Building muscle takes time and proper training, but it’s something just about anyone can do. It involves a physiological process called hypertrophy, which stresses the tissue, breaks it down and triggers the body to rebuild bigger and stronger tissue.
To begin this process, you need a training plan that incorporates a progressive increase of weight load, as well as proper nutrition and plenty of sleep. If building muscle is your ultimate goal, understanding hypertrophy and how to train for it will help you get the job done.
The Benefits of Building Muscle
Building and maintaining muscle is important for a healthy and active lifestyle. It’s not just for young athletes or fitness enthusiasts—doctors agree it’s a good idea for everyone to incorporate strength training into their routines throughout their lives.
As we age, muscle mass and cross-sectional area of the muscle can decrease (sarcopenia), leading to reduced bone density (osteopenia), reduced strength and eventually reduced function. Maintaining strong muscles contributes to strong bones, which can prevent fractures and degenerative conditions, such as osteoporosis.
According to a study in the Journal of Health & Fitness, muscle loss can lead to “a cascade of health issues,” which includes bone loss, fat gain, diabetes, heart disease and mortality. In addition to improving blood pressure, glycemic control and lipid profiles (cholesterol), strength training to build muscle can improve mental health.
How to Build Muscle Effectively
To build muscle effectively, it’s important to have a basic resistance training plan. Victoria Sekely, a doctor of physical therapy, certified strength and conditioning specialist and run coach keeps it simple: “The best way to build muscle is to lift weights. Period.”
To begin, keep in mind three primary factors that trigger hypertrophy: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic response, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). First, tissue must be overloaded by increasing the load or resistance, which causes damage to the tissue. This overload leads to an inflammatory response, which initiates the release of growth factors, which is the metabolic response.
To put this concept into practice, the NSCA recommends finding your one-repetition maximum (1RM), which means the maximum amount of weight you can correctly and safely perform one time. To avoid lifting weights that are too heavy, try estimating your 1RM by first finding an amount of weight you can lift for three to five repetitions, then estimate what your 1RM might be.
As a general rule of thumb, if you can comfortably perform three sets of 10 repetitions at a certain resistance, you probably need to add resistance and lower the amount of reps. Lifting a comfortable amount of weight without increasing the load doesn’t trigger hypertrophy.
If you’re new to strength training, train by doing two to three rounds of six to 12 repetitions at 65% to 85% of your total 1RM amount with 60-second rest periods between sets to build strength gradually.
For example, if your 1RM is 10 pounds, try to do two to three sets of six to 12 reps with 7.5 pounds, which would be 75% of your total 1RM weight. Do fewer reps if you’re lifting an amount closer to your total 1RM weight. This process releases the greatest amount of testosterone and growth hormone in both men and women, which contributes to building muscle.
Once you’ve established how much weight you can safely use for 1RM, this chart from the NSCA can help you estimate how much weight to use for your repetitions at 65% to 85% of your 1RM.
Try incorporating this type of strength training into your routine two or three times a week if you’re just starting out, or up to six times a week if you’re an advanced athlete.
Note: Your 1RM is a moving target. As you build muscle, the amount of weight you can tolerate should increase, so reassess your weight tolerance every few workouts and adjust your resistance as needed. In other words, if your 1RM for a squat was 50 pounds during your first week of training, you’ll need to reevaluate your progress after a few workouts with this weight. If your body can handle more weight, your 1RM can increase to 75 pounds in your third week of training. If your workouts are effective, you should see your 1RM slowly increase over time.
If you’re new to exercise and strength training, start with bodyweight exercises, such as squats without resistance or push-ups, before adding weight, says Sekely. It’s important to be comfortable with the mechanics of a movement pattern before adding a heavy load, she adds.