What’s the Best Exercise for Building Muscle?

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Athletes doing push-ups with dumbbells on floor

Muscle plays many important roles in the body, and building it can improve your coordination, protect you from injury and boost your metabolism – not to mention give you more confidence when you flex in the mirror. But while muscle has a great capacity to change, how it does so depends on how you train. So, how do you decide what type of muscle-building program is right for you?

First, ask yourself: What is your desired outcome? Is it to lift heavier and heavier weights – in other words, to get stronger? Or, is it to complete more and more repetitions before tiring – in other words, to increase your muscular endurance? Both goals are related, but they require specific workout guidelines. I’ve laid them both out for you below. (You’re welcome.)

The Goal: Strength

Let’s define strength as the amount of weight you can lift one time. Each muscle fiber has an ability to produce force, and exercising stresses – and even damages – these fibers. This damage sets off a series of biochemical events that results in the muscle fibers’ growth. It stands to reason that if the fibers get bigger, the entire muscle will also get bigger – the result many people want.

The classic workout used to build strength is three sets of 8 to 10 reps of an exercise, but that is entirely too basic. To personalize your strength-building workout, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends first determining your one-rep max, or the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time. Then, take 65 percent of that number and use that weight for your exercises. In theory, your muscles should fatigue after 8 to 10 reps, which in turn will produce those biochemical changes. The three sets – which should be broken up by one to two minutes of rest – come into play as another method to overload the muscle. Adding sets (and rest) allows you to overtax the muscle at the same resistance – without sacrificing form.

If you think that seems complicated, you’re right. Determining your one-rep max is time-consuming, labor-intensive and requires the guidance of a trained professional, such as an athletic trainer, exercise physiologist or physical therapist. But the ACSM’s take-home message is that you should exercise a muscle group until it’s fatigued in order to promote change, and you should use a weight that makes you feel tired after lifting it 8 to 10 times. If you can easily lift a weight 10 times without difficulty, chances are the weight is too light. The second take-away message is to rest for at least one to two minutes between sets. Lastly, if you are really doing the exercises correctly at the appropriate level of difficulty, you should be unable to complete any more repetitions by the end of the third set, thus exhausting your muscles. These types of programs will produce notable increases in muscle mass.

The Goal: Endurance

Endurance is the ability of muscle to either hold a sustained contraction or complete several contractions in succession. Several muscle groups need to work for long periods of time, such as those in your neck, back and abdominals, which allow you to maintain proper posture. Plenty of us spend many hours a day in one particular posture, and our muscles are not trained to keep us in a good position. One relevant example is “tech neck,” or that tilted head posture associated with using hand-held devices and sitting and staring at computer screens all day. This posture is partially the result of poor muscular endurance.

Unlike strengthening exercises, endurance-focused exercises are typically based on time, not number of sets and reps. Think about it this way: Being able to complete 30 shoulder blade squeezes doesn’t necessarily translate to maintaining good posture all day long. Instead, programs that work on muscular endurance typically use low weights or no weight at all and require you to hold a posture like a bridge or complete a movement like walking lunges for a fixed amount of time. You will likely not bulk up with these type of exercises, but you will be able to fire these muscles for longer and longer periods of time, which will improve your overall function and mechanics. Just as with strengthening programs, it’s important to maintain your form so you don’t use the wrong muscles during an exercise. It may be more challenging, but it will pay off.

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