How to Improve Muscle Health An Expert's Guide

Staying strong as you age, getting fit, looking better in a swimsuit, having an easier time crawling around on the floor with your nieces and nephews — there are all kinds of reasons you might be interested in learning how to improve muscle health.  

But did you know there are reasons well outside better physical movement and appearance to care about your muscles?

Really!  Despite its reputation as being nothing more than a collection of “dumb muscles”, your muscular system is actually one of the most important systems in your entire body and its health and function have huge implications for physical, metabolic, and even mental health

Let’s explore all the connections between your muscle health and the health of the rest of your body and the best ways you can boost the health of both!

What is the Muscular System?

In the simplest terms imaginable, your muscular system is the ~600 named muscles that are spread throughout your body.  (They make up, believe it or not, around half of your total body weight!)  

Components of your muscular system can be found attached to your joints and bones, within the walls of your blood vessels, the walls of your digestive tract, and even within your organs.

No wonder they’re so important!

Different Kinds of Muscles and Their Functions

There are three different types of muscles in the body.  Each of these has their own specific structure and function.  

The three types of muscle are:

  • Skeletal Muscles
  • Smooth Muscles
  • Cardiac Muscles

What are Skeletal Muscles?

Pretty simply, skeletal muscles are always connected to your skeleton in at least one spot— hence the name, skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscle is actually the only muscle tissue in the human body that you have the ability to control consciously.  Every movement (from talking to walking) that you have ever performed used skeletal muscles.

Anatomical Diagram of the Human Skeletal Muscle System

Source: Human Body Muscular by Unknown, CC 4.0.

The specific function of skeletal muscle is to contract and move your skeleton.  With this in mind, even though they technically only have to be attached to one bone, your skeletal muscles are typically attached to at least two bones and cross over a single joint.  

This means that when skeletal muscles contract (get shorter), they pull the bones closer together and create movement around the joint between them.

Skeletal muscle cells form when a number of smaller cells join themselves together to form long, straight, giant “cell” called a skeletal muscle fiber (see the image below).  These fibers have a striped appearance and are extremely strong and durable.

View of Muscle Fibers under a Microscope

Skeletal Muscle under a Microscope. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

To make things a touch more complicated, depending on the exact make up of the muscle cells, there are actually three subtypes of skeletal muscles fibers:

  • Type I Muscle Fibers
  • Type IIA Muscle Fibers
  • and Type IIB Muscle Fibers

Type I Skeletal Muscle

Also known as “slow twitch muscle fibers, type I fibers contract quite slowly.  As a result, they aren’t very strong.  They are, however, very resistant to fatigue, and have great endurance capabilities – meaning that they can contract consistently for a very long time!  

You have lots of type I muscle fibers in those muscle groups that typically require stamina, such as those that you use to stand and sit (the muscles of your spine and calves, for example).

Type IIA Skeletal Muscle

Both types of type II muscle fibers are stronger, faster and more powerful than type I fibers.  As a result, scientists often refer to them, collectively, as “fast twitch muscle fibers”.   

Type IIA fibers contract faster than type I fibers and produce much more force when they do so.  Their endurance capabilities, however, are much lower. 

Type IIA fibers concentrate in your more power-based muscle groups, such as the quads, glutes, and pectorals.

Type IIB Skeletal Muscle

And, finally, we have type IIB muscle fibers (also commonly known as type IIX muscle fibers).  These are even faster and more explosive than type IIA fibers but have even less endurance capabilities.

Interestingly, type IIB fibers tend to be lighter in color than both type I and type IIA fibers.  This is thought to be because they contain less of the oxygen-carrying protein myoglobin — which also explains their low endurance capabilities.  

Similar to your type IIA fibers, type IIB are also found in your more powerful muscles (again, think quads, glutes, and pectorals).

It is worth noting that different types of exercise training can actually result in the conversion of fiber types.  For example, if you do a lot of endurance exercises (say, training for a marathon) you would see your type IIB fibers slowly change to type IIA or even type I fibers.

Alternatively, if you were to partake in a lot of strength-training or power-based training, you’ll see your type I and type IIA shift to type IIB.

Pretty amazing stuff!

What are Smooth Muscles?

Smooth Muscle Tissue viewed under a Microscope

Source: “Smooth Muscle Tissue, Microscopic View” by Juan Carlos Fonseca MataCC 4.0.

Smooth muscle is the type of muscle is found on the inside of your organs, your digestive system, and your veins and arteries.

Smooth muscle is arguably the weakest type of muscle.  Its primary role within the body is to contract and undulate, helping fluids pass through the organ they are part of.  Because smooth muscle is controlled by your brain subconsciously, scientists sometimes call it “involuntary muscle tissue”.

As its name suggests, this type of muscle has a very smooth appearance.  It is easily recognizable next to the striped (or rough) looking cardiac and skeletal muscles.

What is Cardiac Muscle?

Cardiac Muscle Tissue Viewed under a Microscope

Cardiac Muscle under a Microscope. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

As you might have guessed, cardiac muscle is only found in your heart and it is what lets your heart pump blood around your body.  Again, (and quite obviously, I should add), cardiac muscle is a type of involuntary muscle.

Cardiac muscle is unique in that it actually stimulates itself to contract.  There is a natural pacemaker in your heart made up of cardiac muscle and nerve cells that send electrical impulses through the heart, telling it to contract all on its own, every few seconds.

Like skeletal muscle cells, the cells of cardiac muscle are striated and extremely strong. This is a pretty good thing when you consider that they have to last you a (literal!) lifetime without failing!

What is Muscle Tissue Made Of?

Muscle tissue can be broken up into individual muscle fibers known as myofibers.  These muscle fibers can then be further broken down into their main structural components, known as actin and myosin proteins.  

Each of these components plays an important role in how the muscle actually contracts to do its job!

What is a Myofiber?

“Myofiber” is essentially another word for “muscle fiber”.  

Myofibers receive their own nerve supply to stimulate contraction.  Additionally, they each have their own very small store of glycogen (that is to say, sugar), which they use to produce energy for contractions.

Finally, each individual myofiber contains long protein filaments, known as myosin and actin, which are layered on top of each other in a complex pattern.

Diagram of the Structure of Actin and Myosin Proteins in a Muscle Fiber

Source: Richfield, David (2014). “Medical gallery of David Richfield“. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.009. ISSN 2002-4436.

What are Myosin and Actin?

Myosin is a type of long, stringy protein that is also known commonly as a “thick filament” among exercise scientists.  When it comes to muscular function, it is incredibly important because it is this specific protein that causes your muscles to contract.  It is what actually moves inside your muscle fibers when they contract.

Actin proteins are commonly called “thin filaments”.  These smaller protein strips contain specific sites that myosin to bind to, and pull on, during muscle contraction.

When a myofiber receives a nerve signal from the brain, the myosin filaments to bind to the actin filaments.  The myosin filaments then drag the actin filaments down the myofiber.  So, although the two filaments stay at a constant length, the muscle fiber as a whole contracts and becomes shorter – creating movement.

Check out this video if you want a visual representation!

What Do Your Muscles Need to Work Properly?

Your muscles require healthy inputs from your nervous system, hormonal system, and diet to work effectively.  

Let’s check out all these interactions!

How Does the Nervous System Interact with Muscle?

Diagram of Nervous System Organization between Brain, Skin and Muscle

Source: “Nervous System Organization” by Looie496, CC 3.0.

Most movements that you perform on a daily basis require the coordinated effort of multiple muscle groups simultaneously.  To pull this off, your muscles need to be carefully controlled by your nervous system.

To move your muscles the way you want, your conscious mind first sends a message to your central nervous system (CNS), which converts it into an electrical impulse.  This impulse is then sent down the nerves of your peripheral nervous system (PNS), into your muscles.

When the electrical message arrives, a specific chemical, known as acetylcholine, is released from the nerve into the muscle tissue.  This acetylcholine stimulates the muscle fibers to contract.

Amazingly, this entire process — from thought to contraction — only takes about 1 millisecond!

Which Hormones Interact with the Muscular System?

The muscular system is also heavily reliant on certain hormones to function properly and maintain health.  Some of the most important hormones for regulating muscle function are:

  • Testosterone
  • Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
  • Insulin
  • Cortisol
  • Glucagon

Testosterone

Testosterone is arguably the most well-known hormone when it comes to muscle tissueThis incredibly important hormone increases the production of key chemicals in the brain that encourage muscle growth.  It also interacts with receptors found in your DNA, stimulating an increase in actin and myosin production.

Combined, these jobs make testosterone essential to the development and repair of muscles.

Human Growth Hormone (HGH)

Like testosterone, HGH is well-known for its ability to promote the growth and development of your muscles.  HGH causes increased production of a key hormone known as insulin-like growth factor I (or IGF-I for short).

IGF-1 causes significant increases in muscle protein synthesis, which is essential to the health of your muscles.  Through this mechanism, HGH has an incredibly important role in keeping your muscles in tip-top shape.

Insulin

While insulin often gets a bad rap for its role in promoting weight gain, it is a natural hormone with lots of important functions, including helping protect your muscle health.  

Insulin stimulates protein synthesis by telling your cells to create more muscle actin and myosin.  This obviously helps your muscles grow!

As an added bonus, insulin also inhibits the breakdown of muscle tissue.  This is arguably more important than its ability to increase muscle growth because it helps stave off the age-related drops in muscle mass you see as you age.

And, finally, insulin also actively transports amino acids and glucose directly into your muscle cells.  This ensures that the cells have nutrients available for energy production, and materials available to build new muscle fibers.

Related: The Glycemic Index of Foods, Insulin, and Your Health

Cortisol

Your brain releases cortisol in times of stress when you need additional energy to combat disease, danger or trauma.  One of the ways cortisol frees up energy quickly is by promoting the breakdown of muscle protein into amino acids.  

These freed amino acids can then be transported through the blood to the liver.  Once there, your liver converts them into glucose (through a process known as “gluconeogenesis”).  Your body then uses this new sugar for energy.

This effect of cortisol, though healthy for short periods of stress, is not great for your muscle health long-term.  In fact, prolonged secretion of cortisol can result in serious muscle protein loss (and, unfortunately, high blood sugar) — essentially sabotaging your muscle health.

Glucagon

If you think of insulin as your “energy storage” hormone, then you can think of glucagon as your “energy release” hormone.  This is because glucagon mainly works to counterbalance the actions of insulin.

Around 4-6 hours after eating, glucose levels in your blood decrease.  This triggers the secretion of glucagon into your blood, which tells your body to convert the stored glycogen in your muscle back into glucose and send it back into your blood for fuel.

Glucagon impacts muscle protein synthesis in a negative manner.  It actually promotes the breakdown of muscle tissue into amino acids, much like cortisol, slowing the growth and development of muscle.

What Nutrients Does the Muscular System Need?

woman in workout clothes carrying lunch box and water

To actually contract and function, the muscular system is reliant on a number of key nutrients.  Some of the nutrients that have the greatest impact on healthy muscle function are:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Potassium and Sodium
  • Protein
  • Iron
  • Water

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of the three primary macronutrients in food (the other two are fats and proteins).  When you eat carbohydrates, your digestive tract converts them into simple sugar molecules, glucose.

Glucose is essential to muscle contraction.  

When it is broken down in the muscle, it creates a molecule known as adenosine triphosphate (or ATP).  ATP is then used to fuel myosin proteins’ movement along the actin filaments to produce a muscle contraction.

Glucose is so important for muscle contraction that your muscles store little stashes of it in the form of glycogen.  Glycogen can be easily broken down and used at a moment’s notice if your muscle needs sugar.

Potassium and Sodium

Potassium and sodium are two key nutrients that function as something called “electrolytes”. This simply means that they help transmit the electrical impulses that stimulate muscle contraction.

The majority of the potassium in your muscles cells sits just inside the membrane of your muscle cells.  Sodium, on the other hand, sits in the fluid outside of the cells.

The balance between these two electrolytes creates an electrical and chemical gradient that allows the electrical signals from your nerves to flow (similarly to how the negative and positive ends of a battery allow electricity to flow through your flashlight or phone).

This means that if your potassium and sodium intake is out of balance, your muscle health is going to be compromised.

Protein

Protein plays an important, and obvious, role in the health of your muscles.  

When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into smaller molecules known as amino acids, which you can then absorb. 

Amino acids are considered to be the building blocks of human muscle because they are used to create and repair muscle tissue, including the all-important myosin and actin proteins (as well as a host of other structural tissues).  

As a result, not consuming enough protein can limit the health and function of your muscle tissue by keeping your muscle proteins from being strong and healthy.

Iron

Iron is a key component of the oxygen transport protein, “myoglobin”.  

Myoglobin is a specific protein that helps transport oxygen from the blood, into the muscle tissue.  Having oxygen in your muscle cells is absolutely necessary for them to produce ATP and contract.  This makes myoglobin and, by extension, iron, essential to normal muscle function.

(Fun fact, it is because of myoglobin that muscle tissue is red, not white!)

Water

You surely know that water is good for you, but you may not realize how important it is for your normal muscle function.  

Firstly, water helps with the storage of glycogen in the muscle tissue.  If you don’t have enough water in your body, your muscles can’t keep their sugar stores full!

Secondly, water it is the medium in which all ATP energy production processes take place.  As a result, if you become dehydrated, your ATP levels drop and your muscles can run out of fuel to contract.

How Does Sleep Affect Your Muscle Health?

Now, the importance of sleep in regards to muscle health could honestly have its own article.  I think it deserves a mention here, too, though!

Most of the links between poor sleep and poor muscle health relate to hormone imbalances caused by too little sleep.  If you don’t get enough sleep, the following hormonal changes can occur within your body:

These hormonal changes are the exact opposite of what you want for healthy muscles!  The hormones that help your muscles grow are decreased and the hormones that break your muscles down are increased!  

This makes it extremely difficult to maintain muscle mass and keep that muscle tissue healthy if you aren’t getting enough sleep.  You will likely even have trouble building muscle strength and power from weight lifting or other strength-building exercises if you are sleep deprived!

In short, high-quality sleep is essential to the health of the muscular system.

What are the Different Types of Muscle Diseases?

Like any system within the human body, the muscular system is susceptible to disease.  Some of these are driven by genetic factors, while many can also be the result of diet and lifestyle.  The most common muscular diseases include:

  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Sarcopenia
  • Rhabdomyolysis
  • Muscle Strains and Tears

Muscular Dystrophy

To be clear, muscular dystrophy isn’t a single muscular disease.  In fact, this name describes a large group of neuromuscular diseases that cause progressive and permanent muscle weakness and wasting.

There are thought to be more than 30 unique types of muscular dystrophy.  While they are all slightly different in regards to the area of the body they affect and their severity, they are all genetic in nature.  This means that they are caused by some sort of alteration in “normal” genetic makeup.

Researchers have identified many of the genes involved in muscular dystrophy.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have found the genes that help ensure normal muscle structure to be the main culprits.

Unfortunately, there is currently no identified cure for muscular dystrophy. 

Studies have shown, however, that both exercise and stretching, ease discomfort, prevent joint issues, and slow the progression of muscular dystrophy.  As a result, regular movement and stretching are integral to prolonging independence for people with muscular dystrophy.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a very interesting condition that causes sensations of muscle pain and tenderness throughout the entire body.  This pain often comes with a feeling of intense fatigue, as well as problems with attention, memory, and concentration.

This disease is thought to impact around 2% of the adult population and is more common in females than males.  It most commonly develops during middle adulthood.

Fibromyalgia is an interesting muscle disease because its cause is not truly understood.  While the symptoms are entirely muscular, there is the suggestion that it actually stems from the brain and nervous system.  

In fact, one of the leading theories about what causes fibromyalgia right now is that the brains of people suffering from fibromyalgia perceive what most people would consider “normal” sensations, as intensely painful.

There is currently no identified cure for fibromyalgia, but certain strategies may ease symptoms significantly.  Those that appear to have the most effect are exercise and sleep

Regular exercise and good quality sleep may reduce sensations of pain and limit fatigue and tiredness throughout the day in those with fibromyalgia.

Sarcopenia

The fact that sarcopenia can be loosely translated into “poverty of flesh should give you some insight into this increasingly prevalent muscular disease.  In short, it’s a condition that describes the age-related loss of muscle tissue.

Once people enter older adulthood, they tend to see steady declines in muscle mass and muscle strength.  This limits their ability to perform a number of tasks of daily living and makes them more and more inactive, leading to a vicious cycle of muscle loss: 

muscle loss leads to inactivity, then inactivity leads to greater loss of muscle strength and tissue, which leads to further inactivity.

To make matters even worse, lots of muscle loss can eventually lead to your body making less testosterone and growth hormone, both of which you need at healthy levels for healthy, strong muscles!

Combined, these factors can lead to massive losses in muscle mass: sarcopenia.

Sarcopenia is becoming increasingly prevalent in modern society, and research suggests it may shorten life expectancy in comparison to those individuals who maintain normal muscle strength into their older age.

Weight-based exercise can stave off, and perhaps even reverse, the muscle loss associated with sarcopenia.  Stimulating muscle growth and increasing both testosterone secretion and growth hormone production, weight training ticks all the boxes when it comes to managing this muscular disease.  

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis is a serious disease that can occur in response to either direct or indirect muscle injury.  It is essentially the result of uncontrolled muscle fiber death and rupture, with all the contents of the muscle cells spilling into the bloodstream.  

In addition to leading to the complete destruction of your muscular system, rhabdomyolysis can also cause acute kidney failure because the muscle contents that leak into the blood are toxic for your kidneys.

Rhabdomyolysis can occur in response to physical damage (such as a crushing injury or a severe burn), heatstroke, or a drop in blood supply to the muscle tissue.  It can also occur when the muscular system is under extreme physical duress, such as during a marathon or an extremely long bike ride.

While you can’t really avoid rhabdomyolysis from an accident, you can minimize your risk of rhabdomyolysis from over exercising.  If you plan on competing in an extreme endurance event, make sure you train adequately beforehand, stay hydrated throughout the event, and eat enough protein and carbohydrate before and during the race.

Muscle Strains and Tears

Muscle strains and tears are exactly what they sound like — a physical strain or tear in a muscle.  These are acute injuries that can vary in severity, resulting in inflammation, pain, and a loss of function.

Strains and tears tend to occur when a muscle tries to lift more weight than it can handle.  It is for this reason that people who do not regularly lift weights and those who are physically fatigued (whose muscles are overworked, already) are at higher risk of these types of muscle injuries.

Muscle strains and tears are preventable.  By training adequately for a given event, and warming up appropriately, you reduce your risk of muscle injury, significantly.  Additionally, increased muscle strength has also been shown to prevent muscle injury.

Fortunately, if you do happen to develop a muscle strain or tear, they typically heal on their own, given enough time.  Small strains tend to heal up within 4-6 weeks, while more severe tears can take up to 12 weeks to fully recover.  


dad carrying kidsAging causes some pretty serious declines in muscle health and function, eventually culminating in sarcopenia.  Read our latest article on muscle health.

Find out more about the Aging Muscular System and Sarcopenia

How Can You Make and Keep Your Muscles Healthy?

So, now you know how important the muscular system is.  You know that certain nutrients are absolutely integral to its effective functioning.  And you know that if you don’t look after it properly, then you can experience a host of issues.

This is why it’s so important that you do the right things that keep your muscles healthy.  

What are those things?

I’m so glad you asked!

Arguably the most important things that you can do to keep your muscles strong and healthy are:

  • Weight training
  • Load bearing exercise
  • Stretching
  • Eating a well-balanced diet

Weight Training

Woman Benchpressing Weights at a Gym

When it comes to keeping your muscles healthy and strong, exercise is king.  If you’re not constantly telling your body that you need to keep your muscle tissue, then you will, literally, start to lose it.  

Research clearly shows that periods of inactivity or reduced weight bearing cause large deteriorations in muscle mass.  Researchers believe that this process is a large part of why sarcopenia is so prevalent today.  We simply don’t use our muscles enough!

So, the simplest way to keep your muscular system healthy is to use your muscles, and use them often.

And the gold standard when it comes to exercise for maintaining muscle health is weight training.  

Weight training using external loads (such as free weights or machine-based weight lifting systems) provides the perfect way to really use your muscular system. 

Such exercises put acute stress on your muscles, which tells your body that your muscles need to adapt to be able to deal with this stress more effectively.  It is this process that stimulates muscle growth and muscle strength, ensuring the muscular system maintains its health and function.  

Weight Bearing Exercise

Man Running on a Grassy Hill with Mountains in the Background

If weight training is the gold standard, then weight-bearing exercise takes the silver.  While weight-bearing activities (such as running, skipping, and hiking) don’t place the muscular system under as much direct load as weight training, they do still put weight and acute stress on your muscles.

This acute load provides enough stimulus to slow the deterioration of muscle mass that often comes with age and inactivity.  It’s not quite enough to stimulate new muscle growth, however, particularly in older individuals.

It is important to note that many weight-bearing exercises, such as running, do have a large aerobic component, though.  This means that they have the ability to improve your muscle endurance (if not strength) much more effectively than weight training.

With this in mind, if your goal is to keep your muscles as healthy as possible, I strongly recommend a combination of both weight training and weight-bearing exercise!

Stretching

Woman Doing Yoga on a Rooftop overlooking a City Skyline

As a society, we spend more time sitting than ever before.  While you likely know that this can have negative impacts on your cardiovascular and metabolic health, you not many consider the effect it can have on your muscles.

If you spend too much time stuck in certain positions (such as sitting), it essentially causes your muscles to get stuck in a shortened state.  This makes it difficult for your muscles to contract normally.  

It can also cause poor postureresulting in joint pain and discomfort (lower back pain, anyone?).

Although many of us cannot avoid spending long periods stuck at our desk, we can rectify their negative effects through stretching.

Stretching has the ability to restore length to muscles that have become short and stiff through inactivity.  Lengthening your muscles can improve their function and flexibility and reduce your pain.

Stretching is truly essential to muscle health.

Eating a Well-Balanced Diet

Eggplants, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers

Once you have the exercise part of the equation sorted, you also want to make sure that your diet is helping keep your muscles in tip-top shape, as well.  

Linking back to the components we discussed above, you want to make sure your diet ticks the following boxes:

What Are the Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass?

There is a small difference between exercising to keep your muscles healthy and exercise to build muscle.  As I alluded to above, weight training offers the perfect way to actually increase your muscle mass and strength.

But what I did not mention is that building muscle can have some extremely positive effects on the health of the rest of your body, as well.  These include:

  • Metabolic benefits
  • Cardiovascular benefits
  • Cognitive benefits
  • Bone health benefits
  • Functional benefits

Metabolic Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass

Muscle is an incredibly metabolically active tissue.  It stores glucose and interacts with insulin.  It uses tons of energy, just sitting there waiting for you to use it.  These natural functions mean that gaining muscle mass can have incredibly positive implications for your metabolic health.

Building muscle through resistance training can improve blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.  This makes having lots of muscle mass incredibly protective against developing diabetes.

Additionally, since muscle tissue uses massive amounts of energy, even at rest, gaining muscle mass can also increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR).  Your BMR is the amount of energy you burn, just lying on the couch.  

As a result, gaining muscle can increase the number of calories you burn every day, without you having to change anything about your routine.  This, obviously, can have positive implications for weight management.

Cardiovascular Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass

If you gain muscle mass, it will also have an impact on your heart health as well.  There is evidence to suggest that building muscle through weight training can lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol levels.  More specifically, it can lower levels of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol in the blood, while also increasing HDL (or “good”) blood cholesterol.

Through these two interactions, having greater muscle mass can help protect you against cardiovascular disease.

Cognitive Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass

It makes sense that gaining muscle would have a positive impact on your metabolic and cardiovascular health because muscle tissue interacts directly with those systems.  

It’s much more surprising that muscle mass can have a huge impact on cognitive and mental health.  But it can!

Research shows that increasing muscle mass through weight training may be able to improve cognitive function as well as short and long-term memory.  It is also thought to have a preventive effect on Alzheimer’s disease and may improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Bone Health Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass

While this isn’t necessarily a direct effect of gaining muscle per se, you can definitely see improvements in bone health as a direct result of weight training.

Heavy weight training places a mechanical load on your skeleton, as well as your muscle.  This mechanical load acts as a form of acute stress, telling the body that it needs to become stronger to manage this stress more effectively.  This increases the rate at which the body layers new bone and slows the breakdown of old bone tissue.  

The result?  

Weight training can actually slow age-related declines in bone mass and improve bone density!

It’s the exact same process that helps your muscles grow when you weight train, it just works on your bones as well!  Pretty amazing if you ask me!

Learn more about the Effects of Aging on Bones

Functional Benefits of Gaining Muscle Mass

And last, but definitely not least, gaining muscle can also impact your ability to simply live on a daily basis.  

Muscle mass provides your body with the strength and stability to perform everyday tasks.  (Think walking up stairs, hanging out the wash, or even climbing a ladder, here!)  It also allows you to move around easily and effectively.  Gaining muscle mass can improve your ability to perform normal, daily tasks well into old age, reduce your life-long risk of falls and injury.

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that those individuals who hold the most muscle mass into their older age are also those who maintain their independence the longest.  

To put it simply, gaining muscle mass keeps you functioning well, without the need for help, for as long as possible.  (Maybe even for your entire life!)

How Do You Build Lean Muscle?

So, now you know that muscle mass has a huge impact on health and that gaining muscle mass can improve health and function.  Now all you need to know is how to gain muscle mass.

And I am here to help!

There are really four key areas that need you need to focus on when it comes to building lean muscle.  These are:

  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Sleep

How Do I Exercise to Build Lean Muscle?

As I mentioned multiple times above, weight training is integral to building new muscle tissue.  There are a few ways to go about this, but from a time management perspective, I strongly recommend performing a full-body weight routine using large, compound exercises 2-3 times per week.

This will allow you to train every key muscle group with a relatively high frequency, which has been shown to strongly stimulate muscle growth.  

Within this, I would recommend training each individual exercise for 3-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions.  This appears to be the sweet spot when it comes to building muscle because it places the muscle tissue under both mechanical and metabolic stress — which is essential to stimulating muscle growth.

You could complete the example program below two or three times per week, which ticks all of the above boxes.

  1. Squat 4 sets of 8 reps
  2. Chin ups (assisted) 4 sets of 8 reps
  3. Deadlift 4 sets of 8 reps
  4. Bench Press 4 sets of 8 reps
  5. Lunge 3 sets of 10 reps per side
  6. Seated Dumbbell Press 3 sets of 12 reps
  7. Seated Row 3 sets of 12 reps

How Do I Eat to Build Lean Muscle?

eggs for breakfast

When it comes to diet, I firmly believe in making the recommendations as simple as possible.  This makes them not only easier to adhere to but also makes them much easier to plan for.  Both of these are essential to dietary success.

As far as protein goes, the current recommendation to optimize muscle growth is to eat 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kg of body weight, per day.  So, for example, a 180-pound (or 82 kg) individual would need to eat between 90 and 130 grams of protein per day.

You can accomplish this easily by eating four portions of lean protein spread out throughout the day.

In terms of carbohydrates, you want to make sure you have enough energy available to fuel your workouts.  You also want to make sure that you have carbohydrates readily available after your workout to replenish your energy stores.

And the easiest way to accomplish this?  Make sure that the meal before your workout and the meal after your workout contain some high-quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, or beans and lentils.

Finally, to ensure that your body is full to the brim with essential vitamins and minerals, make sure you eat a serving of veggies with every single meal.

See?  Simple stuff for surefire success!

How to Manage Stress to Build Lean Muscle

Life- and work-related stress has been shown to cause an increase in both inflammation and cortisol secretion — which we know has a negative impact on muscle health and make it more difficult to build new muscle.  

As a result, managing your stress as effectively as possible should be a priority if your goal is to gain muscle mass.

There are numerous techniques that can be implemented to help reduce stress, including meditation, spending time outside in the sun, and prioritizing social time with your friends and family.

The trick is to pick the method that best suits you.  Then you just need to really work it into your routine, every single day.

How to Maximize Sleep to Build Lean Muscle

Now, this final tip may seem a little boring – but that doesn’t make it any less important!

You should aim for anywhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night to make sure your hormones are balanced and allow for healthy muscle growth.

To achieve this, I strongly recommend avoiding screens for at least half an hour before bed, as the light they emit can reduce sleep quality.  Also, make sure your room is as dark as possible and relatively cool — both of which have been shown to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

Take Home Message

The muscular system is one of the most important in the body, impacting both health and function in a very big way.  Having a healthy muscular system can improve metabolic and cardiovascular health, enhance cognitive function and mental wellbeing, increase bone density, and even improve functional capabilities.

In short, muscle is important!

Using the information outlined in this article you can take the first steps to build (and keep) a healthy muscular system.  Give them a go, and let me know what you think!

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