Building muscle doesn’t happen overnight. It takes focus, discipline, patience and strength training to reach the point where you can see real muscle definition. So how do you know if you’re lifting hard enough to build muscle?
If your goal is to build muscle, you should be lifting weights that are heavy enough to make it a challenge to complete eight repetitions. If you are, you should have to struggle to get the weight up on the last rep. To build muscle, you also need adequate amounts of protein in your diet. Lifting light weights and eating a protein-deficient diet won’t build muscle no matter how many sets you do. Lifting light weight only boosts endurance.
Is Muscle Soreness a Good Indicator That You’re Lifting Heavy Enough?
When you first started weight training, you most likely experienced soreness a day or two after your first workout. By challenging your muscles to lift a weight they weren’t accustomed, you created microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. It’s the repair of these tears that start the muscle-building process. Of course, it may take several weeks to months to see larger muscles when you look in the mirror, but feeling sore is a sign you’ve challenged your muscles enough to cause growth.
You shouldn’t experience pain after a workout, but if you’re working out consistently and never feel any soreness at all, you may not be pushing yourself hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. Mild soreness a day or two after a strength training workout is a sign you’re working your muscles enough to change. You shouldn’t necessarily feel sore after every weight training session, but occasional soreness is expected if you’re pushing yourself. It’s one indication you’re getting an effective workout.
Building Muscle: Another Way to Tell if You’re Making Progress
If you’re lifting hard enough, you should be able to lift heavier weights or do more repetitions over time. When you first started out, you may have struggled to do 8 repetitions at a particular weight, but now you’re able to do 12 easily. At this point, it’s time to increase the amount of weight you lift to challenge your muscles more. This is a sign you’re building strength. You may not see obvious muscle development yet, but your muscles are responding to your training by becoming stronger.
On the other hand, if you’ve been working out for 3 months, and you’re still lifting the same weight and doing the same number of reps, you’re probably not getting significant muscle growth. Time to increase the weight.
Follow Your Body Fat Percentage
If you have a body fat scale, measure your body fat percentage and follow it over time. If you’re building lean body mass and losing fat, the number should drop. Measure your body fat first thing in the morning after drinking a glass of water and before eating anything. If you’re dehydrated, your body fat measurement will be higher. Body fat scales aren’t always accurate, but if you measure under the same conditions every day, you can use them to follow changes in your body fat percent.
The Bottom Line?
Muscle building is a slow process, but there’s a lot going on that you can’t see during the first few weeks when you look in the mirror. Use these measures to make sure you’re working hard enough to get results.
On Fitness. May/June 2011. pages 72-73.
Exercise Physiology. Fifth edition. McArdle, Katch, and Katch. 2001.