If you’ve taken a few months, or years, off from exercising and want to rebuild your muscle, there’s no time like the present. Getting back into the fitness habit with strength training and certain forms of cardio exercise will stimulate muscle growth and help you develop lean muscle mass. By challenging your muscles to work beyond their current ability, you force your body to repair and rebuild them stronger than before. When combined with a muscle-building diet, this process can help you gain back what was lost and give you a stronger, leaner body.
Hit the weights at least twice a week. To build muscles, you have to work them against resistance. Start by scheduling two strength-training sessions every week: one for your lower body and one for your upper body. Focus on the main muscle groups, including your shoulder muscles, back muscles, biceps, triceps and chest muscles on upper-body days and your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves on lower-body days. Train your core (abs, lower back and hips) during both sessions and allow at least 48 hours to pass between workouts to allow your muscles to recover.
Start a cardio routine that builds both muscle and endurance. The key to developing muscle with cardio is to increase the resistance or incline of your workout, forcing your muscles to work harder. If you already do cardio workouts, such as walking or running, add hills to your route or increase the incline on your treadmill. If you are a beginner, ease into a routine by aiming for 30 minutes of activity five times a week and incorporate hills and inclines as you get stronger. Another option is to add regular sessions on a stair climber, which is one of the most effective cardio machines for building leg muscle.
Avoid overtraining, which can lead to injuries, illnesses and burnout. Rebuilding muscle takes time and commitment and forcing your body to do more than it can handle at first will be counterproductive. Make sure you prioritize sleep and take at least one day off from training every week.
Calculate your caloric needs. To bulk up, you need to eat more calories than you burn. To shed fat pounds while building muscle, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) by using the Harris-Benedict formula. For women, this is 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years). For men, it is 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in years). Multiply that number by 1.2 to 1.375 if you are sedentary or lightly active during the day or 1.55 to 1.9 if you are moderately to extremely active to find the number of calories you can eat to maintain your current weight. Finally, factor in the number of calories you burn through exercise and aim to create either a 500-calorie deficit or overage through a combination of diet and activity to lose or gain at a rate of roughly one pound a week.
Create a meal plan. Building muscle requires a protein-rich diet that helps your body repair and rebuild muscle tissue after exercise. Eat six small meals a day every 2 or 3 hours to increase your metabolism and reduce the number of calories stored as fat and include a serving of both protein and complex carbohydrates at each sitting. Quality protein sources include lean meats, nuts, low-fat dairy, eggs and protein powder. Carbs should come from whole-grain breads and pastas, oats, brown rice, fruits and vegetables. Schedule a meal within 30 minutes to 1 hour after your workout to maximize your body’s muscle-building potential and also refill your glycogen stores. Include healthy fats in at least two meals a day from sources such as olive oil, nut butters, avocados or fish.
Create a workout schedule at the beginning of each week to help you stay accountable and track your progress. This will also help you evaluate your plan and know how to make adjustments in the future.
- MayoClinic.com: Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier
- American Heart Association: American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults
- Muscle & Strength: The 10 Commandments of Muscle Building Nutrition!
- BodyBuilding.com: Nutrition 101: Eat To Build Lean Muscle
- Shape: Hill Running: 5 Reasons to Love the Incline
- Be sure to consult with your physician before beginning any new exercise or diet program.
After graduating from the University of Kansas with a bachelor's degree in sports information, Jill Lee served for 10 years as a magazine editor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Also a published author, Lee now works as a professional writer and editor focusing on fitness, sports and careers.