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How To Gain Weight And Build Muscle

Are you trying to build muscle at the gym, but not sure the best way to do so? In this blog we look at how to build muscle efficiently, from the most effective exercises to nutrition.
While building muscle is simple, it requires a lot of effort and patience. Building visible mass involves strength training over a long period of time and consuming a balanced diet with sufficient calorie and protein to support the development of muscle mass. You’ll also need to prioritise recovery including taking rest days and getting enough sleep.
One of the main reasons people want to build muscle is to alter their body composition and how they look. However, building muscle doesn’t just have aesthetics benefits. Other benefits include:

  • Increases daily calorie burn. Muscle tissue burns a lot of calories even when at rest. When you build muscle, you increase the amount of calories you burn each day which can help to maintain a healthy body weight or even build muscle without increasing body fat.
  • Improve posture. Strength training allows muscular imbalances to be addressed and weak muscles to be strengthened, which can improve posture as well as reduce risk of injury and minimise pain.
  • Reduced risk of injury. Building muscle increases strength and endurance of the muscles which means they are less likely to get injured in daily activity and while working out.
  • Stronger bones and ligaments. Strength training doesn’t just build muscle; it strengthens the tendons and ligaments and improves bone density.

Gaining weight: muscle vs fat

Most people will gain some weight when building significant increases in muscle mass. Training the right way and having the right diet will help to ensure this weight gain is mostly muscle, with little increase in body fat.

Strength training
Strength training causes small tears in the muscle fibers. The body repairs these fibers by building new muscle, which over time leads to stronger and bigger muscles.
Lifting weights is one of the best ways to do this as it allows the muscles to be challenged enough to create these tiny tears.
To build muscle, it’s recommended to strength train at least twice per week for each muscle group. Compound exercises such as squats and bench press are a great tool as they engage multiple muscle groups, making it easier to train each muscle group more than once throughout the week.

Moderate calorie surplus
Building muscle is energy intensive, and if you are not eating enough calories your body will not be able to effectively build more muscle. Eating at a moderate calorie surplus (around 200-500 calories a day) ensures your body has the energy it needs to build more muscle, without gaining high levels of body fat.

Balanced diet
A balanced diet that contains enough proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats is crucial for building muscle:

  • Proteins are the building blocks for building muscle, so it’s important to consume enough protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, dairy, legumes, and nuts.
  • Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for intense workouts. Good sources include whole grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables.
  • Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish promote anti-inflammatory processes and support hormone health.

When tracking your progress, it’s important to not just focus on the scale weight. Monitoring strength, body measurements, and taking progress pictures can help you to understand if you are gaining muscle, fat, or both.

Exercises that will make your muscles grow

Compound exercises are an important tool for building muscle. Compound exercises train multiple muscle groups at once, helping to make your workouts more efficient. Most people are usually able to lift heavier weights with compound exercises which exposes the different muscles to heavier loads. These exercises also help to train coordination and burn calories.

Examples of compound exercises to include in your workouts are:

  • Squats:
    Works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core
  • Deadlift:
    Works the hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, back, trapezius muscle, core
  • Bench press:
    Works the pectoral, triceps, anterior deltoids, core
  • Shoulder presses:
    Works the deltoids, trapezius, triceps, trunk

While compound exercises should make the bulk of your training program, isolation exercises are also important. These are exercises which target one muscle group, making them effective for correcting muscle imbalances and weaknesses and specifically getting the most out of your muscles.

Examples of isolation exercises include:

  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep extensions
  • Leg extensions
  • Hamstring curls

How to eat more calories

While it’s possible to build muscle without an increase in calories, eating at a calorie surplus of around 10-20% above your daily requirement will help to build muscle mass faster.

Different people have different daily calorie requirements, with factors such as age, gender, body weight, body composition and activity level all having an impact. There are many online calculators that can help to work out your calorie needs – these act as a good starting point. Try eating at the maintenance calories for 1-2 weeks and monitoring your weight. If it stays the same, increase your calories by 10-20%. You should be aiming for around 0.5-1lb weight gain each week.

It might be tempting to simply add chocolate, sweets, or takeaways to increase your calories but for healthy muscle building, you should aim for a balanced diet. Increasing your protein or carbohydrates is a good way to make sure your body is in the best position to build muscle.

  • Proteins:
    Proteins are essential for building and repairing muscle. Try to have at least one portion of protein per meal and snack.
    Sources: Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, lean dairy products, and plant-based protein sources such as legumes, tofu, and quinoa.
  • Complex carbohydrates:
    Provide long-lasting energy that you need for strength training. Eating carbohydrates during the day and before your workout will help you to have the energy needed to challenge your muscles during a workout.
    Sources: Whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta.
  • Healthy fats:
    Fats are an important source of energy and contribute to hormonal health, immune functioning, and more.
    Sources: avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish (e.g. salmon)
  • Fruits and vegetables:
    Fruits and vegetables contain valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber needed for your body to function.
    Sources: Bananas, apples, oranges, strawberries and blueberries.

Progressive Overload

To build muscle, you need to continually challenge the muscles over time. Our bodies are good at adapting to stimuli, so if we do the same number of repetitions and sets with the same weight over and over again, we will stop progressing.
As you get stronger, you will need to increase the intensity of your workouts to continue to build muscle. This is known as progressive overload. Progressive overload is one of the most important principles for successful muscle building and refers to increasing the amount of stress you expose your body to.

There are four ways to progressively overload:

  • Increase weight
    This is one of the simplest and most popular methods – just increase the weight lifted each week.
  • Increase repetitions/sets
    This is another easy and effective way to progressively overload. Increasing the reps or sets exposes your muscles to greater volume. Rather than infinitely increase the reps and sets, set a range (e.g. 3 sets of 8-12) and increase within this. As you get to the upper limit, increase the weight until you can only lift the minimum number of reps and start again.
  • Reduce your rest
    Another method is to shorten your breaks between sets. By resting shorter between sets, you challenge your cardiovascular system more and your body needs to get back into the right training state faster.
  • TUT (Time Under Tension)
    This refers to the duration of the load. By executing exercises more slowly than usual, you set new training stimuli and drive muscle building.

Recovery periods

Having sufficient recovery periods is essential for building muscle. During exercise, microscopic tears occur on the muscle fibers. The damaged muscle tissue is repaired and rebuilt during rest periods, which is what increases muscle size and strength.

Without sufficient recovery periods, the muscle does not have enough time to regenerate and strengthen. This means the body is not able to build muscle and also exposes you to greater risk of injury.

To get enough rest, make sure to leave at least one full day in between training the same muscle group twice. Getting enough sleep also plays an important role in this.  During sleep, the growth hormone somatropin is released, which stimulates muscle growth and cell repair.

In addition to sleep, adequate hydration is also important for the regeneration phase. Water and electrolytes provide damaged muscle tissue with nutrients necessary for muscle building and repair.

Active recovery techniques such as foam rollers and stretching exercises can also support the recovery process by improving blood circulation and oxygenation of the muscles. These techniques can also help relieve muscle pain and reduce muscle tension.

How to track your progress

Once you have your workout and diet in place, tracking your progress will help to identify if you need to adjust your training accordingly if necessary to achieve your goals faster. There are several methods you can use to track your progress.

Taking measurements
This is one of the simplest and most effective methods. With the help of a tape measure, you measure the circumference of your trained muscle groups and can compare your specific mass and muscle gain at regular intervals.

Monitoring strength
Tracking the weight lifted in exercises like bench press or squats is a good way to monitor your progress based on your strength gain. An increase in training weight is a good indicator that you are getting stronger and your muscles are growing.

Taking before and after pictures
It can be difficult to see progress in the mirror as changes happen gradually. Taking regular photos is a good way to document your progress as you can compare and see improvements. Try to take pictures in the same situations (such as time of day) so that there are less factors that might affect how you look.

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