Following pregnancy and the birth of my baby girl, my body lost A LOT of muscle and it has been a consistent effort to rebuild. In order for muscles to grow they need to tear and repair and be given sufficient energy and recovery in order to do so as effectively as possible. Tension from weight training stretches the muscle fibres and causes them to tear. Hormones, growth factors, and white blood cells work together to not only repair the muscle fibres, but also increase the size of those fibres. As supported by recommendations from The Australian Sports Commission, below are my top pointers for building muscle:
- Plan/ develop a good training program with the help of a professional. Be consistent with your program and adjust it as your strength improves. As part of your program, set realistic goals to work towards.
- As recommended by The Australian Sports Commission-in order to gain muscle effectively, a positive energy balance of at least 2000-4000 kilojoules per day is required. Increase your calorie intake and eat regularly (i.e. 5-6 meals a day). Be sure to eat nutritionally dense, unprocessed foods that will provide sufficient energy and recovery.
- Focus on protein and carbohydrates and aim for 1.2-2 grams of protein for every kilogram of body mass (Australian Sports Commission). “The consumption of sufficient protein will optimise amino acid levels in the blood and may facilitate muscle development” (Australia Sports Commission). Eating a whole source of protein with each meal will achieve the recommended amount of protein. You do not need to rely on supplements.
- Eat a carb-rich and moderate protein-rich snack immediately after training. This may help to “optimise gains in muscle mass by increasing production of anabolic hormones, reducing protein breakdown and supplying amino acids for protein synthesis” (Australia Sports Commission). Such eating plans require a lot of organisation- be organised and plan your shopping, cooking and snacks for the day/ week.
- Drink plenty of water- aim for a minimum of 1 Litre for every 25kg of body weight. Your muscles need water for hydration and recovery.
- Aim to work harder, not longer. Increasing the repetitions will only build muscle endurance and will not help increase the strength and size of the muscle. In order to build muscle, focus on increasing the weight, rather than increasing the repetitions. The final repetition should be very hard to complete and you should aim to consistently increase the weight you are lifting. Your muscles must be subjected to enough weight for actual muscle fibre tearing to occur. For most people, that means lifting about 65-85% of your “one rep max” or “1RM”.
- Vary your routine every 4-6 weeks so your body does not become use to the program. This helps avoid a plateau and allows your body to keep improving.
- Work your whole body and incorporate compound exercises as much as possible (these exercises work more than one muscle in the body and therefore burn more calories and give you a full body workout by completing only a small number of exercises). The more muscles you use while training, the more hormones your body will produce. Some example compound exercises include lunges, squats, dead-lifts, bench-press, and chin ups.
- Use free weights to build muscle. Free weights are harder as you have to balance the weight yourself. The machine does not do it for you. Start light and add a little bit each workout.
- Train your muscles frequently- aim for three times a week. The more you train the muscle the more it will grow.
- Use barbells, rather than dumbbells to build muscle. Although dumbbells require you to use more stabilising muscles, dumbbells don’t work as well for progressive overloading. It is easier to add small increments of weight to barbells.
- Limit your cardio. Cardio can limit muscle growth by burning up glycogen and amino acids. If incorporating some cardio, focus on interval work (e.g. sprinting for 1 minute and jogging for 2 minutes etc). Try to limit cardio to no more than 30 minutes 3x a week.
- Rest and recover. Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night and allow a day’s rest in between training your muscles. To avoid overtraining you may also consider a split program in which you train different muscles on different days.
- Reduce stress. Stress increases the production of the hormone cortisol, a hormone that encourages your body to store fat and burn muscle tissue.
Muscle gains will differ from one person to the next, depending on factors such as genetics, training, nutrition etc. As a general guide, increases in body mass of 2-4 kg per month are generally considered achievable (Australia Sports Commission). The most important thing is to be consistent and stick to the above guidelines as closely as possible.
With hard work, and training/fueling your body effectively your body will start to see the results you have set out to achieve. Be patient and stick at it!