There are no shortcuts to speedy muscle growth, but knowing what to do and when to do it can make your training much more efficient
Ever since Charles Atlas published his first bodybuilding manifesto, everyone from fitness magazines to TikTok influencers has tried to sell the idea that you can cheat your way to speedy muscle growth. Just drink raw eggs! Or add rum to your protein shakes! Or follow a tediously detailed workout plan that presumes you get to the gym twice a day, every day!
In reality, there aren’t actually any shortcuts when it comes to building muscle on a reduced time frame. Sorry about that. But there are lots of things that will slow down muscle gain. Helpfully, on the flipside, there are lots of other things that will help you build muscle as efficiently as possible. So no, they’re not hacks, or cheats, or any of the other provocative terms you might see plastered across a magazine cover. But they do actually work.
The biggest myth is that gorging on protein will guarantee explosive growth. “Calorie and protein consumption are important,” says Huel nutritionist Daniel Clarke, “but it’s about timing; your muscles can only utilise about 30-35g of protein at once. So already the body has put a biological limit on how quickly you can bulk up. If you see someone do it quickly, they’ve probably taken something, because you can’t do it naturally.”
Huel PT Chris Roche, founder of Project U, agrees, explaining that the only reliable way to build muscle is to stick to consistent workouts. “When it comes to building muscle it’s all about intensity and volume with the addition of good nutrition,” he says. “It’s a boring answer, but finding the right intensity and volume for yourself is the only way to build muscle.”
In other words, you need a plan for both training and nutrition. “You can’t just turn up to the gym and think you’re going to put muscle on by just doing movements that you’ve seen on the internet,” says Roche. “It has to be an adaptive process.” Likewise, overtraining is a huge beginner mistake and won’t get you anywhere except the chemists for some Deep Heat (other balms are available).
It’s basic physiology. Workouts strain your muscles, then as they repair themselves, they grow back stronger just in case they’re put through that kind of punishment again. If you don’t allow enough time for the recovery phase, your hard work in the gym is wasted.
Though protein isn’t a magic muscle-maker by itself, you do need to get enough of it if you want to grow. You also need calories. This one’s about maths: if you expend more energy than you consume, your body shrinks. If you put in more than goes out, you get bigger. Eating well and training hard should mean that you add muscle, rather than body fat.
So what does a good muscle-building nutrition plan look like? Dr Mike Molloy, the founder of M2 Performance Nutrition, says: “First things first, you need to be eating more calories than you are burning on a daily basis. Studies have consistently shown that eating 1.6-2.2 g of protein per kg of body weight is the ‘sweet spot’ to allow for maximal new muscle protein synthesis.”
How you eat is just as important. “You should be eating around four servings of evenly distributed protein throughout the day,” Molloy says. “In other words, if you have 200 grams of protein to eat per day, it’s better to eat four servings of 50 grams than one serving of 10 grams, one serving of 100 grams, one serving of 25 grams and a final serving of 75 grams.”
In other words, you definitely don't need to force down a protein shake as soon as you’ve finished your last rep, as Clarke explains. “A lot of people are suckers for the myth of the ‘anabolic window’,” he says. “This misconception that you have to sprint out of the gym and eat something within half an hour of training.” He quotes James Collier, Huel’s co-founder and head of sustainable nutrition and co-founder, who used to be a bodybuilder. “He says, ‘the best time to eat or plan for your training session is just after the one before’, so you’re eating 24 hours in advance.”
That’s the nutrition sorted, then, but what about actually hefting some weights around? Just printing out Anthony Joshua’s training plan and taking it to the gym with you is no guarantee you’ll build quick muscle. We’re all different, and our bodies respond differently to different types of training. “If you’re a beginner I would recommend two sessions a week, otherwise your body will find it hurts too much,” says Roche. “Someone like myself, who has been training 12 years, I’m going to need a higher frequency of training, a higher volume and higher intensity.”
For the average Joe or Josephine, who maybe works out a few times a week but is struggling to take it to the next level, Roche suggests asking yourself some key questions: are you progressively overloading your muscles, and are you tracking and understanding what you’re doing? In other words, “are you specifically working towards increasing your muscle mass or are you just turning up?”
Naturally, listening to your body and finding what works for you within a given framework is essential for both training and nutrition; Clarke warns that cutting or adding calories too quickly will either leave you weak or overwhelm your digestive system. Neither is good.
As far as shortcuts are concerned, Clarke recommends creatine and/or caffeine to give you a boost. Molloy, meanwhile, likes to get his head down. “Get eight hours of sleep a night and your body will have a substantially easier time building lean muscle mass. During periods of deeper sleep, your blood pressure drops and blood supply to the muscles increases, delivering additional nutrients that are essential for their healing and growth.” How you recover is just as important to building muscle as how hard you train.
Meanwhile, if all else fails, Roche has a cheat code for you. “This isn’t really a trick,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper, “but if you think of bodybuilders, they always get leaner to look bigger. If you get slightly leaner, you can reveal the muscle tissue you’ve already got without having to excessively bulk up. It’s a bit of a sideways approach, but it will work.”
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