As a personal trainer, men always ask me about the best exercises, supplements or tips for building muscle. The truth is, most guys hitting the gym don’t get the results they want because they’re making some critical mistakes.
Learn 10 tips including a workout and diet plan that will help you to build muscle.
1. Machines vs. free weights
Leg press, hamstring curls, seated chest press etc. while providing resistance, these are all machines that provide too much assistance and balance the weight for you. Your core muscles (not just your abs but all the muscles around your trunk) don’t work as much, therefore you’re not building real long lasting strength required to gain muscles in proportion.
Tip: Use free weights including barbells and dumbbells or even body weight exercises such as push-ups or chin-ups. If you’re concerned about correct form or you’re injured, it would be worthwhile hiring a personal trainer or a coach to run through those lifts and get yourself on the right track.
2. Isolation vs. compound exercises
Isolation exercises such as biceps curls, standing triceps extensions are among the favourite exercises men like to do. Those exercises are fine to incorporate at the end of your routine if you have time. Bear in mind that doing primarily isolation exercises can result in an unbalanced and weird-looking physique (think “chicken leg”) if you favor certain body parts while neglecting others.
Think about the bench press. While you’d think you’re only working your chest, you’re also working your triceps and shoulders with a much heavier load than you would using an isolation exercise like triceps extensions.
Tip: Focus on exercises that work several muscles at the same time. These are called “compound exercises” like squats, deadlifts, bench presses. They recruit more muscles, build long-lasting strength and cut your workout time.
3. Training larger muscle groups (legs & back)
Hands up if you hate doing squats and lunges. They hurt, right? Your body releases more muscle building and fat burning hormones when you train large muscles like your legs and back. These hormones also stimulate growth in your smaller muscles.
Tip: If you train your legs and back, you will not only get a more balanced physique, you’ll also get more growth in your chest, shoulders and arms. The best exercises would be deadlifts, squats and chin-ups.
4. Have a plan
“Fail to plan is like planning to fail”. Doing random exercises or reps or copy what some other guy is doing is not going to get you anywhere. Always have a clear plan and goal for every workout. This means knowing before you even enter the gym which exercises you’re going to do, with how much weight, and for how many sets and reps. What you can measure you can improve.
Tip: start with a yearly training plan. This is called “periodisation”. It allows you to gradually adapt to training in a gentle increasing fashion. This is achieved by firstly increasing the volume to condition the body to training before increasing intensity. Regardless of the periodisation model you use, the key is that all training should be progressed in some periodised manner and it is up to you to determine which model best suits your needs and goals.
- Muscular Enhancement : 3-5 sets, 10-15 reps, 65-75% intensity, 30-60 seconds rest, or circuit with minimal rest. Early in training protocol or early in year.
- Foundation Strength: 3-5 sets, 8-10 reps, 75-85% intensity, 60-90 seconds. Do muscular enhancement phase first.
- Progressive Strength: 2-4 sets, 6-8 reps, 85-95% intensity, 90 seconds to 2 minutes rest. Do other two phases first.
- Power: Final phase.
- Rest / Recovery
Then, look at a weekly workout plan that includes all the exercises you’re going to do:
Sample Weekly Workout Plan. Depending on your lifestyle, you can decide to do a split routine or just full body compound exercises. Some examples:
Full Body (good for 2-3x/week)
- Upper/Lower (good for 2x/week)
- Push/Pull (good for 4x/week)
- Chest/Back + Shoulders/Bis/Tris + Legs/Core (good for 5-6x/week)
5. Lifting the same weight over and over again
Muscle growth occurs when you push your body to get stronger by increasing the weight systematically and consistently week after week. Lifting the same weight as the last workout will not get you stronger and muscles won’t grow in size. Of course, you won’t be able to lift heavier indefinitely.
Tip: Following a periodised program will allow you to gradually increase the weight until you reach a “plateau”. This is when rest and recovery is needed to allow the body to rest before commencing another training cycle and allow you to lift heavier than the previous cycle.
6. Thinking that getting pumped & sore means you had an effective workout
Doing countless reps until you “feel the burn” isn’t necessarily going to make your muscles grow bigger. The muscles grow not just from muscle tissue but from an increased capillary density and nerve and other cell densities. That’s why training for size requires varied loads and reps. The table below shows the relative make up of muscles and the typical rep range best suited to overload those components.
The optimum rep range to elicit hypertrophy is around 6-12 rep range.
7. Rest and recovery
You need to recover in order to get stronger and bigger. Muscles grow when you rest, not when you workout.
there are 3 basic rules you need to follow for the most complete recovery:
- Restoring fluids and minerals to recover from dehydration.
- Replenishing glycogen, the body’s primary energy source.
- Reducing muscle and immune-system damage resulting from the physical stress of exercise. That simply means getting at least 7 to 8 hours sleep and rest days between workouts.
8. Eating the right diet that supports muscle gain
Diet is essential f you want to achieve a lean muscular body. If you’re eating too much of the bad stuff, a layer of fat will cover the muscles you’ve built. Likewise, if you’re not eating enough calories, your muscles won’t grow. Eating a whole foods diet will help your muscles grow as vitamins & mineral content helps recovery.
1. Clean up your diet: Choose nutrient dense foods as much as possible to get the maximum nutritional value from every calorie you eat. Any food that has been refined, enriched, preserved, processed, canned, boxed or frozen will usually have less nutritional density than fresh foods in their natural state. The Superhuman Foods Pyramid gives you all the information you need to choose the right foods.
2. Add extra protein in your diet for adding significant muscle: 0.7 g/lb (1.5g/kg). So if you weigh 80 kg (176 lb), aim for 120 g of protein during the day preferably spread throughout the day.
Strength = Muscle Fiber = Meat. Note that it’s possible to build muscles on a vegetarian diet but it’ll take much longer and much harder.
3. Be realistic in terms of muscle gain:
- Novice (< 2 yrs consistent training) 1.0-1.5% (1-5-2.0 lb/mo)
- Intermediate (2-4 yrs consistent training) 0.5-1.0% (0.8-1.5 lb/mo)
- Advanced (> 4 yrs consistent training) 0.25-0.5% (0.5-0.8 lb/mo)
9. Performing warmups that cause fatigue
In strength training, warm up using strength exercises is way more effective than using cardio equipment. This encourages a switching ‘on’ of the brain to develop a ‘feel’ for the movement pattern, as well as encourages good technique before loads are applied. It also utilises your muscles in the same way that they will need to be warmed up for.
Muscle building plan:
Perform 2 to 3 warmup sets at 50-70% of the load you’re going to lift during your workout. For example, if you’re doing Squats and aim to lift 100kg, aim to do 2 to 3 sets of Squats at 50kg/70kg for 5 reps.
10. Following a workout routine that is not suited for your body type
Most workouts you see in men’s magazines are generally “one size fits all workouts” that most of the time are not optimised for you. There are roughly 4 different male body types. Click here for more details.
- Ectomorphs or “hard gainers”: skinny arms and legs, thin waists, wrists and ankles, low muscle mass and “twig” shapes. They tend to gain weight on their stomach and waist.
- Ecto-Mesomorphs: these are the guys in the magazine covers, incredibly lean or very muscular, broad shoulders, washboard abs and “V” shape torso. They quickly build muscle and tend to be fairly athletic.
- Mesomorphs: naturally muscular with a thick, athletic build, round, jutting chests, rectangular waists, large arms, thick thighs and calves, and a “square” shape. They tend to gain weight easily, especially in the hips, buttocks, upper back, and stomach but they respond well to fitness routines and perform well at most physical activities.
- Endomorphs: They tend to be curvaceous males with short necks, small shoulders, thick waists, calves, and ankles, with an “apple” shape. Endomorphs have the most difficulty losing weight, and require frequent variations in volume and intensity to maintain fat loss.
Find out what body type you are here. The results page will tell you what workout routine is the most adapted to your own body type.
As you can see, gaining muscle is more complex than it looks. Hopefully this article helped you avoiding the most common mistakes.
To recap: Draft a yearly plan, a weekly workout routine adapted to your body type that includes “compound” exercises using free weights.
Diet is as important: know your daily calorie requirements, add lean protein into your diet. Rest and recover from the workouts.
Please feel free to post any questions or comments you may have in the comments section below.
Bishop, P., E. Jones, and A. Woods: “Recovery from training: A brief review: Brief review”. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22:1015, 2008.