Yo, was geht ab (not that I’m German but their “what’s up” sounds cool), what are you doing here? Oh, shoot, the article…
Right, so I was recently asked what would be the key steps to build muscle and since I’m in the business of helping people become physically awesome, I came up with training, nutrition, lifestyle, and assessment checklists to help you grow muscle and get shredded to the bones.
1. Get Training Volume, Frequency, And Intensity Right
In 2016, Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis1 to find out how many sets per week (volume) is optimal for muscle growth:
Their analysis found that there’s a clear dose-response relationship between volume and muscle growth: doing less than 5 weekly sets per muscle group resulted in an average gain of 5.4% while 10+ sets produced almost double the gains—9.8%.
What about training frequency? How often should you train?
Well, a year before that, this smart-ass chap Brad Schoenfeld dived into the murky waters of science again and found2 that regardless of volume, training each muscle group at least twice per week produced more muscle growth than once per week:
Greg Nuckols supported this by proving that higher frequencies, independent of volume, results in greater hypertrophy in his open-access meta-analysis3.
Lastly, we have the last piece of the puzzle which is training intensity. Luckily, I scienced this sucker up in how heavy you should train article. In short, ~70% of your training should have you training in the 6-12 rep range, ~20% in the 12-30 rep range, and ~10% in the 1-5 rep range.
This should be done within 5 or fewer repetitions left in reserve because you don’t have to go balls to the wall and train to failure. I ranted about how training to failure (all the time) is a bunch of fluff in this masterpiece.
To summarize, here are the volume, frequency, and intensity recommendations that you should start with and adjust depending on your progress (or lack of it):
2. Use A Combination Of
Compound And Isolation Exercises
Exercise selection is too often neglected, overcomplicated, or oversimplified. If your goal is muscle growth, it’s a good idea to include compound barbell movements into your routine as these exercises offer the greatest stimulus and establish the foundation for a worthy physique.
However, sprinkling in a few isolation exercises will make sure that you’re not neglecting any muscle group and getting proportional development.
For my clients, I tend to follow general guidelines and prescribe 1-2 compound exercises for each major muscle group and 1–3 isolation exercises (per workout). An upper-body workout could look like this:
- Chin Up (compound back exercise)
- One-arm dumbbell row (compound back exercise)
- Flat bench barbell press (compound chest exercise)
- Incline bench dumbbell press (compound chest exercise)
- Overhead press (compound shoulder exercise)
- Lateral dumbbell raise (isolation shoulder exercise)
- Overhead tricep extension (isolation tricep exercise)
- Incline dumbbell curl (isolation bicep exercise)
3. Focus On Simplicity Rather Than Complexity
People will argue what’s the best exercise, workout split, or rep range until their brains turn into protoplasms. None of that crap matters in the grand scheme of things because there’s only one right way to train and that’s training for progressive overload:
Listen, if you haven’t got stronger in 4,5,6… months, you fucked it up and probably gained exactly no muscle (stop training & eating like a total jackass, maybe?). Got stronger? Great. You can morally pat yourself on the back for doing things right.
(Can you sense a big, hairy, ugly “BUT” lurking around the corner?)
There is a problem with progressive overload. You see, people will read how cool & shiny progressive overload is and they will face this situation:
They will start adding weight to the bar and/or reps because that’s what progressive overload asks for. They will get stronger and/or bigger. Exercise form stays solid and everything is picture perfect. Eventually, putting more weight on the bar gets harder and harder. Yet, they still keep putting more weight to the bar until form deteriorates. They no longer feel an exercise working a targeted muscle. Nagging pain kicks in.
Don’t do that.
Don’t sacrifice exercise form for progressive overload. If you stopped progressing on a particular exercise, you have to either rotate an exercise or deload (take a week off training).
1. Eat At A Small Calorie Surplus
Imagine you want to build a magnificent skyscraper. You hired the best goddamn builders in the world. Got them all the equipment they asked. Cranes and shit. But you give them no building material. No bricks. Zero. Nada. Nula. What the fuck are they gonna build?
Likewise, if you want to get bigger, you can’t be eating like a bird pecking at crumbs. You have to give your body more calories (building material) than it needs.
Start with multiplying your body weight (in pounds) by 16-18.
You don’t eat less on your off days, you don’t take more on your training days. You take that amount. Every day. Because you’re a computer with programming called DNA. And you want to program that computer so that this is the right answer everyday. All the time.
Then, monitor and adjust depending on your monthly progress.
2. Get Protein, Carbohydrate, And Fat Right
Carbohydrate is the cheapest, cleanest source to acquire energy. Yes, your body can live off ketones and shit like that but it has to do all sorts of expensive metabolic conversions.
Carbohydrate is the cheapest, cleanest, and readily available energy source. That’s not debatable. The 7th-grade stuff.
Next, of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat), only one causes an acute hormonal response that helps gain muscle:
- You eat fat and pretty much nothing happens on a hormonal level (except it gets straight to your fat cells).
- You eat protein and you get maybe (just maybe) a teeny tiny hormonal response.
- Eat ANY carbohydrate whether it’s freakn’ table sugar, goofy waxy maize, or titty milk—I don’t care—you get an acute hormonal response. The secretion of insulin is the main one but it has an effect on ALMOST ALL hormones in your body. Insulin shuttles “building materials” to your cells to build muscle. That’s why steroid users inject themselves with insulin, goddammit. Because it helps build muscle. Forget all that “insulin is fat-storing hormone” mumbo-jumbo.
So again, carbohydrate is the cheapest, cleanest source to acquire energy and it helps to perform your best in the gym and build muscle. I don’t care how big of a keto fan you’re but it’s non-debatable.
And then we have protein. It’s the building block of lean tissue in your body and that’s also non-debatable. Gaining muscle without consuming adequate protein yields suboptimal results. Period.
Continuing on this highly educated Ph.D. talk, macronutrient recommendations would be:
- Get 0.8–1 g of protein per pound of body weight (1.6–2.2 g/kg)4.
- Get as many carbohydrates as possible (without going over your daily calorie target).
- Limit fat intake to the amount that’s necessary to keep hormones in check. That usually falls around 0.5 g/lb (1 g/kg) of body weight.
3. Evenly Spread Protein Intake Out Over 4-6 Meals
A 2018 study5 by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld concluded that:
You see, when looking to build muscle, all of us are chasing the so-called Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) which is the fancy-pants saying for synthesizing new muscle from amino acids (protein) in our bloodstream.
Therefore, having 4-6 meals containing 20-40 grams of protein will allow you to spend as much waking time as possible within a MPS.
4. Get Sufficient Amount
Leucine is one of the essential amino acids (EAA) that you get from protein. Unlike other EAA, leucine triggers MPS and that’s done through a Threshold Point which is 2-3 grams of leucine per meal.
Think of it like when you turn on the TV. When you press the ON button, you can’t turn it slightly ON, a little bit ON, or fully ON. You need to put enough pressure on the button to get a response.
That’s how leucine works—you consume those 2-3 grams and it stimulates MPS. It’s either ON or OFF.8
But if you don’t hit those 2-3 grams of leucine with a meal, you’re going to die in agonizing death. Just kidding—you’re not going to stimulate MPS (meaning—you’re going to stay looking more like Gollum rather than Greek God Adonis).
So a meal containing 0.4-0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight from a high-quality protein source will allow you to hit the leucine threshold.
For most people, this means 20–40g of protein within each meal.
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1. Prioritize Sleep
Like I said in the 6 lifestyle changes to lose weight article, sleep is not for the weaklings. Sleep is for happy and lean:
You see, sleep debt impairs muscle recovery because of increased protein degradation. Which is detrimental to MPS, by the way.9
Moreover, sleep deprivation results in reductions in IGF-1 and testosterone concentrations—hormones that are essential for muscle growth:
So make sure to get 6-8 hours of quality sleep. Even if it means sleeping on a pile of rocks to get those hours.
2. Try Not To Get Shit-faced
A 2014 study10 had subjects to go through 3 trials:
Researchers found that both trials that involved alcohol resulted in decreased MPS by 24% and 37%. Mind you, that study got subjects shit-faced giving 1.5 g/kg of alcohol.
For someone weighing 180 lb (81 kg) that would translate to:
The bottom line: don’t get a full-blown alcoholic on Friday/Saturday nights. This will surely impact MPS.
Moderate doses of alcohol don’t seem to have a negative effect on testosterone levels, as this study11 found.
So, a few glasses of wine or beers a week are fine but try not to get trolleyed (meaning—don’t drink so much that you would need to be transported home in a trolley by your mates). Not too often at least.
3. Be Careful With Informal Activities
If you did heavy squats on Monday, going on a 2-hour bike ride on Tuesday is all sorts of not smart. Always monitor informal activities that may hinder recovery.
That’s all I’ve got about that.
1. Track Your Strength
Unless you have a photographic memory, there’s no way in hell you can remember the sets, reps, and weights you used in every workout for months.
Always have a training journal. Only when you see what you did in your previous workout can you strive to break your personal records.
Again, if you keep getting better and stronger at your main compound lifts, you’re very likely to be growing. But there’s no way to know that if you’re not tracking your workouts.
2. Aim To Gain 0.25-1.5% Of Body Weight Per Month
If you’re hoping to get shredded to the bones in 6 months, get outta my face. Building muscle takes time and the biggest mistake you can make when trying to build muscle is setting an unrealistic expectation of rate of progress.
While there are no specific numbers in the literature of what you can expect in terms of muscle gain per month, these are the numbers that I’ve observed in private practice with clients:
I know you probably are going to ignore those numbers because it’s too slow. And by probably, I mean definitely.
But don’t rush it. I’ve seen enough to assure you that if you gain over 1.5% of your body weight per month, your ass will just get fatter.
3. Assess Girth Measurements And Compare Progress Photos
If your goal is to build bigger glutes, assess its measurements every 8-12 weeks, and compare progress photos every 4-8 weeks.
If you see no difference in your overall body composition and/or muscle mass 8 weeks into your training, well, you fucked up. Sorry. Reassess your strategy. Then go back and start again.
Our fitness culture would donate a nut or two to build muscle in a few months. Luckily for me, this shit takes time. A lot of it.
And because of that, a number of folks wallow around without getting anywhere near to their desired physique.
But you are different. You now have the muscle building checklist necessary to maximize your muscle growth. And if you want to fast-track the whole process, consider hiring me to coach you. Like my client Jovile did: