The summer is over and so is your cutting phase. It’s now time to take advantage of the “off-season” to add some size. Well, you’re at the right place, as, in this article, we’ll give you the science of how to build muscle as fast and as effectively as possible!
By the way, if you are interested in taking your physique to a whole new level of muscularity, strength and leanness, make sure to check out how we can help through our online fitness coaching plans!
How to build muscle while losing fat
Before we delve into the main part of the article, let’s first talk about the issue of how to build muscle while losing fat:
Building an appreciable amount of muscle while losing an appreciable amount of fat is, usually, a lost cause.
As we’ve previously mentioned, it’s unlikely that you can pull it off unless one, or more, of the following applies:
So, if none of the above applies to you, then forget about trying to figure out how to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Not because it can’t happen (it can), but because it will take place in such a slow rate that you’ll probably give up before seeing any appreciable visual changes to your body.
Without further ado, here’s a science-based guide on how to build muscle.
How to build muscle with resistance training
Just in case anyone has doubts about this, let’s just emphasize that the single most potent hypertrophic stimulus for muscle is, without a doubt, resistance exercise.
If your primary goal is to build muscle, here’s how you should set up each of the resistance training variables to maximally stimulate muscle growth.
1. Exercise selection and order
To build muscle, pick a couple of exercises for each major muscle group.
These are the exercises you will focus on for, at least, the next few months (unless there’s a good reason to change them), so make sure that they:
- work the intended muscle group through a full range of motion
- give you the best bang for your buck – this means you should emphasize compound movements
- can be performed safely – as a general rule, avoid anything on a bosu ball
- give ample room for progressive overload
- fit well into the overall training plan
With regards to exercise order, a general good rule-of-thumb is to organize your exercises in a way that training intensity and total training volume are minimally affected.
This means that, where possible, you should:
- alternate between upper and lower body movements
- alternate between push and pull movements
- perform compound movements first and isolation movements last
2. Training intensity and Reps in Reserve (RIR)
Training intensity, essentially, refers to the load you are using for your exercises. A 1RM (Repetition Maximum) load, for example, is the weight with which you can perform a maximum of 1 repetition for a given exercise. A 10RM load is the weight with which you can perform a maximum of 10 repetitions, and so on.
Training intensity can also be expressed as a percentage of your 1RM. For example, a training intensity of 70% of your 1RM will, usually, allow you to perform around 12 repetitions. A training intensity of 85% of your 1RM will allow most people to perform around 5 repetitions.
Reps in Reserve (RIR) refers to the number of repetitions you could do from the last repetition you performed, if you had taken your set to failure. So, for example, if you do 8 reps for a 10RM set, the RIR is 2 (since you had another 2 reps in reserve).
When choosing a training intensity to build muscle, you have to make sure that the load you use:
- allows you to accumulate training volume in a time-efficient way
- allows you to load and progressively overload that exercise
- allows you to minimize risk of injury while achieving the above
To build muscle and with the above in mind, a training intensity of between 65% and 85% of your 1RM (or between around 5 and 15 repetitions) is, usually, ideal for most people, most of the time.
A sensible and commonly employed strategy is to:
- use loads between 75% and 85% of your 1RM (5-10 reps) for compound movements
- use loads between 65% and 75% of your 1RM (10-15 reps) for isolation movements
With regards to Repetitions in Reserve (RIR), we recommend that you stay 1-2 reps shy of failure for compound movements most of the time. For isolation exercises, you can train to failure on your last set of each exercise.
3. Training volume and frequency
Training volume, strictly speaking, is defined as weight x reps x sets. So 3 sets of 10 reps with 10 pounds equals a training volume of 300 pounds (10 pounds x 10 reps x 3 sets).
Training volume is sometimes also measured in total number of repetitions performed for a given muscle group or total number of sets performed.
Training frequency is, essentially, just a way to organize total volume.
When trying to figure out how much training volume you should be doing to build muscle, it’s important to ensure that the amount of volume you are performing:
- is sufficient to cause hypertrophic adaptations at a fast-enough rate
- is not so much that it exceeds your recovery abilities
- is not so much that it prevents progressive overload from taking place
With the above in mind and in combination with the available research and our practical experience, we recommend that novice and intermediate lifters perform between 6 and 16 working sets for each major muscle group per week.
It’s, generally, good practice to start on the lower end and add volume according to how well you are recovering and progressing.
With regards to training frequency, we recommend that you split the total weekly volume for each major muscle group into 2-3 sessions spread throughout the week, since research suggests that higher training frequencies may result in better muscle size gains than lower training frequencies.
4. Rest between sets and lifting tempo
Remember that, according to research, muscle growth is caused by an increase in the external forces placed upon muscles (i.e. intensity load) as well as by an increase in total training volume.
What this means is that, when planning your inter-set rest periods, you should make sure that:
- they don’t negatively affect training intensity (i.e. the weight on the bar)
- they don’t negatively affect total training volume
With the above in mind, resting at least 2 minutes between sets is, generally, recommended. Bear in mind that you may need to rest even longer to optimize recovery between sets and maximize performance.
In regards to lifting tempo, although much has been theorized over the last couple of decades regarding time-under-tension, transient hormonal responses to different tempos and so on, research suggests that, within reason, lifting tempo doesn’t really matter.
A generally good approach is to lift the weight explosively (as much as possible) and perform the eccentric part of the movement in a controlled manner.
To get strong and build muscle, it’s vital that progress is made in the gym. This means that total training volume should keep increasing throughout your lifting career.
For novice and early intermediate lifters, simply training with enough intensity and sufficient (but not too much) volume will result in strength and size gains.
A good, general, plan of action with regards to progression is to increase the weight you are using by 5-10% for lower body exercises and by 2.5-5% for upper body exercises for the following workout, when in the current workout you manage to complete all sets of all repetitions with good form.
If you fail to complete your pre-specified number of sets and reps for two consecutive workouts, simply drop the weight by 5-10% and repeat the above process.
Sample beginner routine to build muscle
With the recommendations above in mind, here’s what a routine may look like for a novice lifter looking to build muscle:
Workout A and Workout B would be alternated and performed for a total of 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days. As mentioned above, inter-set rest would be at least 2 minutes and the exercises would be executed with an explosive concentric and controlled eccentric tempo.
If you are working out at home, you probably don’t have the required equipment to do the workouts above, so checking out this at-home muscle building workout is a good idea!
Part 2 (Nutrition) of the “How to Build Muscle” series
So that’s it for Part 1 of this article series.
If you want to learn about nutrition for muscle growth, check out Part 2 (Nutrition) of the “How to Build Muscle” series!
If you are interested in reading more about the science of training and the manipulation of each training variable, you will definitely enjoy this interview with did with Eric Helms.