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How to Build Muscle Naturally

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You’re here because plain and simple you want natural muscle gains.

You want to develop a strong, muscular frame that showcases your athleticism. You want aesthetics that you can wear as a badge of honor – after all, why not show it off if you’ve worked hard for it.

In this article we take a look at the best ways to build muscle without performance-enhancing drugs. We’ll cover both nutrition and training so you know you’ll get some well-rounded, gym-crushing advice.

You want to know how to build muscle naturally?

This is the article for you…


The Basics of Natural Muscle Building

The good thing about building muscle is that there’s no one specific way to do it.

That means that you don’t have to train like a bodybuilder. You don’t have to hit the bench press on a Monday. And guess what? You don’t have to follow a specialized exercise program.

What you do need to do it is follow a few guidelines and then tweak them to suit your own lifestyle, work ethic and training preferences. If you do, then you’ll soon be welcoming some new slabs of muscle mass.

The bottom line is that many bodybuilders are on drugs.

In competition you just wouldn’t believe the amounts of performance-enhancing ergogenic aids some of these athletes are on. But in today’s competitive bodybuilding world they have to be in order to even place, let alone win.

But because it’s such an underground thing, most bodybuilders will never state that they actually use drugs, let alone what drugs they take. And that means that many natural athletes think that they can follow in the footsteps of their idols naturally, unbeknown that these idols have an unfair advantage.

Building muscle naturally is a different ball game altogether.

Here are the key things you need to know to build a respectable, natural physique…


#1. Hit a calorie surplus

When you eat more calories than you burn off each day you have a surplus of energy to play with. If your time in the gym is providing the right sort of stimulus then this extra energy is used by the body to lay down new muscle cells.

One way to work out how many calories you should take in each day to optimize building muscle is to either simply multiply your body weight (in pounds) by 20. This will give you a rough idea as a starting point.

Or alternatively you could use our built-in calorie calculator at the bottom of this article.

If you do use the calculator you’ll be given the amount of calories you’d need to maintain your muscle mass. To work out your surplus just add 20% more calories on top to find the perfect balance between building new muscle and not increasing body fat too much.

This is your starting point for natural muscle building.

Do you ‘have’ to eat a surplus to build muscle?

This is an interesting point, because no you don’t.

A idea of body recomposition shows that you can in fact increase lean mass, even in a deficit. This is particularly possible for beginners or those that have had a long break from exercise.

But in order to maximize muscle building naturally you should up your calories. Not only does it give your muscles more fuel to build new cells, it gives you more energy to get throughout your tough workouts too.


A toned and muscular woman lifting dumbbells in the gym

Summary: Achieving a calorie surplus optimizes energy availability for building new muscle cells.


#2. Don’t skimp on the protein intake

As the macronutrient responsible for elevating the synthesis of muscle tissue, protein is more important than ever when you’re trying to build muscle naturally.

The amino acids found in protein help to stimulate muscle growth as well as up the release of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone. They are also important in regulating your immune system and enzymatic reactions too.

Every minute of every day your amino acids are fighting a battle between muscle protein breakdown and protein synthesis (MPS). The key to muscle growth is to make sure that majority of time each day is spent building new cells rather than breaking them down.

Imagine muscle like a brick wall. Rows and rows of bricks that build solid muscle tissue.

Protein breakdown is like someone taking a chisel to each row, hacking at each brick one at a time. The longer you let it do it, the more muscle tissue you’ll lose.

MPS though is more to do with building. It’s you taking out your bricks, trowel and cement and building more rows. The longer time you spend in synthesis, the bigger your muscles will be.

Current evidence-based recommendations for protein intake are set at 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This has been found sufficient enough to ramp up natural muscle gains [1].

Aim to get your protein from food where possible to ensure a good range of vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids.

Does it matter when you eat protein?

Not really. It’s more to do with the net amount you each day.

Unless you’re an absolute elite level physique competitor working on exact margins, it’s just the total protein you take in each day that’s important.

Aiming to eat 20-30 grams every 3-4 hours is more than enough to stimulate natural muscle building.

And whilst we’re on that note; there’s no real ‘anabolic window’ where you have to ingest protein within so many minutes after weight training either. That’s just an old school myth.

Your body doesn’t work like that.


Summary: Hitting your protein macros each day will elevate your muscle protein synthesis and give you the fuel necessary to build natural muscle quickly.


#3. Boost testosterone with the right nutrients

Building muscle isn’t just about the right number of calories. And there’s more to it than optimizing muscle protein synthesis too.

That’s because there are a number of different nutrients that you should include in your diet that supports natural muscle building by elevating levels of your anabolic hormones – namely growth hormone and testosterone.

Growth hormone for example has been seen to act as a regulator of muscle mass [2] and testosterone is famed for its ability to boost libido, strength, stamina and metabolic health… as well as muscle mass.

Optimize testosterone levels naturally to build more natural muscle

As someone who’s wanting to build muscle naturally you need to be aware that you can optimize levels of hormones such as testosterone without anabolic steroids.

Choosing a diet that promotes and optimizes these hormones is key to finding the final nutrition jigsaw piece for natural muscle growth.

How? It’s all to do with nutrients that trigger natural production.

Research suggests that Testosterone boosting foods such as those rich in vitamin D, D-aspartic acid, magnesium and zinc all help to stimulate your body to elevate its own testosterone levels. And this can lead to better natural muscle growth.

Eggs, meat, fish, oysters, dairy, fruit and vegetables are all important muscle building foods becuase they support your primary goal.

There are numerous clinical studies that show these nutrients help your body to trigger the appropriate signalling pathways to release more testosterone from your Leydig cells.

More testosterone means better natural muscle growth, less belly fat and better athleticism. 


Muscular man with high test levels and a strong physique

Summary: Hitting your protein macros each day will elevate your muscle protein synthesis and give you the fuel necessary to build natural muscle fast.


#4. Full body training ramps up your gains

Old school bodybuilding used split sessions (otherwise known as bro splits) for many years.

This meant that you’d target one or two muscles on one day, and then different muscles on another day. It was common to hit one muscle once per week, a maximum of twice in some programs.

You’d have a ‘chest day’ and a ‘leg day’ for example.

But more and more research is showing that it’s time to scrap the splits and move into full-body training to maximize building muscle naturally.

A study by world-renowned muscle building expert Brad Schoenfeld found that when a group of well-trained men were asked to complete either a total-body workout or split routine over an 8-week period, the ones performing whole-body work built more muscle mass [3].

Both groups used the same training variables with 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Overall volume was equated so no group had an advantage over the other. In total, both groups performed 21 different exercises.

And whilst both groups built significant amounts of muscle over the 8-week training period, it was the total-body group that saw bigger gains.

Full-body workouts allow you to train a muscle more frequently. Although the total number of sets might be the same for any given week of training when compared to split training, it is the more frequent targeting that might be key in promoting muscle growth.

Are there any other benefits to full-body training?

As well as helping you build more muscle naturally, full-body workouts can help you burn more calories too. This can help to improve body composition and boost fitness levels.

And big, full-body compound lifts can also help you produce more testosterone too – an important anabolic hormone that regulates muscle protein synthesis and masculinity.


Summary: Total-body workouts may help to build more muscle than once-per-week bro split workouts.


#5. You don’t have to lift heavy to build muscle

There’s one thing for sure when it comes to natural muscle building. You’ve got to put the effort in to see the results.

But current research suggests that you don’t necessarily have to lift the heaviest weights possible to stimulate natural muscle building pathways.

For example, research from PLOS ONE [4] reported that when the results of 4 sets of 90% of rep max to failure and 4 sets of 30% of rep max were compared using trained volunteers, the lighter weight group elevated protein synthesis just as high as the heavier group.

The key point was that each training group was asked to go to absolute failure until they couldn’t complete any more reps.

And remarkably, the research team also suggested that “low-load high volume resistance exercise is more effective in inducing acute muscle anabolism than high-load low volume or work matched resistance exercise mode”.

That wasn’t a one-off study either. A similar study [5] found that when volunteers were placed in either a high rep group completing 20-25 reps per set or a low-rep group lifting 8-12 reps, there were no significant differences in either muscle building or strength.

And that was after 4 sessions per week for 12 weeks.

Again, each group was asked to lift the chosen weight as many times as possible until they couldn’t do any more. And they did this for each set and every exercise.


Muscular bodybuilder performing concentration curls with a heavy dumbbell in the gym

Summary: As long as you train to fatigue, you can use whatever rep range you are most comfortable with for muscle growth. The key is to work hard and smart, not necessarily heavy.

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References

  1. Phillips, SM et al. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011; 29 Suppl 1: S29-38
  2. Velloso, CP. Regulation of muscle mass by growth hormone and IGF-I. Br J Pharmacol. 2008; 154(3): 557–568
  3. Schoenfeld, BJ et al. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015; 29(7): 1821-9
  4. Burd, NA et al. Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men. PLOS ONE. 2010: e12033
  5. Morton, RW et al. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. J Appl Physiol. 2016; 121: 129-138

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