Ever wondered how to gain muscle? You’re not alone. Every day, thousands of people are searching for information they can use to grow bigger muscles, improve their weightlifting performance, or just look better in a t-shirt.
However, information is only half the battle: it takes hard work and dedication, whether in the gym with comprehensive resistance training machines, at home with the best adjustable dumbbells, or in the kitchen when preparing your meals. Gaining serious size and strength is no easy task, but it’s worth doing: whatever your gender, ideal size or fitness goal, a little extra muscle is only going to help. More muscle will improve your strength and your fitness, will help you increase your metabolism to lose weight, and even slow down the process of age-related muscular atrophy.
Below, we’ll outline a few of the most commonly-asked questions about building muscle, including the different ways to train, how much protein you really need to eat, and how often you should be upping your weights.
What are the different ways to train your muscles?
We’re not going to go into the individual exercises you can use to train different areas of your body (our home workout ideas cover that), but we’re going to examine how to increase the size of your muscles regardless of which muscle group or muscle fiber types you’re focusing on.
First question: whether you’re doing push-ups at home or weighted squats in the gym (check out our guide to weightlifting for beginners if you’re keen to adopt that approach), how many reps should you be doing to build muscle? And what is hypertrophy?
Expert strength coach and personal trainer, Rogan Allport, says there are three kinds of strength qualities you can train for, and these will dictate the amount of reps you do. Allport says: “There’s maximal strength, the maximum amount you can lift, which you need to train from one to five reps. Then there’s hypertrophy, which occurs when you’re actively trying to cause tissue growth and tissue development. For this, you should train in the 6-12 rep range. Then there’s muscular endurance, which is essentially anything from 12-20 plus reps.
“Muscle can be built in all of these different rep ranges. However, optimally, you should be working within six to eight, 10-12, or 12-20 reps. That’s where you’ll spend the majority of your time when building muscle.”
This is backed up by research published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which states that “increasingly greater gains are achieved with higher training volumes,” according to a study on resistance-trained men.
What role does diet play in muscle gain?
“Diet is actually the most important aspect when gaining muscle”, says Allport. “Unless you have the raw materials to build that muscle, training alone is never going to work.”
Your body needs a balance between protein, fat and carbohydrates to function effectively, but to gain muscle after training, your body requires protein, which is a group of essential amino acids that act as the building blocks of muscle.
Dietary protein sources include animal products such as lean meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Any and all meat can provide protein, but better-quality, unprocessed meat will always be better for you than processed stuff like fried chicken or burgers, which frequently come loaded with salt, saturated fat and other substances linked to weight gain and diabetes.
However, you don’t have to be a carnivore to get protein: beans, peas, nuts, seeds, oats and soy products, such as tofu, can also provide these essential amino acids, along with the best protein powder supplements. But how much protein should you eat?
“A really good guideline which I’ve used with my clients is one gram, or 0.8 grams, of protein per centimeter of body height”, says Allport. Eat too much protein and it doesn’t have any benefit other than being satiating, keeping you fuller for longer according to research published in Nutrition and Metabolism.
Also, if you’re looking to gain weight by building muscle in a healthy, sustainable way, you should make sure you’re in a calorie surplus, which means you’re taking in about 200-300 more calories then you’re burning. This shouldn’t be purely protein or just processed junk food to make up the calories, but good, whole foods such as vegetables and whole grains.
How often should you be upping your weights?
Selecting the right weight for you is one of the biggest beginner’s issues when trying to gain muscle. Too light and you’re not working hard enough, while too heavy and you’re exercising with improper form. So how do you tell how much weight you should lift?
Allport says you should have a “rep range” in mind when exercising, such as 8-10 reps. Pick a weight you can lift for eight reps. When you can do those comfortably, with good form, you can move on to nine reps, then onto 10. Once you can do 10, you know it’s time to up the weight.
“You need to earn more load on the bar, and the only way to earn it is by mastery and better quality reps”, says Allport. Start off with a light weight you know you can lift comfortably, even if it’s just the bar with no weight on it, and learn the movements with the help of an expert if needs be. Once you know how to perform the exercise safely, under control, you can start adding weight until you feel a lot of resistance towards the end of your set. Slowly progressing over time, eating right and recovering properly with plenty of sleep, is the only way to gain muscle effectively.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Matt Evans is the current fitness editor over at our sister site, TechRadar. Armed with a Master’s Degree in journalism from Cardiff University, Matt started his digital journalism career at Men’s Health and stayed on for over two years, where he earned his stripes in health and fitness reporting. Since then, his byline has appeared in a wide variety of publications and sites including Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and LiveScience on everything from exercise, to nutrition, to mental health, alongside covering extreme sports for Red Bull.
Stretching is Matt’s top fitness tip. He originally discovered exercise through martial arts, holding a black belt in Karate, and trained for many years in kickboxing. During COVID he also fell in love with yoga, as it combined martial-arts style stretching with a bit of personal space.
When he’s not training or writing about health and fitness, he can be found reading doorstop-thick fantasy books with lots of fictional maps in them.