Simply put, most people want to look and feel better, which almost always means two things:
- Losing fat
- Gaining muscle
You’ve probably already spent a lot of time considering fat loss, and that’s fine, but the other side of the coin—muscle—is just as important.
Muscle requires work, and for all but rank-novices, it can be stubborn and even resistant to change.
Some people will be nervous at the prospect of gaining muscle, worrying that they’ll become “too bulky”; others will grovel for it, fighting tooth-and-nail six days a week in search of the eternal pump. Either way, understand that muscle is a vital part of renovating your body: muscle supports a higher metabolic rate, shapes the body in the desirable places, and makes you feel stronger, fitter, and healthier.
Taking care of your macros, eating in a caloric surplus, and getting enough protein are all important steps on that journey—but they’re only half the battle.
Sure, many beginners will stumble into the gym and, with some hard, random work put on a decent amount of muscle. But after a few months, these souls often see their progress stall, and no amount of curling and calf-raising gets them anywhere but where they are.
This is when the right exercises, in the right program, can make a world of difference. Understanding the process of training—in the short- and the long-term—will guide you through the months and years ahead.
Here are the muscle-building must-dos, must-don’ts, and things that don’t matter as much as you thought they did.
The Armory: Lifts You Should Focus On
In the gym, time and energy are your currency—spend them where it counts. There aren’t many exercises that won’t build muscle (if used properly), but they certainly aren’t all created equal.
The 45-caliber, bang-for-your-buck exercises are “compound movements,” or those that utilize more than one joint. For example, because the Back Squat forces you to flex and extend at the hips, knees, and ankles, you’re involving lots of muscle-groups all at once (such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves). And while the hypertrophy of individual muscles is the same between compound and isolation exercises, the strength of compound movements lies in their ability to train multiple muscles at once .
Besides the fact that compounds are more time-efficient, these larger-muscle movements (including the Bench Press, Deadlift variations, Barbell Rows, Overhead Press, etc.) also allow you to use more weight than smaller-muscle exercises (like the Chest Fly, Leg Curl, Cable Pulldown, or Lateral Raise). More weight means more potential to gain strength, and thereby increase volume steadily over time.
The exact exercise choices vary for everyone based on preference, comfort, and accessibility. Once you find the compound movements that cover these bases for you, you’ll have a short-list of go-to exercises to focus most of your training around. Progressing those movements (something we’ll talk about later) will be the most efficient driver of muscle growth.
What about the small movements? They are useful too! “Isolations” (which utilize only one joint at a time and therefore focus on single muscles or muscle-groups) can fill in the gaps where compound movements fall short: it’s hard to get your calves to grow by squatting and deadlifting, so Calf Raises suit the need; and while Barbell Rows work your biceps, attacking them directly with Bicep Curls will keep your arms from lagging behind while your lats and traps grow. Isolations are secondary, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them—just remember the hierarchy.
Doing the Splits: How to Arrange Your Training Week
The simplest training plans revolve around full-body sessions: you program at least one exercise for each major muscle-group on each training day, allowing you to train each of those muscles anywhere from 2-5 times per week. This can be an excellent way for beginners to get practice exercising, with lots of stimulus for the fast muscle-growth that they are still capable of creating. The downside is that it’s hard to balance recovery: training every muscle on every training day doesn’t leave much time for your muscles to rest, recover from soreness, and to be fresh again for more training.
Enter the training split—a way to organize exercises, or muscle-groups, that you want to focus on during certain times of the week. For example, an “Upper-Lower” split separates the body between upper-body muscles (like the chest, shoulders, back, and arms) and lower-body muscles (like the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves). A split like this allows muscle groups to rest on “off days” while you continue to train other muscles.
Another common split is the “Lower-Push-Pull”, in which the upper-body day is separated further into a day for “pushing” muscles (the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps) and a day for “pulling” muscles (the lats, traps, and biceps). Training is delineated more here, but you can still exercise each major muscle-group twice per week.
On the opposite side from the full-body program there is the most common weekly structure: the “Bro Split,” in which you train each major muscle-group once per week (except abs, which are magical and must be trained every day for progress; just kidding—if you want to see your abs, you’re probably going to have to diet).
While the frequency of training (relative to each muscle-group) is very low, studies have shown that you can still make plenty of progress on a once-per-week split . That said, if your goal is to gain muscle, you should train those muscles more than once per week, with twice probably finding the sweet-spot. Why? Because muscle-protein synthesis after exercise is only elevated for 24-36 hours after heavy exercise, at which point it drops quickly back to baseline . That means that the five days each week you aren’t training a muscle-group, you’re wasting precious time and could be gaining muscle faster .
Muscle by Numbers: Optimal Sets, Reps, and Weight
Stop me if you’ve heard on of these: To build muscle…
- “you need to train with heavy weights”
- “you need to train with light weights”
- “high reps are key”
- “low reps are king”
- “a few sets for each muscle will do the trick”
- “you must add more sets each week, month, and year to keep growing”.
Notice some contradictions there? You would hear all of those claims if you sifted through the world of bodybuilding and muscle mags. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in decades of research, it’s that all of them are true: you can build muscle with light weights, heavy weights, high reps, low reps, and a wide variety of sets per muscle-group .
Volume (expressed as sets x reps x weight) is the most predictive variable for hypertrophy. We used to think you had to get a pump, to spend lots of reps damaging muscle tissue to force it to grow—but it hasn’t panned out in the science . Volume—which is a measurement of total amount of tension put on muscles—drives change .
“Optimal” training isn’t a dialed-in, secret code of numbers. Be it sets, reps, or weights, you can find a way to use any reasonable number to your advantage. Will one rep per set be enough? Probably not—you’d have to do an incredible number of heavy sets to equal the volume of three sets of 10 reps. Can you just do one set of 100 reps and call it a day? Only a few reps of that (probably 10-15 of them at the end) will actually be hard work—so no. The range looks more like 5-20 reps, and even that isn’t everything.
Instead, optimal training is the type that fits your needs, your body, your preferences, and the equipment you have. If you have a good gym, with access to a large variety of equipment and weights, then the world is your oyster. What makes the most sense for you is really dependent on your available time and preferences: if you only have time for three sets per exercise, and you like higher reps, then 3 x 10-15 can be your bread-and-butter. If you like to move heavier things, and have time for more sets, doing 5 x 5-8 gets you to the same place. Better yet: you can do both—preferably in different sessions or weeks for variation.
Want Progress? Focus on Progressions
Without progression, you don’t make progress, literally. Meaning: you cannot use the same program, the same reps and sets, the same weights, or the same exercises forever (or even for very long) without stagnating. That said, progressions don’t have to be fancy or complex. The most common issue with progression is when a beginner lifter sees their gains in strength (almost every session) and size (every couple of weeks or every month) start to slow down. In this period, where a novice transitions to intermediate, something needs to change.
The blissful simplicity of being a beginner, when almost anything could make you gain some muscle, is quickly spent.
At this point in your path, you need to wise-up and start to focus on progressions. Luckily, there are many ways of purposefully advancing your training. Because it is the primary driver of hypertrophy, put emphasis on increasing your volume of training over time. You can do that by purposefully increasing the weight you use at any given number of reps, increasing the reps at any given weight, or increasing the number of sets you do with a given weight-and-rep scheme. The trick is to not do this at random—write down your intentions for the next 4-8 weeks; if you can do a compound movement (like a Squat or Bench Press) with 225 pounds for 3 sets of 8 reps, make a plan to add one set each week for 2-3 weeks, then drop back to 3 sets and increase the weight. Or you could do the same by increasing reps (by 1-2 each week) as you are able to, and then decreasing back to 8 reps and upping the weight. Or you can incrementally increase the weight alone, leaving sets and reps the same for a while.
And you don’t have to pick a single strategy: try all three, but not at the same time. One month can focus on a set-progression, the next on a rep-progression, and the third on a weight-progression. You’ll quickly discover which one works best for you.
Another way to progress is to increase the density of training volume, instead of the total volume. “Density” refers to the amount of work you can accomplish in a given period of time (be it a week, a single session, or ten minutes). If you’re using the same weights, sets, and reps, but shortening your rest periods between sets, you are increasing your capacity to do more work. After a while, the session that took you 90 minutes is taking you 60, and now you can add more volume without taking up extra time in the gym. The best way to do this would be to add weight and increase the rest periods again, since a higher intensity will require longer periods of rest between sets.
As you can guess—the combinations of these variables are almost endless. The trick is to choose a way of progressing for the next few weeks, and sticking to it. Not sticking to the plan is the biggest mistake you can make here—slipping back into the random, “whatever feels good” training of a beginner gets you right back where you were: making progress in fits-and-starts, or not at all.
Remember that muscle-growth is a slow process, and planning for the long-term is just as important as doing things right in the short-term. Don’t throw everything in this article (the “kitchen-sink” attack plan) into your training all at once.
Adjust your exercise selections, set-rep schemes, and progressions slowly. The more methodical you are, the more you learn about yourself as a lifter, and the more you understand the process of building muscle in the gym.
These are the seeds you should plant for long-term muscle-growth—but you may still have some questions. Part 2 gets into the weeds: How long do you need to exercise? How long should you rest between sets and reps? Will cardio hinder muscle-gain? Do you need to train to failure? To take even more of the guesswork out of programming for muscle-growth, check out Part 2.