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The Science of Building Muscle: Training, Nutrition, and Recovery Tips

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Building muscle requires a patient and enduring approach, along with a sustained dedication to the journey. Nevertheless, by following suitable training regimens and ensuring sufficient protein intake, achieving this goal is within reach for the majority of individuals.

When it comes to physique improvements, muscle building is often a top priority.

Added muscle mass will increase the definition of your muscles, improve your lean body mass, and add bulk and size to your frame in all the right places.

This article breaks down everything you need to know when it comes to building muscle, including how to work out, what to eat, and recovery protocols.

The basics of building muscle

In simple terms, skeletal muscles are like long tubes that can contract and create force, allowing you to move. Your body is always changing the protein in your muscles. If you lose more protein than you gain, your muscles get smaller. If the amount is about the same, your muscles stay the same. And if you gain more protein than you lose, your muscles grow.

To make your muscles bigger, you need to add protein faster than you lose it and reduce how fast you break it down. This muscle growth is called “muscle hypertrophy,” and it’s the main goal of strength training.

Many things affect muscle growth, including hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, and having enough protein and other nutrients. To build new muscle, you should do strength training and eat enough protein and nutrients. The right amount of strength training tells your body to make more muscle, but you also need enough protein and energy to keep your muscles growing.

While scientists are still studying how to get the best muscle gains, it’s clear that using heavy weights and eating lots of protein is the best way to make your muscles bigger. 

Tips for how to gain muscle

While many types of exercise offer health benefits, the only way to reliably drive muscle growth is by using your muscles against moderate to heavy resistance. In addition, muscle growth is specific to the muscles being used.

Decide your target number of repetitions

The idea of the repetition continuum is valuable when creating muscle-building workout plans.

To make your muscles grow, you need to do weight training with a specific amount of weight. This weight should only allow you to do between 1 and 20 repetitions.

In simple terms, the repetition continuum suggests that lifting very heavy weights for just a few reps will boost your strength, lifting weights for 6 to 12 reps will help you build muscle, and lifting lighter weights for 12 to 20 reps will enhance your muscle endurance.

1. Rep-range continuum

How many reps you can perform at a given weight determines the benefit you will see.

  • 1–5 reps: develops more strength
  • 6–12 reps: develops more muscle growth
  • 12–20 reps: develops more muscular endurance

It’s important to know that there is some overlap in these ranges. For example, doing sets of 3 reps with the appropriate weight can still promote muscle growth, while sets of 8 reps will also help build some strength, and 20-rep sets can contribute to muscle development.

Moreover, recent studies indicate that individuals may respond differently to lower or higher repetition ranges when it comes to muscle building.

In simpler terms, the ideal repetition range for muscle growth might vary from person to person. Some people might see better results with lower reps and heavy weights, while others may benefit more from higher reps and lighter weights.

2. Choose the right amount of weight

In all situations, the weight you select should be sufficiently heavy that doing more than 20 reps becomes extremely difficult.

The weight you pick should push you to the point of almost being unable to complete the specified number of repetitions. For instance, if you’re aiming for a set of 10 reps, by the time you reach the tenth rep, you should find it very hard to do another. If your goal is to build muscle, you should typically have no more than “two reps left in the tank” at the end of a set.

The key idea from the repetition range continuum is that you should go through various training phases using different repetition ranges to determine which approach yields the most muscle growth for your body.

3. Choose your exercises well

As previously mentioned, muscle growth is specific to the muscles you work on.

For instance, if you want to make your biceps bigger, you need to do exercises that directly involve your biceps. This could be a dedicated bicep exercise like a bicep curl or a compound movement that engages the biceps, such as a pullup.

When it comes to the best type of exercises for muscle building, both compound and isolation movements can be equally effective in promoting muscle growth.

However, for optimal long-term fitness outcomes, it’s advisable to incorporate both compound and isolation exercises into your training routine.

Compound movements like a barbell back squat effectively activate multiple large muscle groups in a single exercise, offering more practical and functional movements that benefit real-life activities. This leads to more efficient workouts and enhanced overall muscle strength.

Isolation movements are particularly useful for targeting specific muscles, and they may be safer and easier for beginners to learn, especially when starting out. Additionally, isolation exercises are often more manageable to perform when you’re fatigued, as they don’t require stabilizing your entire body. This might enable you to squeeze in a few more sets focused on specific muscles at the end of your workout, even when you’re too tired to perform another compound exercise.

4. Structure your workout to avoid overtraining

A good rule of thumb is to perform 3 sets of 3–5 compound movements, followed by 3 sets of 1–2 isolation movements per workout.

Generally, you do your heaviest sets using compound movements and perform higher repetition ranges on your isolation movements.

Assuming you’re performing three working sets per exercise, limit your total combined compound and isolation movement exercises to 5–7 movements per workout.

This allows you to benefit from each type of exercise while maximizing the overall muscle building potential of your training program and avoiding any symptoms of overtraining.

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