Your ability to build muscle is influenced by things like gender, age, ability, genetics, and other similar things that are outside of your control. But there are a few key things you can control that will greatly impact how quickly you build muscle: your workout program, recovery time, and eating habits.
Your Workout Program
Compound lifts—lifts that work muscle at more than one joint—use a lot of muscle mass and release hormones that promote muscle growth. Compound lifts include the deadlift, chin-up, press, row, and squat. These moves should be the main focus of your workout, though you can certainly also do some isolation moves like curls or leg lifts.
You will also want to be methodically increasing the weights you use so that your body is always having to become stronger to accommodate your workouts. Consult with a trainer to determine your starting point and when to know you’re ready to move up in weight.
It’s easy to want to push yourself at the start of a workout program. You’re thinking an extra workout here and there will help you build muscle that much faster. But the reality is that recovery is imperative for muscle growth, so you not only need to plan rest days during your week, but you also need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night (ideally eight to nine hours).
During your workouts, your muscles will become strained and in need of repair. Rest days (and especially sleep) allow your muscles to rebuild, propelling you forward to the next level. Without proper recovery time, your performance will level out and you’ll risk injury.
Nutrition plays a pivotal role in your ability to gain muscle mass. There’s a lot of false information out there that eating tons of calories is the key to gaining muscle, but the truth is that most of the weight gained in those scenarios is from fat and water, not muscle. While you do want to eat extra protein and carbs during an intense workout program, it’s important to understand when to eat and what not to eat in order to maximize muscle gain.
Whether you’re a meat-eater or not, you’ll want to consume protein daily—especially post-workout. In fact, you’ll want to eat some protein within an hour after you work out to encourage muscle synthesis and prevent your body from consuming muscle tissue for energy. You’ll also want to avoid alcohol after a workout, as it can prevent your body from building muscle tissue, potentially negating any gains from working out.
No matter what your circumstances, building muscle is a fairly slow process. Don’t expect to reach your goals in a matter of months. Most men only gain about a pound of muscle per month under optimal conditions. Performance supplements may be tempting, but can have serious health consequences. Consult with your primary care doctor prior to taking any performance enhancing supplements or beginning an intense training routine to assess your health risk.