How to Build Muscle: Tips for Getting Stronger

As a certified personal trainer, I know that muscles are made both in and out of the gym. Here's what to keep in mind to reach your strength goals.

The benefits of building muscle

If getting stronger is one of your fitness goals, you’re on the right track to better overall health. There are a lot of good reasons to build muscle and get stronger.

Being strong makes it easier to do everyday things—like lifting a suitcase overhead, picking a toddler up off the ground, or even just pushing a heavy door open on a windy day. Having a baseline level of strength will help you go through daily life more independently and confidently.

As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass. Around age 30, most people start to lose muscle mass while also more easily gaining fat, primarily around the midsection. From 30 to 60, we lose approximately 3 to 8 percent of muscle per decade; after 60, the rate is even higher. The best way to prevent muscle loss, maintain mobility and balance, and reduce the risk of falls and other injuries? Doing activities that build muscle.

Muscle mass is also important for a healthy metabolism. Muscle is more “metabolically active,” meaning it uses up more calories to simply maintain itself, than fat. Each body is different. But, generally, having more muscle mass means your metabolism will rev a little faster. Plus, the decline in muscle mass as we age typically comes with a decline in metabolism. By focusing on strength training and maintaining muscle mass throughout adulthood, you may be able to better maintain your metabolism as you age.

Strong muscles are also good for healthy joints. When the muscles that surround your joints are strong, they help take some of the pressure and impact off the joints. This is a good thing for everyone. But it’s especially good if you have joint problems or a condition like arthritis.

Woman exercising with dumbbells in gymJohner Images/Getty Images

How to build muscle and get stronger

Getting stronger requires more than just pumping iron at the gym—though that is one key part of the equation. Your fitness routine, diet, and other lifestyle habits also play a role. Here are some things you can do to reach your goals.

Master basic strength training moves

You don’t need to do anything fancy to get strong. In fact, a good strength training routine is made up of basic, foundational exercises that get you moving through these basic movement patterns: squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, rotation, and anti-rotation. (There’s some debate among trainers about what patterns should make this exclusive list. But all of these regularly come up—both in life and in gym workouts—so doing them all will only help you to build strength.)

If you want to get stronger, you have to start strength training. If you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to work with a trainer who can help you start with exercises that meet you at your current fitness level and advise you on how to progress. They can also take into account your medical history and limitations, and help motivate you to stick with a regular strength training routine.

Generally, the way to build muscle and increase strength is through a training concept called progressive overload. Progressive overload means that you gradually put your body under more stress to keep pushing it to get stronger. Stress can come in the form of heavier weights, more reps, or even frequency of exercise. It’s all about slowly challenging your body more and more each time it adapts enough to handle the current challenge.

Before picking up a weight, start with bodyweight strength exercises. If you want to avoid injury, it’s crucial to get comfortable with an exercise and nail proper form before ever adding weights. Then, once you’re confident in your movements and feel that the bodyweight moves aren’t tiring you out or making your muscles feel challenged anymore, you can start to add weight.

The most efficient way to build strength is through compound exercises. Compound exercises involve more than one major muscle group, so they hit a lot of areas at once. They also get your heart rate higher and burn more calories. Any time more muscles are working at the same time, your heart has to work harder, too.

These basic strength training moves are important to know and practice; just remember to check with your doctor before starting this or any workout program.

squat exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Squat

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend both knees and sit your butt back as you lower into a squat. Keep your core engaged and your spine straight. Be careful not to let your knees extend beyond your toes.
  • Straighten your knees to return to standing.

Targets the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and core.

reverse lunge exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Reverse lunge

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Take a big step back with your right foot and bend both knees to lower into a lunge. Keep your core engaged and spine straight. It’s OK if your torso leans forward a bit.
  • Push off your right foot and step forward to return back to starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Forward lunge

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Take a step forward with your right foot and bend both knees to lower into a lunge. Keep your core engaged and spine straight.
  • Push off your right foot and return back to starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Note: Reverse lunges are typically more beginner-friendly because it’s easier to control the momentum moving in this direction. Reverse lunges are also gentler on the knees.

Targets the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, and core.

deadlift exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Deadlift

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, hands at the front of your thighs. (As you become comfortable with the move, try holding a five- to ten-pound dumbbell in each hand.)
  • Hinge at your hips to bend your torso forward and push your butt back toward the wall behind you. Keep your spine flat and your knees slightly bent. Let your hands move down toward the floor as your torso moves.
  • Push through your heels to return back to starting position.

Targets the glutes, hamstrings, core, and back.

Push-up

  • Start in a high plank position with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend your elbows to lower your chest toward the floor. Your body should lower in one long line. Don’t arch your back or round your shoulders.
  • Push through your hands to straighten your elbows and return to starting position.

Targets the pectoral muscles and triceps.

bent over row exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Bent-over row

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms by your sides. (As you become comfortable with the move, try holding a five- to ten-pound dumbbell in each hand.)
  • Hinge forward at your hips so that your torso is parallel (or close to parallel) to the floor. Let your hands hang down toward the floor.
  • Keep your core tight as you pull your hands up toward your chest. Keep your elbows close to your body and squeeze your shoulder blades together for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back as you bring your hands toward your chest.
  • Slowly straighten your arms and lower your hands back down.

Targets biceps and back (the lats, rhomboids, deltoids, and trapezius).

wood chopper exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Woodchopper

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. (As you become comfortable with the move, try doing the move holding one five- to ten-pound dumbbell with both hands.)
  • Twist your torso to the right, raise up onto the ball of your left foot, and bring your hands up high past your right shoulder.
  • In a quick but controlled motion, bring your hands across the front of your body and down to your left side. Pivot on the ball of your right foot to turn your torso toward the left.

Targets the core, shoulders, back, and glutes.

plank exerciseCourtesy Amy Marturana Winderl

Forearm plank

  • Start in a kneeling position. Bend your arms, and place your forearms on the floor in front of you, with your shoulders stacked directly over your elbows.
  • Extend your legs out behind you and tuck your toes under. Your body should be in one long line from shoulders to toes.
  • Squeeze your core and your glutes and think about lifting up at the hips slightly so that your lower back is not arched.

The forearm plank recruits more of the deep core muscles than the high plank (on your hands). It’s also better for people with wrist pain. If the forearm plank is too challenging, try a high plank instead. The only difference: Instead of resting on your forearms, you’ll put your hands directly on the floor, like you’re about to do a push-up.

Targets the core and glutes.

Keep it consistent

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends working all major muscle groups—legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms—at least two days per week. You can break it up however you want.

For example, maybe you do a lower-body strength workout two days a week, and then an upper-body strength workout two different days. Or, you can do a full-body strength workout on two nonconsecutive days per week. (A minimum of 48 hours of rest between full-body workouts is recommended to prevent injury and allow muscles to recover.)

You don’t need to work out for an hour to get results. Even 20 to 30 minutes of strength training can make a huge difference.

Start by doing eight to 12 repetitions (reps) of each exercise. Do this two to three times (each time through is called a set). Rest in between for 30 seconds to two minutes.

Notice how you feel throughout the exercise. Can you breeze through eight to 12 reps, no problem? Or are the last few reps of each set difficult to finish? If the last few reps feel challenging, that’s how you know you’re lifting the right amount of weight.

Once the same number of reps with that weight feels easy, it’s time to add either more reps or more weight. You can also try adding another strength workout into the week.

Add in other exercises as needed

Your strength workouts don’t need to be limited to the staple exercises above. Those are just to get you started. Feel free to try other exercises—just make sure you’re balancing things out and not overdoing it on one movement pattern and neglecting others. You may also choose to add in exercises that target specific muscles you want to focus on.

The American Council on Exercise Exercise Database & Library is a great resource to learn about various exercises, the muscles they target, and how to do them properly.

man preparing scrambled eggs for breakfast.skynesher/Getty Images

Feed your muscles

“The only way muscle is going to grow is if you feed it,” says Amy Carson, RD, nutrition and medical services coordinator at Fitness Formula Clubs. “Your results are going to be a lot slower, if at all if you’re not fueling your body correctly.”

Before a workout, you want to focus on consuming carbohydrates, which are the body’s primary source of energy. Post workout, you need both carbs and protein, Carson says, to refuel and rebuild the muscles. “So often people know the protein part, but they forget about the carbs.”

Another mistake that a lot of people make is under-fueling, says Cara Harbstreet, RD, a registered dietitian with Street Smart Nutrition. “A lot of times, especially at the onset of a new fitness program, people also couple strength goals with weight loss goals,” she says. They eat less, in an attempt to lose weight, and end up not eating enough to support muscle growth.

The biggest potential sign of under-fueling is an overall lack of energy, Harbstreet says. “It’s difficult to pinpoint if it’s a lack of protein specifically or under-fueling across the board. But if you notice the workouts you’ve been doing are not getting progressively easier. Or you feel like you’re taking longer to recover and bounce back from hard sessions, then that points to something amiss in nutrition, sleep, and/or recovery.”

This doesn’t mean you have to count calories or be super regimented about your eating. Harbstreet suggests simply making sure you have a protein source, either plant- or animal-based, at every meal, and some form of grain or legume, or other sources of carbs.

Carson suggests eating 20 to 40 grams of protein after a workout. The specific amount you need will depend on so many factors, including your weight, fitness level, and how hard you worked out. Again, no need to overthink it: If you eat a meal after your workout with at least one good source of protein, you should be set.

It’s also best to space out protein intake throughout the day instead of cramming it into one meal. “The body can only use a certain amount of protein at a time,” says Carson.

Make sure you have some within two hours of a workout to make sure you’re giving your body the fuel it needs to avoid a dip in energy post-workout. You also want to try to have some with every meal and snack.

Give your body the rest it needs

Rest is just as important as your workouts. Your muscles need sufficient time in between workouts to recover and rebuild—which is how you get stronger.

If you did a strength training workout and are pretty sore the next day, rest. Give your body a day or two to recover before doing it again.

Sleep is also an important part of the muscle-building equation. When you sleep, your body produces human growth hormone, which is essential for rebuilding muscles. Sleep also increases blood flow to the muscles, which also aids tissue growth and repair. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. But if you’re hitting the gym hard, you might need more.

Listen to your body. If you’re constantly tired, you may need to change up your diet or sleep schedule to make sure your body is getting the energy it needs to not only get you through the day, but to also do the hard internal work of building muscle and making you stronger.

Sources

Amy Marturana Winderl
Amy is a freelance journalist and certified personal trainer. She covers health and fitness, outdoors, travel, and finance. Her work has appeared on SELF, Bicycling, Earnest, and other publications. When she's not busy writing or editing, you can find her hiking, cooking, running, or lounging on the couch watching the latest true crime show on Netflix.