How to build muscle: The basic guide for beginners

How to build muscle: The basic guide for beginners


SO, YOU WANT to know how to build muscle.

It’s an answer in two parts, really. Is your ultimate aim to get big or get strong?

Each goal involves lifting heavy things and eating the right foods, but the details are a little bit different. (That said, of course you’ll get stronger if you train for size, and of course your muscles will get bigger if you train for strength.) Here’s a primer to maximize your desired results.

How to lift weights to build muscle

To get really big, you might as well move into the gym, right? Well, not exactly. “In order to make decent size gains you will need to train a minimum of three times a week, however most programs will be designed for five days a week,” says Victor Adam, a San Diego-based personal trainer and owner of Axiom Health and Fitness. “But keep in mind that the less frequently you train (or the shorter your training sessions), the more intense they’ll need to be in order to make solid progress.”

And “intense” is the keyword in a hypertrophy (a.k.a. “get bigger muscles”) program. More specifically, volume—quantity of sets and reps—is the key. “The benefit to high-volume training for encouraging your body to increase its muscle size comes from the increase in metabolic stress to the muscle cells,” says Adam. “When you get that sleeve-splitting pump in your biceps after doing a set of 12 reps and maybe a couple drop sets, you’re feeling the extra metabolic stress when byproducts accumulate in the muscle cells to produce the energy required to lift the weight.” In other words: lift a lot, a lot. That means 3 to 5 sets of reps in the 8 to 15 range, where by the last couple reps you’re struggling but could maybe put up one or two more if you had to. The aim is to work the muscles hard, but not to total failure. Rest between sets is also important to this—it should be no more than 2 minutes—because, again, muscular fatigue is the name of the game.

So back to the “how frequently” question. While the traditional 5-days-per-week split routine (chest day, leg day, etc.) is optimal, you can get enough work done in three or four days, by splitting it into two upper body and two lower body days, or combining one of those into a total body day. In that case, remember: “If you’re fatigued from a previous exercise, you can simply drop the weight. So long as you’re killing your target muscle, the weight moved is less important, since working the musculature—not lifting max weight—is the primary goal.”

A sample routine for Chest Day, from Joey Gochnour, a personal trainer and registered dietitian in Austin, TX, owner ofNutrition and Fitness Professional, LLC, to work the chest from all angles might be:

4×12 reps each of:

  • Bench press
  • Incline press
  • Decline press
  • Cable machine pec flyes

No more than 2 minutes rest between sets

You could also work the triceps (which already are assisting the chest in these lifts), to blow those out and reduce your overall sessions per week. (In that case, you’d do biceps with Back Day, and voila, no Arms Day needed.)