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Top 15 Tips for Building Muscle

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Updated June 02, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Body builder flexing biceps
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Take note of these tips and you will maximize your chances of building muscle and minimizing fat.

1. Genetics are important. If you ever could, you would choose your parents well. The ability to pack on muscle is at least partly determined by genetics. However, starting from a low base you can always improve your body shape. Being male and young also favors muscle building.

2. Train with high volume and medium intensity. "Volume" is the quantity of sets and repetitions you do and "intensity" is how much weight you choose. For each weight training exercise set, perform 10 to 15 lifts with less than a minute break between sets. Lactic acid causes that burning sensation in muscles when you exercise intensely and this appears to stimulate muscle growth, perhaps from an increase in growth hormone production.

3. Push each exercise set to near “failure.” Failure means you could not do one more repetition in a set because of fatigue. For a 3-set exercise, you could start off with a heavy weight for 15 repetitions in the first set and then reduce each set by 2 so that your last set is 11 lifts. Even as you tire, you should attempt a maximum effort for each set.

4. Utilize the "big three" weight training exercises. These are the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. They build strength, condition and bulk and should always be included in one form or another.

5. Train three times each week. At least 3 sessions per week should provide sufficient volume of exercise to create a muscle-building stimulus. Experienced trainers may attempt more sessions and novices could start with 2 sessions.

6. Don’t try to train for a marathon and build big muscles at the same time. You can mix cardio and weights -- it makes a great fitness combo -- but at the extremes, the training physiology and biochemistry are contradictory and you will not maximize your results unless you concentrate on one or the other.

7. Eat sufficient for muscle growth. You will struggle to build muscle in a weight-loss mode when you are cutting calories and exercising at the same time. If you must drop your food intake, at least keep your protein intake the same and reduce fat and refined carbohydrates.

8. Cycle food intake during weight loss. If you want to maintain or increase muscle in a weight loss phase, try eating well on the days you exercise -- especially in the hour before and after exercise -- and cutting back strongly on intake for the days you do not exercise. Don't make it an excuse to overeat on exercise days.

9. Measure body fat. Don't be discouraged if your weight does not change much when you train with weights. You may be losing fat and increasing muscle. This is not easy to do at the same time, yet net weight loss or gain is not a good measure of muscle or fat movement.

10. Eat sufficient protein. Even if you train hard, the maximum amount of protein you need for muscle building is about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. A little more or less will not make much difference.

Protein supplements are not necessary if you eat enough lean protein day-to-day. If you decide to use a supplement drink, whey, soy or even skim milk is suitable. Amino acid supplements are not necessary.

11. Eat sufficient carbohydrate. If you exercise hard and long with cardio, circuits or bodybuilding programs, you need sufficient carbohydrate to fuel your effort and to maintain body stores of glucose. Failure to do this will result in muscle being broken down for protein and then carbohydrate. Low-carb diets are not suitable for this type of training. Depending on the intensity and volume of your training, you may need 2 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day.

12. Eat some protein before and after you weight train. About 10 to 20 grams of protein consumed about 30 to 60 minutes before you train may help induce a muscle-building effect following training. This is about 1 to 2 glasses of milk or equivalent supplement drink such as whey or soy protein.

Consume the same amount of protein (20 grams) within 30 to 60 minutes of cessation of training combined with some carbohydrate -- and creatine if you decide to take that.

13. Try a creatine supplement. Although results can be variable for individuals, creatine supplements at about 5 grams per day may enhance your ability to train harder and longer, which may lead to increased muscle growth. Also, a creatine supplement with protein and carbohydrate may have a direct muscle building effect according to recent research. However, for long-term viability and cost, the fewer supplements you use the better. I don't recommend creatine or similar supplements for high school athletes.

14. Get plenty of sleep and rest. Muscle building, recovery and repair occur at rest and during sleep. Ensure you get sufficient recovery. Failure to do so may delay your muscle building efforts and possibly lead to illness and injury.

15. Set reasonable goals, monitor your progress and be patient. The best bodies are the result of hundreds of hours of effort. Start slowly, don’t be discouraged yet don’t expect miracles if the muscle gods are not with you for your body type. The fitness and health you attain will be assets that will stay with you for as long as you keep training.

Before you get too ambitious with advanced programs and exercises, prepare your body with the beginner's strength and muscle training program if you're new to weight training.

Sources:

Weight Training Steps to Success. Baechle R, Earle RW, Human Kinetics, 2006.

Willardson JM. A brief review: factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Nov;20(4):978-84. Review.

Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Hayes A. A creatine-protein-carbohydrate supplement enhances responses to resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Nov;39(11):1960-8.

Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Nov;38(11):1918-25.

Lambert CP, Frank LL, Evans WJ. Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding. Sports Med. 2004;34(5):317-27. Review.

Australian Institute of Sport. Pre- and Post-Exercise Recovery.

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