How to Build Muscle
How to Build Muscle
In this definitive resource guide on how to build muscle, I discuss the most important strength training factors that determine if a workout has an optimal muscle building effect. When developing a workout or program with the goal of building muscle, there are a variety of training parameters that can be modified in order to create a more effective workout. In the following guide, I show you the top muscle building tips to help you train better and get more out of your workouts.
Muscle Building Tip #1 | The Warm-up is Critical
When I was younger, I didn’t need to warm up. I would just go into the gym and start lifting weights (most times with bad form). But, gradually over time, I started accumulating injuries and I didn’t feel good when I left the gym. In fact, my body felt tore up.
I didn’t know what warming up was or why it was important. So I started researching pre-training strategies and how I could train harder and recover faster.
What I found was that warming up ‘awakens’ the body and helps you get a good sweat going before you even touch a weight. It helps lengthen your muscles and gets them to work better. This means you can maintain better form when you lift AND lift at your best potential.
Over the years, we developed a simple 4-step system for warming up that will help you have the best workouts of your life. Here is the best warm-up sequence to show you how to properly get ready to train.
[Resource: AMPED Warm-up]
Step 1: SMR (Release)
SMR or self-myofascial release is a self-massage where you use foam rollers, lacrosse balls, softballs, baseballs and whatever else you want to help massage your muscles. The research that I have read says that using these implements for a self-massage may help to relax the soft-tissues of your body so they release back to their original length. This means your muscles will work better and contract harder, i.e., you will get stronger and be able to get maintain better form.
Step 2: Movement and Mobility (Open)
Dynamic mobility movements – such as squat-to-stand or various band traction movements – help to open up our bodies. If we unlock our movement, we can get into better positions, move through a great range of motion with more control, and get stronger, faster. These types of flowing exercises may help to make our muscles, fascia, tendons, and ligament more elastic and reactive.
Step 3: Activation (Anchor)
This is where we get the muscles working again that have not been doing their jobs. This happens when we lose good posture – typically at the hips and upper back – and the muscles get ‘down- regulated.’ During the warm-up, it becomes critical to get these muscles firing again so that we can feel better and lift more weights.
Step 4: Movement Rehearsal (Patterns)
Finally, at the last stage of the warm-up, we want to rehearse the movements we will be performing for the first primary exercise. For example, if our primary exercise is the bench press, we will hit push-ups or high-rep bench press with just the bar for a couple sets to prepare the appropriate muscle groups for the ramp up into the primary worksets.
As a special note, I wanted to tell you about the importance of breathing, hydration and posture for everything we do, in and out of the gym. Learning how to breathe deeper into our abdomen and fully utilizing our deep breathing muscle together (synergistically), will not only give us better core stability, but also help to relax our bodies. Most of us are ‘stress breathers’ or only breathe into our chest using our accessory breathing muscles.
The impact of this ‘chronic hyperventilation” is seen across our entire body. It affects the resting ‘tone’ or tightness in our muscles and can negatively impact our posture.
The same goes for not drinking enough water throughout the day. It is typically recommended you drink half your bodyweight in ounces throughout the day. But I recommend much more if you train on a regular basis. Being dehydrated causes our muscles and soft-tissues in our body to get ‘glued’ down and this changes how well they slide over one another. This is a big problem, especially if you are trying to perform your best in the gym and get into a good position when under the bar.
Finally, throughout the warm-up and for every exercise you do, you should always be trying to keep good posture. This means your hips, spine and head should be in a straight line – regardless of what you’re doing. Kelly Starrett calls this, “organizing the spine first.” Like I said, however, maintaining good posture can be very difficult if you don’t learn to how to breathe deeper (diaphragmatically, or into your belly) and drink enough water.
Muscle Building Tip # 2 | Pick the Right Exercises
You know what exercises I’m talking about; yeah, the hard ones. The compound exercises that give you the most bang-for-your- buck. When you train, you want to train with the greatest efficiency as possible. This means picking exercises that will challenge multiple muscle groups at once and push you hard in the gym.
Isolation exercises (like tricep kickbacks) do have their place in the workout if you working on a weakness or injury, but the majority of your training should be made up of the big exercises.
Here is my list of the best compound exercises that you should be using in your workouts.
COMPOUND UPPER BODY EXERCISES
Incline Bench Press
COMPOUND LOWER BODY EXERCISES
Trap Bar Deadlifts
Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s)
Power Clean & Press
The problem with these exercises, and all heavy training, is that you need make sure your form is on point. Because, as you progress, you’ll be adding more and more weight on the bar. And if your form is terrible, then you’re just asking for big problems.
So progress slowly and constantly work on getting your exercise form dialed-in.
Muscle Building Tip # 3 | Focus on Good Form and Good Position
For the “Big 3” movements, I’ve put together some of the most comprehensive training guides on the NET to help you get better at doing the lifts safely and effectively:
How to Bench Press
How to Squat
How to Deadlift
These comprehensive strength training guides will help you get started and teach you the fundamentals of each exercise and the importance of good position. If you were deadlifting, for example, a good position would be a straight back, braced core, and torque at the shoulders and hips for more tension.
You always want to start an exercise in the best position possible because this will increase the likelihood of completing the lift and not injuring yourself. It will also teach you and reinforce what a good position is so when you get out of position, you’ll be able to end the set without messing yourself up.
Muscle Building Tip # 4 | Choose the Right Sets and Reps
To build more muscle and get stronger, you have to push the weights for the big exercises. To keep your body adapting, the simple rule is that you have to do something different in a workout, than you did in the workout before.
If you benched 225 for 10 reps last workout, you need to try and get 11 reps. Or, if you went through a workout and took 90 seconds between each exercise, you should try and keep the rest periods to 60 seconds. This is called the Principle of Progressive Overload.
Pushing yourself just a little harder will force your body to adapt and overcome this new stress.
Pushing heavier weights and decreasing the rest period between sets are just two ways you can change the intensity of your workouts. There are a number of other training variables you can adjust to make your workouts harder:
1. Modifying the rest periods,
2. Changing the amount of weight lifted,
3. Changing the exercise,
4. Changing the implement,
5. Changing the tempo or speed of movement, or
6. Changing the volume (sets x reps).
We will focus on what rep schemes have worked for my programs:
Rep Range to Develop Power | 1-3 reps
Rep Range to Develop Strength | 1-6 reps
Rep Range to Develop Build More Muscle Mass | 8-12 reps
In my experience, focusing on these rep schemes and choosing the right compound exercises will a deadly combination for you if you want to pack on muscle and get strong.
But, if is not enough to just perform 6-8 reps for an exercise with an easy weight, you have to choose a weight where you are able to just get that last rep (with good form) and no more. It is all about intensity and pushing hard, not just getting the reps written on the piece of paper.
Are these set in stone? Hell no. They are arbitrary numbers. But they are a good starting point for anyone and have worked for me over the years. Like I said, the key is pushing yourself to try and create a change in your muscles.
Brad Schoenfeld published new research on the science of hypertrophy and they found that there are 3 variables in your training that will help you build more muscle.
How to Build Muscle
1. TENSION: Amount of weight you lift for a particular exercise.
2. STRESS: Accumulated metabolic stress from incomplete rest between sets and pushing higher volume sets when using a variety of rep ranges, implements, tempos and exercises in your training to challenge yourself each workout.
3. DAMAGE: Microtrauma in the muscle produced from intensive strength training.
4. TIME UNDER TENSION: Developing work capacity and muscular endurance to push the total duration of the set with progressively heavier weights.
5. INTENTIONAL TRAINING: Placing great intention on the working muscle groups to ensure complete engagement, optimal range of motion (ROM) for the lift, and good dynamic motor control (DMC).
How to Build Muscle Scientific Study: Schoenfeld, Brad J. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 10 – p 2857-2872, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
Muscle Building Tip # 5 | Get Tempo Under Control
When the weights aren’t going up and you’ve ever hit a wall in the gym, this can be very frustrating. By simply by focusing on the quality of your repetitions for a given exercise can make all of the difference in the world in helping you jump start your progress again. This can simply be referred to as changing the tempo.
As a basic review, for every repetition, there are 3 phases:
Phase 1: Concentric phase – where your muscles shorten under tension,
Phase 2: Eccentric phase – where your muscles lengthen under tension, and
Phase 3: Isometric phase – where there is tension but no change in the length of the muscle.
Research has shown that the majority of muscle damage (or microtrauma) associated with heavy strength training occurs during the eccentric or lowering phase.
We can use this to our advantage and focus on a ‘controlled’ eccentric to maximize the muscle fiber damage and reap the benefits when our muscles repair themselves and adapt to a bigger and stronger version.
Here is a simple example:
When performing a bench press with your 10RM (the weight where you can perform 10 reps with good form), unrack the bar and lower the weight for a count of 3-5 seconds. When it touches your chest, explode it back up to lockout and repeat. What you’ll find is that the weight where you could normally perform 10 reps with now feels like a ton of bricks at rep 7. You’ve increased the time under tension (or TuT) for the set and increased the amount of lactic acid in your muscles.
This simple ‘trick’ can work for any exercise. We love incorporating slow eccentrics with our back, arm, leg, shoulder and chest movements to smash plateaus. Modifying the tempo is just one training effect that can make your set and your time in the gym much more efficient.
Notice that I didn’t say to press the weight back out to lockout slow and controlled as well. During the pressing (concentric) phase, you always want to drive into the bar as hard as you can. This type of training will increase your strength, power and recruit more motor units. And, remember, life and moving in the real world is not slow and controlled. Whenever you perform a concentric movement, make sure you move the bar with bad intentions.
Muscle Building Tip # 6 | Full Range of Motion
The bottom line is, when you train any exercise, you should do it through the greatest range of motion possible. With that being said, not everyone can do this. Previous injuries, lack of mobility and stability, and poor technique can all prevent you from performing an exercise the way it is intended. This means that not everyone should hit a full range exercise.
This can predispose them to injury and hurt them in the long run. The smarter way to approach a new exercise, or one that you’ve been doing for years with bad form, is just to start over. Take the weight off the bar and start from scratch. Learn the proper positions you need to get in for each exercise and how to create tension through the full execution of the lift. Only stay in a range of motion where you can perform the exercise the right way. For example, a high box can be used to train and reinforce good technique for a squat and can be progressively lowered as you get better.
Refer to Tip # 3 for how to bench, squat and deadlift – and get with a qualified trainer to fill in the other gaps in your individualized exercise technique.
Muscle Building Tip # 7 | Don’t Be Scared of Partials
As you advance and get your form dialed in, hitting partial reps is a great way to continue a set and create massive metabolic and structural disruption.
A partial rep is where you can only perform a limited range of motion for an exercise because you’ve already reached near failure at the end of the set. The other important key to partials is to always stay in the ‘groove’ and not lose your form. Just because you’re pushing to the limit, doesn’t mean your form goes to crap.
I typically don’t recommend partials for the big 3 exercises (bench, squat, deadlifts) just because it requires really good spotters and have a high potential of injury, but supplement exercises are a different story.
Partials can be used with t-bar rows, curls, lat pull downs, db shoulder presses, tricep extensions, posterior flyes, side laterals – just to name a few. Finally, partials should be cycled into your workouts and not used every training session. Even though they are very effective, they are very taxing to your muscles and require lots of recovery.
Muscle Building Tip # 8 | Don’t be Scared of High Reps
I’ve already stated what I feel are the optimal rep ranges for most exercises in your programs. But I also want to encourage you to be brave and go for broke. Using finishers after your main sets is a great way to get more volume into your workouts and push yourself mentally to another level. We often grab a weight at 50% of our ending weight we used for our last set and see how long it takes us to get to 50 or 100 reps.
We hit as few of sets as possible and rest as short as possible to reach our target number of reps; Just keep the weight moving and get intense. Rest briefly only when your form breaks down and then get back into it.
Muscle Building Tip # 9 | Get a Good Training Partner
You need to find someone or a small group of guys who love training. They have to absolutely love training and love getting after it. These are type of guys who don’t just get through a workout, they give everything they’ve got for every set.
A good training partner will give you a good spot and also help you get through the end of a set – getting every rep you can – without killing yourself.
And, if you train with the same guys for a long time, they will learn how to spot you. Remember, everyone is different and the spot for everyone is different. As an example, some guys go on a count and some guys go on a breath.
From the hand off for the bench, to knowing when you’re going to fail mid-rep during a squat, good training partners know you and are always there.
Yes, it is your mind that gives you the intensity and drive for each set and every rep, but a good training partner can give you an edge.
Muscle Building Tip # 10 | Strong Mindset
With every set and every rep you do, you should be thinking, “I am going to give this everything I have and not leave any doubt that I own this weight.”
Intention is everything when you train and a ‘mind-muscle connection’ is real. You have to give it your all if you want results. It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting your warm-up sets or your max effort work, tense your body, focus your mind, and drive the weight.
Doubt isn’t going to work if you’re under a heavy squat weight or you’re about to pull your max deadlift. Your mind has to be clear and your body has to be ready. Doubt can also creep in when you leave the gym and know you just did the workout in your notebook. Just getting through a workout isn’t what training is all about.
It is about testing yourself and creating an iron will. Because the harder you train in the gym, the better prepared you’ll be for whatever life throws at you in the real world. So give every workout, every set, and every rep – everything you’ve got.
Muscle Building Tip # 11 | Program More Variety
Overview: When trying to optimize muscular growth and/or strength development, the major factor is trying to challenge and stress the muscles via progressive overload. There has to be an appreciable amount of tension (amount of weight used for an exercise), metabolic stress (dependent upon volume, intensity, and time under tension), and damage (microtrauma to the working muscle groups) to ultimately expose the muscles to sufficient time under tension in order to force adaptation or growth.
When trying to build muscle fast, your workouts should include a variety of rep ranges and loads (heavy weight : low reps AND moderate weight : higher reps), a variety of loads (% of your 1RM), a variety of exercises (barbell, machine, bodyweight, etc.), and a variety of movement patterns (or angles) (narrow, shoulder-width, wide-grip, sumo, conventional):
1. Variety of Rep Ranges and Loads (TENSION): Combining heavy weights with low weights (powerlifting, ex. 8 sets x 3 reps with 85%+ of 1RM) for your primary exercise and following that with higher volume supplemental or accessory lifts (bodybuilding, ex. 4-5 sets x 15-20 reps with 70-85% of 1RM) – typically referred to a ‘powerbuilding’ – in the same workout, can unlock your ultimate potential for adding strength and muscle mass very fast.
2. Variety of Exercises: Compound exercises engaging multiple muscle groups and multiple joints at the same time, along with a variety of supplemental exercises that target the same movement pattern, will give you many options to stress the lifter’s muscles through a range of motion and create the tension, stress, and damage required for growth, ex. barbell bench press supplemented with dumbbell bench presses and high volume push-ups.
3. Variety of ‘Tools: Utilize every option you have available to you in the gym, i.e., barbell, bodyweight, (cable, hammer, nautilus) machines, dumbbells, elastic bands, strongman, sandbags, or kettlebells.
4. Variety of Movement Patterns / Variety of Angles: When tyring to maximize development of a muscle group or multiple muscle groups, changing the angle can provide a different stimulus and attack the muscle in a different way – i.e., sumo vs. conventional deadlifts, wide- grip bench vs. close-grip bench, front squats vs. back squats.
Muscle Building Tip # 12 | Increase Metabolic Stress Through Greater TUT (STRESS)
In my best-selling program, Diesel MASS, I detail how effective extending the time under tension for a set is for developing greater muscle mass faster than I ever seen before – especially for lifters who have been training for many years or have reached a plateau.
If you understand the concept of tempo and how each repetition contains 3 different phases: lowering (eccentric) phase, pause (isometric or amortization) phase, and drive (concentric) phase, you can start to calculate how long each of your sets take.
Exercise: Barbell Bench Press
1. You take 2 seconds to lower the weight to your chest.
2. You pause the barbell on your chest for 1 second.
3. You drive the bar back to lockout in 1 second.
Total: Each repetition takes 4 seconds
* If you are supposed to perform 8 repetitions, that means the entire set will take 32 seconds: 8 reps x 4 sec/rep = 32 seconds
When changing the tempo, the most effective way to increase microtrauma (DAMAGE) to the working muscles is to focus on the eccentric phase of the lift. In our example above, simply increasing the eccentric (lowering) phase by 1 more second, increases the total time under tension by 8 seconds to 40 total seconds:
8 reps x 5 sec/rep = 40 seconds
So, what other ways can you extend your sets and increase the time under tension:
Other Advanced Extended Set Protocols:
1. Rest-Pause Training: Short, pre-defined rest periods working with greater
percentage of 1RM, 70-85% of 1RM or 12RM, 5 total sets shooting for 20-25
total reps, only resting 15 sec rest between sets.
2. Supersets: Performing two non-competing exercises (non-competing exercises
means that you perform two exercises back-to-back that don’t utilize the exact same muscle groups in the same way or the same movement pattern – so you’re able to continue moving from one exercise to another without a decrease in your ability to perform reps and keep good form). Supersets are typically written as 1A and 1B where you perform 1A) and 1B) back-to-back with no rest. You only rest after the 2nd exercise is done:
1A) Barbell Bench Press, 3 sets x 6-8 reps, no rest
1B) Pull-ups, 3 sets x 8-12 reps, rest 90 seconds
3. Giant Sets: Performing three (or more) exercises (1A, 1B), and 1C), back-to-back with no rest. You only rest after the last exercise is done:
1A) Sumo Deadlifts, 5 sets x 3-5 reps
1B) KB Swings, 5 sets x 20 reps
1C) Split Squats, 5 sets x 6-8 reps/leg
4. Dropsets: Performing an exercise with a moderate-to-heavy amount of weight
and then immediately, with no rest, performing the same exercise OR a similar exercise with the SAME movement pattern with less weight to failure or near failure.
1A) Pull-ups, 3 sets x 6-8 reps
1B) Lat Pull Downs, 3 sets x 15-20 reps
5. Reps-Based Sets: You will pick a target number of repetitions for a particular
exercise, load up a moderate-to-heavy weight (typically 12-20RM or approx. 50- 75% of your 1RM) and perform the exercise, stopping as short as possible utilizing a rest-pause (15-20 seconds rest ONLY between attempts) protocol until you hit the target repetitions.
Dumbbell Tricep Extensions, Target: 100 repetitions:
Pick a weight you can perform 20 repetitions with to start the set. For Set 1, you will perform as many repetitions with good form as you can, rest no longer than 15-20 seconds, and repeat until you get to 100 reps.
6. Time-Based Sets: Pick a target time, typically 30-45 seconds, and perform an exercise for the entire time period. When utilizing time-based sets, a slow eccentric (lowering) is typically perform and exercise form is very strict. If the target time period is low, i.e., 30 seconds, a heavier weight is used. If the time period is longer, a moderate weight is used.
7. Tempo Modifications: In the slower eccentric example above, by extending the eccentric phase, we will introduce more microtrauma into the working muscles and extend the total time under tension of the entire set.
IMPORTANT: Both time-based sets and reps-based sets can be utilized with a dropset or giant set – with multiple exercises – to further enhance the muscle-building effect and optimize the training effect in the workout.
Muscle Building Tip # 13 | Constant Tension Sets vs. Heavy Compound sets
In the legendary strength and conditioning text, Supertraining, Mel Siff described a technique for increasing an athlete’s muscle building (hypertrophy) potential, called continuous tension sets.
Continuous tension sets is actually a technique is actually very common amongst high- level competitive bodybuilders. It involves keeping the tension on the working muscle (groups) by never resting the weight at lockout or midway through the repetition. The repetition stays in the mid-range of the movement, i.e., from right before lockout to right before the bottom end-range. The idea is that if you relax at lockout or the bottom range of the lift, the muscle comes off tension and you lose intensity of the muscular contraction. I’ve found the continuous tension sets work very well for supplemental lifts where you’re not lifting a maximal (max effort) amount of weight with a heavy compound exercise (ex. bench, deadlift, squat, military press). This technique should be reserved for sub-maximal supplemental lifts.
As a point of clarification, when performing heavier maximal lifts – of greater than 90% of your 1RM for a 1-5RM – with the goal of increasing absolute strength, locking out the weight can ensure that you’re using optimal technique with each repetition in every set – and keeping your bracing and technique as optimal as possible. As a coaching cue, the lifter is typically instructed to turn the max effort set into multiple ‘singles’, i.e., not thinking of performing 3 repetitions, but rather 3 single reps.
Muscle Building Tip # 14 | Perfect Your Technique
Every exercise you perform in the gym requires a very specific technique. And you should be always trying to improve your technique for every lift – regardless of the weight used – to ensure you can move through the full range of motion required for the lift, you can maintain good position (neutral or straight spine for heavy ground-based compound exercises), and you can maintain tension throughout the exercise.
Unfortunately, due to never stretching and training for many years, most lifters are very tight in the ankles, hips, upper back, chest and shoulders. This will prevent them from having optimal technique for certain exercises and will put their joints in a bad position when they’re training. This can be a big issue especially when they’re under tension, which can lead to injury, muscle pulls, or even tears.
If the goal is to build muscle and get stronger, improving your technique first starts with opening up your ‘tight’ areas and ensuring you always perform a comprehensive warm- up before you start loading the bar up. A good warm-up always includes some type of self-myofascial release (or SMR), dynamic mobility drills (improve ROM for tight areas), and activation exercises (to target the muscle groups you will be using in the workout).
Muscle Building Tip # 15 | Greater Focus on Recovery
The biggest misconception in the fitness industry is that strength training makes you stronger. This is false! Strength training makes you weaker and breaks your body down. Strength and greater muscle mass comes from your body recovering from the actual training. And, your ability to train intensely every single time you step into the gym is directly related to how well you recover between training sessions. Focus on your recovery as soon as the very last repetition in your workout is done, and you will begin the rebuilding process to be able to train optimally in your next workout.
As a special note, the very same ‘better movement’ exercises and drills you perform in your warm-up to get ready for the workout, can also be used as a form of active recovery during an extra workout you perform at the opposite end of the day from a workout or during an “off” day – to help speed up your recovery.
Other Methods of Recovery: Static stretching, deep breathing drills (box breathing), sleep, hydration, extra low intensity workouts, sled dragging, aerobic conditioning/cardio, Epsom salt baths, contrast showers, ART, sauna, good nutrition, vitamin D, fish oil.
HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE | SCIENTIFIC STUDIES:
Schoenfeld, BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72.
* Landmark Muscle Building Study detailing the importance of variety of rep ranges (low vs. high) and loads (heavy vs. moderate) and the ‘Big 3’ for optimizing hypertrophy – tension, stress, and damage.
Benefits of Isometrics:
Schott, J, McCully, K, and Rutherford, OM. The role of metabolites in strength training. II. Short versus long isometric contractions. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 71: 337-341, 1995.
Benefits of Ultra-High Volume Sets:
Burd NA, West DWD, Staples AW, Atherton PJ, Baker JM, Moore DR, et al. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(8):e12033. PMCID: PMC2918506.
Increased Vitamin D, Increases Muscle Building Potential
Holick, M.F. Vitamin D Deficiency. New England Journal of Medicine. 2007. 357(3), 266-281. Boland, R. The role of vitamin D in skeletal muscle function. Endocrine Reviews. 1986. 7(4), 434- 448.
By Smitty on January 11th, 2021
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These are all really amazing tips. Thank you for sharing!
Building muscles takes a lot of work and recovery as well. Thank you so much for simplifying the whole process.