How to Build Muscle: The Definitive Guide

A question I get asked a lot is “What exercise can I do to make (insert muscle) bigger?”

Most people want to be told of some magical, crazy exercise that will somehow perfectly stimulate their desired area in 5-10 reps and add 1lb of muscle per month.

As if there is an exercise Holy Grail they haven’t found yet.

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I always disappoint them when I tell them the truth.

It really doesn’t matter which exercise you pick.

As long as you are stimulating the targeted muscle the exercise itself doesn’t really matter.

The most important factors that contribute to muscle size are volume, intensity and progressive overload.  It's about how often you stimulate each muscle group, how hard you work it and how much improvement you make with each muscle group that determines how big you can get.   

I'll define these terms for you as we go on.  At the end I'll show up how to put it all together to build the perfect muscle building plan.

**This article is NOT going to cover nutrition.  If you want to gain muscle you need to eat more.  Here's some more reading about that.**
 

Volume

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Volume is the number of sets and reps you perform within each training session, and within each week.  Both are important, but the volume per week is what spurs muscle growth.

Let’s say on Monday you perform 4 sets of 10 reps of a dumbbell bench press.

On Thursday you perform 3 sets of 8 reps of a dumbbell bench press.

Your volume for the week is 7 sets.  Since the dumbbell press is a chest exercise, you have performed 7 sets for your chest.  Is that enough to spur growth? No.

From the literature we know that more volume is needed to grow muscles.  More volume tends to be better, as long as you don’t take it to a ridiculous extent.  

The ideal volume is a point where you can stimulate muscle growth, but not overly tax your body’s capability to recover.  You need to find a middle ground.  If you perform too many sets you will wreck your body, you'll be in pain and you will not be able to recover.  On the converse, if you don't perform enough volume you will never put on any muscle. 

Intensity

For our purposes intensity is the amount of weight you are lifting.  It can also mean the speed, timing or tempo of each lift but we are only interested in using it in its simplest terms.

Intensity will be measured in relation to your 1 rep max.  That is the absolute most amount of weight you can lift for one rep.  Most people have never tested this, and that’s fine. You can adequately guess what your 1RM would be based on what you are currently lifting.  

If you can bench press 185 lbs for 5 reps, but the 4th and 5th rep are a struggle your 1RM is close to 225.  

It always helps to be conservative when guessing your 1RM, as overloading will lead to frustration and in worst case scenarios an injury.  Or death. Maybe.

If you can deadlift 225 lbs once that is a super high intensity.

If your deadlift 1RM (1 Rep Max) is 225, then you can probably lift 135 lbs for about 10 reps.  That is a medium intensity, but you’ll notice as the intensity is lowered the volume can be raised.

Intensity and volume have a contrasting relationship.  

The heavier the weight is the less you can, and should, lift.  The lower the weight (relative to your personal strength) the more reps you can perform, therefore you can get more volume in per session.

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the gradual increase in volume and intensity.  

As you get stronger you must lift heavier weights.  It's a simple concept, but it's important.   If you have one takeaway from this article I hope it's this.  

Improvement does not happen without resistance.  No matter what the discipline, if you want to get better you need to overcome progressively harder obstacles.

When you first start playing a video game you start on “Beginner” difficulty.  

At first it’s a good idea.  You get a chance to get used to the controls, the visuals and everything else within the game.  

After a few games that’s going to be too easy.  

You’re going to be winning every single match you play by a large margin.  If you keep the game on the “Beginner” difficulty level you will never improve.  You’ll be the best beginner ever, but you’ll never get any better than that.

If you want to improve at that video game you would increase the difficulty level whenever you found yourself getting too good.  

Lifting weights is the same.  You’ll never put on size performing the same set and rep scheme with the same weight.  You need to start as a beginner, and swallow your ego.    This principle has been in play since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Milo of Croton was a pretty good wrestler way back in the day.  His father had him train from an early age.  He picked out a calf and had Milo lift and carry that calf every day.  As the calf grew, so did Milo's strength and mass.  Eventually the calf was a full grown bull and Milo was a behemoth of a man.  

As the load progressively grew so did the size of Milo's muscles.  It's a time tested principle that must be followed in order to pack on size. 

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Your body will adapt to the weights you lift.   As you adapt you need to change the stimulus in order to continue progressing.

There are many different ways of increasing the load.  Here are the easiest and most common ways.  

  1. Increase the weight you're lifting
  2. Increase the number of reps you're doing
  3. Increase the number of sets 
  4. Shorten the rest time between sets
  5. Increase the frequency of your training

Volume is how much work you do.  Intensity is how hard that work is.  Progressive Overload is the intentional increase of intensity and/or volume over time.

 

Ok, so Why Does this Matter?

The intensity of your sets and reps make a huge difference.  If you were using 10% of your 1RM you could do literally hundreds of reps.  It would take you hours to get to a point where you were stimulating growth in your muscles.

If you bump the intensity up to maybe 25% or even 30% of your 1RM you could easily perform 50 reps non-stop.  Again, the weight is too light and you’re either going to be working out from sunrise to sunset or you’re not going to accomplish anything.

The ideal intensity for building muscle is between 50%-80% of your 1RM.  That is a big window, but a properly written program will account for increased intensity while allowing the right amount of volume to be hit.

What about Sets and Reps?

The ideal volume for each muscle group is between 12-20 sets per week.  These sets should be split up over the course of a week. You do not want to perform 20 sets on one muscle group in one session.  That’s an easy way to get hurt.


The sets should be anywhere between 8-20 reps.  Anything lower than 8 reps is strength work and anything over 20 reps is basically cardio.   8-20 is the normal range for muscle building.  Will you get stronger? Yes, but that is a secondary benefit. 

You can change the sets and reps during each week.  One day you can do sets of 20 with a lighter weight, and then on your second session that week you can do the same exercise with a heavier weight for sets of 8.  That way you are stimulating the muscle in a way that allows it to grow, and recover enough in between sessions for the volume to be effective.

Let’s use your chest as an example.  To grow you want to hit 20 sets of 8-20 reps per week here’s how you can accomplish that.
 


Monday:
A1. Bench Press 5 sets of 8 reps
B1. Incline DB Press 4 sets of 15 reps
B2. Incline DB Fly 4 sets of 10 reps

Thursday:
A1. Dumbbell Press 4 sets of 8 reps
B1. Feet Elevated Push Ups 3 sets of 15


That’s 20 sets of varying intensity for your chest.  As you can see this volume is very do-able as each of those examples is not even a full workout.  Following a protocol like this will easily spur growth but avoid the typical pain and bang ups associated with extra volume.  

 

Exercise Selection

My general rule of thumb is the simpler the exercise the better.  Especially if you are a beginner. Especially if you are a beginner.  I said that twice on purpose. 

Don’t let social media trick you into thinking you need to do a camera friendly exercise to be effective.  The opposite is true.

The basic movements are 1,000 times more effective and will make you look like 1,000 times less an asshole.  You will be able to achieve the right amount of volume and intensity performing a DB Bench Press.  You'll also be able to progressively overload that exercise by using heavier dumbbells. 

If you tried some ridiculous set up with bands, a bosu ball and one eye hooked to a TRX (#nodaysoff) you would not be able to achieve any meaningful volume or intensity.  There's also no way you could progressively overload that exercise.  Simple is always better. 

Following the chest example.  

The exercises I included in the sample program are all very basic.  They stimulate the chest from different angles, but they are all easy to perform and every gym in the world has the equipment you need to do them.

They are also progress-able.  Meaning that you can get stronger and eventually perform them with heavier weights.  

When choosing what exercises you want to perform for each body you also need to take your personal anatomy into consideration.  That sounds like the title to the world’s most boring porno.

If you can’t overhead press without pain, then change the angle of your shoulder press.  Perform a landmine press instead. 

If you don’t feel comfortable squatting with a barbell use a kettlebell and perform a goblet squat. 

If you don’t like deadlifting with a barbell use a trap bar.

There is no exercise that is mandatory to get bigger or stronger, don’t force feed painful movements into your program.  There are alternatives to every exercise, and training through pain is always a bad idea. 

Make sure that you choose exercises you can comfortably (meaning no joint pain) perform a lot of reps with.  Make sure the exercises are progressable.

Don’t pick complicated exercises for the sake of your ego or your social media profile.  The more complicated the exercise the less reps you’ll be able to perform, and the less muscle you’ll be able to build.  

Does This All Sound too Complicated?

It is pretty difficult.  There are many variables you have to track and keep in mind while programming.

It’s like putting together a puzzle.

I’ve already pre-written a 12 week hypertrophy based program that you can buy here.  

It has all these landmarks measured out.  It will guide you to what weights to use each week.  All you need to access to a gym.

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