We all have an image in our heads of what our ideal body is. For me, it is a slightly above-average amount of muscle with a low enough body fat level that you can see those muscles.
The key to building muscle while maintaining good fitness levels for my hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing sports are a couple of muscle-building cycles per year when I am not actively participating in those activities.
Good old-fashioned bodybuilding is something everyone should do for at least part of their year. The older you get, the more time you should spend building muscle.
This article will examine why building muscle is essential to your health and the principles you must follow to build muscle regarding training and nutrition.
Why building muscle is essential for your health.
Our muscle mass will decrease by around 4% per decade after 30 as we age. This can lead to health issues as muscle serves several roles in preserving your health.
Studies have shown that older people in the top 25% of muscle mass have an 80% lower risk of all-cause mortality than people in the bottom 25%. Getting jacked looks good and turns out to be good for you.
Benefits of building muscle
Muscle allows us to move, and eventually, you will lose enough to impair your ability to function. Larger muscles have more potential for strength, so you have to lose more before you reach the point where everyday activities such as going up the stairs or carrying groceries become too taxing.
The muscle acts as a storage vessel for blood sugar. Without getting too technical, when your blood sugar gets too high, your body will try to store it in muscle tissue or body fat. The more muscle you have, the more room you have to store blood sugar in the form of muscle glycogen. This reduces the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes.
Muscles act as a depot for storing protein which can help feed the body in times of illness or starvation. When an elderly person gets sick, muscle mass breaks down, impairing their function even if they recover. It is easier to withstand illness and injury with more muscle mass.
The training to build muscle will also build bone density, helping you reduce the risk of fractures if you fall.
Training for muscle growth tends to be with lighter weights than you would use for maximum strength, so it is more joint-friendly.
The training that builds muscle will tend to hit all muscle fibers, especially the fast-twitch fiber that decrease dramatically as we age. Fast fibers allow quick movement to catch us from falling or getting out of the way of an oncoming car.
There is no such thing as toning.
I hear from clients that they don’t want to build muscle but want to get toned. This doesn’t exist. You have two variables you can play with: build muscle and lose fat.
The look people associate with being toned or fit without looking like a bodybuilder involves building muscle and losing body fat so that you can see that muscle. You just aren’t taking it as far as competitive bodybuilders do.
A well-designed program with good nutrition is the fastest way to lose body fat and build muscle.
A Note For The Ladies
One of the most common things I hear as a trainer from women is that they don’t want to lift weights as they don’t want to look bulky. The idea that if they touch a weight, they will blow up like Arnie is pervasive in the fitness community, but it just isn’t true.
You can’t get overdeveloped even if you want to. Men have around ten times women's testosterone, and they still can’t get that level of mass without steroids. And they are trying to get big.
Putting on muscle is a long process, so don’t worry that you will get too big too quickly.
How does more muscle make it easier to burn fat?
Burning fat is a case of burning more calories than you consume while retaining as much muscle as possible.
Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue, and the training that builds it improves insulin sensitivity, making it easier to burn fat.
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest, and the more activity you can do to burn even more calories. Muscle-building workouts also increase calorie demand as it takes energy to repair your muscles after training.
The increased fitness from extended training to build muscle will also lead to more calories burned. Over time as you get stronger, you will be moving heavier weights and doing more sets which takes more energy.
Another benefit of building muscle is improved insulin sensitivity. When your body isn’t efficient at processing insulin responsible for regulating blood sugar, it is harder to burn body fat. By building muscle and improving insulin sensitivity, you decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes and will find it much easier to get lean.
Principles of Hypertrophy (Muscle Building)
How you train for muscle growth can seem confusing from the outside due to the millions of programs you will tend to see on the internet, but in practice is quite simple.
This has been studied for a long time, and we understand that applying the following principles will make our muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Muscles are made of water and protein, so you need both in abundance to build them.
Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. The research is pretty clear about this: build your diet around chicken breasts and whey protein to get enough of the building blocks of muscle into your belly.
You must eat at maintenance or surplus of calories to optimize muscle growth. You don’t need many extra calories daily to build muscle. Stick to 300-500 calories over maintenance to build muscle without gaining unwanted body fat.
It is hard to lose weight and build muscle simultaneously unless you have a lot of bodyfat to burn. If your target is 30 lbs or more of fat loss, you will have lots of energy your body can use to fuel muscle building.
It seems pretty clear from the research and real-world experience that a moderate-carb diet high in protein is optimal for building muscle.
Low carb is great for fat loss but seems to be less than ideal for building muscle.
The best carbohydrate sources are complex, slow-burning varieties such as oats, whole grains, and white rice.
Proximity to Failure
Muscular failure is the point you can’t complete another rep. To optimize muscle growth, you must take your sets within a few reps of failure.
I don’t recommend the training to failure very often, especially exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts, as this is a recipe for injury. It is wise to occasionally take safe exercises like shoulder presses, pullups, or pushups to failure so you know what being close to failure feels like.
Take away: Train hard, pushing your working sets within a few reps of failure. A slowing of the positive of the rep usually accompanies this.
You can build muscle with a broad range of repetitions as long as you take those sets within a few reps of failure. Studies have shown that you will get statistically similar gains from sets as low as five reps and as high as 30.
You will generally have to do more sets with low-rep sets to get enough volume to spur muscle growth. We advocate for most sets between 8-12, allowing you to push them near failure with adequate load to build strength. High rep sets can be effective, but much more painful to push close to failure, and for many people are harder to tell how close you are to not being able not to do another rep.
Take Away: Reps from 5-30 build muscle as long as you take sets to within a few reps of failure.
Volume is your total set times reps. Optimal muscle growth for an intermediate to advanced trainee comes from 10-18 working sets per muscle group weekly.
If you train twice per week, this works out to 5-9 sets per muscle group or movement pattern per workout.
If you are new to training, this number is even lower as you will make really good gains of just 2-3 hard sets twice per week as a beginner.
Takeaway: If you get 6-12 sets per muscle group per week, you will make good gains in muscle mass, as long as your effort per set is hard enough
Generally, training a muscle group only once a week isn’t enough, and over three times is too much for all but the most advanced athletes.
If you hit each muscle group twice per week, you will strike a good balance between getting enough stimulation and adequate recovery.
Takeaway: Try to hit each muscle group 2-3 times weekly for optimal balance between stress and recovery.
Over time you need to force the muscles to grow by doing more. More weight, more reps, or more volume. It doesn’t have to increase every workout, but if you are moving the same weights a year from now, don’t expect to see much difference in your physique.
Muscles don’t want to grow. You have to nudge them along by doing more.
I gradually increase the reps over the course of weeks and occasionally bump up the number of sets of a movement I’m doing until I am at the top end of the recommended volume. I will then drop the volume and increase the load, starting to build again.
Takeaway: You have to get stronger to optimally build muscle.
The Wrap Up
Now you know why muscle building is so important and the principles behind making it happen. In our following articles, we will get into a program to start building up your buns and guns.