This post isn’t for everybody; this post is for people that want to build muscle.
Maybe you’re a teenage athlete looking to gain some size for next season or maybe you’re just dipping your toes into the strength training pool and want to learn how to put muscle on to support your strength gains.
Whatever the case may be, gaining muscle isn’t all that hard. It isn’t all that complicated, either. Gaining muscle is simply a product of increasing volume over time, both through increasing weights and increasing volume at the same weight.
Your muscles respond to the challenge by literally growing themselves.
Don’t get too hung up on rest periods or rest-pause or drop sets or forced eccentrics. Sure, these things can help and certainly do, especially when we’re talking about higher level bodybuilding & strength athletes. But if you’re just starting out, stick to the basics.
How much muscle can I put on?
Well, first off, let’s assume that you’re what we call a “natural” lifter. This means that your routine is free of anabolic steroids and other drugs that might aid you in the development of lean mass.
Let’s also remember that lean mass is a fluid measure due to things like water retention (no pun intended). Taking supplements like creatine will change your water retention and increase your perceived lean mass.
The third thing to remember is that muscle gain is not infinite, not even in an unnatural lifter. There is an asymptote to muscle gain. You’ll know when you hit it because you’ll stop outgrowing your clothes and muscle gain will be almost imperceptible. This doesn’t mean you’re done, it just means it’s getting tougher to gain lean mass. This is a natural adaptation to strength training and will occur no matter how much variation you include in your workouts.
But don’t fret, this won’t happen for at least 3-5 years. The average lifter can probably put on anywhere from 10 to 50 lbs of lean mass in their first year or two of lifting. Gains will slowly taper off after that.
Maximum potential lean mass will be defined by your height, overall skeletal build, and genetics, so don’t bother comparing yourself to your friend of the same height. You can only compare yourself to yourself.
So how do you build muscle?
Building muscle is simple and pretty easy, but it’s still work. To optimize your muscle building, let’s first consider your schedule. Optimizing muscle growth means optimizing hormone production.
Hormones like testosterone and growth hormone are usually elevated post workout for about a day or two, so you’ll want to lift at least three times each week, maybe four. Five or six days is probably too much and will impede your recovery more than boost your muscle growth.
You can split your workout week into 3-4 full body workouts or use an upper body/lower body or push/pull split.
The second and most important part of building muscle also concerns hormones: hormone production is optimized by compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. Not bicep curls and shoulder raises.
When you get to the bottom of this post, you’ll see some guidelines for compound exercises to maximize your muscle growth. The exercises listed aren’t just for testing, they should be the bread and butter of your strength training forever.
How many reps should I do?
So now let’s talk set & rep schemes. First off, it’s important to know that while muscle growth is based on overall volume, there’s also a minimum intensity required for proper stimulation. Think about running, for instance. Although you accumulate thousands of steps, the intensity isn’t high enough to contribute to muscle growth. Running is low-intensity exercise and doesn’t provide the high muscular tension, metabolic stress, or muscle damage required to build lean mass.
All this considered, let’s keep our reps below 10 for the most part. Yes, it’s possible to build strength and muscle at higher rep ranges, but not consistently. In fact, let’s go ahead and say that 80% of your strength training should be somewhere between 5 and 10 reps.
As far as sets go, we’ll base our number of sets on our total reps. Generally, muscle growth is going to require at least 20-30 reps per muscle group per workout, minimum. That could mean 3 sets of 10, 4 sets of 6, or 5 sets of 5. Any of these work and anywhere up to about 40-50 total reps will help you build muscle more quickly (provided that you can recover from the amount of work).
Over the course of a week, you’ll probably end up performing about 3-8 exercises per muscle group. Also remember that squats and deadlifts work the same muscle groups so don’t perform 5×5 deadlifts and 5×5 squats four times each week and expect to recover.
As far as intensity goes, you don’t need to take every set to absolute failure to see results. As you train week to week, your intensity will naturally increase as you increase weight or volume. At some point, you’ll either need to perform more volume to achieve the same results or you’ll find yourself performing too much volume and need to deload and take a few steps backward to progress.
But don’t overthink any of this; until you’re at a more advanced level of strength training, you’ll be able to add a few pounds or reps each week, recover from it, and come back stronger.
Don’t forget to recover
This is often the missing variable from the muscle growth equation.
Recovery starts in the gym by not smashing your quads every #legday. If you can’t walk down the stairs without complaining, you’ve done it wrong.
Recovery includes sleeping for at least 6 hours each night, and ideally 7 or more. The more you sleep, the faster you’ll recover from your workouts.
It also entails consuming adequate nutrition (which essentially means sufficient amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and water) in order to repair your body post-workout and throughout the week.
Recovery means reducing extra stress from your life so that your body can focus on restoring itself after workouts.
A quick guide for muscle growth
So how, then, do we build muscle? What sorts of weights do you need to be lifting to really start outgrowing your t-shirts and jeans?
Many folks move through the gym casually, don’t train hard enough, and therefore achieve lackluster results. They assume that they aren’t “genetically gifted” and call it a day. But this isn’t true – you probably just aren’t strong enough yet.
Big muscles require big weights (as well as a big appetite and big sleep), so check these numbers out if you’re wondering what it takes to match the most muscular members from your local health club:
- High-handle trap bar deadlift: 2.5x bodyweight
- Conventional or sumo-style deadlift: 2x bodyweight
- Squat: 1.75x bodyweight
- Bench: 1.5x bodyweight
- Front squat: 1.5x bodyweight
- Overhead press: 1x bodyweight
- Power clean: 1x bodyweight
And these are just a few of the basic barbell lifts. Keep in mind that you don’t need to test your 1RM to find these numbers either. Simply multiply your weight by your reps, divide by 30, and add back to the weight for an estimated 1RM. Now check out these bodyweight measures:
- Pushups: 40 for men & 20 for women
- Chinups: 20 for men & 10 for women
- Weighted chinup: 0.5x bodyweight (in additional weight)
- One-arm pushup: at least one
- Pistol squat: at least 10/side
- Plank: 2 minutes on elbows
Bodyweight exercises are a great way to pack on muscle and keep yourself in check bodyfat-wise. If your bodyfat gets too high, these numbers will shrink. And last but not least, here are a few other abstract recommendations:
- Dumbbell bench pressing: 0.5 bodyweight in each hand
- One-arm dumbbell rowing: 0.5 bodyweight for 20 reps
- Kettlebell swings: 0.5 bodyweight for 50 reps
- Split squat/lunges/Bulgarian split squats: 1x bodyweight on each leg for 5-10 reps
- Incline bench press: 1x bodyweight for 5-10 reps
- Strict barbell rows: 1x bodyweight for 5-10 reps
And these are just a few of the hundreds of exercise variations that you could use to put on a little bit of muscle.
No, these numbers probably won’t win you the Crossfit games or your local powerlifting competition, but they’ll be a good start and probably all the average lifter will ever need if the goal is simply to be strong, feel good, and fill out your clothes a little bit better.
See, building muscle isn’t all that hard and it isn’t all that complicated. Lift weights, recover, get stronger, and then challenge yourself again.