Even if you don’t intend to be a bodybuilder, it’s important that you engage in muscle-strengthening activities throughout your life.
“We lose muscle as we age,” says Allison Jackson, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer based in New Jersey. “Building muscle prevents injuries and keeps us from becoming frail and immobile as we age. It’s also important for everyday functional movements like gardening or heaving luggage into the trunk.”
Building and maintaining muscle mass can also improve your mental health, boost your confidence, and help you perform many daily activities with less stress, whether it’s climbing stairs or carrying groceries. To build muscle effectively, you must stick to a specific strength-training program, give your body adequate time to rest and recover, and switch your diet to a healthy, high-protein diet. That’s how it’s done.
1. Put together your training plan
At first glance, it looks like there are millions of different training plans to choose from. That’s why it’s important to think about what you want to achieve with muscle building in the first place. “Are you building muscle to compete, avoid injury, or to reach your personal goal? When you outline your ‘why’, you get closer to your goal,” says Jackson.
It is also advisable to choose a training plan that you are sure you have enough time for. “Consistency is everything in fitness,” says physician and NASM-certified personal trainer Alex Robles. “Find a program that you can realistically commit to.”
Start your training low-intensity, says Linda S. Pescatello, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. In the case of chronic illnesses in particular, it can be helpful to consult a doctor or personal trainer in order to create an individual training plan. Otherwise, there are also many simple exercises that you can easily do at home to build muscle safely and effectively.
Building your arm, chest, and back muscles is important because you need them for everyday movements like pulling, pushing, lifting, and reaching. “People with office jobs will have less trouble hunching over a desk all day when the back muscles are engaged,” says Jackson.
The following exercises can help you build your upper body muscles:
- lift weights
- use resistance bands
Lower body workout
“Be sure not to skip leg day. It’s just as important to build your lower body muscles, especially if you’re sitting most of the day,” says Jackson.
Strengthening the leg muscles improves your balance and mobility. It preserves your ability to crouch or safely pick things up off the ground,” says Robles.
Here are some exercises that can help you strengthen your lower body muscles:
- To run
- To go biking
Having strong abs “is the foundation of everything,” says Robles. “It keeps you upright while walking, carrying groceries, and lifting your toddlers. It also helps you get up from a sitting or lying position.”
When working on your abs, Jackson advises you to focus on quality over quantity. These are some of the exercises that can help you build your abs:
- sit ups or crunches
- bike crunches
Home workout to build muscle
If you want a home workout that will build all the muscles in your body, Jackson recommends the following workout routine: Squats (10 pieces)
1. Squats (10 pieces)
2. Push-ups (10 pieces)
3. Wall sit (30 to 45 seconds)
4. Planks (30 to 45 seconds)
5. Lunge (10 reps)
6. Dips from a couch or chair (10 reps)
7. Crunches (reps)
2. Give yourself time to rest and recover
It’s important to take rest days to give your muscles time to regenerate and recover. Sport causes small tears in muscle tissue. When you rest, these cracks are repaired by cells. These are called fibroblasts and they help your muscles grow and get stronger.
“Rest days are actually the days when you build muscle,” says Jackson. She recommends resting at least 24 to 48 hours per body area. So if you train your arms today, continue with your legs tomorrow. Muscle soreness is a common side effect of exercise. However, it is not a must and there are a few ways to relieve the pain. “You don’t have to feel a burn to make progress,” says Pescatello.
Try the following to avoid sore muscles:
- Properly warming up and stretching before a workout can help loosen your muscles, Jackson says.
- Using a foam roller can also help you recover quickly after a workout as it keeps your muscles hydrated.
- Consistency is the most important factor, says Robles. If you exercise regularly over a period of time, the sore muscles will subside after a while.
3. Eat right
“Eating a healthy diet is a big part of building muscle. Protein is particularly important because it’s made up of amino acids, which are the ‘building blocks’ of the proteins in your muscles,” says Nancy Rodriguez, professor of nutrition at the University of Connecticut. To increase muscle mass if you lift weights regularly, your daily protein intake should be 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight.
What to eat before a muscle building workout
Robles recommends consuming fast-acting carbs about an hour before your workout, as they give you a boost of energy without weighing you down.
The best foods to eat before a workout are:
- Whole grain products like brown rice or whole wheat bread
- Unsweetened yogurt
What to eat after training
Post-workout, Rodriguez recommends eating protein-rich foods to aid in muscle recovery. You should eat within an hour of your workout, Robles says.
The best foods to eat after a workout are:
- protein shakes
4. Try supplements
There are many different supplements, like creatine or whey protein powder, that can help you build muscle alongside a strong exercise and nutrition plan. “Anyone who struggles to get an adequate amount of protein on a daily basis would benefit from protein powder,” says Robles.
Additionally, research has shown that creatine, a substance found naturally in muscle cells, can be safely taken before or after a workout to improve performance and muscle health.
Jackson suggests doing some research to find reputable muscle building supplements, or speaking with a fitness expert to try supplements that might be good for you. “I recommend taking samples to see how your body reacts,” she says.
5. Be consistent and stick to a plan
A plan is essential for effective muscle building. “You have to give your body a proper stimulus that progresses over time,” says Robles. “If you don’t have a plan, it will lead to mediocre results.”
If you stick to your plan, you can see results in as little as six weeks of strength training, Robles says. To stay consistent and hold yourself accountable, Jackson and Robles offer the following tips:
- Start small. “A 20-minute workout is better than nothing,” says Robles. “Start slow and make the training easy for yourself. The more you do it, the weirder it’s going to feel when you’re not exercising.”
- Keep track of what you’re eating to make sure it’s the right foods in the right amounts for your goals, says Jackson.
- Always keep in mind why you’re building your muscles and attribute it to an emotional rather than a logical reason, says Robles. “The more concrete you formulate your argument, the more likely you will stick with it.”
That’s what the research says
Research has shown that building and maintaining muscle can have many health benefits:
- It can reduce the risk of chronic diseases. A large 2019 study of adults aged 45 and older found a link between low muscle mass and an increased risk of heart disease, particularly in men. Based on participants’ medical information over a 10-year period, the researchers found that the men with the highest volume of muscle tissue had an 81% reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
- It combats the muscle loss that accompanies aging. A small 2013 study of people between the ages of 88 and 96 found that those who did strength training twice a week for 12 weeks had improved balance and a lower incidence of falls. “For older people, it’s safe and important to include strength training,” says Jackson. “Even simple bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, and dips can help build strength and muscle.”
- It prevents insulin resistance. Building muscle can help prevent insulin resistance, a condition that often leads to type 2 diabetes. A large 2011 study found that those with higher muscle mass relative to their height had better insulin sensitivity. “Muscle tissue can also help regulate blood sugar levels, which is beneficial for people with diabetes,” says Robles.
- It can help you lose weight. Building muscle increases your resting metabolism, which helps you lose weight even when you’re inactive. In a small study in 2014, healthy middle-aged men and women completed 96 strength-training sessions over a nine-month period. Their resting metabolic rate increased by about 5%. “Muscle at rest burns calories, but fat at rest doesn’t,” says Jackson. “This means that by adding muscle to your body, you’re improving your metabolism.” This will help you burn more calories overall and prevent weight gain.
- It can prolong your life. According to a large 2018 study, people with low muscle strength are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with more muscle mass. The study found that lower normalized grip strength — a common measure of muscle weakness — was associated with a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and physical disabilities in US and Chinese adults.
“Anyone can benefit from having more lean muscle tissue,” says Robles. “It can improve your metabolic health, your aesthetics, your mental health, and your confidence.”
If you want to build muscle, patience and consistency are key, says Jackson. “If you really want to change your body, take control of your diet and start strength training,” she says. “You will be surprised at the results.”