When we talk about building muscle, what do we actually mean? Are we referring just to increasing the size of our current muscle, or do we mean adding weight to our lifts and getting stronger? How do you define muscle building?

Oftentimes, the idea of muscle building is not clear in a lot of trainees’ eyes, which can lead to haphazard training, nutrition, and supplement consumption. By defining exactly what you want to accomplish, you can take the correct steps forward toward your goals.

For example, how you train for hypertrophy will slightly differ from strength, power, and so forth. These specific goals, which all technically fall within the realm of “muscle building,” can provide contextual clues for creating a structure and means to the madness. 

In this two-part series, we’re going to cover training, nutrition, and supplementation for men trying to build muscle.

‌‌‌‌What Is Muscle Building?

For the sake of clarity, in this series when we refer to muscle building we’re defining it as a hypertrophic adaptation and response in muscle fibers through the means of progressive overload. Essentially, muscle building is the act of strategically placing stress on the muscles, then allowing them to recover so they can grow in both size and strength.

Size and strength are not mutually exclusive in the case of muscle building. If a muscle is in a state of hypertrophy (enlargement), then strength will increase variably. The rate of strength increase will vary based on the training methodologies we choose to use. 

This is why you’ll see varied rates of strength increases across all methodical training styles. So whether you’re training purely for hypertrophy, strength, or power, muscle fibers will be growing and continuing to strengthen—just at different rates based on the style of training you choose to use. 

Author’s Note: Nutrition can also play a major role in muscle-building rates along with other recovery methods. When we discuss muscle building throughout this series, it’s important to remember that while these aspects are not necessarily muscle building by definition, they can play a major role in influencing the rates at which we build muscle. Remember the bigger picture! 

‌‌‌‌Muscle-Building Basics

In order for a muscle to grow, we need to make sure we’re aligning multiple variables to set ourselves up for success. The whole “winging it” and trying to eat enough will only go so far when the goal is adding muscle to your frame. 

Let’s discuss three muscle-building basics that everyone needs to account for in order to make progress.

‌‌‌‌1. Find a Quality Training Program for Muscle-Building

Simple enough, right? This aspect gets continually overlooked by countless lifters. Your training plan can dictate the rate at which you build muscle and it’s important to recognize this. 

Why It’s Important: A great workout program will account for multiple training variables that are required to build muscle such as progressive overload, an adequate increase in volume, and a system for tracking effort. And these are only a few of the major aspects. If you’re following a training program that doesn’t have these aspects, then it might be worth reconsidering what you’re following or hiring a coach to help you.

Where Lifters Go Wrong: Generally, when a lifter is not adding muscle despite training fairly often, it’s due to a lack of congruency in their program. Program hopping is the death of muscle building. This entails frequently jumping from program to program in hopes of finding the “best” or “perfect” plan, whatever it may be.

Social media can influence program hopping, along with a lack of patience and understanding of how muscle is actually built. Without a congruent program(s) to track progress with, we’re selling our muscle-building abilities short.

‌‌‌‌2. Account for Nutrition when Muscle Building

You can go to the gym and train with your current diet and add muscle. This is due to the fact that you’re placing a novel stimulus onto the body and as you continue doing so, the body will adapt.

Why It’s Important: After the time frame that we refer to as “newbie gains” (the rapid addition of muscle/strength due to the novelty of lifting) muscle building gets increasingly harder. Just like with training, we eventually need a little more in order to continue to make progress—in this case, it’s a nutritional strategy.

By accounting for total daily calories, macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), and even the times when you’re consuming your meals, you can accelerate the rate at which you’re building muscle. For example, if you’re not tracking your macros and you’re undereating or not getting enough protein, then the rate at which you build muscle will be much slower compared to your peers that are cognizant of these.

Protein is incredibly important to account for when muscle building is the goal. Adequate protein intake can help you add quality muscle when at maintenance and in a surplus, and it can help you preserve lean muscle mass when eating in a deficit.

There are many different ways to get more protein into your diet. In addition to animal sources like beef, poultry, fish, and dairy, there are a variety of protein powders to choose from. For those who do consume animal protein, whey protein and casein protein are great options. For vegetarians and vegans, there are many different types of plant-based proteins available, including those made with pea proteinsoy proteinhemp protein, and more. Many post-workout recovery formulas also contain protein, along with muscle-supporting nutrients like BCAAs and other important amino acids.

Learn more about the importance of nutrition on training:

Where Lifters Go Wrong: What works when you start will only go so far. The more stress we place on the body through physical training, the more we need to be mindful of how we’re fueling ourselves from a nutritional standpoint and how that aligns with our goals. 

For example, muscle is built in a caloric deficit at a much slower rate than when eating at maintenance or in a slight surplus. By accounting for nutrition, we can accurately align our goals with how we eat to add quality muscle that we’re trying to build.

‌‌‌‌3. Remember That Recovery (Sleep) Is Key for Muscle Building

To build quality muscle, it’s not enough to simply go to the gym, train, and eat decently. We need to also remember that recovery aspects like sleep can also play a large role in muscle building.

Why It’s Important: As we sleep, our body releases human growth hormone (HGH) which plays a major role in muscle growth and strength adaptations. Additionally, sleep can enhance our recovery and growth through muscle protein synthesis, which is our body’s means of utilizing protein to rebuild and repair muscle fibers (amongst many other things!).

On top of these two key elements, in REM sleep, the body also has a tendency to increase blood flow. An increase in blood flow is incredibly useful for transporting useful recovery products to muscle fibers. Also, sleep helps muscles relax which can relieve tension that is placed on them throughout the day and with training.

In addition to sleep, recovery methods like getting massages, taking ice baths, the use of saunas, and practicing meditation can all help support our muscle-building goals. 

Where Lifters Go Wrong: A lot of times, lifters will nail the first two keys above, but forget how important sleep and other recovery protocols are. Great training plans can only go so far if we’re not providing our muscles with the tools they need to recover and adapt.

Additionally, a great diet can fall short when a recovery aspect like sleep is off. Inadequate sleep can cause an increase in hormones like cortisol (stress hormone) which is actually detrimental for muscle building and growth. For context, cortisol is catabolic—which means it breaks down molecules—and an increase in this hormone can impede our body’s muscle protein synthesis.

‌‌‌‌Understand the Muscle-Building Basics

In the next muscle building article, we’re going to go over these three points above, but dive into specifics and best recommendations for ensuring you’re nailing all of these muscle-building basics and making progress.