Each year, millions of people slave away in the gym hoping to build muscle or ‘tone up’ (essentially the same as muscle-building), but despite working harder than a one-armed bricklayer in Baghdad, a lot of people don’t see the results they’re expecting.

Well, a lot of that has to do with a lack of understanding of how muscles are built. In order to get the most out of your workouts you need to know about the ways your body builds muscle…

Mechanisms of Muscle Building

When you work out, you push the fibres of your muscles beyond their limits. This causes the muscle fibres to break down (this is a good thing, don’t worry!).

Your body is extremely adaptive, so it reacts by repairing your muscles, increasing their capabilities so that they can deal with this abuse better next time round. It does this by expanding the size of the muscle fibres, as well as building new muscle fibres to handle the strain. An increase in muscle fibre size means that those fibres can store more energy, and an increase in muscle fibre count means an increase in physical strength.

In order to build more muscle, you must do one or more of the following:

  1. Apply more tension than your muscles can currently handle. This means lifting progressively heavier weights as your muscles grow. This additional tension causes changes in the chemistry of the muscle, stimulating growth. However, muscle tension has a dramatic effect on the connection between motor units and muscle cells, which explains how this style of training can make people stronger than others without making them bigger in appearance.
  2. Damage the muscles. This means lifting hard and pushing your body, not to the point of injury, but enough that you cause localised muscle damage. If you have ever felt sore after a workout you will have experienced local muscle damage. However, you don’t have to feel sore to achieve local muscle damage – the damage just has to be present in the muscle cells.
  3. Stress your metabolism. This means burning off enough energy that your metabolism has to kick in and burn fat in order to power your muscles. This is known by bodybuilders as “the pump”, and anyone who has ever trained with extremely high reps to failure will have experienced it. This is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and is one of the ways you can add muscle size without necessarily increasing strength.

The key, therefore, is to always be increasing the weight you are lifting, pushing your body to its limits, and burning as much energy as possible!

How Hormones Affect The Way You Build Muscle

Hormones play a significant role in the muscle-building process. You can be doing all of the above but without keeping your hormones in check you may still not see any progress.

  • Testosterone increases the synthesis of protein, stops protein from being broken down, stimulates growth hormones, and activates the satellite cells that cause growth in the muscle fibres.
  • Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) regulates the growth of your muscles by enhancing the amount of protein synthesized by your body, facilitates the uptake of glucose by your muscles, sends amino acids directly to the muscles, and increases muscle growth by activating satellite cells.
  • Cortisol works against testosterone, breaking down proteins in your muscles to use as fuel, thus preventing you building muscle. It is released when your energy stores become depleted during workouts, which can be avoided by a good diet. Heightened stress levels can also spike cortisol.
  • Growth Hormone stops muscles from being broken down, increases the flow of nutrients into your muscles, and enhances muscular performance.

What Nutrients Are Needed for Muscle Growth?

Without food, your muscles have no power. Getting the right nutrients is essential to provide the energy you need for intense training, and to ensure your muscles get the fuel they need to recover and grow.

Here are some rough guidelines, but check out our simple Nutrition Calculator to get a more accurate determination of your dietary requirements.

  • 0.75-1.0 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight
  • 2-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight
  • 20-30% fat content
  • 20 calories per pound of bodyweight per day

Hit these targets, or even better hit the macro targets generated by our Nutrition Calculator, and your body will have the fuel it needs to build muscle!

How Much Rest and Recovery is Necessary?

When it comes to building muscle, rest and recovery is often overlooked or even forgotten altogether. When you are working out you are only providing the stimulus for change; you body adapts and grows during the periods outside the gym.

In terms of sleep, you want to make sure you are getting 7-8 hours every night for optimum recovery. Supplements such as ZMA can also help improve sleep quality, aiding recovery (click HERE to find out more about ZMA).

Post-workout metabolic response lasts for up to 48 hours, which is why you need at least 2 days of rest after working out a specific muscle. If you do a high intensity workout, 72 hours may be best if you want to build muscle!