What does it take to build or maintain muscle?


A common question I get is “What does it take to build or maintain muscle and do I really have to strength train to do this? I heard Pilates, yoga or hill walking might be enough…”

Requirements for maintaining and building muscle

1. Eating enough calories and protein. I’m not going to deep dive on nutrition today, but know that under eating while trying to build strength and muscle is like trying to row a boat with a hole in it. If your energy intake isn’t high enough to support it, it’s hard to build anything.

2. Enough stimulus against the muscles and bones to create adaptations to the muscle tissue. This process is known as progressive overload, which is gradually increasing the WEIGHT, REPETITIONS, AND / OR FREQUENCY (aka number of workouts in a week) to your strength training routine, to stimulate your musculoskeletal system (aka muscles and bones) to get stronger.

For progressive overload to occur you’d need to:

  • Be doing each exercise with a weight that is heavy enough that you could only do 2 or 3 more with reasonable form and not 10 more.
  • Keep repeating these exercises for several weeks gradually using heavier weights and / or doing an extra rep here or there to continue creating the stimulus to maintain or build muscle and bone.

NOTE! Heavy weight is RELATIVE. It just means that you can’t do 2 or 3 more with good form after your prescribed number of reps in the program, which usually has you do multiple rounds of each exercise.

This is why hill walking / yoga / Pilates / barre / programs with 3 to 10 lb hand weights aren’t effective options for building or maintaining muscle and bone.

They’re not bad. They’re just not good tools for progressive overload, because they don’t offer enough resistance. Also, these modalities aren’t programed in a way to support this happening.

If you want to build muscle, you’ll want to follow a strength training program.

Strength training gives you increasingly heavier options for progressing your weights. It’s also programmed in a way where each week, you revisit the same exercises that target major muscle groups. FYI, dumbbells are great for this, because they go up in small increments!

An added benefit is that you’ll significantly stronger too, because lifting progressively “heavier” weights yields greater strength gains than using light weights.

What if you DON’T want more muscle?

I get it. Our culture tells us that women should aspire to be as small as possible. You might have internalized this message, but it’s worth considering your long term quality of life.

Not to go dark, but here’s an important stat. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3 to 8% per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. This process of muscle loss is called sarcopenia and it’s #notaparty

Less muscle isn’t just about losing your “tone.” It means that it’s increasingly harder to get up and down off the floor, walk up the stairs, lift that big ass kitchen aid mixer, and do things with ease. It might also mean more injuries, because when something is too heavy, it’s easier to overload a joint and an increased risk of falls and fractures.

I don’t say that to scare you. I share this, because when women say “I don’t want more muscle,” I’m not sure they consider what that means long term. Also, it’s really fucking hard to get jacked. Hell, it takes work to just preserve what we have.

The good news? Strength training helps preserve muscle and you can start at ANY age. This doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom my friend.

Ready to figure out this strength training thing in a totally non-intimidating, but highly effective way?

Check out PUSH IT: An INTRODUCTORY STRENGTH TRAINING PROGRAM to get started weight training and using progressive overload with bands and dumbbells.

Meghan and I designed PUSH IT for people who are new to strength training and have some concerns about pain or injury. It can be done in the gym OR at home – assuming that you have a couple sets of dumbbells, jump stretch bands, and a pull-up bar.

Annn-nnnd if you sign up for this round, you’ll get three LIVE bonus coaching calls over ZOOM with replays with us, where we’ll break down the exercises, answer questions, and offer additional education and information about progressive overload, nutrition for strength training, working around injuries…and more!

Click here to learn more and join.