Building Muscle: What It Really Takes

author:  Kelly Gill, MS, RD, CSSD, LD


Beyond appearance, building muscle is good for improving performance in athletes, and it is also good for improving function as we age. Adolescents struggle to get bigger faster, while the aging population fights sarcopenia (the natural deterioration of muscle mass related to aging). There are three essential components to gaining muscle.  In this article, I will list and describe these three requisites for bigger muscles, as well as explain the distinction between gaining muscle and losing fat.


If you are trying to lose weight, the goal is to lose fat and not muscle, which is not completely natural and takes some intention on your part.  So, I wrote a blog about that last month.  While there are a few exceptions, building muscle does not typically happen while losing fat.  The most common exception is someone who is young and new to working out.  For some reason, the novelty of working out allows a young person to build muscle even while they are in a caloric deficit.  Energy from their fat stores can be released and stored in muscle tissue. This phenomenon is due to a shift in the body’s priorities where muscle stores become more important than fat stores, since the muscles are now in demand.  There may be other exceptions beyond this one, but it’s on a case by case basis, and these cases are rare.  As a general rule, any well trained adult will not be able to gain muscle if they are not in a calorie surplus.


In fact, bodybuilders (the experts at manipulating body composition) train in two phases:  building and cutting.  In the building phase, they work out a lot and eat a lot.  In the cutting phase, they continue to work out but not quite as hard, and they focus on cutting calories and measuring protein.  In fact, since their success depends on their ability to cut fat, they measure their food and count macros (to ensure adequate protein and minimal calories).  While you probably don’t want to make all the sacrifices a bodybuilder makes, you can still use that model.  They practice the most effective way to transform body composition, so it stands to reason that anyone can follow their model without going to their extremes.


For this blog, I will focus on the first phase of bodybuilding – building muscle.  Please reference my previous blog for tips on losing fat – the cutting phase of bodybuilding.  While bodybuilders build first and cut second, you don’t have to use that same order.  For example, you can lose weight (fat) first, then build second.  Either way, building requires adequate intake.  While losing requires less than adequate intake.


Obviously, not everyone that wants to build muscle wants or needs to lose fat.  In that case, you can focus on the tips from this blog alone.


Here are 3 things that influence muscle growth:

  1. Weight resistance exercise
  2. Adequate nutritional intake
  3. Hormonal status


Weight Resistance Exercise:

The first and most important piece to building muscle is weight resistance exercise.  You will not get bigger muscles without putting those muscles to use.  Essentially training damages muscles.  This causes our body to “remodel” our muscle and make it bigger and stronger in order to prevent future injury.  Adaptation, as referred to by researchers, is this process of adapting to training.  The fastest way to get results is to engage in weight resistance of some kind.  The best practice for building muscle includes lifting heavier weights, to the point of muscle fatigue or close to it, and with shorter periods of rest between sets/reps.   Ideally, this might be 6-12 repetitions per single set, with 12-20 sets per muscle group.  Rest between sets should be for 30-90 seconds.

Consistency is key and time is your friend.  Muscle fibers are broken down and rebuilt every 7-15 days.  Hitting the gym needs to be a regular routine for a long time before you can transform your body.  There is no benefit to a workout that is not repeated consistently.  Adaptation takes time.

Of course, genetics will determine the upper limit for muscle size.  A point I want to make is that lifting weights does not make you any bigger than your genetics allows.  This can be good if you don’t want to get too big, and, it can be bad, if you want to get bigger and your genetics doesn’t allow for it.  Genetics can be frustrating, can’t it?


Adequate Nutritional Intake:

Remodeling your muscles to be bigger and stronger requires adequate nutrition.  If you eat less and lift more, you will not have the nutrients to repair or “remodel” a bigger and better muscle.  On the other hand, if you eat more and do not lift, you will gain fat.  While lifting weights is essential, nutrition is a crucial component to achieving your goals.

Similar to the advice from my blog on how to maximize fat loss while minimizing muscle loss, protein is an important component of building muscle.  However, even more important for building muscle, is overall calorie intake.  Essentially, you should be in a calorie surplus.  For reference, it takes a surplus of 2800 calories to gain one pound of muscle.  As for protein, in our natural rested state, we breakdown more protein than we make.  However, when we exercise, we create a system where our body makes more protein than it breaks down.  That positive turnover can last for up to 48 hours.  However, protein intake doesn’t have to be as high as when you are in a calorie restriction.  In a calorie restriction, you should strive for 1.6-2.4 g/kg body weight.  In a calorie surplus, about 12-15% of your total calories from protein is sufficient.

This is how those numbers might look:  For a 150 lb person, 1.6-2.4 g/kg of protein is equivalent to 109-164 g of protein per day.  If that person was only consuming 2000 calories per day, that would be 22-33% of his total calories.  For a person in a calorie surplus, perhaps eating 2500 calories per day, he would need 75-94 g protein per day to stay around 12-15%.  So, you can see, when gaining muscle, calories are more important than protein – as long as you are working out hard!!


Hormonal Status:

When you work out, you increase some stress hormones in your body; like Cortisol and IGF1.  This can attenuate muscle growth.  As a result recovery is important.  Recovery includes adequate sleep and eating anti-inflammatory foods.

On the other end of the spectrum is growth hormone and testosterone.  These hormones increase naturally with exercise, and they contribute to muscle growth.



To build muscle you have to work out and consume enough calories.  Protein has to be adequate but not excessive.  Building muscle while in a calorie deficit is rare and should not be expected.  Stress hormones can attenuate muscle growth while growth hormone and testosterone will help muscle growth.  Recovery is important to minimize the circulation of stress hormones.  Exercise is essential to increase the circulation of growth hormone and testosterone.  Remember, the process of transformation takes time, and you will only get as big as your genetics allows.



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