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Fitness

Your Complete Guide To Building Lean Muscle

Written by Michael Garrico

While some people have the goal of losing weight when they start their workout and nutrition program, for others, it’s all about building lean muscle mass. There are a great many benefits to building lean muscle tissue and it’s one goal that everyone should have at some point or another.

Don’t let the notion that building muscle is only for bodybuilding types fool you. Building muscle is for all individuals, young or old, beginner or advanced. When you do, the benefits you’ll reap will last for many years to come.

So why build muscle? What is the point? Let’s go over a few of these key benefits so that you can understand why this is a goal to work toward.

Improved Resting Metabolic Rate

image: youtube.com

Perhaps the most important reason to focus on building muscle is because it’ll help jump-start your metabolic rate.

Your metabolism is responsible for how many calories you burn on a day to day basis so the faster it’s moving along, the easier it’ll be to either maintain your body weight or lose body fat.

Many people come to believe that weight gain is inevitable with age, but really, the reason most gain weight as they get older is not because their body starts shutting down but rather, because they are losing lean muscle mass tissue (due to not using it).

As they lose muscle, this slows their metabolism down and unless changes are made to their nutrition, they gain body fat.

By strength training, research shows you can prevent this from occurring. Strength training is by far the single best exercise you can do to help make weight maintenance easier.

Increased Functional Strength

This woman demonstrates incredible balance and strength.

shape.com

Next, building muscle also increases your functional strength. As you become more developed, everyday activities will feel easier. Carrying in those groceries won’t be such as challenge and neither will picking up that heavy box off the floor.

This helps you out now only now but also when you get older. When you start to lose your ability to perform everyday activities because you are too weak, this really decreases your quality of life.

Building muscle will help you stay active and fit well into your golden years.

Body Transformation

Hands down, the single best way to complete a transformation is to build muscle. While losing weight can turn you into a smaller version of your current self, only building muscle has the power to completely change how you look.

When you build muscle, you can add shape and curves to all the right areas. Building muscle will also help you look fit and strong – something that simply losing weight will never do.

Unless you have a large amount of muscle already built, losing fat will just cause you to appear ‘skinny’. Build muscle and you’ll be thin and fit.

Enhanced Bone Strength

As you build muscle, you’ll also be improving your bone strength as well. The act of building muscle through strength training activities is going to help increase bone strength in and of itself (since it’s weight baring), and in addition to that, the more muscle you have, the better protection your bones will have as well.

Research suggests that this is one of the key ways to maintain bone health into old age.

Your muscles will help keep your ligaments and tendons tight and limber, which may then help lower the amount of joint related injuries and pain you experience.

Increased Insulin Sensitivity

Muscle mass tissue in the body serves as a storage for carbohydrates. When you eat high carbohydrate foods, your body can store these carbohydrates in the form of muscle glycogen in the muscle cells. This is what will then provide future energy for exercise.

The more muscle mass you have, the more storage capacity you have, meaning you can consume more carbohydrates without the risk of weight gain. This does assume, of course, you are exercising on a regular basis and using up the muscle glycogen that’s already stored.

Along with having more storage, the muscle cells after exercise are ‘hungry’ for glucose, so this helps boost your insulin sensitivity.

Good insulin sensitivity is associated with a lower risk factor for diabetes, so building that muscle may just protect you from suffering from diabetes at some point in your life.

Research illustrates that resistance training can really help support this benefit.

Reduced Signs Of Aging

Finally, the last benefit that building muscle will indirectly have is reduced signs of aging.

Those who are more muscular tend to not only look younger, but more importantly, the act of building muscle through strength training will help your immune system develop and become stronger, helping to combat disease that can cause aging to occur.

So as you can see, there are a great many reasons to build muscle. It isn’t just about changing your looks, but improving your health.

Build Muscle Versus Losing Fat: Which Comes First?

One debate that many people have is whether they should focus on building muscle or losing fat first. Common thinking is that you need to first lose fat through cardio training and then proceed to build muscle with weight lifting.

First note that strength training is beneficial for both fat loss and muscle building. The primary difference between the two goals is not so much what you do workout wise, but how you structure your diet.

To lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit (taking in fewer calories than you burn off), while to build muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus (taking in more calories than you burn off).

This is the biggest change in your approach.

Wall sits for couples.

image: proteinworld/instagram

This said, whether you should actively focus on building muscle or burning fat first depends on your current body fat level. If you have more than 15 pounds to lose, likely losing some fat first is your best option.

This is because the more total body fat your body has, the greater the likelihood you’ll gain more fat than muscle when you begin a higher calorie diet.

On the flip side, the leaner you are to start with, the greater your chances of building muscle will be when faced with that same high calorie diet plan.

While it’s inevitable that you will gain some fat when building muscle, the leaner you are while going about your plan, the greater the ratio of muscle to fat will be.

So now that you know when to focus on building muscle and why you should do so in the first place, let’s talk about how to get the process started.

Muscle Building 101: The Three Must-Haves

image: youtube.com

In order to successfully build muscle, three key factors need to be in place. They are:

  • An overloading stimulus
  • A calorie surplus with proper nutritional ratios
  • Sufficient rest

Let’s look at each individually.

1. An Overloading Stimulus

In order to build muscle, you need to provide your body with a reason to build muscle. You can’t just hit the gym and do the same thing over and over again and expect change to take place.

You need to challenge your body with more than it’s handled before. This is what causes the muscle tissue to break down, which will then grow back stronger and larger than it was before.

If your body can already easily handle what you are doing in the gym, there’s no reason for it to grow stronger.

2. A Calorie Surplus With Proper Ratios

Next, you also need to ensure that you are providing that energy surplus noted above. Building muscle requires energy and resources and if those are not provided by your diet, you simply aren’t going to be making progress.

It’d be like trying to build an addition on your house without providing any wood or bricks. How far would you get? Clearly, you wouldn’t get far at all.

Do keep in mind that your body can only build so much muscle each and every day however, so it’s not just a matter of eating as much food as you can possibly consume. If you do that, you will build some muscle, but you’ll also build a lot of fat in the process as well.

Generally speaking, consuming anywhere between 250-500 calories above maintenance level is sufficient.

If you are someone who tends to put on body fat easily, err on the lower end of that scale while if you are someone who is naturally thin and has trouble gaining weight, you’ll want to error on the higher end of that scale instead.

Monitor your progress and adjust from there. If you start gaining body fat too quickly, simply reduce your calorie surplus to slow things down.

In addition to adding more total energy to your diet plan, you’ll also need to ensure that you are eating adequate amounts of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and dietary fats. Each of these has a role in building lean muscle mass.

Protein provides the amino acids, which serve as building blocks to build new muscle mass tissue. You should be aiming for around 1.4-2.0 grams/kg of body weight per day according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Carbohydrates provide the energy that you need to not only get through your workout sessions, but also to complete the repair and building process. Intakes will vary based on your activity levels, but do try and stay above 120-150 grams per day for optimal results.

Finally, dietary fats help to keep your hormonal profile in check, which will then ensure that your body is optimized for building lean muscle mass. Intakes will once again vary based on your total calorie consumption, but you should not take in any fewer than 0.35 grams/lb. of body weight.

Taking the time to get your diet in check is a must if you want to build muscle successfully as it can make or break the results that you see.

3. Sufficient Rest

Finally, the last requirement to build lean muscle mass is sufficient rest. After you break the muscle tissue down in the gym, you need to provide time for it to recover and grow back stronger than it was before.

Generally speaking, you should allow for 48 hours between training any same muscle group over again and you should always take at least one, if not two full days off each week for complete rest and recovery.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the harder you train, the faster your progress will be. Often, too little rest is the one reason why people do not see the results they desire.

It’s at rest that your body is actually completing the muscle building process. In the gym, you are just breaking it down and getting weaker. Short yourself of rest and you won’t be making progress.

If you can get these three elements in alignment in your program, you will be on your way to muscle building success.

Now let’s look at how muscle building differs for men versus women.

Muscle Building For Women Versus Men

If you ask most women who are on a muscle building program, they will tell you they have a very specific look in mind they want to attain and the last thing it resembles is that of a man.

Too many women actually shy away from building muscle entirely because they are too scared of becoming ‘big and bulky’ as they often describe it, looking too much like a male.

First, rest assured that this is not going to happen. Women do not posses enough of the male sex hormone testosterone in their body to build bulky muscle mass.

Always remember that if you ever do come across a woman who looks a bit masculine, chances are she’s either taking some sort of additional testosterone to support that muscle growth or she has been working exceptionally hard for 10 or more years at building muscle mass.

It does not happen overnight, so remember that you are in full control.

The only thing that may make you appear bulky is if you start gaining too much body fat. sometimes that’s what happens with women when they don’t control their diets and start hitting the weights, which then leads them to believe they are gaining muscle bulk.

Sadly, this isn’t’ the case – it’s just excess body fat.

If anything, when used in conjunction with a proper diet plan, building muscle will help you look leaner and smaller as your body becomes tighter with less body fat.

Getting back to the differences in building muscle for men versus women – there aren’t many differences to note.

Males, again thanks to their higher level of testosterone, will build muscle much faster than women, so the speed of progress is one difference to note. Most men can build between 1-2 pounds of muscle per month, while a woman will be lucky to build ½-1 pound of muscle per month.

This isn’t a fast process. If you can build 6 pounds of muscle per year, you will be doing great. This is enough muscle however to make a noticeable improvement in your physical appearance.

Women will also typically lift less weight as they go about the process of building muscle, which is simply a matter of them being less physically strong overall. The relative intensity of the program should be still similar to that of a male however.

Finally, because males can build muscle faster, they will also typically be able to use a higher calorie surplus. Men may eat around 500-1000 calories over maintenance levels, while, as noted above, females should stick to around 250-500 calories.

This will help limit the total amount of excess body fat you gain during the process.

Apart from these few differences however, there isn’t a lot of additional changes that need to be made between a program for men versus a program for women.

Both genders will want to use the same exercises, similar rep ranges, set ranges, rest ranges, and structure their workout in a comparable manner as well.

One thing to note is that women may have slightly different ‘trouble’ spots compared to men, therefore they may put a bit more focus on these areas (the back of the thighs, the hips, the under arms) than a man would.

This is program specific concerns and should be addressed during the programming stage.

Now it’s time to get into it and go over the top muscle building exercises to be including in your routine.

Top Muscle Building Exercises

You don't have to want to get this big, it's a rare type of person who wants to go all in, but you can still put on some incredible muscle mass.

image: highintensitybodybuilding.org

In order to build muscle most effectively, it’s important that you are focusing on providing that overloading stimulus we noted earlier. This comes from putting more stress on the body than it has handled before.

The best way to do this is through compound exercises. Compound movements are the ones that will work multiple muscle groups at the same time, thus you’ll be hitting more overall muscle fibers than you would with isolation exercises.

For this reason, these are typically the primary exercises of focus during any muscle building workout routine. Once they are in the program, you can then add isolation exercises towards the end to really fatigue the muscles that need to be improved upon.

Here are the main exercises that will give you the best results for your time investment.

Chest Press

Muscles Utilized: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps, Core (to a small degree)

How-To:

  • 1. Position yourself in a flat bench, back down, and place both hands up on the barbell above you. Use a shoulder width grip.
  • 2. Press the barbell up until the elbows are extended but not locked.
  • 3. Keeping the back pressed into the back pad, lower the barbell down until it’s almost touching your sternum. Pause and then press back up to complete the rep.

Bent Over Rows

Muscles Utilized: Latissimus dorsi, Trapezius, Rhomboids, Biceps, Posterior Deltoid, Core

How-To:

  • 1. Assume a standing position with a barbell down in front of the feet.
  • 2. Bend the back until it’s at a 90 degree angle, keeping the knees relatively straight (a slight bend is permitted).
  • ​3. Reach down and grab ahold of the barbell using a shoulder width grip pattern.
  • ​4. Pull the barbell up towards the chest, keeping the back flat and avoiding using momentum to hoist the weight up.
  • 5. Pause when it’s as high as it can go and then lower back down to complete the rep.

Pull-Ups

Muscles Utilized: Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Trapeszius, Posterior Deltoid

How-To:

  • Grab a hold of an overhead bar, hands placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Bend the knees slightly and keep the body in a straight, vertical line. Begin to contract the back and arms as you pull the body up to the bar.
  • ​Pause when you reach the top and then slowly begin lowering again to complete the rep.
  • ​Continue on until all reps are completed.
  • Note you may do this in an assisted pull-up machine if necessary.

Shoulder Press

Muscles Utilized: Front Delts, Lateral Delts, Triceps, Biceps, Core (if standing)

How-To:

  • 1. In a seated position, hold two dumbbells resting on your thighs.
  • 2. Next, ‘kick’ those dumbbells up (or bring them up yourself) until they are resting just above shoulder height. Elbows should be tucked in, back straight.
  • 3. Begin to press the dumbbells up over your head, extending the elbows but not locking.
  • 4. Pause for a second at the top and then lower the weight back down to complete the rep.

Squats

Muscles Utilized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves, Core, Back

How-To:

  • 1. Stand in an upright position, feet about shoulder width apart.
  • 2. Hold a barbell across your back or place the hands directly in front of the body.
  • 3. Keeping the body upright, bend at the knees as you lower yourself down, coming into the full squat position.
  • 4. Pause in this lowered position briefly and then press up to complete the rep.

Deadlifts

Muscles Utilized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Core, Lower Back

How-To:

  • 1. Stand with a barbell in front of the feet in an upright position, feet about hip width apart.
  • 2. Bend over, bending the knees as you do while keeping the back flat.
  • 3. Once at 90 degrees, reach forward and place both hands on the barbell.
  • ​4. Press up, keeping the back flat as you resume a standing position and lift the weight off the ground.
  • 5. Pause at the top before lowering the weight to the ground to complete the rep.

Lunges

Muscles Utilized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves, Core

How-To (walking lunge variation):

  • 1. In a standing position, arms down by your side, take one step forward about 2 feet (or a comfortable distance).
  • 2. Begin bending both knees as you lunge down, moving the back knee towards the ground. Keep the body upright.
  • 3. Lower down until the knee is almost touching the floor, pause and then press up, bringing the back leg in front of the other leg to assume the next rep.

Leg Press

Muscles Utilized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Quads, Calves, Core (to a small degree)

How-To:

  • 1. Position yourself in a leg press machine, placing the feet in the middle of the foot pad about hip width apart.
  • 2. Press the platform up until the knees are extended and then lower down towards you until knees are at a 90 degree angle.
  • 3. Pause and then press up again to complete the next rep.

Look similar to the exercises you learned you should do for fat loss? They are very similar. This is because overall, no matter what your fitness goal happens to be, unless it’s very specific such as to increase bicep shape alone for example, compound exercises are your best choice.

They help with building muscle, burning fat (as they boost your metabolism and burn so many calories while you do them), as well as help with improving strength and performance as well.

Almost all workout programs are focused around these exercises, so don’t be surprised that regardless of what goal you have, these are the focus.

How Isolation Exercises Fit Into The Picture

Lifting weights, just do it!

image: http://professionalwhey.com.au/

How do isolation exercises fit into the picture? They do have a place in a muscle building program – they just are not the top priority.

Isolation exercises are those that isolate just a single muscle group and they can be good for helping to bring up lagging muscle groups or really add maximum shape to any given muscle that you’re training.

For instance, if you want to add more shape and size to your shoulders, the barbell shoulder press is a great go-to move to be doing.

But, that alone may not be enough. Once you’ve finished that, you’ll also want to do some higher rep sets of lateral raises and possibly even front raises as well.

These isolation exercises will work just the specific delt you are targeting, putting more stress on it so that it will then grow back to be stronger than it was before.

It’s okay to include isolation exercises in any muscle building workout program, just ensure they come after the primary compound exercises that you are doing.

This way, you are fresh for the big ‘heavy’ lifts and can focus on achieving maximum muscle fatigue later on when doing those isolation moves.

Here are some of the best isolation exercises to be adding to your program.

Bicep Curls

Muscles Utilized: Biceps

How-To:

  • 1. Get into an upright position, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides, one on each side.
  • 2. Keeping the core tight, curl the weight upwards until it’s near the top of the body.
  • 3. Pause and then lower down through the full range of motion to complete the rep.

Hammer Curls

Muscles Utilized: Biceps, forearms

How-To:

  1. Get into an upright position, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides, one on each side, this time with the palms facing inward.
  2. Keeping the core tight, curl the weight upwards until it’s near the top of the body.
  3. Pause and then lower down through the full range of motion to complete the rep.

Tricep Rope Press Down

Muscles Utilized: Triceps

How-To:

  • 1. Get into an upright position, holding the handles of a rope, one hand on each side. 
  • 2. Keeping the core tight with the elbows locked into the side of the body, press the weight straight down until the elbows are fully extended.
  • 3. Pause and then allow the weight to return to the starting position to complete the rep.

Overhead Tricep Extension

Muscles Utilized: Triceps

How-To:

  • 1. Get into an upright position, seated or standing, holding a dumbbell over your head so it is vertically positioned, hands on the metal bar. 
  • 2. Begin to bend the elbows as you lower the weight down towards the back.
  • 3. Once elbows are fully bent, pause and then press back up again to complete the rep. 

Lateral Raise

Muscles Utilized: Lateral Deltoid

How-To:

  • 1. Get into an upright position, seated or standing, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides.
  • 2. Keeping the core tight, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side of the body until they are parallel to the floor.
  • 3. Pause in this position and then lower back down to complete the rep.

Front Raise

Muscles Utilized: Front Deltoid

How-To:

  • 1. Get into an upright position, seated or standing, holding a set of dumbbells down by your sides.
  • 2. Keeping the core tight, lift the dumbbells up and to the front of the body until they are parallel to the floor.
  • 3. Pause in this position and then lower back down to complete the rep.

Rear Delt Fly

Muscles Utilized: Rear Deltoid

How-To:

  • 1. Hold a set of dumbbells in either hand and then get into a seated position, chest bent over and pressed into the thigh’s, dumbbells on the floor.
  • 2. Lift the dumbbells up and out to the sides of the body as if you were doing a reverse hug.
  • 3. Come up until you are at about even with the shoulders and then lower the weight back down to complete the rep.

Leg Extension

Muscles Utilized: Quads

How-To:

  • 1. Position yourself in the leg extension machine and then place the feet behind the foot pads.
  • 2. Begin to lift the legs up and extend the knees as you raise the weight upward.
  • 3. Pause at the top of the movement and then lower back down to complete the rep.
  1. Position yourself in the leg extension machine and then place the feet behind the foot pads.
  2. Begin to lift the legs up and extend the knees as you raise the weight upward.
  3. Pause at the top of the movement and then lower back down to complete the rep.

Hamstring Curl

Muscles Utilized: Hamstrings

How-To:

  • 1. Position yourself in the hamstring machine and then place the feet behind the foot pads.
  • 2. Begin to bend the knees and raise the weight upward.
  • 3. Pause at the top of the movement and then lower back down to complete the rep.

Free Weights Versus Weight Machines

One question you might find yourself asking as you envision doing all of these exercises is whether you should be using free weights or whether machine based exercises would be the better choice.

There is no one ‘right’ answer, but rather, there is a best answer based on your own situation.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Machine Based Exercises

Pros:

  • Great for beginners as they lead you through the exercise, so you don’t have to be as educated about proper form
  • Ideal for those who may be suffering from back pain or other injuries as they’ll keep your body supported throughout the movement
  • Can be good for hitting maximum fatigue as you won’t need a spotter while doing the exercise

Cons:

  • Provide little core strengthening benefits due to the support they provide
  • Can lock you into a fixed pattern of movement, which may in turn set you up for an injury.
  • Will require a commercial gym with many different machines in order to hit all the main muscle groups

Free Weights

Pros:

  • Allow you to move in whatever pattern of movement tends to work best for you and your body type
  • Provide maximum core strengthening benefits
  • Are highly versatile – many different exercises can be performed using just a few pieces of equipment
  • In some cases, will challenge you more, pound for pound, than machine based exercises (a barbell squat versus a leg press for example)

Cons:

  • Learning proper form is a must and this can take time
  • May be intimidating for beginners
  • Can pose a safety threat if a weight is dropped
  • Will require a spotter if you plan to lift near your maximum intensity level

So as you can see, there are good and bad things about each style of equipment. Generally using a mix is a good idea as then you will get the best of both worlds.

Beginners will naturally gravitate towards the machine based exercises, which is fine, and then more advanced trainees can start to move towards the free weight exercises as they build up their confidence.

It’s a good idea to start learning how to perform free weight exercises as soon as you do feel comfortable doing so as this can really go a long way towards improving the progress you see.

They provide excellent core conditioning benefits and can simply make you more athletic overall. If you feeling unsure, book a session with a personal trainer to learn proper form. It will set you up for years of successful weight training ahead.

Now let’s talk about the different types of workout set-ups you can utilize.

Designing Your Muscle Building Split

When it comes to actually structuring your weekly workout sessions, there are a few things to keep in mind. They are:

  • Your current fitness level
  • How much time you have available to exercise
  • Your recovery ability

These will all factor into your decision of how to structure your workout throughout the week.

The three main types of program set-ups you should consider are a full body approach, which is where you work the entire body in each and every workout you do, the upper/lower approach, where you divide the body up in half, hitting upper body twice per week and lower body twice per week, as well as a push/pull/legs split where you work all the pushing exercises on one day, all the pulling exercises on another day, and then legs on a third day.

With the push/pull/legs plan, you can choose to either do three workouts per week or if you would like something more frequent, you can rotate between them, doing four to six workouts per week. If you don’t fit in two full cycles each week, the next week will just pick up where you left off.

So which is right for you?

Here’s how to decide.

Your Current Fitness Level

First thing about your fitness level. Beginners are typically best off doing a full body approach as this allows them to hit each muscle group with a maximum frequency level while still providing plenty of time off for rest and recovery between gym sessions.

With the full body workout, as you need to allow 48 hours of rest between working the same muscle group twice, this would have you going to the gym on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday set-up (or alternatively, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday).

Since you have maximum recovery time, it’s a great way to ease into weight lifting and ensure that you are always feeling very well rested going into each workout session that you do.

As full body workouts also tend to focus primarily on the main compound exercises, it’s also a great way for beginners to build an excellent foundation of strength while learning how to perform these basic movements.

If you are more advanced with your fitness level, a full body workout can still work for you. Some people tend to think that this workout protocol is only for beginners, but that isn’t the case.

Advanced trainees can still definitely benefit from the full body approach as it will have them focusing on the main heavy lifting movements, which provide excellent strength and muscle building progress.

Alternatively, if you are an advanced lifter and want to start going to the gym more often, you can consider an upper/lower or push/pull/legs routine. This breaks the body down into smaller sections, allowing you to do more volume per muscle group.

As you become more advanced and can tolerate this higher level of volume, it can help you see ongoing results.

Time Availability

Next, also think about your time availability. If you are someone who doesn’t have a lot of spare time for your workout sessions, the full body approach is likely going to be in your best interests.

If you really are pressed, you can get away with doing just two full body workouts each week, however three is typically ideal.

If you have more time to spend in the gym, the upper/lower or push/pull/leg protocol is going to be a good choice. Consider realistically how much time you think you’ll have to exercise and then plan your split accordingly.

Time is one of the biggest factors that causes women to fall off their program, so don’t try and over-extend yourself. If you do, you’ll be struggling right from the very beginning.

It’s better to hit the gym three times per week consistently than to plan for a five-day-a-week program and constantly be missing sessions.

Recovery Ability

Finally, the last thing you’ll want to keep in mind is your recovery ability. How fast do you bounce back after your workout sessions?

There are many factors that can play into recovery including your sleep habits, how active you are apart from the workouts on a day to day basis, your stress levels, your nutrition, the supplements you are using, and so forth.

If you are someone who doesn’t recover as well, a push/pull/legs workout done with just one cycle per week (so three workouts per week) might be a good choice.

A full body workout can also work well also, but do keep in mind that full body workouts themselves are quite intense because you are working so many muscles each workout.

Therefore for someone who has poor recovery, the push/pull/legs might be the better choice.

Alternatively, you can also do an upper/lower split but structure it over three days rather than four.

While a classic upper/lower workout goes as follows:

  • Monday – Upper body
  • Tuesday – Lower body
  • Wednesday – Rest
  • Thursday – Upper body
  • Friday – Lower Body
  • Saturday and Sunday – Rest

…you could instead structure it as follows:

  • Monday – Upper body
  • Tuesday – Rest
  • ​Wednesday – Lower body
  • ​Thursday – Rest
  • ​Friday – Upper body
  • Saturday and Sunday – Rest

Then the next week, you’ll start off with lower body, doing the lower body workout twice that week and upper body once.

As you can hopefully see, there are many different ways to structure any given workout program, so really stop and think about all the considerations of your own situation and then base your programming decision around that information.

Also keep in mind that your workout program is never set in stone. You can easily vary your workout based on the results you see and how you feel while doing the session itself.

It’s important to be changing your workout around every 6-8 weeks anyway in order to keep seeing results and ensure your body doesn’t hit a progress plateau.

Now let’s move on and talk about getting the specifics of your workout lined up properly.

Sets, Reps, And Rest: How They Factor In

A handy table with information about reps and maxes.
image: builtlean.com

After you have your exercise selection all figured out and your split chosen, the next step is to figure out how may sets and reps you’ll perform as well as how much rest to be taking between workouts.

These all need to be adjusted based on your goals as each workout objective is going to have a very specific set and rep range to be followed. To build lean muscle, there is a specific protocol to follow.

Reps

The ideal range to build lean muscle mass is set to around 8-12 reps per exercise. Now, in some cases, you may do a few sets at a lower rep range (5-8 reps) if you want to focus on building muscular strength.

The advantage to these lower rep sets is that as you build strength, you can then lift heavier weight later on doing the higher rep sets of 8-12. This can then lend well to ongoing muscle building progress.

So for some of your main compound exercises (such as squats, deadlifts, rows, and bench press for instance), you can start out with a couple sets of 5-8 reps and then from there, move into a couple more sets at the 8-12 rep range, lightening the weight as you transition into these sets of course.

Then for your isolation exercises, 8-12 reps is key. you may even go slightly higher than this – up to 15 reps for a couple sets if you really want.

Beyond that though, if you can do 15 or more reps, you’re best off increasing the weight instead. You won’t reap good muscle building results doing 15+ reps per set.

Sets

After your rep range is lined up, you then need to think about how many sets you are going to be doing. The number of sets you do factors into how many reps you are performing.

Generally speaking you’ll want to aim to perform 20-36 reps total. So if you were doing sets of 5 for instance, 4-6 sets would be ideal.

If you are doing sets of 8, three-four sets is usually the recommendation. If you are doing sets of 12, two to three sets may be sufficient.

Beginners will probably want to be at the lower rep range there (20-25 per workout), while more advanced trainees will want to lean towards the higher rep total per exercise per workout (30-36).

Also do keep in mind that the more total exercises you are performing per workout, the fewer sets each exercise will have. You need to keep your overall volume under control to ensure you don’t start overtraining yourself.

Coming in anywhere between 18-30 sets per workout is where you want to be. A good sign that you may be doing too many sets is if you find that you are constantly fatigued after your workout session is over and well into the next day. If that’s the case, you may be doing too many sets per session.

Rest

Finally, the last factor to consider is the rest between sets. In order to build muscle, you do want to focus on lifting heavy, so you don’t want your rest periods to be so short that you can’t maintain a decent load.

This said, your primary objective isn’t to gain strength and shorter rest periods do tend to lend better to the development of muscular fatigue, which provides a strong signal for growth to the body.

The happy-middle is what you want here. Aim for rest periods of around 90 seconds between your compound lift sets and around 30-60 seconds for isolation-based movements. This said, at times you may want to include advanced muscle building protocols, which we’ll talk about next, which may utilize a shorter rest period.

If you follow these general guidelines as you go about setting up your muscle building workout routine while also being sure to get a good diet in place, you should be feeling confident that you are on your way to success.

Advanced Techniques To Shock Your Muscles

Extreme sports can get your heart rate jacked quickly.

In order to build muscle effectively, it’s important that some element of your workout is always changing. The minute you hit the gym and perform the same workout over and over again is the minute you’ll be on a fast track to hitting a plateau.

Change is good. One way to create this change is through performing advanced techniques that push your body a little harder.

Here are a few techniques to know about.

Supersets

Supersets are an advanced technique that involves you performing one exercise back to back with another, resting only after that second exercise is completed.

You can either do supersets for the same muscle group (same muscle supersets), supersets for opposite muscle groups (antagonistic supersets), or supersets for upper/lower muscle groups.

They are a great way to add intensity to your workout program and push the fatigue barrier just a little further.

Drop Sets

A drop set is similar to a superset only this time, you are sticking with the same exercise. You’ll perform one set with your usual weight, drop the weight by 5-10 pounds, perform a second set, drop the weight again, and then perform a third and final set.

You’ll typically do this towards the end of your workout as it is quite intense and will bring you to that state of final fatigue.

Pyramid Sets

Finally, pyramid sets help you get the best of all worlds. This type of structure has you moving through rep ranges – 6 reps, 8 reps, 10 reps, 12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps, and 6 reps.

Note that you can structure the specifics however you prefer, but you should move up and then back down, adjusting the weight accordingly.

It’s a great way to see both strength and size improvements all within the same exercise.

By using these advanced techniques at various points throughout your workout program, you can help take your progress up a notch and keep your body responding.

Now let’s move forward and talk about factors that may hinder your results.

Factors That Impeded Muscle Growth

In addition to making sure you are doing everything right, you also want to think about what you may be doing wrong that could be potentially slowing down the results that you see.

There are a few things that can impede muscle growth, so learning about these and being sure to avoid them will help you move closer to success.

Poor Sleep

Sleep is the primary time when your body recovers from all the daily stressors that it faces, exercise included. If you are not sleeping enough at night, this will decrease how fast you recover between workout sessions, therefore lowering your ability to hit the gym on a regular basis.

You’ll find that you aren’t as strong in the gym and may even find that you are getting weaker, rather than getting stronger.

Make a conscious decision to get at least seven hours of sleep each night, if not eight or even nine if you can. Sleep needs to be a top priority when you are on a muscle building program.

Chronic Stress

Ever considered trying a standing desk? It can help relieve stress and improve focus.

Weight lifting is a form of stress being placed on your body and at any given moment, your body can only handle so much stress. If you are facing chronic stressors in other areas of your life, when you add intense weight lifting on top of this, it can get to be a bit too much.

In addition to this, high levels of stress also cause the body to release the catabolic hormone cortisol, which serves to break down tissue in the body and can also lead to the accumulation of excess body fat tissue, as was noted by research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

What you really want here is to be building muscle up, so this works directly against you.

Take any steps you can to decrease your stress levels and promote a general sense of relaxation. It’ll go a long way towards helping you see better results.

If your stress level grows too much, it can also put you at a higher risk of over training, in which case you won’t see any progress at all and may need to take time completely away from the gym altogether.

Dieting

Filling a bowl of pasta with vegetables makes it much healthier.

Dieting is another big mistake if you want to build muscle optimally. As noted earlier, you must be in a calorie surplus to build lean muscle mass tissue. If you are taking in too few calories as so many women often do, this will directly impede progress.

Good muscle building nutrition is a must.

Over-Doing Cardio Activity

Finally, you’ll also want to watch how much additional cardio you are doing. This isn’t to say you need to cut cardio training out entirely.

You can and should add some cardio to a muscle building workout routine as it will help keep you in good physical shape and conditioning and also help to keep you leaner as you build muscle.

Just don’t overdo it. This isn’t a fat loss phase where you may be doing cardio training daily.

2-3 sessions of 20-30 minutes per week of cardio training is plenty to keep your body fit and healthy. As you add this cardio, keep it to low to moderate intensity cardio as well. This will yield optimal results.

Note these and make sure they aren’t coming into play with your program.

Now let’s talk about proper nutrition surrounding your workout sessions.

Pre And Post Workout Nutrition For Maximum Muscle Building Results

You can feast in a healthy way!

What you eat before, during, and after exercise can have a large influence on the results you see, so you’ll want to ensure that you get this lined up properly. Here are some general guidelines on what you should be focusing on.

Pre-Workout

The primary goal before the workout session is to fuel the body for the exercise to come. You’ll want to eat a light meal about 90-120 minutes before the session to begin. This meal should consist of a lean source of protein along with a complex carbohydrate.

Good sources of protein would include chicken breast, turkey breast, eggs, fish, lean steak, as well as whey protein powder. On the carbohydrate side of things, turn to foods like oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, beans, or bananas.

Be sure to drink a couple cups of water at this time as well so you are well-hydrated going into the workout.

During Workout

During the workout, if the session is lasting longer than 45-60 minutes, you may want to have an electrolyte replacement beverage. Note that this is only required if you are sweating quite heavily though or are working at a very high intensity level.

Most individuals will be fine just having water. Or, if you want to take it up a notch, mix some branched chain amino acids (BCAA powder) in with your water, which research suggests may help improve both physical and mental performance.

These are specific amino acids that help provide energy for the muscles and help to decrease the total amount of tissue breakdown taking place.

These also add flavor to your water, so may make it easier to get down.

Post-Workout

Finally, immediately following the session, you want to provide your body with the raw materials it needs to recover and build new muscle mass tissue.

This meal can be in liquid or solid form (your choice) and should come as soon after the workout as possible. This meal should consist of a fasting acting source of protein along with a fast acting source of carbohydrate.

If there is one time in the day it is okay to eat a little bit of sugar, this would be it.

This meal should consist of 200-300 calories, be low in fat, and contain 20-25 grams of protein and 25-50 grams of carbohydrates.

Good choices here are a whey isolate protein shake with a banana, some rice cakes with canned tuna, egg whites with your favorite cold breakfast cereal, or some Greek yogurt with granola and berries.

Research suggests that ingesting whey as well as casein protein can help stimulate greater protein synthesis rates, so give particular consideration to using a high quality protein supplement.

Making sure your nutrition is in check at this critical part of the day will help enhance post-workout recovery and kick-start the muscle building process.

Now let’s finish off with some discussion no the best muscle building supplements to consider.

Muscle Building Supplements To Consider

A woman with a strong back.

As you go about your journey to build muscle, there are a few supplements that you’ll want to consider. These products, while not entirely necessary, can help you take you results up a notch.

They’ll help you work harder in the gym, recover faster, and accelerate the muscle building process.

Here are the main ones to know.

Creatine

Creatine monohydrate is a very well researched supplement that can help to increase overall muscular strength and power, while combating fatigue.

By using this supplement before or after your workout, you’ll maintain higher creatine stores in the muscle tissue, which then allows you to generate the high-energy compound called ATP, which provides energy for each muscular contraction to take place.

When you use creatine, you may be able to perform an extra couple reps in each exercise you do, which then leads to faster overall results.

For best results, you’ll want to take five grams per day, either before or after your workout period. While you can do a loading phase first, doing so often leads to water retention and/or bloating, so skipping this may be advisable for women (who can be more sensitive to bloating and water retention).

Whey Protein Powder

A good whey protein powder is a great idea if you are serious about building lean muscle mass tissue.

Whey isolate protein powder is fast to digest in the body and will help kick-start the muscular repair and growth process as fast as possible, as stated by research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

It’s ideal for taking immediately following the workout session as well as at any point throughout the day when you need an extra boost of protein.

Your protein needs will be a little higher when focusing on building muscle, so this can help you get that protein in.

Glutamine

Glutamine is the next important supplement that you should consider using. This is another amino acid that is involved in proper immune health, which influences your ability to recover quickly.

Taking glutamine following your workout as well as before bed can help accelerate your recovery between sessions, ensuring you are feeling ready to train hard each time you step into the gym. Research shows that after intense exercise, your natural levels of glutamine may be suppressed, so bringing your levels back to a normal and healthy range is critical.

BCAA’s

BCAA’s, which stand for branched chain amino acids are the next product to consider. These are particular amino acids will provide additional energy for your muscle tissues as well as helping prevent muscle break-down, thus decreasing the total time for repair and recovery. Studies also show that they may help maintain a more anabolic state as well.

Most people will take these before their workout, during their workout, or after their workout. During tends to be most popular as then they can assist with keeping you hydrated as well. Mix them with water and sip that throughout the session.

Caffeine

Coffee is an underrated pre-workout.

Finally, the last supplement you may want to consider is caffeine, which is taken about 15-30 minutes prior to the workout you are heading in to do.

While this is often considered to be a fat loss supplement as it can speed your metabolic rate and improve energy levels, it can also work well to help you push harder in the gym, maintaining greater endurance when the goal is muscle building as well.

You do need to be careful how much of it you take and how often however as the body can adapt to it, wakening its effects. Plus, taking too much in the later part of the day may interfere with sleep, so that’s another reason to be mindful of how much you are using.

200 mg per day should be your upper limit for caffeine on a regular basis.

So there you have a few of the most common supplements that are used to help with the muscle building process. Again, none of these are absolutely necessary, but if your budget allows, could help you see slightly faster results.

Conclusion

There you have the in’s and out’s about how to build muscle properly. By getting all of these elements in place in your workout program, you can ensure that you are seeing maximum results, feeling better and better about your performance and appearance with each workout that passes by.

It really does pay off to put time and energy towards the goal of muscle building. For every woman, it will help improve your body composition, add curves in all the right places, and will make you more capable to do all the activities you want to do throughout your life.

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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