Progressive Overload Is the Key to Building Muscle
So, what is progressive overload?
Now you know what the principle of progressive overload is. But how do actually you put it into practice? Here are four basic strategies for incorporating progressive overload into your routine:
- Add more weight: This is the best way to achieve progressive overload. Simply increase the weight for an exercise as soon as you can, and as often as you can. However, do not sacrifice technique to add a few pounds to the bar – it’s not effective and you might get injured.
- Do more volume (sets x reps): You can overload the muscles by increasing the number of reps and sets.
- Train more frequently: If you’re training each body part just once per week, increase that to twice or even three times per week. Note: If you work each body part 2-3x/week, you should try to avoid training to failure on most of your sets.
- Any combination of the above: If possible, it’s best to use just one of the above tactics at a time. However, as you become more experienced, you may need to combine tactics to sufficiently challenge your muscles and achieve progressive overload.
Progressive overload: adding weight to the bar
Image Credit: jontunn
Focus on Compound Exercises to Build Muscle
You don’t just have to work hard to build muscle fast, you also have to work smart. This means using the most effective types of weight lifting exercises.
There are two basic types of exercises:
- Compound exercises, which are multi-joint movements that work multiple muscle groups. Examples include the bench press, squat, deadlift and barbell row.
- Isolation exercises, which are single-joint movements that “isolate” a single muscle group. Examples include the barbell curl, triceps extension, lateral raise and leg curl.
A classic upper body compound lift Your routine should adhere to these these guidelines:
- Do mostly compound exercises: Compound exercises are highly efficient because they train multiple muscle groups at a time. They’re also highly effective, because you can lift more weight, and therefore build muscle and strength faster. All it takes is a few basic compound exercises hit all the major muscle groups.
- Do isolation exercises in moderation: Isolation exercises are great tools for targeting individual muscle groups. Think of them as “precision instruments” with a limited and specific role: to sculpt the foundation of muscle built by compound exercises. Beginners in particular should keep isolation work to a minimum (if not avoid it completely). If you’re intermediate or advanced, you can add more isolation lifts, but compounds should still make up the majority of your training.
- Do compound exercises before isolation exercises: It’s generally best to do compound exercises exercises at the beginning and middle of your workout, and isolation exercises at the end. (E.g. If you’re training back and biceps, then you’d do deadlifts, chin ups and rows before barbell curls and dumbbell curls).
Lastly (and this should go without saying), it is of the utmost importance that you learn and consistently use proper form on any and all exercises you do.
The Best Workout Routines for Building Muscle
Unless you’ve been lifting for years, don’t try to design a routine from scratch. This section will help you select a proven muscle building routine that matches your experience level.
Best Beginner Routines
I understand that some people might just want to know how to build fast, and not give two sh*ts about strength.
I can respect that mindset, since I used to think the same way. But you’ve gotta change that perspective if you want to maximize your mass gains. Understand this:
The foundation of strength you build will maximize your muscle building potential in the months and years to come.
Remember, it’s all about working smart. And here’s how you do that:
- Understand that less is more: Don’t be fooled into thinking you need to do a 5 or 6-day routine, where you blast one or two muscles into oblivion (the typical, ineffective “bodybuilding” routine). If you do, you’ll likely end up discouraged and injured.
- Do full body training: A 3 day/week full body routine to get strong. Full body training allows beginners to master technique while enjoying immediate increase in strength and size. By training each muscle group so frequently (3x/week), you will progress that much faster. You can do this as a newbie because your body is in a rapid adaptation mode since you’re introducing it to a new stimulus; and don’t yet have the strength work capacity to “overtrain.”
My top recommendations for beginner routines are The MYx8 Routine or Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Program.
Best Intermediate and Advanced Routines
Intermediate and advanced weight lifters have a lot more latitude when it comes to choosing or designing a weight lifting routine. It ultimately comes down to experimenting to find what works best for your body.
Personally, I’ve found that a training each body part about 2x/week on a 4-6 day upper body/lower body split, works best for me.
However, some guys swear by body part splits such as Max OT, which involve training each muscle 1x/week with an entire workout dedicated to obliterating each major muscle group.
Most intermediate and advanced lifters can get great results from body part split routines if done for short periods of time (i.e. 3 months). But, I believe doing this style of training over the long term will lead to sub-par results for most experienced lifters.
Take a look at these weight lifting routines to find a program that suits you.
Design a Diet Plan to Build Muscle
You must understand calories and macronutrients (protein, fats and carbs) to be able to create a muscle building nutrition plan.
You need to eat more calories than you expend per day. That is, you must have a caloric surplus so your body can convert the extra calories into muscle mass.
If you fail to do this, then you will not build muscle. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
The number of calories that you need to consume to achieve a calorie surplus varies from person to person. It depends primarily on your metabolism/body type and activity level.
If you already know your maintenance calorie intake (how many calories you need to maintain your current weight and muscle mass), then simply increase that by 300-500 calories per day.
If you don’t know your maintenance calorie level already, then I recommend using this simple calculation to estimate how many calories you need to build muscle:
Example: A typical 150 lb male needs an estimated 2700 calories to build muscle (150 x 18 = 2700). Note: I’ll be referring to this example when discussing protein, fats and carbs.
If you’re an ectomorph and/or very active throughout the day, you should multiply you bodyweight by a higher number (e.g. BW x 20+ calories/lb).
Whereas, if you’ve got a high body fat percentage and/or are an endomorph with a low activity level, then you should multiply your bodyweight by a lower number (e.g. BW x 15-16 calories/lb).
Also, if you’re a female, you should also use a lower number to estimate your calorie needs (e.g. if you’re a female with an average metabolism/body type, multiply your bodyweight by 16 cal/lb, instead of 18 cal/lb).
Remember, this is just an estimate. You have to test it out. If you’re not gaining any/enough muscle, you’ll need to eat more calories. Or you’ll have to eat fewer calories if you end up gaining too much fat.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle. As such, you need to make it a high priority to get enough protein every day.
If you’ve never been on a muscle building diet before, this will mean eating a lot more protein than you’re used to.
I personally eat about 1 gram/lb of bodyweight. Anything more than this is unnecessary for building muscle, at least in my experience.
Carbohydrates and Fat
Now that we’ve covered protein, what should you do about carbs and fats? Well, it depends…
Some people prefer more fat and fewer carbs. Others do better with more carbs and less fat (see low fat diet plans).
That said, I recommend adhering to these guidelines as a starting point:
Carbohydrate intake: Carbs should account for the remainder of your calorie requirements. If you have 1290 calories leftover after accounting for protein and fat, that is your carb intake. To convert that to grams, divide it by 4 calories per gram: 1290 calories equals 323 grams of carbs (1290/4 = 322.5).
See how this works for you, then change it if necessary.
It doesn’t matter if you get your calorie and macronutrient requirements in 3 meals or 9 meals.
Do whatever is most practical for your lifestyle and calorie needs (e.g. if you need 4000 calories, 3 meals isn’t that practical).
Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
Pre/post workout nutrition is pretty simple: just make sure to eat within 90 minutes before and after workout sessions.
These are like no different than meals at any other time of the day. They can be solid or liquid meals.
If you want to get real technical, you can read these pre- and post-workout nutrition guidelines
Check out my post on muscle building foods for a list of quality, nutrient-dense foods that will help you gain muscle and keep you healthy.
Don’t be afraid of eating some so-called “unhealthy” foods, as long as you don’t go overboard with it.
Despite what some dogmatic fitness and nutrition enthusiasts would like you to believe, it’s entirely possible to eat “dirty” foods as part of an effective diet plan. The only catch is that you have to make it “fit” with the rest of your calorie and macronutrient requirements.
More Nutrition Information
For additional details on dieting to build muscle, please read my bodybuilding diet post.
Drink Water to Stay Hydrated
If you’re serious about building muscle, then you better be serious about your hydration as well.
Image Credit: Greg Riegler
Roughly 60-70% of your muscle is comprised of water, so it should come as no surprise that H2O is necessary for making optimal progress in the gym. But despite being so critical to making gains, hydration is an afterthought for many lifters.
Here are a few good reasons to stay hydrated:
- Maximize your strength, energy & performance: Even low-moderate dehydration (~3%+ water loss) has been shown to reduce physical strength, energy and performance significantly.
- Make your body clean & efficient: Proper hydration is crucial for optimal cellular function, digestion, waste removal, joint health, among many other things. It makes your body run like a well-oiled machine.
- Avoid the bloat: Dehydration causes slight bloating, which makes your muscles look “flat” and undefined. This is the result of a survival mechanism: your body doesn’t know when you’ll have access to water again, so it holds on to as much of it as possible.
How much water do you need to drink?
- Drink 1 gallon of water per day: You may need more or less than a gallon of water per day, depending on your activity level and environment. Start with one gallon and adjust accordingly.
How do you know you’re hydrated?
- Lack of thirst: Thirst is your body telling you that it’s already dehydrated. So a consistent lack of thirst is a good indicator that you’re fully hydrated.
- Urine color: Your urine should be a light yellow color (though, your urine may be bright yellow after taking certain multivitamins). If your urine is a dark yellow color, then you’re dehydrated. And if your urine is totally clear, you’re drinking too much water.
When should you drink water?
- Drink plenty during the day, then taper off at night: I advise drinking more water in the morning and afternoon hours and less in the evening hours. This way, you won’t have to wake up to pee in the middle of the night and interrupt your sleep.
- Drink water before, during and after training: Show up to your training session hydrated, drink throughout the session, then continue drinking as you normally would for the rest of the day. To find out if you’re drinking enough the right amount of water during your training session, try this test: weigh yourself pre- and post-workout. If you weight less post-workout, then you need to drink more. If you weigh more, then you should reduce your water intake.
To learn more on how drinking water helps build muscle (or lose fat), read my post hydration and bodybuilding.
Build Muscle While You Sleep
There’s no doubt that those wondering how to build muscle often overlook this basic human requirement. Sleep is neglected, underrated, and simply misunderstood. Yet it is essential for muscle mass growth.
Without adequate sleep you can forget reaching your potential. Research on the impact of sleep on muscle repair (and thus muscle building) makes for a complex, intense read. I’ll break it down for you: HGH (human growth hormone) works as you sleep to repair the damage you’ve made to your muscle during your weight training session.
Consider the following information to understand why you need sleep, and how much sleep you should get every night:
- Recover and repair: You’re demanding a lot from your body through weight training, you must give your body the chance it deserves to repair and grow. Know this – if you don’t respect sleep, your journey to a muscular, strong body will be longer, more difficult, and all-around less enjoyable.
- Avoid overtraining symptoms: Moreover, hard training + continued lack of sufficient sleep = opportunity for Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). OTS occurs when your muscles continually suffer more damage than your body has the chance to repair, and the consequences aren’t pretty.
- Sleep 7-9 hours per night: Research points to 7-9 hours per night as the average amount of sleep a beginner to intermediate weight trainer needs. The exact number of hours depends on the individual, and his or her stage in life. Typically, teens and young adults need more, while middle-aged and older folks need less.
The bottom line on catching Z’s: respect sleep, and set your body up for maximum muscle growth.
Consider Taking Supplements
Let me be blunt: you don’t need to take supplements to build muscle. However, the right supplements can certainly give you a boost (but they do not replace proper nutrition or training).
My advice for beginners? Don’t dabble with supplements until you are comfortable and consistent with your diet and training.
For more on this topic, see my guide to weight lifting supplements, where I tell you which supplements actually work and discuss my recommended supplements for beginners.
Track Your Progress
Keep a Workout Log
Unless you’re like Rain Man (you’re not) and can remember all your sets, reps and weights for each exercise in every workout, week after week, then you need to keep a workout log.
A workout log is an essential tool that allows you to progress as efficiently as possible. All you need is a spiral notebook and pen to get started.
Your workout log only has to be legible to you
Here are a few specific benefits of keeping a workout log:
- Monitor & evaluate: You can determine where you are making the most progress, as well as identify areas of your training that require modification. Keeping a workout log is one of the best ways to ensure consistent muscle and strength gains.
- Stay focused during your workouts: No need to wonder what exercise you’re supposed to do next, what weight to use, or how many reps to do – it is all right there in black and white.
- Get motivated: Workout logs can be outstanding motivators. You see how much strength you’ve gained, and you’ll be inspired to set ambitious (yet attainable) goals and personal records.
At a minimum, your workout log should note the following:
- Date: The date and time of your workout.
- Training data: Which weight training exercises you performed, including the weight used, the number of sets and number of reps. If possible make notes for your next workout (e.g., “more weight,” “increase reps,” etc.).
If you want to go above and beyond the call of duty, here’s some optional data to include in your log:
- Mood: How you are feeling just prior to your workout, and how you felt after your workout.
- Diet information: How many/what types of meals you ate before your workout.
- Cardio notes: What, if any, kind of cardio you performed, including duration and intensity (e.g., 20 minutes/1.5 miles on the treadmill of moderate intensity jogging).
Take Body Measurements
Before you embark on your muscle building journey, take the following body stats:
- Bodyweight & height: Find a body scale and weigh yourself, preferably after waking up and taking your morning pee. And if you don’t know how tall you are, then stand with your back against a wall (with your shoes off) and have someone measure your height.
- Body measurements: Measure the girth of the following body parts: chest, upper arms, forearms, thighs, shoulders, waist, hips, calves and neck. For the upper arms, forearms, calves and thighs, you can take the measurements flexed, relaxed or both (recommended). The other body measurements should be taken relaxed. Be honest when taking the measurements (e.g. don’t suck your stomach in or pull the tape too tight when measuring your waist, don’t have slack in the tape when measuring your arms, etc.). I use this body tape measure (which comes with a caliper).
- Body fat percentage (optional): This is optional. It can be a helpful stat to track, but it’s not a big deal if you don’t since it’s difficult to get a consistent/accurate reading anyway. If you do track your body fat, I own and recommend caliper (which comes with a body tape measure).
Weigh yourself once a week, and retake your body measurements and body fat percentage (if applicable) once or twice per month. Take these body stats at the same time of day each time (i.e. after waking up and taking your morning trip to the bathroom).
Tracking your body stats over time allows you to see if, and how much, your body composition (amounts of muscle and fat, relative to each other and total body mass) is changing. This can provide insight into what you’re doing well and what need to improve.
Plus, it’s motivational to be able to look back and see how far you’ve come by knowing exactly how much progress you’ve made.
Take Progress Photos
If you have access to a camera, take some before pictures in some common poses (i.e. front relaxed, back relaxed, most muscular, front double biceps, back double biceps, legs, etc.). Then take progress photos every couple of months so you can visually see how your physique is changing (for the better or for the worse).
After training for a couple of years, trust me, you’ll be happy you took these photos so you can see how much you’ve transformed.
If you adhere strictly to a high quality weight lifting routine, consistently increase the amount of weight you lift, and keep sleep, hydration, and nutrition in check, then major gains are on your horizon.
With all the information you need to build muscle right in front of you, only one question remains – Are you ready to put in the blood, sweat and tears required to transform your physique and improve your life?