When people look to build muscle, they often envisage hitting the gym. For most, that brings with it a set of worries about how you might look, what the gym will be like etc. for others, it’s less of a problem, and they’re happy to get started.
Whichever side of the ‘gym enthusiasm’ perspective you sit on, did you know that you don’t need to head to one to build muscle? Not only do you not need to sign up to a gym, but you also don’t even need to buy weights at home. That’s right: radical though it may sound, you don’t need to lift weights to build muscle and strength.
In a world where pumping iron is marketed as the ultimate way to get buff, how can you build muscle all by yourself?
The science behind muscle gain
Building muscle is a fairly straightforward process on a biological level. While we won’t go full science journal on you, we’ll summarise the main part named muscle hypertrophy. Essentially, your muscles grow as a result of a process that sees your muscle fibres increase in size by being repaired with myosin filaments.
The process needs protein to work, because as you fatigue your muscles they begin a process called muscle protein breakdown. To counteract it, you need to give your body enough protein to be in a surplus. Once you are, the body can focus on using the excess protein to build these new fibres and create larger muscles.
So essentially, building muscle means you need to be doing resistance exercise and consuming enough protein to counterbalance the muscle protein breakdown rate that occurs when you’ve done your training.
Exactly how much protein you need to gain muscle is a subject of much debate, but our protein bars are one great way to up your intake in a convenient and tasty way.
Weights aren’t the only answer
Lifting weights applies three different stressors to your muscle tissue: mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. Scientists agree that mechanical tension, or volume, is the main key to building muscle - which is why most bodybuilders tend to lift lighter weights for longer sets than say, a powerlifter.
But why do we need weights at all? If you understand the stressors that muscles require to begin the process of breakdown and repair, all you need to do is plan exercises that can deliver the same type of stressors.
Weight lifting is known as ‘resistance’ training because it adds resistance to the muscle fibres beyond their usual load. But for most people, bodyweight training exercises and ‘home workout hacks’ are perfect for muscle growth.
For example, pull-ups and press-ups alike will both help you build muscle. They are still resistance-based, though are limited in their level of resistance to how much you weigh.
The only reason weight lifting is so often recommended for building muscle is that lifting weights allows you to increase muscle hypertrophy beyond the natural resistance your bodyweight offers. For most of us, however, you can simply increase your reps rather than pick up the weights.
You can also substitute some weight lifting with simple home hacks. These might seem ‘silly’ but are still mimicking the idea of resistance. You just need to think of ways to add resistance to exercise that are safe and freely available. For example:
- See your vacuum cleaner? Does it have a handle on it? Try using it for bicep curls and other simple lifts.
- Strap on your backpack, fill it with books and use it for weighted squats. Swap it to the front and do front squats.
- Stand on a thick bathroom-style towel. Grip the corners and then perform shrugs where each rep is aiming to rip the towel.
- Use your partner/flat-mate to increase resistance for many exercises such as press-ups with them placing a hand on your back and resisting etc.
Strength workout at home
In our how to exercise without going to the gym article, we outline a bunch of plans and exercises that can help you either tone up or build muscle. To make a strength workout at home that really suits your goals, however, you need to consider how to add to the muscle-building process that we mentioned earlier - specifically how to increase volume as a muscle stressor.
To do this, take an example workout and then plan out an increase in resistance. You can do this by upping the reps or the resistance itself via weight. You might, for example, start with 5 x 10 press-ups in one workout, then increase to 5 x 12, then add a weighted backpack to the routine. Your first ‘day’ might look something like the below, but remember you need to continually add resistance over time:
- 5 x 10 press-ups
- 3 x 10 jumping squats
- 5 x 10 crunches
- 5 x 10 towel shrugs
- 5 x 10 bicep curls with a backpack full of books/other weighted items.
You should also try and cut down on excess cardio if you’re trying to build muscle, since cardio exercise tends to eat into your carbohydrate and protein stores when you need them to fuel your strength training.
The most important factor is that you must increase resistance to build muscle. Otherwise, your body will grow accustomed to that level of resistance and it won’t force your muscles into breakdown/repair.