The Beginner’s Guide to Building Muscle and Strength

So you want to get bigger and stronger, like this guy (leopard print leotard optional).

Maybe you’ve always been the skinny guy and can’t gain weight to save your life.  Maybe you’re a bigger guy and you’d rather have broad shoulders than a broad waistline.  Maybe you’re a female, and you’ve realized that lifting weights with the right diet will give you that “toned” look that everybody is after.  Maybe you just want to be stronger and faster.

No matter who you are or what your starting point is, I want to help get you where you want to go.

Building muscle is something I’ve been obsessed with since high school (okay, not obsessed, but it’s where the majority of my fitness research and experience has taken me).  I’m not where I want to be yet in terms of strength and size, but I’m well on my way and I’ve definitely had a little bit of success over the past few years.  If you’re looking to start building muscle, getting bigger, and becoming stronger, these are the things you need to do:

  1. Lift heavy things
  2. Eat a diet based on your goals
  3. Rest

Although my first e-book was more focused on losing weight while maintaining and building a little bit of muscle, my next book is going to cover this topic of strength and muscle, with full exercise routines, diet plans, and more.

Until that is released (hopefully a beta release in November), here’s how you can get started.

Lift Heavy Things

If you are going to build muscle, you’re going to need to lift heavy things. This means you’ll need a gym with a great free-weight section.  Body weight exercises can be fantastic for weight loss and keeping the muscle you already have, but if you’re serious about weight training you’ll need a gym with a squat rack, bench, barbells, and a spot to do pull ups, chin ups, and dips to be most efficient.

Got access to a decent gym?  Good, now we can started.

Because we’re looking to create functional strength and size, we’ll be doing lots of full-body routines with compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once.  They’re more efficient, they create solid growth and stimulation, and they will keep you safe.  Why is that?  Well, when you spend all of your time doing stupid isolation exercises on weight machines (ugh), you’re only working those specific muscles and not working any of your stabilizer muscles (because the machine is doing all of the stabilization work).  On the other hand, when you do compound exercises like barbell squats, you work pretty much EVERY muscle in your body, setting yourself up to be strong and injury free.

Stay away from machines, focus on dumbbells and barbell exercises.

Each of your routines should have one leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and a core exercise:

That’s IT. Don’t worry about adding in any ridiculous machine shoulder shrugs, iso-chest flys, preacher bicep curls, calf-raises, whatever.  Learn these few exercises, get really good at them, and your entire body will get stronger and bigger.  Focus each week on adding more weight to each exercise.  For example, if you did 3 sets of 5 squats of 150 pounds this week, try for 3 sets of 5 squats of 155 pounds next week.

If you do that, you’ve gotten stronger.  Eat right, and you’ll get bigger too.

So what’s a sample routine?

Using the principles I’ve laid out in my “how to build a workout routine” article, here’s a routine I’ve created for myself recently:

  • Monday - Squats, Benchpress, Wide Grip Pull Ups, Planks
  • Wednesday - Deadlift, Overhead Press, Inverted Rows, Hanging Knee Raises
  • Friday - Weighted Lunges, Weighted Dips, Weighted Chin Ups, Reverse Crunches.

Each day has a leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and some core work.  Another great routine can be found over on StrongLifts, where you can download a free e-book that follows a similar set up, but with more of a focus on leg strength.  I highly recommend it.

If you want to learn how to do all of the exercises above with perfect form, go buy Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength – he’s THE authority on strength training, and this book changed my life as far as barbell training goes.  Be warned, he’s incredibly thorough (with almost 70 pages on how to properly do a squat) because he knows what he’s talking about.  That book also has a routine that I’ve adapted to my own training goals.

Here’s a free wiki article with downloadable worksheets for Starting Strength.

How many sets and reps should I do?

That depends on your goals. If you’re just interested in getting stronger, you can do 3-5 sets of 5 reps, with a focus on lifting heavier and heavier each week.  If you’re looking to add more size along with strength, mix up your rep ranges.  Sets of 5 reps will build compact explosive strength, while sets of 6-12 reps will build more bulk but less concentrated strength.

I try to mix it up. This week, I might do 3 sets of 5 reps for each exercise (other than the core exercises), adding enough weight to each exercise so that it’s incredibly taxing.  Next week, I’ll do four sets for each exercise, adding weight each time and doing less reps.  For example, I’d do 12 reps of an overhead press at 100 pounds, then 10 reps at 105 pounds, then 8 reps at 110 pounds, and finally 6 reps at 115 pounds.

The good news is that no matter which path you take (pure strength, size, or a mix of both), as long as you are adding weight each week you WILL be getting stronger.

Eat the right way (which I cover later) and you’ll build plenty of size too.

Any other weight-lifting tips?

Warm-up before exercising - don’t walk into a gym, slap 45 pound plates on the bar, and then start your routine.  Get your heart rate up and muscles warm first by doing a dynamic warm-up of jumping jacks, lunges, bodyweight squats, hip raises, push ups, leg swings, jumps, etc.  After that, always start with doing a set or two of lifting JUST THE BAR.  Only then should you start adding weight for some warm-up sets before moving into your real sets.

Lift quickly – no, I don’t mean throw the weight around.  I want you to think “explosion” when doing your squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc.  Don’t worry about lifting or lowering slowly, that just trains your muscles to think “slow” – we want fast, powerful, and explosive!  If you’re doing squats, picture yourself exploding back up from the bottom point; on your bench presses imagine you’re pushing the weight hard enough to send it through the ceiling.  Stay in control, but lift that weight quickly.

Have perfect form – if you’re doing a bodyweight squat incorrectly, you probably won’t cause any problems.  However, if you do a squat incorrectly with 405 pounds on your shoulders, you could do some serious damage.  If you’re just starting out, check your ego at the door: start with a VERY light weight and make sure you are doing the exercise properly.  There is NO SHAME in starting with just the bar.  You can always add more weight next week if this week is too easy.

Stimulate, don’t annihilate – I try to always have one more rep left when I finish a set.  Some trainers will preach working your muscles to annihilation, but I think that’s just asking for an injury, poor form, and beyond-sore muscles.  Your muscles get built while resting, not in the gym, so don’t worry about destroying them completely each day you step in the gym – it’s not worth it.

Change up the time between sets - if you’re doing 3 sets of 5 reps of a really heavy weight, it’s okay to wait 3-5 minutes between sets – you’re focusing on pure strength here.  If you’re doing sets up in the 8-12 range, try to keep the time between sets around a minute or so.  This will affect your muscles in different ways.  Just be consistent between sets and when doing the same workout between weeks to track your progress.

Don’t overdo it - More does not mean better in weight lifting.  You don’t need to spend two hours in the gym, you don’t need to do 15 different kinds of chest exercises.  My routines last no longer than 45 minutes, I only do three or four sets (after warm up sets) for each exercise, and it’s enough to stimulate muscle growth.  Three routines a week is plenty too – you shouldn’t lift every day, as you need to give your muscles time to regrow bigger.  Less is more – just make your routines really intense and exhausting.

Write down everything – Keep a training journal, and write down exactly how many sets and reps you did for every exercise.  That way, you can compare how you did this time with how you did last time.  You’ll know how much more you need to lift this week to make sure you’re stronger than last week.

Okay what about diet?

If you’re skinny and trying to bulk up, this will be 90% of the battle. Don’t worry, I’ll address the big guys/girls slimming down too.  The only way you can build size on your body is if you’re running a calorie surplus, which means you’re eating more calories than you’re burning.  Translation: if you want to build muscle and size, you need to stuff your face.

If you’ve been lifting weights for a while “but can’t seem to gain weight,” then you are not eating enough – it’s that simple.

I thought I was one of those people who just could never gain weight…and then I learned it was all diet, started eating 4,000 calories a day, and I put on 18 pounds in 30 days.  Yeah, I wanted to throw up from always eating along with three Muscle Milk shakes a day, but it worked.  Looking back I would have done things differently, but after 6 years of exercising without putting on any weight, it was great to see so much progress in such a short period of time.

4000 calories sounds freaking insane right? I know.  It makes eating a full-time job, as you’re always either cooking, eating, or cleaning up after yourself.  But if you really want to get bigger and you’re struggling to do so, then all of your effort is going to have to go into eating more, eating healthier, and eating ALL THE TIME.

Here are a few different techniques for weight gain:

Eat a lot of whatever – this was my first plan years ago: it’s cheapest, the fastest, but probably the least healthy.  Just make sure you get 200+ grams of protein a day and 3500+ calories in any way that you can: pasta, rice, pizza, milk, hamburgers, chicken, protein shakes, muscle milk shakes, whatever.  This is how I went from 162-180 pounds in 30 days. I’m not proud of how I ate, but it produced results and I remained healthy and strong.

Eat a lot of “healthy” stuff – I did this about three months ago and put on about 10 pounds in 30 days.  Lots of oatmeal, brown rice, chicken, my home-made big-ass shake, almond butter sandwiches on whole-grain wheat bread, beef, eggs, fruits, veggies, and some milk.  Still not optimal, but it works and is better for your insides than the previous method.  Still relatively cheap, as tubs of oats, brown rice, and bread are inexpensive and can add on a lot of calories quickly.  However, I’ve since pretty much cut out grains from my diet so this is no longer an option.

Eat Paleo – I’ve tried this over the past month, and despite my best efforts to GAIN weight I managed to lose five pounds (all of which was fat).  It’s certainly possible to gain weight on the paleo diet (try adding in three big-ass Primal Shakes per day), but it is tricky and very expensive to get 4000 calories of paleo-approved food daily.  LOTS of nuts, eggs, sweet potatoes, shots of olive oil, and yams along with tons of chicken, grass fed beef, fruit, and veggies.

GOMAD (Gallon of Milk a Day) – I cannot endorse this method just yet, as I haven’t tried it personally.  I’ll be a guinea pig for this next month though, once I get back from Peru, so until then attempt at your own risk.  The guys over at CrossFit Football endorse a Paleo + Dairy diet for gaining weight, and both Mark Rippetoe and Medhi of StrongLifts are fans of GOMAD.  Obviously this method will only work if you’re not lactose intolerant.  Oh, and it has to be whole milk.  You’ll definitely put on some fat, but you’ll build muscle and get really strong quickly – and then you’ll adjust the diet to thin out.

How many calories should I eat?

That’s going to depend on your situation – your age, how much you weigh now, how much you want to weigh, and how fast your metabolism is.  For some, just 2500 calories and strength training will be enough to build muscle.  For others, you might need to eat 4000+ calories in order to put on weight.  The only way to find out is to track your normal calorie intake for a few days, and then start adding on 500 extra calories per day for a week or two and see if you notice any changes.

Bottom line: If you don’t see any change, then you need to eat more.  Yes, it will feel excessive.  Yes, you will feel full all the time.  Yes, it’s a pain in the ass and expensive.  But if you really want to be bigger, then you are going to need to really dedicate yourself in the kitchen.  Unless you’re a genetic mutant, it’s incredibly tough to build muscle and strength without overloading your system with calories and nutrients.

Just keep eating.

Won’t all of this eating make me fat?  I don’t want to get bulky.

I get this question all the time in emails, usually from guys who are 6 feet tall and 130 pounds. Dude, if you can’t gain weight now, putting on this extra weight is going to be great for you.  Yes, you will put on SOME fat along with the muscle you’re building if you’re running a calorie surplus.  This is why picking the right amount of calories per day is important.

If you can build muscle at 3000 calories, but you’re eating 4000 calories, you’ll put on a pound or two of fat per week along with your muscle.  However, if you need to eat 4000 calories to build muscle and you’re only eating 3000, you won’t see any changes.  Everybody is different, so you need to experiment and find out what works best for you.

Once you get to your desired weight (actually, aim for about 10-15 pounds heavier than your goal weight), you can scale back the calories, add in some extra sprints to the end of your workout, and keep lifting heavy – the muscle will remain, the fat will disappear, and you’ll be left with the body you want.

I’m not skinny, I need to LOSE weight – what’s different for me?

Well, what do you want to do first, build muscle or lose weight?

If you want to get bigger and stronger, you have to eat a calorie surplus, but eat more HEALTHY stuff while being diligent with your workouts.  If you’re overweight and out of shape, you’re probably already running a calorie surplus – you just need to start lifting and make smarter decisions on what you eat!  After you get to a point where you’re happy with your strength and size, start running a calorie deficit by eating less, add in some sprints to the end of your workout, and you’ll thin out while maintaining your muscle mass.

If you’re just looking to lose weight and don’t want bigger muscles, you’re going to want to still LIFT HEAVY, and run a slight calorie deficit on a daily basis.  You won’t be building more muscle, but you’ll be maintaining the muscle you have (while getting stronger) and burning the fat in your system.  Bigger guys and girls tend to actually have really strong legs (from carrying around all of that extra weight), so as you lose fat your muscles will start to pop out.  Just keep lifting heavy and the body you want will stop hiding under all of that fat.

When lifting weights to lose weight, don’t worry so much about the scale; instead keep an eye on your body composition (photos really help for this). Adjust your calorie intake until you can find a good balance – focus on eating high quality food (paleo is a great method to build strength while losing fat) and getting stronger with each workout.

If you want to speed up your fat loss, I’d recommend adding in some intervals/sprints at the end of your workouts or on your off days. Notice I said sprints or intervals and not long hours of cardio.  Here’s why.

What about rest?

If you’re skinny and trying to bulk up, avoid cardio like the plague. Why?  Take a look at the best marathon runners in the world – they look like a stiff breeze would knock them over.  Now take a look at Usain Bolt, the best sprinter in the world – tons of muscle, power, and a body to envy.  I have nothing against people who run all the time and love to run marathons/half-marathons – as long as you’re active I’m all for it.  I’m just telling you that if you want to build muscle as quickly and efficiently as possible, cardio is the enemy.

I will admit that I’m biased against chronic cardio, but there’s science and logic to back that up. Long cardio burns calories, promotes extra cortisol production in your body, and conditions your body to build small, slow muscles.  Instead, if you focused on just lifting heavy weights with as much force and power as possible, you’ll train your muscles to be strong, big, and explosive.

I spend three days a week in the gym, with each workout clocking in at 45 minutes.  I go for long walks on my off days along with a day of sprints to stay active, but I know that my muscles get built while I’m resting, not when I’m working out.  I really focus in on my workouts to make them as exhausting as possible, and then I give my body ample time to recover (while eating enough calories to produce a surplus).

If you’re lifting heavy, and eating enough, make sure you’re also getting enough sleep! 5-6 hours a night isn’t going to cut it – you need to get at leas 8-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal muscle-building.  Take naps too if you have the opportunity.  Sleep needs to become a priority.

If you’re a big guy/girl trying to slim down, a little extra cardio might speed up your fat loss, but a lot of it might cause you to lose the muscle you already have.  Don’t worry about going for 10 mile runs on your off days – do 20-30 minutes of intervals or go run hill sprints in your park.  The weight will come off more slowly, but you’ll only be losing fat, not fat AND muscle.

Once you hit your goal weight and target amount of muscle mass, I’d recommend adding back in some cardio for your overall conditioning, but keep it varied (sprints and intervals).  The focus is to keep building explosive muscle and not long, slow, boring muscle.

If you love going for long runs and aren’t going to give that up, I’m not gonna stop you. Just know that the long hours of cardio will severely inhibit your progress on building strength and size.

What Say You?

As I stated, building functional strength and muscle will be the focus of the next e-book here on Nerd Fitness, but this is a basic overview to get ya started. It really boils down to a few major things: lift heavy, eat lots of good food, and rest.  Simple to understand, tough to implement. Trust me, I know – I’ve been battling this for the past decade :)

So did I miss anything? Do we have any strength building success stories?  People who are skinny struggling to bulk up?  Big guys who lost weight and got stronger while lifting weights?  Post your questions in the comments and I’ll go ahead and answer them.

Let’s hear your strength and muscle stories!

-Steve

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