How to Build Muscle

Learn how muscles grow, how to build muscle and make your muscles bigger, how much weight you should lift, how many sets to do, how often to weight train for muscle building, and muscle building recovery tips.

Ben Greenfield,
June 14, 2010

Do you have a favorite t-shirt that would be even more favorite if your arms filled out those sleeves a bit more? Do you want to admire your backside in the mirror rather than avoiding your reflection? Whether you answered yes to either of the above questions, or you simply want to destroy the competition in your local arm-wrestling festival, then you will benefit from my article on how to build muscle.

How Do Muscles Get Bigger?

Before learning how to make your muscles bigger, you should understand how a muscle actually gets bigger.

Let’s use your biceps—the muscle group on the front of your arms—as an example. Like all the other muscles in your body, this muscle group is comprised of tightly woven bundles of muscle fibers, which are comprised of muscle cells.

When you require your biceps to produce a force, such as lifting a couch, most of those muscle fibers in your biceps are exposed to tension, especially if your couch has a fold-out bed hidden inside. The tension from the weight of the couch stretches the fibers and causes tiny tears in them. When the cells in your muscle fibers sense this trauma, they begin to rally the muscle-building troops from your body to repair the tears.

These muscle-building troops include hormones, growth factors, and white blood cells, and working together, they not only repair the muscle fibers in your biceps, but they also increase the size of those fibers and the strength of the nerves that activate them, so that next time you lift a couch you are better able to do so. As those fibers increase in size, the biceps grow, which is precisely why you do not want to challenge a moving-van employee in an arm wrestling competition.

Believe it or not, there are better ways to make your muscles grow than by simply lifting the occasional couch. By working with certain exercises, weight, sets and repetitions, you can stimulate much more trauma (and subsequent growth) than the average furniture re-arranging activity.

How to Build Muscle

The trick to building muscle is to adequately stress the muscle, allow the muscle to recover while eating enough healthy food to feed the new muscle, and then repeat!

The best exercises for full body muscle growth are exercises that require you to use multiple joints. For example, a combination of squats, cleans, deadlifts and bench presses is very effective at helping your entire body to get bigger. I personally added nearly 20 pounds of muscle to my body by using these exercises during college, and because of that, I looked very good in t-shirts and was also very good at lifting couches.

Quick and Dirty Tip: If you don’t want all your muscles to get bigger, but just want to focus on a single muscle group, like your butt, then you’ll need to use a strategy that bodybuilders use. When weight training, do a higher number of sets that focus on that one single body section. For example, a butt-building routine could consist of 5-10 sets of 10-15 repetitions of reverse lunges.

How Much Weight Should You Lift?

Your muscles must be subjected to enough weight for actual muscle fiber tearing to occur. For most people, that means lifting about  65-85% of what you can lift one time (your “one rep max” or “1RM”). For example, if you can bench press 100 pounds, then your weight for increasing the size of your chest muscles would be 65-85 pounds. Most people can lift 65-85% for 8-12 repetitions.

Quick and Dirty Tip: You don’t have to actually go try and test what you your maximum lifts are for each exercise. That can be difficult and dangerous. Instead, there are calculators and formulas that allow you to approximate your 1RM based on the number of times you can lift a certain weight. Here’s a link to one such formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-repetition_maximum

How Many Sets Should You Do to Build Muscle?

Because your muscles need a significant amount of time under tension (about 60 seconds) for actual muscle tearing to occur, multiple sets are crucial. Though you certainly could perform just one very long set for each muscle group, that is mentally challenging, extremely uncomfortable, and very risky. So instead, you should perform at least three sets and preferably five to six sets for each exercise. As I mentioned in a previous article on how to start weight training, some bodybuilders perform up to 20 sets! Each set should include one to two minutes of recovery for the muscle group you are working.

Quick and Dirty Tip: If you’re pressed for time, then rather than sitting down to rest between each set, simply work another muscle group during the recovery period. For example, while your chest muscles recover from bench pressing, you can perform a set for your calf muscles.

How Often Should You Lift Weights?

Beware! Before you rush off to do biceps curls every day until your arms are popping out of your coat, you must understand that there can certainly be too much of a good thing. If you stress, traumatize, or tear a muscle every day, your body will not have enough time to repair the muscle fibers, resulting in high levels of soreness, low muscle growth, and joint injury.

A proper muscle-building workout will give a muscle two to three days of recovery before re-stimulating those fibers again. You should also be sure to eat properly during your recovery. You’ll need 2500 calories for each extra pound of muscle you want to add. Unless you’re getting those extra calories from complex carbohydrates like whole grains and lean sources of proteins like fish, fat-free dairy, and protein powder, it can be very difficult to add muscle without gaining fat! Refer to episode #3 on what to eat before and after exercising for more tips on proper pre- and post-workout nutrition.

Quick and Dirty Tip: One very effective muscle growth strategy for the entire body involves exercising your chest and arms one day, your shoulders, upper back and abs the next day, and your legs and lower back the third day. You can then rest a day and repeat for a full week of workouts!

Ultimately, the trick to growing muscle is to adequately stress the muscle, allow the muscle to recover while eating enough healthy food to feed the new muscle, and then repeat! With this strategy, you can safely build one to two pounds of muscle each week--and since muscle is much less roomy than fat, those pounds will look tight and lean. Once you’ve built your new muscle, let me know. I have some heavy couches that need moving.

Once you've built muscle it's important to maintain it, even if you can't get to the gym regularly anymore. Check out my Quick Tip on maintaining your fitness level for more information.

Weights image from Shutterstock