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The Beginner's Guide to Building Muscle

Guest contributor JC Deen guides us through a healthy approach to building muscle, including how to set realistic goals for gaining strength and size.
The Beginner's Guide to Building Muscle
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This piece was written by guest contributor JC Deen. For more from JC on how to build muscle, visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

Crafting a physique that steals a glance from the eyes of many is too often made more complicated than it needs to be. Truth be told, the process of building muscle, gaining strength and sculpting a physique you can be proud of is quite simple.

There are merely a few factors involved that will make or break your efforts in a journey to build a muscular body. While the equation is simple, you must remember simple is not synonymous with easy.

While we wonder marvelously at the coveted physiques blazing the covers and silver screen, I want you to realize all these people have traveled a similar road. They all put in the time and hard work molding their bodies to achieve their current state.

Today, I want to teach you four things:

  • How to train for muscle gain from beginner to advanced.
  • What the realistic expectations are in terms of your unique, genetic potential.
  • How to eat for muscle gain.
  • The importance of tracking your progress for long-term success.

Workouts to Gain Muscle

In short, muscle is built by progressive overload. Simply put, this means you must continually overload the musculature with resistance, most commonly in the form of lifting weights.

There must be a strategy, though, and it goes something like this.

One should pick a handful of movements, practice them and aim to get better at performing them every time they train. So let’s say you plan to work out 3 times per week and you’ve decided to do squats, chin ups, and bench presses every session.

The aim is to start with a light load and progressively add weight to the bar every session. Most beginners will do well starting out with the traditional 5x5 or 3x5 (Starting Strength) routines and progressing from there.

Over time as one gets stronger (adding weight to the bar), muscle growth occurs. It’s inevitable and has to happen as long as one is eating well. More on this in a minute…

After 6 months to a year, the novice lifter will begin to find great difficulty in recovering from heavy squats and pressing every other day. This is the turning point in which they morph into what we call the intermediate trainee.

An intermediate trainee is someone who can no longer make steady progress every single workout. Instead of aiming to make improvements every training session, their focus should be getting stronger by the end of every week.

Once the intermediate has been training in an effective manner for some time (a few years) they begin to approach the advanced stages of the iron game in which one aims to make strength gains every 3-4 weeks at best.

Most advanced trainees are very strong, and much bigger in size than the average gym rat.

In Brief:

Beginners aim to make gains every workout.
Intermediates aim to make gains every week.
Advanced
trainees aim to make gains every 3-4 weeks.

So how long does this take, and how much muscle can one gain realistically over a lifetime?

Genetic Potential According to the Research

While there hasn’t been a plethora of research on the topic, what we have is actually quite good and in line with real world data.

According to the top science-minded fitness researchers such as Lyle McDonald, Alan Aragon, Casey Butt, and Martin Berkhan, most males can expect to gain anywhere from 37-46lbs of muscle in their lifetime.[1][2]

To paint the picture, the 135lb male that’s never trained in his life can actually expect to weigh 172-181lbs after 4-5 years of solid training assuming body fat remains roughly the same.

Here’s what it might look like according to Lyle’s yearly breakdown in terms of how much muscle can be gained realistically:

1st Year: 20-25lbs
2nd Year: 10-12lbs
3rd Year
: 5-6lbs
4th Year
: 2-3lbs
5th Year+
: very little to any more muscle gained from here on out

Women can expect to attain about half the muscle mass as they possess significantly less testosterone than a male.

In fact, Casey Butt has done a lot of statistical research based on natural pro bodybuilders from the pre-steroid era, their bone structure and genetic propensity for mass gains. His findings are very much in line with the data above from Lyle’s breakdown.

Casey says it best here: “Maximum muscular bodyweight and size potential are positively correlated with a person's height and bone-structure.”

In other words, the size of your frame, joints and length of your muscle bellies determine your genetic potential for mass gain.

Make sure you check out his free calculator for determining your genetic muscular potential.

Eating for Muscle Gains

So now you know you must become strong and understand there is a genetic ceiling to how much muscle you can actually carry, but how do you eat for muscle gains?

In simple terms, the body has to synthesize muscle tissue from energy. All the training in the world won’t produce the muscle gains if there isn’t enough energy supplied to fuel the accumulation of new muscle tissue.

Plainly, you must eat more calories than you expend over a period of time.

It takes protein to build muscle; so anywhere from 1.1-1.4 grams per pound of lean body mass is a fine and safe suggestion.[3] Oh, and don’t worry, excess protein is likely not hard on the kidneys as was once believed.[4]

Then we simply need to add calories from carbohydrate and fat to create the caloric surplus.

How much of a calorie surplus does one need?

In general, anywhere from 300-600 calories over maintenance on lifting days is a good starting point. Females will want to err on the lower end of this due to maximal rates of muscle they can gain.

On off days, I’d simply eat your body’s maintenance calories.

What about carbs and fat?

Generally speaking, on training days I tend to set fat at 20 percent of the total intake and fill in the rest of the diet with carbohydrate (mainly from fruit and starch). For non-training days, as long as you meet protein requirements (as stated above), I like to increase the fat intake to about 25-35 percent to make my meals a bit more interesting and tasty.

Weight gain for the beginner should be around 1lb per week and about half that per week for the intermediate and above if you want the gains in body weight to be in favor of muscle, rather than fat.

Keeping Great Records

The final part of the equation is to keep record of both your training and your calorie intake. If you don’t keep track of what you’re doing now, how will you know what worked and what didn’t a month from now?

Most people think they have a good memory, but there’s nothing like keeping a logbook. You can look back at your training from a month ago and be certain you’re making progress. If you’re not, then it’s time to change something.

The same goes with nutrition. If you’re trying to gain weight but the scale isn’t moving, then you know you’re not eating enough. If you don’t have previous records to reference, how will you know how many calories to add to your diet?

The Equation Is Simple

Start working out with the aim of getting as strong as possible. Take your time to focus on learning the movements and practicing good form. Understand the process won’t happen overnight, and that it will take a considerable amount of time to realize your physique goals.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Eat in a manner that is supportive of your muscle building goals. You have to create an environment conducive to optimal growth and repair. That means eating above your daily calorie needs to synthesize the muscle tissue you’re longing to build.

Lastly, don’t skimp on the record keeping. Your logbook will tell you where you’ve been, but most importantly, help you prepare for where you want to go.


[1] Lyle, McDonald. "What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential? | BodyRecomposition - The Home of Lyle McDonald." Lyle McDonald - Bodyrecomposition. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/muscle-gain/whats-my-genetic-muscular-potential.html.

[2] Butt, Casey. "The WeighTrainer - Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements." The WeighTrainer - Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, Weightlifting, Strength Training, Nutrition. Web. 16 Jan. 2012. http://www.weightrainer.net/potential.html.

[3] McDonald, Lyle. The Protein Book. Salt Lake City: Lyle McDonald, 2007. Print.

[4] Tipton, KD. "Efficacy and Consequences of Very-high-protein Diets for Athletes and Exercisers." Proc Nutr Soc. (2011): 205-14. Print.

 

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