A blonde girl standing in front of a beach background, holding a dumbbell in each hand, looking over her left shoulder and smiling. She's wearing matching purple crop and shorts for exercise.

How to build muscle?

Is there a magic formula for building muscle? Actually, the answer is yes! Read on to find out exactly what you need to do in order to build muscle and reach those goals in a matter of months.
A blonde girl standing in front of a beach background, holding a dumbbell in each hand, looking over her left shoulder and smiling. She's wearing matching purple crop and shorts for exercise.

We have 3 types of muscles in our bodies, which are cardiac muscle, smooth muscle, and skeletal muscle.

So how to build muscle?

Skeletal muscles, along with ligaments, provide our skeleton with the ability to move and can all be consciously controlled, though most are unconsciously controlled.

The beauty of skeletal muscles and our nervous system, is that we DO have the ability to un-learn poor muscle control, and re-learn it correctly!

If our skeletal muscles are not used, they atrophy (meaning they waste away). This is very problematic- especially as we age. The amount of muscle mass we build through our life, and our ability to control it into old age can determine how independent and mobile we remain.

Ladies, if you’re worried about weights making you bulky, check out this blog post.

The majority of elderly people using walking aids would be greatly reduced with an increase in maintained resistance training (except where a medical condition causes immobility).

A picture of two elderly people sitting in a bright park on yoga mats. They're both wearing yellow and pale coloured clothes, and both sitting cross legged while stretching their right arm up overhead.

For most people, staying active with lots of walking, cycling, swimming, Pilates or Yoga, plus 1-2 days of resistance training per week will be enough to fend off the walking frame.

For my fellow gym-junkies who’s aim is a defined bicep, or a poppin’ booty, we need to get a little more technical.

Welcome to the science of building muscle! There are 3 key things we need for building muscle

1. Volume

In other words, how often you place that muscle under resistance. Volume is important in both strength AND muscle building, so whether your goal is to build strong legs, or juicy glutes, volume is key.

Aim to hit the target muscle with 12-15 sets per week.

This can all be done on one day (like “leg day”), or if you’re like me and a bit time poor, it can be scattered across several workouts with other muscle groupd combined,

A blonde girl standing on a rock with ocean in the background. She is leaning forward with one hand on a rock, the other hand is holding a dumbbell back in a tricep extension. She is wearing matching purple shorts and crop for exercise.

2. Intensity

A close second is intensity. In other words, how hard you work the muscle you’re trying to grow. In order to stimulate growth, you need to push the muscle just a bit beyond what it can comfortably handle, while still maintaining good technique.

When you work the muscle hard enough, you cause a tiny amount of damage to the muscles (too much damage can cause Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS) your body will not only repair the damage, but create more muscle fibres in order to keep from getting damaged by that weight again.

Lifters and bodybuilders commonly use two systems to measure intensities:

RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)

This is measured on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the hardest), whereby you perform an allotted exercise for allotted reps, and rate how hard it felt. The ideal RPE is a 7-8*.

For example:

If I perform barbell squats for 8 reps, using 40kg, and I rated it a RPE5, I’m not working at a hard enough intensity to stimulate change.

If I then increase the weight to 50kg and do another set of 8 squats, and that feels like a RPE 8, then I’m working hard enough that my muscles will have to grow if they want to be comfortable lifting this weight.

A woman in a dark gym, squatting deep with a barbell on her back. Shes wearing long socks, a white top and has a red bow in her hair
Image via: Shutterstock

RIR (Reps In Reserve)

For this one, you need to consider how many reps you did vs how many reps you could have done. In other words, how many reps did you have left in you?

For example, if I completed my 8 squats at 40kg for the first time, I would ask myself: if I hadn’t stopped at 8, could I have done 3 more? 5 more? 8 more?

The ideal RIR range is 2-3*, which actually correlates nicely with our RPE scale. An RPE of 8 would mean an RIR of approximately 2.

*note: RPE is never to be prioritised over technique

3. Recovery

Recovery is the part where your body does all the hard work in building the muscles, after the volume and intensity has been applied.

Recovery includes several key lifestyle factors.

Sleep

Sleep is #1 for recovery, as it’s where the body does all its repair and maintenance.

While building muscle, follow these steps for optimal results:

  • switch off screens and dim the lights 60 mins before bed
  • get to bed at the same time each night
  • wake at the same time each morning
  • start the day by getting sunlight on your skin as soon as possible
A close up picture of a woman lying in a white bed, asleep on her side with her hands tucked together under her face.
Image via: Shutterstock

Nutrition

To build, you must be eating in a calorie surplus. In other words, you must be eating MORE energy than you burn off.

Protein is very important, as it is the building block for all our cells and muscles. Men should aim for 1.5-2.2g per kg of body weight, and women should aim for 1.2-1.7g per kg of bodyweight.

Aim to get the daily recommended amount of dietary fibre; 25g/ day for women and 38g/ day for men. Fibre can be found in wholegrain cereals, fortified breads, oats, white potato, vegetable and fruit skins, legumes, lentils and with fibre supplements.

A graphic containing food examples of the 3 macros: proteins, carbs and fats
Image via: Shutterstock

Hydration

Water helps our body control blood volume, regulate temperature, and across all our cells so they can function properly. Muscle itself is made up of approximately 80% water, so drink up!

Aim for 3.5L/ day for men and 2.8L/ day for women for optimal recovery.

An image close up of a rolled up blue yoga mat, blue drink bottle with water in it, and small red handweights.
Image via: Shutterstock

To summarise, building muscle requires 3 key things:

  • Volume
  • Intensity
  • Recovery

If you can hit those 3 pillars of optimal growth, you’ll be seeing results in a matter of months!

Having trouble getting results, contact me to find out about Online Coaching! Available worldwide.

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Jess Neill

Jess Neill

I'm a Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor and Pre and Post Natal Training specialist. I'm also a mother of two, and I live on the beautiful Northern beaches of Sydney. If you liked this post, don't forget to leave a comment and share! Subscribe to my monthly newsletter for the latest health and fitness news.

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