Karen Laing is a writer and journalist, specialising in fitness and women’s health. She combines life as a freelance writer with teaching Pilates and pre/post natal fitness, being a mum of two and co-directing Fit School with her husband Chris, in Essex.
So you’re ready to build some muscle? Increasing lean tissue mass is advantageous for everyone, regardless of your overall fitness goal or lifestyle. But it isn’t something which happens overnight. Building muscle is a process, which takes time, effort, and energy. Alongside tailor made training protocols and of course a fantastic coach, anyone embarking on a muscle building programme needs to get to grips with their wellness — way before stepping foot into a gym. It’s the first and arguably most important step in any successful muscle building programme, but is all too often neglected.
Wellness to muscle building is like a finely tuned car engine to a Grand Prix. During your muscle building programme you’re going to need great nutrition for fuel, regular servicing in the form of massages, physiotherapy or mobility work, and excellent rest and recovery protocols. On top of this your body’s onboard computer, your brain, needs to be able to take on new skills and cope with roadblocks.
Without a great foundation, in the form of wellness, you put yourself at risk at best of slow gains, but at worst of burnout, injury, or serious illness (which could be mental or physical).
Physiology of Muscle Gains
Muscle building involves an increase in the contractile elements of your muscles. In order for muscles to grow, they need to be overloaded with a stimulus. Muscle growth also requires an uptake of amino acids from your diet. Amino acids work alongside protein sources to repair and rebuild the muscle, also increasing the release of the human growth hormone.
Muscle building takes time, dedication, and commitment. It’s a continual progression which involves adaptation and plateau. Each training phase typically lasts 4-6 weeks. To keep progressing, you need to plan each phase by working out how many weekly sessions you can commit to, and update this plan throughout the year.
There are four major elements that can make you fail or plateau: poor nutrition, insufficient recovery, a bad programme leading to injury or lack of progress, or other stressors in your life. Skip laying the wellness foundations to your training, and whilst you might look okay on paper for a while, you may find that you end up injured or burnt out.
Let’s start with one of the most important factors: nutrition. Before you begin to factor in the extra calories you are going to need to build muscle, you’ll need to work out how many calories you need to function. This is your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) plus calories expended on your weekly activities. This can be calculated by a trained professional, or else using online resources which will calculate your BMR based on your weight, age, and activity level. Making a log of your activity levels during the day gives you a good starting point. Understanding your basic caloric needs is essential for those who want to change their body, whether that be building muscle or losing weight.
Digestive health is paramount to extracting nutrients from your food in order to fuel your workouts. During a muscle building programme you are going to be eating more. But before you begin to consume more food, you need to sort your gut health. If you aren’t digesting your existing food portions well, more food will only add problems.
It’s a good idea to understand what foods you eat that make you feel good and function optimally, it’s also vital to eliminate those that don’t. This will help when it comes to layering on optimal nutrition for muscle gain (usually with the help of a nutritionist). If you don’t tolerate dairy well, then a whey based protein supplement might not work as well for you as pea or rice protein for example.
In order to adapt to training, your body needs time to recover. Recovery isn’t just rest, it’s a combination of re-fuelling, rest days, active-rest (or mobility work), and sleep. Skip any of these steps and your progress may slow.
Everyone needs different amounts of sleep to really reap the benefits, but the quality of your sleep is very important. Get your sleep cycles right before you embark on your training programme. General guidelines for optimal sleep include: switching off technology an hour before bed, refraining from alcohol or big meals close to bedtime, cutting out coffee and caffeine after midday (unless you’re a non-responder), where possible, doing any intense training during the early part of the day. Remember, you grow when you aren’t at the gym, so don’t neglect recovery between intense sessions.
Before you embark on your muscle building programme, consider starting a mobility routine or taking up exercise classes like pilates or yoga. Flexibility is key for most compound movements and correct performance: hip mobility and hamstring tightness, for example, can seriously impinge on the depth and effectiveness of your squat. Anything which will ensure you maintain good joint mobility around your resistance training will minimize your injury risk, and also give you something to work on during your active rest days.
A good basic programme is key to successful muscle building. Educating yourself on different regimes and programmes can really help. Include some books on muscle building as part of your bedtime routine, or get a trainer to help. If you know your trainer, great. If you don’t, you can start asking around for recommendations.
Ask yourself a few questions to decipher what sort of program will suit your lifestyle best. Who are your role models? Who do they train with? Do their training protocols fit with your lifestyle? Does your trainer understand the importance of wellness? Does your trainer prescribe rest and mobility alongside your gym-based programme? The answers to these questions should help you to build a regime which will ensure successful muscle building.
Of course external stressors beyond your control may come into your life, interrupting your training. Stress at work, at home, or even illness can impact your gains. Stress is at times unavoidable, but by having strategies in place for managing stress before you start training, it needn’t affect your progress. Once you have controllable elements managed, you are well on the way to success.
Your training can leave you a little fatigued. The wrong kind of stress can delay recovery and make you tired before you even pick up any weights. So consider where you are in your life when you’re planning training goals. Embarking on a muscle building regime is a considerable commitment, so you must make sure that you are giving yourself the best chance possible for success.
Looking after and being in tune with your body is essential to build muscle sustainably. Getting this right before you start will not only set yourself up for success at the gym, but will also provide a solid foundation for a life of good health and strength. For more information on muscle building and wellness, explore our Elite hub.