If your goal is to put on some muscle, you’re going to get some value from this article! Do a google search and you’ll find a lot of different information breaking down what it takes to build muscle. Unfortunately, I have noticed through my own research there are a lot of gaps in information that are critical to truly understanding what it takes to be a muscle beast warrior. In this article, I list 13 necessary components to gain muscle. And don’t worry; following this guide doesn’t mean you’ll become a bodybuilder. Even from a weight-loss standpoint, putting on a little more muscle is always a good thing, because it will better support the joints and increase your metabolism. So let’s get into the details. Prepare to get swoll.
1) Eat More Protein
I’m sure this is a no-brainer, but protein is important if you want to pack on muscle. It should also be understood that this doesn’t give you license to go crazy and eat an entire cow, thinking more is better. Generally speaking, it appears that around 30 grams of protein is the maximum you can consume in one sitting (1). Anything more just puts extra strain on your kidneys and will be either stored as fat or burned as energy.
As a rule, shoot for between 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight and that should be plenty to promote muscle growth. You can read more about why we need a fair amount of protein in our diet in my other article, here. And if you choose to supplement with a protein powder, you can find my article on the subject, here.
And there’s no need to bulk up and then shred down. By implementing all the recommendations in this article, you’ll be set for adding muscle.
2) Refuel Post-Workout
It’s supercritical you refuel post-exercise. There is indeed an anabolic window, which is that critical point where your body will take up more nutrients and build more muscle faster. So if you don’t put the right nutrition back in your body after you exercise, you’re missing an opportunity. Specifically, get some protein in you 20-40 minutes after you’re done exercising. Taking in food any sooner after a workout can cause digestive distress and you won’t absorb as much.
3) Get Enough Sleep/Rest and Recovery
Getting adequate sleep is absolutely critical if you want to see any muscle gains. Increased muscular hypertrophy (a fancy way of saying muscle gain) does not happen when you workout, it happens when you allow your body to rest and recover. Therefore, try to get at least around 8-9 hours of high-quality sleep. I emphasize this point because if you’re sleeping but not getting good quality sleep, you are still messing up your body’s ability to recover.
To help ensure the best sleep, avoid alcohol, caffeine, and chocolate too close to bedtime as well. I wouldn’t consume caffeine or chocolate after 1pm in the afternoon, and alcohol shouldn’t be consumed at least 3-4 hours before hitting the hay. In addition, using sleeping pills to get shut eye is not a good solution because those too can negatively affect your ability to get good sleep.
To add, this also means not to be beating yourself at the gym everyday. Depending on the intensity of the workout, you’ll need more rest. The more intense, the longer the recovery. Typically with the protocol I instruct, it takes about 5-7 days for the body to completely recover from one of my workouts.
4) Push Yourself
Doing a safe, yet challenging workout, will push your boundaries and send you down the path to get results.
Taking your muscles to a state of momentary muscular failure (MMF) is a great tool to ensure you exhausted all effort during your exercise set and you haven’t overtrained. To get big muscles you don’t have to go to MMF, but I like to recommend it for the reasons mentioned above.
The best way to achieve MMF while doing a workout is to continually contract against some sort of resistance (such as a weight, dumbbell, etc.) while maintaining a safe position/good form until you can no longer move (this generally occurs on the positive contraction phase of the rep). Once you hit that wall and can no longer create movement while contracting the weight, continue to contract and attempt to move the weight for 10 seconds before bringing the weight down slowly and in a controlled manner.
Once you’ve gone to MMF on a particular muscle group (eg, pecs during a chest press), do not do another set for this specific primary muscle group again until your next workout. That’s all the work they need for that day and you have provided the correct amount of stimulus for greater improvement in muscular strength and size—again, just make sure you are giving yourself the correct amount of recovery time.
5) Eat Healthy Foods
This should go without saying, but you are what you eat. Don’t skimp on high-quality nutrition. Your meal should consist of fresh, organic vegetables, with a protein source, preferably from an animal source. The amount of carbohydrates is largely dependent on if you’re trying to lose weight, maintain, or gain. But depending on your goals, your macronutrient ratios should balance out to be:
- Weight Loss
- Protein – 35%
- Carbohydrates – 25%
- Fat – 40%
- Gain Mass
- Protein – 25%
- Carbohydrates – 55%
- Fat – 20%
6) Drink Enough Water
Another no-brainer, but most people do not consume enough water. To know your ideal hydration amount use this handy formula:
Take your bodyweight / 2 = how many ounces of water per day
Note: Drink even more water on workout days. Don’t drink this amount all at once… space it out throughout the day! If you’re peeing completely clear, you’re drinking too much water!
7) Keep Stress Under Control
In order to gain muscle, you need to be anabolic. And I’m not talking about taking some exogenous anabolic steroid to get big. Although it may help you a little in the short term regarding putting on size, the long term effects of taking an exogenous steroid is not good. Mainly you put yourself at risk of permanently damaging your endocrine system from functioning properly—long after the use of steroids.
The primary way to be anabolic is finding ways to keep cortisol under control. Cortisol is one of our primary stress hormones, and it suppresses the production of anabolic hormones such as testosterone (2).
In addition, cortisol facilitates the breakdown of muscle into glucose for energy. So although stress is useful and part of a healthy body, when we are chronically stressed, it’s going to be very hard to put on any muscle.
Some great tools to help keep cortisol under control are having a good relaxation practice, such as meditation. Or if you can’t sit still… try using a biofeedback device, such as the HeartMath Inner Balance and train your body how to destress.
Or you can try taking an adaptogenic herb such as ashwaganda to balance your cortisol and support your adrenal glands. In fact new research is showing ashwaganda to be a great tool to help increase muscle mass and strength (3).
8) Don’t Overtrain
Speaking of stress. Did you know that exercise is still stress? But when done properly, and in the right amount, this type of stress or eustress can evoke a lot of positive changes with muscle gains. The key is that more exercise is not better. Finishing up a workout and not being able to feel your legs for a week isn’t something to be proud of—you’re overtraining. Sure, a little soreness is not necessarily a bad thing, but just be careful and don’t overdo it. All you’re doing is prolonging recovery and increasing cortisol, which as we just mentioned, will work against you if you’re trying to pack on muscle.
9) Stop Cardio
This is true of “cardio”-type activities as well. Doing a high-intensity interval type training or brief, short bouts of running is ok if you enjoy that kind of thing, but long 5 miles + type running is going to cause muscle loss. The reason as mentioned before is that you’re going to be depleting a lot of stored energy and your body will need to break down muscle to keep you fueled.
10) Lift Heavy: 6-12 Rep Range
It appears that depending on your goals, different rep ranges tend to produce different results. As a rule, anything from 1-6 rep range tends to produce more strength, but less muscle gain. And the 6-12 rep range tends to be more for strength AND muscle growth. But everyone is different so it may take some experimenting to find the right sweet spot for you. In addition, it does appear though that rep ranges greater than 12 promote greater metabolic and muscular endurance adaptations, with less muscle gain and strength (4).
11) Lift Slow
To achieve the most muscle fiber activation and decrease your risk of injury, moving slow is the way to go (hey, that rhymed!). Understand this: There’s no benefit to lifting weights quickly (5). In fact, when you move fast you will get less muscle fiber recruitment, while exponentially increasing your risk of injury. Research points to as much as a 65% better strength increase using a slower cadence speed than moving quickly (6).
They key is moving at the right speed so you can recruit all your muscle fibers, bringing them all to MMF.
Typically when I train my clients I have them move at a 10 second, positive contraction, 10 second, negative contraction movement speed. I find this not only makes my clients work harder, but allows them to stay in better form and get more from each exercise.
12) Have your hormones dialed in
Making sure your hormones are dialed in is key if you want to move the needle and pack on some muscle. Mainly doing all the recommended things such as getting good quality sleep, remaining hydrated, and decreasing stress are all good ways to keep your endocrine system functioning properly so you can get as fit as possible.
13) Be lucky
And the final point you need to consider when trying to build muscle is genetics. Yep, not everyone can look like the dudes in the muscle magazines. In fact, most people can’t. These guys are genetic anomalies who are able to train more and put on more muscle than the average joe. This point is oddly not emphasized much in a lot of articles relating to building muscle, which is a shame because a lot of readers get misguided because of it. Heck, it’s probably purposely not talked about to sell “gainer” supplements, but that rant could be an additional article all by itself so I’ll leave it be… But the reality is, if you’re not genetically predisposed to be big, you will never become a giant hulk monster.
To add, most people have a fair amount of a protein called myostatin, which inhibits muscle growth. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If your skeletal frame is smaller, you really shouldn’t have huge muscles in the first place because you could increase your risk of injury.
And the shame of it all is that we tend to believe the guys with the biggest muscles as the “experts” in the field. If anything, a lot of those guys may know a lot less than the skinny exercise geek, because they can pretty much adapt any exercise program and get pretty good results. It’s the “hard gainer” types that need to really do the deep research and figure out what’s the best method for muscle gain if they ever want to get the results they seek.
And I believe that although genetics can be a barrier, our environment and lifestyle will truly allow our genetic potential to be maximally expressed or not. Just adapting lifestyle changes that I mention in this article will have a huge affect on how our genetics express.
So that’s my list of reasons YOU may not be gaining muscle. Apply these techniques and you should be on your way to getting some good results. Just be patient. These things don’t happen overnight. It sometimes takes at least 6-12 months to begin to see significant changes in your body composition. Just track your progress, take measurements and photos while you train, and you will slowly begin to see changes.
Thanks for reading!
(4) Brzycki, M. (2000). Maximize your training: Insights from leading strength and fitness professionals. Chicago, IL: Masters Press.