While building muscle isn’t an exact science, there are numerous principles and steps we can all follow that will lead to muscle gain. The aim of this guide will be to give you the basic knowledge of what it takes to build muscle mass so you can then apply these principles to your lifestyle and training.
Some of the information you may already know – Good! Hopefully there will be a lot that you don’t. If you have any questions please post them down in the comments section and we will answer them as best we can.
A lot of guys and girls at your gym may follow split routines that probably look something like:
Monday: Chest + Triceps Tuesday: Shoulders + Biceps Wednesday: Back etc. each day will mostly consist of isolation exercises such as front raises, tricep push downs and a countless number of bicep curls.
This type of training – while extremely popular in gyms around the world – tends to favour the drug assisted trainer or one who has already built a solid physique. Maximum muscle gain comes from following a routine based around simple (yet extremely effective) compound movements.
Compound exercises are multi-joint free weight movements that recruit multiple muscle groups. An example of a compound exercise is the notorious deadlift. While the deadlift is predominantly a back exercise, it also works a huge list of other muscles. Compound exercises provide massive scope for muscle growth and will lead to massive strength increases.
A few compound moves to get your teeth in to would be:
- Squats (front and back)
- Deadlift (any variation)
- Bench Press
- Chins/Pull ups
- Rows (barbell)
- Military Press
- Clean & Press
The next piece of the jigsaw is what we call progressive overload, in short it describes the process of progression within your training, either by volume, intensity, frequency or weight.
For example if you currently bench press 80 KG for 3 x 10 and continue doing this for the next year – why would your body continue to build new muscle tissue when it already has the required tools for the job? You need to make continual progression with your training. In an ideal world that would be increasing the weight each week but alas us mere mortals will not be able to set a new PB week in week out.
While increasing the weight is important – as we mentioned it just isn’t possible to always do. We then need to look at what else we can progress on, additional repetitions at your current weight is a good idea. When you comfortably achieve over your target range (e.g 3 x 10 – more than 10 reps per set) then you can increase the weight and work up to getting full sets of your targeted rep range using your new weight.
Another option is to decrease rest time between your sets. Instead of resting for 60 seconds between each set try only 30 seconds.
Pause reps can also be a useful tool – a 1 second pause at the bottom of any movement will add extra tension and make for a more challenging set.
These methods should all lead to you eventually upping the weight, even if it’s by the smallest increment. This should ultimately be your goal.
You may be thinking easier said than done! Truth be told, the stronger you are – the heavier you will be able to lift. Lifting heavy things will translate in to more muscle mass. As Ronnie Coleman once said “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights”.
While the majority of your training should be in the conventional body building rep ranges, adding a bit of strength training to your plan can only help. A good rep range to achieve both would be a 5 x 5 routine. Even going heavy just 1 week per month will keep your routine from becoming stale and aid in breaking down any plateaus.
Rep Ranges and FrequencyTo build muscle you need to optimize the way you work out. We have already established the type of exercises and how to progress, next is making sure we train to meet our goals.
Lower rep ranges such as 1-5 are ideal to gain strength. Higher rep ranges 15-20 improve endurance and somewhere in the middle around 8-12 we have the optimal range for building muscle. The amount of sets you perform should correlate to the rep range you decide to work in. If you go for 8 reps then 4 sets would be optimal, 10-12 reps would be suited to 3 sets.
It’s important to pick a weight that you are failing at by your last rep, any less and the weight is too heavy, any more and you need to up the weight. This is vitally important.
On to training frequency. Training each body part once per week is far from optimal. It’s widely accepted that within 48 hours protein synthesis dips and the muscles you have trained are recovered. What this means is we should be training each muscle twice per week or we are leaving precious results on the table. You may be thinking that is too much and will lead to over-training, in short – no it will not. Providing you have got your nutrition in check and you are getting an adequate amount of sleep then you will explode in size by switching to a twice-a-week per muscle routine.
We have a whole section dedicated to nutrition so this part will not be as in-depth as it could be but hopefully you will get a good idea of what you should be getting from your diet to make progress.
Firstly lets tackle calories. The amount of calories you need is dependent on your current weight and goal. Since you’re reading this we can assume you want to gain weight.
A very simple starting point is to multiply your current weight (in pounds) by 17 (This will give you a very rough estimate of calories needed to gain weight). For example a 170lb male would start on 2890 calories – this could be too many or too few but we will address that later on, we first need a starting point.
Now we have our daily calorie goal we need to then break this down into our macro-nutrients (macros). Macro-nutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats. A 40/40/20 split of protein, carbs and fats respectively is a good starting point until you find out how your body best responds. With our total calories for the day and a macro split to follow this equates to:
Total cals: 2890
You should follow your diet as best you can and adhere to weekly weigh ins – but do not let the scale be the only way you track your progress, while it’s a good indication things are going in the right way you have to take in to account body composition and how you look in the mirror.
Follow and track your diet for 2 weeks before you make any changes and try not to change too much when you do as this will confuse things. For muscle gain a weight increase of 1-2lb per week is ideal. Anything more and you risk gaining too much fat, anything less and you may need to slightly increase your calories. When your weight gain stagnates increase your daily calories by around 200 in the form of carbohydrates (50g extra per day).
Just to re-iterate this is a very basic starting point and changes will need to made depending on weight gain and body composition. For more detailed nutrition information head over to the nutrition section.
One of the most asked questions has to be “which supplements should I be taking?”. In reality supplements aren’t necessary… Nailing your diet from real whole foods is much more important than fannying around wondering what protein powder will give you 20 inch biceps. Having said that, supplements can be a great *addition* to your diet. They categorically will not be a substitute for a poor diet.
Rant over. Whey protein and creatine are the only 2 things you will need. Creatine is by far the most well researched fitness supplement and it just works, it will aid your recovery and help you squeeze out an extra rep or two in the gym, don’t expect miracles and you will not be disappointed. A protein powder is a good idea since getting 200+ grams of protein from meat or fish a lone can be hard work no matter how much you eat.
A simple scoop of protein either before or after you train and one in the morning upon waking or before bed will be sufficient and can be an easy way to get an extra 50-75g protein in your diet without resorting to even more chicken.