a chance to adapt. Don’t get me wrong, this might work for some people to some extent, but we are trying to perfect every detail and this is a big one.
Listen to your body, observe what it reacts to best, notice when things work well and when you're stuck in one place.
5. Higher sense for discipline
Consistency is the key. As cliché as it might sound, it has its power.
Consistency means following and mastering important factors that have proven themselves to be effective and deliver results. So the million dollar question is “How do we stay consistent, even when things get tough?”
I am going to skip motivation because explaining why it sucks would be a whole new article.
Motivation is simply impacted by too many external factors that change all the time. That’s why it isn't wise to rely on it when it comes to something as important as your goals.
What you really want to develop, master and maintain is SELF DISCIPLINE.
Motivation gets you to the gym on a sunny day, after good sleep, ideally on your day off.
Discipline gets you out of bed on a rainy day, after poor sleep, and before work.
Discipline will make you finish that heavy set of squats even though you haven't seen a good piece of progress for a while.
Discipline means you don't stop when things get hard, but when you're done.
Discipline is borrowed and the rent is due every day.
You've got to feed it by constantly getting out of your comfort zone and doing the hard things daily.
To conclude all this and pass on a last piece of advice, I suggest you take this last point and work backwards. Develop self discipline. The ability to get done what needs to be done is priceless.
If you’re a naturally skinny individual, and have been using the first three factors I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, it’s time for you to level up, develop and keep strengthening your discipline! Use the “5 times higher” method to help you get the most out of your efforts. Break the plateau, fight for your gains!