Half a decade ago I decided to get rid of my skinny look.

In the beginning I didn’t really know how building muscle worked so I read a book on bodybuilding my brother gave me.

That book introduced the concept of “the 3 pillars of bodybuilding”:

    • Training
    • Nutrition
    • Recovery

Each of the 3 pillars is essential to building muscle.

In this post I want to focus on training as it provides the vital stimulus for your muscles to grow…

But First, What Results Can You Expect?

According to a Baylor University study, under optimal conditions an untrained male can gain up to 4.8 pounds of muscle mass in just 4 weeks.

Keeping in mind the law of diminishing returns, you can expect to gain up to 25 pounds of lean muscle mass in your first year of training, provided you’re on top of your training, nutrition and recovery.

It might not sound like much for an entire year of training.

But trust me – you’ll look completely different with 25 extra pounds of lean muscle mass on you.

So without further ado:

How To Work Out To Build Muscle: The Definitive Guide

Numerous studies (similar to the one conducted by Baylor University) have concluded that resistance training is the best way to stimulate muscle growth.

Basics Of Resistance Training

Resistance training constitutes any exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an external resistance.

In order to provide sufficient resistance for our purposes, we are going to be using free weights.

Unlike machines, which force you into unnatural movement patterns, free weights allow for proper exercise execution, they recruit more muscle cells (which translates into more growth) and they improve coordination.

Our training is going to be based around big compound movements supplemented by assistance work.

Big compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press and rows recruit multiple muscle groups, thus eliciting maximal growth hormone release, as well as raising testosterone levels.

Assistance work is used to focus on specific muscle groups in order to ensure a critical concentration of intracellular amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis.

Throughout our training we are going to be utilizing the principle of progressive overload.

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload simply suggests doing a bit more every workout. That way you gradually adapt to the increasing stimulus by growing bigger and stronger yourself.

Progressive overload can mean doing more not only in terms of weight used, but also in reps, sets, training frequency, time under tension and rest intervals.

Next, we’re going to cover all of these variables so you can get an understanding of how to manipulate them depending on your goals.


First off, for any newbies who might be reading this:

  1. Rep is short for repetition.
  2. Your one repetition maximum (1RM) is simply the maximum amount of weight you can lift for 1 rep.
  3. The amount of weight you lift in relation to your 1RM is measured in percents and determines how much tension your muscles produce. A sufficient level of tension is critical for eliciting a strength or hypertrophy response.

Generally, a rep range of:

    • 1-5 reps increases your relative strength by making your nervous system more efficient
    • 6-8 reps is a compromise between strength and hypertrophy
    • 9-12 reps is best for hypertrophy
    • 13-15 reps is best for strength-endurance, but it’s also necessary for smaller muscle groups which are trained using exercises with an inherently short range of motion

Now, even though our goal is to maximize muscle gains, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train in the 1-5 rep range.

See, all muscle fibers aren’t created equal.

Muscle fibers are broken down into type I (or slow-twitch muscle fibers) and type II (or fast-twitch muscle fibers). Type II muscle fibers are broken down into type IIa and type IIb muscle fibers.

While type I muscle fibers are characterized by low power production and high endurance, type IIb muscle fibers are characterized by high power production and low endurance (with type IIa falling in between).

The different muscles in our body have a different ratio of slow-to-fast-twitch muscle fibers.

For example, the hamstrings are mainly made up of fast-twitch fibers while the soleus is mainly made up of slow-twitch fibers.

And guess what, low reps at high intensity is the only way to optimally develop type IIb muscle fibers.

Additionally, low reps allow you to use heavier weights. Heavier weights translate into a higher level of muscle tension. And as we’ve already discussed, a higher level of muscle tension translates into a stronger growth response.

What all of this means is that in our training we’re going to be using different rep ranges depending on:

  • our goal
  • the trained muscle group’s fiber make-up
  • workout periodization


A set is simply a group of consecutive reps.

There are several variables that determine how many sets you should do. Here are the most important ones:

    • In order for your muscles to be optimally stimulated, they need sufficient time under tension. This explains why there’s an inverse relation between reps and sets. Basically, the less reps you do, the more sets you do. Generally, if you train in the 1-5 rep range you’d do 5-12 sets and if you train in the 6-12 rep range you’d do 3-6 sets.
    • Adding to the previous point, the more exercises you do for the same muscle group, the fewer sets you need for each exercise.
    • The higher your training level, the higher the number of sets you need.
    • Since smaller muscles recover faster than bigger muscles, the bigger the muscle, the fewer the sets you should perform for it.
    • People are unique. Two individuals may respond differently to the same training program thus training volume should be individualized.
    • After performing a few sets you will reach what strength coach Charles Poliquin describes in his book as “the critical drop-off point”. The critical drop-off point occurs when you reach a 5-7% drop in performance. In translation, that means you can’t lift the same weight for the selected reps anymore and it’s time to move on to the next exercise as lowering the intensity (weight used) won’t provide the necessary muscle tension to elicit a growth response.
    • Muscles with a high fast-to-slow-twitch muscle fiber ratio respond better to more sets and vice versa.
    • Generally, your workouts should not exceed an hour. The total number of sets in a workout should be in the 20-25 range.

Lifting Tempo

Lifting tempo is directly related to time under tension and as we’ve already discussed, in order for your muscles to be optimally stimulated, they need sufficient time under tension.

Since your goal is to maximize hypertrophy, the optimal time your muscles should contract during a set is in the 20-70 seconds range.

Generally, when I train in the 1-5 rep range I use a 30X tempo and when I train in the 6-12 rep range I use a 313 tempo. These are only rough guidelines, though.

In case you don’t know what 30X or 313 signifies, the first digit is the negative portion of the exercise, the second digit is the pause and the third digit is the positive portion of the exercise. “X” signifies “as fast as possible”.

So if you’re doing squats, a tempo of 30X would mean you squat down for 3 seconds, you don’t pause at the bottom and you squat up as fast as possible. A tempo of 313 would mean you squat down for 3 seconds, pause at the bottom for 1 second and squat up for 3 seconds.

Rest Intervals

There are several variables that determine how much rest you need. Here are the most important ones:

    • There’s an inverse relationship between reps and rest. The more reps you do, the less rest you need.
    • When it comes to the 6-12 rep range, the more advanced you are, the shorter your rest intervals should be.
    • Generally, the bigger and stronger you are, the longer your rest intervals should be.
    • The more aerobically fit you are, the shorter your rest intervals should be.

Generally, when you train in the:

    • 1-5 rep range your rest intervals should be 3-5 mins long
    • 6-8 rep range your rest intervals should be 1-2 mins long
    • 9-12 rep range your rest intervals should be between 45 seconds and 1 min

Training frequency

Training frequency is the number of training sessions performed per week. Here are the most important variables that determine frequency:

    • How often you train a given muscle group depends on you recovery ability. Getting this right is important as training too infrequently won’t provide a sufficient stimulus for your muscles to grow and training too frequently leads to overtraining (i.e. muscle and strength loss and a suppressed immune system).
    • Small muscles recover faster than large muscles. Muscles with a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers recover faster than muscles with a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Faster recovery = higher training frequency.
    • Single-joint exercises can be performed more frequently than multi-joint exercises since the latter are more taxing on the central nervous system and involve many motor units.
    • Different individuals have different work capacity. Also individuals with a high slow-twitch muscle fiber make-up recover faster than individuals with a high fast-twitch muscle fiber make-up.
    • The higher the intensity, the lower the training frequency should be. This means that if you train heavy in the 1-5 rep range, you need more time to recover.

Workout Duration

Workout duration is the time frame from your first working set to your last working set. It does not include your warm-up.

Generally, your workouts should not exceed an hour. This is thought to be so because after the 1 hour mark your androgen levels quickly start decreasing. This decrease in androgens shifts your testosterone-cortisol ratio, leading to a catabolic effect.

Bringing It All Together

Now that we’ve covered the basic principles of training for muscle growth, it’s time to put all the theory into practice.

The Novice Lifter

If you’re just getting into resistance training and you have no prior experience in the gym, I’d advise you to start on a simple 5×5 training plan supplemented by assistance work.

5×5 training plans are based on the all-important big compound lifts and will create a solid foundation for your further development.

It is critical you learn and practice proper form on the big lifts from the very beginning. Bad habits are extremely hard to unwire and creating a solid foundation will save you from injury and frustration in the long run.

What we’re going to use here is a modified version of the stronglifts 5×5 training program. What I’ve done is I’ve modified it according the the principles we’ve discussed up until now in order to tailor it to our specific goal – to maximize muscle growth.

The program consists of two alternating workouts – workout A and workout B. The training frequency is 3 times a week with at least 1 day of rest in between workouts.

So if you decide to work out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you would do workout A on Monday, workout B on Wednesday, workout A on Friday, workout B on Monday, workout A on Wednesday and so on.

Workout ASetsReps
Bench Press55
Bent-Over Row55
Plank3hold for 1 min

Workout BSetsReps
Overhead Press55
Plank3hold for 1 min

If you’re a novice lifer and you’ve never done squats, deadlifts or any of the big lifts, I’d urge you to start with just the bar and focus on learning proper form. If you don’t execute the exercises with proper form, you’re going to stagnate earlier and ultimately you’ll be much more prone to injury.

We’re going to be using the principle of progressive overload meaning every workout you do a specific exercise, you’re going to be adding 5.5 pounds (2.5kg) to the bar. So if one day you do squats with 110 pounds, the next time you do squats, you add 5.5 pounds for a total of 115.5 pounds.

As for the assistance exercises, if dips are too hard for you or you can do less than 6 per set, start with push-ups and work your way up to dips. Same for pull-ups – if they’re too hard, just start with lat pull-downs and work your way up to chin-ups and pull-ups.

I’d advise you to stay on the program for at least 12 weeks. After that you can decide if you want to move on to a more specialized program. Then again, you might become addicted to the great results 5×5 brings!

Beyond 5×5: The Program I Used To Break Through My Plateau And Gain 35 Pounds

Stronglifts 5×5 is a beginner program and sooner or later your progress is going to come to a halt.

What you have to realize is that as you become more advanced you’re going to need more specialization and more volume in general in order to provide sufficient stimulus for your muscles to adapt and grow.

The program I’m about to share with you is the one I used to finally break through my weight gain plateau and add those extra 35 pounds that kept me from reaching my body weight goal of 200 pounds.

The program is based on the principles we’ve already covered in this post. It’s structured around big compound lifts supplemented by assistance work. We work in all rep ranges to hit all muscle fiber types for optimal growth.

Monday: Chest, triceps and absSetsReps
Bench Press35
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press38-10
Cable Crossover312-15
Narrow-Grip Bench Press35
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Tricep Extension38-10
Tricep Pushdown312-15
Plank3hold for 1 min

Tuesday: Back, biceps and forearmsSetsReps
Dumbbell Rows35
Weighted Pull-Up38-10
Cable Row312-15
Bicep EZ Barbell Curl35
Incline Bench Dumbbell Curl38-10
Dumbbell Curl312-15
Dumbbells Holds330 secs

Thursday: Legs  
Bulgarian Split Squat38-10
Leg Extension312-15
Romanian Deadlift35
Leg Curl38-10
Seated Machine Calf Raise38-10
Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise312-15

Friday: Shoulders, traps and absSetsReps
Overhead Press35
Upright Row38-10
Lateral Raise312-15
Rear Delt Scarecrow312-15
Barbell Shrugs38-10
Dumbbell Shrugs312-15
Plank3hold for 1 min

Remember the principle of progressive overload – strive to do a bit more every workout.


Training is one of the 3 pillars of bodybuilding and as such it’s vital for muscle growth.

Whether you use one of the training plans I gave you or you come up with your own – just make sure you abide by the principles we’ve covered and you’re sure to make good progress.

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