While there are all kinds of “get fit quick” schemes out there that may indicate otherwise, here’s the truth: you can’t build muscle overnight. It’s a gradual process of stress, breakdown, and recovery that you need to consistently repeat until you’ve bulked up. To help you set realistic expectations for yourself as you embark upon a strength training program, we delved into the science behind muscle growth to give you a better sense of what you can expect from your routine.
THE SCIENCE OF WEIGHTLIFTING
The actual science behind building muscle is fairly straightforward. Whenever you lift weights, you create microtears to the fibers of your muscles. In the process, you signal to your body that it needs to repair itself. As it mends the damage, your body uses a combination of hormones and specialized “satellite cells” to fuse with, rebuild, and replace damaged strands of muscle protein. If given the proper nutrients, your muscles should become larger and stronger after healing.
In other words, you build muscle by pushing your muscles to their limit (but not exceeding it) and taking time to let them rest. The “rest” component is crucial: strike a balance between activity and inactivity by alternating lifting days with resting days, and you’ll build muscle more quickly.
KNOW YOUR GOALS
A young man of average height and build, with normal genetic potential, can expect to add approximately two pounds of muscle a month during the initial stages of his training. After one year of steady training, this rate will drop to one pound a month, and a half-pound a month after two years.
In contrast, a young woman of average height and build, with normal genetic potential, can expect to add around a pound of muscle a month when she begins training, half a pound after a year, and a quarter of a pound after two. The difference in muscle-building potential between the sexes stems from different balances of hormones like testosterone, which can activate other growth hormones and increase protein synthesis.
Of course, it’s also important to bear in mind that not everybody can build the same amount of muscle. Sex, age, and overall genetic makeup all affect the extent and speed with which a person can build muscle.
Try to remember these limitations whenever you work out, and don’t get discouraged if you don’t wake up one morning with the body of your dreams. Over time, you’ll get a better sense of what you can accomplish in the weight room and what your body will look like after days, months, or years of regular lifting. Understanding your body is the key to making progress and achieving your fitness goals.
THE ROLE OF CARDIO
Contrary to popular belief, cardio exercise is a significant contributor to muscle growth. By working on your cardiovascular endurance, your ability to push through muscle fatigue, and your overall fitness, you equip your muscles with the tools they need to expand.
The key is moderation. Mild to moderate cardio is an invaluable component of building muscle, but long, extreme sessions can undermine your gains in the weight room. As stressed above, your body needs time to rest after working out, and vigorous cardio can tax your body’s resources and prevent your muscles from recovering and rebuilding.
As with any form of exercise, weightlifting carries with it a risk of injury. If you’re looking to build your muscles, be sure to take proper care of them before and after you lift.
Stretching cold muscles before you start working out can actually lead to injuries. Instead, do a light, full body warmup before you start your fitness training. Whether it’ a light jog or a few hundred meters on the rowing machine, this initial activity will get your heart pumping, blood flowing, and muscles moving. Stretch after your workout to prevent tightness in your muscles, focusing especially on problem areas. A bit of added flexibility and resilience will be a boon during your next weightlifting session.