How to Promote Muscle Growth
So you want to build some muscle? Whether it is to improve confidence, increase strength, or crush whatever goal, one thing is non-negotiable: strategy. One thing I hear all the time from others is that they work out consistently, give their absolute best and still are not able to pack on quality muscle.
The first thing to adjust is your daily caloric intake. Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. To gain quality muscle and minimize fat gain, you need to be in a slight caloric surplus, meaning that you consume more calories than you burn on a consistent basis. Now, this is different for each individual and his/her activity levels as well as current weight, to name a few factors. You need to be in a surplus to fuel growth and be in an anabolic state. An anabolic state is when more calories are consumed than burned consistently, and this extra energy is stored into the body in the form of weight gain.
Once we get the surplus in check, then we need to look at macronutrients—nutrients our bodies need in large amounts for healthy physiologic function. These are protein, carbohydrates, fat, and oddly enough…alcohol. Alcohol is considered a macronutrient because it has its own caloric density of 7 cal/g! Let’s compare: protein is 4 cal/g, carbs are 4 cal/g, and fat a staggering 9 cal/g. While alcohol is not necessary to life, these other macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) are.
The most important of the macronutrients in building muscle, though all play a significant role, is protein! Protein is the building block of the human body. From nails, formation of the brain, blood, skin, hair, nervous system, all the way to your muscles, protein does it all. The problem is that most avid gym goers who are looking to pack on size are likely not consuming enough protein on a consistent basis to catalyze muscle growth. Since we need protein for many areas other than building muscle, we must consume an adequate amount daily. The general recommendation would be about 1 gram per pound of body weight, but ranges from 0.7-1.5 grams per pound.
Since most people are not preparing for a pro bodybuilding competition, the rest of the macronutrient composition will come from carbs and fats. Carbohydrates play an important role in the effectiveness of our workouts
as they are our body’s preferred energy source. Fats, though they come in three different types—unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats—all play a special role in insulating the body, regulating hormones, and more. If a human does not have at least 3% body fat percentage than he/she cannot sustain life.
Nutrition is likely the most common reason most individuals struggle to add muscle, but the systematic planning of physical training (training smart!) also plays a crucial role in developing a noteworthy physique. There are many reasons why people do not progress or have hit a plateau in the gym, but each person is different, so let’s look at a few examples.
The first reason that comes to mind is that we aren’t participating in progressive overload. Progressive overload is a concept that means a gradual increase in stress over time to ensure adaption. When we work out, we are putting a stress on our muscles for them to adapt to. If we do things we have already acclimated to then our bodies will have no reason to adapt beyond its current state. For example, I can’t bench press 135lbs for 4 sets of 10 for two months straight and expect to progress. I must gradually and safely add more weight, increasing the amount of stress my muscles endure, pushing them to their max capability. The more we push them, the further they will go!
Another reason we may not be gaining muscle is not enough volume, meaning reps x sets x weight. This can be interdependent on frequency (how often you train) and intensity (how hard you train).
A misconceived concept is “more is better”. That is almost quite the opposite in the gym world. Recovery is essential. So important that I cannot stress it enough. Whether in the context of nutrition, rest days, sleep, or even de- loads, recovery should ALWAYS be a priority for both your mental and physical health! If we do not allot time for our recovery, then the stress we place on our bodies will be damaging, the opposite effect we are striving for.
Other reasons people don’t reach their fitness goals may include: poor form, arbitrary exercise selection, not enough rest periods, no specificity, tempo of the exercise, and more. Finer details of a workout are more practical for those breaking through a plateau, such as supinating in your bicep curl to having optimal execution and understanding the role of the four elbow flexors in the movement (that’s trainer talk—come see me!). If we monitor these things with our best effort and mindfulness, our hard work will surely be rewarded.
In summary, building muscle is a simple process but far from an easy one. For the elite, advanced, or competitive athletes the details become more and more technical and intricate to optimize every possible ounce of potential. A tough pill to swallow is there is no man-made, quick fix to fitness…only commitment. Re-comping the body and building muscle takes time, so buckle up!
Oh yeah, one more thing… HAVE FUN! The most optimal plan is the one you can stick to, and an important part to that adherence is enjoyment. Remember, life is bigger than fitness so find emotional value in improving yourself. I encourage each and every person to discern his/her personal balance of strategy and enjoyment when creating a goal. Everybody is a unique case, but everyone needs some level of strategy combined with hard work to reach their personal goals.