Building muscle is easy – If you’re 18 years old or in your first year or two of training.
For everyone else, unfortunately, trying to build muscle can be a painstakingly slow process. That’s why so few people continue to make progress past the newbie gains.
One of two things happens:
You spin your wheels trying every new program, every new piece of equipment, or every new fad that promises to add 40 pounds to your bench and three inches to your dick,
you get frustrated, pissed off, and stop lifting completely. Pretty soon, you have the beginnings of the dreaded Dad Bod and you’re reduced to yakking about how big and strong you USED to be over beer and wings with your buddies–who aren’t so big and strong anymore, either.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Continuing to building athletic muscle CAN be done.
You just generally have to follow the rule of 180: whatever most people are doing, do the opposite.
Here’s how, in my 7-step program.
Step #1: Strength Train 3-4 Days Per Week
More isn’t better. It’s just more.
When you look around most commercial gyms, how many strong dudes moving big weight do you see?
“Going to the gym,” “working out,” or “lifting” doesn’t necessarily constitute training with the sole intent on getting stronger. Because here’s the thing:
If you want to build muscle, you need to get stronger.
The stronger you get, the more weight you can move, or the more reps you can do with the same weight. This stimulates more muscle fibers, which now adapt by growing bigger and stronger.
That doesn’t mean focus on your 1-rep max. That’s a surefire way to wreck your joints and nervous system. Instead, work on increasing your 5, 8, 10, and 12 rep maxes over time.
Training with perfect form is absolutely, unequivocally, the most important factor in whether or not your strength training program is going to work.
This means that you need to focus on creating maximal, full body tension. You’ll keep the stress on your muscles and off the passive structures of your joints, allowing you to move bigger weights safely.
Tweaking something in the gym means you end up laid up for a few weeks. Then it takes a few weeks to get back to where you were. And then it takes a few more weeks to make the progress that you would’ve made already had you not gotten hurt. Remember: you train to be better at everything in life, not to end up hurt. So ditch the ego lifting and go hard, but focus 100% on just the next rep.
Step #3: Train Movements Over Muscles
All exercises can be classified into these movement patterns: knee dominant (like a squat or lunge), hip hinge (as in a deadlift or kettle bell swing), upper body push, upper body pull, core (planks, side planks), and locomotion (carrying heavy stuff, sled drags).
“When you train patterns, you won’t miss muscles. But if you train muscles, you will miss patterns.”
– Mark Verstegen
Everything known about training has proven that 40-70 reps per muscle, per week, is the optimal range for building strength and muscle. So if you break things down into a traditional body part split, where you hammer your chest on Monday, legs on Tuesday, back on Wednesday, shoulders on Thursday, and Arms on Friday, you’ll knock all of those reps for a single muscle on a single day.
The problem is you’ll be so fatigued that at least half your reps will end up being done with those embarrassing small Fisher Price sized dumbbells. How humiliating!
And it gets worse. Strength training is for building and maintaining strength and muscle, so the problems go beyond humiliation. Those light dumbbells aren’t going to help you a whole lot. They are going to inhibit recovery and lead to sore joints from overuse, rather than improve the very qualities we’re training for.
Besides, you don’t have 7-10 hours to train every week so you’ll invariably miss a day or two, and won’t be able to fit in your power work or conditioning.
Instead, make sure you hit each of the movement patterns each time you train. You’ll be able to hit each one with more intensity. You’ll have a more balanced program, save yourself time, and not be hobbling around with crippling soreness every day.
Step #4: Make Your First Exercise An Indicator Lift
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 have a high propensity for loading while still fitting your unique structure and injury history.
Barbells, specialty bars, and dumbbells all make great choices for indicator lifts.
These aren’t going to be lateral raises or tricep kickbacks. These are going to be the big rock, 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, dumbbell overhead press, and fat bar bench press done either flat or at a slight 15-30 degree incline are great options. If you have beat up shoulders, dumbbell variations or floor presses might be an even better 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. Just be sure to keep a training journal to track your progress.
Shoot for about 25 total reps per indicator lift.
You can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t do both.
Too few reps and you won’t elicit the strength training response you’re looking for, and too many will make you have to lighten the load. 25 total reps is the sweet spot.
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.
Do a core exercise or mobility drill in between sets while you rest.
Don’t do anything that is going to negatively effect your ability to do the exercises in your program, but do something that will:
After your indicator lift, pick a push, a pull, and a single leg exercise.
Dumbbell and bodyweight exercises are best here as they can be still be loaded heavy, 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 6-12 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.
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.
Step #5: Train Like a Bodybuilder, Kind of
Bodybuilders have known how to build muscle for decades. The problem is, training with the frequency and volume they do will wreck your joints and leave you chronically sore because you’re not a professional bodybuilder. You have more to do in life than just train, eat, and sleep. (and you’re probably not on the drugs they are)
Nonetheless, there’s a lot to learn from bodybuilders. Strategically adding a few targeted sets of isolation work to the areas you want to build will supplement the heavier, compound exercises that make up the majority of your training.
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.
Try adding a 10 minute “beach muscle,” section at the end of your workout where you pick a curl, a tricep extension, and a shoulder raise variation and do 2 or 3 sets of 10-15 reps of each. You’ll end each session with a little extra pump and build up weak points.
But this is for crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. 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.
Step #6 Eat Like an Adult, Sleep Like a Baby
Testosterone and human growth hormone are two critical hormones for building and repairing your muscles, burning fat, and increasing energy. They also happen to be naturally produced at the highest level when you sleep.
One night of sleeping only five hours leads to a 10-15% decrease in testosterone production. You might be up late hammering out a work deal or spending some quality time with the misses, but this comes at a serious expense of your ability to build muscle and strength. Add up all the nights that you’ve missed a quality 7-8 hours of sleep and you’re probably running with a hormonal profile of a 70-year- old man.
When it comes to nutrition, eat real food. You know, like an adult.
The only way to lose fat is through a calorie deficit, and it’s hard to overeat protein, fruits, and vegetables. Add in some healthy fats by cooking in olive, avocado, or coconut oil, adding some avocado or a handful of nuts here and there, and you’ve got endless options to keep you fueled, satiated, and in a deficit.
And you won’t have to track calories like a neurotic Instagram chick.
Step #7: Put it All Together
Remember the key point:
If you want to build muscle you need to continuously get stronger.
(1) Focus relentlessly on the basics and especially excellence in execution
(2) Don’t overdo the volume by doing a million junk sets of light weights just to chase a pump
(3) Get out of the gym while you still have some juice in the tank
This will allow you to come back in a day or two 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.
You owe it to yourself to master all this by downloading my free guide: The 4 Vital Components To Joint-Friendly Muscle Growth.
You will discover foolproof ways to build athletic muscle in your late 20’s, 30’s 40’s, and beyond …without beating up your joints, traditional bro splits, Crossfit, bootcamps, or burpees till you puke.