After losing weight, the most common request I get is from people asking me to help them to build more muscle.
This is good. Increased muscle mass and strength have been directly linked to longevity.
EVERYONE should be trying to build more muscle.
The funny thing is that there are still some of you out there concerned you’ll accidently wake up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70s if you so much as step foot in the weights area of the gym.
I hear this mostly from women, but some men also share the concern.
If only it were that simple.
Want the truth?
Most of the models you see in magazines and on social media are taking drugs.
To prove my point.
Just take a look around your local gym next time you’re there. What do you see?
Large numbers of young men in their hormonal prime trying to build as much muscle as possible.
Yet most of them fail.
So what do you think the chances are of a woman or a middle-aged man with considerably less testosterone flowing through their system accidently building more muscle than the youngsters in the prime of their lives?
So there’s no excuse not to be trying to build muscle.
If you’ve been trying to build muscle but you still don’t look like you go to the gym (like most people), it’s likely you’re committing at least if not all of the three most common mistakes that I see.
- Your nutrition sucks
- Your exercise selection sucks
- Your exercise form sucks
Let’s tackle each one of these at a time so you can start building muscle, fast.
Your Nutrition Sucks
Nutrition is probably the most confusing area of health and fitness so it’s no wonder so many people screw it up.
I could bang on all day about how the people or companies who are trying to convince you there’s a magic bullet for weight loss or muscle gain, and that everything else will kill you, are just trying to extract money from you, but that’s not what this post is about.
Just avoid fad diets that eliminate entire food groups such as animal products, carbs, fats and vegetables. And don’t waste your money on ‘miracle supplements’ or anything else marketed as a magic solution.
To build muscle you ultimately need three things:
- Energy (calories)
Both sufficient in quantity and quality.
As I’ve written about previously, not all protein is created equally.
The simple fact is that animal protein is superior in quality to plant protein.
If you want to build muscle, the best thing you can do is eat muscle from meat and fish, along with eggs and dairy protein such as whey.
You should be aiming for between 1.6-2.2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day.
For a 70kg person that would equate to between 112g and 154g of protein per day.
Personally, I would aim toward the upper end of the range. There is no harm in having additional protein, but not eating enough will negatively impact your results.
Timing is also important. Studies have shown that the optimum protein consumption is between 20-40g per meal, spread out throughout the day.
The body can only process so much protein at any one time. To maximise the benefits of what you consume, rather than passing most of it out as waste, spread your protein out throughout the day between main meals and healthy snacks.
This is why nonsense ‘diets’ such as the One Meal A Day (OMAD) are not a good idea if you want to maintain or build muscle. Proponents of this method can argue its case as much as they like. If it were a good idea, elite athletes would follow it. But they don’t!
Building muscle is the reverse of trying to lose weight.
Unless you have a surplus of energy to fuel the growth, you’re not going to grow.
It is possible to lose weight and build muscle IF you’re new to training and you have a reasonable amount of weight to lose because that bodyfat can be used to fuel activity and growth.
For everyone else, you have to focus on one goal. If you have a few pounds to lose, focus on that first, then focus on building muscle.
It’s much easier when it comes to programming your nutrition to do it this way.
Here’s what I recommend for programming.
Step 1: Calculate your basic daily calorie needs to maintain your bodyweight (there are loads of free online tools for this).
Step 2: Add 300-500 calories per day to that number.
Step 3: Figure out how much protein you need in grams (see above). Multiply that number by 4 and deduct it from your daily calorie total.
Step 4: Take your total daily calories number and divide it by 0.3 to get 30%. Divide that number by 9 to get your daily fat requirements in grams.
Step 5: Deduct the calories from protein and fats from the total number. The remaining calories should come from carbs. Multiply that number by 4 to get the amount required in grams. Prioritise fruits and non starchy veg. If you increase your activity, increase your carbs by the same amount.
Here’s a working example.
Calorie requirements to maintain bodyweight = 2500
Additional calories: 500
Current bodyweight: 70kg
Protein requirement: 140g/560 calories (70 x 2 = 140. 140 x 4 = 560)
Calories from fat: 900/100g (3000 x 0.3 = 900. 900 / 9 = 100g)
Calories from carbs: 1540/385g (3000 – 560 – 900 = 1540. 1540 / 4 = 385)
This means fruit and vegetables!
I see so many people trying to build muscle on a beige diet.
You might make some progress so long as you have your protein, calories and training really dialled in. But you’re leaving muscle gains and performance on the table.
You can’t run a Ferrari on diesel.
Fruits and vegetables aren’t just good for you, they also help the body to process and absorb other key nutrients.
People who follow keto or carnivore diets often consume far too little of the essential vitamins and minerals that are contained in fruits and vegetables which can result in becoming undernourished.
Keto might have some short term benefits when it comes to addressing metabolic dysfunction to help restore insulin sensitivity, but when it comes to long term health and muscle building, it’s not the best option.
Again, you won’t find many elite athletes who follow these restrictive diets.
Stick to a varied diet of whole foods. Aim for at least 30 different fruits, veg and herbs each week.
Your Exercise Selection Sucks
If you’re trying to build muscle, stop wasting your time on small isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps kickbacks.
Focus on the fundamental human movement patterns: squat, hip hinge, vertical pull, vertical push, horizontal pull and horizontal push.
Get as strong as possible on these moves, plus carries and spine stability.
If you can’t do 20 strict form chin-ups or dips, you have no place doing biceps curls and triceps kickbacks. Sorry, not sorry.
Train the entire system as it was designed to function. Once you’ve built enough muscle and strength you can worry about the minor details.
Until then, focus on compound exercise that involve multiple joints such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, chin-ups, lat pulls, inverted rows, barbell rows, push-ups and bench press.
Use exercises that train the muscles and joints at different angles.
You have to challenge the body to adapt.
Don’t just add weight to the same old exercises.
Your Exercise Form Sucks
There are a couple of issues I see every time I walk into the gym.
Firstly, most people are performing movements incorrectly. Full stop.
They’re either not using a sufficient range of motion (ROM), or the movement is just plain wrong with the weight wobbling all over the place.
If that’s you, stop! It’s ugly and dangerous.
Learn how to perform an exercise with proper form and full ROM with a light weight before progressing.
Most people need to work on their mobility. You can’t move where you can’t move. So if a joint is restricted, you’re not going to be able to perform a movement correctly until that issue has been addressed. Repeat after me; I must not neglect my mobility.
And leave the ego at the door.
Unless you’re a powerlifter, the numbers on the weights are irrelevant beyond enabling your to write down what you did in a given training session.
Stop adding weight just to look good. No one cares how much you’re lifting.
If you want your muscles to grow, you have to actually work them, rather than recruiting a whole bunch or other muscles to get the job done just so you feel better about yourself in the gym.
Bad form is a recipe for poor results.
Secondly, stop trying to complete your sets as if you’re in a race!
The optimal range for hypertrophy (muscle growth) is 40-60 seconds time under tension (TUT) per set.
So if you’re bashing out 10 reps in under 30 seconds (which is what I see most people doing) you’re not giving the body the stimulus it needs to grow.
Drop the weight and slow it down. Remember what to do with your ego?
8-10 reps per set is a guide that is based on a rep tempo of 2-0-2-0 which would result in a set of 12 reps taking 48 seconds. Coincidence? Nope.
Try experimenting with even slower reps and focus on aiming to reach just short of failure between 40-60 seconds rather than worrying about the actual rep count and see how your body responds. Around 8 reps with a 4 second eccentric and 2 second concentric can be a great option. But be warned, they’re humbling! Your ego will be screaming and banging on the door to come back in. Don’t let it!
If you’re over 40, sometimes less can be more. Your body doesn’t recover as quickly as it did when you were younger. Try 1-2 exercises per movement pattern for a total of 4-6 working sets per workout. Stick to 3-6 total movements per workout. You just want to give the body enough stimulus to adapt, but not so much that it takes days to recover.
This post could be hundreds of pages long, but my aim is to give you what you need to know in plain English.
If you want to build muscle as quickly and efficiently as possible you need to do the following:
- Get your nutrition dialled in: Get plenty of high quality protein, good fats and loads of fruit and veg. Don’t shy away from carbs and make sure you’re getting enough calories, your body needs the fuel to grow! Always prioritise RE:AL whole foods.
- Focus on compounds exercise: Stop wasting your time on isolation exercises. Focus on the fundamental human movement patterns and build strength.
- Master exercise form: It’s not a race. Slow down and actually work the muscle. Take the time to perfect the movement patterns. And work on your mobility to ensure your body is capable of performing the movements correctly.
One final note: Be realistic. Don’t expect to ‘pack on 20 kilos in 12 weeks’ or whatever other bullshit you see people claiming. Building muscle is a slow game. If your weight is increasing by more than 0.5-1% per week, you’re eating too much and you’re getting fat. Park the ego and reassess your nutrition.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Building muscle takes time.
The older you are, the longer it takes.
And the less potential you have.
But you can develop significantly more muscle that you currently have using this approach, and that is good for your long term health.
If you’re still not confident in implementing this yourself, get in touch. I’d be more than happy to help you achieve your hypertrophy goals.