Learning how to build muscle in a consistent way is important for every guy who wants to look and feel their best.
To be stronger, look better, get more attention from girls, and more respect from guys.
Here’s what we’re gonna cover in this post…
Every single male on the planet looks, feels, and performs better in every area of life, with some extra muscle mass.
Even if you want a lean, modelesque physique; you still need to build some muscle to look great. The question is; how do we stack on the pounds, bulk up, without getting fat?
How to build muscle: Goals and expectations
As with anything you want to achieve, the first step is to set proper goals.
Don’t do it like an amateur. Go here and follow everything I lay out.
The first question to consider is should you be trying to build muscle?
The answer is yes, if you’re not significantly overweight.
If you’re fat, focus on losing the weight first. Come back to this article when you’re down to 12% body fat.
After you have a goal in place, you need to get real about your expectations. Building muscle is a slog. It takes a long time.
When you first start training you can pack on a decent amount of weight quite quickly. Often called ‘newbie gains’.
In your first year, if you eat properly and train the right way – i.e. if you follow this article to a tee – you can potentially gain 15-20lbs.
These are the best times you will ever have, so make the most of it. Everything slows down from there.
If you’re already at the intermediate stage (1-3 years training) you can probably gain 10-12lbs per year, if you started off scrawny.
That means after the first year you might gain 1lb of muscle per month, on a sustained basis.
You need to recognise that this is a long game and develop a fitness lifestyle. It takes people with average genetics (that includes me) a couple of years before they even look like they lift.
How to build muscle: Nutrition
We’re going to start with nutrition first because while training is perhaps more important, diet is where most people go wrong.
The basics of how to build muscle
The very first thing you need to know is one simple phrase…
To gain weight, I must be in a calorie surplus
Now, there is more to building a muscular physique than that, but this is the one thing that people tend to get wrong. They simply do not eat enough calories.
You CANNOT build muscle without calories.
You need to get over the fear of eating, fear of losing your abs, or your ‘small appetite’ if you want to gain weight.
So we start with nutrition…
To gain weight you need to be in a calorie surplus.
The simple way to do this is to start consciously eating more, and track your weight each week. If you’ve not gone up 0.5-1lb per week, you need to eat more.
The more accurate way to do this is below:
Step 2 – Plug your data into the goals section on My Fitness Pal
It will spit out your goal number of calories to hit every day.
Step 3 – Use the app to track your calories on a daily basis. It will count down for you how many you have left to hit your goal.
If you’re not gaining weight (building muscle) it’s because you’re not eating enough. Track it every day and you literally cannot fail. For 20 seconds work after each meal, you cannot fail.
My Fitness Pal is the single best piece of technology ever invented to help anyone lose or gain weight. It makes it so easy to have all the data in front of you, know what is going on, and be in full control of your outcomes.
Don’t get clever and think you don’t need to track. If you’re serious about building muscle, get committed.
So you’ve got your calories set. What about macronutrients?
You gotta eat your protein…
Protein is the key macronutrient that everybody talks about for muscle gain.
Protein is muscle.
The amino acids in proteins are the building blocks, the raw materials, for muscle tissue.
You’ve gotta eat your protein.
You should have a protein goal for the day, and make sure you hit it. If you do that, you’ll be good.
Option 1 (easier):
You can either use protein as the only macronutrient you track; in which case aim to eat 1 – 1.25 grams of protein per lb of bodyweight, per day.
I’m around 180lbs, so that would be 180 – 225 grams of protein.
There’s 4 calories in a gram of protein, so it is 720 – 900 calories of protein.
Obviously work out your own numbers.
Option 2 (better):
Track all 3 macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) using My Fitness Pal.
You can set up your macronutrient split a few different ways. I prefer high carbohydrate for muscle building. Carbs are the most anabolic macronutrient, and on a practical leve, far the easier to eat a lot of.
Ever try and eat 1000 calories worth of chicken breast? Not fun.
I would use the My Fitness Pal macronutrient goals section as below:
The 50/25/25 split gives me a protein goal of 210g per day. That’s 840 calories.
Fats are essential
Next up are fats.
Fat is essential for proper functioning of the body. You need your essential fats, amongst other things, to create hormones (like testosterone).
Following the process as laid out above will give you the target number of fats for the day in My Fitness Pal.
Carbs are the most anabolic macronutrient
Now this is the important section.
Low carb diets seem to be cool at the minute, with every idiot fitness bandwagon rider screaming about the benefits of a ketogenic diet.
You need to get over the fear of carbohydrates.
They’re not the devil. They won’t kill you.
They sure do help you build muscle.
Insulin is released when you eat carbohydrates, to move glucose (sugars) out of the blood stream. It drives the energy into the muscle tissues for storage… or the fat tissues if you’re excessively overeating and/or not training.
That’s why people are scared of carbs.
You will get fat if you eat more than about 10% over your maintenance calories.
But the benefits of carbohydrates don’t stop there. Not only are they physiologically the most anabolic macronutrient, they’re also the easiest thing to eat a lot of.
The biggest struggle I face building muscle is the constant slog of force feeding myself. It’s uncomfortable and annoying to eat a lot more than your natural appetite, day in and day out.
Carbohydrates are easiest to eat, and they tend to make you hungry again sooner. Win-win.
Again, My Fitness Pal will lay out your goal number of carbohydrates for tracking.
Ok so that’s the macronutrients explained, now what do you actually eat, food wise?
What foods should I eat to build muscle?
No food is inherently good or bad for building muscle.
Don’t get too caught up on exactly what to eat. You don’t have to live off chicken breast and white rice all your life (that’s no fun at all).
Forget what the pro bodybuilders do. Being 300lbs of lean mass at 5’10 is extremely out of the ordinary, and thus requires out of the ordinary things to attain it.
To be a ‘jacked normal dude’, rather than a pro bodybuilder, you can eat like a normal human being – just eat a bit more.
You should focus on eating whole foods, and healthy foods. You have your fitness goals, but you also want to be healthy, have energy, and not wreck your digestion.
Focus on clean, natural food sources…
- meat, fish, eggs for protein
- animal products, fatty fish, olive oil, coconut oil for fats
- rice, potatoes, root veg, oats, grains for carbs
You can eat anything, but you’re not gonna feel very good if you live off pop tarts and hot dogs.
“Eat like an adult” is a simple way of thinking about it.
Eat like an adult
cook for yourself
Don’t eat ice cream for breakfast, FFS
— Alexander J.A Cortes (@AJA_Cortes) September 20, 2017
So we know what to eat, how about training?
How to build muscle: Weight training for building muscle
Training is a lot less black and white than diet is. There’s about a million ways to train, and there isn’t one ultimate ‘best’ way.
Different things work for different people, different people enjoy different training styles, and you’ll generally get best results by mixing up your training on a semi-regular basis anyway.
With that in mind, I’m going to teach you the principles of training, so you have the power to assess workout plans for yourself.
I’ll give you some examples too, but when it comes to lifting weights, how you do it is as important as what you are doing.
This is the most foundational principle of programming a workout routine.
It basically means you need to do progressively more work over time, to continue seeing results.
That means your plan should be set up for you to make consistent progress.
When you’re in your first year or two of training you will be able to progress pretty much every session.
After a few years of training it becomes a little more nuanced and you need to cycle your training with the aim of progressing every couple of weeks, or every month.
If you’re starting out, don’t get bogged down in complexities. Keep it simple with the following heuristic;
Do more work than you did last time, every single session
That doesn’t only mean adding more weight – even newbies can’t do this for ever.
It also means adding more reps, more sets, or more exercises.
Beyond that; it could mean increasing time under tension, increasing range of motion, decreasing mechanical advantage (leverage), decreasing rest periods, etc.
Like I said, how you do it as just as important as what you are doing.
Sets & Reps
When you first start training you are not only training the muscles with the resistance. You’re also training the nervous system with the movement patterns.
You need to build stability, control, and learn how to flex the correct muscles at the right time.
This means you have no right to be lifting anything for under 8 reps per set. Your 1 rep max is utterly irrelevant, and lifting it is about the worst way to develop it.
Not to mention the exposure to injury risk when you lack stability, don’t know your limits, and are unfamiliar with how to get out of compromising situations in the weights room.
You get stronger by increasing volume at sub-maximal loads. That means doing more reps and more sets.
If you’re actually wanting to go into powerlifting or something, you can do that after a year of training, when you have something resembling control over your body, and a little muscle to work with.
For now your focus should be on developing body awareness, and adding muscle mass.
This will be best done with 3-5 sets in the 8-15 rep range.
This is one of those things that has lots of intricacies as you become more advanced, but we don’t need to worry about at this stage. Keep it simple and put in the work.
Again there is no need to get fancy here. Indeed, it’s going to counter-productive.
Focus on the time-tested compound movements that should be the basis of any training plan.
Variations of squats, deadlifts, lunges, rows, chin ups/pull ups, pull downs, presses, dips, curls and ab work.
The bigger exercises should come at the beginning of your workout.
When I was a kid I used to do half an hour of biceps, and then train back afterwards. Because I was a retard. Don’t be a retard.
Do the big movements first and worry about smaller muscles/movements afterwards.
You want to use free weights for the vast majority of your exercises, along with bodyweight movements like chins ups / pull ups, rows, dips and push ups.
You’re developing movement patterns and stability as much as muscle mass. An over reliance on machines is going to leave you weak, unathletic, and open to injury.
Machines are not ‘bad’, but they’re more appropriate for intermediate and advanced lifters.
Have someone teach you how to train safely if at all possible. Either hire somebody, or find a more experienced friend to go to the gym with.
‘Rules’ for beginners weight training
I’m going to lay out some ‘rules’ for beginners below.
Because it saves you from overwhelm, or falling into the trap of changing your mind every 3 days when you learn about some sexy new workout routine some Instagram fake natty bro is touting.
Please note that some of these rules are not true for everyone, at all times. They can and potentially should all be broken by certain people, at certain times.
They’re here to simplify the process for you. So that when you walk in the gym, you’re not overwhelmed, looking around and wondering what the fuck you’re going to do today.
- Your body can take more than you think. If in doubt, work harder.
- Perfect technique with less weight is better than more weight.
- Focus on adding volume (reps, sets) before adding more weight.
- Compound exercises are your foundation. Worry about calves and bicep peaks after you’ve done your deadlifts and presses. Or just don’t worry about them at all.
- Free weights are better than machines.
- Choose a program and follow it for at least 3-4 months before switching.
- If you’re going to do cardio, do it after your workout or on a separate day. Never before lifting.
- Get into the habit of doing proper warm ups, and mobility work early. It might not be fun, but it helps a tonne.
If you follow these 8 rules you can’t go too far wrong.
While I’m in the mood for lists, here’s some extra tips…
Extra tips for beginners…
- Train your back and legs. You look dumb as fuck just training chest and biceps, and will never ever build a good physique.
- Get some help. Hire someone if you have the money. Train in a proper gym, not a ‘fitness club’ with shiny equipment and 42 treadmills. You’ll learn through osmosis being around serious trainees. The dirtier a gym looks, and the more sure you are everyone is on steroids, the better environment it will be to train in.
- Leave your phone in the locker and learn to be present in your body. You will make more progress long term by learning how to feel and control your body, than you will lifting more weight, and resting 10 minutes beyween sets while you Tinder.
Example workout plans for building muscle
Here’s a sample workout plan you can follow to begin with.
It’s a 4-day per week program, with 2 workouts that you’ll repeat twice each week. You can follow this for a couple of months, with the focus being on learning good lifting technique, building strength and stability, and getting into the habit of going to the gym.
It’s very simple, so you won’t get overwhelmed. If you don’t know how to do the exercises search on YouTube or ask a trainer.
Click the picture to download a copy.
How to build muscle: Lifestyle factors
Packing on pounds of muscle isn’t just diet and training. While they’re the two big variables you need to change, a lot of other things will have an impact too…
Optimise your testosterone
Your testosterone level correlates with your muscle mass more closely than anything else you could measure. If you have high testosterone, you will respond well to training. If you have low testosterone, you will struggle to gain muscle (and feel like crap).
I’ve written an extremely detailed post about how to optimise your natural testosterone in the past; go read it here. No need for me to re-write it again here.
Sleep for recovery
You don’t build muscle while you’re in the gym. You build muscle when you recover from training.
Lifting weights is actually breaking your body down, so it regenerates stronger. This mostly happens while you sleep.
Other factors like nutrition are important components, but the action happens while you sleep. You need to sleep sufficiently, and of high enough quality, to properly recover from training and maximise your gains.
When I’m training hard I typically need upto 9 hours sleep per night to feel fully recovered. While when I’m not training hard, I do better with just 7 hours.
A failure to get proper rest is going to hold you back from building muscle. If you’re eating and training properly, but stressed out, living the ‘hustle’ lifestyle and not getting rest, you’re definitely not making the most of the effort you’re putting in.
Get the easy part right and give yourself some rest time.
P.S. Fuck waking up at 5am.
How to build muscle: Supplements
In my first 2 years of training I thought whey protein was the most important part of my diet. I actually wouldn’t go to the gym if I’d run out of whey, I thought I’d just be breaking down my muscles.
It’s funny to think about now, but it’s easy to fall for the hype of the supplement companies when you’re an impressionable 15 year old.
All the pro’s in the magazines told me they needed whey protein, and I still believed steroids were ‘bad’ and rarely used.
Thankfully we have a lot more information nowadays thanks to social media, but I know a lot of people still buy into the hype around supplements.
Here’s the truth –
You don’t need supplements, but they can be useful.
They’re not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they’re simply a tool you can use if need be. The clue is in the name, they are a supplement to your food. Not an essential part of the diet.
I’ll write a full supplement guide in the future, but for now I’ll give you a quick list of recommendations I think everyone will benefit from.
- Whey protein (if you struggle to eat enough protein from whole food sources. Good for convenience post workout)
- Glucose/maltodextrin (same as above, add carbs to your shake to increase calories and carbs)
- Vitamin D3
- Omega 3’s
*Taking them together in ZMA is easiest.
There are a lot of other supplements that are great for specific people, or general health, but I will get into that another time.
The list above have the most direct application to building muscle.
I don’t like pre-workouts. You’ll be better off drinking an espresso, it’s a lot cheaper.
Common mistakes that stop people building muscle
Alright, so I’ve laid out a plan for you above. Now I best point out where you’re likely to go wrong, so you can get ahead of it and not let avoidable obstacles stand in your way.
Building muscle takes time. You’ll get stronger before you look significantly different. You just need to stick with the process and have a long term vision for where you are going.
Integrate lifting into your lifestyle, use the goal setting advise in this post, and commit to doing the right things on an ongoing basis.
You’ll find the benefits extend far beyond what you see in the mirror, so you should have no reason not to embrace a fitness lifestyle.
Not eating enough
I know I spent the first 1,000 words of this post saying this, but it really is that important.
If you can’t gain weight, you’re simply not eating enough.
Yes, I know it’s uncomfortable force feeding yourself. I find it much more difficult than dieting down, you just need to shut up and get on with it if you want to achieve results.
Lifting with your ego instead of your muscles
The goal is to maximally fatigue muscle fibres, not lift the most weight.
Leave that for powerlifters. You’re trying to build muscle, and that means you need to train with your muscles, not your ego.
Treating your training as ‘an hour in the gym’ instead of a lifestyle
You’ve gotta commit to this as a lifestyle if you want to succeed.
The reason most people fail in their fitness goals (usually weight loss), is because it runs contrary to their self-image.
They don’t see themselves as ‘fitness people’, so they refuse to integrate the habits and behaviours they need to follow into their lifestyle.
They’re constantly fighting with themselves. Doing something they ‘don’t want to do’, just to get an outcome. It never works.
When you commit to the lifestyle and enjoy the process, it ‘just happens’.
Do the right things, repeatedly over time and you can’t do anything but succeed.
Following inappropriate training plans
If you want to build muscle, you want to use a muscle building program.
If you do CrossFit, Starting Strength / 5×5, run marathons, or anything else that isn’t bodybuilding, you will get inferior results.
You actions need to align with your goals.
If you have any specific questions about building muscle, leave a comment and I’ll happily answer them.