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How To Know If You Are Really Building Muscle

how to know if you are growingIf you want to grow you have to know!

This means that there must be some sort of objective means by which to measure your results. Without this you could be making no progress at all and not even knowing it.

Now, some people measure their muscle gain by scales. While this is better than nothing, total body weight fluctuates too much to be a reliable marker of muscle gain. Also, what if you lose fat and build muscle at the same time? This is a GREAT result, yet you may actually think you’re getting nowhere. I wrote an article here on why not to use scales to measure increases in muscle mass.

Another measure is the tape. This is a great tool (I recommend the ‘Myotape Body Tape Measure‘ for accurate results without the need for a second person) but suffers from the following:

  • What if you’re losing fat on the same area that you’re building muscle e.g. the arms
  • Small increases week on week are hard to detect with the tape and you may be fooled into thinking you’re not progressing at all
  • If you hold the tape at a slightly different angle you can come up with very different results

So what do we do?

The key to measuring muscular gains is by measuring strength gains.

Any bodybuilding program worth its salt is essentially a strength building program and will centrally focus on the principle of progressive overload.

Here’s why you can count on strength gains as a good indicator…

The cross section of a muscle is directly proportional to its strength.

  • In a man it’s about 140 pounds per square inch
  • In a woman it’s about 105 pounds per square inch

Basically this means that strength gains correlate positively with muscle size. It does NOT mean, however, that everyone that can curl a certain weight will have the same size biceps – never make that mistake. We all start out with different strength levels, differing muscle fiber density, differing neuro-muscular efficiencies etc.

Always remember that it is YOUR job to make YOUR body as good as it can be. Stop looking over your shoulder at what the other guy can bench or squat or whatever; it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Get your ego out of the road to succeed.

Your only concern is yourself. Ensure that YOU are progressing over time, regardless of what the absolute poundages are. If you could only bench 45kg to failure on the 8th rep, that’s fine so long as you see a progression (even a small one) each and every workout.

Keep this mindset and you’ll reach your goal. Make use of the scales, body fat readings, and tape along the way, but remember that you most dependable friend is your strength gains.

Keep Progressing,


Mark McManus
Mark McManus
Mark is now available for 1-on-1 consultations to help you take your results to the next level. Click here for more details.
Mark McManus is a trainer & author from Ireland. His work has been featured in major publications all over the world. He is the creator of the free growth-promoting workout Targeted Hypertrophy Training' (THT) and author of the NEW fat-torching system Total Six Pack Abs.
He has also created the BREAKTHROUGH arm and chest maximizer programs The Arms Blast' and 'Chest Blast' workouts.
And if you're a fan of delicious high-protein recipes to fuel your muscle growth, check out his cook book 'Buff Baking' here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cherubino October 8, 2009, 6:19 pm

    Hi Mark, i recently came out of a diet (i lost nearly 25 kg!) and my doctor used a very accurate method to monitorate body fat and lean mass percentage. It’s called bioimpedance and it is great also to know extracellular water, water retention. In some weeks i lost 0.2 kg but i could see with bioimpedance that i lost 1 kg of fats and gained 0.8 kg of muscles. I think it’s the best way to know if you’re building muscles, even if it’s difficult to find bioimpedance machines.

  • Pes October 8, 2009, 7:10 pm

    I agree that the best way to build muscle is to get stronger. In that sense, getting stronger is a great indicator of muscle gain.

    However, muscular hypertrophy is due to increase both in the number of myofibrils AND mitochondrial density. Lower reps increase the amount of the myofibrils the most effectively (and thus strength), whereas higher (8 – 12 and more) reps challenge the endurance elements of the muscle, resulting in a greater relative increase in the amount of mitochondrion. With this in mind, the muscle gains are not directly proportional to strength gains between different types of training. With strength training the muscle gain is slower. This is why someone can get up to say 200 kg squat with pure strength training but still have relatively small legs. However, all of this is only to point out the minute fact that there is definitely variation to take into consideration. Strength is nonetheless one of the best ways to gauge muscle gain and should always be applied! I would not even train without a workout log nowadays.

    Also, it was interesting to see that when I was on a diet, to my surprise, I was able to increase my strength by about 1 rep per session but regardless, my lean body mass decreased according to total body weight and fat percentage, measured by calibers. This was a real-life reminder for myself that strength isn’t always proportional to muscle mass gained – or retained.

  • Tristan October 9, 2009, 11:07 am

    I know a guy who weighs about 65kg but can bench press 95kg, I weight 85kg and can only bench about 65kg! I know that there are big differences in neuro-muscular efficiency, but that just seems ridiculous! Unless of course he’s full of BS!

  • Andrew October 11, 2009, 6:35 pm

    I’ve seen this mentioned a bazillion times: do an exercise “to failure.” Now, you’ve probably explained what the exact threshold for “failure” is elsewhere (and if so, point me in the right direction), but I figured I’d ask anyway.

    How do I know if I’ve reached “positive failure”? Is it when no matter how hard I try, I can’t get the weight past a certain point? What is that point? For example, with lat pull downs, is it when I can’t get the bar past my chin, or when I can’t get the bar all the way to my chest? Etc.

    OR…is it when it takes me TOO LONG to get a weight all the way to a certain point (whatever that point may be)? For example, with dumbbell shoulder presses…by the 9th or 10th, it’s taking me a good 10 seconds or more to get it all the way up, but I can.

    So…what IS that threshold?

    Also, in regards to Pes’s post, I’ve seen so many schools of thought as to what constitutes how many reps you should do per set. One site said 4-6 reps of very high weight, while I’ve seen 8-12 here (which is what I do). 4-6 seems to work for some people better than 8-12 (otherwise why would they be claiming that it’s the way to go), while 8-12 OBVIOUSLY works for others (like you, Mark). Are the # of reps dependent on the physiology of each individual person? Or is it cut-and-dried (i.e. 8-12 is always right, while the people who suggest 4-6 are absolutely wrong)?

    Yes, that’s a lot of questions. Sorry. 😉


  • Ahmed October 11, 2009, 7:08 pm

    Man , you have benefited me a lot , thank you very much :)

  • Gain Muscle Mass With Nick October 13, 2009, 12:39 pm

    Excellent post. A lot of guys obsess over how much they weight and their body fat percentage. While these measurements together are a great way to make sure you’re on the right track, keeping an eye on your strength gains at the same time is a great idea. Progressive overload is the only way to stimulate consistent and continuous muscle growth, if your strength level decline, it’s sure-fire sign that you’re either losing muscle mass or over training.