How to Effectively Build Muscle Mass, Part I

How do you build muscle mass? Well bro-lore would have you thinking that you lift a tonne of weight and eat of tonne of food and et voila...You're jacked in no time.

However, this is rarely how things pan out. Most people just end up a bit, well, fat (for want of a better word). 

The point here is this: You cannot force feed muscle growth. More calories don't equate to more muscle gain indefinitely. Sure, you need to ensure you are eating enough calories to support muscle growth. However, more isn't always better.

So how quickly can we gain muscle? Thankfully this subject was recently researched by Lyle McDonald. Here are the figures:

Beginner: 1.5 lbs/month (in the first year of training)

Intermediate: 1 lb/month

Advanced: 0.5 lbs/month

No, unfortunately these aren't typos! These are the average rates of muscle gain a natural (not drug assisted) trainee can expect. If you're feeling a little depressed right now then you probably aren't alone! Building muscle is a slow and difficult process. If it wasn't then everyone would be walking around like an extra from the movie 300!

If you're training program sucks then you cannot expect to gain much muscle.

If you're training program sucks then you cannot expect to gain much muscle.

So, in order to gain this muscle, how much of a calorie surplus do I require?

Beginner: 1.5 lbs/month
Monthly Calorie Surplus: 5,250 calories
Daily Calorie Surplus: 175 calories

Intermediate: 1 lb/month
Monthly Calorie Surplus: 3,500 calories
Daily Calorie Surplus: 120 calories

Advanced: 0.5 lbs/month
Monthly Calorie Surplus: 1,750 calories
Daily Calorie Surplus: 60 calories

You can see from the above that the more advanced you become, the smaller the calorie surplus you require.

A Very Large Caveat:

All of the above information is predicated upon the fact that you are undertaking an effective resistance training program. What do I mean by this?

Your program should:

  • Be primarily based around the large compound lifts (Squats, Deadlifts, Pull Ups, Bench Press, Overhead Press etc)
  • Be focused on progressive overload (trying to increase load over time)
  • Have an adequate amount of volume across the week (roughly 40-70 reps/muscle group/session)
  • Using sufficient loads (generally above 65% of your 1RM)
  • You should be training muscle groups at least 2 times per week

Without an effective resistance training program, gaining an appreciable amount of muscle will be almost impossible. 

Another Caveat:

The calorie surplus you need may in fact be larger (by quite some distance for some) due to adaptations in someone's metabolism, largely from an increase in NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).

In English, when people take in more calories, they tend to move around a lot more. This extra movement burns more calories which eats into their calorie surplus. So as a result, more calories may need to be eaten.

All of the above point to the need to consistently monitor body weight and body fat to ensure: -
1) You are actually gaining muscle mass
2)  You aren't gaining body fat too quickly in relation to body weight

If tracking scale weight, ensure you do the following:

  • Weigh yourself every day under the exact same conditions
  • Average these readings out over 7 days to give you a weekly average
  • Track your weekly average weight to see how you are progressing

Body fat can be assessed in a number of different ways, but with any mode of assessment, consistency is key. Do not try to compare two different modalities of assessing body fat. If you are tracking using DEXA scans then stick to these. Don't use DEXA scans one month and skin-folds the next month.

Track your scale weight using weekly averages.

Track your scale weight using weekly averages.

So, to summarise, here is what you need in order to build some muscle tissue: -

  • A decent resistance training program that it carried out consistently and is altered and progressed over time (more on this next week)
  • A calorie surplus that corresponds to your level of training (the more advanced you become the less of a surplus you require)
  • A consideration for how other activities and lifestyle factors may alter the amount of calories required (i.e. if you play sports you may need to adjust upwards)
  • A consistent way of tracking progress (DEXA, skin-folds, tape measure, scale weight etc)
  • Patience - Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your body!

That's all for Part I, next week I want to take a look at how to train effectively for muscle growth...