Looking to boost metabolism or fight age-related weight gain? The answer to losing weight, increasing athletic performance, or staying toned throughout adulthood is at least partly tied to building and maintaining muscle.
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and unrealistic promises online and from supplements for building muscle. Read on to discover the truth about how to build muscle, along with clearing up confusion about how many calories and protein are needed for muscle growth.
7 Fundamentals to Build Muscle
There are many muscle-building factors and how long it takes to build muscle can vary. Be wary of claims suggesting building muscle can be done quickly or with minimal effort. Instead, focus on these fundamentals for consistent and sustained muscle growth.
1. Be Patient
The best way to build muscle mass is slowly over time, as overdoing it on calories and training increases the risk of fat gain and injury, respectively.
Ultimately, be patient with the process detailed below and stay consistent! Stick with a workout program and healthy lifestyle choices even if gains are not seen immediately. Though it takes time to build muscle, it is nothing short of worth it!
2. Eat Enough Calories
If you are cutting calorie intake too low in worry of gaining fat, you are doing yourself a disservice. In fact, undereating can lead to many undesirable consequences, including loss of muscle mass, a plummeted metabolic rate and immune system, and possible disruption of menstrual cycles and reproductive functions related to hormone imbalances.
So disclosure: Gaining weight and building muscle is best accomplished in a caloric surplus.
Now, this of course does not give a green light to eat as much as you want without thought to what you are eating. Focus on eating foods to help build muscle.
Think of it like this: If you want to build a strong house, you need enough materials to build it. Not giving the body the supplies—especially protein and calories—it needs makes it next to impossible to build muscle and strength.
How Many Calories Should You Eat to Build Muscle?
Unfortunately, there is no simple number for everyone. Daily calorie needs are based on gender, age, activity levels, and other factors.
To figure out how to build muscle, you first need to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or an approximated amount of calories the body burns if you were idle for 24 hours.
You then need to multiply an estimated BMR by an activity factor:
• BMR x 1.2 if you are sedentary (low-intensity and leisurely activities)
• BMR x 1.375 if you are lightly active (light exercise and sports 1 to 3 days/week)
• BMR x 1.55 if you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days/week)
• BMR x 1.725 if you are very active (moderate- to high-intensity exercise/sports 6 to 7 days/week)
• BMR x 1.9 if you are extremely active (very hard exercise/sports for 6 to 7 days/week and a physical job)
To this new number, add an approximate 250 to 500 calories to your day to be in a caloric surplus and add muscle.
Keep track of calories consumed and weight patterns. If you do not see any weight gain, increase calorie needs by 250 calories a day and track progress. A Registered Dietitian can also help determine calorie needs.
Based on this BMR calculator, a 30-year-old male weighing 150 pounds and standing tall at 6'1" would need about 1724 calories/day purely to sustain himself. If he participates in moderate exercise three to five times a week, his BMR would be multiplied by the activity factor 1.55 and raise calorie needs to 2,672 a day. For weight gain and muscle growth, a daily range of 2,947 and 3,172 calories is likely suitable but it's still important to track progress and adjust accordingly.
3. Consume Ample Protein
Protein is the building block for muscle synthesis and can be thought of as the bricks of the house. Lean meats, poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and seeds are all valuable protein options to include in the diet.
So, how much protein to build muscle? Whereas athletes' protein needs are greater than non-athletes, they are not as high as commonly perceived. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, athletes should consume between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day.
Most people do not need to get more than this amount of protein per day, although some elite athletes have higher protein needs than these levels. Keep in mind, more is not always better with protein for building muscle. It is possible to get too much protein by cutting out important foods that have carbs and healthy fats needed for building muscle (see below).
Evidence also shows the timing of protein intake may be more beneficial for building lean muscle mass rather than quantity, as the body can only absorb about 30 grams of protein at a time.
Three to four ounces of meat, a cup of cottage cheese, or one to one and a half cups of tofu are examples of foods that have around 30 grams of protein. Eating a high protein food at meals in addition to healthy high-protein snacks can be a way to meet protein needs for building muscle. Protein powders can also help meet protein needs, but they are not necessary for muscle gain.
Ultimately, protein intake should be spaced evenly throughout the day and consumed within an hour or two following workouts.
4. Don't Skimp Out on Carbs
While protein is often thought to be the sole driver of muscle growth, we must not undermine the impact of carbs. Eating enough carbs is important to spare using protein for energy and keeping the protein used for building muscle.
Carbs help deliver a steady dose of energy to the working muscles while exercising and help stabilize blood sugars. Carbs also spare glycogen (stored glucose) in the muscle cells, helping to prevent muscle fatigue that tends to follow as muscle glycogen begins to fall.
Focus attention on healthy complex carbs such as whole grains, cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products that are rich in nutrients. Also pair with protein sources following a workout, which may include Greek yogurt and berries and cottage cheese and pineapple chunks.
5. Don't Fear the Fat
Fearing the fat in worry to gain it can be harmful to your progress. Those so-called "healthy fats," including monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, can assist processes used for muscle growth and recovery, including immune and hormonal functions.
Complement protein and carb sources with healthy fats, including fatty fish, avocado, walnuts, almonds, olive, and canola oils. Furthermore, limit the consumption of saturated and trans fats, including processed meats and convenient snack foods.
Since fats supply nine calories per gram (compared to four from carb and protein sources), their inclusion can help increase caloric needs if struggling to sustain a caloric surplus needed to build muscle.
6. Lift Weights
Muscle protein synthesis (building muscle) is stimulated by strength training either at home or at a gym. Not only can a hyper-caloric diet without such training simply promote weight gain, but results in fat gain. Therefore, both diet and lifting weights are key for faster and more sustainable muscle growth.
To start, include weight and strength training at least twice a week and focus on the major muscle groups, including the back, chest, arms, and legs. As a general reference, complete two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, with a minute or two of rest between sets.
Especially if a beginner to strength training, start slow and consider a personal trainer. They can help create an effective and individualized exercise plan to meet personal needs, along with demonstrating proper form and technique to ensure safety and lower the risk of injury.
As you progress with familiarity and comfort with your strength training, gradually increasing in amount and/or time for strength training can help build muscle over time.
Adding in aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, jogging, etc., can also add health benefits and benefit muscle endurance. It should not be excluded from a workout routine, but strength training is the focus when building muscle is your main goal.
7. Rest and Recover
"Work hard" is often the name of the game when it comes to building muscle mass. But eager drives and motivations can cause us to sleep on an integral component of muscle growth.
Resistance training breaks down body tissues and causes microscopic tears within the muscle. Rest days allow your muscles, nerves, bones, and connective tissue time to rebuild themselves, especially when paired with a nutritious diet.
An effective and safe workout regimen strategizes rest days, as recovery is just as critical as the workout itself and lowers the risk of injury. So along with training each major muscle group two or three days per week, allot at least 48 hours for recovery between each training session and aim for seven to nine hours of adequate sleep on a nightly basis.
Recap: How to Build Muscle
Increasing muscle can be an important piece of resisting weight gain and keeping metabolism high throughout adulthood. While there is no tried and true “quick fix” to build muscle, it can be done most efficiently with consistency in the proper balance of strength training and eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Protein is often highlighted as the main star for building muscle quickly, and it is true protein plays an important role. However, getting enough total calories, carbohydrates, and healthy fats is just as important for muscle.
Rest and recovery are often overlooked for building muscle, but they are an important piece of the puzzle. They allow time for the muscle to repair and actually build itself back up stronger after being broken down from exercise.