6 Simple Steps to Gain Muscle (and how long does it actually take?)
If you’re unfamiliar with how to gain and maintain muscle mass, it goes like this: You lift heavy weights (for you), which cause microtears (trauma) in the muscle fibers. The body sends signals to repair and rebuild the muscle cells, and as long as there are enough building blocks (from food) and recovery (from rest and sleep), the muscles grow just a little bit bigger and stronger. The process is called “muscular hypertrophy.” Repeated, it leads to real, visible muscle gains over time.
Essentially, if your goal is to gain and maintain muscle mass, you want to induce protein synthesis by pushing your muscles hard enough that they need to repair at a cellular level. At the same time, you want to avoid damaging the muscle or causing injury by lifting too hard or too heavy. In other words, your workouts must be challenging—difficult even—but not enough to lead to injury. On the other hand, if the training becomes too easy, you’ll no longer gain mass and may even lose some of the muscle you’ve already built.
With enough effort and time, anyone can build and maintain muscle mass. What you do in the gym, though, is just one piece of the muscle-building puzzle.
Benefits of Building and Maintaining Muscle Mass
Whether young or old, but especially as you age, building muscle mass is vital for your healthy, active lifestyle. You see, as we get older, our muscle mass and density can naturally begin to decline. This also leads to decreased bone density. Over time, this can result in losing strength and the ability to move easily through our environments. Strong muscles equal strong bones, which prevent a cascade of other health issues, including:
- Bone loss
- Increased risk of fractures
- Body fat gain
- Decreased control of blood sugar, which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- And all-cause mortality (or early death)
Regular exercise that includes weight training to build and maintain muscle mass can improve:
- Lipid profiles, including triglycerides and cholesterol levels
- Blood pressure and cardiovascular health
- Healthy blood sugar
- Insulin sensitivity
- Mental health
- Cognitive abilities
- Physical performance
- Movement control
- Walking speed
- Physical comfort (e.g., reducing joint and low back pain)
- Functional independence
- Body fat levels
- And more.
How to Build and Maintain Muscle Mass in 6 Simple Steps
1. Lift weights: Quite simply, the best way to build muscle is to lift weights or start some type of resistance training plan. It doesn’t have to be long, complicated, or drawn out. But it does have to be progressively harder to continually stress your muscles to tear down and rebuild stronger. Yet you also want to focus on resistance you can handle with good form to avoid injury.
To build and maintain muscle mass, experts recommend starting with at least 2 to 3 sets of 6 to 12 repetitions with a weight that’s about 65% to 85% of your one-rep maximum weight. Rest about one minute between each set. As a result, you’ll release the needed testosterone and growth hormone to stimulate muscle growth. If the exercise feels easy, you can either increase the weight lifted or the number of reps. If it’s comfortable, it won’t lead to hypertrophy. So, you’ll want to reassess every couple of weeks to determine how to best progress your workouts. This is known as progressive overload.
Shoot to train each body part at least twice a week. For instance, you can do a full-body split two times each week (every Tuesday and Friday, for example). Or, you can split your workouts up to do upper body every Tuesday and Friday and lower body every Wednesday and Saturday, taking
Thursdays and Sundays off. Or, you can choose another workout split to fit your goals and lifestyle. Beginners often start with just a couple of full-body workouts using their body weight each week and build up over time. Advanced athletes may decide to train up to six days a week with progressively heavier weights, depending on their goals.
Because they involve multiple joints and muscles, some of the most effective and efficient exercises for building and maintaining muscle include:
As you continue to train, understand that your numbers should evolve. You can progressively get stronger by lifting heavier weights, adding more volume (i.e., sets and reps), or increasing intensity levels. But the workouts you’re doing today shouldn’t be the same as the workouts you’re doing a couple of months from now.
2. Set Specific Goals: Your weight-training program will differ depending on the muscles or body parts you’re most interested in building. In general, multi-joint exercises like squats, pushups, and pullups are the most efficient as they work multiple muscles. However, if your goal is to build, say, bigger arms, you’ll also want specific exercises that focus on your biceps and triceps, along with multi-joint exercises like dumbbell rows, which work the biceps, back, and shoulders at the same time.
As you create your muscle-building program, it can help to work with an experienced strength or exercise coach, especially if you have past injuries or are fairly new to weight training.
3. Eat Enough, Especially Protein: To build and maintain muscle mass, you need to fuel your cells with proper nutrients. That means you need to consume adequate calories and protein. Without the building blocks, your muscle fibers won’t be able to rebuild.
Shoot for at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight from fish, eggs, poultry, meat, beans and legumes, yogurt, and protein powders to ensure your muscles have the necessary amino acids to build muscle. Consume protein both before and after every workout, and include it in every meal to promote muscle growth.
While much of the focus is on high-protein foods, you also need energy for your workouts, and your body uses carbohydrates (i.e., muscle glycogen) to push through intense workouts. After your workout is one of the best times to eat carbohydrate-rich foods like fruits, quinoa, oats, or potatoes, combined with protein, as the muscles have used up their glycogen (blood sugar) and are partially depleted.
Refueling the muscles with protein and carbohydrates after exercise helps:
- Decrease muscle protein breakdown
- Boost muscle growth
- Replenish glycogen stores
- Promote recovery.
4. Rest and Recover: There’s an old gym saying, “Muscles don’t grow while you’re working out; they grow as you rest and recover.” Another is, “Muscles are broken down in the gym, fed in the kitchen, and rebuilt in bed.” Yep, one of the keys to building muscle is ensuring you’re getting enough rest to recover and grow.
Our bodies need seven to nine hours of sleep for our cells to repair. Without enough sleep, our bodies can’t effectively repair the damage done in the gym. This leads to not only poor muscle gains, it can increase the risk of injury and illness.
In addition to getting enough sleep, you’ll also need to give your muscles time to repair between workouts. For example, if you did pull-ups yesterday, you can’t expect your muscles to fully recover and be ready to do more today (at least if your goal is muscle gains). For maximum muscle gains, rest days are just as important.
Muscles need roughly 48 hours to fully recover. So a general rule is to schedule work days for one day on followed by at least one day off. There are some exceptions for advanced trainers, but this is a good rule of thumb.
Muscle soreness is also a good gauge. If your muscles are mildly stiff, you may be ready for the next training session. But if you’re still feeling seriously sore, give those muscles another day of rest to fully recover, prevent burnout, and lower the risk of overtraining.
5. Add Supplements: Once you have a good nutritional foundation (e.g., eating mostly whole foods, including quality proteins, healthy fats, and high-fiber carbs), you may want to consider adding supplementation. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet, and you also can’t out-supplement a poor lifestyle. Once you have the basics down, though, supplements can provide that extra edge to build or maintain muscle mass.
The most important nutrients to consider for building muscle include:
- Protein powders, to help ensure you’re getting enough of these important building blocks for muscle recovery.
- Creatine has been shown to help boost power output, muscle growth, and exercise performance.
- HMB is an amino acid metabolite shown to help aid exercise recovery, promote protein synthesis, and boost exercise performance.
- Vitamin D is vital to hormone production and has been found to support heart health, cognitive functioning, muscle growth, and bone density. Unfortunately, many of us are deficient in this
- critical nutrient.
- Omega-3 fats, which support overall health as well as muscle building.
6. Reset from Stress: Stress can be a good thing. In fact, exercise is a type of stress. But too much stress, especially chronic stress, can not only prevent muscle gains, but it can lead to burnout. It can also lead to tight muscles, increased headaches, more body pains, and other discomfort.
It’s important to spend time daily to destress: Turn off your devices, silence your reminders, and allow yourself to just breathe for at least five minutes. These moments of peace make room for greater resilience and bigger gains in the gym and in life.
How Soon Will You See Results?
To be honest, even with the same fitness routine, diet, and supplementation, results vary. It takes time and dedicated effort to build and maintain muscle. If you’re new to training, you can often see results quickly. You’ll likely notice visible changes within the first month as long as you’re consistent.
After you’ve been training for months or years, gains will likely slow. Experts recommend sticking to a program for 6 to 12 weeks before you’ll start seeing the benefits of that program. That said, there are many less visible benefits from your exercise sessions. Some are apparent after the first workout or within the first week, including:
- Increased brain function
- Improved mood
- Better blood sugar management
- Enhanced creativity
- Decreased food cravings
- Some muscle soreness
- And increased energy levels.
Build and Maintain Muscle Mass: A Wrap-up
Remember, when it comes to how to build and maintain muscle mass, nothing works unless you do the work. Figuring out your workout routine, planning your high-protein menu, and purchasing supplements won’t make you build and maintain muscle mass. You have to actually hit the gym and start training, follow your nutrition plan, and take your supplements. While it may not be easy, it will certainly be worth it as you build muscle, strength, self-esteem, and a happier and healthier life.