Want to Build Muscle at the Gym? Here's Exactly What You Need to Do

Looking good is only one reason people are (and should be!) building buns of steel and boulder shoulders. From increased metabolism and fat loss to reduced risk of injury and increased ease doing everyday activities, there are lots and lots of reasons to build muscle.

To build muscle at the gym, you need to focus on resistance training with progressive overload. (Image: Ridofranz/iStock/GettyImages)

Increased muscle mass and strength offers some benefits that can improve the quality of anyone's life, says exercise physiologist Jim White, RDN, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. In fact, by improving cardiovascular health, reducing risk of cancer and helping to control blood sugar levels, building muscle may even increase your lifespan.

Convinced to put on some muscle? Good! The following tips will help you build big muscles, STAT — no steroids required.

1. Strength Train, Strength Train, Strength Train

Unless you've been hiding out behind the treadmills for the last five years, you won't be surprised to see this at the top of the list for boosting muscle growth. But do you know how strength training makes you stronger?

White explains: In order to build muscles up, you first have to break them down, which is what happens when you pick up heavy things and set them down (like barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and even your own body weight). "When our muscles are pushed to their limit, those muscles fibers are injured, they micro-tear," he says.

This triggers satellite cells to rush to the scene of the breakdown in order to repair and rebuild our muscles, he says. (You can think of these cells as our internal medics). The result? Our muscles rebuild even larger and stronger than before.

Depending on your fitness level, you can start with just one strength training workout a week, building up to five or six, as long as you're not working the same muscles on back-to-back workouts (you need at least a day in between).

2. Prioritize Compound Exercises

In each of the strength training workouts you do each week, exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, certified personal trainer and host of the All About Fitness Podcast, recommends prioritizing compound exercises.

"Exercises like the push-press, deadlift, front squat, bench press and clean will work multiple muscle groups at once and are more time-efficient than isolation work," he says.

One March 2013 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism supports McCall. So when given the choice between leg extensions and squats? Squat. Because big moves = big muscles.

3. Train to Fatigue

Ever heard of lifting to failure? It's common gym-speak for churning out reps until your muscles call it quits. "The idea behind this training methodology is that you're recruiting more muscle fibers and elevate levels of your fat-burning hormones than you would if you stopped a movement when you still had energy to do more," McCall says.

One May 2007 study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, for example, suggests this may be an effective way for lifters to break through strength plateaus and keep getting stronger. But that's if you've already been lifting for quite a while.

What if you want to build muscle as a newbie? McCall recommends a twist on training to failure — training to fatigue. Failure is when you have to quit halfway through the rep, but fatigue is that sweet spot right before that failed rep, he says. "Going to fatigue is critical for muscle growth," he says. And it doesn't matter if you use heavy or moderate weight as you're training to to that point of extreme fatigue.

4. Cut Back on Cardio

Is getting BIG your goal? You get to pass on the cardio room. "If your goal is to put on a ton of muscle mass, you want to limit your cardio, because cardio will deplete your glycogen stores, which you need for muscle repair and growth," McCall says.

If, however, your goal is to get strong and healthy, you're going to want to do some cardio, he says. After all, it's been linked to improved heart health, lowered blood pressure, boosted mood and more.

White adds: "Cardio will help increase how defined your muscles are, so if you want big muscles that are also well-defined, doing 20 minutes on the StairMaster or running for 30 minutes a few times a week can help."

5. Work On Your Mobility

"Don't underestimate the importance of mobility on your quest to get stronger," says White. Being able to move your joints safely through their range of motion will help you get into more-optimal positions while you lift, he says.

On the flip side, poor mobility can cause you to get into sub-optimal positions, which can cause your body to compensate and lead to over-use injury. "This might sound obvious," says McCall, "but to keep getting stronger and building muscle, you want to stay injury-free." Mobility work can help you do that.

Active stretching, yoga and online programs like MobilityWod, RomWOD and Movement Vault can all be used as part of a warm-up and cooldown for improved mobility over time.

6. Eat More Protein

With all the protein powders marketed to bodybuilders, you probably already know that protein is an important part of muscle growth. "Protein is made up of molecules called amino acids, which the body can use to repair your muscles after a workout," White says. Without muscle repair, there's no new muscle growth (see #1).

Aim to consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, White says, opting for lean sources like ground turkey, beef, chicken, white fish, egg whites and protein powder. And if possible, consume 20 to 30 grams of that within 30 to 45 minutes after exercise to get the recovery phase started, he says.

7. Don't Skimp on Carbs

Carbs get a bad reputation, but they're the body's main energy source. To stay energized throughout your workout they're a must, says White. He recommends eating some complex carbohydrates (like brown rice, multigrain toast or pasta) three to four hours before a workout and/or some simple carbohydrates (like a banana, cereal, or oatmeal) 30 to 60 minutes beforehand.

Post-workout you'll also want to eat some carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes, chocolate milk an apple, or rice), because after a lifting session, "your glycogen stores will be very low or empty," he says. "Refueling with 40 to 80 grams within 60 minutes after leaving the gym will give your body the glycogen it needs to optimally promote muscle recovery."

Plus, an August 2010 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism suggests that carbs stimulate insulin release, which may actually enhance the absorption of the amino acids in the protein dream team.

8. Stick to a Schedule

Many people want to know, "What is the best schedule for the gym?" But the truth is there isn't one. The best program for you is the one you're going to enjoy and stick with in the long term.

So long as your training routine gives every muscle group 36 to 48 hours to recover before working it again and you actually believe in and follow it, it can be the best workout schedule for the gym for you.

White, who's a big fan of the five days on, two days off schedule, offers the following workout schedule as an example of one that will promote muscle growth.

  • Monday: glutes and legs
  • Tuesday: back and biceps
  • Wednesday: chest and triceps
  • Thursday: legs
  • Friday: shoulders
  • Weekend: rest days and/or light cardio or other active recovery

Warm up and cool down for five to 10 minutes before and after every workout, says White, "then spend anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes exercising." (Any more time in the gym than that and you'll want to have a mid-workout snack, he says).

9. Give Your Muscles Plenty of Rest

You'll notice White includes rest days in his recommended schedule for the gym. "Rest days are crucial for building muscles because the physical increase in muscle size happens when you're resting, not when you're exercising," says White. Plus, too much exercise can result in strength plateaus and overtraining syndrome, he says.

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