If you're looking for quick muscle building, go no further than your local gym, where doctors say that major strength gains can be had in just a few weeks.
Last year, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association updated their recommendations for physical activity. In addition to regular cardio workouts, Americans are now being encouraged to perform resistance training at least twice a week, working every major muscle group.
Spero Karas, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedics in the division of sports medicine at Emory University, says that testosterone, the male hormone responsible for muscle growth, maxes out between the ages of 16 and 18. It reaches a plateau during the 20s and then begins to decline. As a result, muscle building after the adolescent years can be challenging, he says.
Fortunately, a little strength training goes a long way -- particularly in the early days.
"When someone starts a fitness program, especially after not doing anything for awhile, the initial strength gains tend to be dramatic and quick," Karas says. "In the first 12 weeks, it's not uncommon for a guy to see a 10, 20 or 30 percent jump in strength."
During the first weeks of a new training regimen, strength gains come from the recruitment of new muscle fibers, which make the muscles stronger and more visible.
Even though muscle recruitment does not result in more muscle mass, says Karas, it will definitely make your muscles look bigger.
One reason is that muscles take in water and swell during training. Another is that muscles burn fat, which tends to make the muscle look more prominent.
After the first three months of strength training, muscle gain is much slower. At that point, you're aiming for an actual increase in muscle mass, which takes time to develop.
"After you've maximized the recruitment, you've reached the plateau, which is when the increase in strength and muscle mass becomes an arduous task," Karas says.
Whether you're committed to the long haul or just want some muscle-building tips, here are seven ways to maximize your gains.
1. Commit to some form of strength training.
Unfortunately, there are no easy shortcuts to good health, says Kent Adams, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, director of the exercise physiology lab at California State University Monterey Bay.
"You don't have to train like a maniac," he says. "Just start a reasonable, individualized resistance training plan."
For tips and workout plans, visit the web sites of organizations like the ACSM or the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you don't have access to free weights, head for the weight machines or a cable system. Other alternatives include resistance bands, plyometrics, and calisthenics.
At a minimum, perform lunges, squats, and other exercises that work your quads and hamstrings, along with extra cardio activity that will prompt your legs to begin building muscle.
No matter which strength training method you choose, however, be sure that resistance levels (the amount of weight you use) and the number of repetitions you do are high enough to fatigue the muscle. Failure to do so, Adams says, will hinder growth. The ACSM recommends three sets of 8 to 12 reps for each exercise.
To speed up the process, make the most of your workout, and keep your heart rate and metabolism elevated, try "super-setting," says Lisa De Los Santos, a Cooper's-Institute-certified personal trainer at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California.
She suggests one set each of two or three opposing muscle exercises. Rest, then do a second set of each exercise before moving on to the next group.
2. Alternate muscle groups.
Weight training creates tiny micro tears in muscles, which then repair and rebuild during periods of rest. Serious injury can result if muscles are not allowed adequate time to repair.
The ACSM recommends a three-day split as follows:
- Day one: Chest, triceps, and shoulders
- Day two: Lower body (quads, hamstrings, gluteals, hip abductors and adductors, and calves)
- Day three: Back, biceps, and abs
Feeling sore? Take an extra day or two -- or work a new muscle group. Don't forget delayed-onset muscle soreness, which can hit as late as 48 hours after a workout.
3. Drink plenty of water -- before and after workouts.
Adequate hydration is essential to muscle building, yet few people get enough water, even without daily exercise. So in addition to the daily 8 to 10 glasses of water recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Karas suggests an additional 12 to 16 ounces before working out. He then recommends another 8 to 10 ounces for every 15 minutes of vigorous exercise.
Prefer sports drinks? Indulge only if you're exercising for more than an hour, when electrolyte depletion becomes more of a risk.
4. Eat a balanced diet.
Muscle building requires a careful balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein as well as plenty of vitamins and minerals, all of which are best absorbed through food.
Avoid carbohydrate-heavy diets, which can cause insulin levels to spike and inhibit growth hormones that prompt muscle growth, says Karas. Instead, opt for five or six small, balanced meals every day. And if muscle building is your goal, don't use this time to diet.
"The body won't easily put on muscle if it is at a caloric deficit," explains De Los Santos.
5. Get lots of protein.
"If you want to build muscle mass, the key is protein, protein, protein," says Karas. "Muscles are comprised of protein and you need the essential amino acids that are the building block of protein."
No time to cook? De Los Santos suggests high-protein snacks like cottage cheese, cheese sticks, protein bars, and protein shakes. Health and nutrition stores carry a variety of powders which can be mixed with water or low-fat milk for an energizing protein power punch between meals.
Other recommendations include turkey, cheese, and cracker snack packs as well as frozen or prepackaged diet foods that combine protein-rich choices with low-fat, low-complex carbohydrates.
6. Get enough sleep.
In addition to being linked to high blood pressure, depression, and other health problems, sleep deprivation can inhibit the growth hormone important for muscle building, says Karas. Recent studies have linked it to obesity as well.
How do you know you're getting enough to build muscle? People who are well rested feel alert and do not have the urge to nap, reports the CDC. The average adult needs between seven and eight hours of sleep, although some may need more.
7. Hire a trainer.
If you need information or motivation, consider hiring a personal trainer. Costs vary according to location and experience, but typically cost between $30 and $85 an hour.
A trainer doesn't need to be a long-term investment, however. According to De Los Santos, working with one for just three months is enough time to get comfortable in the gym, establish a routine, learn a variety of exercises, and see good results.
"A good trainer will educate while training and will not create long-term dependence," De Los Santos says. "Ideally, you'll learn the skills to either maintain your fitness level or work toward new goals."
Be sure your trainer is certified through a reputable fitness organization like the ACSM, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, or the American Council on Exercise and has an updated certification in CPR and/or first aid as well. You'll also want to hire someone you like, since you'll be spending at least an hour a week together.