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The Basics of Muscle Building

Short Version

Gaining weight and muscle has the appearance of being difficult, but it is actually rather simple. It all boils down to the following 3 things:

  • Resistance Training
    • The stimulation that causes your body to create muscle is resistance exercise.
    • Your training should be challenging enough to promote progress while still being consistent over time.
    • It’s always ideal to stick to a professional-created, structured program.
    • Recommended routines can be found here: Strength Training / Muscle Building
  • Calorie Surplus
    • Consuming more calories per day than your body utilizes. This is required for both muscle growth and recovery after workout.
    • Estimate a starting point using any TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) calculator, then eat more than that each day while keeping track of your scale weight.
  • Protein
    • Set your protein goal for whichever of the following is higher each day to maximum muscle growth:
      • 160 grams per day
      • 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight, per day
    • This should ideally be spaced out throughout three to four meals during the day.

This is the TLDR version of the story. Continue reading if you want more information. However, don’t get too caught up in the details that you overlook the most vital aspects — correct exercise and nutrition. There’s a lot of material out there that’s interesting to know but isn’t required to obtain results.

Resistance Training

The first step is to incorporate weight exercise into your daily routine. You’ll only put on fat if you just increase your food intake without providing your body with a stimulus to grow muscle.

On the internet, there is a lot of discussion on the best and most efficient muscle-building regimens. The old proverb, “Many roads lead to Rome,” is true. Most smart exercises that you may discover online work well if you stick with them and give them time.

While the type of routine you follow is less crucial than the fact that you have one at all, it is nonetheless important that you have one. It’s usually preferable to rely on tried-and-true procedures developed by experts rather than try to reinvent the wheel — at most, you’ll come up with something comparable, but more likely, you’ll end up with something worse. You can read more about this in the Importance of Having a Program section of the Adding Physical Activity page.

A list of reliable, quality routines users commonly recommend can be found on the Recommended Routines – Strength Training / Muscle Building page.



Your body requires a certain amount of energy each day, measured in calories, in order to fuel its activities. This is called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE. If your diet supplies fewer calories than your TDEE (a deficit), you will lose weight. If your diet supplies more calories than your TDEE (a surplus), you will gain weight. You’ve probably heard of many different diets out there, and when they work, they all achieve weight gain in the same way – manipulating calorie balance.

This creates two points of failure for calorie intake to be aware of:

  • Underestimating your TDEE.
    This is very easy to do. Just remember, always, that no TDEE calculation is 100% accurate. Treat them as estimates only and don’t get fixated on what any calculator told you if it conflicts with what you’re seeing on the scale. Calculations of calorie burn during exercise, in particular, tend to be wildly inaccurate and inflated.
  • Overestimating your calorie consumption.
    Most commonly this happens when people don’t pay enough attention to what they’re eating. This ranges from eyeballing portion sizes to simply not tracking calorie consumption at all. If you aren’t gaining weight, you will at some point have to start tracking everything you’re eating.

Whichever it is, the most important fact to remember is that the scale doesn’t lie. In order to maintain or lose weight while eating at a true surplus, it would require your body to break the laws of the universe by making energy vanish into thin air. You can read further in our FAQ: Why can’t I gain weight?


It’s important to ensure that you eat enough protein each day to fuel the process of building muscle.

Jorn Trommelen, PhD recommends 160 grams of protein per day, across four meals, for those seeking the best results. Recommendations by Eric Helms, PhD go up to 0.8-1 grams per pound of bodyweight for building muscle. For most purposes, 120g-160g per day is a very good place to start, with room to add more if you want. The maximum that research has shown to be beneficial for muscle growth is 0.82g/lb, but there’s no danger or waste in going above that (as long as you don’t eat only protein).

If you’d like to read some more detailed articles about protein and research on it, below are some excellent ones. Don’t get too far into the weeds and start over-thinking it, though.

In your quest to build muscle, keep in mind that there is nothing special about protein powders or mass gainers. Quite literally, they are nothing more than powdered food. While whey protein does have higher bioavailability than most other sources, the primary advantage shakes have over any other protein source is simple convenience – they’re easy to prepare, transport, store, and consume. That’s it. They are just a tool you can use to meet your protein or calorie needs. They aren’t necessary, and they aren’t special either.

If you really want to dig into the minutiae of muscle building nutrition, Renaissance Periodization’s Dr. Mike Israetel has a very detailed lecture series – Nutrition for Muscle Gain.

Step By Step Guide

  1. Take your “before” measurements.
    These can be any measurements you want, but should at least include weight and photos of front, back, and side (in underwear is ideal). This is important for being able to compare your progress over time, since it can be hard to notice a difference when you look at yourself every day.
  2. Estimate your TDEE.
    Remember to treat this as an estimate only, and keep in mind the adage “No plan survives engagement with the enemy”. Expect to have to adjust this number based on changes on the scale. In particular, expect it to go higher as you gain weight.
  3. Set a daily calorie goal.
    The best place to start is by increasing your TDEE by 10-20% (TDEE x 1.1-1.2). You will usually want to avoid going above 20% more than your TDEE. Going too far above your TDEE will lead to increased fat gain, and could make it very difficult to eat enough food without discomfort. Muscle builds very slowly, so don’t think that more food always = more muscle.
  4. Set a daily protein goal.
    Shoot for a bare minimum of 160g per day of protein, ideally spread across four meals. Up to 0.82g/lb per day has been shown to be beneficial for building muscle.
  5. Track your calorie and protein consumption.
    Tools such as MyFitnessPal or NutritionData are very useful for tracking calories. We also recommend the nSuns Adaptive TDEE Spreadsheet, which will adjust its estimate of your TDEE over time. Track everything you eat and drink, including additives and toppings. This may not be necessary if you have a good handle on your eating, but if you’re having trouble gaining weight, you should add this step.
  6. Take regular progress measurements.
    Weight should generally be measured once a day (or at least once a week), preferably unclothed and on an empty stomach. Don’t sweat day-to-day fluctuations – track the trend over time. Monthly progress photos may be worth considering. Avoid any handheld or scale based body fat percentage measurements – the bio-electrical impedance method is extremely inaccurate and inconsistent.
  7. Adjust your diet over time.
    As you gain weight, your TDEE will inevitably go up – more mass requires more calories to fuel. This means that your starting calorie goal will eventually no longer cause weight gain, and you will need to adjust it up.
  8. Be patient and do not expect progress to be fast
    While you can gain weight pretty quickly, gaining actual muscle is a different story. You should not expect to gain more than ~2 lbs of muscle per month. Additionally, you should not expect to start seeing visual changes for at least the first month, and no noticeable changes for at least the first 2-3 months. Don’t let this discourage you. Despite what marketers and charlatans want you to believe, there are no shortcuts to getting bigger and stronger.
    (Source: Stronger By Science – Data Based Targets to Set Realistic Training Goals)
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