People come to me all the time telling me their goal is to get bigger, which usually means they are interested in muscle-building workouts. Some are young athletes looking to up their game, while others are casual Crossfitters hoping to look better with their shirts off. Whatever your goal, if you are new to muscle building, this post will tell you everything you need to know from the science of muscle building, to what rules you must not break, and the types of workouts you should start doing...
First, what exactly is Muscle Building?
Muscle building is a general term used to describe muscular hypertrophy. Hypertrophy occurs within muscle tissues when a muscle fiber is damaged (due to microscopic tears in the fibers) due to small traumas from planned and systematic overloading resistance (this is different than muscle tears and strains, which are NOT good).
At the root of hypertrophy training is something referred to training volume, which has been repeatedly shown to be one of the most important factors to consider when looking to develop more muscle tissue. If a lifter does not do enough training volume to challenge the homeostasis within the body, the lifter will not succeed in their efforts to gain (and keep gaining) muscle. Therefore, as coaches and trainers we can calculate training volume by using the below equation:
Total Training Volume =
Total Sets x Total Repetitions (per set) x Amount of Load Used
Start by multiplying the total amounts of sets x total amount of repetitions x total amount of loading (weight) to get a general sense of the demands placed upon a lifter.
Jon performs three leg exercises every leg day. He does back squats ( 4 sets of 8 reps at 225lbs), walking lunges (3 sets of 12 reps at 95lbs), and Romanian deadlifts (4 sets of 8 repetitions at 185lbs) on day one.
Total Training Volume =
(4 sets x 8 repetitions x 225lbs) + (3 sets x 12 repetitions x 95lbs) + (4 sets of 8 repetitions x 185lbs) =
16,540lbs of tota loading per leg day (11 total working sets)
While there are general guidelines to selecting adequate training volumes for beginners to start with (which are discussed below and are within the program mentioned throughout), it is has been shown that as a lifter progresses he/she will need to train with increasingly more volume to sustain and/or gain more muscle tissue. The ability to recover from such ongoing demands (nutrition, hydration, and sleep/recovery) is often one of the most limiting and differentiating factors of muscle building abilities as a lifter progresses from the beginner to more intermediate and advanced stages.
8 Rules of Muscle Building for Beginners
Below are seven rules and/or muscle-building concepts that beginners should adhere to so that proper training volume, recovery, and ongoing training demands are met. Failure to adhere to these rules (or simply being deficient in one or more of them) can limit long-term success.
1. Sleep 7+ Hours
Without proper recovery from training, muscle building will be limited. For starters, sleep allows the body to repair damage done throughout life and training, as well as return hormonal and neurological systems to a roar… Wait, we’re supposed to have roaring hormones? Lol.
Longer periods of sleep and rest have been linked to higher testosterone levels in men, which is a primary anabolic hormone found to be responsible for muscle hypertrophy.
Gadgets like the FitBit Charge 2 can be helpful for tracking sleep patterns, resting heart rates (can be used to track recovery), and be a useful tool to keep physical activity and nutrition behaviors on track.
2. Eat More Calories
Calories are the basic unit (energy currency) used to calculate how much we are eating. We can either be in a caloric deficit (burning more calories than what we are supplying our body), caloric balance (eating the same amount of calories our bodies are burning), or caloric surplus (eating more calories than our bodies are burning).
For muscle building, we must be in a state of caloric surplus. Without being in a surplus, our bodies will not have enough energy currency to do daily bodily functions (resting metabolic rate), training demands, recovery from training demands, AND create new muscle tissues.
The key difference between calories balance and calorie surplus is that if we are in balance we will still be able to train hard and recover, but our ability to add muscle tissue and have prolonged progress will slowly plateau. Through a combination of increased training volume AND going into a state of calorie surplus, our bodies will be signaled to create more muscle tissue (hypertrophy).
While this does not give you a hall pass to go out and eat a sundae, it does mean that you need to consume nutritious, muscle building foods like lean proteins (chicken, beef, eggs, whey), complex carbohydrates (potatoes, whole grains, oats, rice) and fats (avocados, animal fat, nuts, seeds) to increase caloric intake. By simply adding another healthy meal, such as a cup or two or brown rice with some steamed vegetables and lean protein for a second lunch, and a protein shake with a piece or fruit before workouts can do the trick.
3. Drink A Lot of Water
Muscle tissue is nearly 80% water, and our blood even more so. Increased water intake will help to deliver nutrients to the muscle tissues, remove metabolic byproducts of exercise to aid in recovery, and help with bodily functions like digestion and cognitive function. Even only slight levels of dehydration--between 1-3% below hydration--have been shown to produce 8-10% performance decreases in strength, power and mental function.
This means that you not only will feel dehydrated, you will not be able to train as hard (which will limit your ideal training volume), sleep as well, digest the food you are eating, and recovery from hard training sessions. Moreover, you may even set yourself up for joint or tissue injury.
While the general guideline is eight cups (64 ounces) of water per day (for normal, non active individuals who do not have lofty goals of acquiring some serious muscle growth) are set forth by certain organizations, strength coaches and athletes alike highly recommend that one gallon of water (128 ounces) per day is a bare minimum for proper hydration. Most water bottles are 24-32 ounces (.75 liters), so aim to drink five water bottles a day (or 4 liters). We personally like the 1L Camelbak Chute Bottle and the Blender Ball Protein Shaker Bottle.
When paired with proper full range of movement training, rest, and hydration, stretching (both static stretching and dynamic warm-ups can help to aid in muscle recovery, the ability to train more frequently (increased training volume), and perform at higher levels (to lift more weight or lift it explosively). Simple stretching routines like this one can be highly beneficial to do in the morning, after workouts, or before bed.
Stretching post-workout is also key to maximizing flexibility and muscle recovery between session. Partner stretching is one of the best ways to gain flexibility, as you body and muscles are warm and prepared for the demands of stretching. The below video demonstrated a 5-10 minute partner stretch series that can be done with any level of lifter or coach. Remember to only do this when adequately warmed up (or after a workout) so that adequate blood flow is getting the muscles. Be sure to not overstretch a muscle, making sure to only go to a very slight level of discomfort, as too much strength can create muscle tears and injury.
5. Warm-Up Before Workouts
Many of us know we should warm up, however many of those same people choose not to; which is a key flaw for muscle building and performance. Properly warming up should be done to increase body temperature, enhance blood flow to muscles, and heighten our cognitive state. Failure to do so can result in weaker muscle contractions, uncoordinated movements, and injury to muscle and connective tissues.
After you perform a general dynamic warm-up, it is best to then isolate some of the key muscle groups that you will be training that workout. By doing a more specialized movement warm-up you can increase neurological awareness, muscle activation, and enhance strength, power, and performance. Here are some of our top movement warm-ups for squatting, athletics, chest and shoulder workouts, and more.
Warming up should be different than cool-down stretches?, which are what most beginners opt to perform. Instead, try doing this 5-minute, fast-paced total body dynamic warm up routine, which can be done before all training sessions.
6. Work Out 3+ Days Per Week, At Least
At a minimum, you will need to train at least three days per week, each day being around an hour or so to offer enough training volume and muscle building stimulus to the body. Many workout programs may sell you on the notion that you can build muscle with 10 minutes of exercise every other day (or whatever gimmick/offer they tell you), however that is simply not the case. The body is a very stubborn thing, and it will strive for homeostasis (balance) whenever it can, which is why losing weight and gaining muscle can be a very challenging endeavor.
Being able to outwill the body using the above muscle-building rules and integrating them into muscle-building workout programs is key to your long-term success. Additionally, the more days you train, the more you will be able to spread your training volume out across the week which can help with recovery and soreness, two factors that often keep people out of the gym. In the event you train only 1-2 times per week, not only will you struggle to actually build muscle (not enough training volume) you will often be sore for days on end in a vicious, vicious cycle of infrequent workouts paired with widespread soreness.
Note that doing nearly anything new and challenging physically will often result in some sort of response, however I have often found that throwing pain on the wall and seeing if it sticks is just not the best method for muscle building...
7. Do Compound Lifts, Not Isolation Exercises
Compound lifts refer to any movement that is multi-joint in nature. Multi-joint movements require a lifter to use large amounts of muscle tissue at once because they involves more than one joint moving at once. Below is a list of some of the most effective compound, multi-joint exercises, many of which are discussed in detail throughout our exercise video library.
Examples of some compound, multi-joint exercises are:
While isolation training is often at the forefront of muscle-building magazines and other popular workouts, these exercises are only effective if a lifter has already developed significant amounts of muscle tissues. An analogy often used is that you cannot sculpt a masterpiece of out maybe marble. Once you have the raw material (and enough of it), we can start to focus on isolated movements like concentration curls, triceps kickbacks, and shoulder raises to amplify our efforts.
Note, that some isolated movements can be used by beginners, however those exercises should account for only 1-2 of the exercises (out of the 5-8 a lifter may do in one single training session).
8. Earn Your Rest Days
When all is said and done, rest days are a necessary part of training and building muscle, regardless of how many gym bros say otherwise. If you train hard enough you will need at least one day a week to mentally and physically recover and prepare for the next training week ahead. While a rest day does not mean you can eat whatever you want or lying in bed all afternoon, it does mean that you can skip the gym to better prepare to attack the workouts to come.
The best way to structure eating and activity on rest days is eat exactly how you would on your training days, focusing on sound nutrition and hydration. Light physical activity and stretching is perfectly acceptable as it can actually enhance recovery (when intensities are done at a low to moderate effort level). The biggest take away here is to listen to the body. If you are drained of energy, rest and feel free to stay in sweats all day. If you have energy, go out for a walk, swim, or simply enjoy the outdoors with some good company.
5 Muscle Building Workouts for Beginners
Below are five workout programs geared for beginners (and good for intermediate lifters as well) looking to build muscle, gain strength, and increase the technique and movement necessary for increased training volume and more complex workout routines.
Whether you are a beginner or someone looking to take your lifting to the next level (such as National stages), our Olympic weightlifting monthly programming is the all-encompassing power, strength, hypertrophy, and technique work you need to success. Complete with exercise demons, workout logs, and mobile app access, this program has been solely responsible for taking nearly 10 lifters to National level competitions, helping CrossFit members become more fluent with Olympic weightlifting, and advance technique and strength into beginner and intermediate weightlifters.
This is one of our online fitness programs that incorporates total body strength and cardiovascular workouts within every week. A well balanced program will involves barbell strength training, corrective exercises, and high intensity circuits to build stamina, shed fat, and develop muscles. This program is geared for fitness goers and athletes alike, and can be a great kickstarter into making fitness a serious part of your lifestyle.
This 8-week strength program sets out to add serious muscle and strength in the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. All four barbell lifts are highlighted (and are compound, multi-joint exercises), with additional bodybuilding and bodyweight training segments to maximize muscle growth, muscular balance, and movement integrity. This plan is perfect for lifters who are ready to start a more formalized training program and/or those out there wanting something simple and effective.
This plan is a combination of the 8-week Lean Strength program, bodybuilding, and beginner Olympic weightlifting. The simplicity of the program has proven to be effective for building lean, dense, and athletic muscle since we first published this back in 2016. While this program does not come with mobile app access like our Functional Strength and Fitness AND Olympic Weightlifting workout apps, it does offer some exercise tutorial articles for support, making it a good option for those who are looking for a more hands off training experience.
We put this fitness workout plan out on our website about a year ago, and have been updating since. Every workout includes a barbell movement (squat, press, deadlift, clean, jerk, snatch, etc) and one bodyweight movement, pair together into a timed circuit, lasting all of 12-20 minutes. This is a perfect supplemental program for runners, CrossFit athletes, and fitness goers alike who want to build muscle endurance and strength. Note, this is not a stand alone program, but can be paired very well with the 9-week strength program, Olympic weightlifting subscription, and/or the functional strength and fitness online program.
Build More Muscle!
Check out these articles and videos below to help you jumpstart your fitness, nutrition, and recovery efforts!