Building muscle can be a touchy topic.
Everyone and their mum have a view on the best way to do it. Speak to one guy and he’ll swear by high reps, low rest times and going to failure…but, speak to another and he’ll tell you heavy weights and low reps are the only way to go.
Then there are the guys who promote drop sets, negatives and even blood occlusion training as the best way to build muscle. How do you know who is right? One of them, some of them, all of them, none of them? It’s enough to make your head spin.
All you want to do is pack on some muscle without all the extra fat gain. Yet, you find yourself stuck in the quicksand, jumping from one programme to another, wondering the whole time whether any of its actually working.
You ask yourself, “is it worth it?”
Of course, it is…but even the strongest person has doubts in the face of conflicting ideas and an overwhelming amount of information. All it takes is a quick google search to send you down the rabbit hole of information and promises of fast muscle.
All the while you end up being no closer to the actual answer you seek. This ends today. Today we’ll cover everything you need to know about building muscle and how to do it.
Muscle building is your body’s response to 2 things, training and eating. Just doing one without the other will, at best, bring poor results and at worst, fat gain and disappointment.
It’s the combined effect of these 2 processes that will push your body to build muscle.
Research (1) shows that there are three primary drivers of muscle growth;
Putting your body under this stress using regular weight lifting is one half of the process that builds muscle.
Once you’re training in a way that signals your body to build muscle, you need to fuel that process by eating a calorie surplus.
These extra calories will be the fuel your body needs to build muscle.
The trick here is striking the balance between enough of a calorie surplus to allow the muscle building process to take place but not eating so much that you gain an unnecessary amount of fat.
Ok, so we know there are 3 ‘drivers’ of muscle growth but how do you know which one to use?
Well, thankfully we have some research to guide us.
A study (2) conducted by the Institute of Exercise Physiology and Wellness, Florida took a group of 33 physically active men and put them through an 8-week training programme to measure the differences in muscle mass and strength;
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that high intensity (moderate reps, heavy load) resistance training was superior at building both muscle and strength when compared to moderate intensity (high reps, moderate load) resistance training.
Researchers identified two reasons for this:
What this means is that lifting heavier weights (75 – 85% of your 1RM) in a moderate rep range (4 – 11) produces better results when compared to lifting lighter weights in a high rep range.
In addition to this research, another study (3) conducted by Campos GE, et al found that the application of progressive overload and the associated increase in muscle tension is the main driver of quality muscle growth.
They found this effect was even more effective when (like the research above) using moderate rep intensity (4 – 11 reps) and high load whilst specifically applying progressive overload is even better.
Ok, let’s keep this super simple. The key to building muscle is progressive overload.
As seen in the research above, applying progressive overload using 75 – 85% of your 1RM in the 4 – 11 rep range is even better. You see a lot of building muscle is about getting stronger over time and this is easier to do in the lower rep ranges. Hence, the recommendation of 4 – 11 reps.
I know what you’re thinking, “this all sounds great, high weight, low to medium reps, keep progressing, no problem but how fast can I actually gain muscle?”
It what everyone wants right?! To build muscle quickly, lose fat even faster and be shredded, lean, ripped, etc… The thing most people don’t realise is that muscle building is a very slow process.
Above and beyond the 2 factors (training and diet) mentioned above, it requires;
If you go into it expecting overnight results or any sort of ‘rapid’ muscle gain, you’ll be disappointed. Then because you’re disappointed, you’ll probably quit and 2 things will happen, neither of them good;
You see all those ‘too good to be true’ promises that the fitness magazines, Insta celebs and steroid taking bodybuilders sold you are bullshit. You can guarantee that anything promising you 10lbs of muscle in 3 months (or anything similar) is a scam.
In fact, if you gain weight that fast, you can guarantee that it’ll be majority fat, not muscle.
Let’s clear the air once and for all and have a look at how quick you can actually build muscle;
Alright guys here’s the deal, you can expect to build anywhere from 0.5 – 2.5lbs of muscle per month.
Ladies, it’s a bit slower for you, (less testosterone and growth hormone) you can expect to build anywhere from 0.25 – 1.25lbs of muscle per month.
Good, ok so we’re all on the same page. Now, these estimates come with a few caveats;
The old you are the harder it is to build and maintain muscle due to the natural break down of muscle as a result of ageing. However, it’s still possible to just expect a slower rate of progress.
It’s no secret that beginners can build more muscle, more easily than those who have even 1 year of good training experience under their belt. Again, this isn’t an overnight process, if you really want to build muscle you need set realistic expectations.
This circles us back to progressive overload, this is the key to building muscle (I cover this in detail later in this article) so it needs to be a part of your training. Additionally, your training frequency and recovery time will also play a part in your ability to put on muscle.
If you’re obese or heavily overweight then you can, in some circumstances, build muscle in a calorie deficit, however, it’s more effective to drop the extra weight first and then build muscle.
Pretty straight forward here, if you’re not in a calorie surplus you’ll struggle to gain an appreciable amount of muscle and strength. Remember, the key is to strike that balance between enough to fuel the muscle building process and so much that you gain a load of fat along the way.
This is not something we’re concerned with or particularly discuss here at Lift Learn Grow but it’s worth mentioning because it’s so rife in the fitness industry. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs can dramatically boost your ability to build muscle.
Ah, the question of training frequency i.e. how many times you need to train per week to build muscle. Fortunately, this answer is pretty straight forward. Anything between 3 – 5 workouts per week is sufficient to build muscle.
Now, the question becomes how you split your workouts across 3 – 5 training sessions per week. The answer generally falls into 3 categories;
This would be the typical body builder split where you train each body part once per week
Monday – Chest
Tuesday – Back
Wednesday – Shoulders
Thursday – Legs
Friday – Arms
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
This would be your upper, lower split where you train each body part twice per week
Monday – Upper Body
Tuesday – Lower Body
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Upper Body
Friday – Lower Body
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
This would be your whole body split where you train the whole body three times per week
Monday – Whole Body Workout
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Whole Body Workout
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Whole Body Workout
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
When it comes to choosing which workout split works best for you need to consider the following factors;
Based on your commitments to work, family and your social life how much time do you actually have to train? Remember, there’s no point trying to train 5 days a week if you can only find the time to do 3, all this will do is result in subpar results and frustration. Instead, pick a training plan that lines up with what is actually possible.
What do you enjoy doing? There’s no point doing a bodybuilder split if you much prefer full body workouts. Paying attention to not only what works, but also what you enjoy is key to finding the best workout split for you.
Generally, speaking full body splits are great for beginners as they can handle more volume and less specificity whilst they adjust to working out. However, as you get more advanced you may find you respond better to increased focus and volume i.e. bodybuilder split or upper, lower split.
For a more detailed looked at the different workout splits, check out this in-depth article.
The simple truth is that all of these frequencies CAN work to build muscle, however, research (4) has consistently shown that a higher frequency of training each body part 2 times per week is superior for both muscle and strength gains.
Once you know how often you’re going to train the next natural set is to look at the details of your workout.
This brings us to…
I get this question all the time.
“How many sets and reps should I do to build muscle?”
Truth be told finding definitive research can be tricky simply because of the number of variables involved.
However, one comprehensive study (5) conducted by Gothenburg University researchers found that an average overall volume of 60 – 180 reps per major muscle group (chest, back, legs, shoulders) per week appeared to optimal.
This tallies with not only my own experience and that of clients but also what other leading industry experts also recommend. As with most things you may need to tweak the numbers a bit depending on your training experience, weekly workouts, recovery, and more, but it gives us a starting point.
Ok, so let’s break this down. What does 60 – 180 reps per week actually look like? Well, it depends on how many days per week you’re training and the intensity with which you’re training;
But if we apply this to the different workout splits available to you, you can begin to see how this might work in practice.
For example, the bodybuilder split sees you train each body part once per week, with some overlap between exercises. If you’re applying progressive overload and training with intensity, you’ll be looking to get towards the lower end of the scale for volume. Somewhere around 60 – 100 reps per session.
Therefore, your chest day may look a little something like this;
Total reps = 90
Rest is an important and sometimes overlooked part of your workout. You see, in order to apply progressive overload consistently, you need to allow sufficient time between sets to recover. If you fail to do this, you’ll struggle to make progress and will tire out before completing your set.
This is particularly important for your big compound movementsas due to the taxing nature of these exercises you need ample recovery time in order to continue performing to a high level.
This is back by research (6) which shows that if you are performing moderate to heavy training with low to mid-range reps, then you definitely want to rest for at least 3 minutes between sets.
Get rest. Make progress.
This section wouldn’t be complete without a note on training to failure. If you’re a regular here, you’ll know that I always recommend avoiding training to failure and instead of leaving a rep or 2 in the tank. Training to failure can be super taxing on your muscles and your central nervous system.
This means not only is your performance going to suffer in that one workout but your increased recovery needs from training to failure with impact your future workouts too. Long story short, if you train to failure regularly your recovery needs will skyrocket, and your performance will suffer.
Now, this isn’t to say that sometimes you’ll go for a rep and miss it, therefore reaching muscle failure, if this happens that’s ok. The key is to be mindful of your ability and performance and always aim to leave 1-2 reps in the tank.
To understand which exercises are superior for muscle building, we need to differentiate between the 2 types of exercises;
Compound exercises are any exercise that trains multiple muscle groups through multiple joint actions. For example, the bench press works the chest, shoulders and triceps with movement at the elbow and the shoulder.
On the other hand, isolation exercises are any exercise that trains multiple muscle groups through multiple joint actions. For example, the bicep curl only trains the bicep with movement at the elbow joint.
With the aim being to build muscle the more muscles you can train at once the better. This is where compound movements have a huge advantage over isolation exercises.
You see, exercises that use multiple muscle groups not only do the work of several isolation exercises in one go but they also allow you to lift more weight and progress faster. The faster you can apply progressive overload, the stronger you get, the more muscle you build.
Common compound exercise includes;
Now you know the best frequency, sets, reps and exercises to build muscle it’s time to take a look at how you continue building muscle over the long-term.
When it comes to building muscle, this next sentence is key.
You can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect anything but the same results.
One of the leading reasons you won’t see progress in the gym is because you’re not applying progressive overload.
What is progressive overload?
Progressive overload is the act of putting your body under increasing stimulus over time.
This can be done by;
Perhaps the most effective way is by increasing the weight lifted over time. This means consistently adding weight to the bar every time you hit your set and rep goal. If you’re not adding weight to the bar over time, then you can’t expect to build strength or muscle.
It’s really that simple.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to ‘confuse your muscles’ this is a myth, BUT you do need to increase the training stimulus over time.
This means pushing to lift more from session to session. For example, if 4 weeks ago you were squatting 40kgs for 3 sets of 8 reps and today you’re still doing the same, then you’re not applying progressive overload.
Using the same example, the correct way to apply progressive overload is as follows;
|1||8, 8, 8||40kg|
|2||6, 6, 6||45kg|
|3||8, 7, 6||45kg|
|4||8, 8, 8||45kg|
|5||6, 6, 6||50kg|
When you successfully meet your set and rep goals you increase the weight the next time you do that workout.
When you start off doing this, you’ll be able to increase the weight every time, but as you get stronger and move from a beginner to an intermediate lifter your progress will slow down.
Maybe you’ll miss a rep or 2.
That’s ok and nothing to worry about, stick with it until you get it and then increase the weight and start the process over again.
Ok with training done it is time to talk food.
We touched on this back at the beginning of the article, one half of the muscle building equation is your training and the other is your diet. When it comes to building muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus to give your body the fuel it needs.
Not only this but you need to make sure that you’re getting enough protein to support muscle growth and enough carbs to fuel performance in the gym. The first step is to achieve this is to calculate your calorie needs. For most people, a small surplus of about 300 calories is the best place to start.
Remember, the aim is to maximise muscle building and minimise fat gain, using a small calorie surplus and gaining weight slowly allows you to do just that. Calculate your surplus by taking your body weight in lbs and multiplying by 16.
Bodyweight in lbs x 16 = muscle building calories
For example, if you weigh 160lbs you would calculate your calories as follows;
160 x 16 = 2,560 calories
This means 2,560 will be your daily calorie goal.
The next step is to set up your macronutrient targets, I recommend the following targets;
There are numerous schools of thought when it comes to meal frequency and timing; some people swear by breakfast, others won’t eat until lunch and another group will eat every couple of hours.
None of these methods are inherently better than the other and ultimately what it comes down to do is finding a routine that works for you and fits into your lifestyle, as it’s this that will help you stick to your diet and achieve your goals.
To help you when you are deciding what works for you, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
You want to:
It is also worth noting that you don’t have to eat in the same way every day, sure for the majority of the time it is easier but if your schedule means you need to change from your usual routine, don’t freak out about this.
It can be tempting to think that once you’ve got your diet set up that, that’s it. You just follow your training plan and diet and the results will come. Well, that’s only half right.
Whilst you absolutely need to stick to both your diet and training plan, you also need to monitor your progress as you go. Doing this means you can make adjustments to ensure you stay on track.
It also removes the guesswork and gives you the information you need to know why something might or might not be working. What I recommend, particularly to begin, is tracking your progress in 5 ways;
Doing this gives you all the information you need to make any adjustments you might need to make. For example, if you’re gaining weight either, too quickly or too slowly you can add or remove calories, continue tracking and see if it fixes the problem.
Or if your performance in the gym is suffering you can check your food diary and see if you need to increase carbohydrates or you can check your training diary and see if you’ve been feeling fatigued recently.
Whatever it may be, by tracking certain stats you’ll have all the information you need to stay on track.
Related: How to Track Your Progress
When it comes to building muscle rest and recovery are often overlooked and underappreciated. You’ll have your diet and training down, but you won’t prioritise your recovery. All this does is set you up to fail.
I’ll show you why recovery, particularly sleep, is so important.
One study (7) showed that participants who were sleep-deprived and restricted to 3 hours of sleep a night saw a significant impact on their performance in the bench press, leg press, and deadlift.
I know, I know.
That’s crazy right, who in their right mind would only sleep 3 hours. You normally wouldn’t right, but maybe;
All these factors can influence the amount and the quality of the sleep you get. Think about it, if 3 hours of sleep can negatively impact your performance then it’s probably a safe bet that only 4 or 5 hours would also have a negative effect.
Look, crazy sleep schedules aside another study (8) found that even a small amount of sleep restriction can negatively affect performance (9). You see, sleep and recovery really are that important. Particularly, given the fact that there is research (10) showing how sleep deprivation of just 1 hour a night during the week can negatively impact body composition.
Losing 1 hour of sleep a night during the week can influence whether weight loss is in the form of fat loss or muscle loss. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that this study found that catching up on sleep at the weekend did not reverse the effects of missing that 1 hour per night during the week.
All this goes to show just how important regular, good quality sleep is if you want to build muscle and change your body. As for how much sleep you need, some of it comes down to what works for you, some of us are night owls and the other early birds.
However, whatever your sleep pattern is like, the research (11, 12, 13, 14) consistently agrees that 7-9 hours is optimal for healthy adults with more than 9 hours not showing any significant benefit and less than 7 putting you at risk of various health factors including;
Supplements are not an essential part of your workout plan or even overall success. It’s best to think of them as the final 1-2% of your progress, they can be useful but are not must haves.
However, if you’re looking for that edge or perhaps to simplify some aspects of your diet then there are a few supplements I recommend and use myself.
Perhaps you’ve heard of creatine before? It wouldn’t be surprising, it’s easily the most popular fitness supplement on the market after protein shakes. It’s for good reason. Supplementation with creatine has been shown to increase strength and muscle mass (15, 16, 17).
Creatine is naturally occurring molecule that’s found in your body (in your cells) and its job is to help fuel intense activity i.e. weightlifting. The reason it’s such an effective supplement is that taking a daily dose of 5g of creatine increases or ‘tops up’ your body’s available stores (18).
As we said before these benefits include improved exercise performance i.e. strength and muscle mass. In fact, research has shown that regular supplementation with creatine can improve performance by 5 – 10% (22, 23, 24). That’s nothing to turn your nose up at.
There’s not too much to say here. We all know protein powder can be a life saver at times;
However, whilst I recommend including it in your training toolkit, this doesn’t mean you have to use it every day. Your focus should be on whole food, only using protein powder to either help meet your protein needs or help bump up your intake on days that you don’t meet it through your normal diet.
Aside from making you feel ready to face the world in the morning, research shows that caffeine has several benefits for the average gym-goer;
This means if you’re not inclined to spend your hard-earned money on expensive, often junk-filled pre-workout supplements, then coffee may be the answer you’re looking for.
However, one thing to be aware of is, if you drink coffee regularly then you’ll build up a tolerance to its effects, and over time it effects will decrease and/or you’ll need more caffeine to achieve the same results (32).