Author: Raj Chandler • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • Jan. 26, 2021
Building muscle is a major fitness goal for many people, for good reason. Adding muscle mass can help you with functional strength, athletic performance and the prevention of injury and some of the negative effects of aging. Developing a consistent routine out of the habits required to add muscle can also build confidence and help you feel and look better.
But as is the case with many widespread fitness goals, there are many misconceptions about what it takes to add muscle. We see Hollywood stars and celebrities in the media drastically changing their bodies in just a few months and assume that there must be some kind of secret trick or tip that can unlock massive muscle gains.
In reality it takes a long period of time – at least a month, but probably longer – to see muscle gains of any significance. Patience is a key ingredient for adding muscle, especially if you are new to weight training or haven’t ever seriously pursued muscle gain in the past. In this article we’ll break down some of the science behind muscle gain, talk about how to create a program for it, and include information about how proper protein consumption will make it easier to hit your goals for adding muscle.
The two biggest factors in gaining muscle are your diet and your training habits. The CDC recommends American adults get either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, along with muscle-strengthening workouts performed at least two days a week, working all major muscle groups.
This is a great recommendation to serve as a baseline for staying healthy and preventing the deterioration of muscle. However, if your main fitness goal is building more muscle, you may want to aim for at least three full-body lifting sessions per week. More advanced weight lifters may lift five or even six times per week by splitting up their routine to focus on different muscle groups on different days.
The other big factor in building muscle is your diet – specifically, your consumption of protein. Whey protein has been shown to help increase muscle protein synthesis, particularly when used as a post-workout protein shake to replenish the muscles, since whey is a fast-digesting form of protein. However, your total consumption of protein in grams per day over the long run is more important than timing your protein for a specific part of the day.
Muscle growth is an extremely slow process. Your body adds muscle very slowly, and even if you do everything right, you can't change that biological fact. It takes years to gain a significant amount of lean weight.
You may see some gains in certain areas in just a month or two, while others may take much longer to develop. A lot of your muscle development also depends on genetics that determine the exact shape of the different muscle groups on your body.
Generally speaking, it’s possible to add about 1 to 2 pounds of lean muscle mass per month. For beginners who have never trained before, it’s possible to exceed that rate by just a bit, since the body has more muscle tissue left to be developed than someone who has trained on and off for several years.
Keep in mind, these calculations are assuming you adhere to a steady regimen of strength training and consuming a sufficient amount of protein each day through your diet. If necessary, you can also supplement your diet with a protein powder made from something like whey protein, casein or pea protein.
The main building blocks of your body, protein is used to repair and maintain your body tissues — including muscle. Multiple studies have shown that the consumption of protein helps your body to begin the process of muscle protein synthesis, which strengthens and builds up your muscles by adding new muscle fibers in response to external stress experienced during resistance training.
If your goal is to build muscle, then it’s important that you’re getting the right amount of protein, as well as the right amounts of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats.
The general rule for calculating the minimum amount of protein that you need is 0.36 grams of protein per pound that you weigh. In a 165-pound adult, that’s about 60 grams of protein per day. However, that’s just a minimum recommended level, or recommended dietary allowance (RDA). Many avid weight lifters who are serious about gaining muscle will consume 0.5 grams or even 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
Another way people can calculate their protein requirements is by dedicating a percentage of their total calories per day to the three macronutrients: carbs, fats and protein. Consuming around 10-25% of your total calories from healthy protein sources is the general rule of thumb if you’re using this method to set a daily protein intake goal.
The proper protein intake and a consistent training program aren’t the only things you’ll need to gain muscle.
Once you've got a steady resistance exercise routine and a dietary regimen that gives you adequate protein intake each day, there are a few other important steps that will help you change your body composition:
Getting enough sleep. You can do pull-ups or workout with dumbbells or resistance bands every week like clockwork, but if you aren't giving your body enough time to recover, you'll stunt your muscle growth. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep, but it's not uncommon for bodybuilders and other professional athletes to get several hours more than that.
Eating a balanced diet. Getting enough protein each day on a limited calorie intake is only part of the equation for adding lean mass. While flexibility in dieting is encouraged, you want to skew towards whole foods that can help you meet your protein needs without adding excessive calories. Look for a balanced diet with whole, natural foods that will keep you full and contribute to overall wellness.
Patience and commitment. It takes a consistent diet, steady supplementation and at least a few months of lifting weights if you want to make a serious change in body composition by shedding body fat and adding muscle. It's okay to give yourself time off once in a while, but you'll need to be relatively consistent with your supplementation and resistance training program to see real results.
Many fitness enthusiasts also add regular cardio into their routine. While cardio is not essential to adding muscle – and can even contribute to muscle loss if you overdo it – aerobic exercise can be a great way to improve your overall health and keep your cardiovascular system in great shape.
Remember that the advice you read here is general information – if you are looking for a plan tailored to your unique needs, you should get in touch with a sports medicine professional or a dietitian. By using this information as a starting point and customizing every part of your workout plan and protein intake – including your protein powder – you'll find yourself on track to meet fitness goals and add muscle mass over time.
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