I’m dead-set on achieving a strict pull-up by the end of the year (“strict” means no swinging to get up there).
This was after reading an article in the NYT called Why women can’t do pull-ups. Although I hadn’t attempted a pull-up since, I don’t know, age 8 when I played on monkey bars, I remember reading the article and thinking “Pfff! Can’t do pull-ups…challenge accepted.”
Needless to say, to make this happen I’ve had to switch gears in my routine, bump-up the strength training and get some muscle going…For the record, I’m still pushing towards my goal. (I’ll be posting my progress on Instagram in the coming weeks if you want updates!)
Muscle is a good thing.
Besides giving your body pull-up strength, strong muscles keep your joints and bones in good shape. Plus, it’s known that muscle mass drives metabolism and that regular weight training helps manage blood sugar and slow aging.
Yet, the concept of muscle-building only seems to concern a minority of gym-goers.
Consider this: after the age of 30, you naturally experience a gradual loss of about 1-2% of your muscle mass every single year.
So if building muscle isn’t your goal, I would recommend in the very least, that you include some strength training in your routine to slow this process. (Looking at you ladies!)
But if you’re already serious about increasing muscle mass, don’t know where to start or have been struggling to see any results, let’s cover the basics in case there is an element you’ve overlooked.
Muscle Growth = Strength training + Proper Nutrition + Rest
The key to success here, is consistency with all of the above. But let’s break it down further…
Muscle-building basics: 5 tips to get started
1. Practice strength training
When I ask a client what they believe is the most important factor for building muscle, the first thing that comes to mind is eating more protein.
Sure, protein has a part to play and we’ll cover that in a bit.
But no amount of protein shakes, supplements or tins of tuna will build muscle without proper training. Strength training is a prerequisite for muscle development.
Picture your muscles as stacks of lego blocks. Every day, as you go about your routine, your muscles maintain themselves by continually breaking down and rebuilding its blocks. This process is designed for maintenance, to repair day-to-day damage, not for muscle growth.
Put simply, to experience a gain your body needs to have stacked more blocks than it has broken down by the end of the day. And for your body to “get stacking”, the muscle needs to be exercised through strength training: the stress that strength training directs against the muscle forces it to adapt, get stronger and develop.
So to reiterate, extra protein will not build muscle on its own. In fact, if the amount you ingest goes beyond your body’s protein needs and beyond your body’s need for energy, all you will have gained in the process is fat.
But you should also know that the body is very adaptable. So if you’re a newbie to strength training, you can expect faster gains than the seasoned strength conditioner.
Similarly, you will want to introduce constant variety in your routine to continue stimulating the muscle and keep progressing with your gains. So if you’ve been following the same strength training program for months and are struggling to see any change, the answer might be variety.
2. Eat more
Fundamentally, your body needs extra calories to build tissue. These extra calories are the ones leftover once your body has used-up all its fuel for the day.
For a non-exerciser, these same extra calories are the ones that would normally get stored as fat. Which brings home the importance of pairing the right training with these extra calories. And of course, you want to focus on quality calories, from real food.
The exact amount you need will depend on many factors. Where this gets challenging, is for those who don’t have the appetite to consistently eat all the food required to meet their needs.
The best way around this is to regularly include nutrient-dense foods, that are also energy-rich. Unlike empty calorie foods, here are foods that will easily bump your calories and have some nutritional punch:
- Nut and seed butters: Almond butter, peanut butter, tahini, sunflower seed butter
- Nuts: Almonds, cashews, pecans, brazil nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios
- Seeds: sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Dried fruit: Dates, dried apricots, dried tart cherries, dried blueberries, dried mango
- Trail mix
- Fruit and nut bars
- Energy bars
- Shakes/smoothies (you can fit lots of food into a glass!)
And when you don’t have the appetite to increase the volume of food on the plate, start by “boosting” each bite you already take:
- The next time you have an apple, dip it into some peanut butter.
- The next time you make yourself a wrap or sandwich, add some avocado.
- The next time you have a side salad, add some nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
It’s true. Protein needs are higher for someone looking to build muscle than the average exerciser. But probably not as high as you think.
Requirements for increasing lean mass are 1.6-1.8 g/kg of body weight per day. This means that if you weigh-in at 165 lbs/75 kg, you need between 120 – 135 g protein per day (in addition to extra calories, weight training and rest) to see results.
For most of my clients, getting that amount of protein in the diet isn’t a struggle. It can be easily achieved by including a source of quality protein at each meal and snack. Some examples:
- Fish and seafood like wild salmon, halibut, shrimp, scallops, jarred/canned tuna and more
- Lean, grass-fed meats
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Nuts and nut butter
- Seeds like hemp seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and more
- Legumes like lentils, peas, chickpeas
- Whole soy edamame, tempeh, tofu
3. Eat often
When it comes to maximizing muscle growth, how you distribute your protein throughout the day is just as important as how much protein you eat.
That’s because your body is much more efficient at utilizing protein when it’s split equally throughout the day, rather than given all at once. In this study, they displayed this by comparing three protein eating patterns over a 12 hour period after resistance training: 10 g every 1.5 hours, 20 g every 3 hours and 40 g every 6 hours. Their results showed that eating 20g of protein every 3 hours was best at stimulating muscle protein synthesis. In fact, another study displayed that eating anything beyond 30g of protein in a single sitting does not benefit protein synthesis.
Which brings us to the importance of eating at regular intervals.We want to makes sure the body always has material to work with for rebuilding that muscle.
- Aim to eat every 2-3 hours. Depending on your schedule, a breakdown of your day can look like this:
- Breakfast 7am
- Morning snack 9:30 am
- Lunch 12:00 pm
- Afternoon snack 3:00 pm
- Supper 6 pm
- Nighttime snack 8:30 pm
- Include a post-workout snack on training days
- Each meal and snack should include quality calories from real food + a source of quality protein
4. Nail your post-workout nutrition
You may have heard about the 45 minute post-exercise window. If you haven’t, what you should know is that it’s a critical period for maximizing muscle growth.
This is when the muscle is primed and ready to receive nutrients to repair and rebuild.
During exercise, levels of catabolic (breakdown) hormones are high because we need them, and for good reason: they help supply nutrients and energy to the body and get the heart pumping faster to help you meet the demands of your workout.
But once you’re done, the idea is to switch out of breakdown mode, and into build/repair mode. This is precisely what that post-workout meal or snack will do.
A few points to nail your timing:
- Aim to ingest 20 g of high-quality protein within 45 min post-workout. Remember more is not better.
- Pairing your protein with some healthy carbs will give you a head start replenishing those energy reserves for next day’s workout.
- It can be in any form: a post-workout meal, snack or shake. What’s most important is to respect the timing (within 45 minutes) and nutrient content (20g protein + healthy carbs).
Although this 45 minute window is important and should be maximized, know that the growth and repair phase continues for many hours after exercise. So don’t stop here: continue focusing on quality calories + quality protein at regular intervals.
5. Get good sleep
Didn’t your mom ever tell you that you grow in your sleep? Well, so do your muscles.
Sleep plays a very important role in muscle recovery.
The hormones that play a part in the muscle-building process are strongly influenced by sleep.
But not just any sleep. You need deep, restful sleep for growth hormone to be released. This anabolic (building) hormone promotes muscle growth, repair and is essential for recovery. A lack of sleep can mean lower levels of testosterone, another important anabolic hormone, and more cortisol, the stress hormone, that can hinder your muscle-building attempts.
So, to recap, successful muscle-growth means being consistent with your strength training, your nutrition and your recovery.
It goes without saying that for you to get a handle on your nutrition, it will take some planning and some meal prep to fully load those lunchboxes!
If you need help making this happen, you can check out my online program, where I walk you step by step through the process, and show you how I plan and prep my own meals at home.
Are you having difficulty with any of these muscle-building basics? Any tips for me on my road to the strict pull-up? Are you still working on a fitness goal for 2013?