Losing body fat is theoretically quite easy. Consume less energy (by way of fewer calories) than you expend and fat-loss will occur.
Increasing muscle mass or ‘hypertrophy’, on the other hand, is a much less predictable process and, for many, much harder to achieve. Gyms are full of people who are going nowhere in terms of increasing muscle mass, despite a slavish dedication to being there, and Bodyscan’s DEXA scans are proof of that!
There are three essential factors that encourage muscle growth, all of which must be in place for the average person to have a good chance at building muscle mass. These are:
i) a great resistance training (weights) programme
ii) sufficient energy (calorie) intake
iii) sufficient protein intake
If all three of these are not in place, muscle gain will be slow or non-existent. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Muscle Building Tip #1: Follow a great (optimised) resistance programme
Skeletal muscle responds to the stimulus placed upon it. Short bursts of activity pushing against heavy resistance damages the muscle fibres, which are repaired and replaced, in preparation for encountering the weight again. It is this repair process, repeated again and again, which results in more fibres and bigger, stronger muscles.
An optimised resistance programme combines intensity and volume.
Think of intensity as how hard you work. It’s measured by the heaviness of the weight you lift and how close you go to physical failure on each set.
Once you can lift a weight for a given number of reps, your muscles become used to the stimulus and they will not grow any more; you need a steadily heavier weight (and/or more reps) to further stimulate muscle gains.
Therefore lifting heavier weights over time (ie, maintaining intensity) is critical to muscle-building success and is known as progressive overload.
Volume is how many times you lift the weight, a function ultimately of how many reps and sets you perform for each muscle group each week. The frequency and consistency of your gym visits will contribute to overall volume.
Compare the volume of bench/chest press exercises in these two programmes:
A) a four-times-a-week ‘split programme’ that incorporates a bench press twice a week with three sets of ten reps.
B) a three-times-a-week full-body programme that employs the bench press on every visit with four sets of twelve reps.
Programme B (144 reps a week) has 240% of the volume of Programme A (60 reps a week), and the chest is being worked more frequently.
Research suggests that an even higher volume of 6-8 sets of 8-15 reps per muscle group per session with a minimum two minutes between sets achieves optimum muscle gain, with returns diminishing beyond that. Eight sets of ten, twice or three times a week would be 160-240 reps a week!
But everyone is different and for muscle gain one size does not fit all. We will all respond differently to weights and rep ranges and all recover at different rates, but it’s generally true that higher volumes (up to eight sets, and rep ranges between ten and 20) up to a point will see greater muscle mass increases.
Watch the DEXA information video clip below to hear more about volume and intensity.
Muscle Building Tip #2: Consume sufficient calories to fuel muscle growth
Whilst you can build muscle mass while eating at or even below maintenance, the sweet spot for muscle growth is to create a small calorie surplus, typically 100-300 calories a day. Establishing your maintenance calories requires an efficient calculator (such as Bodyscan’s DEXA calculator, which uses lean mass as its primary input) as well as observing what happens in real life. If you eat “at maintenance” and your weight increases, then the maintenance estimate was too low and you are actually eating in a calorie surplus.
As for what you eat, it is the energy content of the food in your muscle-gaining diet rather than the food itself, that is more important. To build muscle you do not have to eat the bodybuilder’s staple of chicken and broccoli for every meal. Indeed, if you have a runaway metabolism like Joe Fazer’s in the video clip below, ‘clean eating’ will mean you can never eat enough food to outrun your metabolism and achieve a muscle-building surplus. Joe’s muscle-gaining diet includes a lot of calorie-dense junk food.
Remember that you cannot force-feed muscle growth. Consuming excess calories that your weights programme does not shuttle to muscle-growth will get stored as fat (see below). That said, eating low enough calories to hit the sweet spot of zero fat gain will be trial and error and may reduce your muscle-building potential.
Muscle-building tip #3: Consume enough protein
Whatever foods make up your muscle diet, you will need to include sufficient protein because protein is the building block for muscle growth. Protein-rich foods such as poultry, fish, red meat, eggs and dairy, are worth including, as are protein shakes to top things up if required. A rule of thumb to achieve ‘sufficient’ protein intake for muscle gain is 2g of protein per kilo of your body weight. If you have low body fat you may want to apply the 2-gram rule to your lean mass only because you will have a higher lean percentage than someone who carries more fat. A DEXA scan (see Tip #6) will reveal your total lean mass.
There is some evidence that spreading your protein intake across the day is beneficial for muscle gain compared to big gaps between feeds.
Other than muscle-building protein, do not obsess about macros. Some research suggests that a ketogenic (high fat, low carb) diet is not as effective for building muscle as one higher in carbs, but this is not a definitive conclusion as most subjects on a keto diet experience an appetite-suppressing effect and lose weight.
If you need help with your muscle-building nutrition, then check out our bespoke nutrition coaching here.
Remember that points 1, 2 and 3 above have to ALL be in place. If you eat a calorie surplus but don’t have a great muscle-growth programme, the excess calories will get stored as fat. If you have a great programme but don’t have enough fuel (ie, you are in a big calorie deficit), you won’t build any muscle and could even lose what you have. Without protein you won’t have the building blocks for muscle protein synthesis (muscle gains). The graphs above show what the possible outcomes are from eating in a calorie surplus.
Muscle Building Tip #4: Get enough sleep
Rest, relaxation and sleep are vitally important to maximise muscle gain.
Real muscle growth does not occur in the gym – what feels like bigger guns after a bicep curl is just the short-lived ‘pump’ caused by increased blood flow. At the end of your workout your muscles will actually be smaller than when you started because your workout, if it was any good, will have damaged the muscle fibre (see above).
The repair-and-replace process that results in muscle gain takes place between workouts when you are at rest and asleep. Stress (which produces cortisol) and poor sleep inhibit muscle growth, so it is crucial you get undisturbed shuteye for seven to eight hours a night to maximise your muscle-building results.
Muscle Building Tip #5: Don’t stress about the stuff you can’t control
When it comes to gaining muscle mass, as well as things you have command over, there are several very influential factors that you don’t. There is no point stressing about these, just focus on the three points above.
Some factors that affect your efforts to build muscle mass are:
a) Your sex. Women naturally have smaller muscles and less testosterone than men.
b) Your age. It is harder to build and maintain muscle as we age. Our muscles naturally start to atrophy beyond our thirties, so it is a good idea to include weight training as part of your daily schedule throughout your life. Use it or lose it!
c) Your genetic capacity. Not everyone can have great muscle; there is a limit to how much muscle we as individuals can each gain. Different ethnicities will have varying muscle mass potential too.
d) Your height. Whilst how tall you are doesn’t affect the muscle-building process, from an aesthetic point of view, a tall person will have to gain more muscle mass than a short person to look as muscled. That’s because on shorter limbs, the same quantity of muscle tissue will have a bigger circumference than on longer limbs.
e) Your training age (how long you have been training). If you are new to muscle-building, you have the potential to make much bigger, faster gains than someone who has been doing it for years. This is because your muscles will be new to the stimulus and will adapt quickly. After a long time training you get closer to – and ultimately reach – your genetic capacity for muscle gain, so progress dwindles and eventually stops.
f) Your hormones. The male hormone testosterone is present in both men and women (men have more) but can vary greatly. Low testosterone will inhibit muscle growth no matter how optimised your training programme and diet are. Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is available to overcome low levels.
Muscle Building Tip #6: Measure it with DEXA
If fat remains unchanged, an increase in muscle mass will mean an increase in your weight on the scale. And a ‘typical’ weight increase to signify optimal muscle gain might be half-to-one-percent of total body weight per month. At the low end, that’s about 350g (12oz) per month for a person weighing 70kg (11 stone or 154lbs).
But everyone is different (and see Tip #4 above) so the variability of results between individuals means that overall lean mass (and weight) could rise much faster, fall or stay the same. And whatever happens to your weight would give you no clue to changes in body composition.
As an example, look at the DEXA scan results below for a genetically-blessed male who achieved 2.8kg of fat loss and 3.3kg of lean gain in ten months. Over that period, his weight increased by just half a kilo (one pound), about 0.6% of his total body weight. So the scale would suggest his efforts had gone nowehere when he’s actually achieved a very impressive body recomposition of 6.1kg.
As you can seen, a DEXA body scan will validate your efforts by accurately measuring even small changes in lean mass. DEXA provides certainty for those looking to gain muscle because it is highly consistent between scans. DEXA’s consistency is particularly important for muscle-building because of the slow pace at which muscle-gain occurs.
As well as total muscle mass, DEXA reveals imbalances in muscle mass, not just left to right but between the main regions of the body (arms, legs and trunk).
You can book your first DEXA scan here and return every three to four months to check the progress of your muscle-building regimen. It is very common for muscle-gainers to gain a kilo of fat for every kilo of lean mass. That means their programme is not optimised or the surplus is too big, or both.
Muscle Building Summary
If you want to gain muscle mass you need to be highly consistent in your nutrition and your training programme. Hit the gym at least 3-4 times a week for 60-90 minutes each time, working out with volume, intensity and maintaining excellent technique. Eat slightly above maintenance with protein intake of about 2g per kilo of body weight. Measure your progress with a DEXA scan every 3-4 months to make sure that what you are doing is working.