When I was a skinny teenager, all I wanted to learn was how to build muscle.
I thought that all I needed to do was bench press, bicep curl, and maybe throw in a few crunches. I expected to go from a size medium t-shirt to an XL in a few weeks.
But I was wrong. Very wrong. Building muscle is a long and time-consuming process. It requires 2-4 hours a week of bloody hard work in the gym, forming a bunch of new habits, and paying way more attention to nutrition than you’ve ever had to before.
Then there’s the fact that if you’re new to building muscle, you probably won’t even build any muscle at all the first 6 weeks of training. Instead of getting bigger, your body tries to become more efficient at lifting weights by recruiting more and more muscle fibres to do the lifting.
You’ll get stronger those first 6 weeks, but it’s only after your body has maximised its efficiency that you’ll start noticing dem gainz.
It’s no wonder that most people give up after a month.
But there is good news: if you spend six months to one year being consistent and following the guidelines below, you’ll have made some very significant changes.
And even if you have to take some time off and end up losing some of the muscle you built, it’ll be MUCH easier to get it back again thanks to a wonderful concept called “muscle memory”: simply put, it’s easier to rebuild than it is to build muscle. I’ve helped people rebuild pounds of muscle in just a few weeks; muscle they’d lost after months of excessive calorie restriction and too much cardio (before they started working with me).
Check out the photos at the top of the blog post: the one on the left is from mid-2017, and the one on the right is from early 2015. In late 2014 I had bronchitis and the medication I was on made it very difficult for me to absorb nutrients from food. I dropped 15 lb, down to around 150 lb, which is how much I weighed in the photo on the right.
I then started lifting weights and within a few months, I’d gained back the muscle I’d lost. Then I spent another year lifting weights with even more intensity and built up to 180 lb, which is how much I weighed in the photo on the left. The size difference is very obvious in the arms and shoulders.
If you want to learn how to build muscle, read on. The tips are listed in a rough order of importance, so just start at the top and slowly work down.
HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE: 16 MOST EFFECTIVE TIPS
1. Fix Your Mobility and Stability Issues
When I meet new members at Equinox, one of the first things I do is take them through the Functional Movement Screen. The purpose behind the FMS is to identify a person’s strengths and any potential issues like lack of mobility, lack of stability, or imbalance on one side of the body.
I can use the results of the FMS to figure out what kinds of exercises would be most beneficial for that individual. I can also figure out which exercises carry a high injury risk due to lack of mobility or stability.
But, beyond reducing the injury risk, does being more mobile and stable let you build more muscle? Absolutely!
Once you fix your mobility issues, you become able to work your muscles in a greater range of motion. You get access to more muscle fibres, which means you’ll be able to stimulate more muscle growth.
Pretty much everyone has at least one mobility or stability issue. Do you have a desk job? You almost certainly have tight hips, hamstrings and/or shoulders.
Having tight hips and hamstrings means you won’t have the full range of motion when squat and deadlift, which are two of the best exercises for building muscle. Can you touch your toes with straight legs? If you can’t, you have tightness somewhere in your lower body that you need to fix before you can safely squat or deadlift.
Having tight shoulders means you can’t safely bench press, which is the default measure of upper body strength in most people’s minds. Ever feel a pinch in one or both shoulders while bench pressing? That’s a problem that’s going to lead to injury later down the road.
And tight shoulders means that even pull-ups can cause injury!
As for stability, pretty much everyone I’ve ever met has issues in the core musculature. Why is this important? Because a stable core translates to increased strength, which means that more hypertrophy (muscle building) can take place.
Most gym injuries are caused by lack of mobility or stability: a person tries to perform an exercise their body isn’t yet capable of doing, and they end up tweaking something. Injuries lead to time off training, and you’re not going to be building any muscle if you’re not training.
Fix these issues, and you’ll build muscle faster.
2. Lift weights 2-4 times a week
Your best option is to find a good trainer who can write a customised program for you. Sure, there are lots of programs you can find online, but the problem is that they’re generic: they’re written for the general population and assume you have no injuries or mobility issues.
A good trainer will perform a movement screen on you, such as the Functional Movement Screen, before writing your program. The program they write will be written to make the most of your strengths while giving you corrective exercises to fix the issues.
Then they’ll meet you two to four times per week to safely take you through the program. And then they’ll modify the workouts every three to five weeks when it becomes clear that your body has adapted to the exercises, thus avoiding a plateau.
There are plenty of basic programs out there if you can’t afford regular personal training: StrongLifts 5×5 and P.H.U.L. are popular at the moment. Just bear in mind that these programs are generic, aimed at the general population and assume you don’t have any injuries or mobility/stability issues.
They also assume you know how to squat and deadlift. If you’ve never worked with a trainer or coach before, please believe me when I say you’re probably making at least one dangerous error when you attempt these lifts. I’ve never met anyone who successfully learned how to squat and deadlift through watching YouTube videos. You need someone physically there next to you giving feedback and making corrections.
So at the very least, pay a decent trainer in your area to teach you how to squat and deadlift. It should only take an hour or rwo. A couple of hundred dollars to learn these lifts properly is a bargain.
3. Train your legs
I know I’ve already talked about squats and deadlifts, but I want to emphasize this: don’t you dare tell me you don’t need to squat or deadlift because you run or cycle.
Heavy squats and deadlifts cause your body to produce more growth hormone and testosterone, which makes building muscle in your upper body even easier. Plus, testosterone is a fat-burning hormone, meaning it’ll help keep you lean.
Also, nothing looks more ridiculous than a person with a large upper body and skinny legs.
4. Sleep as much as you can
Getting a lot of sleep helps recovery from exercise, which is important because muscle growth happens as part of your recovery from exercise.
If your recovery is good, you’ll be able to keep coming back to the gym, training hard and building more muscle.
And lack of sleep decreases the amount of protein you can synthesize; therefore, chronic lack of sleep results in muscle loss.
7 hours is the bare minimum. 8-10 hours would be perfect.
5. Eat protein with every meal.
You need more protein if you want to build muscle. Animal sources are better than plant sources because plant sources of protein rarely contain all the essential amino acids for muscle growth. In other words, you should eat lots of meat, fish, and eggs.
If you’re hungry an hour after a meal, there probably wasn’t enough protein. And as for a daily protein target, aim for 1g protein per lb of bodyweight.
6. Eat the right kind of carbs
You’re not trying to lose fat during a muscle-building phase, so you don’t need to restrict carbs. But you probably want to minimise or avoid fat gain, so get your carbs from clean sources. Potatoes (any kind), rice (I prefer white) and squash (any kind) are fine. Beans/legumes are also fine for most people.
Cut out bread, grains, pasta, and any processed carb. Keep fruit intake at a minimum, and even then, stick to low sugar fruit like blueberries.
Sugar – white/refined/processed sugar – shouldn’t be in your diet at all.
7. Don’t be scared of red meat
There’s a lot of junk science surrounding red meat. While you should certainly cut out processed meat, I’ve never seen any compelling evidence that shows unprocessed beef is bad for you.
I eat 1-2 lb of lean ground beef every day and I have zero health issues. Over the last few years I’ve been through several medical examinations (immigration requirements), and I’ve always been given a clean bill of health.
Building muscle and strength always becomes easier when my steak consumption increases.
8. Don’t be scared of healthy food in general on days you work out.
Building muscle is easier if you’re in a slight calorie surplus. In normal speak, that means you need to consume more calories than your body burns.
So clear your plate!
9. Drink at least 2L of water every day.
Hydration is important for building muscle. We know that being dehydrated will make you weaker when you work out. And if your performance in the gym is less than optimal, you’ll build less muscle.
Read more here about the importance of water for bodybuilders.
10. Eat lots of colourful veggies
Colourful veggies are full of micronutrients, which all play a role in maintaining good health. You’re putting your body through a lot of stress in your muscle-building attempts; make sure you let it recover by giving it as many essential nutrients as possible.
Aim for two servings of different coloured veggies per meal.
11. Take care of your gut
Eat kimchi a couple of times a week for the probiotics. Drink bone broth a couple of times a week for the collagen. Both improve your digestive health, which means your body will be able to absorb and use more nutrients. This will translate to more muscle.
12. Keep stress levels low
Your body produces a hormone called cortisol when you feel stress. Cortisol causes muscle tissue to break down.
So relax. Breathe. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress levels, so give that a try. You could also try an easy yoga class.
13. Minimise long distance cardio
One run a week shouldn’t cause too much damage, but keep the rest of your cardio to short bursts of intense exercise. Think about the physiques of marathon runners vs sprinters.
In my “How to Lose Fat” blog post I described the effects of a 5-day ultramarathon on body composition: the runners didn’t lose any fat, but they did lose muscle.
Instead of jogging, do some kettlebell swings or a few rounds of battle ropes.
And cardio isn’t even necessary in the first place if you want to build muscle. In fact, it can be counterproductive: don’t forget, you probably need to consume more calories than you burn if you want to build muscle.
14. Modify your booze intake
Stay away from beer. It contains estrogenic components, which means that beer will lower your testosterone. This isn’t exactly ideal if you want to build muscle.
I usually drink vodka/gin/tequila with club soda and fresh lime, or a small glass of red wine. And it’s rare that I have more than two drinks in an evening.
15. Take protein supplements
On days you lift weights, have a protein shake both before and after lifting weights. Have a meal 30-60 minutes after the shake.
On days you don’t lift weights, have a protein shake with one of your meals. It’s probably easiest to do so with breakfast, but it doesn’t matter which meal. I prefer whey protein isolate, not vegan protein because there’s more protein per serving in whey protein isolate. I also prefer brands that are sweetened with Stevia: sucralose and aspartame seem to make me gain body fat. Stevia doesn’t do this to me as much.
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that the tips are listed in a rough order of importance. We’re at tip number 15 and this is the first time I’ve mentioned supplements.
In other words, supplements aren’t as important as everything else I’ve written about here. If you’re serious about learning how to build muscle, forget about supplements for now. Focus on tips 1-14 first.
16. Use Creatine
Along with protein powder, creatine is one of the few supplements that actually work.
You don’t need much: have one serving before working out. On days you don’t train, just have the one serving with a glass of water; it doesn’t matter when.
Creatine works by drawing more water into the muscles, so ensure you’ve increased your water intake to before you start supplementing.
You can ignore any advice that you need to “load” creatine (that is, consume five servings per day for the first few days). It’s a myth and a waste of creatine.
There you go. The 16 most effective tips I can give to anyone trying to figure out how to build muscle. If there are any more that have worked for you, please leave a comment.