Improving body composition by building muscle is the ultimate goal for those going to the gym. Even those who want to lose weight should still try to build muscle, as building muscle will help you burn more fat. Generally speaking, building muscle is (and if not, should be) part of everybody’s plan (have you ever heard someone say that they want to lose muscle?!). Interestingly, building muscle (aka muscle hypertrophy) is a bit of an oxymoron; it’s straightforward yet complex at the same time. This means that the basic principles you need to follow to pack on some lean mass are surprisingly simple but optimal muscle growth requires a few more considerations.
Even so, we won't make it more complicated than it needs to be. We are going to teach you exactly how to build muscle mass, without fail.
In this article, you are going to learn:
Keep reading if you want to find out all the answers to your questions about muscle growth. From exercise selection to supplementation, let this be your ultimate guide to packing on pounds of lean mass. Everything is backed by science and tried and true methods!
“Hypertrophy” simply means the enlargement of an organ or tissue. Therefore, “muscle hypertrophy” means the enlargement of a muscle. Two types of hypertrophy can occur.
By training with multiple rep ranges, you can get both types.
Before we get into what you SHOULD DO to gain muscle, let’s go over some practices you SHOULDN’T DO when gaining muscle is your ultimate goal. To be clear, these practices aren’t necessarily wrong or bad when used in a different context; they’re just not optimal for bulking.
1) Following Low-Carb Diets or Keto
Following a low-carb diet might help you lose weight, but it’s not going to do you any favors when trying to put on muscle. When you think of the purpose of a low-carb diet or even keto, you realize that they are almost ALWAYS used to lose weight. This is not what you are trying to do when you gain muscle. This doesn’t mean you need to get fat when you gain muscle, it’s just that bulking up is not the main objective for these diets.
Still, while protein is the primary macronutrient involved in muscle protein synthesis, carbohydrates play a very important role in muscle growth as well. Studies have shown that carbs and protein seem to have a synergistic effect on muscle protein synthesis, hormone production, and glycogen storage when taken together, especially around exercise.
This problem is amplified with keto. Not only do you consume very few carbs throughout the day, but your protein intake must also be moderate so that excess protein is not converted into glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis.
While keto may beneficial in preventing muscle loss, multiple studies have shown trainees having difficulty, or even the inability, to build muscle on these types of diets. Not all studies have shown this to be true, but remember, we are talking about optimizing muscle growth, and these diets will fall short of that.
Related: Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Benefits & FAQs
2) Following Intermittent Fasting
Following intermittent fasting, while trying to bulk up has many of the same issues as being on a low-carb diet albeit through different mechanisms. The main problem with following intermittent fasting is that it limits the time you are allowed to eat. This will obviously hold you back from an consistent eating schedule and even throughout the entire day. It will almost definitely take out the possibility of having a pre-sleep casein protein shake that has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis as we sleep (Again, we’ll get more into that when we talk about nutrition for muscle mass).
One of the mechanisms it uses to lose weight is reducing the number of calories people can eat; this can make it challenging to eat adequate calories for muscle growth. This includes fasted training which can actually break down your muscle.
Again, maybe you still could put on muscle, but it’s not optimal.
3) Following Routines Made For Advanced or Enhanced Lifters
One of the more common problems is new lifters following programs built for advanced trainees or those who are “enhanced”. They have been in the gym for a couple months and then want to jump on a 6-day a week bodybuilding program split or do 15 exercises a day. Don’t. Your bodies are unable to adapt to the amount of stress those programs will put on your body, and you will not be able to recover and adjust. To build muscle, your body needs surprisingly little stress (or less than many people think) and once that is hit, more of it won’t make the muscle bigger.
4) Too Little Rest
“Muscles are broken down in the gym and built in the bed”
In connection with number three, you need to rest more. Building muscle is a cycle of going to the gym to put stress and damage on the muscle and then going home to eat and eat where the muscle repairs. Optimizing rest has quickly become one of the most interesting aspects when it comes to muscle growth. Make sure to get enough quality sleep.
Here it is. The single most important thing you need to follow to put on some serious mass. And, if you do this, you’re almost guaranteed to add pounds of lean-mass unless your body follows completely different physiological guidelines.
This one principle is that of progressive overload. If you’re unaware of the term, it refers merely to progressively adding more stress to your muscles over time. Otherwise known as, lift more weight!
While this seems basic, people mess this up all the time, which is simply why they don’t gain muscle. The easiest way to think of this is by realizing that our bodies don’t WANT muscle; they NEED muscle. While you’re trying to process this, ask yourself this question; “If your body wanted muscle, why are your reading article to tell you how to grow muscle? And why does it seems so hard!?” You see, our body is an amazing machine that has physiological processes that allow it to adapt to the environment it is in; let that be sitting down all day watching TV or working on a farm. Your body will adapt. In fact, this is why we go to the gym; to put it in an environment with artificial stressors to cause it to grow. However, the “environment” we put it in must continually become harder. Merely going to the gym and sweating isn’t enough if you’re using the same weight as you did for the past 4 weeks. Once you fully grasp this simple concept, improving gets’s a lot easier; well, easy in theory as you still need to bust your ass.
While progressive overload is the underlying principle for progression, the total volume is the driving factor for muscle growth. Total volume refers to the total amount of load placed on a muscle. This is generally quantified on a weekly basis to assist with programming. Calculating volume is relatively easy and is found by the simple equation:
Load On The Bar (kg or lbs) X Number of Sets X Number of Reps
For example, let’s say you do bench press with 80kg for 3 reps of 8 reps. That would look like this:
80 KG (load) X 3 (sets) x 8 (reps) = 1920kg (Total Load)
If you want to grow the next week, you’d want to increase the bench press volume. You can easily do this by adding 2.5kg to the bar using the same rep scheme, which would look like:
82.5 KG (load) X 3 (sets) x 8 (reps) = 1980kg (Total Load)
You just increased the total weekly volume on the bench press by 60kg. You’re gonna grow.
The easiest way to do this is by just tracking the movements. Some people try to break it up into body parts, but that can get way too confusing. If you increase the volume on the lifts, you increased the volume on the different body parts. Keep it simple.
This same principle is applied to each muscle individually. Therefore, if you have a lagging muscle, simply give that muscle more emphasis and volume.
The optimal load and rep range has long been debated over the years, and it is not as straightforward as it seems. There are literal academic books solely centered around this single issue.
New research has shown that when the volume is equated, the load used doesn’t actually matter much muscle hypertrophy. However, the load used DOES matter when developing strength; that is, heavier loads (greater than 85%) are best.
Still, trying to get your total volume in with heavy loads will kill your joints and accumulate too much fatigue. Moderate weight with moderate reps (8-12 reps with 70-80% 1RM) is still the ideal range you want to work in to accumulate volume with adequate weight.
Concerning rest, unless you are using some of the special sets spoken below, new trends show that longer rest between sets are more beneficial for hypertrophy growth than shorter rest intervals. This longer duration allows you to perform more volume with higher quality reps. Each set should stick to 1:30-2:30 of rest. Shorter rest doesn’t increase hypertrophy; total volume does.
Another topic that is often seen practiced by bodybuilders is the use of special sets such as:
Before we begin to talk about these, realize that all of these are considered “Advance Practices”. This doesn’t mean you need 5 years under your belt to experiment with them, but it does mean you should only use these once your progress has begun to slow down. Don’t try these your first day. As these are made to completely fatigue your muscles, save them for smaller exercises towards the end of your workout.
There are too many caveats to address every special set in detail, but there is evidence that all of these can be effective under the right circumstances and for the right trainee. Perhaps the most interesting is the use of supramaximal eccentric loading, which has a constant history of effectiveness.
The eccentric contraction can produce 20-50% more force, allowing excessive weight to be used for this portion of a movement. Further, the eccentric phase of a movement is responsible for the majority of muscle damage and is thereby more responsible for creating hypertrophy. DO NOT use these on big movements, especially deadlifts and squats. It requires excessive loading and can result in injury if you are not trained. Some of the more common practices are on isolation or cable crossover movements such as a bicep curl.
Because strength and hypertrophy play off each other (a bigger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle and a stronger muscle has the potential to be a bigger muscle), you want to train through a range of reps. A basic layout with the recommended amount of exercises for a given rep range is given below:
The best split is the one that fits your schedule and follows a few guidelines. The most significant factor a split regulates is how often you train a muscle group. Again, when the total volume is equated, the number of times you train a muscle a week has little to no effect. While this is important to keep in mind, these studies are in controlled situations. By training a muscle 2-3 times a week, you can get higher quality training volumes. Below are some examples of how this could look.
Monday: Full Body
Wednesday: Full Body
Friday: Full Body
Monday: Upper Body
Wednesday: Lower Body
Friday: Full Body
Both of these can work. If you are a beginner, 3 days of full bodywork could work better for you as you won’t be putting as much stress on your body.
If you have been lifting for a while, option B maybe your best bet. This works better when focusing on some heavier movements on the upper/lower day. Then, on the full-body, work with lightweight and high reps for accessory exercises. If you choose this, start with either squats or deadlifts on the lower body day and then begin the full body day with the other movement (deadlift or squat)
Even though you emphasize a specific muscle group, you will still work all the muscles for the Upper or Lower Body. For example, on your upper day w/ emphasis on pushing, you might want to train bench press, shoulder press, and dips. Then for your back, you may do lat pulldown, rear delt raises, and face pulls. Basically, think of this as doing your main movements for pushing and your accessory movements for pulling.
If you have 5 days a week to train, you can throw in a special day for arms and shoulders. This will look similar to the 4-day a week split EXCEPT; you won’t do shoulder-specific movements (I.e., Overhead press, Arnold Press) on the upper body days. This will give you time to do more exercises for the back and chest. And, even though you only work shoulders specifically on one day, you still hit them on the back and chest day.
First, look at the plan and then the rationale
You’ll notice we did the chest and shoulders together and the chest and shoulders together on this split. This is because since we have more days, we can train these muscle groups twice. The back has a lot more muscle to train, so giving it two days to focus on plus arms makes sense.
Related: 6 Day Workout Splits
Contrary to popular belief, isolation exercises are not always better for hypertrophy, especially if you are a beginner. In fact, spending too much time on bicep curls as a beginner could actually impede your growth. While advanced lifters need isolation movements to put high amounts of stress on individual muscles, beginners don’t need this focused stimulus for growth. For example, new lifters tend to forget that you use your bicep extensively with chin-ups, bent-over rows, and dumbbell rows. It has been shown that single-joint exercises offer little to no benefits in terms of hypertrophy when added to a progressive program that uses multi-joint exercises. You can still use isolation movements if you have the time (they are fun to do!), but they should never precede compound movements and should only be done AFTER your main movements, and accessory movements are done.
Works Large Amounts Of Muscle Mass At The Same Time: This will cut down the time you need to spend in the gym a lot, which is ideal unless you love spending hours and hours in the gym. Further, it makes it very easy to get a lot of volume in for muscle groups. For example, even upright rows involve the biceps. All of this work adds up over time.
Increases Hormone Production: A large part of the hypertrophy of muscle is the levels of anabolic hormones. These are the hormones that cause your body to grow and include testosterone and growth hormone.
Use Larger Loads: Since you are using multiple muscles, you can use heavier loads.
To optimally put on serious mass, you will use a combination of big compound exercises, smaller accessory exercises, and some strategic isolation movements.
Related: 8 Best Compound Exercises
Below is going to be the best exercises you can use to train each muscle. There will be two lists. The first will be “Must-Do” and the second will be accessory movements. This list is not exact, but it will help you with your exercise selection. The best way to look at this is if you only do the “must-do” movements, you’ll be good. Everything else is extra.
The core is similar to the arms in that many new trainees spend too much time focusing on it. Performing the big compound lifts is going to stimulate the core quite a bit. Still, it doesn’t hurt to do some core-specific exercises. Do some core specific on days that you have time.
If you train 3-4 days a week, it would be a good idea to do a core workout at home on your off days. If you train 5-6 days a week, you could still train them at home or on days that you find easier. Below are the top core exercises
Related: Best Bodyweight Only Core Exercises
There is a common misconception that you can’t build muscle at home with limited equipment. Of course, you can. The same progressive overload principles to create more load and volume still apply, with the primary difference being how you create progressive overload.
To be clear, unless you are just beginning it can be harder to build muscle at home. This is only because you don’t have as many options to vary the load on exercises. For example, once you can knock out 30+ pushups in 1 set easily, doing more just won’t cause the growth you want as they have become too easy. In this case, you have two options.
Have a friend load your back. Have someone place books or even press down on your upper back. Or, having a nice set of resistance bands will significantly increase your options.
Perform harder variations of the pushup. This can include staggered stance, going down to 1 side, multi-level pushups, ballistic pushups, etc
When you are working out at home with limited equipment, you’ll need to just use what you have to increase the load spoken about.
Related: Why You Should Buy Resistance Bands
It doesn’t matter how much you lift if your body doesn’t have the fuel to carry you through the workout and rebuild your muscles when you get home. Some will try to make this very complicated. Don’t let it.
In order to build lean muscle with minimal fat, you want to be in a 300-500 caloric surplus. The easiest way to determine your caloric need is to simply use an online calculator and then track your weight. You should gain about .70-1.00lb. in a week. If you are under this, eat a little more; if you gain more than this, cut back some. It will probably take a few weeks to dial in your perfect intake.
Protein will be the base of your diet in which everything else is built off of. This is true for the vast amount of diets, including those whose purpose is to maximize muscle growth. While there is no clear answer for the optimal amount of daily protein intake, this number will fall somewhere between 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg/d). Higher numbers are sometimes even recommended when trainees attempt a body re-comp (lose fat and build muscle simultaneously). Assuming you are just pacing on lean-mass, there’s really no need to go higher.
Your total amount should be spread out in even doses of 20-40g throughout the day. If you are a guy bigger than 120kg, you may have to up this even more. Still, don’t sweat it too much if the numbers aren’t exact; the most important aspect is daily total and spreading your intake throughout the day.
After your protein intake, your carbohydrate intake will be the next major component of your diet. It’s also the primary nutrient that you adjust for your caloric needs. Carbohydrates will increase your glycogen stores to fuel your workouts and give you that full look.
Compared to protein intake, total carbohydrate intake involves a bit more variability. This widely depends on the individual person and comes down to two factors.
Unless you are an elite athlete training 3hr+ a day, your work will play a much larger factor in how many carbs you eat. If you are sitting down most of the day, you’d probably be ok with a carb intake of 4g/kg/d. If you’re working some sort of construction job, you may need double that. It’s impossible to give a blanket number but your average trainee will do well somewhere between 4-6g/kg a day.
Fats are an essential nutrient for overall health. The absolute minimum amount of fat in your diet should be at least 20% of your total calories. DO NOT go lower than this or you will put yourself under unnecessary health risks. Ideally, your fat intake will be around 30% of your diet.
Now that you know what you need to eat, you’ll need to decide when to eat it. In general, you will do fine by spacing out your nutrients throughout the day. This includes eating your portion of protein once every 3 hours. Still, a few times during the day could use some special attention OR just generates a lot of questions.
The main thing to worry about pre-workout nutrition is not training while fasting when muscle hypertrophy is your main goal. It won’t provide you any benefits and could hinder your training. Other than that, try to plan a meal an hour or an hour and a half before. If that’s not possible, at least knock down a protein shake and a banana before you go in.
If you tend to get an upset stomach, keep this in mind and stick with something lighter.
Unless you are training for 2 hours or you came in fasted (again, don’t do that), intra-workout nutrition for MOST people is not too important. Still, we’re looking to optimize.
Drinking a mixture of carbohydrates and EAAs (amino acids or protein) has been shown to increases muscle glycogen stores, mitigate muscle damage, and improve adaptations. Most studies use a 1:3-1:6 ratio of carbs to EAAS with at least 6 grams of EAA. Again, these needs diminish if you eat around your workout time and are meeting your caloric needs, but it may still offer you benefits.
Perhaps the time that gets the most attention and questions about is post-workout feeding. Luckily, most of what you have heard about the “anabolic window” has been greatly exaggerated in the fitness industry. If you are unaware of this, the “anabolic window” is a supposed time frame when your bodies are anabolically primed for muscle growth after you work out. The claim demands that you eat during this time frame, or your whole workout will be lost. There is a grain of truth in this concept, but it is highly exaggerated. Assuming you are consistently eating throughout the day (are you seeing a pattern?) and not waiting 6 hours to eat your post-workout meal, this isn’t an issue.
While you don’t need to speed home and eat, it’s still a good idea to eat a high-protein meal consisting of 30-40 grams of protein and quality carbs relatively soon (30-60 mins) after your workout. There may also be some benefit if this meal.
Pre-sleep protein intake is perhaps the newest area of concentration in sports nutrition. Investigators noticed that so much time was spent on when and how much to eat during the day. However, a third of our time alive was being completely ignored; when we sleep! Our bodies’ processes are still active during this time, and researchers wondered about what could happen during this extended period if there was extra protein.
The majority of studies recommend a larger amount of protein (40g) and suggest casein for it’s benefits as it’s a slow-digesting protein.
To get the ultimate results from your training, it would do you well to use all the help you can get. This includes supplementation.
Supplementation will only help you once you have your training program dialed in, your nutrition in check, and a good recovery plan. This is why they’re called supplements and not “foundationals” (If that’s a word).
That being said, these are the top supplements you could use to increase your gains; and yes, they are listed in the order of their importance.
1) Protein Powder
In reality, protein powder isn’t really a “supplement”; it’s an easy and cost-efficient (usually) way to consume protein when you are eating high amounts, such as when you are trying to build muscle. We just went over the importance of protein in your diet, so in effect, protein powder works. Ideally, you’ll get the majority of your protein from whole foods but using protein powder makes it much easier. There are two main types of protein you’ll see on the market, each with its own benefits.
Whey Whey protein is derived from cow milk and is the most common protein on the market due to it’s high-quality amino acid profile and affordability. It is a fast-absorbing protein making it ideal for your post-workout protein shake.
Casein Casein protein also comes from milk. When the milk is curdled, the chunks formed are composed of casein (the leftover liquid is whey). It’s this tendency to clot that gives it the quality of being a slow-release protein. This makes it a perfect general protein, or as a pre-sleep protein, we talked about above.
Many people ask, “Do you need creatine to build muscle?” No, but you should.
After protein powder, creatine is the one supplement that will almost definitely increase your muscle mass. Creatine is the most widely researched ergogenic aides there is with literally thousands of studies.
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found in our bodies that is the sole source of ATP production used by our phosphagen metabolic system. This is the primary metabolic system that provides energy for high-intensity events shorter than 30 seconds, like lifting weights (Not the entire session but a set. In fact, one of the reasons we need to rest between sets is to let out the ATP system replenish).
We generally get creatine through our diet, or it is also synthesized within the body from the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine. However, most people’s creatine stores are only 60-90% full dependent on their diet. By taking exogenous creatine supplementation, we can top off these stores.
It means more energy to push a few out more reps or add a few extra lbs to the bar. Creatine has consistently been shown to add strength and lean mass to the upper and lower body.
Creatine supplementation generally consists of starting with a “saturation phase” of 10-20g for 5 days. Then, just 5g a day, and you’re good to go. Timing doesn’t really matter but consuming it with a good source of carbohydrates can aid in saturation.
3) Caffeine or Energy Drinks
After creatine and creatine, good ol’ caffeine is one of the most beneficial supplements to take. Previously, caffeine was thought to be mainly useful for endurance sports. However, new research has shown that it may also increase the performance in resistance exercises. Still, everyone knows it can give you a boost of energy at the gym and diminish fatigue.
In fact, caffeine is the main active ingredient of energy drinks which gives them their effectiveness (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Stand on Energy Drinks). Plus, many energy drinks on the market today also provide carbohydrates and EAAs, which covers everything you may need for your workout.
To be clear, you DO NOT need this, but some trainees find them to be very beneficial.
4) Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
EEAs are not near as useful as the above two considering your nutrition is on point. However, EAAs may help you out as an intra-workout IF you are training hard. Plus, they taste good and can encourage you to hydrate. Staying hydrated may actually be an even more applicable benefit as just a 2% loss of body weight through water loss can have a measurable detrimental effect on performance.
That’s a lot of information. This is going to break down the key points you need to follow for optimal muscle growth.
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