7 Tips to Build Muscle in College

To sum up college in one intro to an article is nearly impossible. For most, it’s a time in life when you begin to transition from being looked after to doing the looking after. The looking after is of yourself, of course. You start to develop and learn methods that work and don’t work for your body. This comes in the form of diet, lifting, sleeping, working, studying, and a combination of all five.

When it comes to strength sports and bodybuilding in college, it’s even tougher to maintain gains, grades, health, and somewhat of a social presence (if you choose). I think every strength athlete has had experiences, stories, or memories of when they realized that they need to develop methods different than most of their college peers for muscle building.

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The memory that really pushed me up to develop my college muscle building plan came in the fall of my sophomore year. I was in my midterm week, hadn’t slept the night before, and had a peak week squat workout in Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. I was dead tired and misloaded the bar after my second working set for a 405 final set AMRAP (I loaded 45 lbs less on the right side).

As I un-racked, the whole bar completely lost balance and I dipped enough to the right to slide off my college’s wobbly clip and plates to the floor. Besides the embarrassment, I’m lucky no one was standing within falling plate range to get hurt. This was when I realized that not sleeping, having a set workout time, and having energy set aside specifically for lifting was a must for my health and others around me.

Sometimes it feels impossible to balance everything while still hitting your strength and physique goals. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help make gains, while not losing your initial focus (schooling).

1. Compound Movements and College Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding in college is a common trend among a lot of lifters. For most college students it’s about packing on muscle while maintaining their ideal physique. An issue that can arise with this style of training is the lack of focus on compound movements.

When time is limited an emphasis on the bigger lifts should be a priority. Squats, deadlifts, and presses will benefit strength and size the most. A lot of times students get so wrapped in the college bodybuilding ideal, and forget that when time is limited a deadlift will support their gains better than a bicep curl.

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Sharif El-Kady, 165 lb powerlifter at the University of Ottawa says, “Personally, I found success when I started doing heavy compound lifts and increasing my training frequency. Powerlifting gave me the strength to handle more weight on my bodybuilding days, which allowed my muscle to handle greater loads altogether.”

2. Find Your Best Training Frequency

The issue with training frequency in college comes with the ever changing amounts of obligations you make. For those who are super busy, then they’ll most likely need to train less frequently than those with more time on their hands.

My advice is to take the first two weeks of each semester and try two different training frequencies you’ve used in the past with your current program. Write down how you felt after each workout and week, then compare what frequency is realistic for your energy demands/needs.

3. Dial in Your Diet

Far too often college lifters don’t eat enough to grow or too much to maintain their ideal physique. Life gets busy and sometimes eating is the last thing on someone’s mind. Vice versa, sometimes the excessive food, partying, and drinking add up and hurt one’s physique. This is when different food strategies come into play.

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For lifter’s who have trouble eating enough.

  • Account for busier times in semester (mid-terms, finals, etc): “Make sure you get enough calories. A lot of times I was under eating when I would be at the library all the time. I recommend keeping track of your diet and getting quality meals in, especially during busier times of the semester,” says Peter Hoang, a collegiate powerlifter at Rutgers.
  • Make meals in advance and buy in bulk: “Buying food in bulk, then setting aside a day to prep was a huge help for me. Tracking macronutrient intake was a good habit to develop,” states Rodrigo Manzo, 66kg powerlifter and senior in Dietetics.
  • Bring snacks: Buy a box of protein bars, or other snacks that contain ample protein and are easily transportable (trail mix, cheese sticks, etc). When meals aren’t available these can be a life saver when you need last resort calories and energy.
  • Cafeteria bring backs: I’m not suggesting to steal, but most college cafeterias (usually big schools) are a swipe in and eat as much as you want. Something I used to do was bring back foods like peanut butter packs, hard boiled eggs, and other transportable foods my cafeteria provided in a little lunch box. You’re paying for it, you might as well get the most out of it.

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For lifter’s who eat and drink in excess in college.

  • Create a flexible eating schedule: “Be flexible whenever possible to avoid limitations that can lead to stress,” says Manzo. Time allotments to eat can be a first step to wrangling in mindless eating. For example, set a time for yourself to eat lunch each day (ex: 12-1:30). This allows wiggle room, while keeping an eating schedule somewhat consistent.
  • Account for party days: On days and nights when partying is present try to account for damage control. Personally, when I knew I was going out, I would up my protein intake and drop my carbohydrate and fat intake for the day. This is an easy way to gain back a few calories (for drinks), while hitting your protein goal.
  • Introduce tracking slowly: If you don’t track now and want to, but you’re worried you’re too busy, then start by tracking one or two meals a day. For example, when you consistently know what you’re intake is for breakfast and lunch, then you’ll begin to develop an idea of what you need and how much certain foods equate to.

We also reached out to trainer Brit Motzkus for her thoughts on nutrition in college:

The thing that was most crucial for me in college reaching fitness goals was being prepared with healthy food on the go. I was basically living out of my car between class and work, and then with social outings, it was tough to get in protein and vegetables if I wasn’t prepped for the week! Some of my go-to’s for a busy week meal prep are Quinoa, hardboiled eggs, roasted veggies, Apple slices with Peanut Butter, and making a big salad with my dinner each night that I can take the next day as leftovers for lunch. The convenient and cheap places surround you on a college campus (pizza, vending machines, fast food, etc.) so prep is key. Not to mention you’ll save a lot of money by avoiding eating out all the time!

Another tool that I learned in college and have stuck to for the long term is writing down my schedule for the week in a day planner (ya I’m a little old school 😉 ) and scheduling in my workout each day like I would a class or lecture on my schedule. This may seem simple and obvious, but the difference actually writing it down and having it on your schedule each day makes is huge. This way you can pack your bag for the day accordingly depending on when your fitting in your workout. This will help you pack your meals appropriately as well. If you know you can only fit a workout in at 4:00pm after one class and before the next, you’ll know in advance and will be able to pack enough food to keep you fueled for that late afternoon workout and night class to follow. Prepping and planning set us up for success.

4. Find a Workout Plan

This is where you need to ask yourself how you want to train. Are you most interested in powerlifting, bodybuilding, weightlifting, strongman, or functional fitness style workouts? You don’t have to be competitive to find a workout plan that matches your interests. A lot of college lifters jump from program to program, which is great for trying new things, but can be limiting to growth and consistency.

Be smart, stay consistent, and have fun. Beginners will build muscle regardless of what they do, so as long as you stay healthy and consistent, then you’ll see progress. If you enjoy the consistent process, then everything will eventually come together,” says Clifton Pho, elite Canadian powerlifter.

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A few programs and resources worth checking out for each style of strength athletes are shared below. Keep in mind this is to provide direction. I’m not stating one resource is better than the other, or to buy one of the programs.

  • Powerlifting: Stronglifts 5×5, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, and Juggernaut Method 2.0.
  • Weightlifting: Catalyst Athletics, Mash Elite Performance, and California Strength.
  • Strongman: Starting Strongman and The Cube Method.
  • Functional Fitness: Look for General Physical Preparedness (GPP) programming protocols and find coaches/programs that work best for your schedule/equipment availability.
  • Bodybuilding: EliteFTS and Bodybuilding.com are great starts for looking into different programs.

5. Find Your Perfect Gym Time

This point can be dicey for super busy schedules. It’s ideal to workout around the same time each day, but that’s not possible for most. An easy way to do this is to make lumped consistent days. For example, on Tuesday and Thursday class schedules keep that lift time consistent, then do the same for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s not a perfect method, but building a consistent gym time is good for a couple reasons.

  • Energy: Your body will adapt to the energy allotment you need partitioned for your lift during that day.
  • Regulars: You’ll see people consistently who lift at the same time, which is a clutch characteristic for working in on sets and finding knowledgeable spotters. Plus, you gain possible gym bros!

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6. Sleep

There’s no question behind the importance of sleep for muscle growth, recovery, and mental sharpness, but the typical eight hours isn’t realistic for a lot of students. Life doesn’t always allow us to have ample amount of time to sleep, but there a few things we can do to get the most out of the sleep we get.

  • Unplug from screens at a certain time each night: If you have to study late, try to use books, notes, or print out slides in advance. Blue screens disrupt our eyes, brain, and body’s ability to produce natural sleep inducing hormones.
  • Avoid being in bed when not sleeping: Try to avoid watching movies, television, and studying in bed if you’re not sleeping. This can result in your body associating your bed with things other than sleep. This can cause restless sleep for the little amount of time you may have.
  • Late workouts: If you workout late at night, then check out this article I wrote on restful sleep solutions for late night lifts.

7. Useful Supplementation

Out of all the times in life when protein shakes can be useful, I’d argue college is among one of the tops. Protein shakes are easily transportable and can be an easy way to increase caloric and protein intake for the day. If your goal is calories, then find a shake with a little extra carbohydrate and fat macronutrients. This is a simple and somewhat cost effective way to pursue dietary goals.

Wrapping Up

College can be a messy time when making gains in the gym, but with enough patience it’s possible to create your perfect muscle building regimen. The above tips can be a useful start for any strength athlete looking to perfect their daily lifting routine.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image courtesy of @lisahaefnerphoto Instagram page. 

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