Muscle building is a complex physiological process that takes significant time and commitment. Unfortunately, information about building muscle is commercialized, convoluted and even hazardous to health. Cut through the noise with these 11 scientifically-backed tips.
Table of Contents
11 Frequently Asked Questions on Muscle Building:
1. How much resistance is best for building muscle?
Contrary to popular belief, lifting heavy weights will not cause you to “bulk” (lifting heavy weights and eating a calorie surplus that will). While heavy weight-lifting allows you to fast-track the muscle-building process, it’s not always easy or affordable to buy a gym membership or invest in home fitness equipment. Here we explain how to build muscle in both ways: heavy weights or light resistance and bodyweight.
To build an initial amount of muscle, focus on lifting the heaviest weight you can for 8-12 reps. There is not a single “good amount of weight.” It depends on your genetic or naturally-developed strength when you start your muscle-building journey.
Numerous studies have shown that a weight you can lift a maximum of 8-12 times produces the most significant gains in muscle size[1,2]. Depending on the exercise and your fitness level, this is equivalent to 60-80% of your one-rep max (the maximum amount of weight you can lift in a single repetition).
Once you break through the initial muscle growth stage, you MUST continue to add more weight if you want to see gains. Every 3-6 weeks, re-evaluate your loads. If 8-12 reps becomes easy, then add more weight. Otherwise, you’ll hit a plateau in muscle growth.(3)
Resistance Band and Bodyweight
Many people mistakenly think that the only way to trigger muscle growth is by lifting heavy weights in a gym. And while barbells and dumbbells are a fast track to building muscles, there are other ways to build muscle. You just have to do more reps and sets to get the same results!
In fact, you can build bigger butt muscles, a strong core, a massive chest, and even a super strong back with bodyweight exercises (or resistance band exercises) you can do at home or wherever you are!
The key is to “feel the burn.” You’ve got to keep pushing the reps and sets until you can feel the muscles challenged. Unlike training with weights, where you can add on resistance to meet your needs, training with bodyweight and resistance bands is static resistance. So to increase the intensity, you’ve got to increase volume. You may also need to train more frequently throughout the week.
The upsides? You may feel less sore after bodyweight and resistance band training than if you pushed it super hard with weights. And, bodyweight and resistance band training can be safer since they’re closed chain and often lower-impact.
Did you know…?
Muscle growth is mainly due to increased size and not the number of muscle fibers.(4)
2. How many sets per exercise are right for you?
A set is the number of times (reps) you complete a particular movement. Sets usually feature a recovery period in-between.
The shorthand for sets and reps is: [# of sets] x [# of reps]
For example, 3×8 push-ups would be three sets of eight push-ups each. The rest interval is usually 1-3 minutes between sets (more on that below).
The optimal number of sets is a hot topic in strength training. There are significant differences here depending on your fitness level.
In the first weeks, novices and beginners show gains with single-set training. More advanced athletes achieve significantly better results with multiple set training because the training stimulus with single set training is too low to stress the muscles to adapt. Therefore, multiple-set training is recommended in this case.
No matter what, if you want to see serious gains in muscle, you’ve got to get to the point of fatigue or even muscle failure! This triggers the hormones to recognize that more muscle is required to achieve a movement than is currently available, and the body will make more. And if you want to see bulk built in a specific area, you’ve got to focus on that area by doing many sets incorporating those particular muscles.
Once you’re past the initial building phase, or if you’re very focused on building muscle quickly, then a good rule of thumb is 4-6 sets.
Another strategy is to overload muscles in each set progressively. So, start your first set with a lighter warm-up weight, and then add a bit more weight with each set. You’re doing it right if you get close to failure, or even fail, to achieve your goal number at your final set.
Good to know
Perform as many reps and sets as you can before your form or technique fails. Continuing to push even though your form has collapsed can lead to injury. Always be in control of your movements and respect the limits of your body and fitness level. One of the biggest challenges is knowing when enough is enough, and this comes with many years (decades) of practice. Skip straight to Muscle Building Tip 7 to learn more about pushing to failure.
3. How many reps per set are right for you?
How many repetitions (reps) per set depends on the specific exercise and fitness goals. For example, it would be reasonable to do 30-60 jumping jacks; however, that would be far too many push-ups for most people.
Stick to a rep range of 6-12 repetitions of the same exercise if the focus is on building muscle. Once that many reps of an exercise is possible with good form, go all the way to 20 reps for exercises like push-ups, rows, squats, etc. Once 20 reps with good technique are doable, add another set and drop the reps back down to 6-8 reps per set. Add more reps again once you can complete all sets with good form.
4. Do I need to rest between sets?
It depends on your goals!
If you’re looking to bulk a single muscle with multiple reps of the same movement, then rest 60 seconds to 3 minutes between individual sets. You’ll know you’ve rested enough when you feel you can go into the next set refreshed. The idea is that, by giving yourself time to rest, you’ll be able to go heavy each time.
However, you can superset multiple muscle groups at a time. Super setting means training one set of muscles or side of the body and then training the opposite muscles during your rest time. So, you switch from one side to the next with little rest. For example, doing a set of push-ups and then going straight into a set of supermans. The two exercises oppose the same muscle group (think pushing versus pulling movements).
Circuit training and supersets also add an aerobic component to strength-building. Circuit training means skipping the recovery intervals and going straight into the next exercise. This method of training works the cardiovascular system more than strength training alone. Circuits and supersets are a great choice if you’re relatively fit and looking to build muscle while losing fat!
Check out the below videos to see how push-ups and supermans work opposing muscle groups (known as an antagonist superset):
5. How many times a week should you strength train?
Soreness related to exercise is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It is vital to return or begin strength training very conservatively. Aim for the minimum amount of reps and sets if you haven’t strength trained in a while (or ever). DOMS may limit your ability to workout multiple times or lift heavy loads, which is counterproductive to your goals. Make sure you understand the benefits of super-compensation and the difference between overtraining.
DOMS may occur one to two days after the initial strength training session and is typically worse on the second day. Even if soreness persists, another strength training session two to three days later can help alleviate DOMS. Even a gentle walk is enough to get the blood flowing, muscles oxygenated, and reduce lactate build-up.
Athletes who have never strength trained before should aim for one weekly strength-training workout in their first week and two to four more complimentary workouts. Everything counts! Bodyweight training, yoga, Pilates, running, biking, swimming, dance classes, anything that gets you sweaty.
Building muscle is a long-term process. Rushing muscle building could lead to injury (a severe setback). Trust in the process, go slow and be patient. Always leave one or two reps “on the table.” When in doubt, leave it out.
Two dedicated strength-training sessions a week are enough after the initial growth hump is achieved. A comprehensive program that works all the major muscle groups is best. This style of workout is called “high-frequency training” or “full-body workouts”(6).
Some examples of full-body workouts in the adidas Training app are: Full Body with Weights (use dumbbells or water bottles as weights), 8-Minute Fully Body Workout, 10-Minute Tabata HIIT, and more!
<span data-mce-type=”bookmark” style=”display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;” class=”mce_SELRES_start”> </span>On the other hand, split training is an excellent way to ensure enough time for muscle recovery. Each major muscle group will work twice a week if you do a two-body-part split four days a week. The most common type of split training is dividing your weekly workouts into one day for the upper body, one day for the lower body, and one day for the total body.
A common way to use this feature to split workouts would be to target the legs and lower body one day of the week, then target the arms and upper body the next day, then go back to the lower body. This type of training is only for advanced athletes because it adds significant training stress, which is needed to promote further muscle growth due to the principle of progressive overload(7).
More advanced strength trainers can work out as many times a week as promotes muscle growth (rather than wearing the muscles down due to overtraining). Keep in mind that as training amounts increase, so should protein intake (read on for more information about protein, plus a calculator).
6. How many weeks until you notice visible results?
When starting strength training muscle mass will increase, but your muscles may not look any bigger. This is because the strength gains at the beginning are due to improved intra- and intermuscular coordination (improved activation and interaction between muscles). Muscle growth requires continuous additional training stimulus.
But the real question to ask yourself is: what kinds of results do I want to see?
Building muscle mass increases metabolism, making the body more efficient at using food for fuel. And muscle weighs more than fat. So, you may actually gain weight when strength-training regularly, but you’ll likely lose fat. In this case, you’ll notice that certain parts of your body look slimmer (like the waist) while others look bulkier (like quadriceps). This is a great sign and another reason to ditch the scale.
Nutrition also plays a significant role in your ability to “see” muscle development. Try adding more protein to your diet and you may notice a boost in those visible curves! You’ll also need to cut calories for a more “cut” frame, but this is not recommended if you’re already eating at a healthy and natural intake. The body could go into starvation mode and eat all of those muscles you’re so painstakingly developing!
Finally, genetics play a role. People are predisposed to hold fat in certain places, have a particular body structure, and be healthy at certain weights. No matter how hard you work out, you may never have a visible (and healthy) six-pack set of abs. That’s okay! You’re doing something FANTASTIC for your body if you’re strength training. Rest assured that you’re making gains so long as you keep lifting and adding on intensity!
Nutrition and genetics play a role in visible muscle growth and development. Cut yourself some slack! Focus on the joy of getting stronger. Rest assured in the knowledge that you’re getting healthier, no matter how you look in the mirror.
7. Should I push my muscles to failure?
Pushing to failure sounds dangerous (and it can be). Pushing muscles to failure is also a great way to induce muscle growth. Pushing to failure means one could not complete another rep with good technique. If one completes that final rep with poor technique, they have pushed past failure, which can quickly lead to injury at worst and is counterproductive at best.
Failure shows you’re doing it right when it comes to weightlifting!
An excellent way to push to failure for bodyweight exercises is simply doing as many reps of an exercise until your form suffers. For example, do as many push-ups as possible and stop when hips and/or shoulders sag towards the ground. Rest for a minute, then do another set and note down how many reps are possible. Try to do more reps and/or sets in the next workout for bigger muscles.
The key to this tip is to push just until it is almost too much and then stop. It’s never productive to get injured, so be very careful. Beginner athletes should focus on developing perfect technique before attempting this training tip.
For example, here are 9 of the most common mistakes for the most common exercises to watch out for when pushing muscles to failure.
8. Should I cut on cardio if muscle building is my only goal?
Cardio or aerobic exercise can impact the body’s ability to build muscle. If big muscles are a primary goal, it’s best to do light cardio, like walking or jogging.
However, beginner athletes will likely realize significant gains fast if they do strength training and cardio workouts. Being able to climb stairs without getting winded is good for overall health! Plus, muscle growth will happen in a functionally natural way. For example, including running workouts will develop important leg muscles and work the cardiovascular system.
The bottom line
Unless bodybuilding is a goal or muscle growth has plateaued, include challenging cardio workouts in your training.
9. What should I eat to build muscle?
Building muscle requires fueling muscle growth. Cutting calories to lose weight is counterintuitive to building muscle. Additionally, calorie needs will increase as muscle mass increases.
The right protein intake for muscle building:
Protein is essential for muscle growth. Adequate protein intake doesn’t mean cutting out the other macronutrients of carbs and fat. It also doesn’t mean consuming more than 25g of protein an hour (the maximal protein absorption rate for humans). Supplements that have hundreds of grams of protein are a waste of money.
Use this protein calculator to quickly and easily figure out how much protein is needed to build muscle.
The right carb intake for muscle building:
Many people falsely believe that cutting carbs is an excellent way to promote muscle growth. The body prioritizes carbs as its primary fuel source during very intense exercise (like strength training or sprinting through the physiological process known as glycolysis). If the body doesn’t have enough carbs to fuel the exercise, it breaks down protein in muscles and converts protein into glucose to cover the energy expenditure of the training. This has the negative effect of breaking down the very muscles being built!
Eat enough carbs to cover the energy cost of the exercise. Find that out using this carb intake calculator.
The bottom line
Instead, eat a balanced diet of protein, carbs and fat. Get protein from the diet, not supplements.
Fat intake for muscle building:
Contrary to popular belief, eating fats do NOT make you fat. The macronutrient of fat is different than adipose tissue (fat cells in the body).
Eating enough fat is pertinent to health, including the body’s ability to gain and retain muscles. Fats are necessary for cellular metabolization (i.e., the ability of cell walls to absorb nutrition). Without fat, all that protein you’re eating could end up floating in the bloodstream, instead of the muscles.
It’s important to understand that when you’re trying to gain muscle, you’ll need to eat more than a weight-loss or maintenance-focused diet. Muscle weighs more than fat and requires more nutrition. If you eat the same number of calories and macronutrient ratios, your body will use whatever muscle you’re trying to put on as fuel. You won’t gain more muscles.
Eating more calories to build muscle will cause body recomposition. You may notice that your body feels bulkier, especially at the beginning. This sensation may stick for 2-6 months until muscles redistribute. Then, you’ll be sleeker than ever!
So, do not hesitate to integrate more fats into your diet! A good rule of thumb is to eat a daily intake of around 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbs. But you can adjust these ratios until your body feels the most energized on a daily basis. You can also adjust the ratios to accommodate special occasions (like pizza night), over the course of a day, week, or (especially for women), the month. Don’t worry too much about what kind of fat to eat; just remember that less processed foods tend to carry more micronutrients (although may also make you feel more bloated). Here are a few yummy options:
- Nuts and seeds (like Chia and Sesame)
- Whole-fat dairy products
- Cooking oils (especially olive oil and seed oils)
- Nut butter, like tahini and peanut butter
- Cooking in butter, adding butter to bread
- Spreads, like pestos and tapenades
10. Should I lose weight to build lean muscle mass?
It is possible to use strength training to increase the ratio of lean muscle mass while losing weight. Muscle mass may not increase (and may even decrease) during weight loss. However, increasing protein intake and maintaining strength training while cutting carbs and fat can help one maintain or increase their ratio of lean muscle mass.
Think of it like this: if total bodyweight drops but muscle mass stays the same, the ratio of muscle to body weight has increased despite muscles not growing. In other words, lean muscle mass has increased.
But, cutting too many nutrients out of your diet can result in metabolic damage, eating disorders, and other physiological issues. Be sure to consult with a dietician or nutritionist before undertaking a diet!
11. What else can I do to gain muscle fast?
Muscle doesn’t get built during workouts: they break down. Muscle grows during rest because rest allows the body to repair broken muscle tissue stronger than before.
Get eight to nine hours of sleep every night, especially during heavy training. Napping is also helpful for serious muscle growth. (That’s right: we just gave you an excuse to go take a nap. You’re welcome!)
The most important thing for effectively building muscle (as well as for every training goal in general) is that you continue to work out regularly.
If you stay consistent, all the hard work will pay off. You’ll have stronger muscles, a more efficient metabolism, and a more toned physique. You’ll be doing something great for yourself now that will last into your future!