A Fool-Proof Guide to Building Muscle

A Fool-Proof Guide to Building Muscle

Posted on 01. Aug, 2010 by in Exercise

Note: Today’s article is a guest post from JC at JCDFitness

Building muscle; it’s a fairly simple concept. Really, it is. However, due to the advent of the internet, mass media, opposing viewpoints, exercise elitists and just plain garbage, we’ve been left with a ton of options and endless confusion.

The good news is there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Now before we get into the process, I must preface that building muscle, despite what many might tell you, is not an easy process. It requires lots of hard work, adequate nutrition, ample amounts of rest and dedication. However, it doesn’t have to take over your entire life. In fact, I wouldn’t like you to spend any more than 5 hours per week training.

The ultimate goal, when training for hypertrophy, is to get the most bang for your buck. Now how do we make such an effective approach so efficient?

Easy. We simply focus on what works and keep things simple.

Training for Muscle Gain

As I said earlier, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of craziness when it comes to knowing exactly what to do when muscle gain is your goal. First of all, let’s just establish the fact that there are many training programs which produce results. There are also a slew of training programs which are subpar and far less optimal for the average person looking to build their physique.

The goal here is to take a look at what’s worked for the masses and then develop something similar or do exactly what they’ve done.

Many popular training programs are full body, a push/pull scheme or an upper/lower split. What many will notice immediately with these types of training protocols is frequency. Without even going into what’s involved with each style of programming, we know that if one is training 3-4 times per week, each muscle group is being worked at least twice per week – sometimes more.

Higher frequency weight training, especially for the natural athlete, is crucial to optimal gains in muscle mass. The reason being is due to neural processes as well as adaptive processes. Neurally speaking, the more you do something, the better you become at it.

Want to learn how to dribble a basketball with your non-dominant hand? Practice. Interested in becoming good at juggling fireballs whilst riding a unicycle and peeling an orange with your eyelids? You must practice – a lot. The same applies to weight training. The more you perform certain movements, the better and more efficient you become at them. Now this is not to say one should be doing heavy bench presses or squats every single day but a few times per week and even 3-4 times for the beginner is usually a good thing.


As far as the adaptive component goes, each time you train a muscle, it gets broken down. Now, if you created an anabolic effect via your training methods, you have the chance to produce growth in said muscle groups, assuming your recovery and nutrient intake are both up to par.

Each time you train is an opportunity for growth – if you play your cards right.

The stimulus responsible for muscle growth is progressive overload. Simply, this means your goal should be to become stronger over a given period of time. A good way to measure progress is be recording your training in a journal and noting each time you are able to improve the weight you lifted or the reps you performed. Over a period of six months to a year, substantial progress can be had assuming the trainee is relatively new to strength training. Heck, even seasoned vets can make considerable progress assuming their training protocol is optimal for their experience level.

Guidelines For Program Design

A general rule is to train for strength gains and ensure caloric needs are met. While popular strength training programs (very heavy loading with weights in the 3-6 rep ranges) are popular and produce great results, most will find the most success when training each muscle group 2-3 times per week with anywhere from 6-12 reps per set.

Strength training, in this sense, simply means getting stronger over time, despite what rep ranges you’re using.

Regardless of whether you’re training 3 times a week using a full body routine or an upper/lower split over 4 days, here are your guidelines:

  • Pick one primary movement per muscle group and perform a total of 25-30 reps per movement (not including warm-ups). When you do the math, this leaves you with a few options: 3×8-10, and 4×6-8.
  • Stick with compound movements in the form of barbells, dumbbells and machines. Isolation movements have their place but shouldn’t ever be a primary movement. Leg presses, squats, chins, bench presses and rows are good movements.
  • Pick a weight you can do in a given rep range and try to maintain that weight for all sets and reps. If you are unable to, just drop the weight by 5-10% for the subsequent sets.
  • 1-3 minute rest periods depending on your personal work capacity and conditioning.
  • Don’t go to failure every single session. Only go to failure one workout every 3-4 weeks or so and of course, only do it when a spotter is present.
  • Try to increase weight or reps whenever possible and make note of increases in a journal to track progress.
  • Don’t train heavy every single session. Always take a break from heavy training once every 6-8 weeks. An easy way to do this is to reduce the loads by about 20-25% for a few workouts or take a couple days off completely.

One common myth I’d like to dispel before I go any further is how some feel about how a female should train. There is no reason women should not be doing the same movements and routines as men. Our bodies are built the exact same way, despite differences in hormones and sex organs. Our anatomy is practically identical and the same rules that apply to men also apply to women. So ladies, enjoy pushing yourself and continually getting stronger!

Sufficient Energy Intake Is The Only Way To Grow

Despite what you may hear or read about one being able to magically gain slabs of muscle and torch their body fat simultaneously, someone’s got to bear the bad news. In most cases, the reports are extremely over exaggerated and the only time a person achieves both goals at the same time is usually when they first start out. After a few months of training, losing fat whilst gaining muscle becomes almost impossible.

So, forget everything you’ve heard about being able to accomplish both goals at the same time and make sure your efforts are focused and consistent. If you want to build muscle, you’ve got to train sensibly and eat enough to fuel those gains.

For starters, if you’re a complete beginner and have never been in the weight room, you’ve likely lots of room for growth. As one advances, the gains become slower and some dietary changes will be in order to ensure progress is continually made.

Calculating Your Intake

The general rule thrown out most of the time is to eat a surplus of calories every single day whilst training anywhere from 3-6 times per week. Now this is usually pretty practical advice assuming the trainee has some common sense and objectivity. However, I’ve seen many guys go on a “bulk” that results in rapid weight gain, most of which is fatty tissue that has to be dieted off at some point – no fun.

So, it’s important to make note of your intake and ensure you’re consuming enough to grow. Enough is not synonymous with eating everything in sight.

Since your goal is muscle gain, first you should set your protein intake.

Let’s say you’re a 150lb, skinny male who wishes to put on 20lbs. First you will agree to eat at least your body weight in protein. After you’ve set your protein, you should then determine your caloric intake. A good rule of thumb is to consume 400-600 calories over your maintenance intake daily.

In theory, this should net about a 1 pound increase in body weight per week. If you’re a bit conservative in your approach, afraid of getting too fat or are well past the beginner phases, it’s perfectly fine to consume your surplus on training days only while eating less (around maintenance) on your rest days. Just don’t go too low on your off days so that you inhibit the recovery process.

Quick Calorie Guidelines:

Calories – Maintenance + 400-600 calories
Protein – 1xBW in grams
Fat – 20-30% of your total calories
Carbohydrate – fill in the rest to meet calorie goals

For women and intermediate to advanced trainees, consuming a surplus of calories everyday will likely result in unnecessary fat gain; therefore it’s advisable to consume your extra calories on training days only. Also, since women can expect to gain about half the muscle mass of a man over her lifetime, naturally without drugs, I always advice them to cut these numbers in half. So your goal for surplus calories should be around 200-300 over maintenance on training days. This can equate to simply adding a shake and some extra carbs around your workouts.

Pre/Post Workout Nutrition

As the esteemed Alan Aragon once told me, landing your macros day in and day out is far more important than meal timing will ever be. I am of the same mindset and in general, I tell clients to focus on enjoying their food, hitting numbers but never having a set meal plan.

For most, it’s beneficial to sandwich your workouts with a nice dose of protein and carbs. An example would be a few bananas, a spoonful of peanut butter and some lean protein 2-3 hours before training and then follow it up with a similar meal post workout (lately, I’ve been hung up on drinking chocolate milk and devouring a bowl of white rice smothered in honey for my post workout meal). As long as you take care of your pre/post workout intake, I could care less when you eat your other meals – just make sure to eat them.

Wrapping Up, Finally

I know I can get wordy. However, when you put the pieces together, building muscle can actually become a fairly simple equation when you break it down.

All you have to do is commit to a solid program, take the time necessary to build strength on your primary movements and eat enough to fuel your recovery. While it’s not easy, it is a simple process. All it merely takes is some commitment on your part.

JC is the author of JCDFitness; where he writes about muscle hypertrophy, fat loss, and his relaxed approach to all things fitness. He is also the co-founder for Fitmarker.com which is a site that allows you to bookmark, share, discover and discuss the best fitness articles, workouts, photos and videos that the web has to offer all in one convenient place. Be sure to check out his free eBook, A No-BS Approach to Looking Great Naked and follow him on Twitter.

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  • Sounds like pretty good recommendations. I have been mostly doing all of that, but I think I could grow more so I guess there is a component (which you have listed) I'm not doing properly so I guess I need to work through it until I find what's holding up my growth.
    Is there muscle building program you recommend I'm looking for a program to follow in the coming months i.e I've been weight training for nearly year and half?

  • JC

    What are you currently doing for training? How much stronger have you gotten since you first started? Gains in body weight?

    I've listened a number of training routines here: muscle hypertrophy

    let me know if you have any questions or need any help.

  • Anna,
    Thanks for posting these very comprehensive insights by JC. He's got a great blog as well and Fitmarker looks like it has great potential to grow.

  • JC

    thanks for the kind words, Dave.

  • Raymond-ZenMyFitness

    Hey JC… I just finished a heavy lifting 5 sets x 2-4 reps for 2 months, now gone up to higher volume periodisation 4 sets x 12,10,8,6. Hard to say if how much I've gotten stronger as I try to cycle thru different routines every 2 months. Good question about my body weight, it hasn't really changed and thats where the problem might be as my calorie intake is normally lower than maintenance, the reason why when I start to eat more I start to look fatter so I rather look leaner!
    I'm interested in if you know of a good quality body building program … thanks

  • JC

    did you check that link I added in the comment right above?

  • Hi Dave, yes for sure!