Jon has a Ph.D in chemistry. Living an active outdoor lifestyle, he also has an interest in nutrition science and nature conservation.
The key to building muscle naturally and fast depends on three core concepts that support each other and if properly applied will cause a synergistic effect in muscle growth. These are:
- Resistance training
The information on this page is geared more toward those that are taking their first steps in strength training and bodybuilding. I will go over each of these concepts and explain how they help to build muscles fast without using substances that are foreign to the human body such as steroids. Much of this will be familiar to those of you that have some experience, yet I expect that you might find a few tidbits of interest.
The most important thing for muscle building is resistance training. Without proper resistance training, any form of nutrition and supplements will do little to nothing for muscle growth.
You could go to the gym and start lifting weights and pushing and pulling on training machines but if you don't have a set plan and follow a routine your muscle gains might get stunted and even loop-sided. To avoid that it's best to find a resistance training routine that is suitable for your experience.
What you want to search for are routines that utilize compound exercises. Compound exercises train a number of muscle groups at once as opposed to isolation training that focuses on a single muscle or muscle group. Compound exercises are therefore much better suited for the initial building of muscle mass with isolation work coming in later to "sculpt" the muscles.
There are several different routines for strength training that have been developed over the years. I have found that the strength training program called Strong-lifts 5 x 5 is simple enough for beginners to stick to and it can be easily adjusted to accommodate greater muscle mass later on.
Strong-lifts 5 x 5
The Strong-lifts program depends on the rotation of five different compound exercises which are dead-lifts, squats, bench presses, overhead presses, and barbell rows. Each exercise begins with a couple of warm-up sets of 5 reps, followed by 5 sets of 5 reps at the highest weight you can complete. The max weight is then slowly increased over time. You can read about this routine and how to apply it in detail on the Strong-lifts 5 x 5 webpage.
The most important thing to observe when lifting is to use proper form as it could cause serious injury later on if your lifting technique is wrong. It is advisable to start with lower weights and practice getting the forms correct before piling on those plates. You can see how to perform these lifts on YouTube or get someone experienced to help you. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting the forms right.
Now some might read this and consider doing something else which requires less technique, but whatever kind of lifting routine you use or even if you prefer cardio for some reason it will always require you to use proper technique. So if your aim is to lose weight and get strong then Strong-lifts 5 x 5 is the way to start in my opinion.
Macronutrition refers to the three main energy sources and building blocks of the human body, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Of these three an ample supply of protein is the most important factor for muscle building, followed by carbohydrates to fuel muscle growth and training.
Proteins are the main building blocks of muscles. They are made up of twenty different amino acids which combine in different ways to create all the different types of proteins. Of these twenty amino acids, eleven are called essential amino acids as we must get those from our diet. If your muscles do not have access to suitable amino acids in enough quantity they cannot increase in size and get stronger. In fact, doing resistance training while your diet is severely lacking in proteins will cause atrophy of your muscles, leaving them smaller and weaker. Therefore it is essential for muscle building to consume a certain minimum amount of high-quality proteins.
Studies have shown that protein intakes between 1.4 to 2.4 grams of protein per kg lean body weight each day manage to maintain a positive nitrogen balance in strength training athletes (Lemon, 1995). 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kg lean body weight each day is, therefore, the recommended amount of protein intake for strength training. This means that if you're around 100 kg (230 pounds) then you should eat about 160 grams of protein each day to build and maintain muscle mass.
Biological Value and PDCAAS
A scale called the biological value is often used to measure the quality of a protein. Proteins' biological value is found by calculating the nitrogen used for tissue formation divided by the nitrogen absorbed from food and then multiplying by 100. This number expresses the percentage of nitrogen from a protein source utilized by the body for muscle building. The biological value, therefore, provides a measurement of how efficiently the body utilizes protein consumed in the diet to build muscles. As such, the biological value of a protein is a key factor for strength trainers and bodybuilders.
It should be noted that the biological value alone fails to take into account some key values concerning the availability of essential amino acids and human digestion. Another scale called the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score or PDCAAS for short is therefore considered the gold standard in comparing the efficiency of proteins for overall health since it takes into account various factors such as the availability of essential amino acids.
The table below shows the biological factor and PDCAAS for several common sources of protein.
|Protein source||Biological value||PDCAAS|
From the table, we see that there are five protein sources that score a 1.0 on the PDCAAS scale which means that they all have enough of the essential amino acids to be considered high-quality proteins. Furthermore two of those score 100 or higher on the biological value scale, eggs, and whey protein powder. For muscle growth, those two sources are the best possible choice as protein supplements to be accompanied by a balanced diet of vegetables and lean meat such as chicken.
In the case of vegans then soy-based protein is the obvious candidate as a protein supplement since it's the only non-animal-based source of proteins with a PDCAAS of 1.0. In fact, soy should be a dietary stable for every vegan to ensure an adequate amount of essential amino acids.
While traditional weightlifting tends to focus on proteins and protein intake, carbohydrates are just as important as they are the fuel that drives your training and the muscle growth following.
What you want to aim for in your regular diet are complex carbohydrates. These are the carbohydrates that take longer for the body to metabolize and keep the blood sugar levels more stable over the day. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as beans, whole grains, peas, roots, and vegetables.
During training, it can, however, be beneficial to consume a certain amount of simple carbohydrates to get some fuel to the muscles which help them recover their glycogen stores, such as dextrose. This is particularly true when starting out weightlifting as you can easily drop in blood sugar when doing those energy-intensive squats.
The last category of macro nutrition is fats. Fats can be divided into saturated and non-saturated fats, with unsaturated fats generally being considered the healthier choice.
However, from the viewpoint of muscle building, all fats are good as long as you keep within your caloric intake with one exception, trans-fats. These fats have been linked to numerous physiological problems and should be completely avoided as they offer no beneficial effect beyond that which other types of fats do.
Having said that there are some studies that indicate that omega-3 oils may prevent muscle protein breakdown and have properties that enhance muscle building in the elderly (Jeromson, 2015). Omega-3 oils are mostly found in fatty fish and fish oils.
While dietary fiber is not considered part of macro nutrition it has a wide range of beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal system such as increasing the absorption of vitamins and minerals, lowering cholesterol levels, helps people lose weight and most importantly from a weightlifters perspective, it alleviates constipation.
When creating a diet plan for strength training it is still easy to overlook the importance of fiber as they have no caloric value. Even so a few days after people start their new strength training diet they usually get an uncomfortable reminder of the importance of fiber. The recommended daily amount is in the range of 20 - 35 grams of dietary fiber each day for adults depending on caloric intake, with increased fiber intake for higher caloric diets.
The final thing to consider in this category is your total caloric intake. For strength training, you want to consume a surplus of calories so that your body has something to work with after resistance training. Without a surplus, the damage caused to the muscles during resistance training takes longer to repair and hinders muscle growth and strength increase.
A quick way to find your base metabolic rate, which is the calories you burn daily without exercise, is to take your weight and multiply by 23 per kilogram or 11 per pound body weight. This will give you a rough estimate of your daily caloric needs but remember that this can vary somewhat due to body types, muscle-to-fat ratio, and simple genetics. To get a more accurate number you will need to have a professional measure your base metabolic rate.
During strength training, the caloric needs are higher. A total caloric intake of 30-60 calories per kilogram is the recommended amount with beginners starting in the 30 calories per kilogram range and increasing as their strength, lean muscle mass and lifted weight increases. Again this is a rough estimate that can vary for the same reasons as the base metabolic rate.
Micronutrition refers to foods, vitamins, minerals, and nutritional supplements that support the body in building muscles but are not necessarily a part of the main building blocks. This also refers to drinks and supplements that are used before or during a workout to improve the outcome of said workout.
This is not a complete list of beneficial micro-nutritional compounds but a summary of what I believe are the most interesting and beneficial. I consider a micro-nutritional compound natural if it can be found in foods or synthesized from foods in the human body.
Vitamins and Minerals
While it is essential for a healthy lifestyle to have the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals it should be noted that the government recommended daily amount is determined by the average person. A person that lives an active lifestyle, let alone an athlete, requires a slightly greater amount of certain vitamins and minerals than the recommended daily amount.
For muscle building, the key vitamins and minerals are the following.
|Vitamin / Mineral||Effect|
Overall metabolism of proteins
Supports muscle growth
Reduces muscle fatigue / Promotes good sleep
While these four are the most essential for muscle building, all the other vitamins and minerals are important as well. For most people adding a single multivitamin tablet should do the trick of ensuring an adequate amount of all the necessary minerals and vitamins, it is, however, worth noting in particular that female athletes tend to have a slight deficiency in iron.
Creatine is a compound that is formed naturally in the human body from the amino acids glycine and arginine. Extensive research has shown that creatine supplementation improves the body's response to resistance training by increasing the maximal force production of muscles, thus enhancing muscle growth from each exercise (Bemben, 2005). It has also been shown that oral creatine supplementation in amounts from five to 20 grams per day is very safe and largely devoid of adverse side effects (Bizzarini, 2004).
When starting supplementing creatine the recommended dose is a maximum of 0.2 grams per kilo body weight each day for the first week (with 20 grams per day as a firm maximum), followed by 0.03 grams per kilo body weight each day after that. During this first week, the concentration of creatine in the body is being increased, which is then sustained with the smaller dose following the first week. Creatine can, however, cause stomach cramps and headaches for some people at high doses. In those cases, a lower dose is also beneficial and in fact, the 0.03 grams per kilo body weight dose will eventually push the concentration of creatine to the optimal level.
Betaine is an amino acid which is a derivative of the nutrient choline. Betaine is formed in the body by choline in combination with the amino acid glycine. There is no recommended daily amount for betaine, yet supplementation of 1 to 2 grams a day is considered safe. Betaine is not recommended for pregnant women.
A study done in 2013 on long-term betaine supplementation with experienced strength-trained men showed that subjects supplementing with betaine managed to increase muscle mass by 4 pounds while at the same time decreasing body fat by 7 percent. The group that received a placebo showed no such improvements (Cholewa JM, 2013). Previous studies had shown improved muscle endurance during squat exercises and increased cycling power.
Research has shown that citrulline malate enhances anaerobic performance and considerably reduces muscle soreness following training. The dose in the trial was eight grams with the participants reporting no adverse effects except some stomach discomfort (Perez-Guisato, 2010). While this is promising further research is needed to confirm this effect of citrulline malate.
There are several other supplements that are believed to have benefits for muscle building but the evidence for them is either weak or anecdotal a couple of those are BCAAs and glutamine.
The most used of these are BCAAs or branch chained amino acids. While they are indeed the main building blocks of muscles it has never been shown that supplementing BCAAs directly during or after exercise has any benefit when the necessary daily protein intake is fulfilled. There is, however, ample anecdotal evidence that BCAAs are beneficial to muscle growth and strength training. This may be due to the well-known placebo effect, yet BCAAs cannot be completely discounted either as it makes sense that supplementing BCAAs would help muscle growth.
There is some evidence that glutamine supplementation may help with preventing muscle loss during "cutting" as the human body tends to break down muscle for glutamine when it does not get enough from the diet.
An Example of a Typical Day
Having gone over the main aspects of strength training and nutrition, it is time to tie it all together. To do so I want to show you how a typical workout day consists for me. Bear in mind that the optimal workout day can vary between individuals, but on average the same principles apply to us all.
Breakfast: Protein shake with at least 35 g of protein, 5 g of fiber and 3 g of creatine.
Mid-morning snack: Protein bar + fruit (apple) + a single multivitamin tablet.
Lunch: A balanced meal with lean meats and vegetables or a protein shake with at least 35 g of protein and 5 g of fiber.
Mid-day: Protein bar + fruit.
Dinner: A balanced meal with lean meats and vegetables.
Pre-workout drink 30 – 45 minutes before workout.
Stronglift 5 x 5 routine used, during which I drink water with a little dextrose added.
Protein shake after the workout.
While I see no reason to recommend any protein shake above others I want to mention that the pre-workout drink I use is called Pre-Jym. I use it because it contains a number of supplemental compounds such as creatine and betaine in addition to others that are promising and I have found it to be great to increase the volume and intensity of my workouts. if you, however, intend to try it please read the label carefully as it has a "high" amount of caffeine which might cause discomfort to users. Personally, I just used less than a scoop at the start and slowly increased the dose up to a full scoop as I progressed to test my boundary. It so happens that I can use a full scoop without any side effects, but my wife tells me she gets headaches from it and uses a different pre-workout drink.
Following this daily plan, with a Strong-lift 5 x 5 workout every other day has done wonders for me. By combining suitable protein intake with the correct form of resistance training and using a pre-workout that supplies me with both creatine and betaine I managed to add 5.5 kg of muscle to my frame while losing 4.5% body fat in the first month. Later gains were slower but nevertheless consistent.
So as my last words, I urge you to try this out and see how it can change your life to the better.
Bemben MG, Lamont HS; Lamont. "Creatine supplementation and exercise performance: recent findings". Sports Medicine. 35 (2): 107–25. (2005)
Bizzarini E, De Angelis L; De Angelis. "Is the use of oral creatine supplementation safe?". The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 44 (4): 411–6. (2004)
Cholewa JM, Wyszczelska-Rokiel M, Glowacki R, Jakubowski H, Matthews T, Wood R, et al. Effects of betaine on body composition, performance, and homocysteine thiolactone. J Int Soc Sport Nutr. (2013).
Hoffman, JR and MJ. Falvo, MJ, Protein – Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 3(3): 118–130. (2004)
Jeromson S., Gallagher I., Galloway S., Hamilton D. Omega-3 fatty acids and skeletal muscle health. Mar. Drugs.13:6977–7004. (2015)
Lemon P.W.R. Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids? International Journal of Sports Nutrition 5, S39-S61. (1995)
Perez-Guisado J, Jakeman PM. Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res.24:1215–22. (2010)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Jon Sigurdsson
What are your thoughts?
Imran Khan on August 01, 2017:
What a beautiful article.
I am glad I came across this article.