Rome wasn’t built in a day — and your muscles can’t be, either.
How does muscle growth actually work?
When you work your muscles like you mean it, you actually traumatize muscle fibers. That might sound like a bad thing, but your muscles were made for this. The trauma activates satellite cells that work to fix your muscles, making them bigger and stronger in the process.
Your muscles don’t fuse new fibers together and grow bigger while you work out — that happens afterward. That’s right: Your biceps are bulking up while you’re napping on the couch, not while you’re pumping iron. But you can’t have one without the other.
So, how do you pump up this process?
To max out this muscle cell growth (a process called hypertrophy), resistance training is key.
According to a 2019 research review, effective hypertrophy-oriented training should include a combo of mechanical tension and metabolic stress. That means you need to do multiple sets of resistance exercises while getting your heart rate up.
For the everyday bodybuilder, Volciak recommends enlisting a coach or learning the ins and outs of hypertrophy on your own. She also advises working on your diet with a registered dietitian to make sure you’re getting the vital protein and other macronutrients your body needs to build those muscles.
Ultimately, she says, the goal is to “figure out an individualized program that works for you.”
WTF is blood flow restriction (BFR) training?
If you’re in the bodybuilding scene, you may have heard of this newish hypertrophy technique aimed at restricting blood flow. It’s designed to create the ideal cell environment for muscle growth.
In a 2021 review, researchers note that participants in BFR studies have experienced rapid increases in muscle size, strength, and endurance capacity.
But don’t go restricting your blood flow just yet. “[BFR] has not yet been proven to increase the amount of muscle mass in a month,” Volciak says, “and should only be used with trained, clinical supervision.”
Your monthly muscle growth checklist
To max out muscle growth, researchers also recommend the following:
- Do multiple sets. Experts say 3–6 is best.
- Complete multiple reps. Aim for 6–12 reps.
- Take short rests. Rest up for 60 seconds or less between sets.
- Shoot for a moderate intensity. Give it 60 to 80 percent effort per rep.
- Mix it up. Mix up your routine with a 4-day split or a circuit workout to help avoid muscle plateaus.
- Up your training regimen. Keep increasing your training volume to keep challenging your muscles.
- Advance your skills. For trained athletes, researchers recommend adding advanced techniques to help overcome plateaus, prevent boredom, and even reduce training time.
- Incorporate cardio. The pros at the American Council on Exercise recommend adding a couple days of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio to burn extra cals each week.
- Prioritize your diet. A balanced diet with plenty of lean proteins, veggies, fruits, and whole grains is important for optimal hypertrophy.
- Don’t give up. As with most good things, persistence is key when it comes to maximizing your results.
You don’t need to get too fancy to bulk up. Exercises that work more than one muscle group, like squats, overhead presses, and rows, will get you the biggest bang for each rep. The best of the best tend to be bodyweight exercises or moves that involve barbells or dumbbells.
Here are some ideas to kick off your month of muscle growth.
Squats with barbells make for massive legs, but they also work a lot of upper-body muscles. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, lower down like you’re sitting in an invisible chair, and feel the burn.
(And with 40 squat variations, just *try* to get bored.)
Pro tip: As you lift the barbell to hip level, be sure to keep your torso perpendicular to the floor.
Triceps dips work your shoulders, chest, and triceps hard AF. You’ll need parallel bars to pull off this move. Be sure your hands are shoulder-width apart and your arms are straight, and then dip down like you mean it.
5. Bench presses
There are lots of bench press variations, and they’re all super effective for bulking up your upper bod.
Try a flat bench barbell or dumbbell press to start, and then work your way up to the tougher inclines.
Get your lean protein
While it might seem like muscly people and protein powder go together like PB&J, there is such a thing as too much protein. Yes, that’s true even if you’re aiming to bulk up. Going too hard on protein can lead to weight gain or even kidney stones.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of your daily cals from protein. If you’re working out hard, you might fall into the upper end of this spectrum. While the 10 percent figure is often cited, research from 2019 suggests that number may be a minimum rather than an ideal.
And you don’t necessarily need a supplement to get enough of this nutrient. You can find plenty of protein in foods like these:
If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough protein, a registered dietitian may be able to help you figure it out.
Nosh on complex carbs
Carbs partly convert to glycogen (a substance that helps build muscle). For optimal health, aim to get about half (45 to 65 percent) of your total cals from carbs.
Veggies and fruits are A+ carb sources. The CDC recommends getting at least 3.5 to 5 cups of them per day. Complex carbs like peas, beans, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and whole grains are also great options.
Don’t forget your (healthy) fats
Don’t get it twisted: Even if you don’t want to gain fat, you still need to eat fat.
According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should aim to get 20 to 35 percent of their total daily cals from fat.
The guidelines also advise getting less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats. Saturated fats are the not-so-healthy ones that come from foods like processed meats, butter, and most sweet treats.
Instead, try to choose foods with more heart-healthy fats, like nuts, fatty fish, and avocado.
No matter how much your gym buddy raves about supplements, most people can get the nutrients they need to build muscle fast through a healthy, balanced diet.
But using one of the following supps might help too.
Protein is essential for building muscle. If you have trouble fitting enough protein into your diet, there are plenty of supplements that can fill in the gap.
Your body naturally produces creatine, which helps your muscles and tissues use energy in powerful bursts.
This supplement is super popular with bodybuilders and gym fanatics alike. By supplementing your body’s natural production of creatine, you may be able to build muscle more efficiently.
If you struggle to gain muscle and weight, even when pumping iron and consuming plenty of cals, weight gainers might be for you.
But don’t overdo it. These high cal supplements often contain more than 1,000 calories, hundreds of grams of carbs, and more than 50 grams of protein per serving.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that may reduce fatigue and boost exercise performance.
Though there’s still not a ton of research on this one, the International Society of Sports Nutrition has noted that it may be effective for improved muscle growth and deemed it safe to use.
These are just a few of the most popular supplements. If you take a trip to your local supplement store, you’ll find many, many (did we say many?) more.
It’s always a good idea to talk with a medical professional or a registered dietitian before taking any supplements. A pro can help you figure out whether a certain supp is a good option for you.
It’s hard to say how much muscle you can gain in a month. Fitness experience level, genetics, age, diet, and workout regimen all play a role in muscle growth. On average, though, most people can gain 0.5 to 2 pounds of muscle per month.
The most important things you can do to amp up your muscle growth are focus on resistance training and eat a well-rounded diet.