How to Build Muscle- The Definitive Guide
How to build muscle as fast as humanly possible…
That’s what this definitive guide is all about. Getting big, strong, lean and built like a badass. It’s the summation of everything I have learned over the course of 25 years in the Iron Game.
These techniques helped me overcome horrible skinny-fat genetics and gain 43 pounds of muscle. They’ve also helped thousands of other in-person and online clients of mine achieve similar results.
If you work hard and smart, they’ll do the same for you.
Rule #1: To Build Muscle You Have to Get Strong
You can’t expect to transform your physique by doing the same workouts over and over. You have to force adaptation to occur. The easiest way to do that is by adding weight to the bar. Get stronger in the range of 6-15 reps and you’ll get bigger.
If there is one thing I can’t stress enough it is the importance of setting rep PRs (personal records). Pick a few key exercises and write down what you can for 6-8 reps on each of them. Now work your way, over the next few weeks/months, up to the point where you can do 12-15 reps on those exercises with the same weight. That’s how you force your body to grow.
Once you get to the higher end of the rep range add weight and start over with 6-8. Simple, brutally effective; no advanced calculus degree required.
One important note here is that you can never sacrifice form for more weight. The reps have to be pristine, textbook reps where you are maximizing tension and feeling the target muscle work through every inch of the range of motion. Quality over quantity.
The bottom line is to get big you have to get strong.
Rule #2: You Have to Use Compound Muscle-Building Exercises
The exercises that allow you to use the greatest amount of weight are the ones that will help you build muscle fastest. You’re not going to grow with a workout comprised of machine exercises and isolation movements.
You have to overload your body with big, manly, testosterone producing exercises.
The best compound exercises for building muscle are:
- Military Presses– barbell, dumbbell, log
- Low Incline Presses– barbell or dumbbell
- Squats– front, safety bar, Buffalo bar, back, belt
- Deadlifts– trap bar, Romanian
- Rows– 1 arm dumbbell, chest supported dumbbell, landmine
- Loaded Carries– farmers, bear hug, zercher, racked, shouldered
- Sled Work- pushing and dragging
Get strong on those exercises and slowly add weight and reps.
When you can move big numbers on those lifts for sets of 8-12 reps you’ll be a big dude.
Notice that I didn’t include regular, straight bar deadlifts from the floor on that list. That’s because that exercise takes way too much out of you and places a huge demand on your recovery ability. It also lacks the eccentric component so essential for muscle growth.
If you just want to get strong or improve your deadlift it’s a great exercise. But for the purposes of building muscle there are better variations. And many large backs have been built without conventional deadlifts.
The flat bench press is another exercise that doesn’t make the list simply because it’s too risky. If you slightly incline the bench the exercise becomes far more effective for targeting the pecs and removes some of the stress from the shoulders. The 30 degree incline press was a favorite of 6-time Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates for these very reasons.
Rule #3: Complement the Big Lifts with Bodyweight Exercises
Big compound barbell lifts are great but you’ll need more than that for a well rounded physique and injury free training. Those exercises should be complimented by an equal amount of muscle building bodyweight exercises like:
- Chin ups
- Single leg squat and lunge variations
- Pushup variations
- Inverted rows
- Plank variations for core strength/stability and to protect your lower back
- Glute ham raises
The combination of big lifts and bodyweight exercises will produce an athletic, muscular physique that every guy wants.
Rule #4: Use Perfect Technique
This should go without saying, but if you walk into any public gym you’ll see that’s not the case. The perfect rep has several components to it. They are:
- Get tight from head to toe. Squeeze the bar (or dumbbell) like you’re trying to crush it. If you’re doing a standing exercise be sure to squeeze your glutes and brace your abs.
- Control the lowering or eccentric portion of the lift in 2-3 seconds.
- Stretch the muscle in the bottom position.
- But don’t go so deep that you cause damage. You shouldn’t feel any joint stress.
- Reverse the movement and start the positive/concentric portion of the lift by forcefully contracting the target muscles.
- Don’t use momentum.
- On big barbell exercises you should lockout at the top and reset.
- On bodyweight and dumbbell exercises where you are trying to get a pump, you should stop just shy of lockout at the top and immediately reverse the movement.
- Never just go into the gym and start hoisting weight.
- Do that and you’ll get injured.
- You’ll also severely compromise your results.
Rule #5: Get a Pump
This goes against the typical hardgainer rules where supposedly all that matters is doing a few sets of low reps on bench presses, squats and deadlifts. Guys who do that usually end up fat and injured. They don’t grow as much muscle as they could, either.
There’s a reason every big dude on the planet does sets of 8-12 reps and leaves the gym with a huge pump. It works. In fact, it’s essential for muscle growth.
So after you get some heavy work in be sure to include a few (not a million) sets to maximize your pump. When it comes to training for the pump you need to remember that you want constant tension and continuous movement. No pausing for air or a break in between reps. No momentum or letting other muscles take over. Focus on the muscle you are trying to build and squeeze every ounce of effort out of it for a few hard sets of 8-15 reps. If you have been training properly for at least three years you’ll find that advanced pump-enhancing techniques like drop sets and rest pause sets can be very effective. Just be sure not to overdo the use of them.
Rule #6: “Stimulate, Don’t Annihilate”
This is a quote from 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney. It means you should train hard but smart. Don’t kill yourself in the quest to get big and strong. When you leave a little in the tank, both at the end of each set and each workout, you increase your chances of making progress.
So don’t take sets to the point of failure where you’re turning purple and screaming like you’re getting interviewed by Mean Gene before WrestleMania V.
Work hard, but remember that you want to live to fight another day.
Recovery is like a hole and each time you dig yourself deeper you make it harder to climb out. The only way to fill the hole back in is with more food and more rest. If you overdo it in the gym you’ll need more rest. That means you won’t be able to train as often, at a high capacity. That means you won’t build muscle quite as fast.
Rule #7: Train With the Proper Muscle-Building Frequency
I don’t mean you have to train every day. Three hard strength-training workouts per week is plenty for most guys. If you’re busy, stressed, genetically average and steroid-free that’s all you’ll need to get the job done.
But you do have to train each muscle group more frequently than once per week like most guys do. Don’t listen to your favorite juiced up, genetic freak pro bodybuilder. What they do will be of no use to you.
The more frequently you can stimulate a muscle group, while making strength gains, the faster it will grow. I mean, duh, right? That should be pretty obvious to anyone.
Obviously your chest will grow faster if you train it 104 times per year instead of 52 times.
My favorite template for gaining size and strength is the following:
Monday– Heavy Upper Body
Wednesday– Heavy Lower Body
Friday– Rep Upper Body
Saturday– HIIT/ Strongman Conditioning
Note that “Heavy” is a relative term.
I repeat: you shouldn’t be regularly using low reps and heavy weights in the range of a 1-5 rep max. That will only beat you up.
By heavy I mean bigger, more stressful barbell exercises that allow for greater loads to be lifted for 6-10 reps. Then, on the second day you focus more on bodyweight and dumbbell exercises that are easier on your joints for sets of 8-15 reps.
The upper body gets two training days the lower body gets one, along with a lower body-focused conditioning/HIIT workout on the weekend. The lower body recovers slower than the upper body and gets more use throughout the week when you’re doing conditioning, playing a sport, etc.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Turn Into a Lazy Fat Ass
Despite some prevailing hardgainer myths out there, doing conditioning does not make you small and weak. Skipping it makes you a lazy, out of shape, fat ass.
Conditioning work helps you stay lean and improves your recovery between strength training sessions. It’s hugely beneficial and has to be a part of your weekly routine. One or two low intensity conditioning sessions and one or two high intensity sessions will be perfect for helping you build muscle and stay lean and healthy.
My favorite choices are:
- Running hills
- Pushing sleds
- Jumping rope
- Rowing (if your back can tolerate it)
Rule #8: Make Recovery a Huge Priority
Training is just the stimulus for growth to take place. You can train your balls off, all day, every day but that doesn’t mean you’re going to grow.
You grow outside of the gym when you’re recovering; not during workouts. If you can’t recover you won’t grow. Plain and simple.
So how do you ensure that you will recover properly from workouts?
By adhering to the following:
- Not doing more than you can handle in the gym
- Not training for more than an hour
- Not using extreme levels of psyche on every set
- Not stressing out about nonsense
- Getting 8-9 hours of sleep per day
- Doing at least 15-20 minutes of mobility and self myofascial release work per day
- Doing some low intensity conditioning and/or restorative on off days
- Taking contrast baths and showers
- Getting a massage once a month or as often as you can afford to
Rule #9: Eat For Health and Longevity First and Foremost, to Gain Muscle Optimally
Even if you’re a skinny dude you should never go on one of those all-you-can-eat, junk food diets. The old school approach to bulking up is dead. It has failed countless times and simply doesn’t work.
It’s unhealthy and makes you fat. No organsim that is unhealthy will grow at an optimal rate. The healthier you are the faster you will make progress.
I used to believe in the old school bulk approach for young, skinny hardgainers. Then I smartened up.
Eating pizza, burgers, ice cream and fast food is a really bad plan. Junk in, junk out.
If you put shit in your body you will look, feel and perform like shit.
Your recovery will be slower and you will be riddled with inflammation. So don’t let “bulking up” be an excuse to consume boatloads of crap. You know that cotton candy and soda isn’t healthy. You know that salmon and sweet potatoes are. Most of this is common sense.
Your diet should consist of a lot of the following foods:
- Grass fed meat
- Organic eggs
- Wild caught fish
- Starches like white rice, potatoes, and quinoa
Start with 16 times your bodyweight for total calories. So if you weigh 165 you’ll eat 2640 calories per day. If, after a few weeks, your weight isn’t budging, up it to 17x bodyweight. If you’re gaining more fat than muscle drop it down to 15x bodyweight. Always give things at least two weeks to assess.
Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. That’s plenty. You could probably even get away with less.
Eat 1.5-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight (depending on bodyfat levels, insulin sensitivity and activity). Keep most of them around your workouts and at night.
Breakfast should be protein and greens. Eggs, yogurt, meat, whatever.
Lunch should be protein and greens. Chicken, fish or steak and salad is perfect here.
Dinner should be protein and all the starch you can handle. A huge piece of meat, a pile of potatoes or rice with some steamed veggies.
Snack in between meals on fruit and nuts and maybe a protein shake, if you so desire. Real food is always better, though.
Consume an extra serving of protein and starchy carbs immediately after training. If you can’t get enough carbs in around training and at night add some more to lunch. Then breakfast.
And one thing most people overlook is this…
The first step in the muscle building process is to get lean. You should be at least as low as 12% bodyfat before you change your diet up to focus on mass gain.
If you’re fat and you start eating for size you’re only going to gain fat. So get rid of the excess blubber first then worry about getting big.
Rule #10: Consistency Is King
All the above information is completely useless if you don’t apply it consistently. I’m not talking about a week. Or two months.
The person who makes the greatest progress is he who is consistently getting in three workouts per week. The guy who never misses a meal. The guy who always gets to sleep on time. The guy who spends a few hours per week on recovery techniques at home. And does all of these things 52 weeks per year, year after year. That’s how real progress is made.
You have to commit and you have to believe in what you are doing. You can’t be second guessing everything all the time. You can’t change your routine every other week. You can’t be on the internet constantly searching for a better program.
There is no magical supplement or yet-to-be-discovered secret training technique that will help you build 100 pounds of muscle in the next three months. Those things will never exist.
The only things that get results are passion, commitment and hard work. Every. Damn. Day.
Lift weights. Eat steaks. Run hills. Sleep. Repeat.
There you have it; everything you need to know about building muscle.
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