man doing a leg stretch while holding a dumbbell

Building muscle is important to get better at sport, stay fit and even lose weight. Strength training to increase muscle mass can be done with free weights, gym machines, resistance bands or even bodyweight exercises. There’s a lot of variety you can put into your exercise and in this article, we’ll look at some introductory ideas in strength training and go through a few tips and tricks that will help you get a good workout and recovery.

A woman at the gym

The Benefits of Building Muscle

We all know the image of the bodybuilder, but building muscle has lots of benefits on top of just looking better. Building muscle is an important part of increasing your functional strength, which is always a plus and will certainly make you feel more confident; it will also make your daily life easier – especially if you have a manual job.

A good routine to build muscle is also likely to help you avoid injury by addressing any muscle imbalances you have, particularly with free-weight routines that rely on stabiliser muscles. This can be particularly beneficial as we age, when keeping active is really important.

One of the most underrated benefits of building muscle is that it can help you lose weight and keep trim. The logic is that muscles burn calories whereas fat doesn’t, so an increase in muscles mean that you’ll burn more calories all the time.

What are the Best Exercises for Muscle Gain?

The ideal way to build muscle is resistance training. Whereas endurance training might involve repeated movements for a long time, like using a treadmill for half an hour, resistance training involves performing short sets with heavy resistance, then resting and repeating. You can do resistance training in different ways, and some do it to maximise muscle size and others do it to emphasise strength or sport performance.

A Man Doing Bench Press

Strength Training

Strength training is one way people choose to build muscle, and can be done with a variety of exercises. Some people opt for functional strength with something like kettlebell training, and others opt for something like powerlifting, which concentrates on three of the most important lifts – the deadlift, squat and bench press.

What is Strength Training?

Strength training concentrates on improving technique and increasing weight with the aim of improving strength. Whereas bodybuilding might concentrate on exercises that swell the size of individual small muscles, strength training is more likely to feature larger movements. Not only do strength trainers want to make their muscles stronger and larger, but they also realise that technique is vital to improving what they do, so a lot of effort also goes into learning how to lift.

Types of Strength Training Exercises

There is a lot of debate from some very experienced trainers about the best exercises for strength but three common exercises that have major benefit are the deadlift, squat and bench press – the staple exercises of powerlifting. The technique involved in each of these goes way beyond this article, but to give an overview: the bench involves laying on a bench and pushing weight up vertically, building the arms and chest; the deadlift involves holding a weight on your shoulders and squatting to help build leg strength; and the deadlift involves lifting weight from the floor to waist height to build leg, back and core strength.

Best Practices for Strength Training

When you first start strength training, you make great gains because it’s a new experience that forces your body to adapt. When your body becomes used to the exercises, the gains level off, and to prevent that many people rely on a technique known as progressive overload. Progressive overload basically means that as you get stronger and more capable, you make sure to make what you do harder so you can force your body to adapt. Common ways to do this include: increasing the weight you use, increasing the reps (how many times you lift before resting and starting again) or increasing the volume (a figure you can work out by multiplying the weight you lift by the overall number of times you lift it).

Proper form is very important, but it’s also a topic some disagree on and goes far beyond the scope of this article. Just realise that form takes time and experience to perfect, so don’t be afraid to work on it, and that generally it’s a good idea to make sure your back is straight with every exercise, with the exception of the bench press for which many prefer to arch their back.

man doing a leg stretch while holding a dumbbell

Resistance Training

Strength training is a subsection of resistance training; resistance training is basically contracting your muscles against external resistance, such as a machine or weights. While strength training has the goal of strength, resistance training may have goals such as strength, muscle size or sport-specific gains. While strength training generally uses free-weights and often focuses on three staple lifts, resistance training involves machines, bodyweight exercises and free-weights and can involve a wide variety of exercises, perhaps concentrating on large movements or even tiny muscle groups. Aside from the benefits of increased strength, other benefits include improved athletic performance, bigger muscles and weight loss

Types of Resistance Training Exercises

There are many different types of resistance training which is great because there’s so much to try and so many different ways to keep things fresh. As well as the best practice advice above for strength training, here are a few ideas that don’t get mentioned enough: always try new things, because every time you try something new it’s giving your body the challenge it needs to improve, and don’t turn resistance training into a chore, because regular exercise is beneficial and the best way to keep returning is to look forward to every session.

Examples of Resistance Training Workouts

Any resistance training workout is a balance between effort and rest, so we’ve put together this simple weekly plan to give you an idea of how to space and separate your workouts:

Monday: Push movements – exercises that focus on the chest and triceps
Tuesday: Rest day
Wednesday: Pull movements – exercises that focus on the back and biceps
Thursday: Off
Friday: Legs – we know it’s tempting but don’t skip leg day!
Saturday: Exercises for the shoulders, arms and abs
Sunday: Off

At a glance, you can see how each day has a different workout focus and how body parts get plenty of rest. Those are two ideas that can help you make a great start with your own workout plan.

healthy plate of egg halloumi and vegetables

Nutrition for Muscle Growth

Nutrition is an important part of your physical development so let’s get an overview of how you should steer your diet. Three big things you need to pay attention to are protein, carbs and fat. You should aim to get a gram of protein for every pound of body weight, and you can find it in chicken, beef, eggs, fish and dairy – this will help you build your muscles. You should aim to get 2-3 grams of carbohydrates for each pound of bodyweight, which you can find in fruit and veg, potatoes, grains and beans – this will help fuel your workout. Also, don’t cut out the fat because it’s useful in maintaining your hormone levels and keeping your body functioning. Up to a third of your calorie intake should come from fat.

Other Factors for Muscle Gain

Muscle gain is a balanced process and, for best results, it’s a good idea to pay attention to things outside your workout as well as your workout itself. A big one is sleep, because sleep is a restorative process where your body builds muscle and regulates the hormones that will help you workout. You also need good stress management because, during periods of stress, your body releases hormones that can prevent muscle-building. One last thing to consider is rest, because just as you need a good workout to build muscle, you need rest to give your muscles time to recover.

Recovery Best Practices for Muscle Gain

There are a lot of competing ideas on things you can actively do to improve your recovery, although the science is conflicting. For example, many tout stretching as a good recovery practice, and while stretching is a good thing to do for flexibility, recent studies have suggested limited benefit for recovery. However, foam rolling and massage have been shown to restore your body and reduce soreness by improving the blood flow to the muscle and reducing tension.

As part of your training you should carefully watch your progress and rest; if you experience difficulty in training, delays in recovery, difficulty relaxing or sleeping, you may be overtraining and need to re-evaluate your plan.

In short, muscle building should be an integral part of any fitness plan although how you implement that is down to personal choice. We’ve laid out a simple blueprint in this article that will give you a direction to head in as you personalise your workout, finding out what you enjoy and what moves you towards your goals. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading, now let’s get out there and chase those gains!