At the simplest level, when you workout, your body operates a controlled ‘tear and repair’ policy. Muscle fibres are torn and damaged through exercise, and then your body repairs or replaces those muscle fibres to form new myofibrils - the protein strands that make up your muscles. As more damage occurs and more repair work is done by the body, these myofibrils grow thicker and more numerous as your body tries to prepare you for any future damage. You might have heard of this process, called hypertrophy, which essentially means muscle growth.
So how exactly do we get hypertrophy to happen? For most people the answer is really a two-pronged approach, and it’s much simpler than the fitness industry often makes it sound. If we know that muscle hypertrophy occurs through this ‘tear and repair’ cycle, then we know that for growth to happen you need something to damage the muscles, and then repair them.
Enter training and diet. Training will form the ‘tear’ aspect of the cycle by putting the muscles under progressive overload, consistently disrupting them in a way that will cause damage to the muscle fibres. Diet, specifically a diet which is high in protein, will form the ‘repair’ aspect to mend damaged muscle fibres and increase muscle size bit by bit to prep the body for the next strain.
How long does it take to build muscle?
I get asked this question a lot by clients, fuelled by a massive rise in ‘6 week get-fit-quick’ programmes, but the unfortunate answer is that this will vary from person to person. Factors like training style, intensity, diet, lifestyle and good old fashioned genetics play a huge role here.
Generally, gaining muscle is a pretty slow process. Muscles grow best through consistent, tiny strains and often the quickest way to build and then maintain muscle mass is the one that may seem the most arduous. Think of it like a hare and tortoise approach - you could sprint your way to bigger muscles, but with that sprint comes the risk of injury and improper form, which can really do more damage than good. The best way to see lasting results is to bear in mind the ‘tear and repair’ process, trying to find the balance between tearing just enough to keep the body in a state of progressive overload, but not so much that the body struggles to repair the damage effectively. For most healthy individuals, 10-12 weeks of consistent work should be enough to start feeling stronger.
Best exercise for building muscle
You may have heard people talking about their training programmes and referring to power programmes, strength programmes, hypertrophy programmes or all three. Whilst all of these have their own unique benefits, for pure muscle building, a hypertrophy programme is often the go-to.
A hypertrophy programme is one that will cause just enough damage to the muscle fibres to force the body to repair itself and to rebuild thicker, more numerous fibres - meaning overall bigger muscles. Generally, a hypertrophy programme involves lifting between 65-80% of your 1RM (the maximum amount you could lift for 1 rep), for 8-12 reps and then taking a rest of 1 and a half minutes.
If that sounds very formulaic, that’s because these specific numbers have come from a whole host of studies and tests, designed to work out how exactly the most elite athletes should be training for their goals. The reality, however, is that most of us are not elite athletes and whilst hypertrophy training is a great way to ensure that you will get the muscle growth you’re looking for, the best programme for you is one that you will be able to stick to. At any rate, most athletes change up these training styles throughout their lives as their goals and considerations change.
Consistency is key
My simple advice? Try to keep a consistent challenge - if the weight you're using starts to feel easy, up it a little. If you always train a certain way, mix it up once in a while. Occasionally putting the body through a controlled stress environment, like a heavy session or an endurance session, will make you feel much stronger than if you complete the same training session every day for 6 months with little to no change. Remember that progressive overload is the name of the game when it comes to muscle growth.
Best food for muscle growth
Once you’ve got your workouts sorted, there are a few more factors to consider so you’re getting the most muscle growth out of your hard work. We’ve already seen how nutrition plays a key role in the muscle growth process, and a high protein diet, mixed in with healthy fats, carbohydrates and a range of colourful food, should give your body the tools it needs to build strong healthy muscle.
It’s worth saying that, whilst sticking to a diet can be helpful for muscle growth, there can be a huge difference between ‘clean eating’ and healthy eating. Clean eating will involve minimally processed foods, specifically tailored to your goals. It may not necessarily be healthy, however, particularly if clean eating comes with disordered behaviour or is detrimental to your mindset in any way. The best diet is one that makes you feel good and one that you can stick to.
Sleep and recovery are also key, so be sure to aim for eight hours a night and stay hydrated as much as possible. Staying hydrated not only helps to maintain muscle mass but also keeps the metabolism, joints, fascia and brain working as they should, which are clearly beneficial for anyone heading into the gym.
Best vitamins for muscle growth
Making sure that your body is stocked full of all the vitamins and minerals it needs is one of the best ways to look after yourself as you embark on a muscle building journey. As with most aspects of nutrition, exactly what is needed will vary from person to person and nothing beats a one-to-one consultation with a qualified nutrition professional, but as a general rule the following vitamins will provide an extra helping hand to feeling great.
With 20% of the UK population thought to be deficient in vitamin D, whether you’re building muscle or not, this is a supplement to consider adding to your routine, particularly in the winter months. Vitamin D plays an important role in muscle function, but it also helps to regulate mood, keep bones healthy, keep your immune system fighting fit and reduce aches, pains and fatigue, all of which make it a no-brainer when it comes to both muscle growth and day-to-day life.
Another key one for muscle health, the well-known antioxidant vitamin C helps to protect muscles and tissue from oxidative stress, which can lead to fatigue and poor function in the body. You may have also heard a lot about collagen in recent years, which has become somewhat of a buzzword within the health and beauty industries, hailed as a top anti-ageing supplement. Vitamin C plays a crucial role in the body’s production of collagen, which helps to keep everything from skin and hair to muscles, bones, joints and tendons healthy. Which brings us to our next supplement…
Once you’ve got your vitamin C levels sorted, bringing collagen into the diet can help the body supplement its production levels as they decrease with age. Collagen will assist in lubricating joints, keeping bones healthy, maintaining skin and muscle health among many other things to keep you moving well and feeling great.
When it comes to building muscle naturally and healthily, the process will depend on each individual.
Ensuring proper nutrition, good lifestyle choices and consistent small wins is often the best methodology to gaining and then keeping muscle mass. Play around with routines, practices and methods to see what works best for you!