If you want to go from scrawny to brawny and pack on some muscle, stop what you’re doing right now and follow along closely.
There are several things that go into building muscle. You’ve got to lift. You’ve got to eat. And you’ve got to recover.
But, it’s not quite that simple, especially if you want great results.
In today’s article, I want to share 4 muscle building tips to maximize your gains and help save you a lot of wasted time and effort.
Lean Bulk or Dirty Bulk?
Neither of the two actually. There’s this myth that someone can do a ‘lean bulk.’
There’s this myth that lean bulking is the best way to build muscle. You eat super duper clean and build lots of muscle with no fat gain at all.
Except your body doesn’t work like that.
When gaining weight, there will be some fat gain that comes along as well. Now, you can limit the fat gain by training hard, setting your calories properly to gain at a steady rate, and also avoiding the so-called dirty bulk.
The opposite of the lean bulk is the idea of dirty bulking.
Generally, guys think they need to eat anything and everything in order to gain weight and build muscle. Sure, some ‘cheat meals’ here and there can be used, but generally doing a dirty bulk is not the best way to gain muscle unless you want to put on tons of bodyfat as well.
So, how do we set up our diets to build muscle at a fast enough rate without adding too much body fat?
First, we need to set our calories.
The biggest driving factor in whether you build muscle or not comes down to total calorie intake. If you aren’t eating enough to gain weight, then you most likely won’t be putting on muscle. Think in simple terms here. Weight gain=muscle gain
I like to start nice and simple and begin with bodyweight X 15 for starting calories. I’ve found that trying to refer to a bunch of different charts and formulas doesn’t make it any more exact than starting with a simple multiplier.
Keep in mind, this will just be a starting estimate of calories and you can and should adjust them depending on what your weigh-ins are telling you.
Keep it simple and stick with around 1g/lb of bodyweight.
If you’re training with sufficient volume you should be eating a good amount of carbs. I like to start out around 1g/lb of bodyweight for lighter workouts, say upper body lifts, and anywhere from 1.5-2.0g/lb of bodyweight for harder lower body sessions that last more than 90 minutes. The more volume and higher the activity level, the more carbs you can eat.
Fats are your friend when it comes to massing. They’re palatable, easy to eat, and contain double the calories as protein and carbs.
Once you’ve got your total calorie starting point, you can quickly figure out how many calories are left for fats by calculating your protein and carb amounts.
Let’s say you’re a 175lb male looking to build muscle.
Protein calories= 175 (bw) x 4 (calories per gram)=700 calories
Carbs (multiply bw by 1.0 or 1.5-2)= 175x 1.5= ~260 carbs=~1040 calories
This leaves 860 calories for fat. 860/9=~95 grams of fat
Your starting macros would be 175P/260C/95F.
Try shooting for a 1% increase in bodyweight per week. So for the example dude above ~1.7lbs/week on average.
I like to split up massing or muscle building phases into 2-3 month blocks. I got this idea from Mike Israetel and have been using this myself and with my clients when setting up long-term approaches to building muscle.
The length of your mass phase can be anywhere from 1-3 months. If you do a 3-month phase, you’ll want a break from eating so much and aim to hold that new muscle tissue for around 5 weeks or so before you do a fat loss phase to reveal that new muscle. Or you could continue to mass if you’d like to get even more muscular.
There are endless options for program design. However, there are some constraints that affect how to set-up your muscle building program.
So how often you can/want to workout. Ie, can you train 3x per week only, or do you want to train 5x per week? The number of sessions you’ll do per week is the first thing you should look at. This really depends on your schedule, how much time you’re willing to commit per week, and some other logistics as well. The amount of variation in program design is a bit overwhelming.
There isn’t really a single best workout program, but rather what’s going to be best for your needs and goals. 3 total body workouts may be more than enough for a beginner, but splitting things up a bit more with a 5-day plan could possibly be better for someone with a few years of lifting under their belts.
Body Part Emphasis
Do you have areas that you want to build most? Most dudes should probably train their legs more lol, but tend to go straight for the chest and arms.
Pick 1-2 body parts to focus on during a training block (4-5 weeks). Everything else should remain around maintenance levels. This means you still train other areas but the volume is reduced for those muscle groups while the emphasized areas are boosted in volume.
Now isn’t the time to get super cute with exercise selection. The compound basics for high volumes are fantastic for building muscle. If you’re only using cable exercises and single-joint exercises you might be limiting your potential to build muscle.
Yes, this means squats, deadlifts, full range of motion presses and rows, pullups, lunges etc. You can certainly use some machine and cable work in there, which I actually like a lot. But I still think most people would do better to prioritize the heavy compound basics and save the other less fatiguing stuff for later in the workouts.
There’s a ton of debate about what rep ranges are ‘best’ for hypertrophy and it seems like a wide variety of rep ranges gets the job done.
Sets of 6-12 reps is a great starting point but it doesn’t mean you have to stick exactly to this range. You can go higher or lower sometimes but you’ll be covering most of your bases by doing between 6-12 reps on average.
You probably won’t be able to accumulate enough volume for muscle growth with heavy singles and doubles because the weights will be too taxing and heavy. Additionally, super-high rep sets (50 rep kinda stuff) used too often likely won’t be heavy enough to create a positive hypertrophic stimulus.
Every now and then, throw in a super high rep set at the end of a training block with the aim to produce new muscle adaptations.
Periodize Your Training
I think there’s something to be said about the quality of gains you can expect from a logically periodized routine versus a ‘free for all program’ where you randomly decide what you’re going to train the day of the workout.
Two of the biggest driving factors for muscle growth are volume and load.
So, is your volume increasing week to week?
Are you slowly increasing the weight lifted each session, or at the very least over the course of a training block?
One reason I’m a huge fan of periodizing your training is that you’re able to measure progress. You no longer have to guess if you’re getting stronger, building muscle, and gaining size.
You can look at your training log and see that your weights are increasing. And this is a powerful tool mentally as well.
If you’re getting more reps with heavier weights over time, and the total work you’re doing in the gym is increasing, you’re most likely growing new muscle as long as you keep those calories coming in.
If you start a mass gaining phase and squat 225 for 3×8 reps and by the end of the program you can do 250 for 3×10 I can almost guarantee your legs will be bigger.
You’ve gained muscle.
One of the best things you can do for assessing progress is to keep a training log. It’s super easy to look back and see if you’re making gains in weight lifted and reps completed with certain weights. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, a simple spiral notebook or composition book works just fine.
Bottom line: get a training log and be religious about writing your workouts down. Then assess your progress along the way to see what changes need to be made.
If your goal is to gain weight and build more muscle, you need to make sure you are in the mindset to do so.
You need to be ok with the fact that you’ll add some body fat while putting on muscle. It kinda sucks, but it’s just part of the whole process. You have to add a bit of body fat in order to make the best muscle gains.
Go too slow gaining weight and you end up causing your mass phase to last longer than necessary.
Go too fast and you risk adding more body fat than you want.
Somewhere right in the middle is probably best for most people. Of course, there are some exceptions but start with around 1% of your bodyweight gained per week and see it through until the end of your bulking phase.
As long as you continue to train hard and keep things sensical with your diet, you’ll minimize fat gain.
You’ll end up a little bit softer at the end, but you’ll also have way more muscle than before. Once you hold that new body-weight steady for 5 weeks or so, you can then cut down and reveal that new muscle. You’ll be leaner and heavier than before.
More muscle takes time, consistency and lots of patience.