The Teen Guy's Guide to Gaining Muscle

What to do -- and not do -- to build up your muscles.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 14, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

The football players, pro wrestlers, and MMA fighters you see on television may be packing serious muscle. But if you’re a guy in your teens, you have some body-building advantages they would love to have.

During your teen years, you’re in a phase of your life when your body wants to grow. You’re churning out hormones that are specially designed to help you get bigger. And right now you may be able to take in a huge amount of food and use it to build a strong body.

But it's easy to make mistakes in your quest for muscle. Here's how to avoid those errors.

Do These 5 Things Now

Following these steps will help you give your muscles the exercise and the fuel they need to get bigger.

1. Get a checkup. If you’re new to exercise or you have any health issues -- especially heart problems or conditions that affect your muscles or joints -- get a physical exam by your doctor or other health care provider before you start a muscle-building program.

2. Skip the shortcuts. As you’re starting on your path to bigger muscles, focus on the basics, says Shawn Arent, PhD, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Spend your energy working out and eating right -- not chasing fancy supplements. And don’t even think about using steroids, he says. They can do serious damage to your body now and in the long run.You don't need steroids to build better muscles. During puberty, your body naturally pumps out testosterone. This hormone encourages your muscles to grow, says William Roberts, MD, a professor of family medicine and a youth fitness expert at the University of Minnesota.

3. Build a solid program. When you're starting out, avoid tossing together bits and pieces of different weight-lifting programs you see in magazines, Arent says. Instead, build a basic core program that includes the bench press (for your chest), squats (legs), deadlift (legs and back), and shoulder press (shoulders and upper back). As you master these, or you start playing a sport that requires specific strengths, you can add more complex lifts.

4. Get enough calories. Do your parents give you a hard time about eating so much? If you’re training hard, politely ask them to give it a rest, says Roberta Anding, RD, a dietitian who works with athletes ranging from high schoolers to the Houston Astros and the Houston Texans. You need calories for growth and performance!

As a growing, active guy, you may need about 3,000 calories or more each day. Anding's tips:

  • Eat breakfast every day.
  • Get plenty of carbohydrates (carbs) from foods such as whole-grain bread, fruits, and milk. This way, your body has carbs to burn for fuel so it can save the protein you eat for muscle-building.
  • If you’re hungry late in the evening, have a snack. But…
  • Set your sights higher than fast food and candy. “You don’t create a Lamborghini body and put regular gas in it," Anding says. "You’re going to go with the high-octane stuff. Your body is no different.” Choose real food, not junk food.

5. Feed your muscles when they’re hungry. Another muscle-building hormone your body makes is insulin, Anding says. It makes your muscles soak up sugar, proteins, and other things that make them bigger and stronger.

Insulin is extra-effective right after a workout. So within 30 minutes after a workout, eat a blend of carbs and protein. Some options:

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Turkey sandwich
  • Trail mix
  • Smoothie made with yogurt and fruit
  • A carbs-and-protein bar

But too much protein can harm the body and have serious effects on your kidneys. So don’t eat too much of it.

Skip These 5 Mistakes

Here are five things NOT to do when you're working on building strong muscles:

1. Don’t hurt yourself trying to look cool. You know those guys who always moan and strain in the gym until they’re red in the face? Don’t be one of them. “The kids who get into the ‘I can lift more than you’ [mindset] and try to do their one-rep max on the bench can tear something or injure themselves by being unnecessarily competitive,” Roberts says. An injury can make you lose valuable training time. So always stay within your limits, and work with your coach or trainer.

2. Don’t try to figure it out on your own. Bad form while lifting can also get you injured. And when you’re using sloppy technique -- say, leaning back and jerking up the dumbbells while doing biceps curls -- you’re not focusing the load on your target muscles. Instead, you’re bringing in other muscles and making them help with the exercise.

Seek out a qualified trainer with good credentials at your gym, or talk to coaches at your school who know what they’re doing in the weight room. Ask for lessons on how to properly do all the common lifts.

3. Don’t overdo protein. We said it before, just a few paragraphs ago, but we'll say it again: Too much protein is bad for you. “Kids see these high-protein diets in muscle magazines and think, ‘Muscle is protein, so I need to get a lot of protein to get a lot of muscle,’" Arent says. “If they’re training a lot, they do need more protein than the average individual, but it’s not a ridiculous amount.”

Aim to get about 1.6 grams of protein each day for each kilogram that you weigh. We've done the math: Look up your weight and get about this many grams of protein per day:

  • 110 pounds: 80 grams
  • 120 pounds: 87 grams
  • 130 pounds: 94 grams
  • 140 pounds: 102 grams
  • 150 pounds: 109 grams
  • 160 pounds: 116 grams
  • 170 pounds: 123 grams
  • 180 pounds: 131 grams
  • 190 pounds: 138 grams
  • 200 pounds: 145 grams
  • 210 pounds: 152 grams
  • 220 pounds: 160 grams
  • 230 pounds: 167 grams

4. Don’t overtrain. A hard weightlifting workout breaks down your muscles. When your body repairs them, they get bigger and stronger. This process requires rest. So just lift 2 to 4 days a week, Arent says. And don’t work the same muscles 2 days in a row.

5. Don't skimp on sleep. You probably like to stay up late. But “kids who get enough sleep are going to have more vigor and train better,” Roberts says. So if you want big gains in the weight room, make sleep a priority. 

Show Sources


Shawn Arent, PhD, associate professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.

William Roberts, MD, professor of family medicine, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minn.

Roberta Anding, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association; director of sports nutrition, Texas Children’s Hospital, Houston.

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