Building Muscle Simplified: Not as Complicated as you Think

Don't Get Confused:  3 Simple Tips to Build Muscles

When it comes to fitness, it’s better to have more muscle than fat. That may seem like an overly simplistic statement, but the topic of “how to build muscle” has gotten muddy and convoluted. A Google search on the phrase brings up over 16 million results! The aim of this article is to bring you back to the basics, because sometimes we need to rewind and connect with the simple principles we learned at the beginning.

It is important for clients to engage in regular resistance training for better health and aesthetics. Of course, each client will be different from the next and you must always pay attention to individual needs and desires.

But there are some simple tips that are proven (by science and our trainers in the trenches) to build muscle. Here are three tips you can count on when it comes to helping clients build lean muscle.

1. Check Your Calories

Check your Calories

Building muscle mass is about much more than just strength training. Nutrition and calorie intake are crucial to both losing fat and gaining muscle. It can be a tricky balance, though. To lose fat you need to eat fewer calories than you expend each day.

On the other hand, to gain muscle mass you need to consume more calories than you use. To build bigger muscles, you need those additional calories to go toward re-growing damaged muscle tissue after a training session. Research shows that restricting calories will help to maintain the muscle you already have. To get more muscle, you need more calories.

Muscle tissue is made up of mostly protein and amino acids, so the extra calories could come from protein, with a little bit from healthy fats, or even carbohydrates, assuming your protein and fat intake macros have been met.

So here is where your client asks: “Well, how many extra calories am I supposed to consume?”

And here is the bad news: You won’t be able to give your client a definite answer. Everyone is different, from genetics to metabolic rate and current muscle mass.

The general rule is that consuming an excess of at least 2,500 calories per week will lead to the possibility of increasing lean tissue by one pound of gained mass. This number is derived from several published studies, but it is generalized for the 'average exerciser.'

For muscle hypertrophy, your client may need even more excess calories than 3,500 per week. One study says an extra 44 to 50 calories per kilogram of body weight is a good target.2

So, if your client is not meeting his/her caloric needs for growth and repair, they will not get bigger, stronger muscles.

2. Let’s Talk Leucine


Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid, specifically, an essential amino acid. This means our bodies cannot make leucine; we have to consume it through the foods we eat. Leucine is known as the anabolic trigger for muscle protein synthesis, or “the light switch that turns on muscle growth.”

In one study, researchers compared muscle growth in three groups of participants that each consumed their post-workout calories in different ways:

  • Group 1 used a carbohydrate/protein/leucine supplement.
  • Group 2 supplemented with just carbohydrates and protein.
  • Group 3 used a carbohydrate supplement only.

Guess who saw the most muscle growth?

Yep, it was Group 1.

Your supplement-savvy clients may ask: “Will a BCAA (branched-chain amino acid) supplement do the same thing as just leucine?”

And you can answer them by saying that research shows that leucine has a much stronger stimulatory effect on muscle growth than any other amino acid. A high quality, fast-digesting whey protein, which contains leucine, does help jump-start the recovery process after an intense bout of exercise. However, an isolated leucine supplement activates anabolic pathways much more efficiently.

3. Jack Up the Intensity

Jack up the Intensity

As personal trainers, we know that resistance training is the Holy Grail for improving strength and building muscle mass. If you’re trying to build big muscles, you have to give them a reason to grow.

You can’t go to the gym, perform a few exercises with 50% effort, without exhausting your muscles, and expect to grow huge biceps and triceps.

You’re a trainer and you know this, but your clients may not so share the facts with them:

Research 5 shows that for beginners, taking sets to muscular failure to achieve muscle hypertrophy isn’t necessary. But, if you’ve been training with weights for at least a year, the research shows the opposite effect.4

When it comes to trained individuals, you will see greater increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy after high-intensity resistance training workouts taken to muscle failure. The research can’t tell us exactly how many sets are needed to get to muscle failure because again, everyone is different. In my experience, one to two sets per exercise is a good starting point.

Getting to muscle failure is intense and you can take it too far by overtraining.

Help your client understand when he has reached muscle failure, that point at which he can no longer move a specific load beyond a sticking point. You don’t want your client to simply focus on a certain number of reps; you want him to go until he hits that point of muscle failure, and then stop.

It’s also important to consider volume. Progressively increasing the load and stress on the targeted muscles will lead to mass gains and this is something the ISSA frequently talks about and supports, the progressive overload principle.

You can’t keep increasing volume forever, though. Your client will reach a plateau. Research has proven that animal subjects exposed to excessive training volume without sufficient recovery time actually lost muscle mass. Make sure your client doesn’t overdo it and makes time for recovery.

Recovery can come in the form of an extra day of rest per week, deep tissue massage, sauna, cryotherapy, additional calories to aid in the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue, deload weeks, and other avenues that explore rest/recovery from sports performance.

To Sum Up…

These are the evidence-based and scientific facts about building muscle mass. No gimmicks.

  • Adjust caloric intake to consume excess calories, focusing on high-quality protein.
  • Focus and supplement with leucine, not just a general mix of branched-chain amino acids.
  • Focus on muscle failure, not reps.
  • Give your strength training session 100 percent effort and increase volume incrementally, while also including recovery time.

There you have it, we've gone back to the basics and reviewed the facts you need to get your client to his or her next goal. 


  3. Koopman R, Wagenmakers AJ, Manders RJ, Zorenc AH, Senden JM, Gorselink M, Keizer HA, van Loon LJ. (2005) Combined ingestion of protein and free leucine with carbohydrate increases postexercise muscle protein synthesis in vivo in male subjects. Am. J. Physiol. Endocrinol. Metab. 288(4): E645-653.