How to Build Muscle: The Basic Guide for Beginners – Men’s Journal

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?

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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 of Nutrition 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.)

How to lift weights to get strong

For big muscles, your focus isn’t to move max weight. That’s where strong muscles come in.

“The best way to encourage your body to get stronger is to show it that it needs to do so,” Adam says. “Ergo, lift really heavy stuff to failure, rest, and repeat.” Successful strength routines will have heavy weight for fewer reps with longer rest periods, all to tax the muscles but also to overload the neuromuscular system, or the brain-muscle connection. “With strength training, it’s nervous system fatigue, not muscular fatigue—you just can’t lift it again,” Gochnour explains.

Typically, this puts rep ranges of just 3 to 6, with a weight you physically cannot move for even one more rep. To recover from that much work, your rest period is longer, too: 3 to 5 minutes between sets to allow your muscles and your brain to recover for the next one, for 3 to 5 sets. “So while in a size workout you’re doing 50 reps overall for a squat, in a strength program, you’re looking at just 20-25 reps,” says personal trainer Chris Cooper, co-owner of Active Movement and Performance (AMP) on Long Island, NY.

When you’re moving that much weight, you can imagine that good form is also essential. To wit, Gochnour recommends loading with light weight and practicing the movement patterns before you go heavy—which also serves as a warm-up for what’s to come. Then, you might start your first set with more reps and do fewer as your workout goes on and you’re more fatigued.

With a strength program, frequency is important, but so are rest days—you want muscle groups to fully recover before hitting them again, which can take 24 to 48 hours. That said, you don’t want more than 72 hours to elapse between or you may not see strength gains. Also, strength workouts are more about using the muscles in coordination, not isolation, so rather than dividing by body part, you’ll divide by half of body (upper and lower, or front and back) instead, e.g., sessions might alternate lower and upper body, or combine them, focusing on pushing exercises (which target the front of the body) or pulling ones (the back). Typically, this means four days per week, but you can see benefits in three.

An example total-body back (pulling) workout, from Adam:

Warmup: Repeat 3x with 1-min rest between sets

  • 10-15x Back extensions
  • Wide-grip pullups to failure


5x Deadlifts (reps: 5, 5, 3, 3, 1-2)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

5x Single-arm dumbbell bentover rows (reps: 5, 5, 3, 3, 1-2)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

5x Weighted pullups (reps: 4-6)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

5x Seated cable rows (reps: 4-6)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

5x Hammer Strength rows (reps: 4-6)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

5x T-bar rows (reps: 4-6)

2-3 minutes rest between sets

How to eat to build muscle

In order to get bigger, it only stands to reason that you need to eat more—food provides calories, which are the building blocks of new muscle. But how much more and what?

For most men, you won’t need much more—300 to 500 calories per day and you’re looking at roughly a pound gain per week. Of course, there are mitigating factors: If you’re overweight, you’re better off at a calorie deficit (meaning you might eat the same number of calories but you’re working out more, or you may also reduce what you eat) until you lean out. However, “if you’re in too much of a caloric deficit, your body will not have the nutrients it needs to recover from the training, re-build the muscles, and support muscle growth,” says Adam. On the other hand, if you have trouble putting on mass, you will need to boost those calories, but only to the point where you gain muscle, not fat. In either case, it can be a process of trial and error; seeing a sports nutritionist might be worthwhile if you’re serious about hypertrophy.

Now, to the “what.” Contrary to popular belief, a bodybuilding diet is not all protein, all the time. A growing body needs carbs, too, which are the primary fuel for being able to work out that intensely in the first place. “I stick within 50 to 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 35 percent from fats, and aim for 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram (note: not pound) of bodyweight,” Gochnour says. For a guy who weighs 175 pounds, that works out to 111 to 135 grams of protein per day. For reference, a 5-ounce chicken breast contains 44 grams, a cup of Greek yogurt contains 17 grams, and two large eggs contain 12 grams.

There’s also the question of when to eat. You’ve probably heard a lot about pre-workout meals and even more about that post-workout “anabolic window,” in which if you don’t eat, you might as well have skipped your workout for a Netflix binge instead. Good news: Unless you’re an elite athlete or bodybuilder training for competition, this is largely rubbish. “If you want an intense workout, having fuel in the tank leads to better workouts, but if your last meal was within one to two hours, you are probably primed fine,” Gochnour says. “In my experience training recreational athletes, people make gains just fine eating three meals a day and having snacks without worrying about rushing home to have their protein drink.”

That said, if you like (or need) the energy boost that comes from a carb-focused pre-workout snack or drink, go for it. Ingredients like caffeine and creatine can also provide benefits, for energy and for recovery, respectively. As for post-workouts, if your next meal is many hours away, a pre-made bar containing both protein and carbs is convenient for replenishment.

How to eat to get strong

As you might expect, you don’t need as much of a surplus of calories to build strength as you do size, most likely no more than 300 extra per day. And oftentimes when you’re starting a strength workout, there may be some leaning out to do, which means a slight calorie deficit instead. A lot of the guidelines here are the same, in terms of carbs and fat (50 to 65 percent and 20 to 35 percent), but you can err on the lower side of the protein input, at 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight—and frankly, that alone might account for reducing the surplus of total calories.

How much cardio should I do to build muscle and burn fat?

If your aim is to put on muscle and you’re eating to sustain growth, it’s counterproductive to break a sweat on the treadmill or go for a bike ride, right? Actually, no. “Cardio holds many major benefits for people who wish to build a lean physique and there are very rare circumstances in which you should avoid it completely,” Adam says. Your personal circumstances will dictate how much you need, though. For example, if you have some fat to shed, you’ll want enough sessions to facilitate that—up to three 45-minute steady-state workouts (like running, biking, or swimming at a consistent pace) or 15-30 minute high-intensity interval (HIIT) sessions. On the other hand,  if you’re a hard-gainer (a.k.a., skinny), you want just enough cardio to strengthen your heart and get the blood pumping to those hard-worked muscles to facilitate recovery. That might mean moderate-intensity 10-minute steady-state bouts as a closer to your lifting routines.

As another option to get it all in, Adam recommends “cardioacceleration,” in which you perform one minute of HIIT exercises, such as jumping jacks, during your rest between sets in your lifting session. “Studies have also shown that performing cardio between sets allows for better recovery due to increased blood flow,” he says. This brings more oxygen and nutrients to those working muscles and a better muscle “pump,” which physically stretches the muscles and can lead to actual growth. “You may see a slight decrease in your ability to perform your next lifting set when you first start adding cardioacceleration into your routine, but after you get used to it, you’ll see the opposite effect start to happen due to the aforementioned benefits,” Adam says.