How To Build Muscle - The Ultimate Guide To Building Muscle

image descriptionPosted by ACalorieCounter image descriptionMarch 25th

This is it, folks. This is the first, last and only article you will EVER need to read about building muscle. Only, this is much more than an article. This, my friends, is a guide. In fact, it's the ultimate guide to building muscle. It's a collection of every single thing you will ever need to know. Every helpful tip, every useful fact... it's all here, compiled in one place, just for you.

From how to put together a non-idiotic weight training program (along with a complete example routine) - to the specifics of your overall diet and exactly what your calorie, protein, fat and carb intake should be - to every single thing in between. And no, as you're about to find out, this is not an exaggeration. Literally everything you'll need to know in order to build muscle is here, fully explained, with absolutely nothing left out.

Sound good? Cool. Let's begin...

The 6 Requirements For Building Muscle

When putting this thing together, I started off with a simple question... why do so many people try and fail to build muscle? The equally simple answer is, they are just not doing the things they need to be doing.

This of course brings us right to another question: Just what are the things that people need to be doing in order to successfully build muscle?

Well, I sat down and thought about it and I got it narrowed down to 6 things. Only, referring to them as just "things" wouldn't be very accurate. See, these are requirements. As in, if you take care of some but ignore the others, you will be well on your way to joining the ranks of the countless other people currently NOT building muscle.

So, what are the 6 requirements? In no specific order (except the first two, maybe), they are:

  1. Progressive Overload
  2. A Caloric Surplus
  3. A Quality Weight Training Program
  4. A Sufficient Overall Diet
  5. Rest And Recovery
  6. Consistency, Time And Tracking Progress

What follows is a complete breakdown of each of the above requirements. It's an explanation of everything you need to do to meet each requirement along with the full details on exactly how to do just that. Let's start at the top.

Requirement #1: Progressive Overload

While the 6 requirements that I am about to explain are all, you know, required, progressive overload is the king of them all. The other five pretty much exist because of/in support of this one.

It's easy to understand why progressive overload is the most important aspect of building muscle once you understand this one other important fact. For the sake of a catchy nickname, let's call it the "one fact."

The One Fact

The human body cares about one thing and one thing only, survival. It has no interest in having or building muscle. Your goals mean nothing to your body. In fact, the body's only real goal is keeping you alive and functioning as efficiently as possible. However, luckily for us, this goal is precisely what allows us to reach our goal of building muscle.

See, the body is smart. Actually, it's really smart. It will do whatever is needed of it in order to adapt to its environment and, once again, ensure that you can properly function in this environment. As people looking to build muscle, our sole job is to create an environment that is going to show our body that we will not survive without more muscle. Basically, you have to prove to your body that it HAS to build muscle. It won't unless you give it a damn good reason to, and make sure it has a reason to both keep the muscle it builds as well as continue to build more muscle. If this reason never exists or just stops, you body will gladly accept it and respond by doing absolutely nothing.

We provide this "reason" with something called progressive overload. Progressive overload refers to an ever increasing amount of work that you are making your body do. We provide this work in the form of weight training. We keep the work ever increasing by constantly striving to do more reps, or lift more weight, or just do something that is above and beyond what we were previously capable of doing.

If we lift 50lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps on Exercise XYZ consistently, the body will build enough muscle to make sure it can perform this task. If we continue to do the same 3 sets of 8 reps with 50lbs, the body will not build any more muscle. Why? Because it has no reason to. This is something it is already capable of doing and requires no new adaptation.

However, if we push ourselves to lift 50lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps (instead of the 8 reps we were doing before) on Exercise XYZ, the body will respond the only way it knows how... by adapting to the new stress being placed upon it. In this case, the "adaptation" is the building of more muscle. If we push ourselves to lift 55lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps, a similar adaptation would be required and new muscle would have to be built.

If we then continued to gradually push our body to perform more work than it was previously capable of doing, the body will respond by continuing to build more muscle. If we don't keep trying to increase the demands being placed on our bodies, or just never increase these demands in the first place, the body will have no reason to build muscle... and it won't.

The One Fact: The body will only build muscle if you prove to it that it absolutely has to.

Stop. Go back and read the One Fact again. Then, read it again. After that, wait a few minutes and read it again. Seriously. Understanding this One Fact is above all else the key to understanding how to build muscle. Yes, your body will also need the other 5 requirements mentioned later on in this guide to be met in order for everything to actually be able to work. But, without this One Fact (progressive overload) being met first, the other 5 requirements will get you absolutely no where no matter how perfectly you are taking care of them.

Progressive overload (or a lack thereof) is also one of, if not the #1 reason half the people in your gym look the same way now as they did when they first started working out. They are too busy worrying about exercises and different types of workouts and how many sets of how many reps and blah blah blah. "Should I do this exercise or this one?" "Should I use a barbell or dumbbells?" "Free weights or machines? This workout or that workout?" They are so busy focusing on all of these minor details that they miss out on the fact that no matter what they end up doing, it will all be for nothing without progressive overload.

Which brings us to the next set of questions you should have. How should one progress at weight training, and when should this progression take place?

How And When To Progress At Weight Training

In any non-idiotic, well thought out weight training program, you will have specific exercises that you are supposed to perform during each workout. For each exercise, you will have a certain number of sets that you are supposed to do. For each set, you will have a certain number of reps that you are supposed to do. And obviously, you will also have a certain amount of weight that you will be lifting during each exercise. Of course, this will vary from person to person based on individual strength levels. Either way though, a certain amount of weight will be used.

Now, the most basic and common form of progression works like this: meet the prescribed set and rep goal, then increase the weight, then again meet the set/rep goal, and then again increase the weight. This would then repeat over and over again. Here's an example. Let's say that for one of the exercises in your program (let's call it Exercise XYZ), you are currently lifting 50lbs. Let's also say that your program calls for you to do 3 sets of 8 reps for Exercise XYZ. Let's say today you did Exercise XYZ and it looked like this:

Set #1: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 50lbs - 8 reps

Since your program calls for you to do 3 sets of 8 reps, this workout was a success. You lifted 50lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps. Since you've reached the prescribed set/rep goal, it's now time to increase the weight. So, the next time you perform Exercise XYZ, you should do this:

Set #1: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 55lbs - 8 reps

See what happened? You increased the weight you were lifting by 5lbs (when you increase in weight, you should always do it by the smalled possible increment) and preformed that same prescribed 3 sets of 8 reps. This workout was once again a complete success. The next time you perform Exercise XYZ, you'd go up to 60lbs and again attempt 3 sets of 8 reps. You would then continue increasing like this as often as possible over and over again.

The only thing is, most people will not be able to increase this much and/or this consistently from workout to workout. In fact, instead of that second successful workout shown above (the 55lbs for 3 sets of 8), most people would have actually ended up doing something like this:

Set #1: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 55lbs - 7 reps
Set #3: 55lbs - 6 reps

This is completely normal and should still be considered a successful workout (it is still definitely progressive overload). Now, in this case, your goal the next time you perform Exercise XYZ is something like this:

Set #1: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 55lbs - 7 reps

And the time after that...

Set #1: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 55lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 55lbs - 8 reps

And the time after that...

Set #1: 60lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 60lbs - 7 reps
Set #3: 60lbs - 6 reps

And you would repeat this similar pattern of increasing reps/weight over and over and over again. Yes, there will be times when you end up repeating the same exact number of sets/reps/weight that you did the previous workout. There will also be times where, in the above example for instance, you might only get reps of 7, 7, 7, or 7, 6, 6, or 7, 6, 5 in the three sets after going up in weight. Don't worry, it's all normal.

Just work hard next time to progress in some way. Add 1 rep to every set, add 1 rep to just one set, add 2 reps to one set, add 2 reps to one set and 2 reps to another, whatever. Just work your ass off to gradually reach your program's prescribed set/rep goal. And then, once you do reach it, increase the weight you are lifting for that exercise by the smallest possible increment and do this all over again. This is all part of the process of progressive overload, and it will all lead to you building muscle.

And, in case it isn't obvious enough, if your weight training program called for 3 sets of 10, 4 sets of 6, 5 sets of 5, 2 sets of 12, and any other combination of sets and reps, you'd still progress virtually the same way as the above example, just with a different number of reps and sets.

In the sample recommended weight training program I am going to describe later on in this guide, I actually suggest a slightly different method of progression than the one shown in the above examples. It's still pretty much the exact same thing, just with one small modification that I (and some well respected smart people) feel will allow more people to progress at a more consistent rate.

Oh, and the final thing you might want to know about progression is that nothing progresses at exactly the same rate. Meaning, some exercises (even ones for the same muscle group) will progress faster/slower than others. This is all perfectly normal. Just keep trying to progress as often as you can on every exercise and the rest will take care of it self.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

Requirement #2: A Caloric Surplus

Your body requires a certain number of calories per day in order to maintain your current weight. This is known as your calorie maintenance level. It's the number of calories required by your body to do everything it needs to do (intense exercise, brushing your teeth, pumping blood, keeping organs functioning properly, etc.). Calories are what our bodies use for energy, so in order to do what needs to be done, a certain number of calories are needed.

If we supply our bodies with less calories than this maintenance level, we will lose weight. This is called a caloric deficit and, as mentioned in The Ultimate Weight Loss Guide, is the key to weight loss.

The complete opposite of this is called a caloric surplus. A caloric surplus occurs when you consume more calories than your body needs. This is a requirement for building muscle because, in the most basic sense, muscle can not be built out of nothing. It needs this extra energy.

What's that you say? Wouldn't a caloric surplus just make people fat? The answer is yes, yes it will, and yes it does. Pick a fat person, any fat person. They got that way due to a caloric surplus. Their body received more calories than it needed/used/burned, and the excess was stored in the form of fat.

HOWEVER (and this is a big, huge however), a proper weight training program done consistently with a focus on progressive overload signals the body to use those excess calories to build muscle rather then store them as fat. This is the difference between someone who is just going to get fat from eating too much and someone who is creating a small caloric surplus to support the muscle building process.

Here's my really strange, semi-accurate, cartoony way of explaining it:

Calories enter your body. They look around at what's going on and decide what they are going to do. If they have no job to do and see they won't be used for anything, they basically say "the hell with this" and walk through the door labeled "Fat Storage" where they will then be stored on your body as fat.

However, if they see all of the signs that show them that they are going to be needed for the process of building muscle, they walk through the "Building Muscle" door where they will then be used to do just that.

This wacky little explanation is really a description of what's known as calorie partitioning.

Due to the caloric surplus, your body is being supplied with more calories than it needs. A ton of factors then decide where those calories will go (or will be "partitioned")... towards fat storage or towards building muscle. These deciding factors include genetics, hormones, the specifics of your diet (more on that in a second) and, most importantly, weight training. Take away the weight training and most (if not all) of these excess calories will become fat. Add in weight training that focuses on progressive overload, and many of these calories will go towards building muscle.

While it would be nice to get ALL of the excess calories to go towards building muscle, most of us can not. Certain things (all of which are genetic) are out of our control (without steroid use, at least), so, no matter how perfectly we get the factors we can control, it's pretty safe to say that some of the excess calories will still go towards fat storage. While this does indeed suck, we shouldn't feel too bad. Instead, we need to focus on using the factors we can control to ensure that our calorie partitioning is as good as it can be or, in other words, our ratio of muscle to fat gain is as good as it can be.

The factors we can control are our weight training program and our diet. For weight training, as mentioned in Requirement #1, progressive overload is the most important key of them all. Without it, there is pretty much no signal to the body to use those excess calories for building muscle in the first place. After that, there are definitely some other important weight training factors here, but I'll get to them in a few minutes. First, let's get to most important diet factor of them all... the size of the caloric surplus.

The Size Of The Surplus: How many excess calories?

Alright, so you now know that in order to gain weight of any kind (in this case, muscle), you must consume more calories than your body needs. You now also know that these excess calories will be partitioned in our body to go towards either fat storage or building muscle. What you need to know next is that there is a limit to the amount of muscle the human body can build over a certain period of time. What this also means is that there is a limit to the amount of calories that your body can put towards building muscle.

What I mean is, the idea that "consuming 1000 excess calories per day will lead to more muscle gain than consuming 300 excess calories per day" couldn't be more wrong. Instead, it will just lead to more fat gain. You can see where this idea came from. If you maintain your weight consuming 2000 calories per day, and then learn that it takes a caloric surplus to gain muscle, it's easy to assume that you'll gain more muscle (and gain it faster) if you started consuming 3000 calories per day instead of something like 2300 calories per day. And, we all know what happens when we assume, right? We make an "ass" out of "u" and "me" ...and we get really, really fat.

I've heard a couple of smart people say that, at best, the average male can hope to gain between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of muscle per week. Females can hope for half that. What this means is, while a caloric surplus is still absolutely required, if there are any excess calories consumed in addition to the number of calories that your body can actually put towards building muscle, these calories will end up going through the "Fat Storage" door. Meaning, if your body can only use 500 excess calories to build muscle, and you supply it with 1000, that extra 500 will go towards fat.

The question now is, how much of a surplus is ideal? What is the surplus that will lead to the most muscle gain, and the least fat gain? Good question. Unfortunately, there is no exact answer that can apply to everyone. What there is though is an amount that seems to be ideal for most...

For men, I'd recommend consuming a daily surplus of about 250 calories. For women, about half that.

Anything too far above this will most likely result in you gaining more body fat than you should.

So, for example, a man with a calorie maintenance level of 2000 calories would look to consume about 2250 calories per day (a woman would shoot for around 2125 calories per day). If some guy's maintenance level was 2800 calories, he'd look to consume about 3050 calories per day (a woman would aim for 2925). Get the picture? Good.

The next thing you probably want to know is how to figure out your calorie maintenance level so you can create this ideal calorie surplus and start building muscle. Here's how:

The Calorie Maintenance Level Calculator

The calculator below will figure out your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) using the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, which is a widely accepted equation used for calculating this number. Your BMR is the number of calories that your body burns at rest to do all of the things it needs to do to keep you alive and functioning properly. Your activity level is also factored in to estimate how many other calories you burn per day in addition to your BMR. The answer given is the total of the two and should be, for most people, a pretty close estimate of your daily calorie maintenance level.

Calorie Maintenance Level Calculator

Gender
Height
feet
inches
years old
pounds
Activity level

Your estimated daily calorie maintenance level is

Whatever your estimated maintenance level is, you'd now add about 250 calories (for guys) or 125 calories (for girls) to it and start to consume this number of calories every day. Your caloric surplus is now all set.

The Rate Of Weight Gain: How many pounds per week?

So, how many pounds should you aim to gain per week with a diet like this? I'd say, on average, about 0.5 pound per week (or 2 pounds per month) for men, or about half that for women. Any more than these recommendations and you are/will be putting on more fat than muscle.

This is probably a good time to remind you that the calculator you just used is only giving an estimate. While it might be pretty darn accurate for you, it's possible that it may be a bit off for others. Which is why I mentioned the ideal rate of weight gain. If, after adding surplus calories to your estimated maintenance level, you are indeed gaining weight at this ideal rate consistently, cool. You have successfully created the ideal caloric surplus. Keep consuming this number of calories from this point on.

If you see you are gaining MORE than than this amount on a consistent basis (a couple of weeks in a row), reduce your daily calorie intake by a small increment (250 calories is good) and monitor your weight for another couple of weeks. Are you gaining at the ideal rate now? If so, stay with this calorie intake from this point on. If you are still gaining too fast, make another small calorie reduction and repeat this process over again until you are finally gaining in the recommended range.

If you are losing weight or maintaining your weight, repeat the above mentioned steps, except by making a 250 calorie INCREASE rather than a decrease. Watch your weight for a few weeks and see what happens. Gaining at the ideal rate now? If so, stick with this calorie intake. If not, keep making small adjustments until you are.

The last thing I need to mention about your calorie intake is that, once you create the ideal surplus, there is a good chance you will reach a point where your weight stops going up at this recommended rate and instead starts to just maintain. When this happens for a couple of weeks in a row, it means it is time to add another 250 calories (half that for females) to your daily calorie intake. This will once again bring you back to the ideal weight gain rate. If weight gain stops again for a few weeks straight at some later point, make another small increase.

Other Questions You Probably Have

You may be wondering a couple of things at this point. For example, when do you stop? As in, when does this whole muscle building/weight gain phase end? You may also be wondering what to do about that little bit of fat you may gain along with all of your new super cool muscle. Well, I am putting the answers to both of those questions in the FAQ at the very end of this guide. Why? Because you are going to need to read the rest of this guide in order to completely understand my answers. So, mental note... don't skip the FAQ located at the end of this guide. In the mean time, back to the 6 requirements.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

Requirement #3: A Quality Weight Training Program

As mentioned in Requirement #1, as far as weight training goes, progressive overload is above all else the true key here. Even with a less than stellar program, as long as you are focusing on progressing as often as you can (and the 5 other requirements in this article are being met), you will still end up building muscle. Of course, the better the program, the better the results.

And, if there's one thing I've learned about weight training, it's that "less than stellar" would be a huge improvement over the majority of laughably horrible routines being done by most people.

There are so many ways that people screw up their weight training program that just even toying with the idea of listing some of them made my head literally explode. Yes, literally. I just had to stop typing so I could put my head back together. So, rather than attempt this again, I'm instead going to run down some of the most important principles of a quality, non-idiotic, weight training program. For the best possible muscle building results, you should be able to put a check next to each one of these. If you can't... fix it.

A quality, non-idiotic weight training program...

Focuses on progressive overload.

Yes, I know I spent all of Requirement #1 talking about this, but I'm still going to mention it again. It is THAT important.

Trains the entire body.

I won't lie... my first few months in the gym I did nothing but chest and biceps. I was an idiot, and there are countless others who were and still are just like I was. There are actually degrees of idiocy when it comes to this. Many people (mostly men) will only train the "beach muscles" (chest and arms). Others will train their entire upper body and completely ignore their legs (or claim they run/jog/walk/bike ride a lot, and that's somehow good enough). Some women will put a ton of effort into their lower body (and/or just their "problem areas") and hardly any into training their back, shoulders and chest. Some people only train the muscles they can see in the mirror, thus ignoring their back and hamstrings.

All of these people are idiots. As a former idiot, I'm allowed to make that statement. You should make it your goal to not be an idiot to any degree. Train your entire body. That means your entire upper body (chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps) and your entire lower body (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves).

There are a bunch of reasons why training your whole body is important. Here's the first few that come to mind...

  • To prevent muscle imbalances and the many injuries and issues caused by them. For example, if you "push" (bench press and other chest stuff) more than you "pull" (barbell row, and other back stuff), bad things will end up happening in your future.
  • To avoid looking silly. Having some body parts that look alright and others that look like they've never been used before in your life is not a good look. There's a reason a bodybuilding stereotype is a guy with an okay upper body and tiny stick legs.
  • To ensure you aren't missing out on some of the best exercises. Some of the biggest and best exercises are the ones many people end up not doing as a result of the fact that their crappy weight training program has them avoiding the body parts that these movements are for. Some common examples? Squats, rows, pull ups, deadlifts and so on. By not training certain parts of your body, you miss out on doing some of the exercises that will end up adding the most muscle to your body.
  • To improve your goal of building muscle. Similar to the above reason, when you don't train certain parts of your body, what you're really doing is just limiting the amount of muscle you can add to your body. It's pretty common sense, if you train 100% of your body, you can add muscle to 100% of it. Train 75% of it, and you're losing out on 25% of the muscle you could be building.

Long story short, don't be an idiot. Train your whole body.

Is comprised of mostly compound exercises.

Machines and isolation exercises all have there place, and I'm not one of those people who are completely against them. However, if building muscle is your goal (and since you are here, it probably is), you'd be at an extreme disadvantage if they made up the majority of your weight training program. Instead, the following are the types of exercises that should comprise most of your routine:

  • Chest: Bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press (with a barbell or dumbbells)
  • Back: Bent over barbell/dumbbell rows, pull-ups/chin-ups, t-bar rows, seated cable rows, chest supported rows
  • Quads: Back squats, front squats, split squats, lunges, leg press, step ups
  • Hamstrings: Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, hyperextensions, pull-throughs, good mornings
  • Shoulders: Seated/standing overhead press (with a barbell or dumbbells)
  • Triceps: Dips, close grip bench press (flat or decline), lying triceps extension (also called skull crushers)
  • Biceps: Barbell curls
  • Calves: Seated/standing calf raises, calf press (in leg press machine)

This is just a basic rundown of the best exercises for each muscle group. Stuff like leg curls, lateral raises, dumbbell flyes, preacher curls and triceps press-downs are all fine too. They should however only make up a small portion of your program, while the type of stuff on the above list should make up most of it.

Uses proper form.

Your goal isn't to just move a weight from point A to point B. Your goal is to contract a muscle against a resistance. Meaning, do not use crazy amounts of momentum to do an exercise. Do not go only half way down or only half way up or both just so you can lift a weight that's too heavy for you. Don't lift with your ego (mostly a "guy thing"). If you can't use proper form on every rep, of every set, of every exercise... lower the weight until you can. Yes, progressive overload and increasing the weights as often as possible is the #1 goal. But, it should not happen at the expense of crappy form.

As for where to learn the proper form of many exercises, this is a pretty good place to start. Pick a muscle group from the column on the right, and it will list a bunch exercises. Pick an exercise, and it will show you how it's done.

Uses proper volume, frequency and intensity.

Volume refers to the number of sets and reps and exercises. Frequency refers to the number of times you do something, usually per week. For example, the number of workouts per week, or how often you train a specific movement or body part per week. Intensity, for the most part, refers to how heavy you're going. For example, doing a set of 20 reps where, at the end of the set, you could still have done 20 more, is very low intensity. A set of 6, where there was pretty much no way you were going to be able to do a 7th rep with good form, is fairly high intensity.

If there is too much volume, too much frequency, or too much intensity, it will most definitely hinder your goal of building muscle. If there is too little, a similar hindering will occur. This one would require a whole second article to fully cover, so I'll just throw some general recommendations at you.

  • Volume

    For volume, I really can't see anyone ever needing to do more than 15 total sets per body part over the course of the week, specifically for body parts like chest, back, quads and hamstrings. In fact, I'd say 12 sets is probably an even more accurate maximum number, with 8-12 sets total for the week for each body part probably being the most accurate estimate of them all for most people. Smaller muscles, especially ones that get hit indirectly through compound exercises (biceps and triceps) really only need about half that, possibly even less. 3-6 sets total over the course of the week sounds about right for most people for these body parts.

    As for exercises, I'd think 4 exercises per muscle per week is probably the maximum most people could possibly need. I'd say most people really only need 1-3 exercises per muscle per week (3 for the bigger muscles, 1-2 for the smaller ones), with 2-4 sets per exercise on average.

    It's impossible to say do exactly x sets of y reps for body part z. It just doesn't work like that, especially since each person will have their own individual volume tolerance, work capacity and recovery ability. These are just general recommendations that will probably be best for most people. Some people may benefit from more, some from less. It's up to you to listen to your body to find out what works best for you.

  • Frequency

    As for frequency, research and nearly all of the well respected smart people in this field say the same thing... training each body part once per week (the typical "bodybuilding routine") is not ideal for us non-drug using, genetically average people of the world.

    Can it work? Yes. Is it the best way to train? No. What is? An upper/lower split (upper body on Monday and Thursday, lower body on Tuesday and Friday, for example) where each body part is hit in some form twice per week seems to be the most often recommended training split among the really smart people whose recommendations I value, as opposed to the drugged up genetic wonders on the cover of some bodybuilding magazine whose recommendations I could care less about. From my own personal experience, I can tell you that switching from that typical "each muscle once per week body part split" to an "upper/lower split" made a significant positive difference in my results.

  • Intensity

    As for intensity, you typically will want to stay in the 5-12 rep range. More than 12 is a little more endurance oriented and would mean you're going a bit too light, and less than 5 is a little more strength oriented and would mean you're going a bit too heavy. Don't get me wrong, these rep ranges can still definitely be used for building muscle (elite powerlifters work mainly in the 1-5 rep range, and they certainly don't lack muscle), however, from all of the research I've read and all of the recommendations I've seen, you will ideally want to stay within the 5-12 rep range most of the time.

    What does that mean exactly? It means that, for example, if you were doing 3 sets of 8 reps for an exercise, you'd be using a weight that is light enough for you to perform about 8 reps, yet heavy enough where you couldn't keep going after the 8th rep to do any more than another rep or two at most.

  • Failure

    Now, the above doesn't mean you need to be going to failure. Failure, by the way, is when you reach the point where you can not complete a rep. When you try, get half way there, and can't go any further... that's called "failure." Contrary to some idiotic advice that shows up from time to time in the world of building muscle, failure isn't such a great thing. It puts a ton of stress on the body (not just the muscle, but the whole nervous system), and going to failure often will burn most people out, screw up your recovery, bring your results to a halt, and possibly even lead to injury.

    At the same time, I'm also not anti-failure. Since progressive overload is such a key, it's important to try to get that next rep. That's why I think sometimes, when you feel you may be able to get that next rep, and you try it, and you hit failure... that's okay. It's not so okay when you pretty much know you're done, and you purposely attempt another rep (or more) just to reach failure for the sake of reaching failure.

    With that said, most of the time your sets should end about 1 or 2 reps short of failure (which, as mentioned above, should be somewhere in the 5-12 rep range). The occasional time you attempt that next rep and don't make it... don't worry about. That, in my opinion, is good failure. Doing it on purpose, every exercise, every set, every workout, is bad failure.

  • Rest Between Sets

    Typically for building muscle, most experts advise resting 1-3 minutes between sets. I'd agree with this, but with a small note. I'd recommend 2-3 minutes for the bigger stuff (bench press, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, etc.) and 1-2 minutes for the smaller stuff (biceps and triceps exercises, lateral raises, leg curls, dumbbell flyes, etc.). If possible, try to be consistent with your rest times with each exercise. As in, don't take 1 minute between sets of an exercise this time, and 3 minutes next time. It kinda makes it hard to accurately progress that way.

For any additional information about creating the most effective weight training program possible, be sure to check out A Calorie Counter's sister site, A Workout Routine. The best place to start over there would be my guide to creating The Ultimate Weight Training Workout Routine.

The Muscle Building Workout Routine

Here now is a complete weight training program that fits all of the above guidelines and, when combined with the other 5 requirements in this guide being met, will most definitely allow you to reach your goal of building muscle.

Monday: Upper Body A
  1. Bench Press - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  2. Rows - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  3. Incline Dumbbell Press - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  4. Lat Pull-Downs - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  5. Lateral Raises - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
  6. Triceps Press-Downs - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
  7. Dumbbell Curls - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
Tuesday: Lower Body A
  1. Romanian Deadlifts - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  2. Leg Press - 3 sets of 10-12 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  3. Seated Leg Curls - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  4. Standing Calf Raises - 4 sets of 6-8 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  5. Abs (Like 10 minutes worth of your favorite ab exercises.)

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Upper Body B
  1. Pull-Ups - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  2. Shoulder Press - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  3. Seated Cable Row - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  4. Dumbbell Bench Press - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  5. Dumbbell Flyes - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
  6. Barbell Curls - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
  7. Skull Crushers - 2 sets of 10-12 reps - 1 minute rest between sets
Friday: Lower Body B
  1. Squats - 3 sets of 6-8 reps - 2-3 minutes rest between sets
  2. Split Squats - 3 sets of 8-10 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  3. Lying Leg Curls - 3 sets of 10-12 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  4. Seated Calf Raises - 4 sets of 10-12 reps - 1-2 minutes rest between sets
  5. Abs (Like 10 minutes worth of your favorite ab exercises.)

Saturday: Off

Sunday: Off

The Method Of Progression

As you should know by now, progression is the key to building muscle. The suggested method of progression for this weight training program is almost exactly the same as the method shown in the examples in Requirement #1 (progressive overload). The only real difference is, instead of giving you an exact number of reps to perform (3 sets of 8, or 4 sets of 6, etc.) I have given you a rep range in its place. For example, instead of prescribing 3 sets of 8 reps for an exercise, I have prescribed 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Let me explain what that means.

If, for an exercise that I have prescribed 3 sets of 6-8 reps, you do:

Set #1: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 50lbs - 8 reps

You would increase to 55lbs the next time you perform this exercise. However, if you were only able to get something like this:

Set #1: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #3: 50lbs - 7 reps

You would still increase the weight to 55lbs the next time because all 3 sets stayed in the prescribed 6-8 rep range. Similarly, if you did this:

Set #1: 50lbs - 8 reps
Set #2: 50lbs - 7 reps
Set #3: 50lbs - 6 reps

You would once again increase to 55lbs the next time as you were able to do between 6 and 8 reps on all 3 sets. However, if you did something like this:

Set #1: 50lbs - 7 reps
Set #2: 50lbs - 6 reps
Set #3: 50lbs - 5 reps

You would NOT go up in weight. Instead, you would work to add additional reps to each of those sets until you reach the point where all 3 are in the prescribed 6-8 rep range. When this happens, you'd increase the weight (by the smallest possible increment) and repeat this process all over again with the new heavier weight.

And obviously, it would work the exact same way for the other prescribed set/rep ranges in the program (3 sets of 8-10, 2 sets of 10-12, etc.). Get all of the prescribed sets to fall in the prescribed rep ranges, then increase the weight.

Another thing I think I need to mention about this method of progression is that, even though a rep range is given that allows you to increase the weight even when you don't reach the top of the rep range on all of the sets, your intention is still to TRY to reach (or at least get as close to) the top of that range as you can on all of the sets.

What I mean is, sticking with the same 3 sets of 6-8 reps example, if you did 7, 6, 5 on an exercise, your goal next time is NOT to just bring that 3rd set to 6 reps and just maintain the other two as they are. While getting that last set up into your rep range is definitely part of the goal, your other goal is to still try to get each set, even if they are already in the prescribed rep range, as close to the top end of the rep range as you can.

So, instead of trying to just do 7, 6, 6 the next time, you should try to do something like 8, 7, 6. Basically, work to get every set as close to the top end of the rep range (which in this example is 8) as you can, and when you reach the point where all of the sets are in the range (and ideally the first set reaches the top of it), increase the weight and do it all over again.

Additional Notes About This Routine

I think the program itself is pretty self explanatory, but here's some extra info on some stuff that may not be:

  • If you'd rather start with lower body (and do lower/upper/off/lower/upper/off/off), that's perfectly fine.
  • If you'd rather work out on different days (like on the weekend, for example), that's also perfectly fine as long as the same upper/lower or lower/upper order remains, and the layout... on, on, off, on, on, off, off... remains as well. The actual days of the week you choose to work out on and the days you choose to take off make no difference as long as the program's template stays the same.
  • If you can only make it to the gym 3 days per week instead of 4, here's the solution...
    Monday: Upper Body A
    Tuesday: Off
    Wednesday: Lower Body A
    Thursday: Off
    Friday: Upper Body B
    Saturday: Off
    Sunday: Off
    Monday: Lower Body B
    Tuesday: Off
    Wednesday: Upper Body A
    Thursday: Off
    Friday: Lower Body A
    Saturday: Off
    Sunday: Off
    Monday: Upper Body B
    etc.
  • While you are meant to be doing all of the exercises included in this routine, there are always exceptions. For example, if you happen to come across something your gym doesn't have, or something you can not do because of some preexisting injury or something similar, do the next closest match instead.
  • If you are currently unable to do pull-ups, go with the next closest match... some form of assisted pull-up or the lat pull down. When pull-ups with your own body weight become easy, get yourself a pull-up belt and add additional weight.
  • For the ab stuff, feel free to pick whatever ab exercise(s) you like best and keep it to about 10 minutes at the end of each lower body workout.
  • The order I listed the exercises in for each workout... that's the order you should be doing them in.
  • The number of sets prescribed does NOT include warm-up sets.

The FULL Version Of The Muscle Building Workout Routine

If you have any other questions about this program, I've written up a much more complete version of it that contains every single answer, detail and clarification you'll ever need. Check it out: The Muscle Building Workout Routine

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

Requirement #4: A Sufficient Overall Diet

The most important part of the diet of someone whose goal is building muscle is, quite simply, a small caloric surplus. It's so important in fact that rather than lumping it in with the rest of the important diet stuff I'm about to mention, I made it its own requirement (see: Requirement #2).

As for the rest of your diet, there's really just a couple of general guidelines you need to stick to, many of which are similar to the guidelines of a typical healthy diet. In order of importance, they are:

Calorie Intake

Yup, I'm mentioning it again. #1 on your muscle building diet to-do list is consuming the right number of calories, which, as I've mentioned about 48 times now, is a small calorie surplus of 250 for men, and 125 for women. This ends up being the number of calories that causes you to gain about 0.5 pound per week (or 2 pounds per month) for guys, and about half that for women.

You can find out how many calories are in your food by either checking the label on the package or looking it up right here on a Calorie Counter.

Protein Intake

Nearly every single recommendation I've ever seen for protein intake when building muscle is the same: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Meaning, if you weigh 165lbs, you'd consume 165 grams of protein per day (and yes, that means every day, whether you workout or not). I will also mention that I've seen some recommendations as high as 1.75-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, which some people feel is beneficial, and most others feel is unnecessary. What do I think? I think a daily protein intake anywhere in the range of 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound is perfect for the average healthy adult who is actively trying to build some muscle.

Most of your protein intake should come from the following foods:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Fish
  • Meat (the leaner the better)
  • Eggs/Egg Whites
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • A Protein Supplement

You can find out how much protein is in your food by either checking the label on the package or looking it up right here on a Calorie Counter.

Fat Intake

Similarly to protein intake, most of the recommendations I've seen for daily fat intake are pretty much the same as well: 20%-30% of your total calorie intake. So, if an example person is eating 2000 calories per day, 20-30 percent of that would be 400-600 calories. And, since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, this works out to be about 44-66 grams of fat per day for this example person.

Most of your fat intake should come from the following foods:

You can find out how much fat is in your food by either checking the label on the package or looking it up right here on a Calorie Counter.

Carb Intake

With protein and fat out of the way, figuring out your carb intake is pretty simple: it's whatever is left over once a sufficient protein and fat intake are factored in. I'll explain this more in a minute.

Most of your carb intake should come from the following foods:

  • Rice (brown, white, whatever)
  • Oatmeal
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes/Yams
  • Beans (all kinds)
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Other Whole Wheat/Whole Grain Products

You can find out how many carbs are in your food by either checking the label on the package or looking it up right here on a Calorie Counter.

Putting The Diet Together

And now for an example of how to set up your muscle building diet. In the following example, we will pretend our example person is a man who weighs 165lbs and has a daily calorie maintenance level of 2100 (which are just completely made up numbers, by the way). Here we go...

  1. Set Calorie Intake

    Our example person estimated that they have a daily calorie maintenance level of 2100 calories. In Requirement #2, they learned that they need to create a daily caloric surplus of about 250 calories. So, starting tomorrow, they will consume 2350 calories per day, every day.

  2. Set Protein Intake

    So, with a daily calorie intake of 2350 all set, the next thing thing our example person needs to do is figure out their protein intake. Since he weighs 165lbs, he will look to consume about 165 grams of protein per day. Because 1 gram of protein contains about 4 calories, this works out to be 660 calories from protein per day (165 x 4 = 660).

  3. Set Fat Intake

    Next up is fat. Our example person read the recommendation that 20-30 percent of their total calorie intake should come from fat, and they've decided on going with an even 25%. With a total calorie intake of 2350, this works out to be about 588 calories from fat (2350 x 0.25 = 588). Because 1 gram of fat contains about 9 calories, this works out to be 65 grams of fat per day (588 ÷ 9 = 65).

  4. Set Carb Intake

    With 660 calories from protein now accounted for, and 588 calories from fat also accounted for, we have a total of 1248 calories all figured out (660 + 588 = 1248). Since our example person should be consuming 2350 calories per day, this leaves us with 1102 calories not yet accounted for (2350 - 1248 = 1102). As mentioned above, these remaining calories will come from carbs. Because 1 gram of carbs contains about 4 calories, this works out to be 275 grams of carbs per day (1102 ÷ 4 = 275).

  5. Make Adjustments

    Our example person just came up with a daily muscle building diet containing 2350 calories which come from 165 grams of protein, 65 grams of fat, and 275 grams of carbs. They are done, this diet is good to go. However, it doesn't have to be.

    Adjustments can be made if you want to make them. For example, if our example person would rather have a little more or less fat in their diet (and get nearer to 30% or 20% of their total calorie intake instead of the 25% they went with), they certainly can. They just need to remember that for all of the calories they end up adding or reducing from fat, they need to add or reduce the same number of calories from carbs so that the total calorie intake remains 2350.

    The same goes for protein. If our example person would rather go a little higher in protein (for example, 1.2 grams of protein per pound) instead of 1 gram per pound like they originally figured, it's fine. Again, they just need to remember to reduce carb intake so their total calorie intake for the day remains 2350.

Other Diet Tips For Building Muscle

  • Surround your workout with protein and carbs. All research (and there is a lot of it) and recommendations (and there are a lot of them too) suggest the same thing, which is that it would be a very good idea to consume protein and carbs in your pre and post workout meals. What that means is, in the meal before your workout (60-90 minutes before is probably fine), eat a decent amount of protein and a decent amount of carbs. Then, soon after your workout, eat another similar meal containing a decent amount of protein and carbs.

    For additional details on these meals, read this: The Pre and Post Workout Meal

  • Drink lots of water and little of everything else. No soda, and no junky fruit juices/sports drinks or anything similar. Some milk is okay. Keeping alcohol to a minimum would definitely be a good idea. Green tea is nice. But really, for the most part, your drink of choice is water. 0.5-1 gallon of water per day is pretty good for the average healthy adult exercising regularly.
  • Most recommendations for diet organization suggest that you will be better off spreading your total calorie intake out over the course of the day in 5-6 smaller meals instead of 1-3 really large ones, with about 2-3 hours between each meal. Truth is, it really doesn't make any difference how many meals you eat per day, and tons of studies in recent years prove this. So, basically, eat as many meals per day as you prefer. Whatever will make it easiest for you to consistently eat the right total amounts of calories, protein, fat and carbs per day, THAT'S how many meals you should eat. Whether that's 3 meals or 6 meals (or anything in between) is totally up to you and your own preferences.
  • Aside from the important diet stuff needed for building muscle, there is also some important diet stuff that should be done for overall health in general. The first things that come to mind... keep saturated fat to about 1/3 of your total fat intake, avoid trans fat completely, keep sodium and cholesterol intake in their healthy ranges, get enough fiber, and try to get most of your calories from higher quality, nutrient-dense foods while keeping the typical junky crap to a sane (yet enjoyable) minimum.

The Muscle Building Diet Summary

Like summaries? Cool. Here's everything you just read about putting together a sufficient diet summed up in just 1 paragraph...

Create a small caloric surplus, get a sufficient amount protein and fat, and get the rest of your calorie intake mainly from carbs. Get each of these nutrients from mostly higher quality sources, and organize it all in whatever way is most enjoyable and sustainable for you. Surround your weight training workout with meals containing protein and carbs, and drink plenty of water each day. Rinse, repeat.

Supplements

Now, this is where I need to be careful. I'm explaining the 6 requirements for building muscle and now I'm going to mention supplements. The reason I need to be careful here is because, contrary to what every supplement company on the planet would like you to believe, there is not one supplement that is required in any way, shape or form.

However, I know that I can't write something called The Ultimate Guide To Building Muscle without at least mentioning supplements because no matter how hard I ingrain the above fact in the brain of everyone reading this, the questions are still going to come. So, here's my mention of supplements.

The first thing you need to know is that no supplement will do a damn thing for you without the 6 requirements in this article being met first. Supplements don't make up for crappy progression, or crappy training, or a crappy diet, or crappy rest/recovery, or crappy consistency. Supplements will only become helpful/useful when all of the actual important stuff is already being taken care of. Please read this again. Then, read it again. So many people look towards supplements for "help" before doing any of the 6 requirements, let alone all of them. These people end up doing nothing but wasting time and money. Don't be like these people.

As for actual supplement recommendations, here's the general consensus:

  • Protein Powder

    Whey protein powder is a high quality source of protein and is often the go-to choice for most people's post workout meal. If you plan on having a protein shake during some other part of the day, whey is still perfectly fine as is a whey/casein blend or casein by itself. As for specific brands, at this point it comes down pretty much to just taste and cost. None will do anything special that another one won't. It's just protein. Find one that tastes good and costs a price you are willing to pay. Personally, I've been using Designer Whey Protein Powder since about 2001 and fully recommend it. It's the best tasting/easiest mixing protein powder I've ever found (I like the strawberry flavor). For non-whey protein powders, I'm a fan of Optimum Nutrition's 100% Casein Powder.

  • Fish Oil

    I am a HUGE fan of fish oil, and I honestly recommend every single person, no matter what their goals are or if they even care about weight training or nutrition at all, take a fish oil supplement (unless of course you happen to eat lots of fatty fish on a regular basis). There is a seemingly infinite amount of actual research proving the benefits of fish oil, and how it damn near improves the body's ability to do everything. Nearly every respectable doctor/nutritionist/strength coach/expert recommends it. The full details of why are here: Fish Oil Supplements. So, long story short, if you were ever to spend a cent on supplements, fish oil should be one of those supplements. For brands, I use and fully recommend Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, an expert-recommended brand that ranked at the top of every consumer report I've seen on fish oil. It's the only brand I ever use.

  • Multivitamin And/Or Other Vitamins & Minerals

    Similar to fish oil, a multivitamin is another one of those supplements that could be beneficial to everyone for obvious reasons, no matter what their goals are. In addition to a multivitamin, some people may benefit from some individual vitamins/minerals as well. For example, I take a vitamin D as well as a calcium supplement (which I've been taking since I was a kid because I never liked milk or milk products). I have no specific brand recommendations here, but whatever is on sale and comes from any sort of quality brand is most likely just fine.

  • Creatine

    And finally, creatine. If you never heard of it, consider yourself lucky. Spend 5 minutes on any weight training forum on the planet and you'll find 1000 new creatine related questions. Let's answer the most common ones right now.

    Is creatine a steroid? No, creatine is NOT a steroid or anything even remotely close to a steroid. Creatine is naturally produced by the body, and is found in our diet in red meat and certain types of fish. If you've ever eaten red meat, you've already sort of "taken some creatine."

    Is it safe? Creatine is the most studied/researched supplement around these days (and over the last decade) and there is currently nothing to indicate any sort of negative effects in healthy adults. If you have some kind of preexisting health issues, specifically something kidney related, you don't count as a typical "healthy adult" and should obviously check with your doctor first. But, in healthy adults, no study has shown any negative side effects aside from something like an upset stomach and muscle cramps, all of which would be avoided by drinking plenty of water and not bothering with taking a "loading" dose. More on that in a second.

    Does creatine work? Yes, most of the time. There are definite cases of "non responders" though, which are people who take creatine and notice no difference. The reason for this is most likely due to these people having naturally high creatine levels (and/or possibly a diet high in red meat). Some of the people who see the best results from creatine use are those with average or naturally low creatine levels in their body (and/or vegetarians and those who don't eat red meat often). But, in most cases, it works.

    Will it build muscle and make me huge and super awesome? Uh, no. A proper diet and non-idiotic training is what will build muscle (super awesome is still open to debate). In the most basic sense, creatine will increase the amount of energy your muscles have. The more energy your muscles have, the more work they will be able to perform. Now, the difference isn't huge. You won't be lifting 100lbs today, start to take creatine, and lift 200lbs tomorrow. It's more like, you can lift 100lbs for 6 reps today, and creatine will allow you to lift 100lbs for 8 reps the next time. It's a small difference, yes. But, once you understand the importance of Requirement #1 (progressive overload), you can understand why creatine can definitely help with building muscle.

    Does creatine need to be loaded? No it does not, and it shouldn't be. Back when creatine first became popular, it was suggested that creatine needed to be loaded, as in taking a large dose of it for a few days to speed up how soon the muscles will become saturated, and then drop down to a maintenance dose from that point on. It kind of makes sense, but it's also what causes the mild stomach-related side effects. These days anyone with half a brain recommends skipping the loading and just starting off with the maintenance dose. The only difference will be that instead of seeing the effects of creatine in a week, it will now take you 20-30 days. The end result will be exactly the same, it will just take slightly longer to get there. So, even if your creatine says "Take 20 grams per day for 5 days, and then 5-10 grams per day after that," just ignore it. Instead, take 5 grams per day... period. And no, that's not a typo. 5 grams per day, that's it. Anything more will just go to waste in your body.

    When should I take creatine? On workout days, add 5 grams of creatine to your post workout shake. Most research suggests that this is most likely the best time to take it. On non-workout days, it really doesn't matter. Whatever time you remember to take it, that's a good time.

    What type of creatine should I take, and what brand should I take? First of all, you are looking to take pure Creatine Monohydrate powder. There's all sorts of different creatine products out there, and you don't want any of them. You want just Creatine Monohydrate. You don't want anything combined with it, you don't want any other form of creatine, you don't want a product that just happens to contain creatine, you don't want flavored creatine (it's completely tasteless and odorless, by the way), you don't want creatine capsules. You just want plain old Creatine Monohydrate powder. If it's micronized, that's even better. Micronized just means it will mix a bit easier. As for a specific brand, I use and fully recommend Optimum Nutrition's Micronized Creatine Powder, which is made with "Creapure," a creatine monohydrate widely regarded as the highest quality stuff out there.

That's it. That's the full list of safe, proven, useful supplements. For the most part, everything else is either nearly completely unnecessary, dangerous, or will do absolutely nothing but waste your money. No matter what the advertisement says, no matter what the label on the bottle says, no matter what the idiot in your gym says, no matter what the supplement store employee says, and certainly no matter what the supplement company themselves say... this is the be all and end all of useful supplements, specifically ones for building muscle.

Do you need to take any? Nope. Would it help if you did? Sure. Stuff like fish oil and a multivitamin are supplements that will be beneficial to everyone from a general health standpoint, and indirectly beneficial from a muscle building standpoint. Protein powder is a high quality and super convenient way of helping you meet your protein requirements for the day. And creatine, combined with all 6 of the requirements in this article being met, has certainly been proven to be useful.

Is anything absolutely required? Nope. Should you take any? That, my friend, is up to you.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

Requirement #5: Rest And Recovery

I hate to have to do this, but I think I must. If you've already spent any time learning about building muscle, there's this lame sounding line that tends to show up over and over again to explain the importance of rest and recovery. I've heard it so many times that it actually makes me a little nauseous. But, here it comes anyway...

"You don't grow in the gym, you grow out of it." There, now this can officially be the ULTIMATE guide.

In all seriousness, that statement is true. And, it must be said over and over again due to the simple fact that pretty much everyone comes into this whole muscle building thing with the same incorrect idea in their head... the idea that more is better. More exercises, more sets and more workouts will all lead to more muscle. ::cue the game show sound effect that plays when a contestant gets something wrong::

See, while working out, we are not actually building muscle. If anything, we are breaking down our muscles for the purpose of having them repair themselves to be a little bit bigger and stronger than they previously were. It sort of works like this:

  • In the gym, we are signaling our bodies to begin the muscle building progress. Basically, your body senses that it's being forced to perform work (the weight training), and by progressively increasing the amount of work it's being forced to do (progressive overload), the body is smart enough to realize that in order to keep up, it is going to have to compensate by getting bigger and stronger. And of course, it's going to require all of the tools it needs to actually make this adaptation occur (calories, protein, and all of the other diet stuff). This explains why the workout without the diet doesn't work, and why the diet without the workout doesn't work. They are both a requirement to make this whole process work.

Of course, there is a 3rd piece to that puzzle... rest and recovery. Even with a quality workout focused on progression to create the signal, and a diet that supplies everything the body needs to build the muscle, it still needs to be given a chance to do all of this work. Not only do muscles need a chance to recover, but the entire nervous system needs a chance to recover.

So, how do you ensure that you are giving your body this chance? Well, I'm glad I pretended that you asked. Here now are some guidelines to ensure that you are allowing proper rest and recovery:

  • Never weight train more than 2 days in a row. It doesn't matter what body parts are being trained on those days. There should not be more than 2 workouts in a row. In the sample program I gave above, you'll notice that it was 2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on, 2 days off, thus adhering to this recommendation.
  • Weight training workouts should be kept to about 1 hour in length, give or take 15 minutes or so.
  • Make sure you have at least 3 days off per week. Another way of saying this is to have a maximum of 4 weight training workouts per week. (Again, the sample upper/lower program above fits this description.)
  • On your "off" days, it's okay to do some active recovery work/light cardio (it's also okay to do practically nothing active at all). I would not recommend doing anything too intense though, because once again, these are the days you are giving your body a chance to recover from intense exercise. Performing any sort of intense exercise on these days kind of kills the whole point of "off" days.
  • Sleep... a lot... every night. In an ideal world, everyone working on building muscle would be getting 8-10 hours of sleep every single night. If you can't, feel free to throw in a nap whenever possible. Really though, just do everything you can to get as much sleep as you can. Your body will definitely need it, and not getting enough of it will definitely hinder your progress. For the most part, I sleep about 7 hours 4 nights a week, and 8-9 hours the other 3 nights.
  • Follow all of the guidelines I mentioned above for volume, frequency and intensity when putting together your workout program. Or, just follow the sample weight training program given (or something similar), which already follows these very guidelines.
  • Take 1 full week off from weight training once or twice per year. When you come back from that week off, rather than picking up right where you left off, spend 2 weeks gradually working back to where you were at. For example, use 80% of the weights you were using the first week, 90% the next week, and then go back to 100% the week after that. Then, go back to trying to progress as often as possible.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

Requirement #6: Consistency, Time And Tracking Progress

I'm going to keep this one short and sweet, partly because it's the requirement that requires the least explanation, and partly because my hands are about to fall off. So, here goes...

Consistency

Without consistency, you will get nowhere. The other 5 requirements could be doing just swell, but if you aren't doing it all consistently, it's all for nothing. So, be consistent. Got it? Good.

Time

Aside from a ton of effort, building muscle takes time... lots of time. As I mentioned a while back, the average male can hope to gain between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of muscle per week under the best possible circumstances. The average female can expect half that. So, don't think you're going to hit the gym for a couple of weeks and then look in the mirror and see a new and improved body. It's not going to happen. Thinking it will or expecting it to is only going to lead to disappointment and probably your eventual failure. Instead, think in terms of months and years. "What will I look like 3 months from now?" or "I wonder how much progress I will have made 1 year from now." That's the type of realistic thinking that leads to long term progress.

Tracking Progress

Tracking progress is EXTREMELY important. Here's how:

  • Keep a workout log/journal.

    Every single person looking to build muscle MUST keep some sort of workout log or journal. Nothing too fancy... just the date, the exercises done, the weights used for each set, and the number of reps done for each set. If you really need to know why this is so important, then you really suck at reading. Go back to Requirement #1... progressive overload.

    Making some form of progress from workout to workout (or as often as you are capable of doing so) is beyond important. How are you supposed to do this without accurately tracking what you did the previous workout? A workout log will tell you that you lifted x weight for y reps on exercise z, thus letting you know exactly what you will need to do this workout in order to beat what you previously did. Please don't ignore this. It takes 5 minutes on your workout days to write/type this info out, and it will make all of the difference in the world to your weight training progress.

  • Weigh yourself.

    Basically, weigh yourself once per week first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and keep track of it somewhere (or, weigh in every morning and take the weekly average). The key to tracking progress is consistency, so make sure you weigh yourself the same way, in the same spot, every time. If you are going to weigh yourself with a shirt on, always weigh yourself with that shirt on (or at least something similar). And, as mentioned, always do it right after you wake up before eating or drinking anything.

    Keep a log of your weight somewhere (with your workout log, if you want) and in your weight right after getting off the scale. Remember the recommendations for how much weight you should end up gaining while building muscle? I'll remind you... about 0.5 pound per week (2 pounds per month) for guys, and half that for women. Keep an eye on your weight to make sure it's not going up much faster than that (which would mean too much fat gain). If it is, make a small calorie reduction until you are within the recommended range. If you aren't gaining any weight at all, make a small calorie increase until you are within range.

  • Take measurements.

    Get yourself a tape measure (the kind that can be wrapped around your body) and start measuring. Do it at least once per month, and at most once per week. Measure your waist, your arms, your thighs, your chest, your calves or whatever you feel like measuring. As for where exactly to take each measurement, it really doesn't matter too much just as long as you always take the measurements from the same spots every time. Oh, and you should be doing it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach as well.

  • Take pictures.

    You see yourself all the time, so noticing your own progress will be the hardest for you. This is where pictures come in handy. They will remind you of exactly where you were when you started and show you exactly how far you've come. I think once per month is a good frequency for most people to see every single bit of improvement they are making.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

The Ultimate Guide To Building Muscle - FAQ

After reading this over, I came up with a couple of questions that I can imagine some people having. Here now are those questions along with my answers to them.

Does all of the above apply to men and women? Old and young? Those looking to only gain a few pounds of muscle and those looking to gain a lot of muscle? Basically, do the 6 requirements apply to everyone?

Yes, they certainly do. Male or female, it doesn't matter. Looking to gain as little as 5lbs of muscle or looking to gain as much as 100lbs of muscle, it doesn't matter. These are the 6 requirements for building muscle, period. Exact goals, gender, age... it really doesn't matter. All 6 requirements still stand regardless.

When should the muscle building phase/weight gain end?

There are only 2 reasons for ending your muscle building phase/weight gain. The first is that you have built as much muscle as you wanted to build, are happy with your results and have no desire to go any further. The second (and most common for people looking to add more than 5-10lbs of muscle to their body) is when you reach the point where you don't want to gain anymore excess fat. Remember that whole muscle to fat gain ratio/calorie partitioning stuff I just mentioned? You know, how SOME excess fat will be gained along with all the muscle? Well, most people end their muscle building phase when they have gained as much fat as they are willing to gain.

This, of course, is perfectly fine. In fact, it's the right idea.

It turns out that the fatter you are, the worse your calorie partitioning becomes. This is a good reason why you never want to gain too much excess fat while building muscle, as you will eventually reach a point where your muscle to fat gain ratio starts to get worse and worse. So, when you reach the point where you've accepted the maximum amount of fat gain you are willing to accept, that's the perfect time to stop.

The question now is, once you are ready to stop, what do you do next? Simple. You switch from a muscle building phase into a fat loss phase. Speaking of which...

I understand everything you said about a caloric surplus and that there will likely be some excess fat gained along with all of the muscle. What are we supposed to do about that fat?

Once you've reached the above mentioned "I've gained as much excess fat as I'm going to allow" point, it's time to switch from a muscle building phase (where your goal was gaining muscle while keeping fat gain to a minimum) into a fat loss phase (where your goal will be to lose fat while maintaining all of the muscle you just built). To do this you will keep everything nearly EXACTLY the same as it is during a muscle building phase, except with a few small changes: Here's how...

  • Instead of being in a calorie surplus, you need to be in a calorie deficit. Most people should aim to lose about 0.5-1 pound per week on average, which is a good slow weight loss rate when your goal is not just losing fat... but maintaining muscle.
  • This calorie reduction that brings you into a calorie deficit should come from carbs (remove them from anywhere EXCEPT your pre and post workout meals).
  • If you end up having to reduce calories again to keep the fat loss going, make sure you make these reductions in (small/gradual) 250 calorie increments. You'll pretty much want to make most of these other reductions by reducing your carb intake rather than protein or fat. In fact, don't reduce your protein intake at all during the entire fat loss phase. Instead, primarily make your calorie reductions by eliminating carbs (again, not from pre/post workout meals) and secondarily from eliminating fat (but make sure fat intake doesn't fall under 20% of your total calorie intake).
  • As far as weight training goes... NOTHING changes. The absolute worst thing you can do is start purposely using lighter weights for more reps because you think it will burn fat. It won't. All it will do it show your body that you apparently don't need your new muscle anymore. Your new goal in the gym is to keep everything exactly where it is at the end of the muscle building phase. If you can still progress, great... go for it. However, don't be surprised if the best you can do during the fat loss phase is just work your ass off to maintain rather than progress. Also, don't be surprised if you end up losing some strength. It happens to everyone. Just work as hard as you can to keep that to a minimum.
  • When you reach the point where you lost as much of the fat as you wanted to lose, increase your calorie intake (by adding back some carbs) so that you are no longer in a caloric deficit and are instead at your maintenance level. At this point, you're done.

If you follow this correctly, by the end of the fat loss phase you will be lean and have a bunch of new muscle to look at.

What if I want to build more muscle after the fat loss phase?

Simple... switch back into a muscle building phase and do everything in this guide all over again. Then, when you reach that "fat enough" point, go back to a fat loss phase. Want more muscle after that? Just keep repeating this over and over again until you reach the point where you've gained as much muscle as you wanted to gain. At that point, just maintain your lifts in the gym, and eat at maintenance level. And, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

The only other thing I think I need to mention is that you don't want to switch from phase to phase too often. You have to give each one (specifically the muscle building phase) time to actually work. So, I suggest making sure your muscle building phases last AT THE VERY LEAST 12 weeks. After that, it's up to you to decide when to switch to a fat loss phase.

Oh, and one final tip. Whenever you switch from a muscle building phase into a fat loss phase or vice-versa, insert a 2 week maintenance phase where instead of being in a slight calorie surplus or a slight calorie deficit, you are just right in the middle at maintenance. Research shows this can be beneficial.

I'm a female, and while I do want to gain some muscle and become more toned and more fit in general, I DO NOT want to get big and bulky like a guy. What should I do?

Luckily for my poor tired hands, I've already answered this question in 8 Reasons Your Weight Training Results Suck. Scroll down to reason #2 entitled "Your little pink dumbbells suck." This should answer your question and eliminate your fears.

I'm a complete beginner when it comes to diet and exercise. Do the 6 requirements for building muscle still apply to me?

Yes, as mentioned, they apply to everyone. The only difference with beginners is that, due to their newbie status, they will experience "beginner's gains." Basically, for the first couple of months, complete newbies have a borderline super power that allows them to not only make better progress than anyone else (including the progress they themselves will be making just a couple of months from now) but also lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. So, enjoy it while you got it.

I'm already a bit (or more) on the fat side, but I want to build muscle. Should I still be going into a caloric surplus and start to gain weight?

If you are NOT new to weight training, you should first go into a fat loss phase and lose whatever excess fat you currently have. Then when you are at least somewhat lean, start your muscle building phase. If you ARE new to weight training you should eat at about maintenance level or a small deficit (rather than a surplus) and train like you are trying to build muscle. As mentioned a second ago, since you are a beginner, you have the magical ability to both lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Use it while you can.

Go back up to The 6 Requirements

The End

Well, there you go. Every single thing you will ever need to know about building muscle. Not bad, eh? Now... stop reading and start doing.

Questions? Feedback? Leave a comment or send me an email.