6 Tips for Building and Maintaining Muscle

Woman lifting weights in the gym

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Getting stronger is an admirable, healthy fitness goal. That’s why you're hitting the gym, lifting more, and packing every meal with protein. But building muscle can be a bit tricky.

Sure, lifting weights and eating more protein can help you become stronger, but to build muscle you need to push your muscles past their limit and then give them time to recover and grow. To build and maintain muscle mass, you need patience and persistence. 

So, how do you build and maintain muscle? Proper training, good nutrition, rest, and realistic goals create an achievable equation for success.

How to Build Muscle

You need to grow muscle cells to build muscle. This is called muscle hypertrophy, which is when muscle making outpaces muscle breakdown. Strength training plus an adequate amount of protein sets the foundation for building muscle. But rest and recovery are equally important. Below you will find more information on how to build muscle in the following ways:

  1. Resistance training
  2. Calorie surplus
  3. Increased protein
  4. Recovery time
  5. Sleep

Fitness

Strength training, or resistance training, is the primary form of exercise for muscle building. It involves using weights, machines, or your own body weight to stress your muscles, pushing them past their limits. 

The mechanical tension you place on your muscles when strength training triggers something called metabolic stress, which gives your muscles the energy they need to adapt to the strain of the weight so you can keep lifting. Pushing past the point where your muscles tire out damages the muscle fibers. This muscle damage triggers the healing process that causes the muscles to grow.

To grow muscle, it's often helpful to find your one-repetition maximum (RM), which is the heaviest amount of weight you can lift without losing proper form. If you can easily do three sets of 10 repetitions, or reps, you’re not at your RM. Consulting with a personal trainer can help you find your one-repetition maximum.

As your strength improves and your muscles grow, increase weight load and the number of sets to continue to build. Professional athlete, gymnastic coach, personal trainer, and creator of PHIIT Strength Kari Pearce says, “You must continue to lift heavier weights to build muscle.” When your weights are no longer challenging, it’s time to increase your weight load.

Kari Pearce

The time frame is different for each person, but generally within a month you will feel weights becoming lighter.

— Kari Pearce

Varying the type of workout you do also helps build muscle. You workout different muscle groups when you switch from free weights to weight machines. Pearce also suggests using compound movements to progress muscle growth. The more muscles you include in your movements, the greater the benefits.

Pearce says her advice varies for each client. “Experience level will come into play when doing a strength training program. If you are a beginner, more basic and bodyweight movements will be included. When I am working with someone more advanced, there will be more weighted movements as well as more advanced movements. This is not only to see the best results but also to make it more fun and challenging!”

Nutrition

Building muscle requires good nutrition and high-quality calories that includes a mix of protein, carbs, and fat.

In order to grow muscles, you need to maintain a positive protein balance. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) says you need at least 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight to maintain a positive protein balance and you may need as much as 1.3 grams of protein per pound to gain muscle.

While protein is important for building muscle, carbohydrates and fat also plays a role in helping your body achieve its goals. Carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains serve as a source of energy and essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Fat provides your body with energy and helps with producing the hormones you need to build muscle, according to Pearce. She also recommends “drinking plenty of water and limiting alcohol consumption.”

Other Factors

Giving your body time to recover is also important for muscle building. You should let your muscles rest for 48 hours before working them out again.

You also need an adequate amount of sleep to build muscle. A lot of things happen while you sleep, including repairing and building muscle. Not getting enough sleep triggers your body to release catabolic hormones like cortisol, slowing down muscle growth.

Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. But when working out to build muscle, aim for at least eight hours of sleep, says Pearce. Getting an adequate amount of sleep keeps the anabolic hormone levels elevated, improving muscle recovery and growth.

How you manage stress also affects muscle building. When you’re chronically stressed, your catabolic stress hormones remain high, affecting muscle growth and strength. According to Pearce, stress also affects your workouts. She recommends taking it easy on those high stress days and the days you have a hard time getting enough sleep.

How to Maintain Muscle

When it comes to maintaining muscle mass, you can follow a "use it or lose it" mentality. After age 30, you can lose up to 5% of your muscle mass every 10 years if you’re not physically active. Like muscle building, fitness and nutrition are vital to maintaining lean body mass.  

Fitness

Regular strength training is key to maintaining muscle mass. Like muscle building, you need to stress the muscle to maintain strength. This means lifting enough weight and doing enough reps to the point where it’s too hard to do one more.

Yoga and Pilates are also muscle building workouts that help maintain lean body mass and improve flexibility.

Resistance training helps you maintain muscle strength, but doesn’t necessarily add more bulk. Pearce says, “I often hear women say that they do not want to lift heavy because they do not want to get bulky. I promise you will not bulk up in a short period of time.” 

Further, she says “I believe all women should build muscle—there are a variety of benefits including stronger bones, increased resting metabolic rate, and it will make things in your daily life easier...to name a few!” 

Nutrition

Good nutrition is also important for maintaining muscle, especially high-quality protein. The ISSN says you need 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight to maintain muscle.

Eating balanced meals filled with nutrient-rich foods from all the food groups should help you get enough protein, as well as an adequate amount of carbohydrates and for energy and the other essential nutrients you need to maintain muscle and support overall health. 

Other Factors

Finding healthy ways to manage stress is also important for maintaining muscle. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that stress decreases muscle strength. How you manage stress right now may affect your muscle strength later on. 

You also need to create good sleeping habits. Like stress, accumulating sleep debt increases the release of the catabolic hormones that decrease muscle mass and strength. Aim for a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night.

A Word From Verywell Fit

Whether you want to build or maintain muscle, it’s important to know that what works for others may not work for you. Many factors influence your body composition, including exercise, nutrition, genetics, sleep, stress, and medical history. 

Find a routine that works for you and stick with it. Whether it’s free weights or body resistance exercises, the key to keeping your muscles is consistency. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do muscles grow?

    To grow muscles, you need to make more muscle proteins than your body breaks down. Though this sounds simple enough, the process of growing muscles is dependent on exercise, nutrition, and anabolic hormones.

    The purpose of strength training is to damage muscle fibers, creating a type of injury. Your body responds by adding more protein fibers to repair the injury, which ultimately increases muscle mass and strength.

  • How long does it take to build muscle?

    Though muscle repair happens quickly, muscle growth takes weeks or months. How long it takes for you to build muscle depends on many factors, including genetics, sex, workout, and nutrition.

  • What are the signs of muscle growth?

    More energy, flexibility, and strength are some of the early signs of muscle growth. Over time, your clothes may fit differently and you may see more muscle tone.

13 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Jill Corleone, RD
Jill is a registered dietitian who's been learning and writing about nutrition for more than 20 years.