Whether you’d like more muscle to help improve athletic performance, to lift more weight, or simply to look better, this article is for you.
In this post I’m going to tell you the 8 most important things you need to know about building muscle. I’m also going to give you a mass building training template so you can get started on your journey for more muscle.
So You Wanna Get Big Huh?
Muscle gain isn’t just for men. Females should strive for more muscle as well.
Both males and females can benefit from carrying more muscle. Muscle is what gives the body it’s shape, contour, and definition. Two people of the same bodyweight will look much different if one of them has 10 more pounds of muscle. Muscle is more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, helps you burn more calories at rest, and can also protect your body as you age.
The benefits of building muscle are literally endless. Stronger bones, more energy, and more strength.
Enough of the jibber jabber, let’s get into the fundamental principles of how to build muscle.
1. Slow and Steady Wins the Race (No, but for real)
I put this principle first because it’s something that you must understand if you want the best results over the long term. You’ve got to have patience when your primary goal is to build muscle.
Many others in the industry have stated that losing fat is easy compared to building muscle, and I think that holds true for the majority of folk. When your goal is to lose body fat, you also want to go slow. This preserves muscle mass as you diet down.
The same rule applies to adding slabs of muscle to your frame: go slow and you’ll minimize fat gain along the way to putting on more quality tissue.
For instance, take a look at the visual difference between fat vs. muscle:
Both weigh the same, but muscle takes up much less space than fat. This is why adding muscle and losing body fat can be so visually appealing.
The body doesn’t want to change. Have you ever noticed that your weight will stay pretty much the same when you get to a certain point? It may fluctuate a few pounds here and there, but for the most part your weight will stay stable. That is unless you start eating more or less consistently.
This is just the body’s way of maintaining homeostasis. So when the goal is to build muscle, how do we know how much weight gain is too much, and how much is not enough?
On average, gaining between 0.5-1.5lbs per week is a good range for most people. Most people would do really well gaining 1lb/week. You can certainly go faster than this, but you’ll end up with more body fat than necessary. Keep in mind that this is total weight gain not pure muscle per week.
A lot of people are afraid to try to build muscle because they don’t want to “get fat.” The truth is, you will gain some fat in the process, but that’s just part of the equation to becoming more muscular. But, if you do it slow, you’ll minimize fat gain and end up with more quality weight gain.
You have to consistently eat more calories than you’re burning in order to build muscle, which leads me into principle #2.
2. Gimme Da Calories
Calories reign supreme when it comes to building muscle.
Eating to build muscle can be a very fun thing. It can also be rough if you happen to be a hard gainer. You now need more calories than you burn in order to gain weight/muscle.
A simple way to tell if you are potentially gaining muscle is to see if the scale is increasing steadily. Weigh yourself 2-3 times per week first thing in the morning. If your weight is increasing 0.5-1.5lbs/week then you’re on the right track with your calories. Any less than this and you need to bump your calories up. A faster rate than this and you may need to decrease your calories a bit.
It’s still a good idea to adjust your calorie intake to your activity level. You can use this BMR calculator to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your bodyweight. Then, you’ll want to take your BMR and multiply that by your activity level here.
This will give you a starting point. It’s important to remember that calorie recommendations are never absolutes. There are tons of factors that go into how many calories you actually need. So the simplest way to figure it out is to just pick your starting calories and adjust depending on what the scale tells you.
Remember, if muscle building is your goal, you’ve got to EAT!
3. Should I Use Heavier or Lighter Weights?
I bet if I sent out a survey and asked, “If I want to build muscle should I lift heavy or light weights?”, the majority of people would definitively say heavy weights.
Light weighs are for toning, duh.
Well, actually, “lighter” weights are more conducive to building heaps of muscle. I use the term light in the sense that you’re in the 60-75% range of an estimated 1 rep max. In simpler terms, you’re lifting between 6-12 reps per set.
Don’t take light to mean this though:
You see, the problem with using heavy weight to build muscle is actually quite simple. In order to create a hypertrophic response, you’ve got to accumulate enough volume to cause adaptation.
When building muscle you have to create a stimulus that causes muscle growth. With heavier weights you just can’t get enough volume necessary for muscle growth.
So, our secret weapon for building muscle is the use of hypertrophy training. Yes, this means training like a “bodybuilder”, or at least somewhat similar to one. This doesn’t mean you’ll turn into Ronnie Coleman, but this type of lifting will produce the best response for muscle growth.
Higher rep sets with increasing volumes is your golden ticket to new muscle growth.
So, how do you know if you’re gaining muscle?
Here are a few simple ways to tell:
- Do your progress pictures look more muscular? Meaning do you appear “bigger” or more defined? Don’t just look in the mirror everyday. Actually take photos every 3-4 weeks to see if there’s a difference.
- Is your weight on the scale increasing? If not, it’s not likely that you’re building a ton of muscle or any muscle at all for that matter.
- Are you able to add more sets, reps, and weight to the bar week after week? Over the course of 3-5 weeks are your lifts improving within the 60-75% range?
- Do you get hit on all the time? (Ok, not scientifically proven, but could be a good indicator of muscle growth ;))
4. Ditch the Bosu Balls and Gizmos
If you’re serious about gaining muscle, put aside the fancy gym gadgets and pick up a barbell. Once again, the basics rule supreme when it comes to spurring new muscle growth.
I would recommend you put a heavy emphasis on the use of barbells and dumbbells in your quest to gain some size. The reason being is that measuring progress is easy when you use these pieces of equipment.
You can load them easily and add more weight steadily over time. While machines have their own uses, most trainees would be best served utilizing the good ol’ barbell.
So now that you know which tools are best, what exercises should you be doing?
Quad focused exercises: Squats, leg presses, lunges, hack squats
Hamstring focused exercises: Deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, romanian deadlifts, Glute bridge variations, Goodmornings, back raises, glute ham raises
Glute focused exercises: Hip Thrusts, glute bridges, squats and deadlifts, lunges
Chest focus: Bench and all variations, DB bench, Pushups, Flyes
Shoulder focus: Overhead Presses, DB Shoulder presses, Lateral Raises, Upright Rows
Bicep focus: Barbell and dumbbell curl variations. Seated, standing, preacher curl, hammer curl.
Tricep focus: Dips, skullcrushers, overhead tricep extensions, close grip bench work
Calves: Standing or seated calf raises
Back: All row variations, pull-ups and their variations, pulldowns
These certainly aren’t the only exercises you can possibly do, but should give you an idea of what to focus on.
Sample Massing Template
|Day 1 – Volume Legs||Notes||Sets||Weight||Reps|
|High Bar Squat||2||6-12|
|High Bar Squat||10-15lbs less than main sets||3||6-12|
|Calves on Leg Press||Any calf variation is fine, whatever is available||3||6-12|
|Day 2 – Upper Push||Notes||Sets||Weight||Reps|
|Medium Grip Bench Press||3||6-12|
|Incline Barbell Bench Press||3||6-12|
|Flat Dumbbell Flye||3||6-12|
|Day 3 – Upper Pull||Notes||Sets||Weight||Reps|
|Overhand Pullup||As few sets as possible. Record reps per set||–||BW||20 total|
|Barbell Bent-Row||underhand grip||3||6-12|
|Day 4 – Heavy Legs||Notes||Sets||Weight|
|Deficit Deadlift||standing on step box 2″-4″ elevation||3||6-12|
|Barbell Glute Bridges||3||6-12|
|DB Lunges Walking||3||6-12|
|Calves Seated||Any calf variation is fine, whatever is available||3||6-12|
|Day 5 – Arms/Shoulders||Notes||Sets||Weight|
|Overhead Barbell Press||3||6-12|
|Seated DB Overhead Press||superset||3||6-12|
|2-Arm Dumbbell Curl||3||6-12|
|Overhead Barbell Tri Ext||superset||2||6-12|
|Seated Preacher Curl||2||6-12|
I would suggest running this template for 4-5 weeks with a 1 week deload at the end. So either 3 on 1 off, or 4 on 1 off.
You’ll want to increase volume slowly over the course of this mesocycle. You can add sets, reps, weight, or a combination of all 3. The key is to do a little bit more than you did the previous week. That’s how to grow.
If you aren’t sure if you’re doing more total work you can do a quick calculation.
Sets x reps x weight (week 2) – the same for (week 1). This number should be greater than 0.
3 x 10 reps @ 150 week 1
4 x 10 reps @ 150 week 2
You would have done 1,500 more pounds of volume the second week just on that one exercise.
This is exactly why you want to increase slowly. Otherwise you won’t be able to recover, thus you won’t be able to handle the increasing volume week to week.
5. Don’t I Need Lots of Supplements?
If you want to build the most amount of muscle possible, you’re going to need to buy up all the current stock at your local GNC, and make sure you get your free samples too.
Kidding aside, you don’t actually need any supplements whatsoever. Supplements are for pure convenience and can certainly come in handy when on-the-go.
If you focus on total calories and eating the right amounts of food, then you can build muscle. If you do choose to use supplements to fill in the gaps in your nutrition plan, here are my top recommendations:
- Whey protein
Whey protein is a fast digesting protein source. Its fast absorption rates make it ideal for intra and post training times of consumption. It’s fairly cheap and is an excellent protein source. Whey is also high in leucine and other branch chain amino acids which can help provide an anabolic and anti-catabolic advantage. Whey is also very tolerable to many individuals.
- Casein protein
Casein is the complete opposite as whey in terms of digestion and absorption rate. This type of protein can provide amino acid release for up to 7 hours. Because of this, casein is perfect for bedtime because eating whole foods while you sleep is not an option. Casein can also be used as a meal replacement for times when you’re on the go and can’t eat a whole food meal.
- Carbohydrate formulas
Formulas like Gatorade, Powerade, and other advanced carb powders can off a small advantage for the workout window. Not only do they provide fuel, but they are easily digested, cause very little gastro intestinal distress and are absorbed quickly. Gatorade powder for example, is very cheap and is ideal for during workout and post workout training.
One of the most researched supplements is creatine. It has been demonstrated to enhance ability to do reps in any one set, help recovery between sets, provide a hypertrophic stimulus independent of training, and also intramuscular water retention which make muscles looker fuller.
Creatine Monohydrate is most commonly researched and is very cheap. 5-10g per day is an appropriate does for males and females of all sizes.
Caffeine has been shown to:
-Increase the motivation to train
-Enhance one’s ability during high volume training
-Improve pain tolerance during training
-Provide a slight fat-burning effect
-Help suppress appetite
You could also probably throw fish oil onto this list as well. Other than these though, pretty much everything else is trivial in the pursuit of gaining muscle.
6. Mass Building for Males and Females
Both males and females can benefit from added muscle. Both can use very similar exercises if not the exact same ones. The main difference in training is in the amount of volume.
Women can handle more total volume than men, so it’s a good idea for women to train at slightly higher volumes than their counterparts. This usually means more reps per set. Women don’t get fatigued as easily as men do. This means that women can usually do more reps at a certain instensity than men.
So, if you’re a female, make sure to get that volume in for optimal growth of muscle.
7. Don’t Train the Same as the Pros
Earlier I said if you want to gain mass you have to train like a bodybuilder. And now I’m saying not to.
Let me explain. Unless you’re already close to your genetic ceiling and are carrying almost as much muscle as your frame allows, it’s best to avoid those muscle magazine workouts that you see professional bodybuilder’s doing.
Even the pros started with the basics. And many of them still incorporate compound barbell exercises in their own training routines.
The fact is, you need to develop a solid foundation before you start chiseling, detailing, sharpening, and edging up your physique. This takes years and years of consistent training.
You might see the pro’s using lots of isolated exercises and various techniques, but that’s not what you should be doing.
The main takeaway is this: your training should be similar to what the pros did before they were pros.
Basically, put in the hard work consistently over time, and you’ll build muscle. It’s much easier to maintain muscle mass than it is to build it. That’s why so many of them use such high volumes on machines and isolation exercises.
Unless you’re a pro bodybuilder, which I’d assume you’re not, stick to the fundamental exercises. The same ones that have proven to be effective for years.
Increase your intensity, weight, sets, reps, and total volume slowly over time. This, in addition to increased calories will give you more muscle growth than those front double biceps pose curls you did the other day 😉
8. If You Don’t Recover, You Don’t Grow
Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you do in the gym that matters, it’s what you do outside of the gym that’s most important”?
Well, this is partly true. Of course training hard in the gym is a huge component. However, if you aren’t recovering properly you won’t be able to train hard to promote muscle synthesis.
When we lift weights, we cause microtears in our muscle tissue. When we sleep, we grow.
A good rule of thumb is to recover even harder than you train. Proper nutrition, rest, hydration, and stress management are crucial to building muscle mass.
Aim for consistent sleep patterns, and good sleep quality. Get the right amount of calories in and drink plenty of fluids (preferably water).
Take care of your body by stretching as needed, performing self-myofascial release, and relaxing when it’s time to relax.