Building muscle can be complicated at times, especially if it’s your first time trying to pack it on.
Whilst you know there are a few non-negotiables when it comes to building muscle (being in a calorie surplus, applying progressive overload and being patient), but what about all your other questions?
How do you know if it’s working?
How do you know if you’re doing it right?
How do you know whether you could be doing it faster?
The questions are endless.
To help put your mind at ease, here are 3 signs that you’re building muscle.
You’re Gaining Weight But Still Look Lean
When building muscle you will gain some fat, it’s part of the process of building muscle and there is no way around this.
You can try as hard as you like but you cannot completely avoid fat gain when building muscle. It’s important you accept this part of the process early on and come to terms with it.
If you don’t you’ll always struggle to fully dedicate yourself to the process and will come away with minimal muscle as a result.
However, fat gain doesn’t have to mean piling on the pounds and going from a lean and athletic to something that better resembles a sumo wrestler. If you’re smart about it, you can minimise the amount of fat you gain.
Doing so has several benefits;
You can maintain a lean look all year round
You don’t need to ‘cut’ (lose fat) for as long after your ‘bulk’ (muscle gain)
You gain muscle more easily if you’re not holding a lot of excess fat
The key to minimising your fat gain is gain weight slowly - approximately 1 lbs a week - if you do this and then focus on the incremental week to week changes you’ll gain weight but minimise your fat gain.
The standard rate of weight gain is 1:1 which means for most people every 2 lbs of weight you gain, 1 will be fat and 1 will be muscle. Sometimes you’ll do slightly better than this and sometimes you’ll do worse. It depends on a few factors;
As you can see 3 of the 4 are within your control. This means you need to train hard, apply progressive overload, eat in a small calorie surplus, stay hydrated and sleep well.
If you do these things and notice that your weight is slowly going up but you still look lean, this is a surefire sign that you’re building muscle.
Your Waist is Staying the Same or Increasing Slowly
The best indicator of a lean bulk (maximal muscle gain, minimal fat gain) is how much your waist size changes. In an ideal world, you want it to stay the same as your other measurements slowly increase.
However, for most people, a more realistic aim is that your waist slowly increases whilst all your other measurements also increase.
This is for 2 primary reasons;
Having a smaller waist contributes to the sought-after V-shape look for men and helps you look athletic and fit
If your weight is changing slowly whilst all your other measurements increase it’s a good sign you’re building maximum muscle and gaining minimum fat
How to measure your waist
When measuring your waist, you want to measure around the narrowest part, which is usually at or just above your belly button and can be done in a few easy steps;
Lift up or take off your shirt so your clothes aren’t in the way
Using your belly button as a guide wrap the measuring tape around your waist
It should be wrapped firmly but not too tight, make sure it’s not twisted at the back
Make sure you’re standing up straight and breathing normally
Take your measurement where the end of tape measure meets the rest of it
Repeat the above to check the measurement
If it’s different do it one more time and take an average of the 3
I generally recommend you take measurements once a month but you could also do it fortnightly if you wanted to keep closer track of how things are changing. Whatever you end up choosing, aim to be consistent and measure in the same way each time for accurate results over time.
As Your Weight Increases You’re Getting Stronger
Gaining strength when eating in a calorie surplus is a good indicator that you’re on the right track. It’s proof that not only are you getting stronger (obviously) but also means that you’re applying progressive overload which is the main driver of progress in the gym.
If you’re gaining weight but not gaining strength, then something is going wrong.
There are generally 3 causes;
You are getting stronger but it’s slower than you expected so you think you’re not
You’re not being consistent in your workouts
You don’t keep a workout diary and don’t actually know what’s going on
Train consistently and keep a detailed training diary. As this allows you to clearly see your level of progress over time and is the best indicator of whether or not you’re on track.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should expect out of this world results, particularly if you’re an intermediate lifter with 1+ years of consistent lifting under your belt. At this point, you’ll be looking to slowing increase strength through a combination of add reps or even a rep and weight to the bar over time.
Don’t forget progress is still progress it doesn’t matter if it’s 1 rep or 1 kg.
Building muscle is a process, not a quick fix or fad where you can expect to achieve superior results in a short period of time, to really build muscle you must dedicate a prolonged period of time to it.
Part of this process is overcoming the mind games the body plays and accepting that you will gain some fat along the way. However, to keep this to a minimum you want to closely track the change in your waist.
Then finally, to ensure you’re on the right track you want to make sure that as your weight slowly increases so does your strength in the gym.
Work hard, be consistent and I’ll promise you’ll get there.