Foundations of Muscle Growth
I was given this question to cover and as it is something I used to be curious about myself, I thought it would be appropriate to cover a topic that would benefit a good portion of you. Muscle growth can be tough, but have no fear, as you move through this article, you will gain a full understanding of what needs to be done to pack on lean mass.
To understand the cost of muscle growth, we have to internalize the foundation of physiology, nutrition, and in certain respects, chemistry and physics with which to understand the basis for our more detailed analysis later in this article. If you would like a quick answer, feel free to skip ahead, but if you would like to understand the basic mechanisms behind muscle growth, read on.
Energy Balance and Anabolism
First and foremost, you absolutely have to understand these basic pillars of science to move forward with any confidence to the more detailed parts of this article. So, let us get started!
Energy balance is something most people are familiar with, but there is a certain part of energy balance that is the crucial first step to building any musculature. Each person has a relative metabolic set point at which they do not gain or lose weight if they keep their energy levels, on average, around that metabolic point. Simply, this is called your maintenance calories. Calories are, in our body, interchangeable with the term “energy” from physics and chemistry.
You have probably heard that you need to consume less calories than you burn if you want to lose weight. Well, that is using energy balance to achieve a goal (weight loss). Now, our goal is to gain muscle, not lose weight; so, how does the principle of energy balance help us achieve our
Quite simply, we flip the script by assuming we need to take in more calories than we expend (weight gain). Written differently, we need to consume a caloric surplus relative to our maintenance calories. Again, if our maintenance calories are the point at which we do not lose or gain weight, eating above that number will cause weight gain. I just wrote the same concept three different times – I hope you realize this is foundationally important to your success.
But why care? Why do we need a caloric surplus to build muscle?
This is where the concept of anabolism steps in. Anabolism is one of the mechanisms your body uses to achieve one of its many desired results. In this case, that desired result is to build tissue (muscle tissue, for example). It is not far from the truth to say that in any other caloric state (caloric deficit, caloric maintenance) anabolism does not occur (3). So, stick it in your head that you need anabolism to build muscle and the only way to make that a reality is to eat in a surplus.
The tricky thing about anabolism is that it does not discriminate (it’s politically correct.. ha!) on what tissue it builds. To clarify, anabolism favors the building of adipose tissue (fat) just as it does muscle, so this brings about a different issue we need to address.
How do we get anabolism to build only muscle?
In short, we don’t. (Wait, what!?)
So, there is one thing we can do to convince your body to favor muscle building over adipose tissue building – exercise. Particularly, resistance exercise, in the correct amount, intensity, and frequency lead to your body seeing the need for muscle production. In a sense, you are “convincing” your body it needs to build more muscle. In almost no cases will your body only build muscle, though, because your body knows the importance of adipose tissue and values it heaps more than you do (expect a separate article on this subject alone). However, by incorporating the right exercise, your body will tend to build muscle far more readily than it would otherwise.
So, let us recap before we continue.
You need to (in order):
A) Be in a caloric surplus.
B) This will trigger anabolism of indiscriminate tissue (adipose tissue and muscle).
C) You need to incorporate resistance training.
D) Your body will now favor the building of muscle over adipose tissue (fat).
So, you are caught up to this point, but believe it or not, we need cover some more specific information for you to really optimize your muscle growth. Let’s dive in.
Protein and the Consequences of Extremes
Here we are, you’re eating a caloric surplus (you know this, because you’re seeing your weight go up on the scale, right?), and you’re performing resistance training like a beast – what else could there be?
A few things, actually.
The annoying thing about muscle is that it not only is built during a time of anabolism (caloric surplus – remember?), but it requires a particular nutrient that other types of anabolism do not rely nearly as heavily on. As you can likely guess, that nutrient is protein.
I am going to keep things simple and say that protein is a special nutrient, because it fulfills many roles, but specifically it is critical for building anything in our biology – muscle is certainly not the exception. Now, your body needs protein for other functions other than your precious muscles (like your immune system, cell repair, cell manufacturing, among other functions). That being the case, you can apply the same concept you know about energy balance to protein.
If your body needs, for example, 50 grams of total protein to maintain all your critical functions (which it will always prioritize over building muscle), then what is the logical action to take?
That’s right! (I’m assuming you’re thinking the same thing I am…) You need to consume more protein than your body needs (> 50g), putting it in a surplus of protein. Well, based on sizable amount of literature, it is recommended that in a caloric surplus, you should consume ~0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (1)(2). If you can pull this off, you will be in a prime position to build muscle – nothing will stop you.
Still, even with protein figured out, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. By now you understand (at least, I hope you do) you need to be in a caloric surplus to gain muscle. The final question on your mind should be how much of a caloric surplus?
What are the consequences of having too high of a caloric surplus?
While your body is more than happy to build some quality muscle while in a caloric surplus and being stimulated to do so, it is limited in how much muscle it can actually synthesize within a 24 hour period. That being the case, if you eat, for example, 1000 calories over your maintenance calories – yes, you are in a caloric surplus and yes, you are in a state of anabolism and yes, you will build muscle, but no, you will not build more muscle than a person eating only a few hundred calories over their maintenance number.
Let me make that crystal clear:
Eating a 1000 calorie surplus will still have you (if all else is equal) building the same amount of muscle as someone in a 200 calorie surplus.
Want to know why? I thought so (if you didn’t, humor me – I’m excited).
Your body can only synthesize so much protein into muscle within 24 hours. No matter how much protein or energy you take in, it will only build a certain amount of muscle. If you optimize your training and optimize your nutrition intake, your body will only build up to a “cap” and then, for this purpose, stop. Well, if it isn’t building muscle after it has fulfilled its maximum amount (its “cap”), then I’ll give you one guess what happens to the rest of that extra energy.
Adipose tissue (fat). Your body loves adipose tissue, truly – so, after it has indulged your fancy for muscle, it will start filling those fat cells until it runs out of excess energy, but has transformed you into a happily blobular being. Lesson: Consume the optimal amount for muscle synthesis, no more, no less.
I guess that leaves one more question before we wrap this up…
How much of a caloric surplus is optimal?
That is a tricky question, and there is little research on this, so the answer is relatively up in the air. However, I wouldn’t write this out to say “I don’t know – go nuts!”.
With little science to back me up, it is safe to assume anything between 200-500 calorie surplus is a great marker to shoot for. Muscle synthesis is a taxing process and your body really does not want to go through it, but since you force it to with the culmination of all the factors we went over, it will grudgingly use a small amount of calories to build that physique of yours. Personally, I aim for a 200 calorie surplus – you may find slightly better results with a number closer to 500.
I think it is final recap time.
What you need to do, step by step, from beginning to end:
A) Consume enough calories to put yourself in a caloric surplus (+200-500 calories)
B) Incorporate an intelligent resistance exercise plan.
C) Consume enough protein (0.8g of protein per lb of bodyweight)
D) Do steps A-C with consistency (every day of every week of every year)
That is it.
If you aren’t building muscle, you’re messing up on one or multiple of the three steps - it is as simple as that. Get to work!
Author: Nicolas Verhoeven
(1) Tarnopolsky, M., Atkinson, S., MacDougall, J., Chelsey, A., Phillips, S., & Schwarcz, H. (1992). Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 73(5), 1986-1995. Retrieved April 25, 2015, from
(2) Wilson, J., & Wilson, G. (2006). Contemporary Issues in Protein Requirements and Consumption for Resistance Trained Athletes. Journal of International Sports Nutrition, 3(1), 7-27. Retrieved April 25, 2015, from
Some measures were based off Nitrogen balance (NBL)
Some measures were taken only on Whole Body Protein Synthesis (WBPS)
(3) Tipton, K., & Wolfe, R. (2001). Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth.International Journal of Sports Nutrition Exercise Metabolism, 11(1), 109-132. Retrieved May 25, 2015, from