How to build muscle (A beginner's guide)

Eat enough food!

One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to build muscle is not eating enough. In fact, lifting weights without eating enough food (especially protein) can actually lead to loss of muscle tissue.  

When you exercise, you damage muscle fibres – a process called exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD). If you’re not eating enough, your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to repair the muscles after your workout.

To build muscle you must be in a calorie surplus. That means eating more calories than you burn per day. If you’re also trying to lose weight this might seem counterintuitive, but it’s about eating the right food to fuel your training and recovery properly. When you consume fewer calories than you burn (a calorie deficit), your body breaks down muscle as well as fat as a source of energy – and that really is counterintuitive!

So the key is to eat a balanced diet rich in high-quality carbs and protein, to not only give your body the energy it needs to complete the workout but also give it the required fuel to rebuild bigger and stronger muscles. Choosing foods with a higher thermic effect will give your metabolism a kickstart along the way.

Top tip: Try to eat smaller meals with 30g of protein in each one every three to four hours. Lumping your daily calories into three big meals can make you feel sluggish whereas eating little and often will keep you on a level so you’re energised throughout the day.

Quality over quantity

Overtraining is another common mistake when trying to build muscle and it’s actually very easy to do without realising. Remember what we said about your body repairing damaged muscle fibres? That happens when you rest.

So doing eight hard sessions a week might seem like a good idea but if you’re not giving yourself time to recover you won’t get stronger.  

The best thing to do is to break it down by setting yourself an achievable target that you can be consistent with. Hit the gym hard for some quality sessions three times a week and get the food right, then it will start to flow.

Once your fitness routine becomes a habit that sticks, you’ll be mentally and physically prepared to pick up an extra session if you want to.

Top tip: Take note of your energy levels after your workouts. You should leave the gym feeling like you’ve worked hard, but you could go again the next day, not leaving yourself so sore that you can’t get out of bed or up and down the stairs.

Don’t let your body get bored!

A big reason many people stop going to the gym is boredom and fatigue. Boredom from doing the same workouts over and over again, and fatigue from not seeing the desired results quick enough.

So don’t let your body get bored! To build bigger and stronger muscles you need to continually make them work harder than they’re used to. That means gradually increasing the weight you’re lifting to keep your body under just the right amount of stress – otherwise known as a progressive overload.  

That’s not trying to bench press 100kg on day one, but building up slowly and safely with incremental increases each week (i.e. 20kg to 22.5 or 25kg, and so on), with enough weight to keep you challenged but not too much to lose good form.

If you’re completely new to the gym, you want to be doing full-body workouts for probably the first month, choosing a leg press over a squat just to feel a bit safer at the start. You might do bench press, lat pulldown, shoulder press, and other big compound movements that challenge multiple muscle groups at once for maximum results.

And then after that month period when you find your workouts getting a bit easy, you can then split the body up into different days – leg day, back day, shoulder day, and so on.

It’s when you’ve built a strong base and moved into single muscle groups that you’re really overloading the muscle purely on one workout and you’ll get a lot more benefit from it.

Top tip: Keep a log of your food and what you’re lifting to keep track of progress and stay motivated towards your goal.

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