If you’re not 18 years old or in your first year or 2 of training, trying to build muscle is a painstakingly slow process.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet on how to do it:
Really strength train. “Going to the gym,” or “lifting,” doesn’t necessarily constitute training with the sole intent on getting stronger. Because if you want to build muscle, you need to get stronger.
Indicator lifts are the handful of lifts that are most important to you because they have the most carryover to whatever your long term goals are. They are exercises which have a high propensity for loading, which makes barbells or other specialty bars great choices.
These aren’t going to be lateral raises or tricep kickbacks. These are going to be the big rocks, compound movements that make up the backbone of your program.
Pick one or two from each of the following categories:
Push: Bench press, close grip bench press, neutral bar bench press, military press, fat bar bench press (if you have beat up shoulders, dumbbell variations or floor presses might be an even better good option.)
For more help on deciding which lifts to select for your indicator lifts, check out this article on choosing the right big 3 for you.
If you’re relatively new to following a structured program, stick with these lifts for 3-6 months. Focus on mastering the lifts. The better you get at them, the more weight for the more reps you’ll be able to handle, and the more muscle you’ll be able to add.
If you’ve been training for a long time and are already super strong or especially beat up, you could rotate lifts weekly or monthly.
Start light, add weight each set, and build up to 1-2 top end sets where you look to set a new 3, 5, 8 or 10 rep max with perfect technique.
You can also build up to 1 top end set, then do a set 10-15% lighter for the same amount of reps to get some extra work in without completely frying yourself.
Good set/rep combinations for this are 5×5, 4×6, and 3×8.
Don’t do anything that is going to negatively effect your ability to do the first exercise, but do something that will:
Dumbbell and bodyweight exercises are best here as they can be still be loaded, but you can move through a more natural range of motion than barbells allow for, making them easier on your joints.
Do 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps on each. Again, start light, and add weight each set. Shoot for 1-2 top sets performed with focus and maximal tension. These aren’t “assistance,” or “supplementary,” exercises, they’re in your program to drive a strength adaptation, just like your indicator lift.
This is for crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. While your biceps and calves have certainly gotten enough of a training stimulus from all of the above work, there’s nothing wrong with throwing a few sets of isolation movements at the end to show the guns a little bit of love.
Just realize that curls and lateral raises don’t provide the same level of stimulus as a deadlift or dumbbell press, so they needn’t be done for the same volume. 2-3 sets of 8-12 sprinkled in will leave you with a little extra pump and can help build some weak points.
This is more relevant to you if you have a higher training age and are already really strong. If you can’t do 10 perfect bodyweight chin ups yet, spend your energy there rather than trying to boost your curl max.
Repeat this process with the same exercises for 3-6 weeks, trying to improve the weight or perfect reps you can complete with the same weight. Then, keep the indicator lift the same and find progressions or slightly different variations of the rest of the exercises for your next 3-6 week training block.
A week of your program might look something like this:
1A. Front Squat 5×5
1B. Ab wheel rollout 3×5
2A. DB Bench Press 3×8
2B. Goblet Reverse Lunge 4×6/ea leg
2C. 3 Point 1 Arm DB Row 3×8-10
3A. Hammer Curl 2×8-10
3B. Face Pull 2×10-12
1A. Close Grip Bench Press build up to 8RM, 1 back off set at 85% of top weight
1B. Band Pull Aparts 5×20
2A. Spiderman Pushup 3×5-8/ea
2B. Skater Squat 3×6
2C. Heavy Chin Up 3×5
3A. DB Curl to Press 2×8-12
3B. DB Lateral Raise 2×10-12
1A. Low Handle Trap Bar Deadlift: build up to 5RM
1B. Bench Side Hold 2-3x:15
2A. Half Kneeling DB Sea Saw Press 3×8
2B. 1 Leg Squat 3×5
2C. Half Kneeling X Pulldown 3×8-10
3A. Pinwheel Curl 2×8-10
3B. DB Skullcrushers 2×10-12
Remember, if you want to build muscle you need to continuously get stronger. Keep getting stronger on the basics, don’t overdo the volume by doing a million junk sets of light weights just to chase a pump, and get out of the gym while you still have some juice in the tank.
That’s what’s going to allow you to come back in a day or 2 to give your best effort again.
And your repeated efforts over a really long time are going to lead to more muscle, not any one workout.