So you have decided to add on some muscle.
Whether you are a guy who wants a more manly look or a woman who wants to be more toned, packing on a few pounds of muscle is the only way to get there.
The good news is that it is very doable.
The bad news is that gaining muscle can be difficult and hard and involves a large investment of time.
But it is worth it.
Remember that gaining muscle is about two things:
1 — Giving your body the stimulus to build muscle (i.e. your workouts and recovery)
2 — Giving your body the materials it needs to build muscle (i.e. your nutrition)
There are many muscle building workouts that you can do. In fact, when you are struggling with gaining muscle the workouts are usually not the problem. Thus, this article will not cover or provide a workout program.
Instead it will focus on 8 Critical Tips to improve your nutrition and recovery, so that your body can build the muscle you are working hard to gain.
Focus on One Goal at a Time
It is very difficult to chase a rabbit. Trying to catch 2 is nearly impossible.
It is easy to get focused on the finished product. But the finished product has subgoals. These subgoals are what you are working on now for your long-term goals. For example, if you want to be “toned” or “ripped” those can be broken down into two components: adding muscle and losing fat.
These are both doable and yes there are circumstances when you can work to attain both simultaneously. But it requires a large time investment and some luck. For this reason most people should just work on one first, then move to the other.
By switching between the two over time you will eventually get to have both.
Pick one goal, which doesn’t have to be limited to adding muscle or losing fat. If you focus on a different goal such as learning a high quality strength training system, you will eventually build muscle and lose fat. It will be a longer process and also will require some changes in your diet as well but it is another great path to health and fitness.
But if your heart is set on adding some muscle now, focus on just that goal. And apply some of these additional tips.
One of the most important (and underused) habits for losing weight is eating slowly. When you are trying to gain weight though, even muscle, you might need to do the opposite.
You have to get enough of the materials into your body. If you get full you might end up under-eating. There is a delay between eating and the feeling of fullness. If you want to eat less you should slow down so your body has time to feel. If you want to eat more you should eat fast so you can get the food in before your body realizes that you are full.
Drink Your Nutrients
Drinking is much easier than eating. It is fast and more efficient largely because the whole chewing component that takes so much time has been removed.
First you need to figure out which nutrients you are struggling to get enough of. The main culprits that might be holding you back are total calories, protein, vitamins and minerals.
If the only deficiency in your diet is total calories then it doesn’t matter what you are drinking, as long as it contains tons of calories. For example here are many bodybuilders who often use soda and other soft drinks to get more calories through sugar.
More likely you also aren’t getting enough protein (the building blocks of muscle), vitamins or minerals.
When you are losing weight, you probably need around 4–6 servings of protein if you are a man and 2–3 servings if you are a woman. When it comes to adding muscle you can have more.
Sometimes you need to double those recommendations.
Protein powders are a great way to drink protein. You can add two scoops to 16 oz of water and quickly chug it to get 2 more servings into your daily diet. Do this twice a day and there are 4 servings of protein.
Then there are the often ignored vitamins and minerals which are found in fruits and veggies. There are some supplements you can use to get these (such as a greens supplement or a multivitamin) but supplements are supplementary. You still also need whole fruits and veggies.
Enter the super shake.
A super shake is a liquid meal. It will contain whole fruits and veggies as well as protein and healthy fats. When people want to lose weight we will sometimes replace a meal with a super shake. But for you to add muscle just add the super shake to your diet. It is much easier than adding the time and effort of an additional meal.
Start Eating Early
With the renewed focus on fasting the idea that breakfast is a necessary meal has been thoroughly (and scientifically) proven false.
The fact is that what time you eat matters much less than what you are eating. This means you can gain (or lose) weight with or without breakfast.
But if you are struggling with gaining muscle you need to eat more. Just like starting work early gives you the opportunity to get more work done, starting to eat early gives you the opportunity to eat more.
Also, it’s common for people who struggle with gaining weight to not wake up hungry. Then they get busy and end up not eating enough during the rest of the day.
If that is you then you should combine this tip with the previous one and wake up and drink a super shake, whether you are hungry or not.
In addition to starting early, eating often is another great way to get more of the muscle building nutrients that your body needs.
Just like losing weight many involve not eating when you want to eat, gaining muscle often involves eating when you are not hungry.
This is way less fun than it sounds.
Increasing the frequency of your meals is a great way to do this. Once you aren’t full from your last meal, you can eat before you are hungry.
When using this strategy you need a set schedule of eating. In my experience every 2–3 hours works well.
Sometimes “Unhealthy” Eating is Useful
It is hard to overeat many healthy foods. While this makes them great for fat loss or maintaining a lower body fat level, it isn’t how you grow. You need excess calories to put on real muscle.
If you can get enough healthy fats, fruits and veggies, and protein in your diet and on top of that you do the burger and fries it can be very helpful.
This is also assuming that you are on an intense enough workout plan to need so many calories.
And remember it is healthy plus unhealthy, not unhealthy instead of healthy.
This is a surprisingly effective strategy. Especially if you are training hard.
Your body needs excess calories to build muscle. If you burn off all of the calories you ate exercising you can’t build muscle.
Typically this comes back to our problem of chasing two goals. You want to add some muscle but not any fat (or worse, are trying to lose fat) and are failing at both.
The first thing to look at cutting back on is the cardio exercise. Most cardio exercise doesn’t support muscle growth despite its many other health benefits.
While strength training does support muscle growth it is also possible to overdo it. This can happen from burning too many calories, but also can occur from overtraining.
Overtraining is training harder than your body is able to recover from. It might seem like doing “chest” workouts 5 times a week will make it grow, but since most chest workouts are so intense and require more than 24 hours of recovery, you cannot do them two days in a row.(1)
Your body builds when it is resting. Make sure you are giving your body adequate time to recover.
Get More Sleep
Building on the last tip, your body builds muscle when it is resting. The most critical type of rest for building muscle is sleep.
Sleep has many benefits. Even though you can function on a low amount of sleep you certainly can’t function optimally.
For general health you should be getting 7–9 hours of sleep a night. If you want to build muscle then I would recommend you shoot for 8–10 hours.
If you can’t make the time for this then this might not be the best time in your life to add serious muscle.
When things are less busy and stressful you can come back to it.
If you can make the time but you just can’t fall asleep then we have to find ways to help you sleep better. Often we start with a sleep ritual or increasing the intensity of the workouts.
Packing on a few pounds of muscle over a short period of time is a useful and fun thing to do.
But it can be frustrating if you are putting in the work and not seeing the results.
First things first, you should evaluate your situation and resources (time, equipment and skill level). And make a commitment to focusing on it if you want to make it happen.
Then remember you have to get enough good nutrients.
Most men need at least 4–6 servings of protein, 5+ servings of fruits and veggies, and 2–3 servings of healthy fats daily.
For most women that’s at least 2–4 servings of protein, 5+ servings of fruits and veggies, and 1–2 servings of healthy fats daily.
And enough additional calories and rest so your body can make that happen.
There are lots of ways of getting those calories into you. Eating more quickly, drinking liquid calories, and even including some “junk” in your diet. Just remember the cleaner you eat the less fat you will add.
And there are also ways of increasing recovery like sleeping more or changing your exercise program.
Find the way that works for you and remember to track your progress and be sure you are seeing results.
Making adjustments to reality is the key to success.
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1 — It is important to note that you can train the same muscle or movement pattern 5–6 times a week. But this usually involves low volume training and shorter workouts. For an example of this I recommend that you read “Power to the People.”