Do you want to know how to build muscle? Do you want to know how to do it… fast? If so, you’ve come to the right place.
In this FREE, step-by-step guide, I’m going to lay out everything you need to know and every evidence-based workout and diet guideline you need to follow to get the best results possible.
Let the fun begin…
Step #1: Understand What Builds Muscle
Believe it or not, there are only two major requirements that need to be in place in order for muscle mass to be built…
- The Signal
The first thing you need is a weight training program that signals the muscle building process to begin. Research has shown that a well designed program will generate this “signal” via a combination of progressive tension overload (as in, getting stronger over time), metabolic stress (as in, fatiguing the muscle and getting “the pump”), and muscular damage (as in, actual damage to the muscle tissue itself).
- The Supplies
Once that signal is present, you’ll then need a diet that provides your body with all of the supplies it needs to actually build new muscle tissue. These “supplies” will primarily come in the form of sufficient calories and protein.
Yeah, there’s a lot of other important stuff involved in the process (and we’re going to cover all of it here), but in the most simplistic sense, these are the only two things you truly need in order to build muscle.
Step #2: Realize That You Can’t Actually Build Muscle “Fast”
I don’t really enjoy telling people things that are going to make them unhappy… but um… here’s something that’s going to make you unhappy.
Muscle growth is an extremely slow process.
I know we all want to do it fast – myself included – but the reality is that it just doesn’t happen at a rate that any sane person would consider “fast.”
Sure, using a more effective workout routine or diet plan will work better/faster than a less effective one. However, even when you’re doing everything just right and you’ve optimized every single major and minor factor to work as quickly and effectively as possible (which I’m going to show you how to do), the simple fact is that you’re still not going to build muscle “fast.”
How Fast Can Men And Women Actually Build Muscle?
Based on my own experience and that of a handful of well-respected people in this field (namely Alan Aragon, Lyle McDonald, Martin Berkhan and Casey Butt), here’s what you can expect the realistic rates of muscle growth to be:
- Men: 0.5 – 2.5lbs of muscle gained per month.
- Women: 0.25 – 1.25lbs of muscle gained per month.
More specifically, you can expect to end up in the upper half of these ranges ONLY if you are a beginner, younger, and/or have amazing genetics. You can expect to end up in the lower half of these ranges if you are an intermediate or advanced trainee, older, and/or have poor genetics. The average person can expect to end up somewhere in the middle. Additional details here: How Much Muscle Can You Gain?
So, tell me… do you consider this to be fast? Maybe 10-15lbs of muscle gained in a year for a man… maybe half that for a woman? I didn’t think so.
But this is the reality of it, and you may be surprised to hear that.
After all, you’ve probably seen the countless workouts, diets, supplements, programs, products and people claiming that super fast muscle growth is possible. You’ve probably also seen the click-bait headlines (“How To Build 20lbs Of Muscle In Just 6 Weeks!”) and the unbelievable transformations of supposedly “natural” people (bodybuilders, celebrities, athletes, fitness gurus on social media, etc.) that clearly prove it can happen faster than this.
But here’s the thing about all that. It’s largely (if not entirely) some combination of lies, deception, nonsense, false claims and blatant bullshit put out there to create an illusion of unrealistic muscle building results.
Why? To get your attention… and then your trust… and then your money. You know, the 3-step process the entire diet and fitness industry is built upon. This is no different.
Why Does This Matter?
Two main reasons…
- So You Have Realistic Expectations
Do you know what happens when a person attempts to build muscle faster than they legitimately can? They fail, and then they wonder why it’s not working as quickly as they thought it would. From there, they’ll jump from workout to workout, diet to diet and useless supplement to useless supplement in the hopes of finally finding the missing link that will make it happen. But they’re never going to find it. They’ll just keep wasting their time, effort and money searching for something that doesn’t exist.
- So You Avoid Getting Fat
I’m going to cover this in detail in a bit, but for right now, just know this: it’s VERY possible (and common) to gain weight fast in the hopes of gaining muscle fast. The problem, however, is that the majority of the “weight” a person in this scenario will end up gaining will be body fat rather than muscle mass. This is something that needs to be avoided at all costs, and I’ll show you how a little later.
With that out of the way, it’s time to start the part of this guide you came here to see.
Here now is everything you need to do to build muscle as fast as realistically possible. Let’s begin with your weight training program…
Step #3: Choose An Effective Weight Training Frequency
Weight training frequency can refer to a few different things.
For example, how many days you work out per week. Generally speaking, 3-5 workouts per week will be ideal for building muscle.
However, when talking about frequency in this context, we’re usually talking about how often you should train each muscle group per week.
The 3 most common choices are:
- Once Per Week
For example, training your back every Monday.
- Twice Per Week
For example, training your back every Monday and Thursday.
- Three Times Per Week
For example, training your back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Despite what some may claim or what others may misunderstand, the truth is that ALL of these frequencies can work for muscle growth assuming everything is designed and executed properly. The real question is… which one works best?
Time and time again, both research and real-world experience have shown that a higher frequency (2-3 times per week) is more effective than a lower frequency (once per week) when it comes to gaining muscle mass (or strength, for that matter).
I know this goes against the recommendations you often see in stereotypical bodybuilding routines (i.e. the ones that involve having a single “chest day” or “arm day” or “shoulder day” once a week), but that’s just one of the many reasons why those types of routines suck for us natural, genetically-average people, and work best for steroid users with great genetics.
Which is why those of us in that first group who want to build muscle as fast as possible are going to want to hit every body part two or three times per week. Anything less will be suboptimal. Now let’s figure out how to do that.
Step #4: Choose An Intelligent Workout Split
Now that we know what training frequency is best, the next step is to choose a workout split that allows for that ideal frequency to be met.
Your workout “split” is basically the weekly layout and schedule of your weight training program. As in… you’ll train this body part on this day, that body part on that day, have a rest day on this day, and so on.
When it comes to choosing a workout split/schedule, there are five major factors that need to be taken into account:
- Your Ideal Training Frequency
We just covered that a minute ago, so there’s no need to repeat it again.
- Your Schedule
Most of us have lives, or jobs, or school, or family, or whatever else that puts some kind of limit on when and how often we can work out. For example, are there certain days that you are able to work out on, and certain days you aren’t? Are you able to train 5 days per week, or would 3-4 be more ideal? Choosing a split that suits your personal schedule and is as convenient for you as possible will be crucial for adherence, and without adherence, nothing is going to work.
- Your Recovery
Even if you have a schedule that allows for a 5-day workout split, many people (I’d even call it the majority) simply don’t have the recovery capacity needed to make that work. This could be due to genetics, age, injury history, various lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.) and more. In these cases, better results would be seen with 3-4 workouts per week instead.
- Your Experience Level
Certain splits tend to be more ideal for beginners than intermediate or advanced trainees, and vice-versa. For this reason, you’re going to want to keep your experience level in mind when making this choice.
- Your Preferences
And last but not least, your own personal preferences also play a role in this decision. For example, some people just happen to like or dislike certain styles of training more than others. And actually enjoying what you’re doing is another factor that’s going to play a key role in adherence.
So, as you can see, there are many factors worth taking into consideration, many of which involve your own personal needs and preferences. Having said that, let’s take a look at what tends to be best for most people…
There are actually quite a few intelligent splits that I like and recommend to people looking to build muscle, and I’ve included nearly all of them in my Superior Muscle Growth program. However, if I had to pick my 3 favorites, it would definitely be these…
1. The Full Body Split
It goes like this:
- Monday: Full Body Workout
- Tuesday: off
- Wednesday: Full Body Workout
- Thursday: off
- Friday: Full Body Workout
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: off
While this split can also work quite well for people who are past the beginner stage, it’s not my preferred choice for reasons I explain here: Is A Full Body Workout Best For You? Instead, these are the splits that I recommend for intermediate and advanced trainees…
2. The Upper/Lower Split (3-Day And 4-Day Versions)
The 4-day version goes like this:
- Monday: Upper Body Workout
- Tuesday: Lower Body Workout
- Wednesday: off
- Thursday: Upper Body Workout
- Friday: Lower Body Workout
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: off
And the 3-day version goes like this:
- Monday: Upper Body Workout
- Tuesday: off
- Wednesday: Lower Body Workout
- Thursday: off
- Friday: Upper Body Workout
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: off
- Monday: Lower Body Workout
- Tuesday: off
- Wednesday: Upper Body Workout
- Thursday: off
- Friday: Lower Body Workout
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: off
3. The Push/Pull/Legs Split
- Monday: Push (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
- Tuesday: Pull (Back, Biceps)
- Wednesday: off
- Thursday: Legs (Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Abs)
- Friday: off
- Saturday: Push (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
- Sunday: Pull (Back, Biceps)
- Monday: off
- Tuesday: Legs (Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Abs)
- Wednesday: off
- Thursday: Push (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
- Friday: Pull (Back, Biceps)
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: Legs (Quads, Hamstrings, Calves, Abs)
So, depending on your experience level, these are the splits I recommend. For some additional details on choosing your ideal split, check out the following…
- 3 Day Split vs 4 Day Split vs 5 Day Split
- Full Body vs Upper/Lower vs Body Part Split
- The Best Workout Schedules
Step #5: Choose An Optimal Amount Of Volume
Now that your split is good to go, it’s time to design each of the workouts in that split… starting with volume.
Volume is essentially the amount of work being done. As in, how many sets, reps and/or exercises are being performed for each muscle group per workout or per week total.
When planning training volume, we want to do the largest amount of beneficial volume we can without exceeding our capacity to recover.
Basically, we want to find the sweet spot between doing too little to maximize gains, and doing too much that it hinders/prevents our progress or warrants making a suboptimal reduction to some other aspect of our program to compensate (e.g. cutting frequency back to just once per week, which we know is suboptimal for muscle growth).
So, what is this optimal volume “sweet spot” for building muscle?
Based on research and real-world experience, here’s what I recommend…
- For each bigger muscle group: about 60-140 total reps PER WEEK.
- For each smaller muscle group: about 30-70 total reps PER WEEK.
Dividing It Up Among Your Workouts
Note that this recommendation is for total weekly volume, which means it would need to be divided up based on how many times you’re training each muscle group per week. So, for example, someone training everything twice per week would do 30-70 reps for each bigger muscle group in each of those workouts, and 15-35 reps for each smaller muscle group in each of those workouts.
If you’re wondering why my volume recommendation is based on reps rather than sets, I explain that here.
Bigger Muscles vs Smaller Muscles
We’ll define the “bigger muscle groups” as being chest, back, quads and hamstrings, and the “smaller muscle groups” as being biceps, triceps and maybe abs. Shoulders are really somewhere in the middle, though I tend to lean more toward the “smaller” guidelines. Calves, while technically small, are another muscle group that is somewhere in the middle, and I can really go either way depending on the needs of the person.
Why less volume for the smaller muscle groups, you ask? Partially because they are smaller, but mostly because they get a ton of indirect volume while training the bigger muscle groups (e.g. your biceps get hit pretty hard while training back, triceps get hit pretty hard while training chest and shoulders, shoulders get hit pretty hard while training chest, etc.).
Where In This Range Should You Be?
These ranges are kinda big, so you might be wondering exactly where you should be within them. The bottom? The top? The middle?
Well, this can vary quite a bit depending on a bunch of factors specific to you. This includes how other aspects of your workouts are being designed, plus your own recovery capabilities and volume tolerance… which are dependent on everything from genetics to age to stress levels to sleep quality.
Generally speaking, though, beginners should typically be near the bottom of the range, intermediates in the middle, and the advanced near the top.
Personal experimentation will be needed to get any more specific than that. And if you’re not really sure, something in the middle is usually a good place to start.
Step #6: Set Your Intensity And Select Your Rep Range
Weight training intensity, in this context, refers to how much weight you will be lifting and how heavy or light that weight is for you on a given exercise.
The lighter the weight/easier it is for you, the lower the intensity. The heavier the weight/harder it is for you, the higher the intensity.
And, all of this intensity stuff can be simplified down to just one thing: how many reps you’re doing per set.
After all, if you’re doing more reps in a set, the weight would obviously be lighter and the intensity level lower. If you’re doing fewer reps in a set, the weight is obviously heavier and the intensity is higher. In addition, how close you come to reaching failure – aka the point in a set when you are unable to complete a rep – also plays a role here.
So, what does all of this mean to you? It’s actually pretty simple.
Some people will claim that lower reps (e.g. 5-8) are all you should ever do, or moderate reps (e.g. 8-10) are all you should ever do, or higher reps (e.g. 10-15) are all you should ever do.
But the truth is, when it comes to muscle growth, a wider rep range that encompasses a variety of training intensities is what tends to works best. Specifically…
For building muscle, the 5-15 rep range is ideal.
Narrowing that down a bit…
- The 5-8 rep range is most ideal for primary compound exercises.
- The 8-10 rep range is most ideal for secondary compound exercises.
- The 10-15 rep range is most ideal for isolation exercises.
Now, does this mean that anything below 5 or above 15 doesn’t work? Nope. In fact, I think going as low as 3 reps and as high as 20 can sometimes be beneficial, and there’s plenty of real-world experience (and research) to support the fact that muscle can be built in all kinds of rep ranges.
What I am saying here is that for someone looking to build muscle as fast as they realistically can, spending the majority of their time training in the 5-15 rep range will be ideal.
At the same time, this also doesn’t mean that primary compound exercises can never be done for more than 8 reps, or that secondary compound exercise can’t be done for 5-8 or 10-15 reps, or that isolation exercises can’t be done for less than 10 reps. Everything can be done in every rep range. However, these are the rep ranges that each type of exercise is best suited for, and where it should ideally be done most of the time.
What About Failure?
As for training to failure, based on the available research, real-world observation, and of course my own firsthand experience with it, my opinion is that purposely training to failure does more harm than good, and I think that purposely setting out to reach failure on a set (or every set) is the wrong idea.
In most cases, you should set out to come really close to failure… ideally ending the set about 1 rep (maybe 2) before failure actually occurs.
So, if you are trying for 8 reps but felt your 7th rep was definitely going to be the last one you’d be able to do and there was virtually no chance of getting #8, then stop there and don’t purposely go and fail on the 8th rep just for the sake of failing.
Leave that rep in the tank and try for it next time. Additional details here: Training to Failure
Step #7: Select Your Exercises
Now for the most complex aspect of designing a muscle building workout routine… exercise selection.
Since there are so many different factors to take into consideration, and since covering all of them would take a guide of its own, I’m going to keep this as simple as possible and sum up the most important guidelines for choosing and organizing the exercises in your workouts.
- Compound vs Isolation
The majority of your workouts should be comprised of compound exercises. Common examples include squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench presses, rows, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, overhead presses, and so on. Isolation exercises should definitely also be a part of your program, just a smaller part in comparison. Common examples include bicep curls, tricep extensions, chest flies, lateral raises, leg curls, leg extensions, calf raises, and so on.
- Free Weights vs Machines vs Bodyweight
When it comes to building muscle, your body only knows or cares about the tension, fatigue and damage an exercise is generating… not the type of equipment you were using when performing that exercise. It really couldn’t give the slightest crap about that. For this reason, ALL types of exercises and ALL types of equipment are capable of stimulating muscle growth.
- Required Exercises
There are no “required” exercises for building muscle. Yes, this even includes the almighty squat, deadlift and bench press. While these are all potentially great exercises, the same training effect can be achieved using similar variations of these (or any other) exercises.
- Exercise Order
Harder, more physically demanding exercises being done in lower rep ranges (i.e. primary compound exercises) should typically come before easier, less physically demanding exercises being done in higher rep ranges (i.e. secondary compound exercises and isolation exercises).
- Rep Ranges
As I mentioned earlier, the exercises that come first in your workout (aka primary compound exercises) should usually be done in the 5-8 rep range. Exercises in the middle (aka your secondary compound exercises) should usually be done in the 8-10 rep range. Exercises done at the end of your workout (which is typically where isolation exercises belong) should usually be done in the 10-15 rep range.
Injury history, injury prevention and personal needs/preferences should always be taken into account when selecting exercises.
For a ton of additional details, answers and recommendations for selecting, arranging and programming the exercises in your workouts, check out the following articles…
- Selecting Exercises For Your Weight Training Routine
- Free Weights vs Body Weight vs Machines
- Dumbbells vs Barbells
- Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises
- Movement Patterns: Horizontal/Vertical Push & Pull, Quad/Hip Dominant
- A Big List Of Exercises For Each Muscle Group
- What Are The Best Exercises?
- Arranging The Exercises In Your Workout
- 6 Really Good Exercises I Will Never Do Again (And Why)
Step #8: Determine Your Rest Periods
Now that you know what exercises you’ll be doing, it’s time to figure out how long you should rest in between each of your sets.
There are three main factors to consider when making this decision:
- What exercise is being done, and how demanding is that exercise?
The harder an exercise is – both in terms of technicality and physical/mental demand – the more rest there should usually be. So exercises like squats and deadlifts should have more rest between sets than exercises like leg extensions and leg curls. And exercises like various bench presses, shoulder presses, rows and pull-ups should have more rest between sets than bicep curls, tricep extensions, chest flies and lateral raises.
- What rep range is that exercise being done in?
The lower the rep range (and therefore the higher the intensity and the heavier the weight), the more rest there should be between sets. So most of the time, exercises being done in the 5-8 rep range need longer rest periods than exercises being done in the 8-10 rep range, which need longer rest periods than exercises being done in the 10-15 rep range.
- What is the intended training effect of that exercise?
Longer rest periods are more ideal for making progressive tension overload happen, and shorter rest periods are more ideal for generating metabolic fatigue. So, if you’re doing an exercise that is better suited for progressive overload (i.e. primary compound exercises), you’re going to want to rest longer between sets to maximize strength output. And if you’re doing an exercise that is better suited for metabolic fatigue (i.e. isolation exercises), you’re going to want to rest less between sets to make that happen. And if you’re doing an exercise that is suited equally for a combination of the two (i.e. secondary compound exercises), you’re usually going to want a moderate rest period somewhere in between.
So, what is the practical application of this? Here’s what I recommend.
- 2-4 Minutes Rest: Ideal for “tension exercises,” which includes most primary compound exercises. I personally take 3 minutes for the big stuff, sometimes going into the 3-4 minute range depending on exactly what I’m doing and what I feel like I need at the time. Since making strength gains is the main focus of these exercises, longer rest periods like this will be optimal for making it happen.
- 1-3 Minutes Rest: Ideal for “tension and fatigue exercises,” which include most secondary compound exercises. This range is sort of the midpoint between being ideal for strength and being ideal for generating fatigue. So while it’s not entirely what’s best for either, it is what’s perfect for achieving an equal combination of the two… which is exactly what we want from these exercises.
- 1-2 Minutes Rest: Ideal for “fatigue exercises,” which include most isolation exercises. Resting this amount won’t be as good for strength and performance, but it will be great for generating fatigue. And since that is the main focus of these exercises, it’s exactly what we want.
As for how long to rest between different exercises, as long as you’re not rushing yourself or taking an excessive amount of time talking to people or playing with your phone, you can pretty much take as long as you feel you need to. No need to get more complicated than that.
Step #9: Make Progressive Overload Happen
At the beginning of this guide, I mentioned the three types of stimuli that signal muscle growth:
- Progressive Tension Overload
- Metabolic Stress
- Muscular Damage
Now, while all three are definitely beneficial to the process, I’d consider metabolic stress and muscular damage to be of secondary and tertiary importance, respectively. In addition, they are also things that will pretty much take care of themselves when implementing the workout guidelines and recommendations we’ve already covered (namely for volume, rep ranges, rest periods and exercise selection).
Progressive tension overload, on the other hand, is BY FAR the most important, and it’s also the one that you’re going to need to actively work your ass off for in order to make happen. Here’s why.
The Progressive Overload Principle
The progressive overload principle basically states:
And what it means is, if you lift the same weights, for the same number of reps, the same way for the next 20 years… nothing will ever happen. Your body will never change or improve in any way. No new muscle will be built.
You will only maintain your current state.
However, if you increase the demands you are placing on your body by increasing the weight being lifted, lifting the same weight for additional reps, or just doing something that increases the demands that your body needs to meet, then your body will have no other choice but to make the changes and improvements necessary for it to adapt to this environment and remain capable of performing these tasks.
Now guess what these “changes” and “improvements” and “adaptations” will come in the form of? You guessed it… more muscle.
This, in a nutshell, is what builds muscle.
So, even if you were to put together the single greatest muscle building workout of all time, it won’t actually work unless progressive overload it taking place over time. It is, above all else, the key to your success.
How To Make It Happen
Everything you need to know about progressive overload, how to make it happen, when and how often it should happen, and a whole lot more can be found here:
- What Is Progressive Overload?
- When And How To Progress At Weight Training Exercises
- Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid vs Straight Sets
- How To Progress Better At Isolation Exercises
How To Allow It To Continue Happening
Pretend weight training progression is a series of walls that you need to climb. Every time you successfully make it over a wall, progress is made.
Eventually, however, all of this constant wall climbing catches up with you and a point is reached where you become physically and/or mentally unable to get over the next wall.
When this happens (and it ALWAYS eventually happens to EVERYONE), you have two choices:
- You can either keep slamming into that wall over and over and over again.
- Or, you can let up just a little, take a few steps back, and then get a running start so you can jump right over that wall.
This second option is what a training break is. It’s essentially taking 1 step back so you can take 2-3 steps forward, and there are two main ways of making it happen…
- Taking Time Off: This is what most people think of when they hear “training break.” Just taking some number of days completely off from weight training.
- Deloading: In this case you don’t take any time off; you just somehow “deload” by reducing the work being done so that your workouts are somewhat “easier” for a brief period of time.
As usual, there are pros and cons to each method as well as a way of doing things that often works best for building muscle. I cover the majority of these details right here: How And How Often To Deload Or Take Time Off
Step #10: Put Your Workout Together (Or Use A Proven One)
At this point, you know how to adjust your frequency, split, volume, intensity, rep ranges, exercise selection, rest periods and progression method for the purpose of building muscle as fast as realistically possible.
All that’s left for you to do now in terms of providing the strongest weight training “signal” possible is to… you know… put it all together.
However, if you’d rather just use a proven workout program that already puts all of this together for you and has already been used with tremendous success by (literally) thousands of other people, here are the programs I recommend.
- The Beginner Weight Training Workout Routine
This is the program I most often recommend to beginners.
- The Muscle Building Workout Routine
For those who are past the beginner stage, this is one of a handful of programs that I recommend.
- Superior Muscle Growth
The two workouts listed above are completely free and highly recommended. If, however, you’re looking for additional workouts, my book – Superior Muscle Growth – contains ALL of the muscle building routines that I’ve personally used and designed for others (11 different workouts, 40+ different versions). Feel free to check it out to learn more about what’s included.
Step #11: Create A Small Caloric Surplus
We’ve now covered the most important factors for creating the muscle building “signal” we need. It’s now time to start providing the “supplies.”
And, as with pretty much any body composition related goal, the most important place to start is with calories.
Specifically, your body requires some amount of additional calories to synthesize new muscle tissue (as well as to support the overall training performance and recovery needed for our “signal” to actually be present in the first place).
In most cases – especially for those looking to build muscle as fast as realistically possible, which we are – these additional calories will need to be provided in the form of a dietary caloric surplus.
What Is A Caloric Surplus?
A caloric surplus is what happens when you consume more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.
So, for example, let’s pretend that some example person maintains their current weight eating 2500 calories per day. If they were to eat less than 2500 calories, they’d lose weight (in the form of fat and/or muscle). This is called a caloric deficit, and it’s the sole cause and requirement of fat loss.
However, if they ate more than 2500 calories, they’d gain weight (in the form of muscle and/or fat). This is a caloric surplus, and it’s the first dietary supply we need to put in place.
First: Estimate Your Maintenance Level
The first step is to estimate your maintenance level (aka the number of calories you need to eat per day to maintain your current weight). There are many different methods for doing this, but the easiest is to simply multiply your current weight (in pounds) by 14-16.
For example, a 150lb person would do 150 x 14 and 150 x 16 and get an estimated daily maintenance level of somewhere between 2100 – 2400 calories.
Second: Create Your Surplus
Many people think the key to building muscle fast is eating a shitload of calories. The thinking goes like this: we need to eat more calories to build muscle, therefore, if we eat A LOT more calories, we’ll build A LOT more muscle.
Basically, the bigger the surplus is, the faster the rate of muscle growth will be.
Sounds nice in theory, right? Unfortunately, it’s complete bullshit.
You see, there is only so much muscle that the human body is capable of building in a given period of time. So, if you supply your body with MORE calories than it’s actually capable of putting towards the process of building new muscle… it’s not going to magically lead to additional muscle being built. It’s just going to lead to additional fat being gained.
Why? Because you’re giving your body more calories than it’s able to use, and whenever that happens, the leftover calories get stored in the form of fat.
For this reason (and other related reasons), we need to avoid the whole stereotypical method of “bulking” and getting stupidly fat in the process. Additional details here: How to Bulk And Cut (The Right Way)
What we want to do instead is create a surplus that is small enough to keep fat gains to a realistic bare minimum, but yet big enough to still maximize a person’s achievable rate of muscle growth. Here’s what I recommend…
- MEN: a daily surplus of about 200 calories above your maintenance level.
- WOMEN: a daily surplus of about 100 calories above your maintenance level.
For most people, this will be an ideal surplus starting point. Of course, the key step comes next…
Third: Monitor And Adjust For Your Ideal Rate Of Weight Gain
The key to ensuring that your surplus is the size it should be for maximizing muscle gains while minimizing fat gains is to ensure that your rate of weight gain is what it ideally should be for that purpose.
Put simply, if you’re gaining weight too quickly, you’re guaranteed to be gaining more fat than you should be. If you’re gaining weight too slowly or not at all, you’re either not gaining muscle as fast as you could be, or you’re not gaining any muscle at all.
So, what is the ideal rate of weight gain? Here’s what I recommend…
- MEN: aim to gain between 1-2lbs per month.
- WOMEN: aim to gain between 0.5-1lb per month.
So, here’s what you need to do. Estimate your maintenance level, create your surplus, and then monitor what happens over the next 2-4 weeks (and be sure you’re weighing yourself properly). Are you gaining weight at your ideal rate? If so, you’re good. If not, then adjust your calorie intake in small increments until you are.
I cover all of this in more detail here: How Many Calories Should I Eat A Day To Gain Muscle?
And if you’re looking for more personalized recommendations for surplus size and ideal rates of weight gain that are based on factors like age, gender, experience level, genetics and more, there’s an entire chapter in Superior Muscle Growth where I provide exactly that (and yes, calorie cycling is covered in there as well).
Step #12: Set Your Protein, Fat And Carb Intake
With your calorie intake figured out, the next step is to set your protein, fat and carb intake to sufficient levels.
Of the three, protein will of course play the most important role in the muscle building process (like calories, it’s one our required “supplies”), although fat and carbs will still be important for other reasons which range from optimizing hormone production (e.g. testosterone, the muscle building hormone) to enhancing training performance and recovery.
So, how much of each macronutrient should you eat? Here’s what I recommend…
- Protein: anywhere between 0.8-1.2g of protein per pound of body weight will be ideal.
- Fat: 20-30% of your total daily calorie intake should come from fat.
- Carbs: whatever is leftover after protein and fat have been factored in.
I provide some additional details, answers and specifics here: How To Calculate Your Macros
Step #13: Get Your Pre And Post Workout Meals Right
When it comes to creating a muscle building diet, your total daily calorie, protein, fat and carb intake will always be the most important factors.
Having said that, there are still a couple of much-less-important dietary factors that are still worth paying attention to, as they will also provide some degree of benefit when set up properly. The meals you eat before and after your workouts are a perfect example.
So, what do you need to know? What do you need to do? It’s actually pretty damn simple…
Consume a meal containing a nice amount of protein and carbs from whatever sources you prefer within 1-2 hours before and after your workout.
Taaadaaa! People love to make these meals way more complicated than this, but those people are wasting their time and energy.
Additional details here: What To Eat Before And After A Workout
Step #14: Take The Few Supplements Worth Taking
Let me make this part as clear as possible.
Are there any supplements you need to take in order to build muscle? Absolutely not.
Are there any supplements that – in and of themselves – build muscle? Absolutely not.
Are there any supplements that are going to improve your muscle building results significantly? Absolutely not.
Are there any supplements that are both safe and proven to help at least a little in your quest to build muscle and/or with your overall health in general? Yup.
Here are the few I recommend…
- Whey Protein Powder
Protein powder is nothing more than a convenient source of protein (details here: How Many Protein Shakes A Day?), and whey is just a really high quality form of it (details here: Whey Protein Isolate vs Concentrate vs Hydrolyzed). My preferred choice is Optimum Nutrition’s 100% Whey.
Creatine is the most proven “muscle building” supplement there is (it really just enhances strength/performance a little bit, which of course plays a key role in the muscle building process). I personally use Optimum Nutrition’s Creatine. Everything else you need to know about creatine is covered in my ultimate guide: How To Take Creatine.
- Fish Oil
More of a “health” supplement than anything else, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil provide a variety of benefits. I use Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega.
- Vitamin D
Here’s another “health” supplement playing a few indirect roles in the muscle building process (e.g. there’s a connection between low vitamin d levels and low testosterone levels). I personally take NOW Foods Vitamin D3.
- Individual Vitamins Or Minerals
This means any individual vitamins or minerals you may be lacking in your diet and are unable to fix via your diet, which should always be option #1. For me, as someone who hates dairy and has issues digesting it, I take a calcium supplement. For additional micronutrient peace of mind, I also take a basic multivitamin.
Specifically for its usage as a pre-workout stimulant.
Never used it myself, so I don’t have a recommendation for it. But, there is some research showing it can provide some benefits.
Step #15: Get A Sufficient Amount Of Sleep
And finally… sleep.
Not getting enough sleep has been shown to negatively affect the human body in the following ways, many of which play some role in our ability to build muscle:
- Lower testosterone levels.
- Higher cortisol levels.
- Reduced insulin sensitivity.
- Increased hunger.
- Impaired cognitive function.
- Impaired recovery.
- Impaired physical performance.
So, what do you need to do to avoid all of this? Get a sufficient amount of sleep.
How much is “sufficient,” exactly? Here’s what I recommend.
And if you have trouble falling a sleep or staying asleep through the night, I cover virtually every useful solution right here: How To Sleep Better
And there you have it. That’s everything you need to know to put together the workout program and diet plan that will allow you to build muscle as fast as it can realistically happen.
All that’s left for you to do now is put it into action and be as consistent as possible.