Essential Guide to Building Muscle

Are you looking to build muscle? If so you have come to the right place.

Our essential guide to building muscle will give you all the tools you need to build a muscular physique with minimum fat gains.

You are going to learn what foods to eat, and in what quantities. You will also learn the best training techniques to use for maximum muscle growth.

Things to Consider Before You Start

Before starting your muscle building journey there are a few things you will need to think about.

You will need to think about your current situation, your goals and whether there is anything that could hinder your progress.

For example, a busy job or family commitments could all have an impact on what you are able to do.

Setting Realistic Goals

Do you think that hitting the gym a couple of weeks will give you the physique of The Rock?

I’m sorry to say that this is unlikely to happen, even if you were able to give 100% to your diet and training.

Stars like The Rock have a small team of the very best experts who are available 24/7 to give them the advice they need to achieve their goals.

Now, I don’t want to put a dampener on your dreams. But if you set more realistic goals. Goals that are achievable then you are more likely to achieve them and will remain motivated and likely to achieve further small goals.

What Should You Eat to Build Muscle?

Some would say that to build muscle you simply need to eat more.

Well, for some this may work, but the reality is that this approach will lead to gains in both muscle and fat. With any muscle gain covered in a layer of fat.

Now, this may be the look you are going for, but the vast majority of you would rather have muscle to show off, which means that lean muscle gains are required.

Luckily for you, if you continue reading you will find out how much you should eat and what types of food you should be eating to build muscle while minimising the amount of body fat you gain.

Which Training Regime for Muscle Gains?

Going to the gym a couple of times a week without a plan is not the best idea.

While some women (and men) like the appearance of the “dad bod”, it has been proven that a muscular body is the most attractive [1].

Again, we have some tips on what types of exercises you should be performing, the intensity and why rest days are important.

Tracking Progress

Are you gaining muscle? The only way to know for sure is to track your progress.

You should track the number of calories you consume, plus the weights you lift and the reps and sets performed.

It is important that you keep a note of your body weight, your BMI and body fat percentage too.

Personally, I would suggest taking muscle size measurements too. Plus progress photos too.

What is Your Body Type?

What is your body type? Did you know that your body type will impact your efforts?

Let us look at the 3 major body types, which one are you? Remember you may be a mixture of more than one:

  1. Ectomorph – Usually thinner with a rectangular body. This body type may struggle to build muscle, but it is certainly not impossible.
  2. Mesomorph – Athletic and genetically blessed. This body type will find building muscle easier than most.
  3. Endomorph – They have a square-shaped body and are prone to fat gain. This body type is able to build muscle quite easily, but may struggle to lose any fat gained.

How Much Should You Eat to Build Muscle?

This is one of the most important questions you should ask. And the best way to answer it is to look at how many calories you should be eating to maintain your current weight.

To answer this question I would suggest that you work out your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) using the following formula (Harris–Benedict equation [2]):

BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5

While women should use the following formula:

BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

Using a 28-year-old man as an example, who weighed 90 kg and was 180 cm tall you would calculate their BMR as follows:

(10 x 90) + (6.25 x 180) – (5 x 28) +5

This works out as a BMR of 1,890, meaning to maintain your current weight you should aim to consume this number of calories daily.

The problem with this formula is that it does not take into account how active you are. A more accurate method to check your calorie allowance is as follows:

  • Sedentary: BMR x 1.2
  • Very Light Exercise: BMR x 1.375
  • Moderate Exercise: BMR x 1.55
  • Heavy Exercise: BMR x 1.725
  • Extremely Heavy Exercise: BMR x 1.9

Taking our previous figure as an example, if they undertake heavy exercise then you would multiply the BMR by 1.725. This gives a figure of 3,260 calories.

This calorie amount may surprise some of you but may be the reason why you have struggled to gain muscle in the past. I’m looking at those so-called “hard gainers” who are simply not consuming enough calories to pack on muscle mass.

When “bulking”, a term used when attempting to gain muscle mass you should aim to add another 500 calories to this amount. So 3,760 daily calories in total.

How Often Should You Eat?

What would prefer? Would you prefer to eat 3 large meals of 1,250 or 6 meals of 626 calories?

It comes down to personal preference, but if you would rather avoid bloating then perhaps eating smaller meals at regular intervals would be the better option for you.

Eating at regular intervals will also prevent a drop in your insulin levels and a drop in other nutrients. This will help prevent catabolism [3], a process where your body starts to break down muscle tissue for energy.

Macros for Muscle Gains

To build muscle your diet should consist of protein, carbs and fats in a ratio of 2:3:1.

Using the previous calorie intake as an example you should aim to consume roughly 1,253 calories through protein, 1,880 calories as carbs, and 626 calories from fat.

There are 4 calories per gram in both protein and carbs, while fat, which is more energy dense has 9 calories per gram.

Protein is incredibly important for building muscle and helps to repair muscle fibres damaged after training.

Research has found that you should aim to consume 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh [4].

You need carbohydrates for energy. Carbs are broken down into glucose which is then used as energy.

To avoid gaining fat, I would suggest avoiding junk food full of processed carbs. Opt for unprocessed whole grains instead.

Junk food also contains saturated and trans fats that are also best avoided. Choose healthy fats such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. These foods are good for your overall health and benefit your brain too.

The following are foods that we would suggest adding to your muscle building diet:

  • Nut butter
  • Red meat
  • Whole milk
  • Olive oil
  • Salmon
  • Coconut
  • Cottage cheese
  • Whole eggs
  • Granola
  • Dark chocolate
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Beans
  • Bananas
  • Greek yoghurt
  • Quinoa

These are all calorie-dense foods, so are full of calories and essential nutrients. Yet won’t fill you up.

Can You Build Muscle as a Vegetarian/Vegan?

Some people would claim that it is impossible to build muscle as a vegan or vegetarian, but this is not true.

To build muscle you must get enough calories and nutrients into your body, this does not necessarily mean that you have to consume meat to achieve this goal.

There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian protein sources that you must add your diet if you wish to build muscle.

I would recommend adding the following foods to your diet as they contain the nutrients you need to build muscle:

  • Nuts
  • Avocado
  • Olive/Coconut oil
  • Beans
  • Soy protein
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Lentils
  • Chia seeds
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach)

One issue that may have an impact on your muscle building ability is lower than normal testosterone levels. Studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower t-levels than omnivores [5].

Training for Muscle Gains

Before we can go into detail about what training regime you should choose, we will first need to talk about hypertrophy and why it is so important.

In simple terms, hypertrophy means the growth or enlargement of tissue, which will occur when muscle tissue is damaged after being pushed to fatigue during intense resistance training [6].

This damaged muscle tissue is then repaired, and once this occurs the muscle tissue will be slightly stronger and larger (providing the correct nutrition and recovery has been allowed).

While this sounds simple in theory, there is slightly more to hypertrophy than this.

For example, the type of exercises you perform, the intensity, number of reps and other factors will affect your results.

Compound Exercises or Isolation?

While research has shown that there are very little difference benefits wise between compound exercises and isolation exercises [7], personally I would opt for a training regime that prioritises compound exercises.

The reason for this is that compound exercises work multiple muscle groups, so will give you the best workout for the least amount of time. This is important as we are all leading busier lifestyles than ever before.

Of course, if a particular muscle group is lagging behind then feel free to add some isolation exercises into the mix too.

The compound exercises that you must add to your routine include:

  • Bench press
  • Squat
  • Overhead press
  • Deadlift

When it comes to building muscle, you need to achieve hypertrophy (a term for the growth and increase of the size of muscle cells), and the best way to achieve this is through progressive overload [8].

Essentially you should be aiming to lift slightly heavier each time you workout.

I would recommend tracking your lifts, the weight you lift and the reps/sets performed. You can then see how you are progressing over time.

How Often Should You Train?

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that you should perform resistance training exercises at least twice a week [9], however, this is just to experience the many benefits of this form of exercise.

Other studies have shown that training more often will result in the bigger muscle gains, which may seem like an obvious conclusion but it is a little more complicated than that.

Training your biceps twice a week, rather than once will result in bigger biceps, even if you are lifting the same weight and performing the same number of reps and sets in total over the week.

It is believed that this is because when you lift you are triggering muscle growth over a 48 hour period. By lifting more than once you are spurring more muscle growth over time.

Of course it is easy for me to say you should be working out as often as you can, but it is not always as simple as that.

There are other factors at play that can affect how often you can lift, for instance:

  1. What your goals are?
  2. What is your current level of fitness
  3. How much time do you have to train?
  4. Are you motivated?
  5. Do you get adequate sleep?
  6. What is your diet?
  7. Your genetics
  8. What is your training regime?

Personally, I would aim to work out 4-5 times weekly. If you have more time then feel free to work out up to 6 times a week.

I would always recommend giving yourself at least 1 day off a week to recover.

Always listen to your body, if you feel as though you need more than the one day off then feel free to have it.

Building Muscle Without Weights

While working out at a gym with free weights or machines would be my personal preference you can still get an intense workout without weights.

There are still benefits to be gained from working out just using your own bodyweight.

One of the major advantages of bodyweight exercises are that they can be performed pretty much anywhere, so are ideal for when you haven’t got time to go to the gym, or are perhaps on holiday.

As long as your workouts are intense then you should certainly benefit from this form of training.

Are Heavy or Light Weights Best for Hypertrophy?

You may think that heavy weights would be better for hypertrophy, but this may not necessarily be the case.

In a 2012 study [10], 18 males were split into 3 groups. They were asked to train their legs on the leg extension machine 3 times a day over the course of the study:

  1. Group 1 performed 3 sets at 30% of their 1RM for 30-40 reps
  2. Group 2 performed 1 set at 80% of their 1RM for 10-12 reps
  3. Group 3 performed 3 sets at 80% of their 1RM for 10-12 reps

Both group 1 and 3 saw the greatest muscle gains. It is believed that the additional reps brought the total volume lifted to an equal amount.

This study drew some criticism as it used untrained subjects who were likely to see results regardless of what training regime was used.

However, a further study in 2016 used subjects who had previous lifting experience [11]. In this study, both light and heavy weights resulted in similar muscle gains.

Taking this research into account, it does not matter whether you use light weights or heavy weights. What does matter is the total volume lifted.

This means that you can either perform your lifts using heavy weights for fewer reps, or lighter weights with more reps. You could also mix up your training by using both types on occasion.

Training for Your Body Type

We have already briefly mentioned the three different body types (ectomorph, endomorph or mesomorph), depending on which body type you are this may have an impact on your training methods.

Ectomorphs, for example, will likely struggle to put on fat, so won’t have to worry so much about cardio or fat burning.

Endomorphs, on the other hand, are more likely to gain body fat, so steady state cardio or more intense HIIT will be necessary to burn off any fat gained.

If you are lucky enough to be a mesomorph you will likely see great results whatever you do, as long as your diet and training is relatively good.

Whichever body type you are you will still need to make sure that both your diet and training is on point and that you are giving 100% to your goals. This will ensure you see the best possible results.

Supplements for Muscle Growth

When it comes to building muscle, your diet and training efforts are the most important aspects.

This is not to say that supplements don’t offer any benefits, as they often do, but perhaps not to the extent that supplement companies often claim.

Often you will find companies making impressive-sounding claims that cannot be backed up.

Sometimes you will find that their products are full of filler ingredients, or junk, so you should always do your research before you buy.

The following are the types of supplements you should be looking at when trying to build muscle:

Whey Protein

Whey protein is probably one of the most popular supplements available, and for good reason.

As you already know, you need protein to grow. It helps to repair and build muscle tissue so you need to make sure you are getting enough.

Sometimes this may be difficult through diet alone, which is where the protein powder comes in.

Rather than having to eat 6 protein-rich meals daily (or even more), would it not be easier to have an occasional protein shake instead?

There are plenty of different brands available, some will have samples available, so try some out and find one that you like the taste of.


Supplementing with creatine offers numerous benefits [12]:

  • Gains in both muscle and strength
  • Improved anaerobic endurance
  • Reduced muscle damage and soreness

It is found naturally in your body, but you can also increase your intake by eating red meat.

Pre Workout

If you want to be able to give 100% at the gym you may want to look at adding a pre-workout to your arsenal.

As with any supplement you will need to do your research and not just buy the one with the best claims. Often these claims are completely made up and unproven.

There are countless supplements available that are completely ineffective. And even some that are dangerous to use.

One of the most popular pre-workouts of the past few years was ‘Jack3d’ which was found to contain DMAA (Dimethylamylamine), which has been shown to cause side effects that include a rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

I would look at pre-workouts that contain one or more of the following ingredients (they have been shown to be effective and offer numerous benefits):

  • Caffeine
  • Beta-Alanine
  • Citrulline Malate
  • Betaine
  • Ornithine
  • Theanine

Also, make sure to check for artificial sweeteners, flavours or filler ingredients before you buy. Remember you are trying to gain muscle, not fat.

In Conclusion

Hopefully, after reading this article you have a few ideas on what you should be doing to build muscle effectively.

If you have followed the tips given then you should be able to gain around 0.5 to 1.5 pounds a week.

This won’t be all muscle gains, you are likely to gain a little fat in the process too. I would recommend that you read our fat burning article for tips on how to lose any fat gained.

For those who have just started lifting regularly, you may see bigger muscle gains, or “newbie gains”. Make the most of these as they won’t last forever.

Remember to build muscle you must first work out your BMR, and the number of calories you need to consume to maintain your current weight. You should then aim to consume an additional 500 calories on top of this figure.

You should try and avoid junk food so that you do not gain too much fat. Instead eat a diet of lean protein, good fats and unprocessed carbohydrates.

Training should be at 100% intensity using compound movements to make the most of your time. You should make sure to get adequate rest too, your muscles grow during the rest periods so this step should not be skipped.

Finally, take appropriate supplements to enhance your efforts.

If you have found this article helpful, or if you have your now success story then we would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment for us below using the comment form provided.

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Essential Guide to Building Muscle
This essential guide to building muscle will help you to build muscle with minimum fat gains. We will look at your diet and training to see what changes are needed.
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