You’ve probably heard that you should be incorporating strength training into your exercise routine. Still, hitting the weights may feel much more intimidating than taking a walk or jog around your neighborhood.
While results may not always be fast, creating a solid strength training routine should show you noticeable muscle gains in a few weeks to several months.
Read on to learn more about how muscles are made, what foods fuel a strong body, and things you can do to get started.
How do muscles grow?
Skeletal muscle is the most adaptable tissue in your body. When you do extreme exercise, like weightlifting, your muscle fibers undergo trauma, or what's called muscle injury. When your muscles are injured this way, satellite cells on the outside of the muscle fibers become activated. They attempt to repair the damage by joining together and, as a result, increasing the muscle fiber.
Certain hormones actually help your muscles grow, too. They control the satellite cells and are responsible for things like:
- sending the cells to your muscles after exercise
- forming new blood capillaries
- repairing muscle cells
- managing muscle mass
For example, resistance moves help your body release growth hormone from your pituitary gland. How much is released depends on the intensity of the exercise you’ve done. Growth hormone triggers your metabolism and helps turn amino acids into protein to bulk up your muscles.
How to build muscle
Spending your whole day in the gym isn’t necessary to build muscle. Weight training for 20 to 30 minutes, 2 to 3 times a week is enough to see results. You should try to target all your major muscle groups at least twice throughout your weekly workouts.
While you may not see results right away, even a single strength training session can help promote muscle growth. Exercise stimulates what’s called protein synthesis in the 2 to 4 hours after you finish your workout. Your levels may stay elevated for up to a whole day.
How exactly can you tell if your muscles are growing? You may be able to see more muscle definition. If not, you’ll certainly be able to lift heavier weights with more ease over time.
Strength training activities include:
- body weight exercises, like pushups, squats, and lunges
- resistance band movements
- workouts with free weights, or even objects like soup cans
- workouts with stationary weight machines, like a leg curl machine
When you lift, you should try to do between 8 and 15 repetitions in a row. That’s one set. Wait a minute in between sets to rest. Then complete another set of the same length. Take approximately 3 seconds to lift or push your weight into place. Then hold that position for a full second and take another slow 3 seconds to lower the weight.
Resistance vs. reps
You should aim to lift weight, also known as resistance, that’s heavy enough to challenge yourself. A good guide is to select a weight that tires your muscles after 12 to 15 repetitions, or reps. When you find that weights feel too easy, try gradually increasing the weight to the next level up.
Even a single set of 12 reps with a heavy enough weight can help build your muscles versus 3 sets at a lighter weight. Learn more about the benefits to lifting heavy weights.
Why rest is important
It’s important to give your body plenty of rest as you begin a strength training program. Without taking days off, you may injure yourself and have to take time off from exercise, slowing your progress.
Experts recommend that you don’t do strength training on the same muscle group two days in a row. Here are some tips to help your muscles recover and prevent soreness.
Do women build muscle at the same rate as men?
Men and women build muscles differently. That’s because testosterone plays a big role in muscle development. While both sexes have testosterone in their bodies, men have more of this hormone. However, studies like this one from 2000, have shown that both men and women have similar responses to strength training.
Muscle growth is also affected by:
- body size
- body composition
Overall, more noticeable changes in muscle mass tend to happen for people of either sex who have more muscle mass to begin with.
Cardio and muscles
Aerobic exercise, otherwise known as cardio, raises your heart and breathing rates. It strengthens your cardiovascular system.
You may have heard that too much cardio is bad for building muscle. Current research shows that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Aerobic exercise can actually help with muscle growth, muscle function, and your overall exercise capacity. These effects are particularly noted in older and previously sedentary individuals.
The sweet spot with cardio to promote muscle growth has everything to do with the intensity, duration, and frequency. Scientists recommend exercising at an intensity of 70 to 80 percent heart rate reserve (HRR) with sessions that are 30 to 45 minutes in length, 4 to 5 days each week. You can find your HRR by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.
Bottom line: Working out with both cardio and resistance training exercises will keep your body and heart healthy and strong.
Diet and muscles
The foods you eat may help you build more muscle, too. Your protein intake, in particular, plays an important role in fueling your muscles. How much protein should you eat? The current guideline is around 0.8 gram (g) per kilogram (kg) of your body weight each day if you’re over 19 years old.
For example, a 150-pound woman would need to take in around 54 grams of protein a day. (68 kg x 0.8 g = 54.5 g.) A 180-pound man, on the other hand, would need to take in around 66 grams of protein a day. (82 kg x 0.8 g = 65.6 g.)
Stuck on what to eat? Look for protein-rich foods that are also rich in the amino acid leucine. You can find leucine in animal products like:
- milk products, like cheese
Non-animal sources of protein include foods like:
How can you get started? The first step may be heading to your local gym and having a consultation with a personal trainer. Many gyms offer a free session as part of a membership promotion.
A personal trainer can help you master the correct form with free weights, weight machines, and more. Proper form is key for avoiding injury.
Here are some more tips for beginners:
- Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes with some type of aerobic exercise, like brisk walking. This will help you avoid injury from exercising with cold muscles.
- Start light, with just 1- or 2-pound weights if you need to. You may even try going through the motions of strength training with no weight, since you’re still lifting the weight of your arms and legs.
- Increase your weight gradually. Lifting too much too soon is a recipe for injury. That said, if you don’t challenge your muscles, you won’t see gains. Try lifting weight that tires your muscles after 12 to 15 reps.
- Lift your weights using controlled movement. Resist using uncontrolled motion at your joints to swing weight that’s too heavy. This may lead to injury.
- Keep breathing during your workout. Breathe out as you lift or push a weight. Breathe in as you relax.
- Don’t worry about soreness and a bit of muscle fatigue that lasts a few days. If you’re feeling very sore and exhausted, you may be doing too much. Your exercise should not cause you pain, so take some time off.
- Incorporate cardio into your exercise routine. Aerobic exercise, like running, can help build muscle if performed at the right intensity, duration, and frequency.
- Eat a healthy diet that has a good dose of protein. These foods will fuel your workouts and help build muscle through certain amino acids like leucine. Animal sources have the most protein, but vegetable sources are also sufficient.
Always remember to talk to your doctor before starting a new workout routine, especially if you have a health condition. They may have recommendations for exercise modifications that can help keep you safe.