0016 - How to build muscles (and reduce soreness)?
Updated: Jan 25
Last week, I wrote about how exercise can make you fitter, smarter and healthier and how muscle mass is one of the best predictors of life expectancy. In this blog, I share more information and tips on how to build these healthy and coveted muscles.
We need 4 key ingredients to build muscle mass.
1. A regular strength training regimen (a.k.a. resistance or weight training) to break down muscle fibres and allow our body to repair and grow bigger muscles. The training has to be challenging enough for our muscles to get stronger. More on this later.
2. Enough proteins to trigger muscle protein synthesis. Studies have shown that between 20 and 40 grams of proteins per meal gives a maximal increase in muscle protein synthesis after resistance training. People who exercise a lot or older people are advised to get a total of 1.5 to 2 grams of proteins per kg of ideal body weight (0.7 to 0.9 grams per pound) per day.
We grow muscle tissues when our body is an anabolic state, which requires a positive nitrogen balance. Carbohydrates and fats are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, whereas proteins also contain nitrogen. This is why we need proteins for muscle synthesis. Animal-source proteins are more effective at building muscle mass than plant-source proteins, as they contain all the essential amino acids that cannot be made by our body and must come from our food. Vegan proteins are often not complete and can be less digestible when they are bound by fibres. Vegetarians or vegans are advised to eat a variety of different protein sources to get all the essential amino acids (and especially leucine for muscle protein synthesis) in sufficient quantity.
3. Healthy levels of human growth hormone (“HGH”), testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1. The good news is that exercise increases these hormones: studies have found a 2 to 8-fold increase of HGH depending on workout intensity. On the other hand, too much endurance or cardio training reduces HGH. Also, as the majority of HGH is released during deep sleep, make sure to get enough of it (see my 10 tips to improve your sleep).
4. A small calorie surplus. Eating below maintenance impairs muscle protein synthesis. There are many useful calorie calculators on line that can give you an estimate (a rough estimate only as everybody is different) of how much you need to eat depending on your gender and activity level. Try several calculators to check whether they give similar results. These 3 calculators worked for me (#1, #2, #3) but they are designed for a low-carb / high-fat nutrition.
What are the best muscle building exercises?
Strength training is better than cardio to build muscles. As I mentioned in my previous blog, cardio can be counterproductive for muscle building and can even lead to muscle breakdown. So, avoid spending too much time jogging, playing soccer or in spinning classes if your main objective is to bulk up.
Strength training can be done at the gym, at home or outside, with weights or body weight. If lifting weights does not sound too appealing to you, strength can also be developed with many other physical activities (rowing, rock climbing, swimming, cycling, yoga, Pilates, gardening involving digging or lifting, building...).
If you are new to strength training, the best is to start with a personal trainer to learn the proper form of the most common exercises and reduce the risk of injury. Alternatively, there are many online sites with videos demonstrating each exercise. This site has videos for men and women and pretty much all the exercises you can think of, with a user's rating.
If you don't want to invest in a gym membership, body weight exercises are perfectly fine. The most common ones include push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, lunges, squats, dips, planks and stair climbing.
There are no magic repetition ranges to grow muscle quicker but you need to take your sets close to failure to break the muscle fibres. Compound, multi-joint exercises (squats, dead-lifts, lunges, bench presses...) are more efficient to build total body strength as they engage multiple muscle groups to perform the movement.
A study found that muscle protein synthesis increases by 50% 4 hours after a heavy training, by more than 100% 24 hours after and returns to baseline after 36 hours. This suggests that training each muscle group 2 to 3 times a week or doing full-body training every day could result in larger muscle mass gains. This also means that the timing of protein intake does not matter: you don't need to gulp down a protein shake right after your workout and can wait until your next nutritious meal made of real wholesome food.
To enhance muscle hypertrophy, you can also try the mind-muscle connection. When you focus your attention on the muscle contracting, you can recruit more muscle fibres and increase the contraction by somewhere between 10% and 30%, depending on the study. Intuitively, that makes sense. The more focused we are on a task, the better results we typically obtain. So just feel your muscles contracting when you exercise, rather than thinking about whatever is next on your to-do-list.
Our body adapts quickly to new stimuli: we need to vary the type of exercise, the weights, the number of repetitions, the tempo and the rest periods to keep on challenging our muscles. Fitness experts typically recommend changing exercise routine every 4 to 12 weeks. Change from using barbells to using dumbbells, kettlebells or bodyweight for instance. Change your grip, your position, the bench incline. Swap the free weights for a machine. That gives you hundreds of options.
Last, avoid overtraining and make sure to allow for adequate recovery time to repair and regrow the muscle fibres. You can schedule a "deload" week before swapping routine, by using lower weights to help your body recover. Alternatively, you can take a couple of days off during the week, or longer breaks when you travel or are on vacation. It is also a good idea to skip workouts when your energy is low, when you feel fatigued or sick.
What about warm-ups, stretches and muscle soreness?
Proper warm-up elevates our temperature, increases blood flow and nutrient delivery to the muscles, lubricates our joints and prepares our central nervous system to respond optimally to exercise. Always spend a few minutes warming up with light weights, with movements that mimic or exaggerate the range of motion of the exercises. Drinking coffee before your work-out can improve your performance and also fasten recovery (assuming you exercise in the morning - see my blog on coffee here).
Avoid static stretching to warm-up as it weakens the muscles. Muscles require tension to perform the exercise and loosening them before exercise is counterproductive. On the other hand, post-workout stretches assist in speeding up recovery. You can also apply cold water, an ice pack or menthol gel on your muscles for a few minutes to increase blood flow and fasten recovery.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (a.k.a. "DOMS") refers to the stiffness or soreness that can be felt 1 or 2 days after exercise. It is due to micro-trauma to the muscle fibres resulting from the eccentric phase (the stretching phase) of the exercise. DOMS is not an indication of a workout effectiveness [Sigh...]. It happens when the body is not used to perform a given movement: when we start a new exercise routine or when we resume exercising after a break.
DOMS is different from the burn or soreness that can be felt during or right after an exercise, due to the build-up of lactate (sometime called lactic acid... although this is not chemically correct) in muscle tissues. DOMS is the symptom of a natural inflammatory response to repair the micro-damage to the muscles and connective tissues. This is why it is better to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs and natural antioxidants (curcumin, berries, vitamin C...) before or after exercise, to allow the body to heal naturally and to optimise muscle protein synthesis.
To reduce the soreness, you can massage the area, use a foam roller, practice gentle movements or active recovery to increase blood flow to the area. You can also train when you are still sore from your previous workout, to help decrease soreness and allow the body to adapt at a faster rate. Rest, hydration (with electrolytes and magnesium), nutritious meals and adequate quality sleep help as well. And please, please, do not skip that warm-up!
Remember that building muscle mass takes time and effort (and even more so for us, girls!). Be patient, consistent, use the right weights and the right form, allow for recovery, eat nutritious wholesome foods and prioritise quality sleep. It is never too late to build these healthy muscles, but it becomes much harder as we get older. So the earlier you start strength training, the better!
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