Summer means short sleeves and short shorts -- and that means revealing muscles that may have been hibernating through the winter. Whether you're a guy who wants to add a bit of bulk to your chest, shoulders and arms, or a girl who wants more tone and shape, you have to know how to get those muscle fibers to grow if you want them to look better.
But before learning how to actually build muscle, you should understand how a muscle actually gets bigger.
Let's use your biceps -- the muscle group on the front of your arms -- as an example. Like all the other muscles in your body, this muscle group is comprised of tightly-woven bundles of muscle fibers, which are made up of muscle cells.
When you require your biceps to produce a force, such as lifting a couch, most of those muscle fibers in your biceps are exposed to tension. The tension from the weight of the couch stretches the fibers and causes tiny tears in them. When the cells in your muscle fibers sense this trauma, they begin to rally the muscle-building troops from your body to repair the tears.
These muscle-building troops include hormones, growth factors, and white blood cells. The troops not only repair the muscle fibers in your biceps, but they also increase the size of those fibers and the strength of the nerves that activate them, so that next time you lift a couch you are better able to do so. As those fibers increase in size, the biceps grow.
Of course, there are better ways to make your muscles grow than by simply lifting the occasional couch. By performing certain exercises, weight, sets and repetitions, you can stimulate much more trauma (and subsequent growth).
The trick to building muscle is to adequately stress the muscle, allow the muscle to recover while eating enough healthy food to feed the new muscle, and then repeat!
The best exercises for full-body muscle growth are ones that require you to use multiple joints. For example, a combination of squats, cleans, deadlifts, and bench presses is very effective at working your entire body.
If don't want all your muscles to get bigger, but just want to focus on a single muscle group, like your butt, then you'll need to use a strategy that bodybuilders use. When weight training, do a higher number of sets that focus on that one single body section. For example, a butt-building routine could consist of five to 10 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions of reverse lunges.
How Much Weight Should I Lift?
Your muscles must be subjected to enough force for actual muscle fiber tearing to occur. For most people, that means lifting about 65 to 85 percent of what you can lift one time (otherwise known as your "one rep max" or "1RM"). For example, if you can bench press 100 pounds, then your weight for increasing the size of your chest muscles would be 65 to 85 pounds. Most people can lift 65 to 85 percent for eight to 12 repetitions.
If you don't want to hurt yourself trying to figure out how much weight you can lift one time, don't worry -- you don't have to spend time figuring out your maximum weight capability for each exercise. That can be difficult and dangerous. Instead, there are calculators and formulas that allow you to approximate your 1RM based on the number of times you can lift a certain weight. You can find many of these useful tools at my website, GetFitGuy.com.
How Many Sets Should I Perform?
Because your muscles need a significant amount of time under tension (about 60 seconds) for actual muscle tearing to occur, multiple sets are crucial. Though you certainly could perform just one very long set for each muscle group, that's mentally challenging, extremely uncomfortable, and very risky. So instead, you should aim to do at least three sets and preferably five to six sets for each exercise. As I mentioned in my article on how to start weight training, each set should include one to two minutes of recovery for the muscle group you are working.
If you're pressed for time, rather than sitting down to rest between each set, simply work another muscle group during the recovery period. For example, while your chest muscles recover from bench pressing, you can perform a set for your thighs.
So how can you put this information into a practical, muscle-building program? One very effective muscle growth strategy for the entire body involves exercising your chest and arms one day, your shoulders, upper back and abs the next day, and your legs and lower back the third day. You can then rest a day and repeat for a full week of workouts. This type of workout is called a six-day split. Alternatively, if you have fewer days to exercise, you can simply perform a combination upper and lower body workout three times per week, preferably with full body, multi-joint exercises.
Ultimately, when you adequately stress the muscle, allow it to recover while feeding it enough healthy food, and then repeat, you can safely build one to two pounds of muscle each month. This may not seem like much, but you'll notice a significant difference in your body with just a little bit of added muscle, especially if you're losing fat at the same time (which is very likely).
Since muscle is much less roomy than fat, those extra pounds of muscle give you a tight and lean look -- just in time for summer.
For more of my workout tips, check out "10 Tips to Build Muscle Fast!"
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His book, "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body -- A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape," was just published by St. Martin's Press.
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