How to Build Muscle

There are two main things that affect muscle growth: food and exercise. Actually, there’s one more thing: sleep (rest).

Food

Both creatine and whey protein powder have been shown to increase muscle mass when taken in combination with resistance exercise.

Creatine increases exercise capacity during high-intensity exercise. This leads to improved recovery and adaptations such as increased muscle mass.

Meanwhile, ingesting whey protein in combination with exercise provides your body a high-quality source of protein, enhancing muscle protein synthesis and leading to increased muscle gains over time.

While both creatine and whey protein promote muscle gain, they differ in the ways they work. Creatine increases strength and muscle mass by increasing exercise capacity, whereas whey protein does so by stimulating increased muscle protein synthesis.

Source

Protein

Muscles are made out of protein, among other things. So, you’re going to need to consume enough protein to build muscle. You should target 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For example, I currently weigh 178 lbs so I should consume 178 grams of protein. Here’s are some protein-rich foods.

FoodQuantityProtein (g)CaloriesProtein / Calorie Ratio
Eggs1 large67811%
Almonds1 ounce61643.6%
Chicken Breast1 roasted w/o skin5328418%
Oats1 cup113073.5%
Cottage Cheese1 cup2816317%
Greek Yogurt6 ounces1710017%
Regular Milk1 cup814916%
Soy Milk1 cup6.31056%
Broccoli1 cup chopped3319.6%
Lean Beef3 ounces2518613%
Tuna1 can (142 grams)2712821%
Quinoa1 cup cooked82223.6%
Whey protein concentrate supplement1 scoop (33 g)2513019%
Whey protein isolate supplement1 scoop (33 g)3013023%
Lentils1 cup boiled182308%
Ezekiel Bread1 slice4 805%
Pumpkin Seeds1 ounce91585.6%
Turkey Breast3 ounces2612520%
Shrimp3 ounces208424%
Brussel Sprouts1/2 cup2287%
Peanuts1 ounce71614.3%
Source

Other protein-rich foods

Pistachios, cashews, parmesan cheese, swiss cheese, mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese, regular full fat yogurt, kefir, soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds.

Consuming a lot of protein without supplements can be difficult because you might feel full before you’ve reached your target daily intake. Also, it can be expensive. For that reason, most bodybuilders take protein supplements. When choosing a protein supplement, it’s important to stay away from ones with a lot of added sugar. The most popular protein supplement is whey protein. To be safe, opt for pure whey protein. I personally get the unflavored Nutricost Whey Protein Concentrate. It contains only one ingredient: Whey protein concentrate. 1 scoop contains 25 g of protein and 130 calories.

You can also buy whey protein isolate which has 90 – 95% protein compared to whey protein concentrate which has 60 – 80% protein. Source

Creatine

Creatine monohydrate is the best-studied and most effective form of this supplement. There are 2 dosing regimens:

Option 1

  1. Loading phase: Take 20-25 grams split into 4 or 5 equal doses over 5-7 days.
  2. Maintenance phase: Then, take 3-5 grams per day to maintain your muscle stores of the compound.

Option 2

Skip the loading phase and start the maintenance phase.

Both options are effective the first option will allow you to experience the benefits 4x faster. Source

I personally take unflavored Nutricost Creatine Monohydrate.

Other Foods

Now, don’t go consuming nothing but protein shakes. They are meant to be supplements and not food substitutes. You can eat whatever else you want but generally, you should avoid processed foods and foods with lots of added sugar. I have personally found the Keto diet (very low carb diet) to be one of the best, if not the best diet. I was able to lose 20 lbs following the Keto diet. It’s not just good for losing weight but it’s also good for overall healthy eating.

Calories

While you can build muscle in a calorie deficit (losing weight), it will be quicker to build muscle by having a moderate calorie surplus.

Example Meal Plan

Here’s my daily meal plan.

Breakfast

  • 4 eggs in a bowl microwaved for 2 minutes
  • 1 cup of Nespresso coffee with frothed milk, 1/4 teaspoon of Truvia sugar substitute (erithrytol + Stevia extra), and cinnamon

Lunch

Protein shake containing

Dinner

5 air-fried skinless chicken legs (60 g protein, 380 calories) with one Anaheim pepper

Post-Dinner Drink

Another protein smoothie but substitute the Acai with 3 or 4 frozen strawberries

Post-Workout Drink

Chocolate-flavored Premier 30g Protein Drink (30 g protein, 160 calorie)

Total Daily Protein and Calorie Consumption

FoodQuantityProtein (gr)Calories
Eggs424300
Protein shake148544
Chicken drumsticks560380
Protein shake148544
Protein drink130160
Total2101928

Now, I currently weigh 178 lbs so I could just skip the last protein shake and the total would be 180 grams of protein and 1768 calories.

Superfoods

Note that some of the foods listed above are superfoods. Here’s a list of superfoods:

  • Dark leafy greems (Kale, Swiss chard, Collard greens, Turnip greens, Spinach)
  • Berries (Raspberries, Strawberries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Cranberries, Acai berries)
  • Green tea and matcha
  • Eggs
  • Legumes (lentils, peas, peanuts, alfalfa)
  • Nuts (Almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts)
  • Seeds (Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds)
  • Kefir (and yogurt)
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Ginger
  • Turmeric (Curcumin)
  • Salmon
  • Avocado
  • Sweet Potato
  • Mushrooms
  • Seaweed

Source

Exercise

Muscle size increases when a person continually challenges the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight. This process is known as muscle hypertrophy.

Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases the mass and size of the muscles. This increase, however, does not happen while you actually lift the weights. Instead, it occurs while you rest.

You need to be consistent and lift progressively heavier weights. To do this, you should keep track of your efforts. Personally, I log my workouts using the free version of the FitNotes app.

Sets and reps

A standard way of exercising each muscle is by grouping each exercise into 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps (repetitions). For example, if you bench press, you can choose a weight such that for the first set, you lift X lbs until your reach failure (can no longer lift) after the 12th rep. Then, for the 2nd set, you do the same until your failure is after the 10th rep. And for the 3rd set, your fail after 8 reps.

SetWeightReps
1100 lbs12
2100 lbs10
3100 lbs8

Note that more important than the number of reps is the effort to lift until failure. If, after a while, you feel that you can lift more than X lbs, you need to increase the weight and continue to lift until failure, regardless of the exact number of reps you can do. This is called “progressive overloading.”

Let me repeat that. Train until failure such that you can barely complete your last rep with proper form. The last 2 to 3 reps before failure are the ones that count towards building muscle.

Muscles

Here’s a diagram of some of the more obvious muscles that you’ll want to target when lifting weights.

Exercises

There are many types of strength training exercises you can do among free weights and machines. I personally prefer using machines as they are more comfortable and help you perform exercises using proper form to maximize results and reduce the change of injury. Here are some of the upper body exercises I prefer.

V-bar Tricep Pushdown

Fatigue

When you start a workout, your muscles will have rested and you will be able to lift the most weight for any given exercise. For example, I would do 10 or so different exercises in the following order:

OrderExerciseMuscles Targeted
1V-Bar Tricep PushdownTriceps (Tris)
2Shoulder ShrugsTrapezius (Traps)
3Biceps CurlBiceps (Bis)
4Chest PressChest, Shoulders, and Triceps
5Lat PulldownBiceps and Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
6Triceps PressShoulders and Triceps
7Shoulder PressShoulders
8
9Pectoral FlyChest
10Lat RowLats, Delts, and Traps

I could lift more weight doing the chest press exercise, for example, when it’s the first exercise I do rather than the 5th or 10th. However, with bicep curls, I am able to lift more or less the same weight regardless of when I do that exercise. Also, I have a bit of pain in my left shoulder. Consequently, I can perform better doing the Pectoral Fly exercise early on rather than later when my overall muscles are tired. For this reason, I find it better to some exercises before others as follows (this order may vary by person).

OrderExerciseMuscles Targeted
1Pectoral FlyChest
2Chest PressChest, Shoulders, and Triceps
3Biceps CurlBiceps (Bis)
4Shoulder PressShoulders
5
6Triceps PressShoulders and Triceps
7Lat PulldownBiceps and Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
8Shoulder ShrugsTrapezius (Traps)
9V-Bar Tricep PushdownTriceps (Tris)
10Lat RowLats, Delts, and Traps

Muscles by Volume

Many men generally want a bigger upper body. Oftentimes, they’ll focus exercises on 2 muscles: chest and biceps. However, to have a larger upper body, they may be better off targeting larger muscles. Following is a list of the 10 largest muscles in the body.

MuscleLocationVolume
Quadriceps femorisLower thigh1,420 cm3
Gluteus maximusBack of pelvis760 cm3
DeltoidShoulder380 cm3
Triceps BrachiiBack upper arm370 cm3
IliopsoasHips350 cm3
Pectoralis majorChest290 cm3
Biceps femorisTop of the thigh269 cm3
Latissimus DorsiMid back262 cm3
Biceps BrachiiUpper arm143 cm3
SartoriusUpper and inner thigh126 cm3
Source

Muscle Gain

The longer your lift weights, the harder it becomes to grow more muscle. Following are average muscle weight gains for men and women at different stages of resistance training.

StageMenWomen
Newbie1.5 lbs / month0.5 lbs / month
Intermediate0.5 lbs / month 0.3 – 0.4 lbs / month
Advanced0.25 lbs / month 0.1 – 0.2 lbs / month
Source
Year of Proper TrainingPotential Rate of Muscle Gain Per Year
120-25 lbs (2 lbs / month)
210-12 lbs (1 lb / month)
35-6 lbs (0.5 lbs / month)
4+2-3 lbs (not worth calculating)
Source

Muscle Gain vs Weight Gain

Traditional muscle gain is achieved by gaining weight. Yes, you can gain a little bit of muscle while losing fat, but this process is fairly slow and not as efficient as building muscle during a true bulk. If you want to gain some serious muscle mass, this requires weight gain. 

The thing about weight gain and weight loss is that it is always a combination of lean tissue and fatty tissue – never one exclusively. This means you will always gain some additional body fat when trying to gain muscle and lose some muscle when trying to lose body fat. 

Depending on a number of factors, for each pound you gain, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds will result in fat, with the remaining being lean tissue (muscle).

Sleep / Rest

In order for your muscles to grow, you need to have sufficient rest. Make sure to sleep enough, e.g. 7 hours a day.

Stages of Muscle Growth

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually build muscle while you’re lifting weights. You do need to lift weights to add mass, but training actually causes muscle breakdown. There are three stages of muscle growth.

StageDescription
1. Muscle breakdownYou break down your muscles by lifting weights at a high intensity
2. Hormone increaseBeginning during the lifting session and continuing when you’re resting, certain hypertrophy-specific hormones increase
3. Muscle repair and growthWhile resting / sleeping, damaged muscle tissue is repaired and the muscles grow bigger only if you have consumed an excess of calories
Source

How to Tell if You’re Gaining Muscle

  1. You’re Gaining Weight
    Track your weight at the same time each day and plot it on a chart to see your long term progress. 
  2. Your Clothes Fit Differently
    Getting jacked will often mean your clothes start to fit differently – usually in a good way. If you’re noticing your shirts are fitting a bit tighter around your shoulders, chest, and biceps, or your pants are getting snug in the thigh and hip area, these tend to be good signs you’re gaining healthy weight. 
  3. You’re Building Strength
    If you can lift heavier weights, then you are probably building muscle. Track your strength using a log and practice progressive overloading. 
  4. You’re Muscles Are Looking “Swole”
    Feeling puffier or bigger is normal and likely a good sign you’re growing your muscle fibers. Lifting weights increases fluids to your muscle giving you that post weight training pump, especially when you are just getting started with strength training. Over time, some of the water retention may diminish but you should continue to feel bulkier. 
  5. Daily or Weekly Progress Photos
    Stand in front of a mirror and take a full body photo. Repeat and assess your visual transformation regularly.
  6. Your Body Composition Has Changed
    Ultimately, the most efficient way to measure your muscle gain progress is to assess your body composition at the beginning and end of your bulk. You can opt for an affordable and convenient at home scale, or schedule a DXA/DEXA scan that estimates your body fat percentage within a 1.6% margin of error. 

The best way to know you are gaining muscle is if you are progressively able to lift heavier weights because the only way you can lift heavier weights if you have bigger muscles.

Gadgets and Accessories

To support your strength training goals, I have found the following gadgets useful.

Wi-fi body scale

I have the Withings smart wi-fi body scale. It automatically records my weight and in the app, I can see my weight change over time.

Smartwatch

I have the Fossil Men’s Gen 6 Touchscreen Smartwatch. It’s got a ton of features.

Whenever I enter the gym, I start tracking my heart rate and calories burned. When I’m done, I stop tracking and I can see a history of my calories burned and workout duration over time.

Bluetooth Headphones / Earphones

I have the Sony Wireless Behind-Neck Headset (WI-C400). Many people like to wear Beats headphones. I prefer the behind-the-neck style headset because it’s lightweight and doesn’t move around as I exercise, including when I do situps.

Compression T-Shirt

I have the Under Armour Men’s HeatGear Compression Short-Sleeve T-Shirt. It allows you to see your body shape so you can see how you’re progressing. I find it motivating to see physical progress.

Weight Training Workout Gloves

Repeatedly lifting weights can result in calluses (thickened skin that forms as a response to repeated friction or pressure). Workout gloves tend to have a cushion to protect your skin. I find it much more comfortable to lift with gloves on.

Summary

  • Stay in a positive protein balance by hitting your protein consistently.
  • Get your protein from high-quality sources like meat, eggs, dairy, and soy.
  • Your body needs energy to grow, so it helps to be in a caloric surplus — or at least in maintenance if you’re new to lifting.
  • Make sleep a priority — both quantity and quality.
  • Hit the weights consistently, and train harder by adding volume (in weight, reps, and sets) over time – progressive overloading.