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The 4 truths about building muscle

People wishing to add muscle should maintain realistic expectations and use reliable information in order to reduce the risk of health problems.

Source: Health Services

Building muscle

Engaging in regular physical activity that includes strength activities, endurance activities and flexibility activities is best for overall health. However, many people don’t exercise just for the health benefits — they also do it to look good. For men, and some women, this often means adding muscle mass. In their quest for bigger muscles, some people compromise their physical health. They suffer from injuries related to over-exercising or experience side-effects from using substances that promise quick muscle growth (e.g., steroids). Some also compromise their mental health: studies show that those with a drive for muscularity have higher rates of body dissatisfaction, which has been linked with poor psychological adjustment, eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety and other problems.

In order to reduce the risk for physical and mental health problems, those wishing to add muscle should approach this goal with realistic expectations and use reliable information. Unfortunately, reliable information on building muscle is extremely difficult to find, especially on the internet. Hundreds upon hundreds of websites claim to hold the key to building big muscles — usually through the purchase of a product that the site conveniently sells or through a program that is also available for purchase. Let's face it, if these products performed as well as they claim, everyone who wanted larger muscles would have them. This is clearly not the case. What follows are four truths that science has revealed about building muscle.

Truth #1: The ability to put on muscle mass is limited

A person's ability to put on muscle mass is limited by their genetics. Through proper training, good nutrition and adequate rest, a person can maximize their genetic potential, but they cannot exceed their genetic limitations. The fat-free mass index (FFMI) — a calculation similar to the Body Mass Index (BMI) — is used to identify the proportion of a person's lean body weight (i.e., body weight that is not fat) in relation to their height. Studies reveal that a person cannot achieve an FFMI greater than 25 to 26 without using steroids.

Not only is there a limit to overall muscle mass, but there is also a limit as to how quickly a person can add muscle. Contrary to what some websites and trainers at the gym claim, it is not possible to add 10 pounds of muscle per month. Although numbers are difficult to find, one researcher claims that under ideal circumstances (good genetics, disciplined training and nutrition), a person can add no more than an ounce (28 grams) of muscle a day, which would translate into about two pounds a month. Of course, this gain cannot be sustained month after month for years. The same researcher indicates that the greatest gain in muscle mass he has recorded in an individual in a year is 18 pounds; again, under ideal circumstances and without the use of steroids.

The bottom line: Respect your limitations and work within them. Work towards strong, healthy muscles that function well rather than big ones.

Truth #2: Challenge your muscles

Muscles only grow in response to being challenged. When muscles are sufficiently challenged, muscle fibers are damaged and small tears are created. As these tears get "patched up," the muscle grows.

The best way to challenge a muscle is to forcefully contract it against a resistance, such as through weight lifting. To maximize results it is best to train the major muscle groups (e.g., shoulders, chest, back, arms, abdomen and legs) a few times a week. To find out more about weight training, consult a certified trainer or reliable sites on the internet such as

Truth #3: Rest your muscles

Muscle growth occurs when muscles that are damaged through forceful contraction are repaired. This repair takes place when the muscle is resting. If a person continues to work a muscle that has recently been challenged, it won’t have time to repair and grow. Therefore, a muscle should not be worked two days in a row.

Truth #4: Feed your muscles properly

In order for damaged muscles to repair, they require energy and the proper nutrients to build tissue. You must consume more calories in a day than you burn in order for muscles to grow. The extra calories will be used to fuel muscle growth.

There is a misconception that building muscle requires a diet that is high in protein. Most of a muscle's weight is water (70%), whereas protein makes up 22% of its weight. A person cannot add more than about one ounce (28 grams) of muscle a day under ideal conditions, which translates into just over 6 grams (28 x 22%) of extra protein needed for muscle growth. This is about the amount of protein in two slices of bread or a small glass of milk. Therefore, although one needs to add some extra protein to their diet to build muscle, it doesn’t have to be a large amount. Protein supplements are not necessary.

Steroids and muscle-building supplements

Hundreds of supplements are available that promise quick muscle gain. But do they work?

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology reviewed the research conducted on muscle building supplements and found that only six of the 250 compounds that they examined had sufficient research (defined as at least two studies) to be included in the review. Of those six, only two had any evidence to support an effect on muscle building, but the researchers point out that the quality of the available studies made it difficult to draw any conclusions. Therefore, it appears that — like weight loss supplements — muscle building supplements are ineffective.

Anabolic steroids, however, are powerful synthetic compounds that act like testosterone, which is a hormone that contributes to building muscle. They have been used under medical supervision to help people add muscle or prevent muscle loss in times of illness. These compounds have "gone underground" and are used by bodybuilders and others looking to add muscle. Anabolic steroids have many many negative health effects including severe acne, jaundice, heart disease, cancerous tumours, psychological effects (aggression, mood swings, paranoia and delusions), infertility, erectile dysfunction and breast tissue growth in men. Their use has been linked to some deaths. It is clear that the use of these compounds is not conducive to good health.

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