Having more muscle is a pretty common fitness goal. But it’s one that’s more difficult to do when working out from home. Without heavy weights available to you, it can feel like you’re not making any progress.
But building muscle isn’t as clear a goal as it sounds. It’s not specific enough for a straightforward answer. It’s important to dissect what you really want to achieve and then figure out what’s possible with the equipment you have.
We’re digging into how the body builds muscle, and what you need to do to keep making progress.
How does the body build muscle?
The body grows the size of your muscles after you force it to adapt to exercise demands. As a result of your training, cellular processes happen to change things around the body to better support you the next time you try and do it.
It’s a stimulus and response kind of thing. If you don’t give it the stimulus (exercise), you won’t get the response (muscle growth).
The movements you do when resistance training cause muscle damage. The body builds your muscles back up in a way that means they take up more space than before.
But not all muscle growth is the same. Muscle fibres can be categorised in terms of the type of exercise they’re good at.
One type supports you with your force generation and the lifting of heavy weights — the sort of things you can’t do for long because they’re so intense. When training in this way, these muscle fibres develop and grow noticeably bigger. Think heavy barbells, explosive movements, increased strength, and extensive muscle growth.
The other type supports you in exercise that involves lighter weights but lasts longer and requires endurance. These muscle fibres will develop and grow, but not as significantly large. Think circuit training, HIIT classes, improved overall fitness, and a more toned physique.
The exact mechanisms behind all of this are pretty complicated, and definitely not as black and white as we’ve described. But you’re short on time and didn’t come here for a science lesson. So, this is just the information that’s going to help.
The final point to note is that these significant body changes only happen when there’s enough protein to go round. It’s called a net positive protein consumption. That means you’ve eaten enough protein to allow the body not just to carry out its everyday processes, but also to repair and rebuild the muscle damage you’ve done through exercise.
What’s the difference between strength building and muscle building?
Strength is the amount of force you can produce when your muscles contract. Muscle building is the amount of muscle you have. There’s definite overlap in terms of training goals for the two, but it’s important to remember that they’re not the same.
Increased strength happens due to lots of different changes. You gain stability in your ligaments, your muscles have endurance, your muscle fibres grow, and your brain gets better and recruiting motor units and switching them on to produce force. It’s a complex web of change. For this reason, there are loads of people who have incredible strength but aren’t noticeably that muscly.
Muscle growth is really just one part of strength. It’s also entirely possible to increase the percentage of your body that’s made up of muscle without really increasing your strength levels.
Can you build muscle without heavy weights?
To make any improvements in fitness, you must increase the demand of your exercise on the body. If you don’t progress the intensity of your exercise, you won’t progress towards your goals. But exactly how you change your exercise depends on what you’re looking to achieve and your current fitness levels.
Here are some examples of increased exercise demand:
• Increased frequency (number of times per week)
• Increased resistance (weight or load)
• Increased repetition number (or set number)
• Decreased rest time (the time needed for recovery between exercises)
• Increased number of exercises (the number you include in a single session)
• Increased speed (more relevant for cardiovascular exercises)
To develop and increase strength, you need to increase the resistance. Without an increase in load, you won’t see changes in your ability to lift increased loads. Makes sense. Exactly how heavy those weights are, depends on you and your current strength levels.
Building muscle is a more generic goal. Because of the complexity of the muscle fibres you have and how your body adapts, the answer in terms of exercise isn’t as simple.
The reality is, once you have a solid foundation of strength and muscle mass, it might be challenging to see any drastic improvements without the use of increased resistance or heavier weights.
But if you’re still developing in these areas, there’s plenty of improvement you can make without the need to buy heavier dumbbells than you already have at home. It might just be a case of trying different exercises and offering your body a different challenge.
What you definitely can do is increase your muscular endurance. This involves performing more reps and sets of an exercise and taking less rest in between. In this way, you’ll condition your muscles to meet the demands of this increased intensity. The result is feeling physically ‘fitter’ and even a more toned appearance if combined with the right diet.
Here’s why increasing muscle mass is for everyone
Increasing the percentage of muscle mass in the body, whether through larger muscles, increased endurance, or reduced body fat has benefits for absolutely everyone. And they’re not just aesthetic. The reasons for conditioning your muscles span wider than just how you look. The most important benefits of resistance training involve how you feel. Improving energy levels, improving posture, reducing injury risk, improving movement control, improving mobility, better sleep, improving cognitive function, and increased bone density are just a few.
There’s a misconception that increasing muscle mass only means building bulky muscles. Also, that it’s reserved for men. Neither are true.
Due to biological factors, males build muscle faster and in more significant amounts than females. Therefore, it’s easier for them to see physical improvements in increased size as a result of training.
For significant changes to happen in muscle mass that will increase overall body weight, weight training has to be specific and pretty intense. The number of calories you consume will probably be higher and the amount of protein eaten per day has to be drastically increased. These things can take a lot of focus and a carefully designed training plan.
Tips to keep building muscle
Develop a strong baseline level of fitness
Before worrying about whether the weights you have are heavy enough for drastic increases in muscle, start by developing a rock-solid foundation of fitness. By doing this, you’ll likely see some improvements in the percentage of muscle mass you have along the way.
To do this, increase the frequency of your exercise. Then, include a varied range of compound exercises of which you can do numerous reps and sets.
Play around increasing the number you do, reducing the rest time, and increasing the weights where possible. Progress these things slowly, making sure you can complete your routine fully without compromising on your form or posture.
Do exercises that challenge you,
If you’re starting to feel like no exercise you’re doing is offering you enough of a challenge, then do a bit of research into harder alternatives.
There are many ways to progress basic compound exercises without the need for additional equipment. Some of the most challenging exercises that require vast amounts of strength are bodyweight ones. Callisthenics is a type of training that takes years to master.
Here are some effective exercises that you can progress to make your muscles work harder without the need for any weights at all.
Wide grip pull-ups
Bulgarian split squats
Make time for recovery
The time your body actually rebuilds your muscles is not during exercise, but during recovery.
This is why it’s essential to take enough rest time to let sore and tired muscles heal. Let your body do its work to adapt to be bigger and stronger for the next time you try and workout.
Eat enough protein
Without enough protein, your body won’t build your muscles. It won’t have the right resources to do so.
Your body needs protein to carry out its everyday processes that we aren’t even aware of. If you’re regularly exercising at high intensity, you need even more than the average person.
You need a surplus of protein so that your body can use the extra amount to build your muscles in addition to everything else.
The best way to get enough protein is by choosing foods from naturally occurring, high-quality sources. Go for eggs, milk, chicken, fish, beef, soy, rice, and quinoa. Yoghurt, beans, and legumes are good options too.
You can find out your protein requirements and how to fit it all in here.