Developing muscle mass is an essential precursor to improved strength and the physique. When we look at the most aesthetically-pleasing bodies, they tend to be those with a lot of muscle and very little fat. Gaining muscle is one of the things that people want most but struggle to achieve.
The internet is full of people who discuss different ways to improve muscle mass, but there are many problems with these. Firstly, there is a huge amount of misinformation – it can be hard to know who to trust when you don’t know enough to tell if they’re telling the truth or not. Secondly, many people use the topic of gaining muscle mass to push their own products, services or agendas. Finally, there are many people selling products and services based on the achievements of those taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
This article will provide a brief, but scientifically and practically-definitive approach to gaining muscle for the natural athlete. It will cover the necessities of training, diet and beyond to give you a practical and well-researched guide to gaining quality muscle mass. However, it is important to remember that this process Is slow for those of us who do not use PEDs and that, even with this guide, it will take a long time to add significant muscle.
If we want to build muscle, we have to train and train correctly. If training wasn’t the main part of developing a muscular physique, then we would see a lot of lazy people with great muscles. The proper approach to training is always dependent on the individual – how long they have been training, what their background is, their sex, age, medical conditions and their existing strengths and weaknesses. Gaining large quantities of muscle mass as a natural athlete is possible, it just requires a much smarter approach.
The most important principles to remember when we approach building muscle through resistance training is that it is a slow process requiring both patience and persistence. We see a lot of people who go to the gym for a few weeks and are unsatisfied with the results: this is because they have the wrong approach. Your goals should always be months, at a minimum – you can achieve amazing changes with your body but they will not be “fast”. Training a few hours every week adds up over time and missed sessions are always worse than tired or “bad” training sessions.
How Do Muscles Grow?
During exercise, the proteins that make up our muscles are put under mechanical stress and degrade. When we rest and eat, the body repairs these proteins. However, after long enough periods of regular exercise, it will overcompensate in order to protect us against difficult exercise in future, increasing the size of the structures inside the muscles. The way we build muscle, therefore, is to subject the muscles to mechanical stress and make sure that we recover properly between sessions .
The two main factors that influence the growth of muscles during exercise is the absolute weight used (the more weight that we use, the more the muscles will grow) and the amount of time that we spend loading the muscles, and at what part of the movement (this is usually called “time under tension” by most fitness enthusiasts). This is why we see many bodybuilders and other physique-conscious athletes performing long sets of many reps with a focus on control, whereas strength athletes like Weightlifters and Powerlifters focus on performing repetitions with higher weights for fewer reps. The former increases the time under tension (muscular endurance), whereas the latter allows us to increase the amount of absolute weight that we might use (strength).
The best approach to building muscle is usually a mixture of these two methods: the best approach is to increase the amount of weight we can lift through long ranges of motion with good control. It is also beneficial to muscle growth to focus on a slow “eccentric” portion – this is the part of each movement where the weight is moving with gravity rather than against it. For example, in a deadlift we might increase the muscular growth of the back, glutes and hamstrings by focusing on slowly lowering the weight. During this portion of the lift, we cause the greatest amount of degradation of muscle proteins .
Proper Exercise Technique
There are a wide variety of different exercises available to improve the strength and size of all the muscles of the body, but it would be beyond the scope of this article to describe each of them in detail. There are some general principles that we can mention, however, that apply to all exercises. The first of these is proper control of the movement: we’ve all seen funny videos of people failing at the gym and this is usually because they want to lift more weight, instead of lifting more weight well. Control and stability through the movements – whichever movements they may be – is essential to develop the stabilising muscles, co-ordination and balance, as well as improving the ability to add weight in the long term and avoid injuries.
Proper exercise technique also involves the use of the maximal possible range of movement (ROM) in each exercise. This means that we don’t cut the movement short in favour of adding more weight – for example, performing a barbell squat requires us to achieve maximal possible depth with proper posture and control. Reducing the length of this movement would increase the chance of injury and inhibit the ability to build muscle and strength. This is equally true in all exercise: from the dumbbell curl to the deadlift, building muscle is best achieved through working proper ROM .
Once we have established proper technique and a focus on the way that we control our movements, the next step to developing greater muscle mass is to progressively overload our training. This simply means that training must become more difficult as we become bigger and stronger : lifting the same weights for the same reps will not develop muscle mass. As we become stronger, the weights that we once lifted do not provide the appropriate stress – our muscles are now strong enough that they are no longer stressed by these weights. There are two way to progressively overload: increase the amount of weight used or the amount of repetitions/sets that we use.
Increases in weight are increases in intensity, whereas increases the amount of work done are increases in volume. These two variables are the foundation of building muscle, strength and any other athletic capability. Building quality muscle occurs when we increase our ability to perform one or both. Volume is the amount of overall work that we perform on a given exercise and is more closely tied to the development of muscle size, whereas increases in intensity are generally associated with increases in muscular strength.
There is significant overlap between the development of strength and size. Whilst it is possible to increase the strength of muscles without increasing their size, it is rare (if not impossible) to increase the size of muscles without increasing their strength to some degree.
Proper Training Plans
Proper muscular development is best achieved through a well-structured training plan that aims at increasing the amount of work that we perform and the amount of weight that we are able to lift with the same control and ROM. The proper structuring of a training plan is another topic that is beyond the scope of this article but there are some basic principles that should be considered. There are two main types of exercise, which broadly overlap: compound and isolation. The former, compound movements, are those which involve a large number of muscles, whilst isolation movements aim to isolate the movements associated with a single joint or muscle. The latter is associated with the development of individual muscles.
Firstly, it is essential to move from more general to more specific as we become more experienced and improvements become more difficult to achieve . This is the unique challenge of the natural athlete: each kg of muscle is more difficult to gain than the last and the effort required to gain it is far greater. A smart approach to training will make this easier and we should always begin by building a foundation to ensure that we make consistent progress as we proceed. This means that the first training plans that we approach for anyone should focus on developing full-body strength: this will induce large amounts of muscle growth by itself, but the crucial benefit is that it will develop the amount of mechanical work that the body can perform in future and improve our ability to perform volume-specific work. If we are too weak, we will struggle to build muscle in the long-term and will very quickly find that we are unable to handle heavy enough loads to cause further adaptation.
As we progress beyond the general stages of novice training, specificity is the most important principle. This means that our training should focus on the things that we want to be good at. If our goal is building muscle, this will mean performing a mixture of lower-repetition compound exercises, followed by a larger quantity and variety of higher-repetition isolation exercises. For example, an athlete who wants to develop bigger legs may perform barbell squats and deadlifts (classic strength movements) followed by a variety of lunges, leg presses, leg curls or other, “smaller” movements.
Diet: The Essentials
The proper training is an essential, but diet cannot be ignored when it comes to gaining muscle mass and performing at our best. Firstly, it is important to know what your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is – this is an estimate of the number of calories that you use in a day and there are various tests that can be performed online to give you a general figure.
Contrary to what many people believe, it is possible to lose fat whilst gaining muscle, but the best way to reliably develop muscle mass is by training properly whilst eating at a modest caloric surplus. This means that we should be eating slightly more calories in a day than we use – 500 calories more than our TDEE is a great starting point. Developing muscle is not very easy but storing more fat is incredibly easy: eating too many calories, even whilst performing heavy training, will still add bodyfat. This is not always a problem, but excessive calories will not be used to build muscle.
Once we have established a “goal” caloric intake for each day, it is important to also look at the macronutrients that we consume. There are 3 macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats. Protein is the most important for those looking to build muscle as muscles are made of proteins and dietary proteins and amino acids are used to repair and develop those muscles that have been put under stress. A high-protein diet has been shown to improve muscle development, reduce body fat gain, improve the ability to burn fat and also improves recovery between training sessions . A high-protein diet has very few negative effects and we should aim for around 0.85-1g of protein per lb of either your current, or target, bodyweight.
Despite recent discussion about high-fat or high-carbohydrate diets being superior, the best approach for building muscle is simple: once we have a high protein intake, the fats and carbs are determined by the kind of exercise we do. For those who perform a lot of endurance exercise or have long, intense training sessions a higher carb intake will be necessary . For those who perform very little endurance exercise, the focus should be on some high-quality carbohydrates and a variety of good fats.
The Overlooked Bits: Supplementation and Micronutrients
Dieting for muscle mass should be based on dieting for health. Many athletes and physique enthusiasts overlook the importance of the essential functions of diet, in favour of just chasing muscle: diet should maintain health, reduce disease and improve performance. This means that when we are dieting for gaining muscle it is also important to ensure we get the proper intake of vitamins and minerals – not only will these improve muscle growth, but ensure proper health and performance, which also improve muscle growth indirectly.
Vitamins and minerals should come in the form of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the diet: the main focus should be on the consumption of a diet high in quality protein (such as salmon, cod, tilapia, chicken, turkey and high-quality beef), dark leafy veg, fibrous carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil. A diet that is lacking in variety will usually also be lacking in some of the essential vitamins and minerals.
Supplementation is a very popular subject for those who are concerned with developing a muscular physique: the market is full of supplements claiming to be the best way to gain muscle. However, proper supplementation should start with the basics such as vitamins, minerals, rare fats and other compounds which will actually improve performance and cover deficiencies. This may not be as exciting as pre-workout, testosterone boosters or fat burners, but its far more reliable and effective. A focus on the basics will always be the best approach to anything and this is true in nutrition and supplementation.
The Best Supplements for General Health, Performance & Muscle Building are:
Vitamin D is one of the most commonly-deficient vitamins and has important roles in the metabolism of essential nutrients such as Zinc. Deficiency in this vitamin is associated with bone health problems, reduced immune system function and can contribute to the development of Crohn’s disease and colitis .
Cod liver Oil
We’ve already done an in-depth discussion of the benefits of cod liver oil, but the important things to note are the high concentrations of Omega-3 fats (absolutely essential for health in the joints, muscles and brain), as well as the vitamins A and D – both of which are considered to be at the fore-front of proper immune system function.
B12 is another vitamin which is commonly deficient in the diet, primarily due to difficulties with absorption and the fact that it is only bioavailable in high-quality animal proteins. Vegetarians, vegans and those who eat very little meat should supplement where possible – either orally or as an injection.
Creatine and Beta-Alanine
Creatine and beta-alanine have similar, important effects: they improve the body’s response to long-term exercise. Creatine is associated with the reactions that create ATP in muscles – the fuel that muscles use to perform short, explosive movements. Beta-alanine has a similar effect on mid-long term exercise by reducing fatigue and improving aerobic performance .
Leucine and isoleucine
Leucine and Isoleucine are amino acids. Leucine is an essential amino acid that is involved with a variety of roles in the body, but primarily the development and recovery of muscle tissue. Iso-leucine is also an essential nutrient involved with the development of proteins associated with the general recovery of bodily tissues and the muscles in particular .
Recovery and Beyond
Proper training and diet account for at least 80% of building muscle, but the final 20% is associated with other variables that are often ignored. These are the out-of-training variables that top-level athletes use to ensure that they perform to their best. Using these recovery techniques, we can improve the body’s ability to build more muscle and improve our performance in training.
Firstly, sleep is an incredibly important factor and can have profound effects on the way that the body regulates and re-builds itself. During sleep, muscle protein synthesis peaks and the hormonal profile is favourable for developing muscle tissue. Natural anabolic hormones (testosterone, insulin, IGF-1, somatotropin) are released and are essential in building muscle. Sleeping less than 8 hours is associated with reduction of these essential hormones and can stunt growth in a serious way . The best sleep is at least 8 hours in a dark, cool room with proper food and water in the body.
Hydration is the next variable we need to consider. Dehydration is a huge problem that many people don’t take very seriously. Proper hydration is not only necessary for the maintenance of brain function, joint health and muscle performance, but it is essential to create an environment in which optimal muscle development can occur. Consuming 2-3 litres of water a day is essential for basic hydration, depending on your height, weight, lean mass and how much exercise you perform. Keeping hydrated is usually as simple as keeping water at-hand.
Managing the development of your muscles is more than just using them – when we perform exercise and damage the muscles, it is important to provide an equal amount of care and active recovery. This usually involves the improvement of muscle health, removal of waste products and reducing muscle tone (the resting activity of the muscle). This generally involves a combination of recovery techniques such as massage, foam rolling, stretching (both static and dynamic), compression and heat (hot, cold and contrast) therapy. Reducing excessive inflammation and waste products, increasing circulation and pliability will all improve the way that the muscle recovers.
These variables, being the last 20% of the factors affecting muscle development, are important for those who are serious about developing their muscles and maximising performance. An intelligent and optimal approach to training includes a similar commitment to an effective diet, supplementation routine, hydration, sleep routine and active recovery/mobility work. These are far less glamorous than lifting heavy weights in the gym but they are an essential accompaniment to these processes.
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