How to build muscle and strength the smart way: the step by step guide
As with losing fat, building muscle doesn’t have to be a complex process with fancy training methods and nonnegotiable meal timings.
It too can be a straightforward and simple process if you apply a few key principles.
Unfortunately, there is often a temptation to over complicate things or simply do way more work than is necessary.
True, it’s common knowledge for anyone in the workout game to know that to build muscle you need to eat more calories than you burn.
However, there is a bit more to it than just that.
So, if you are already pretty lean and are looking to put on some more muscle mass or simply fancy having bigger muscles, then here is what you need to do in 7 easy follow steps.
Step 1 - Calculating your maintenance calories
The first thing you need to do is to work out what your daily calorie intake is.
To do this you will need to calculate what’s called your maintenance calories; this is the approximate number of calories you burn a daily basis to maintain your current body weight.
The reason calories are so important for building muscle is down to the rules of the energy balance equation which dictates that:
- To lose weight you must burn more calories than you eat or drink
- To gain weight you must burn less calories than you eat or drink
- To maintain weight, you burn the same calories than you eat or drink
You can begin to see why this is so vital to do as your first step.
The energy balance is without a doubt the most important thing for weight gain, and therefore building muscle.
So how do you work out your maintenance calories?
Don’t worry I’ve got you covered here, no complicated mathematics required.
The easiest and most effective method I have come across to date is take your weight in lbs and multiply it by 14.
This will give you an approximation of your daily needs, you can then experiment and adjust as needed.
As an example let's use Steve, a 70 kg guy who wants to build muscle.
The easiest way to do this is to take his weight in pounds and multiply it by 14. You can multiply your weight in kilograms by 2.2 to get this number.
For example, Steve weighs 70 kg so he would multiply 70 by 2.2 and get 154, this is his weight in lbs.
Next he would multiply 154 by 14 to get his maintenance calories, which is 2,156. I always round up to the closest 10 to keep things simple.
So using the formula above Steve's maintenance calories are 2,160 a day
Step 2 - Set up your calories for muscle building
Now that you know your maintenance calories you need to adjust them for muscle building. The goal here is to:
Maximise muscle gain
- Minimise fat gain
In order to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than you burn on a daily basis whilst trying to ensure you gain as little fat as possible at the same time. During the period you are building muscle you should try and go pound for pound with muscle and fat gain, this is normal for most people.
If you can gain less fat than this, then power to you.
Be warned if you diet to just pile on the pounds as quickly as possible you will end up gaining a huge amount of fat in the process. Sure you’ll also gain some muscle but no one will be able to see the hard work you’ve put in under the body fat you’ve layered over the top.
Not to mention it will take you much longer to lose said fat, lengthening the muscle building and fat loss cycles and slowing your progress.
You should aim to gain approximately 0.5 – 1 lb a week for a total of 2 – 4 lbs a month with 1 – 2 of these lbs being muscle.
In reality you will find depending on the length of time that you’ve been training your rate of growth will affect how much of the weight gained a month is muscle but 1 – 2 lbs are a safe bet for most people.
I would recommend bulking until you can no longer see your abs or until you have a four pack, depending on your preference and then switch back to fat loss. Then cycling between the two until you are happy.
For this reason, you want to aim for a surplus in the region 10 - 15% and adjust from there as necessary.
Let’s have a quick look how to do this:
We'll use Steve again as we already know his maintenance calories.
What we need to do now is to calculate 10% of 2,160 and then add this to his maintenance calories.
2,160 x 0.10 = 162
2,160 + 162 = 2,342
So the number of calories Steve needs to eat daily to gain the recommended 0.5 – 1 lbs per week is 2,342. For ease let’s round this up to 2,350.
Note: this is just a starting point you would track weight loss for 2-3 weeks and adjust as necessary
Step 3 - Apply the best macronutrient ratios to support muscle building
At this point you should know the number of calories you need to maintain your weight and be comfortable adjusting this number to gain the recommended 0.5 lbs per week.
Macronutrients are the three major food groups that you eat and they are responsible for providing the calories (energy) used to fuel the body.
Whilst the energy balance equation is responsible for weight loss or weight gain, macronutrients influence your overall body composition, this is why they are so important.
Sure eating more calories than you burn will help you gain weight but macronutrients are what will help you build more or at least the same amount of muscle as you gain in fat.
It's that will give you that powerful and muscular look.
The three macronutrients and their roles are:
- Protein – used to repair, grow and preserve your muscle
- Carbohydrates – provides energy to your muscles and brain in the form of glycogen
- Fat – used in the production of vital hormones and the intake of vitamins
As you can see each macronutrient plays an important role in the body. Each macronutrient also has an amount of calories (energy) per gram that will effect how much of each will fit into your daily calorie allowance.
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
To fuel the body efficiently for day to day activity and optimal performance in the gym it is important to set up your macronutrients right.
For the most part your protein needs are widely overstated in the fitness industry, so trust me and don’t be too alarmed when I tell you that you only need to set your protein at 0.8 - 1g per lbs of bodyweight.
If you are aiming to build muscle, then aim for 0.8g mark otherwise for fat loss you’re wise to use 1g per lbs. Remember this is per pound of bodyweight and not per kilogram.
For fat it is wise to keep it at 30% of total calorie intake to allow for the uptake of fat soluble vitamins and production of vital hormones.
The remainder of your calories will all go to carbohydrate which is your primary source of energy.
Let’s go back to Steve and work out his macronutrient breakdown, remember we are aiming for total calorie intake of 2,350 a day.
We will set our protein at 0.8 g so you can see how this works.
0.8 g per lbs of bodyweight is pretty straightforward, our person weights 150 lbs.
So for 0.8 g all we need to do is multiply 150 x 0.8 which gives us 120 g daily.
Now to work out how many calories this is we need to multiply the daily amount by 4.
120 g x 4 = 480 calories
Our fat intake needs to be set at 30% of our total calories allowance so what we need to do is work out 30% of 2,350.
We can a simple sum which is 2,350 multiplied by 0.3. This gives us 705.
705 is the daily calories we want from fat but now we need to figured out what this is in grams.
To do this we divide 705 by 9, which gives us 78 g of fat daily.
So we said before that the rest of our calories once we have met our protein and fat needs will be made up from carbs.
This is particularly important for your energy levels when training to build muscle as your training volume will be higher than when dieting to lose fat.
The first thing we need to do is take away any calories we have used for fat and protein from our daily total.
Fat calories = 705
Protein calories = 480
Together this is 1,180 calories.
Now we need to deduct this from the total of 2,500.
2,350 – 1,180 = 1,320
All we need to do now is divide the remaining amount by 4 to get our daily carbohydrate in grams.
1,030 divided by 4 = 258 grams daily.
Steve looking to gain the recommend 0.5 – 1 lbs a week would set up his calories and macronutrients as follows:
- Total daily calories allowance – 2,350 kcal
- Total daily protein grams – 120 g
- Total daily fat grams – 78 g
- Total daily carbohydrate grams – 258g
There you have it.
That is how you calculate muscle building calories for a 70kg guy, trust me it looks a little more complicated than it is but if youollow the formulas above and you’ll have no problem.
Now it is important to say that this is a starting point.
If you were to find that after eating these calories for at least 2-3 weeks you were either:
- Gaining weight too fast
- Not gaining enough weight
Then you would make adjustments until you were gaining weight at the correct speed.
The best way to do this is to either add or remove 100 calories from carbohydrates (25g) and wait a week or two and see what effect this has.
It shouldn’t take long until you get it right and you start seeing progress.
Step 4 - Train hard and train smart
When it comes to building muscle calories are just as important as a well-structured and progressive training programme. Click to Tweet this
With only one and not the other you will end up looking puffy and overweight.
To encourage the body to build muscle you want to be perform strength based resistance workouts, focusing on compound movement for the main muscle groups coupled with supplementary isolation exercises to really round out your physique.
I recommend working out 3 days a week on non-consecutive days, using an A, B split that is focused on the major muscle groups (think chest, shoulders, back and legs) with a few accessory exercises (think biceps, triceps, abs and calves) to bring your physique up.
Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Workout B
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Workout A
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
My cardio recommendations are to do a couple of sports sessions or whatever you enjoy a handful of times a week but nothing too over the top, if you do find yourself doing a lot of cardio or other activity then bump up your calories to account for the extra work.
Step 5 - Track your results
Tracking your progress is a must. In order to know whether you are gaining weight too fast or not at all you must track a few key stats.
Here are a couple of great indicators for tracking your progress.
- Weight – weight daily and take a weekly average*
- Photos – take weekly photos to view your progress over larger periods of time
- Diary – keep a log of your workouts, if you are building strength then all is good
- Waist – take weekly measurements and track the change in your stomach
- Clothes – your clothes should feel tighter particularly on the upper body as your chest, shoulders and back grow. You t-shirt sleeves will begin to feel tighter too and trousers may fit tighter around the waist.
*Please note that weight gain is generally not linear so you want to look for that weekly high, coupled with the weekly average to know you are on track.
Step 6 - Rest well to recover well
To build muscle you cannot overlook the importance of proper, quality rest and recovery time. This is why I recommend training on non-consecutive days, this allows your central nervous system time to recover and your muscles to repair and rebuild.
If you follow these guidelines you can expect to make consistent strength gains in the gym and feel fresh and focused for each session.
Step 7 - Trust the process
As with any journey, there will be times you are unsure.
You may even consider turning back and abandoning your plans altogether.
It can also be disheartening when you are used to be pretty lean to gain a bit of fat with your bulk but as long as you stay smart and use a small surplus it should be more than manageable. It is just part and parcel of building muscle.
I urge you to stick with it, trust in the process and you’ll reap the rewards.
That’s all she wrote.
You have enough information to get yourself started on the right track and to begin making some solid progress.
Remember it is a marathon and not a sprint; take your time, rest well, eat properly and enjoy the progress you make.
In a couple of months, the difference will be night and day.
What do you find difficult when it comes to building muscle? Let me know in the comments below.
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