Building muscle is THE main ingredient for long term body composition success. To be lean and look good, a foundation of muscle is required. Muscle is also a great insurance policy, meaning you’re less likely to die from diseases later in life if you have more muscle to begin with.
There are more variables involved in building muscle than the standard gym bro will tell you.
“Just lift and eat more, brah”.
Why thank you, sir, never would've thought of that. Have you considered writing a book?
If all you had to do to build muscle was lift and eat more, everyone who trains consistently and eats enough would be jacked. Fitness professionals wouldn’t exist to the degree they do, people wouldn’t turn to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and I would have no reason to write this blog post.
There are several morse things you’ll need to consider when trying to build muscle. Here are 15 training-specific factors that will make the biggest difference:
You can gain muscle without gaining strength, and vice versa. But it takes a ton of dialed in and meticulous programming. If you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter (you’ve been training consistently for less than 10 years), gaining strength over time will almost always result in gaining muscle.
This ties into gaining strength. To gain strength (and therefore muscle), you need to progressively increase the stimulus on said muscles. Progressive overload is usually referred to by using more weight for the same reps, doing more reps with the same weight, or to an extent, performing more sets (volume). You should be able to do this quite consistently for at least the first several years of lifting. The progress will eventually slow down, and your focus will need to shift to other variables. But for now, progressive overload is key.
Lifting weights (especially for men) is an ego-driven activity. If you want to maximize muscle gain, you’re better off leaving your ego outside the gym (maybe save it for the bar tonight, chicks dig egos). Lifting weights is a skill, skills take practice. Focus on perfecting your form before you go adding weight to the bar.
#4-The Right Exercises for You (not your favorite influencer)
We all have different anthropometry (limb length, body size/shape etc), movement capabilities, muscle fiber types, and abilities to recover. Just because your gym bud’s quads grow an inch every week from “20 rep back squats, brah”, doesn’t mean yours will. There are several effective exercises for each bodypart. You'll likely need to experiment with some or a lot to find the ones that a) fit your structure, b) you can feel in the target muscle, and c) don’t beat your joints up or crush you neurologically. If you don’t feel bench press in your chest, it may be time to find another chest exercise (or abide by tip 3!)
#5-Range Of Motion
Science has consistently proven that putting a muscle through a larger range of motion (ROM) is far more effective for muscle growth than training in partial ranges. It’s important to note that everyone’s range of motion will be different. It’s also imperative to remember that you need to have control of the weight throughout the entire range of motion. A bigger range of motion that sacrifices control and stability is not going to lead to more growth (it’ll probably lead to injury). There is a time and a place for partial ROM, but you first must need to master full ROM.
While the big 3 (squat, bench and deadlift with a barbell) are overhyped, the movement pattern of the 3 (knee flexion, hip hinge, upper body push) are not. Lifts that involve multiple joints (compound lifts) are superior to overall muscle and strength gain until you’ve become very advanced (and still likely superior). Knee flexion (squat variations, lunge variations), hip hinges (deadlift variations, good mornings), presses (chest, shoulder), and pulls (rows, pulldowns) should be the main focus of your training program.
#7-Isolation Lifts Are Not Useless
Many zealots will claim (without any logical way to support said claim) that isolation lifts are a waste of time. And while compound lifts are great and should make up the bulk of your training, it’s totally acceptable to include isolation lifts as well. If you’re genetically skinny (like me), you have skinny calves and arms. They will not grow substantially if you don’t train them in isolation. Also, many people neglect certain muscle groups that respond especially well to isolation lifts (rear delts, side delts, calves, triceps) and this can lead to muscle imbalances and pain. Including some strategic single joint movements at the right times will help you avoid these issues and give you a more well-rounded and functional body.
If you generally have the ability to grow certain muscles, but some are falling behind, you may have poor min-muscle connection to them. Commonly, muscles you can’t see in the mirror are harder to connect to (back, hamstrings, glutes, calves, rear delts). To improve your connection, train them with light weight and practice movements frequently, but not to failure. It can also help to have a friend or a trainer give you cues or physically touch the muscle you’re trying to activate. This sometimes just takes time and persistence.
#9-Manipulate Rep Ranges
Sets of anywhere between 1-30 reps will grow muscle. But if you’re always in the 8-12 rep range and never diverge, your body will adapt to it and make continued progress difficult. Some muscles respond well to higher reps (delts, arms, calves, quads). Others respond well to lower reps (back, chest, glutes). All of them respond well to moderate reps (8-12), but not forever. Change your rep ranges every 4 to 6 weeks (obviously you’ll need to adjust the weight accordingly) and you’ll get a better growth response over time.
If you’re training hard (0-3 reps shy of failure), you don’t need more than 20 sets per muscle group per week. If your chest day alone involves 25 sets in a single workout, you’re doing too much volume. This will lead to either no progress and wasting time(at best), halt your progress, or at worst, reverse your progress. Start at the low end of the volume prescription (8-10 sets/week/muscle group) and add volume over time (if necessary). If you’ve advanced, less volume and more intensity (contrary to popular belief) is most effective (usually).
For a set to be effective for muscle growth, it needs to be within 4 reps of failure. Most of your training should be 1-3 reps shy of technical failure (inability to perform another rep with perfect technique). The problem is, unless you occasionally hit failure, you’re likely not going to know what 1-3 reps shy of failure feels like. I do not recommend frequent training to failure, but doing so on occasion will enable you to get much more out of every set.
Unless you’re highly advanced, chances are you’ll need to train each muscle group more than once per week. Increasing training frequency not only helps you improve your skill, but it also enables you to activate muscle protein synthesis (a process in your body that results in more skeletal muscle) more than once per week. For most people (normal genetics, not on PED’s) muscle protein synthesis (MPS) dies off 48-72 hours after you last trained a specific muscle. If you’re waiting till the following week to train it again, you’re not taking advantage of another potential MPS opportunity. Obviously, if you’re training a muscle group 2-3 times per week, you’ll need to spread the volume out accordingly (you can’t do 3 leg days per week if they’re all 20 sets). For excellent muscle building programs, check these out:
#13- Don’t Program Hop
Boredom and lack of immediate gratification/results are the reason many people don’t find success building muscle over time. This leads to “program-hopping”, which is essentially changing things up constantly and looking for the “perfect program” (hint- it doesn't exist). In doing this, you’re setting yourself up for continued disappointment. Follow a program the ebay it’s prescribed, implement the tips found within this blog post, and you will see results.
#14-PED’s Work, But Are Not Cheat Codes
Performance enhancing drugs are still a taboo topic, but less so than in the past. There are tons of informational videos, forums, blogs and podcasts out there on PED’s. But if you don’t have 1 and a million genetics, even if you take PED’s you’ll still have to implement most or all of the tips in this article. They are not magic. They will not do the work for you. They can be effective, but also extremely detrimental to your health if you use them haphazardly. I'm neither for nor against PED use. I am, however, against people not admitting to using them and making money off their physiques (this is extremely common). Proceed with caution.
#15-Hire a Coach
To take the guesswork out of all of this, hire a smart coach. There are millions of coaches out there, but only thousands of good ones. Educate yourself, do your research, and accept that a good coach will charge based on his or her value (more money than you may think). If it’s important to you, you’ll make that investment.
Training properly and efficiently is only part of the equation. To build muscle, you need to put a ton of your focus on things outside the gym!
Stay tuned for the next blog post on nutrition and recovery for building muscle.
Which mistakes have you made in the past? Do you have any other training tips for gaining muscle? Leave your comments or questions below!