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Top workout tips for building muscle

by Harry 8 minutes read

Last updated: 03 Aug, 2022

There are countless ways you can approach a workout, with each style affecting your body very differently. Some methods will improve endurance, while others will increase strength. But for those of you looking to gain muscle mass, there are some key things you need to know to ensure you see the best results. So to help out, we're going to give you a rundown of all the top tips you need, to get those gains.

Muscle growth - otherwise known as muscle hypertrophy - occurs when you repeatedly place your muscles under resistance. This is why 'Resistance training' is the most popular method to achieve muscle gain - making your muscles grow requires putting your body under regular, repeated strain, but there's a little more to it than that.

The science behind muscle gain

When you workout, especially in resistance training, you are repeatedly creating miniscule tears in your muscle fibres and this damage is actually what allows the muscles to grow. After you workout, your body replaces the damaged muscle fibres through a cellular process in which muscle fibres are fused together to form new muscle protein strands - otherwise known as myofibrils. The repaired protein strands increase in thickness and number to create long-term muscle growth or myofibrillar hypertrophy.

In this case, your body is actually achieving hypertrophy when you rest, not when you're working out.

Importantly, your muscles can only grow when the rate of muscle protein synthesis is faster than the rate of muscle protein breakdown - which is why gym fanatics tend to aid synthesis with various supplements.

There is also another type of muscle growth, known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is a short-term effect of working out, commonly referred to as a 'pump'. This happens when fluid is drawn into the muscles and causes them to swell. You may think of body-builders that will workout briefly before going on stage to compete so their muscles appear temporarily bigger.

Science of muscle growth

Key principles

Rest & sleep

Muscle growth actually occurs when your body is at rest, which is why it's vital for you to take time out of the gym and give your muscle fibres a chance to repair. This is why it is never recommended to practice strength training 7 times a week - your body needs time to recover; you simply won't see the results you desire if you don't rest.

One key form of rest is sleep.

Besides taking whole days off, you need to make sure you are also getting a good night's sleep between sessions. Sleep is perhaps the best opportunity your body has to recover. Ideally, you should be getting between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night.

The quality of sleep is equally as important as the quantity. You should make sure you maintain a regular sleep schedule so that your body can get used to a healthy pattern of recovery. You should also sleep in a fully dark, cool and comfortable room that will optimise your sleep's quality.

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Protein intake

Protein is by far the most important nutrient in your diet when it comes to muscle growth.

The more protein your body stores during the process of protein synthesis, the larger your muscles will grow. Unfortunately, protein is used for much more than just repairing muscle fibres. As such, the protein stores in your body are constantly being depleted. This is why protein supplements are so popular in the fitness and body-building world.

Michael Houston, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Virginia Tech University, says that in order to achieve muscle hypertrophy you need to "build and store new proteins faster than your body breaks down old proteins."

It is widely recommended that you consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, as a maximum. This is the most protein your body can absorb in one day, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Amino acids also come into play with protein consumption. Amino acids are often referred to as the "building blocks" of protein and they are also highly involved in the muscle growth process. Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are a very popular supplement, which are taken to maintain your amino acid levels. Doing this will only promote more rapid, efficient hypertrophy when looking to supplement your gains.

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Beyond protein intake, the balance you maintain in the rest of your diet is also crucial to maintaining and growing muscle mass.

If you don't stick to a healthy, balanced diet outside of a high protein intake, you may fail to see the results you desire. You could see fat gain (even alongside muscle hypertrophy) if you consume high amounts of saturated and trans fats for a prolonged period. If you cut out carbohydrates, which are your body's main source of slow-burning fuel, you could lose fat but also experience less energetic workouts and slower muscle hypertrophy.

You should not only maintain a healthy balance of nutrients, you should also eat more than your maintenance level intake if you're looking to build muslce - this is the basic principle of 'Calories-in Calories-out' (CICO).

Maintenance calories vary from person to person, but the recommended daily calorie intake is roughly 2500kcals for men and 2000kcals for women (per the NHS). This is the base amount of calories your body will burn in a day, excluding exercise. So, if you are also working out, you need to replace those extra calories on top of your maintenance level. If you fail to do so, you could experience muscle atrophy (the wasting of muscle mass) and overall weight loss as your body looks for alternate energy stores to fuel itself.

Regardless of the effects on muscle gain, a healthy, balanced diet is vital to your overall physical and mental health.

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Weight lifting

Various training methods will have different effects on your body, especially with regards to muscle growth. If you're looking to achieve muscle growth, one of the key things is lifting heavy weights.

You can certainly benefit from lifting lighter weights with sets of 15-20 repetitions, but this is far more likely to achieve muscular endurance than muscle growth. The commonly suggested rep range to promote hypertrophy is 6-12. Within that range you should be working to failure in most of your sets. This means you are pushing your muscles to the limit, with some of the heaviest weights you can lift, creating more muscle fibre tears and therefore allowing more opportunities for growth. Very high repetition sets will not provide the same tension in the muscle to create fibre damage and therefore promote hypertrophy.

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Progressive overload

While you're lifting weights, you should aim to lift heavier and heavier weights from session to session.

As you allow time to recover between chest sessions for example, your body will not only be growing larger but also stronger. This is your body adapting to the demands you are making. As such, you should take the opportunity to up the tension and strain in your next session, by adding 5kg to your bench press perhaps?

When you're consistently lifting heavy loads safely and with good form, you won't be able to avoid feeling stronger. You should reasonably be able to push your limits to the next weight level when you can achieve 10 repetitions at your current chosen weight.

If you can't yet achieve a good amount of repetitions at the next highest weight, you could try just upping the sets at your current weight. Instead you could even try to do the same reps with slower, sharper and more precise form.

Check out our full article all about progressive overload.

Time under tension

Speaking of form - one of the key principles of good lifting form is 'Time Under Tension'.

Whether your bicep curling or leg pressing, the amount of time your muscles are under strain will effect your body differently. There are three sections of each lift in which your muscles are under tension:

  • Concentric - the contracting/shortening of the muscle fibres (upwards motion in a bicep curl)
  • Eccentric - the lengthening of the muscle fibres (downwards motion in a bicep curl)
  • Isometric - the lack of movement of the muscle (still moment/top of the bicep curl)

For hypertrophy, the recommended time for each movement is: 1-2 seconds concentric, 1 second isometric and 2-3 eccentric. In simple terms, this is a controlled smooth lift with a brief pause at the top of the contraction and a slow release back to the starting position. Check out the diagram below for guidance.

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