If you haven't been strength training, now's the time to start lifting. Rocking muscle is more than just looking good in a tank top. It comes with a variety of health benefits, including reduced risk of injury, stronger bones, a faster metabolism and increased lean body mass (to name just a few).
Not sure where to start? Don't worry, we've got your back, so you can quit scrolling fitness hashtags on Instagram to learn how to build muscle or strength. We cover all the basics here.
From setting goals to creating a concrete plan and choosing weights, we tapped top trainers to share the exact science of muscle building for beginners. And even if you're already toned, this is a good refresher on how to work your way to new goals.
First, Get to Know Your Muscle Fibers
Before you pick up a dumbbell, it's important to understand how lifting weights can lead to muscle growth. "For our muscles to get stronger, our muscle fibers have to be damaged. Strength training — whether you're doing front squats or biceps curls — creates this damage," Pete McCall, CSCS, certified personal trainer and host of the All About Fitness Podcast, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
When muscle is damaged, it triggers cells called myosatellite cells to rush to the scene to triage the damaged fibers together, ultimately leaving the muscle even stronger than it was before.
There two main types of these muscle fibers: type I (slow-twitch) and type II (fast-twitch). And they differ in the way they generate power.
- Slow-twitch muscle fibers are built for endurance activities, like running or biking long distances, and are aerobic in nature, which means they rely on steady oxygen intake to sustain exercise for a longer period of time.
- Fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited for quick, explosive movements, like sprinting, lifting heavy weights and doing box jumps, and are anaerobic, so they synthesize energy without oxygen. Fast-twitch muscle fibers tire out more quickly than slow-twitch ones — which is why you're not able to sprint for very long.
"Heavy resistance training works the fast-twitch fibers, which are responsible for muscle size and definition," Jim White, RDN, exercise nutritionist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, tells LIVESTRONG.com. So if toning up or building bulk are what you're after, you want to focus on training your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
What's the Best Program to Build Muscle?
Now that you understand the science behind building muscle, it's time to actually set some expectations and establish a plan. Do you want to build shirt-busting biceps and Hulk-like quads? Or defined arms and lean legs? The best program to build muscle will depend on your goals.
"Someone who wants to get big, bulking muscles should prioritize single-joint, isolation exercises, while someone who wants to improve overall muscle tone should prioritize compound exercises," McCall says.
If You Want to Build Bulk
Single-joint, isolation exercises help you target a single muscle group and really work it to muscle failure — which means that when you're lifting weights, you literally can't complete another rep, McCall explains.
Working to muscle failure allows you to create more damage to all the muscle fibers — slow-twitch and fast-twitch — recruited in the movement. This results in major growth — called hypertrophy — for that specific muscle group after repair. (Hey, there's a reason bodybuilders are famous for doing ultra-heavy biceps curls!).
- Biceps curl
- Hamstring curl
- Quadriceps extension
- Triceps pull-down
- Calf raise
Lifters should choose a weight that allows them to complete 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps, with 90 seconds to two minutes rest between each set, says Rebecca Kordecki, AFAA- and ACE-certified personal trainer and certified Spinning instructor.
If You Want to Build Strength, Not Size
Focus on compound movements, which combine two exercises into one continuous flow. "Compound exercises recruit more muscles all over your body, which leads to more muscles being broken down," McCall says, which therefore increases overall strength.
Because compound exercises work multiple joints and muscle groups at a time, they're also great for creating damage to more muscle fibers in a shorter amount of time, aka maximizing your workout.
- Squat with shoulder press
- Reverse lunge with biceps curl
- Bent-over row with triceps kickback
However, compound exercises are unlikely to break down the muscle fibers in any one muscle group to the same extent that isolation exercises do. This makes them ideal for someone whose goal is to increase lean body mass or build muscle strength all over.
"Compound exercises are more full-bodied. They are a better bang for your workout buck," White says. As for reps and sets, Kordecki recommends doing 3 sets of compound exercises for 12 to 20 reps, with 60 seconds rest between each set.
How Fast Can a Beginner Build Muscle?
As a newbie, you might be wondering how quickly you can see results. McCall says it can take about six to 10 weeks to actually see changes in muscle size. But stay consistent with your strength routine, and you'll start getting compliments in no time!
If you're not noticing any compositional differences after three months, White recommends evaluating your diet more critically (more on that later).
Ultimately, what's going to get you to the finish line faster is a program that adds load over time. "One that progressively loads week by week allows the person to recover adequately between bouts of exercise (with food, rest and hydration), and is tailored towards your individual goals," Kristian Flores, a New-York based certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Your muscles don't get stronger when you're physically at the gym. They get stronger when they have time to repair."
That's why if you're a newbie, Flores recommends working with a certified fitness professional who is seasoned at writing workout programs for specific athletes. "Even if you hire that person for only three or five sessions, you'll learn a lot about putting together a workout and moving well," McCall adds.
How Often Should You Lift Weights?
Good news: You don't need to sacrifice your social life to flex your muscles. "Working out for 45 to 60 minutes [a day] total is plenty of time," White says. It might be a little longer if you spend extra time to warm up and cool down. "The only reason to spend two or more hours at the gym is because you work there," he says.
How many days per week you should work out varies by fitness level, age, nutrition, sleep quality and stress levels. But for beginners, lifting weights three days a week is enough to move the hypertrophy needle, White says. "For people who have never exercised, it's best to start going only three days a week to help develop a consistent routine without reaching burnout."
That gives you plenty of room in a weekly training plan for at least one full rest day and one active recovery day, as well as additional cardio exercise. "You do not have to be completely sedentary on the rest days — a walk around the park with your dog, some light stretching or mobility work, or a casual bike ride with your kiddo are fine," Kordecki says.
Keep in mind that rest is crucial to the muscle-building process. "Your muscles don't get stronger when you're physically at the gym. They get stronger when they have time to repair," Flores explains.
How to Increase Weight Safely
Speaking of recovery, when your muscles repair, they grow back stronger to prevent the same strain (read: load) from injuring them in the future, White explains. That means that 20-pound dumbbell you're lifting isn't going to create the same degree of stress and muscle breakdown (and therefore growth) a few weeks later. "You need to increase the amount of weight you're lifting if you hope to continue getting stronger," he says.
Enter: The progressive overload principle, which involves changing up the weight, rep scheme, tempo or intensity of your movement, in order to maximize the effectiveness of your workout and encourage muscle growth.
To put the progressive overload principle into practice, choose a weight you can complete 5 to 8 reps with. If you're able to lift more than 8 reps, add weight until you can't complete more than 5 reps. Be sure to rest at least two minutes between each set.
Follow this routine up to twice a week for six to eight weeks, and then evaluate whether you can add more weight, increasing by about five pounds at a time.
A Muscle-Building Workout Plan For Beginners
Determined to put together a workout routine without hiring a trainer? Remember: The right plan for you depends on where you're at in your fitness journey. If you're brand new to exercise, "you don't need to start off with five days of exercise a week complete with comprehensive splits," White says. Instead, he says two to three full-body workouts per week are all you need to see gains.
To help you fill those two to three workouts a week, here are some of the best muscle-building exercises for beginners. You can mix and match these moves and incorporate them into your own beginner-friendly, muscle-building workout.
Choose a weight that's challenging but still allows you to complete 6 to 12 reps with proper form.
Move 1: Biceps Curl
- Stand with your feet at hip-width distance, arms at your sides with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward. Keep a soft bend in your knees, pin your elbows to your rib cage and anchor your shoulders back and down.
- Bracing your core, curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders by flexing your biceps.
- Lower the dumbbells to your sides with control.
Move 2: Reverse Lunge
- Stand with your feet hip-width distance and hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. Stand tall and maintain good posture.
- Take a big step back with your right leg and bend your front and back knees until they form 90-degree angles. Your front thigh should be parallel to the ground. Your back knee should be hovering about a inch above the ground with your toes and heels aligned.
- Press through your front foot to straigthen your left leg and bring your right leg back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other side and continue alternating legs.
Move 3: Shoulder Press
- Stand tall with your hips right under your shoulders. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, rack the weights in front of your shoulders with the weights stacked above your wrists and elbows facing forward.
- Bracing your core, press both dumbbells overhead, finishing with your biceps by your ears.
- Lower the weights back with control to the starting position.
Move 4: Front Squat
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width distance and hold a barbell across your chest or a dumbbell in each hand in front of your shoulders. Stack the dumbbells over your wrists with your elbows facing forward, core tight.
- Keeping your chest upright, push your butt back and down until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can comfortably go while maintaining good form). Avoid flaring your knees out or caving them in.
- Press through your feet to straighten your legs and stand back up.
Move 5: Dumbbell Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width distance and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing each other and arms extended. Shoot your hips back and hinge forward at least 45 degrees, or 90 degrees if you have the mobility, while maintaining a flat back.
- Keeping your shoulders square, pull the weights up alongside your lower abdomen with your elbows close to your sides. As you lift the weights, focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
- Lower the weights back down with control to the starting position.
What to Eat Post-Workout for Bigger Muscles
After a tough workout, there are two macronutrients you need to prioritize: carbohydrates and protein. "During exercise, the body taps into its glycogen [carbohydrates] stores for energy and depletes them," White says. It's important to replenish those stores with a meal or snack that contains both protein and carbohydrates.
White advises eating something like sweet potatoes and chicken breast, toast and eggs or berries with walnuts and Greek yogurt within 60 minutes of finishing your workout or sooner. Your body will break down the protein sources into branched chain amino acids (FYI, amino acids are the building blocks of protein), which are used to repair the now-damaged muscle fibers.
"The carbs get broken down into glycogen and stored in the muscles, which is essential for replenishing the stores that got used up during your workout," White says.
Prioritize High-Quality Protein All Day Long
It's important to stick to a healthy, balanced diet throughout the day to support your muscles.
PSA: The quickest way to sabotage any muscle-building goal is to skimp on calories. Kordecki says not consuming enough calories can cause your body to break down muscle for energy. That doesn't mean you can't build muscle on a calorie deficit; in fact, consuming fewer calories than you burn each day can help you lose fat and gain muscle more quickly.
But to really go after hypertrophy, it's a fine balance of consuming more calories from protein and little from fat and carbs. The International Sports Association recommends consuming an extra 3,500 calories or more per week for muscle hypertrophy, with the majority of those calories coming from protein.
Each time you chow down, McCall recommends incorporating a high-quality protein source, like eggs, chicken, beef, soybeans and seafood. A February 2018 study in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition of suggests that eating protein throughout the day supports muscle growth. Moreover, an older January 2009 study in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition Metabolism Care found that spreading protein intake throughout the day also slows down age-related muscle loss in older adults.
What happens if you lift weights but don't eat enough protein throughout the day? According to White, your muscles will not adequately repair and cannot grow.
Most people get enough protein in their diets. However, some people may need to consume more protein than usual for hypertrophy to occur. For example, some women, vegetarians and people who follow a gluten-free diet might not be getting enough of the essential nutrients they need to support muscle protein synthesis, according to an October 2016 review in Sports.
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
To figure out how many grams of protein you should be eating, there's a simple formula, courtesy of American College of Sports Medicine, that you can use: Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Multiply that number by 1.2 and 1.7 for a recommended protein range.
For example, a 150-pound person should aim to eat 81 to 115 grams of protein per day. That might sound like a lot, but for reference, one egg alone has 6 grams of protein, and 3 ounces of chicken has 24 grams.
Get Enough Sleep Every Night
Strength-seekers, don't underestimate the role sleep plays in muscle growth and repair. "Recovery primarily happens when we're sleeping," Flores says.
When you're in dreamland, according to a February 2014 study in the Journal of Molecular Endocrinology, the body produces human growth hormone — one of the main hormones involved in muscle recovery.
In a state of rest, your body directs all of its attention to repairing your muscles, rather than, say, helping you answer that work email. "Sleeping for at least eight hours a night sets your body up for optimal recovery, and therefore optimal strength gains," Flores says.
If you like to flex in the evenings, just remember to avoid exercise too close to your bedtime, which can affect your ability to fall asleep.
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?"
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition: "How Much Protein Can the Body Use in a Single Meal for Muscle-Building? Implications for Daily Protein Distribution"
- Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition Metabolism Care: "Dietary Protein Recommendations and the Prevention of Sarcopenia"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- Journal of Molecular Endocrinology: "Action of GH on Skeletal Muscle Function: Molecular and Metabolic Mechanisms"
- Sports: "Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, and Energy Restricted Diets in Female Athletes"
- International Sports Association: "Building Muscle Simplified: Not as Complicated as you Think"