Building muscles that are strong enough to deadlift and bench press fully loaded barbells can make you feel — and look like — an actual superhero. But the benefits of having increased muscle mass go beyond strength and aesthetics.
After age 30, you can lose up to 8 percent of muscle mass with each decade, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and maintaining it can help support your daily functioning and independence, per a January 2016 research review in Biogerontology.
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Ahead, learn the key factors to consider when you're looking to build muscle. Then, discover six habits worth incorporating into your morning routine to keep your muscles strong and healthy.
What Does It Mean to 'Build Muscle'?
To get technical, muscle hypertrophy (aka muscle growth) is the enlargement of skeletal muscle fibers, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). When your working muscles create high levels of tension to overcome a stressor (such as a heavyweight), small tears are created in the fibers. With proper muscle recovery, the repaired muscles may be stronger and larger than before, per NASM.
"If you want to be stronger and have more functional movements, you have to strength train, which, at its core, is just lifting weights," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
An increase in muscle size generally leads to an increase in strength, Goodtree says, but research shows this isn't always the case; it's possible to build up muscle size without seeing strength improvements and vice versa, according to a September 2020 research review in the European Journal of Translational Myology. That's why a following training program personalized to your specific goals is key.
Nutrition also plays a significant role in muscle growth, says Allison Knott, RDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. Resistance training breaks down muscles, and in order for them to come back larger and stronger, you need to consume enough protein — a macronutrient that's made of chains of amino acids. Specifically, hypertrophy takes place when muscle protein synthesis (when amino acids are incorporated into skeletal muscle proteins) is greater than muscle protein breakdown, according to a December 2019 research review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
"You definitely need to be eating not only enough protein — which has amino acids that are considered to be the building blocks of protein — but also enough calories to support the process," Knott tells LIVESTRONG.com. "If you are meeting your protein needs but not eating enough calories, then you are not likely to gain that muscle mass that you're looking to gain."
6 Morning Habits That Help You Build Muscle
If growing strong, powerful muscles is your goal, consider adding these expert-approved fitness and nutrition habits to your morning routine.
1. Strength Train With Compound Movements and Heavy Loads
Morning exercisers looking to build muscle will want to dedicate two to four days a week to strength training, depending on experience level, intensity of the workout and other factors, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). In general, the greater the workout intensity, the more time your muscles will need to recover, and you should take one to three days of rest before hitting the same muscle group.
To get the most bang for your buck, focus on compound movements, or exercises that call on multiple muscle groups and joints at a time, Goodtree suggests. For example, instead of doing biceps curls or leg lifts — exercises that target just one muscle group at a time — prioritize movements such as deadlifts, squats, chest presses and rows, which will train a variety of muscles throughout your body, she says. Plus, you're generally able to lift heavier loads with compound exercises than isolation moves.
"Squats work so many different muscles at once," Goodtree says. "They hit your quads, your hamstrings and your glutes. Your core is engaged, your shoulders are helping stabilize you and your ankles are working for flexion. So I would say work big, not small."
Performing the correct load and rep range is just as important. To promote muscular development, aim to complete three to six sets of six to 12 reps using a load that's 75 to 85 percent of your one-rep max, according to NASM. Using a lighter load and performing more reps will help improve muscular endurance (the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert force against resistance), rather than build muscle mass (or size). In between sets, spend 30 to 60 seconds resting, Goodtree suggests.
2. Eat a Balanced Pre-Workout Breakfast
Roughly 60 to 90 minutes before you head out for your morning muscle-building workout, eat a balanced and satisfying breakfast, Goodtree suggests.
"I think those two things are really important — if you don't like protein shakes, you're not going to want to drink it before you work out, so it's a waste to even try," she says.
Ideally, your pre-workout meal will have a 15:5:2 ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fats; it might include 75 grams of carbs, 25 grams of protein and 10 grams of fat, for instance, according to NASM. That said, what's best for your body and training program may differ from that recommendation, Knott says, so consider reaching out to a registered dietitian for personalized guidance.
Regardless of the exact ratio, it's best to keep fat consumption low; the macronutrient could cause gastrointestinal upset during your workout and potentially impact your performance, and thus affect the gains you make, Knott says.
"In the pre-workout meal, you want to focus more on carbohydrate intake, even if you're doing muscle-building exercises," Knott says.
Carbs, particularly those that are easily digestible (like fruit or crackers), will give you the energy you need to carry out your workout, according to Goodtree. This carb intake is particularly important for morning workouts, as your body's glycogen supplies will likely be low from fueling your nervous system while you were sleeping, according to NASM.
3. Drink a Cup of Coffee
While drinking a cup of joe ahead of your morning workout won't directly lead to muscle growth, its side effects could assist in helping you meet your goals. Caffeine has been shown to have ergogenic (read: performance-enhancing) effects on power-based sports and resistance exercises, according to an April 2019 review in Sports Medicine. Additionally, a March 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that caffeine consumption improved both power and upper-body strength.
Essentially, "[coffee] can give you the ability to exercise in a way that hopefully could lead to a more efficient workout — you could work out potentially harder for longer," Knott says. "And that's going to then, in turn, lead to the gains that you're looking for, if that's your goal."
Ahead of your a.m. lifting session, consider sipping on an 8-ounce cup of coffee, which boasts 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine, per the FDA, to potentially give your workout a boost.
4. Prioritize Protein After Your Workout
After all that heavy lifting, eat a morning snack that offers a combination of protein and carbohydrates, which will help support muscle repair post-workout and growth, Knott says.
"The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, which is considered to be the minimum you need just for health purposes," she says. "If you're looking to build muscle mass, you need way more than that."
Again, the exact amount of protein that's best to consume post-workout will vary from person to person. But the general recommendation for muscle building is to consume 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in every meal, Knott notes.
So if you weigh 150 pounds (about 68 kilograms), aim to consume 27.2 grams of protein during each of your four daily meals. To keep your meals exciting, try to score this protein from diverse sources, like meat, fish, soy products, beans or other plant-based foods.
"If you're eating a variety of plant protein sources, you are still going to meet the total essential amino acid needs for muscle protein synthesis," Knott says.
While protein consumption is particularly important after your 8 a.m. strength workout, the morning shouldn't be the only time you nab the macronutrient.
"There is some research that shows it's beneficial to have balanced protein intakes throughout the day," Knott says. "So three to four times a day, make sure that you're meeting your protein needs. That can be really beneficial for muscle protein maintenance."
5. Stay on Top of Your Hydration
Before your morning workout and throughout your session, stay on top of your water intake to ensure you're performing at your best — and, in turn, making progress toward your muscle-growth goals, Goodtree suggests.
Dehydration increases physiologic strain and perceived effort, especially when you're exercising in warm or hot weather, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Plus, an August 2019 review in Nutrients suggests that cell dehydration may impair muscle contractile capacity (read: muscle cells' ability to forcefully contract).
And in a February 2021 study of 10 resistance-trained women in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, participants had lower one-rep maxes for the bench press when they were dehydrated compared to when they were well-hydrated. Because higher loads are typically recommended to maximize muscle hypertrophy, according to NASM, this dehydration could impact your progress toward muscle growth.
If you're dehydrated before your workout, aim to drink 5 to 7 milliliters (0.1 to 0.2 ounces) of fluid per kilogram of body weight at least four hours prior to exercising, the ACSM recommends. So, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms), you should drink 6.8 to 13.6 ounces of fluids per pound, or 11.5 to 16.1 ounces total. To ensure you're drinking enough while you train, weigh yourself before and after your workout.
If you lose more than 2 percent of your body weight during your workout (which comes from fluid loss), you may experience the negative performance effects of dehydration, according to the ACSM. Take note of how much fluid you lost and make sure you're drinking enough during your next session to keep your weight relatively stable.
6. Consider Taking a Supplement
If you struggle to hit your morning protein intake goals with food alone, a protein supplement may be useful. Other supplements can enhance the effects of your workouts, too. Creatine (which helps your muscles produce energy during strength training or HIIT), for instance, is often taken to improve muscle mass, performance and recovery. And a March 2022 review in Nutrients suggests it aids in muscle growth in healthy, young adults when combined with adequate training.
To be clear, supplements are not necessary to promote muscle growth, Knott says.
"If you're eating a balanced diet and you're meeting your energy needs, supplements are not required when it comes to body composition changes, if that's what your goal is," she says.
If you're lacking a particular nutrient (like protein), you're usually better off attempting to increase your intake through food, she explains.
"The food is going to give you a lot of other beneficial nutrients, and in most cases, depending on what you're choosing, and can help with filling you up," she says. "It's going to be less expensive and you don't have to necessarily worry about third-party testing, which is really important to investigate before choosing a supplement."
Reminder: The FDA doesn't approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness or review their labeling prior to being sold on the market. Instead, the company is responsible for ensuring its products meet safety standards. Some companies use third-party testing to certify the supplements contain only the ingredients listed on the label and do not have harmful levels of contaminants, but this step isn't required.
"You need to look at third-party-tested supplements to ensure that you're getting the most high-quality supplement," Knott says.
If you're interested in taking supplements, know that your regimen may not look exactly like someone else's. Someone following a vegan diet has different nutritional needs than someone who's gluten intolerant or following the standard American diet — and their supplement routine should reflect those variations, Knott says.
Incorporating all of these actions into your routine at once can feel overwhelming. So start by choosing a few of the morning habits that seem doable — and sustainable — to you, then slowly incorporate them into your day. If they don't feel right for your body or sync with your needs, don't be afraid to reach out to a registered dietitian or certified strength coach, who can help design a plan that works best for you and your goals.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sarcopenia"
- Biogerontology: "Live strong and prosper: the importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy ageing"
- ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: "Build Muscle, Improve Health: Benefits Associated With Resistance Exercise"
- Medicine (Baltimore): "Correlation of muscle mass and bone mineral density in the NHANES US general population, 2017–2018"
- NASM: "MUSCULAR HYPERTROPHY: BACK TO THE BASICS"
- European Journal of Translational Myology: "Muscle hypertrophy and muscle strength: dependent or independent variables? A provocative review"
- National Human Genome Research Institute: "Protein"
- International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: "Making Sense of Muscle Protein Synthesis: A Focus on Muscle Growth During Resistance Training"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods"
- NSCA: "Determination of Resistance Training Frequency"
- Sports Medicine: "Caffeine and Exercise: What Next?"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Effects of caffeine intake on muscle strength and power: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- FDA: "Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much?"
- 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"
- ACSM: "Exercise and Fluid Replacement"
- Nutrients: "The Role of Water Homeostasis in Muscle Function and Frailty: A Review"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Hypohydration on Muscular Strength, Endurance, and Power in Women"
- Nutrients: "Creatine Supplementation for Muscle Growth: A Scoping Review of Randomized Clinical Trials from 2012 to 2021"
- FDA: "FDA 101: Dietary Supplements"
- NSF: "Supplement and Vitamin Certification"