Build Muscle

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How to build muscle and bulk up without getting fat

At the same time as our obesity epidemic, there are millions of guys worldwide at the other end of the spectrum who struggle to build muscle on their skinny frame.

If you're a 'hard-gainer' who struggles to put on muscle, read on, and read it several times over, because there's a lot of vital information packed into this page.

Are you serious about building muscle? You need to be doing three things right: your nutrition, your exercise regime, and your sleep & rest.

Neglect any single one of these three components, and you'll sabotage your progress. I had a new personal training client in chelsea SW3 who had been doing all three things wrong, and wondered why he wasn't making progress. When he started following my advice, he started seeing muscle development he had never achieved before. So if you're serious about building muscle, read on.

I've been a personal trainer in London for 14 years now, and these are three biggest mistakes I've seen people make when they try to gain muscle:

1. Lack of intensity in workouts: you need to push yourself to your 'rep max' (more about this below), with progressive overload over time. But you also need to inject plenty of variety into your workouts. Don't do the same few exercises month in month out, as your body will stop adapting. You also need to use good technique in every single exercise you perform: most people lift weights too fast and without propertly isolating the muscle they're working on. I had a personal trainer in north London in a gym in Tufnell Park who showed me what intensity meant during a legs workout: when you experience that unmistakable burning sensation of lactic acid build-up, you know you're on the right lines.

2. Inadequate diet: you need optimum nutrition to grow muscle. Good quality protein is the building block of muscle growth, but you also need carbs to fuel your workouts, and 'good' fats to stimulate growth hormones and a range of other key functions in the body. You also need plenty of vegetables, particularly green veg like spring greens and broccoli (and some fruit) for the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). If you're depleted in any micronutrients, you'll be thwarting your progress.

3. Lack of sleep and rest: your muscles grow and repair during sleep and rest. Poor sleep will sabotage your muscle growth. And too much stress in your life will cause a build-up of stress hormones which will impede the creation of new muscle. If you're in your teens or early twenties, you need about an hour's more sleep a night than adults over 22, so make sure you're in bed by 11pm at the very latest, and get 9 hours sleep. If you have to get up at 7am, then go to bed at 10pm, simple as that. At university, I made the mistake of getting just 6 hours sleep a night, and wondered why my muscle growth was so slow. It's ironic that you stay up latest in your teens and twenties, the very years (apart from as a baby) that you need most sleep.

If you're searching for the right personal trainer in London for muscle growth ? Simply click on the link for a list of muscle growth specialists in London. For advice on home gym equipment, and London fitness equipment retailers, click the link and check out the huge range of dumbbells and barbells for muscle-building workouts in the privacy of your own home.

Given that nutrition is so vital for muscle gains, why not sign up for my 2 weeks online nutrition coaching for a one-off payment just £50.00, to help you pack on the muscle and trim the fat. You'll get a personal nutrition report and 2 weeks food diary analysis. Click here: online nutrition coaching - and I'll send you the questionnaire and food diary form. I challenge you to find any other nutrition coach in London who offers such great value!

Exercise with free weights, not just resistance machines

Free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells) are more effective than resistance machines for building muscle, as they recruit more 'motor units' (muscle fibres and nerves). Free weights will get you bigger and stronger much faster, as your motor unit development will be accellerated, and your muscles will grow. Machines isolate parts of your body, leaving the rest of your body idle, usually in a seated position. The best exercises are compound exercises with free weights, which work the whole body, such as deadlifts, squats, squat & press, and bentover rows.

Boost your intake of antioxidants and flavonoids

The more intense your workout regime, the more intensive your breathing process and the more intensive you breakdown of fats and proteins. Both these processes cause more free-radicals to be released into your system. An excess build-up of free-radicals (molecules which damage your cells and even your DNA) can lead to greater risk of cancer and heart disease. So it's vital that you consume plenty of antioxidants and flavonoids, micronutrients found in a range of foods which combat free-radicals.

The most powerful antioxidant vitamins are A, C, and E. To boost your vitamin A levels, consume more liver, kidneys, eggs, milk, spinach and carrots. For vitamin C: oranges, limes, raw yellow peppers, are all great sources. And for vitamin E: nuts and seeds are a great source of this antioxidant.

Flavonoids, micronutrients found in fresh fruit and veg, have an even more powerful antioxidant effect. One of the most potent flavonoids, quercetin, is further enhanced in combination with vitamin C. The wider the range of colours you eat, the more flavonoids you'll consume. Carrots, apples, onions, broccoli, strawberries, are all known to be rich in flavonoids. Green tea is also flavonoid-rich, as is red wine (but consume in moderation or you'll offset the benefits).

Which protein shakes will boost your muscle growth without putting on fat round your stomach?

The key is to avoid protein shakes with added sucrose. I've found an incredibly good value protein shake, Impact Whey Protein, from MyProtein, around £12 for 1kg, click the link for more details. One of my personal training clients in London introduced me to it, and it's good quality as well as great value. A rare combination! If you want to bulk up, and gain weight faster, a great supplement is Hurricane XS from MyProtein. There's also a plain version of this one, so if you're not into chocolate flavour or vanilla, this is worth a go.

Another top quality supplement for healthy bulking is Gold Standard Gainer by Optimum Nutrition. Each tub contains 1.624kg of protein and carbs powder. The carbs come from oats, peas, and potatoes. There are some good fats too, from flax seeds. Each portion packs a punch with 55g protein, and 763 calories. The ration of carbs:protein is 2:1.

Don't neglect your core muscles

A good physique requires strong core muscles, and not only for their visual appeal. The stronger your core, the less likely you'll get injured during physical activity, particularly your lower back. If you already have back problems, read this blog post: Can personal training help resolve back problems?

Use varied and intensive workouts for maximum muscle growth

You can use a whole range of variations and combinations to stimulate your muscles into growth, and recruit more muscle fibres.

1. Super-sets (such as a push set followed immediately by a pull set with no rest between sets)

2. Slow reps

3. Partial reps

4. New angles (eg for chest: - flat bench press, incline bench press for clavicular head of pec major, decline bench press for sternal head of pec major)

5. Heavier weights and fewer reps

6. Lighter weights and more reps

7. Squeeze and hold at peak contraction

8. Change the equipment (dumbbells rather than barbell, machine rather than free-weights, eg pec dec machine for chest rather than supine dumbbell fly for chest)

9. Tri-sets (eg for shoulders: front raise, lateral raise, bentover lateral raise)

10. Completely new exercises

The 3 keys to muscle growth

The key to muscle growth is to combine 3 things effectively:

  1. You need to exercise with progressive overload, which means push yourself so that the last rep is extremely hard, but still with good form (ie proper technique). Here are some great exercises for each muscle group: chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, abs, glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves. You also need to train to failure, which means perform a set until you can't do any more reps. This is best done with a gym buddy or personal trainer, who can spot you for the last few reps to ensure you maintain good form. Exercise safely, so don't try to lift a weight that's more than 10% heavier than one you're used to. Increase the weights in small increments. And if you're returning to the gym after illness or a gap in your training, train with lighter weights for the first few sessions, don't try to resume with the weights you used before your illness/break.

  2. Eat every 3 hours, and include protein, complex carbs, and vegetables in your main meals. For low fat recipes click this link. I recommend Maximuscle Progain after your workout to gain size (and Maximuscle Promax for a low-carb version). Just click the Maximuscle banner to place your order.

  3. Get plenty of sleep and rest. Most people underestimate the importance of this for muscle growth. If you want to learn how to sleep better click this link to the Sleep Better page.

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If you feel you've stopped making progress and hit a plateau, here's what to do: Change your routine by adding new exercises in different combinations, get more good quality sleep, and boost your nutrition with more vegetables and fish and lean chicken, and replace lower quality (refined) carbs like white rice and pasta and bread, with higher quality (complex) carbs like bulgar wheat, sweet potatoes, oats, and quinoa.

Muscle-Building Nutrition

Good nutrition is crucial to grow lean muscle. Ask any personal trainer in London worth their salt. Some say it's 50% of the equation, I think it's as much as 70%. Without good nutrition your body building efforts will be thwarted.

Here's a great credit-crunch tip on how to fuel your muscles with high quality protein at low cost: lamb's liver. I get mine from Waitrose because it's top quality and £1 will buy you enough for one meal. Cut out the gristly bits and throw them away.

As for carbohydrates - avoid refined foods like white bread, white rice, cakes, biscuits. Stick to clean and wholesome sources of carbs like sweet potato, wholemeal bread, brown rice, quinoa, bulgar wheat, wholewheat pasta. Good nutrition is more than half the battle when packing on muscle.

And don't forget water. Drink around 2 litres per day between meals/snacks, evenly spread through the day. But if it's a hot day, or you're training extra hard, you might need more than 2 litres.

If you want to look lean and ripped, without too much bulk, so your six pack abs (also known as a washboard stomach) show up, go to the Tone Up page.

In the late 1990's I had a personal trainer in London SW3 who advised me to gain weight and bulk up by eating whatever I wanted. I was quite skinny back then, so following this advice, I did gain muscle, but I gained a lot of unwanted fat as well. Now I know better!

For an idea of a typical workout week, see personal trainer workout

Muscle Growth FAQ's

Do I need the right genetics to build muscle?

It definitely helps to have good genetics, but anyone can build muscle with the right kind of hard work, and good nutrition. If you have a mesomorph body type (athletic appearance, broader bone structure with wider shoulders and broader ribcage, and able to put on muscle easily, but with a tendancy to put on fat more easily if you don't watch your diet) you have a head start over the ectomorph body type (narrow shoulders, narrow ribcage, long thin limbs, typical 'hard gainer' in muscle growth, also hard to put on weight generally).

The third body type is the endomorph, with a tendancy to gain fat easily, and a rounder body shape with shorter limbs. Endomorphs pack on muscle more easily than ectomorphs but not quite as easily as mesomorphs. Not everyone falls neatly into one of these categories, as you might have skinny legs and a broad muscular upper body, or vice versa. It's best to make the most of your body type rather than struggle to transform it from one extreme to the other.

I'm too skinny. How can I bulk up fast?

The healthiest way is to bulk up steadily, so aim to gain 1 - 2 lbs a week, consistently over time. Don't make the mistake of eating everything you can get your hands on. Eat healthy clean unproccessed foods, and don't skip meals. To maintain current weight, women should aim for around 2,000 calories per day, men around 2,500 calories. To calculate your required daily calories for healthy weight-gain, multiply your weight in lbs by 17.  So for instance, if you weigh 180 lbs, your target daily calorie intake is 180 x 17 = 3,060 calories. And don't forget, exercise and nutrition are equally important to gain healthy weight ie- muscle. And plenty of sleep!  Make sure you're exercising regularly too, and eat more on the days you're doing heavy workouts, particularly your post-workout meal.

What proportion of my daily calories should be protein, carbs, and fat?

This is a much-debated subject, and different experts (doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, strength coaches) will have slightly differing views. Aim for around 50% of your calories from complex carbs, 30% from protein, and 20% from fat. Some experts recommend a smaller percentage for carbs, around 40%, and a higher percentage from fats, around 30%, but at the end of the day, you need to monitor your own progress and experiment to find what's right for you. If you find you're lacking in energy and/or gaining too much body fat, slightly raise the complex carbs percentage, and slightly lower the fat pecentage in your diet.

Don't make the mistake of consuming too much protein. Anything above 30% of your daily calories is unecessary and unhealthy. More is not always better. Your body can only absorb a certain amount, and any excess is excreted in the urine, and puts excessive strain on the liver and kidneys. Just make sure you eat moderate amounts of protein with every meal and snack.

Remember, 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, same for carbs, and 1 gram of fat = 9 calories. If you want to bulk up, a good rule of thumb is to aim to eat 1 gram of protein for every lb of bodyweight, and eat 2 grams of carbs for every lb of bodyweight. But make sure it's good quality lean protein, and complex carbs not refined/processed carbs. You need to be working out hard and at least three times a week to ensure these calories are fuelling your workouts and building muscle, rather than converting to excess body fat, which they will if you're inactive or only exercising moderately.

Can I train sore muscles?

A sore muscle needs rest and recovery before you train it again, so train other body parts while the sore muscle recovers. If you train sore muscles, you'll sabotage your muscle-growth, because you're not giving the muscle a chance to recover and grow after the previous workout. One way to reduce soreness is to cool down on the cross-trainer for 5 mins then stretch thoroughly at the end of your workout, for at least 10 mins.

How long should I train for in the gym?

Your gym workout should last around 1 hour. The first 5 minutes should be a warm-up on the exercise bike or rowing machine (start gently at low resistance) to get the mind and body prepared for the main workout. And the last 15 minutes should be a 5 min cool-down (to get the body gradually back to a resting state, so you can flush out the lactic acid that's built up) followed by a 10 minute stretch of the muscles you exercised.

How many reps and sets should I do?

It depends on what you're trying to accomplish. More reps with lighter weight will give you more muscular endurance, whereas fewer reps with heavier weight will give you more strength and muscle size. But always make the first set a 'warm-up set' with lighter weights, to minimise the risk of injury.

How many times a week should I go to the gym?

To build muscle, aim to work out three times a week with mainly free weights (dumbbells and barbells). Don't train for muscle growth two days in a row, always do alternate days, such as Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And on the other days, do 20 minutes cardio, three times a week. Allow 48 hours for a muscle group to recover from a workout before you train that same muscle group again, to allow for repair and growth.

Is it healthy to have less than 10% body fat?

A healthy range of body fat for men is 12 - 18%, so if you're working out regularly, and want a lean muscular physique, aim for 12%. For women, the healthy range is 22 - 28%, so aim for 22% if you want a lean toned physique and a flat stomach. Too little body fat can cause many health problems, such as hormone imbalance, lack of vitamins/minerals, low energy, reduced ability to build muscle, poor hair/skin/nails, and lowered immune system which causes you to catch more colds and flu.

What are fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres?

Fast twitch muscle fibres are for size and strength, otherwise called type 2 muscle fibres. Slow twitch are for endurance, and are also known as type 1 muscle fibres. You should aim to exercise both types of muscle fibres for more complete physical fitness.

How do celebrities and film-stars build muscle for their roles in films? What is a celebrity workout like?

Taylor Lautner, who starred as Jacob Black in The Twilight Sage: New Moon, packed on 30 lbs in lean muscle in one year. Taylor is 5'10" tall, and increased his weight from 140 lbs to 170 lbs, under the guidance of his personal trainer Jordan Yuam of Jordan's Virtual Fit Club. Jordan used techniques like progressive overload (increasing the weight over time), partial reps (over a smaller range of movement with much heavier weights), resistance bands added to dumbbells for greater intensity throughout the whole range of movement, negatives with a spotter (ie just the lowering phase of a lift, with a heavier weight), and varying intensities of training to force the body to adapt to new challenges.

Daniel Craig built his body for the James Bond film Casino Royale under the guidance of celebrity personal trainer Simon Waterson. One workout Daniel Craig was given was a six exercise circuit: barbell clean & press (whole body), hanging knee raise with dumbbells gripped by feet (abs), dumbbell step-ups (legs and glutes), chin-ups (back and biceps), incline pushups (chest and shoulders), and tricep dips.

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