If you want to grow your muscles but aren't sure where to start — you're already there! And we're here to tell you that gaining muscle mass doesn't have to be as complicated as it might seem. Muscle growth, technically called hypertrophy, really boils down to doing two main to-dos: progressive strength training and eating protein.
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Of course, the other thing you need to grow your muscles is patience. How long it takes to build muscle varies from person to person, says Liz Applegate, PhD, director of sports nutrition at University of California, Davis. Genetic differences affect how fast people gain muscle and how big their muscles can ultimately get.
To help make the process easier (and as fast as possible!), we dug through the studies and tapped the brains of researchers, exercise physiologists and sports nutrition experts. The result: We IDed the 13 most important hypertrophy tips and you got this comprehensive guide on how to build muscle.
1. Train Each Muscle a Few Times Per Week
Generally, if you're new to a structured resistance training program, you want to hit each muscle group two to three times per week, says Michaela Devries-Aboud, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo.
For most people, the easiest way to do this is by focusing on full-body strength-training workouts. As you get more experienced, you may want to move to upper- and lower-body workouts and perhaps eventually to muscle-group splits. That means each workout targets a different muscle group (such as the chest and triceps, back and biceps, shoulders, legs, hips, etc.).
2. Work to Fatigue
Lift a load that you can use for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The key here is lifting to fatigue, Devries-Aboud says. That means you're lifting a weight that's heavy enough to make the last 2 reps of each set very difficult to complete. But you can still do them without your form faltering.
Don't have heavy enough weights? July 2016 research in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that the heaviness of weight you're lifting doesn't matter as long as you lift to "volitional" or "technical" failure. This happens when you can't do any more reps with good form, and is different from "muscular" failure when your muscles literally give out and you drop the weight. So if you can't reach fatigue at a certain rep and set range, increase the reps and sets (or weights) until you can.
3. Make Your Workouts Harder Over Time
If you want your muscles to get bigger, you need to keep challenging them. Once you can move through an exercise with perfect form and still feel like you have gas left in the tank, it's time to up the ante.
Devries-Aboud recommends following the 2x2 rule: If you can add 2 reps to the last set of an exercise in two consecutive workouts, it's time to progress your training. Ideally, that means increasing the weight. That helps you get stronger in addition to putting on muscle mass, but you can also increase the number of reps and sets.
How much you progress depends on your training status and whether it's an upper- or lower-body exercise, she says. For upper-body exercises, going up by 2.5 to 5 pounds may be plenty, while you may need more like 5 to 10 pounds (or more) for lower-body exercises. If you don't have another weight available, you can also make exercises harder by adding a pause or doing them more slowly.
Eventually, about every four to six weeks, progress your workouts by changing some of your moves to more advanced versions. For example, instead of doing the dumbbell deadlift, you can try a heavier loaded barbell deadlift.
4. Eat More Protein
When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into its components, called amino acids. Thee molecules are your muscles' building blocks. So, if you're trying to build bigger muscles, you need to give them a lot more protein to use.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein, or the amount of protein you need to eat each day to meet the average person's nutrient requirements, is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight. So, a 150-pound (68-kilogram) adult needs to eat at least 54 grams of protein per day. (There are 2.2 pounds in a kilogram.)
"If you strength train, you need to increase your intake by about 50 to 100 percent," Applegate says. Exact recommendations vary a bit from study to study, but most experts suggest that, if you're strength training and trying to put on muscle, you eat about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
So that same 150-pound, 68-kilogram person would need about 109 grams of protein a day. Applegate says that when you're starting a strength training program, you may need closer to 2 grams per kilogram of your body weight.
You also need more protein you age and naturally lose muscle mass. A June 2016 Nutrients review found that adults' muscle tissue becomes less responsive to protein over the decades. (That partly explains why people often lose muscle mass as they age.) The best way to combat this is upping your protein intake.
"If you're 60-plus and working out, and this is new for you, you definitely need to add more protein to your diet," she says.
5. Consider Protein Supplements and Shakes
If you've ever tried to increase your protein intake, you know it can sometimes be hard to get it all via whole foods. That's where protein powders and shakes come in: They can make it easier and more convenient to reach your protein goals.
Whey protein powder is popular (and is often used in ready-to-drink shakes), because it's a good source of the amino acid leucine, which essentially triggers the muscle protein-synthesis process, Applegate says. If you're dairy-free or vegan, try pea protein mixed with rice protein or opt for soy.
"You just want to make sure you're not eating just one type of vegan protein, because it may be low in one or more of the essential amino acids and especially leucine," she says.
Try These Protein Shakes and Supplements
6. Pay Attention to Protein Quality
When people say "quality protein" or "complete protein," they're referring to protein sources that contain all of the nine essential amino acids. What are those? Those are the amino acids that your body doesn't make itself and can only get from the foods you eat. Each of these amino acids work in slightly different ways. That's why you need all of them.
Three amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine — are known as branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and are particularly important for building muscle. BCAAs are in all animal protein foods, like chicken, beef and milk. And whey protein (which comes from milk) is another popular source, as it contains all the essential amino acids, says Pam Bruzina, PhD, professor of nutrition and exercise physiology and director of nutritional sciences graduate studies at the University of Missouri.
There are also many plant-based foods that are high in protein, such as tofu, quinoa and nuts, most sources don't contain all of the essential amino acids. So, if you're vegan- or dairy-free, make sure you eat variety of protein-rich whole foods throughout the day. This can help make sure, in any given 24 hours, you get all of the animo acids you need.
7. Eat That Protein All Day Long
While upping your total protein intake is the most important thing, second-most important is breaking up your intake throughout the day, Bruzina says.
"If you break it up so you're eating at least 20 grams at each meal, you're going to add more muscle than if you just ate all of your protein at dinner," she says.
One small March 2013 study in The Journal of Physiology compared three different ways of spreading 80 grams of protein throughout the day. Eating 20 grams of protein four times per day was more effective at building muscle than eating 40 grams two times per day or 10 grams eight times per day.
A February 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition agreed that, based on current evidence, dividing your protein intake into four daily meals and snacks is the way to go.
8. Get a Solid Dose of Post-Workout Protein
Some experts say there's a short "metabolic window" after exercise when your body more effectively absorbs protein and turns it into muscle. Whether or not that's true is hotly debated. But getting in some protein within an hour or so of your workouts certainly won't hurt your muscle recovery.
Applegate recommends consuming at least 20 grams of protein soon after you finish your workout. If you just happen to be ready for a full meal at that time, great.
9. Do Dairy Before Bed
When spacing out your protein, plan to get some right before bed, too, Bruzina says. "You want to have some amino acids in your blood while you're sleeping."
An August 2020 review in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that getting 20 to 40 grams of casein protein 30 minutes before bed improves how well healthy young adult men build muscle.
Casein is a type of protein (along with whey) that's found in dairy and dairy products. The reason it gets a lot of attention among lifters is that it digests more slowly than do other proteins. That means it sticks around in your bloodstream (supplying your muscles with amino acids) through the night.
10. Don’t Skimp on Carbs
Yes, protein is the star of the show when it comes to building muscle, but carbs are still very important, Applegate says. Here's why: If you don't have enough carbs, your body uses protein (and fat) as fuel, which leaves you with less protein for muscle-building purposes.
Consuming enough carbs also helps ensure you have plenty of energy for your workouts. Stronger workouts bring faster muscle results.
11. Help Your Body Rest
You gain muscle not during your strength sessions, but between them as your tissues recover.
"If you're constantly training those muscles, the body doesn't have a chance to repair, so adaptations are not going to work," Devries-Aboud says. (Not to mention, skimping on recovery is a good way to end up overtraining and potentially injuring yourself.) It's also essential to fight mental fatigue, which can happen if you're constantly pushing yourself, she says.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid training the same muscle group within a 48-hour period, but the exact amount of rest you need depends on a few things, including how intense the workout was and which muscles were targeted.
Assuming you're training to fatigue, three full-body sessions per week is plenty. That lets you rest a day or two in between each workout. If you're splitting up muscle groups, you may be able to train four to six days per week, as long as you're rotating to give each area time to recover before you hit it again.
12. Get at Least 7 Hours of Sleep
"Your body repairs itself while you're sleeping, so if you're not sleeping enough, it can't repair and recover and you won't see those optimal gains," Devries-Aboud says.
Being sleep deprived also makes your workouts feel harder, and over time, your gains plateau because you aren't able to push as hard in your training as you'd like, she says. Sleep is also essential for hormonal regulation, and not getting enough can throw off levels of hormones like cortisol, testosterone and growth hormone, all of which impact muscle strength and building.
So, if you want bigger muscles, try your best to log 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
13. Trust the Process
So, how long does it take to build muscle? Bruzina says, if you're sticking to a regular schedule of strength training and eating lots of high-quality protein spaced throughout the day, you should notice a change in lean mass (aka muscle) in about a month.
But of course, there are a lot of factors that play into how quickly you can gain muscle and how much muscle gain is possible — most importantly, your genetics — Applegate says.
"People are different in terms of potential based on anabolic hormone differences and also other genetic differences," she says.
That's why one of the most important tenants of building muscle is patience — so all you can do is establish good habits and be consistent, then let your body do its thing.
- Journal of Applied Physiology: "Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men"
- Nutrients: "Protein Consumption and the Elderly: What Is the Optimal Level of Intake?"
- The Journal of Physiology: "Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution"
- National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine "Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids"
- Medline Plus: "Amino Acids"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "Effects of pre-sleep protein consumption on muscle-related outcomes — A systematic review"