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Healthy Balance

It’s All About the (Slow) Gains! How Gaining Muscle Mass Takes Time

man working out in gym to gain muscle mass

Muscular men have always been around. But now, the superhero body type is everywhere. Think Dwayne Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Henry Cavill, and Michael B. Jordan. Seeing this unrealistic body image constantly can make people — especially boys and young men — feel worse about their bodies. They may want to take short cuts to gain muscle mass fast. This is a bad idea for all of us.

Keep in mind, celebrities are being supervised by many professionals to get that muscular physique. Our experts weigh in on the healthier way to gain muscle mass — slow and steady.

"There's nothing wrong with increasing your muscle mass to improve your physical health or appearance so long as the strategies used are proven to be safe," registered dietitian Katherine Basbaum, RD, shares.

Why You Want to Avoid Supplements

The internet and social media offer a lot of advice on diets. But don't believe everything you see, Basbaum warns. Supplements like creatine and protein powder are generally safe to take. But they’re not necessary and can even sabotage your muscle-building efforts. Basbaum explains why: Creatine is readily available in meat and fish. Plus, we naturally produce creatine in our muscles for energy production.

Protein found in foods helps repair muscle cells that break down during your exercise routine. Protein, along with exercise, does contribute to building new muscle. But we often underestimate the amount we needed. And if you consume more protein than your body needs? It may turn into excess calories to be stored. This leads to fat, not new muscle mass. Also, overdoing it with protein powder or shakes can lead to stress on the kidneys and promote dehydration, Basbaum warns.

It’s important to know, too, that the FDA does not have the authority to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before companies market them. So, as with other dietary supplements, it’s not guaranteed you’re getting what the package may say with protein powders and creatine.

What Should I Eat to Gain Muscle Mass?

Diet is extremely important when starting a muscle-building program. But remember, it's not just about the protein. Ideally, every meal and snack should include:

These all provide energy and fuel for your muscles, Basbaum says. She adds, "Eating protein doesn't equal big muscles." Plus, extreme dietary changes could lead to muscle, bone, and nutritional issues.

The amount of protein someone needs depends on the person. But the average healthy adult on a muscle-building regimen should consume about 1.4-2 grams of protein per kg. This translates to about 110-160 grams of protein per day for a 175-lb male. Here’s how this breaks down each day for meals:

Find the Ideal Exercise Routine

Don’t rush things when trying to gain more muscle mass. Going to the gym every day can lead to injury or health complications.

You’ll get the benefit of stronger muscles by doing strengthening exercises at least two days per week. This is what the CDC recommends for adults.

Did You Know?

90% of teenage boys exercise to get big muscles and gain muscle mass. This can lead to muscle dysmorphia. Know the signs of this medical condition so you can seek help.

Someone who:
Spends hours in the gym
Abuses supplements
Has abnormal eating patterns, or
Uses steroids

What Role Does Testosterone Play?

A sex hormone, testosterone helps the body mature. Having a normal amount allows your muscles to develop. Men lose up to 2% of testosterone a year after age 40. This is expected. However, healthy lifestyle choices can reduce this decline to a degree.

Best ways? Maintain a healthy weight with regular exercise. Be sure to have a balance of cardiovascular and strength training.

Bulking up refers to consuming excess calories to gain muscle mass. But if done incorrectly, without appropriate dietary and exercise measures, your efforts could backfire. You could decrease your testosterone, warns urologist Ryan Smith, MD.

Males may experience lower testosterone if they develop obesity or an elevated body mass index (BMI). Here’s why. Excess weight raises estradiol (the main form of estrogen) and results in insulin resistance. Some males do require testosterone therapy as they age, but a professional like Smith manages this.

For men who are overweight, here are proven ways to up testosterone levels:

Why Avoid Taking Steroids

We've all heard of bodybuilders and athletes taking steroids to gain more muscle mass. These are anabolic steroids, or synthetic versions of the natural hormone testosterone. Taking testosterone in the form of steroids can result in long-term harm. This is especially true for high school and college students.

Low Testosterone

Noticing loss of muscular strength, low sex drive, & change in your mood? It could be low testosterone.

There’s a better way to bulk up to get the look you want, Smith says. Find a healthy balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to avoid insulin resistance or inflammation. Pursue a safe exercise program for muscle building.

Your Teen Trying to Gain Muscle Mass? What You Need to Know

Young athletes often want to gain muscle mass to increase their performance. They often consume 2-3 times the recommended amount of protein. This can lead to health issues and weight gain, Basbaum warns.

Another cause for corncern: About 5% or more of U.S. high school students have used steroids to enhance their athletic performance, studies show. This leads to long-term consequences, including:

"Adolescence is a time of significant physical change and growth. Bulking up is discouraged due to the negative health effects on adolescent growth and development," Smith shares.

Encourage teens to have a sensible and healthy exercise routine and diet — without resorting to extreme and dangerous therapies. Also, remind your child that those super-hero celebrities got their physique under the supervision of many professionals.

Your teenager, too, can gain muscle mass safely. Ideally, they’ll get stronger—and healthier—under the supervision of a doctor, coach, or registered dietitian.

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