Staying active is vital for overall health, and it is also the best way to build skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle is one of the three major muscle types. Tendons attach these muscles, which contract and cause movement, to bones.
People are best able to improve their muscle mass by performing the right exercises and eating particular foods.
In this article, we look at how to develop the skeletal muscles, including what types of exercise to engage in, which foods to eat, and when to rest and stretch.
Muscle size increases when a person continually challenges the muscles to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight. This process is known as muscle hypertrophy.
Muscle hypertrophy occurs when the fibers of the muscles sustain damage or injury. The body repairs damaged fibers by fusing them, which increases the mass and size of the muscles.
Certain hormones, including testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin growth factor, also play a role in muscle growth and repair.
These hormones work by:
- improving how the body processes proteins
- inhibiting the breakdown of protein
- activating satellite cells, which are a type of stem cell that plays a role in muscle development
- stimulating anabolic hormones, which promote muscle growth and protein synthesis
- enhancing tissue growth
Strength and resistance training can help the body:
- release growth hormone from the pituitary gland
- stimulate testosterone release
- improve the sensitivity of the muscles to testosterone
Do males and females grow muscle differently?
A variety of factors — including genetics and the levels of testosterone in the body — can affect how rapidly a person can develop muscle.
Regardless of biological sex, muscle grows at different rates for people with different body types.
Both males and females can have the following body shapes, and each requires a different approach to muscle building:
- Mesomorphic: People with this body type tend to be muscular and generally build muscle mass far more quickly than people with other body types.
- Ectomorphic: This term describes a slim or straight frame. Ectomorphs have a lower chance of building muscle mass but can increase their strength through resistance training.
- Endomorphic: This body type is more rounded or curvy. People with an endomorphic body can build muscle most effectively through strength training.
People build muscle at different rates depending on their age, sex, and genetics, but muscle development significantly increases if exercise is:
People also achieve the best results when they follow exercise with enough rest.
The best type of exercise to build muscle is strength training, although cardiovascular activity can also provide benefits.
It takes several weeks or months of consistent activity and exercise before muscle changes become visible.
According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020Trusted Source, adults should engage in muscle-strengthening exercises that involve all major muscle groups at least twice weekly.
Examples of strength training activities include:
- lifting free weights
- using stationary weight machines
- resistance band activities
- body weight exercises, such as pushups and squats
- strength training classes that incorporate some or all of the above activities
A 2019 reviewTrusted Source looked at the effects of resistance training on the conditioning of crew members preparing for spaceflight. Its findings suggest that resistance training with three weight sets was generally more effective than performing one set.
However, a one set resistance program also yielded benefits.
Strength training and aging
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of limited mobility and other skeletal and muscular problems, such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis.
However, older adults should try to meet adult exercise guidelines if they can. If they are unable to do this, they should remain as physically active as their physical limitations allow.
Strength training is also beneficial for older adults to prevent injury and aid recovery.
Also known as aerobic activity or simply “cardio,” cardiovascular exercise benefits a person’s heart and respiratory system.
Cardio is vital for overall health. Current guidelines recommend that adults participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity each week.
While some people believe that aerobic exercise does not help build muscle, recent research disagrees. Regular cardio can support muscle growth and function. It also increases overall fitness levels, which may help reduce the riskTrusted Source of injury.
For optimal muscle building, the authors of a 2014 reviewTrusted Source suggest that people carry out aerobic exercise:
- at 70–80% of their heart rate reserve, which a person can calculate by subtracting their resting heart rate from their maximum heart rate for 30–45 minutes at a time on 4–5 days per week
There are three types of muscles in your body: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal. Cardiac muscles are the muscles that control your heart. Smooth muscles control involuntary functions like constricting your blood vessels. Skeletal muscles are the muscles that you target in the gym that help your body move. They make up about 40 percentTrusted Source of your body weight.
Many fitness experts often consider these to be the major muscle groups in your body:
Some people also divide these muscle groups into more specific categories such as:
- calves (lower leg)
- hamstrings (back of upper leg)
- quadriceps (front of upper leg)
- glutes (butt and hips)
- biceps (front of upper arms)
- triceps (back of upper arms)
- forearms (lower arm)
- trapezius (traps) (top of shoulders)
- latissimus dorsi (lats) (under the armpits)
Working multiple muscles
Few exercises truly isolate only one muscle group. For example, the biceps curl is one of the most common exercises to strengthen the biceps in the front of your upper arm. However, several other muscles also help your body flex at the elbow including brachialis, which is beneath your biceps, and brachioradialis, which is a large muscle in your forearm. Other stabilizer muscles need to brace your shoulder and core so you can efficiently lift the weight.
When designing your program, you may find some exercises fit into more than one category. In general, the more joints that bend in an exercise, the more muscle groups you’re using.
There’s no right way to group your muscles together. You may want to experiment with a few different pairings until you find one that works best for you. If you’re training for general fitness, you can follow a program that balances all the different muscle groups. If you’re training for a sport, you may benefit from emphasizing certain muscle groups frequently used in your sport.
Many people find it helpful to pair muscle groups that are close together. For instance, you may want to pair your shoulders and arms together since many exercises, such as rows, use both body parts.
The primary benefit of splitting different muscle groups onto different days is your ability to give each muscle more rest. For example, if you’re training on a weekly schedule and have one leg day per week, your legs have seven days to recover between sessions.
Examples for beginners
Here’s one example of how you could combine your muscle groups together using the six basic groups we listed above:
- Day 1: chest and shoulders
- Day 2: legs
- Day 3: back, abdominals, and arms
If you’re only planning on lifting twice per week, a good way to structure your workouts may be:
- Day 1: chest, arms, and shoulders
- Day 2: legs, back and abdominals
If you’re a beginner, sticking to those six basic muscle groups is enough to build a great workout plan that can help you improve your fitness.