How to build muscle safely: The complete guide
While any type of exercise is great for your health, building muscle comes with an enviable list of health benefits. Think improved balance and posture, a reduced risk of injury and a significantly lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes, amongst others.
But building muscle is a challenge. It requires knowledge, patience and persistence. You’ll need to strength train consistently, focus on your nutrition and get plenty of good quality sleep to help you muscles grow and recover.
So here’s everything you need to know to build muscle safely, including how much protein you’ll need per day, how many times per week you’ll need to train and whether you actually need a calorie surplus to succeed.
What are the benefits of building muscle?
Building muscle is often solely an aesthetic goal to achieve a certain look or to simply improve workout performance. But there are many other, less obvious benefits that go beyond this – muscle plays a vital role in your overall health, too.
1. Increases strength, balance & posture
Having more muscle mass can mean improved overall strength, which, in turn, can lead to an improved quality of life. You'll find it much easier to deal with everyday activities, such as carrying shopping. Naturally, it’ll help you to lift heavier in the gym, too.
On top of this, more muscle mass means better balance and, later in life, a significantly decreased risk of falls and injury. With increased strength, it’s also easier to maintain a good posture, which can help you to avoid aches and pains often associated with bad posture.
2. Improves body composition
Building more muscle mass leads to an improved overall body composition (the percentages of fat, bone, water and muscle in your body).
Having more muscle, and less fat, can help to reduce the risk of obesity and its related negative health consequences, such as diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.
3. Improves insulin sensitivity
Large-scale research on over 13600 participants suggests that building muscle mass helps improve insulin sensitivity, which means your body can process carbohydrates more efficiently. This reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
4. Reduces risk of disease
Regular exercise (which is one of the essential components of building more muscle mass) has a long list of health benefits. It can drastically reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), cardiovascular disease and many other chronic health conditions.
5. Slows down age-related muscle loss
Decline in muscle mass starts from around 40 years of age, where you’ll begin to lose around 1% of muscle mass every year.
This phenomenon is known as sarcopenia. It can lead to a reduction in mobility and balance, as well as increased frailty, falls and even disability. Sarcopenia is also associated with bone loss (osteopenia), which can lead to frailty in older age.
A healthy diet that includes adequate protein intake is highly beneficial for healthy ageing (more on that later). Importantly, resistance-exercise is particularly effective for slowing age-related loss of skeletal muscle.
What happens if you don’t have enough muscle?
Not having enough muscle mass can have profound negative impacts on your overall health. It can lead to reduced physical function (the ability to carry out everyday tasks such as carrying shopping, lifting and moving objects) and, consequently, a poorer quality of life.
Having adequate muscle mass is super important when it comes to response and recovery to stress, such as injury from an accident/surgery or illness, as it means that your body has a larger pool of amino acids to rely on during recovery.
When you get ill, injured and/or bed bound, you can lose a significant muscle mass in a short period of time. But having more muscle mass means that recovery can be a lot easier, as there is simply more to rely on.
What sort of exercise should I do to build muscle?
Without strength/resistance training – even with a good diet – you won’t be able to gain muscle.
Weight training (think squats, deadlifts, bench presses and bicep curls) with progressive overload (gradually increasing the weight, frequency and/or number of repetitions in your strength training routine) is regarded as the most potent stimulus for promoting muscle gain.
But muscle strengthening exercises can also include:
- Bodyweight exercises (functional training)
- Resistance band exercises
Even high intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to be beneficial for muscle gain. It’s worth experimenting to see which activities – or combination of activities – you enjoy the most.
How often do I need to strength train to build muscle?
A systematic review and meta analysis concluded that, to maximise muscle gain, you should carry out muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week.
This means that each major muscle group should be trained at least twice a wee.
Of course, you can do more of course if it feels right for you – but there’s no need to overdo it. Being overworked can lead to reduced athletic performance and impaired sleep, which can actually impair muscle growth.
How much of a role does diet play in building muscle?
Alongside strength exercise, diet plays a vital role in building muscle. Without adequate nutrition, training won’t result in muscle gain.
In your body, muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB) occur simultaneously as a continuous process. The amount of muscle mass you have is the direct result of the net balance between these two processes.
If you’re looking to build muscle, it’s vital to concentrate on muscle protein synthesis. The key to this? Protein.
Dietary protein positively impacts the rate of muscle protein synthesis. Immediately after a protein-containing meal, muscle protein synthesis increases. As time passes, protein breakdown increases.
How much protein do I need to build muscle?
A recent, comprehensive meta-analysis of 82 studies concluded that with resistance training, muscle strength/mass growth is achieved with a total protein intake up to 1.5 g protein per kg of body weight per day, but no further gains are achieved after.
However, according to the British Nutrition Foundation, strength athletes (bodybuilders) may need additional protein, at 1.2–2g per kg of body weight per day.
What happens if I eat more protein than recommended?
Consuming excess protein beyond the daily requirements is either used for energy (with the excess nitrogen lost in urine) or stored as fat. So even in very active people, very high protein intakes will not be converted to muscle.
How much protein is too much?
Although it’s very unlikely to provide any benefits, healthy adults can tolerate up to 2g per kg of body weight per day. But chronic high protein intake (over 2g per kg of body weight per day) may result in digestive, renal and vascular abnormalities.
Many unqualified fitness influencers and dubious online ‘calculators’ advocate excessive intakes well above the recommended intakes. Even for elite athletes, more is not better. Very high protein intakes above normal requirements won’t necessarily be converted to muscle.
Do I need to eat protein immediately after my workouts?
Some people claim that to be able to gain muscle, protein must be strictly consumed within 30 minutes post-exercise. But this view is outdated and has recently been (repeatedly) challenged.
According to this meta-analysis, there’s no evidence to support that immediate consumption of protein pre or post-workout significantly enhances strength or muscle gain. Instead, their results show that overall, total daily protein intake is strongly and positively associated with post-exercise gains in muscle.
Summed up? Getting enough protein throughout the day is most important.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, you should distribute your protein intake evenly throughout the day (3-4 hours between meals). The British Nutrition Foundation agrees and recommends consuming at least 20-25g of high-quality protein at each meal to maximise muscle protein synthesis rates.
Is vegan protein good enough for building muscle?
Absolutely! Don’t be taken in by the myth that vegans can’t build muscle.
Although it was previously believed that plant protein sources are inferior to animal sources when it comes to building muscle, it’s been disproven in recent meta-analyses.
This great study – which looked at plant-based proteins vs animal proteins – concluded that the protein source (plant vs animal) doesn’t affect resistance training adaptations (muscle gain), as long as enough protein is consumed.
It’s easy to meet your protein needs on a vegan diet. Here are a few quick examples:
- A serving of tofu with quinoa and broccoli easily: 50g protein
- A 250g serving of plain soy yoghurt with a handful of nuts: 20g protein
- Two slices of wholemeal bread with peanut butter: 15g protein
- Purition Vegan with 250mil soy milk: 24g protein
Need some help with a vegan nutrition? Head over here to read our complete guide to vegan nutrition!
Do I need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle?
If you’re looking to gain muscle, a modest calorie surplus of around ~358-478 kcal/day is recommended. This will be dependent on quite a few factors, such as your gender and weight.
Adding 350 kcal to your daily meals can be as simple as:
- A serving of Purition with 200ml whole milk (which will also provide around 23g protein)
- Half a pot of full fat Greek or coconut yoghurt (250g) with a small handful of nuts
It’s important to remember that consistently exceeding daily energy needs (even when exercising) will lead to increased fat mass, so it’s best to be modest with your surplus.
On the flipside, studies have shown that gains in muscle mass can still be achieved under hypocaloric conditions. In simple terms, this means it’s possible to gain muscle on maintenance calories and even in a slight energy deficit.
The downside? It’s harder. When you lose weight, it’s estimated that 25% of that weight loss will be from lean body mass (muscle). To counteract the decline in lean muscle mass, it’s vital to consistently maintain adequate protein intakes, along with regular resistance exercise.
Are any other nutrients required for muscle gain?
Protein is essential, but it’s not the only nutrient that is needed for muscle gain.
Scientists have only just started to examine the role of other nutrients in relation to muscle gain, but current understanding suggests that vitamins, minerals, fats and other compounds work in tandem with protein to support muscle gain.
Plus, the British Dietetic Association states that muscle is gained through a combination of training and quality diet that contains enough energy (calories), protein, carbohydrates and essential micronutrients.
The British Dietetic Association also state that:
‘If you only concentrate on a high protein intake without enough carbohydrate, then the protein will be used for energy, instead of being used to build muscle. Additionally, too little carbohydrate will lead to low energy levels, which will make it very difficult for you to train and perform at your best.’
Muscles rely on carbohydrates as one of their main sources of fuel. Try to include a quality whole food source of carbohydrates such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes or legumes at each meal.
Fibre-rich vegetables are also a source of carbohydrates, but come with the added benefit of keeping your digestive system and gut microbiome healthy. You should aim to include a generous portion (or 2!) with every meal.
It’s important to get adequate amounts of all essential vitamins & minerals, but vitamin D is particularly important when it comes to muscle gain.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be produced in your skin as a response to exposure to sunlight/UVB light. However, during October-April in the UK, most adults don’t get exposed to enough daylight to obtain enough vitamin D.
It might be helpful to try a good quality vitamin D supplement, or vitamin D-containing multivitamin, to ensure all your bases are covered.
Omega 3 fatty acids
It’s been suggested that omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may improve muscle adaptation, energy metabolism, muscle recovery and may also help with injury prevention.
To meet your needs and maximise muscle gain, aim to include a serving of healthy fats (omega 3s) per meal. One of the best sources is oily fish, so if it suits your dietary preferences, try to eat it at least twice per week.
Other sources include unprocessed quality meats, eggs, quality dairy sources, olive oil, avocado, nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (especially flax & chia).
Read more about what Omega 3’s are in our omega 3 guide!
Antioxidants such as vitamin C & E, as well as carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols are also important for muscle gain as they help to protect muscle tissue from oxidative damage, which can cause muscle decline.
Eating plenty of fruits (especially berries) and a wide variety of vegetables, everyday, will ensure you get plenty of antioxidants in your diet.
Magnesium may be beneficial for muscle gain as it is involved with muscle contraction processes – and data has shown benefits to muscle strength!
Try to include a variety of magnesium-rich foods in your daily meals. The best sources include green leafy veg, legumes (lentils, beans & chickpeas), nuts & seeds, fish and dark (80%+) chocolate.
Do I need supplements to build muscle?
Supplements are extremely popular and many people choose them as they are a convenient option, but they are not necessary for most. According to the British Dietetic Association, a balanced diet will typically provide all the nutrients (including protein) and energy necessary for sport.
The British Nutrition Foundation claim that:
'For most active people, protein supplements are not needed, and it is better if a variety of foods containing protein are consumed as part of meals or snacks and spread throughout the day. However, there may be situations when a protein supplement is convenient, for example, for professional athletes who are travelling to compete.’
So, if you eat a balanced diet with plenty of quality protein sources – think meat, eggs and fish (or tofu, legumes, lentils and nuts if you’re vegan) – you’re likely to be getting enough protein already. Getting your protein from a plate of food means you’ll benefit from other essential nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins and minerals.
But if, for whatever reason, you can’t meet your daily needs through food alone, protein powders can be useful. Just make sure to choose a high-quality protein powder without additives and artificial sweeteners, such as Purition or our unflavoured protein powders.
According to the British Nutrition Society, ‘Despite their frequent use, there is little evidence of a benefit of branched chain amino acid (BCAA) supplementation.’
Research suggests that caffeine can help to enhance performance during resistance exercise, although the effect seems to be minor. It’s proposed that caffeine improves performance in resistance exercise primarily due to its physiological effects.
So, if you enjoy coffee or tea, this recent review concluded a dose of 1-2mg caffeine per kg body weight, before exercise, can be beneficial. This equates to the dose found in about a 1–2 cups of coffee.
Does sleep play a role in muscle gain?
Yes, sleep and rest are essential for recovery and building muscle.
Muscle repair, tissue growth, protein synthesis and the release of an array of vital hormones for growth and repair happen primarily during sleep. In fact, it’s specifically during non-REM that tissues are regenerated/repaired and your bones and muscles are built!
Research shows that poor quality sleep – or not getting enough sleep – can hinder your body’s ability to recover.
For example, this study concluded that sleep deprivation negatively impacts muscle recovers. And this recent study, comparing sleep deprived participants (4 hours in bed per night) and participants with normal sleep (8 hours in bed per night), demonstrated that muscle protein synthesis is significantly reduced by sleep restriction.
And if that’s not enough to convince you to get a good night's rest, another study showed that athletes with good quality sleep (in this study, they were sleeping 8 hours or more) were less likely to suffer an injury.
So how much sleep do I need for muscle gain?
Sleep is highly personal and there is no one size fits all.
However, this comprehensive meta analysis concluded that a sleep duration of 7-8 hours per day is the one most favourably associated with health amongst adults.
So, to help optimise muscle building (and general health), it’s best to aim for exactly that – 7-8 hours per night. However, make sure to experiment for yourself and find out what sleep duration makes you feel best.
A step-by-step guide to building muscle
We’ve discussed that, to build muscle, there are 3 key elements: diet, exercise and sleep/rest.
So how does this look in simple, practical terms?
1. Strength train regularly
Putting muscles under repeated stress with weight-bearing exercise triggers muscle protein synthesis (repair), which ultimately increases muscle mass and strength.
- You should aim to train each major muscle group at least twice a week to maximise muscle growth
- Make sure to train under supervision (or with appropriate knowledge) to avoid injury
2. Focus on nutrition
Without a good diet, you won’t be able to maximise muscle gain – no matter how hard you train.
A varied diet based on quality whole foods (such as unprocessed meats, fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds) will provide the necessary macronutrients (fats, protein and fibre) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) for building and maintaining muscle in a healthy way.
But just in case you need a little guidance, here’s what you should prioritise for muscle gain:
- Eating up to 1.5 g protein per kg of body weight per day
- Spreading your protein intake through the day – at least 15–25g protein at each meal
- Eating plenty of whole food carbohydrates, such as oats and potatoes
- Including a generous serving of vegetables with every meal Including healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds & olive oil
- Taking a high-quality multivitamin to ensure your bases are covered
3. Prioritise sleep & rest
Your muscles are repaired and built during sleep – so if you don’t get enough of it, your progress will suffer.
- Aim for around 7–8 hours per day/night
This is highly personal though, so make sure experiment with what duration makes you feel best and most rested.
And remember that your muscles need to rest and recover in order to grow. It's best to prioritise at least 2–3 rest days per week, if you can.
Can Purition help me to build muscle?
With 20-25g protein per serving when prepared with milk or yoghurt, Purition is an easy way to get the protein you need at breakfast – or as a healthy alternative to protein powder – to support muscle gain.
- Contains all 9 essential amino acids
- High protein breakfast, lunch or snack
- Quick & easy source of high-quality protein
- Made with minimally-processed whole foods
- Rich in naturally-occurring vitamins that support muscle gain
Unlike most protein powders, Purition is made from natural, whole food ingredients and provides quality protein from at least 8 different sources: Flax, sunflower seeds, almonds, coconut, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, plus additional protein from whey protein isolate or European plant protein.Try samples
Article written by Barbara Usak, Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr, BSc Human nutrition and PGDip Clinical & Public Health Nutrition),
This information is general nutrition advice and for anyone living with a diagnosed medical condition, it’s important to consult your doctor or dietitian before changing your diet or embarking on a fitness journey.
To ensure you get your nutrition and training right, you may find it useful to consult a sports dietitian or registered sports nutritionist and/or a trainer to help with a tailored exercise routine.
Elite/professional athletes interested in achieving specific goals or wanting to use use any supplements should consult an accredited sports dietitian/nutritionist.
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