The Best Way to Gain Muscle Mass: How to Construct the Ideal Muscle-Building Workout

Updated on May 20, 2018
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Gain muscle mass
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The Best Way to Gain Muscle

Are you having a hard time gaining the muscle mass you want? Well, you're not alone. Millions of people go to the gym year in and year out, yet never really make the sort of progress they want. But the reason for this is simple - they are not training in an effective manner. So if you want to change that and start making some real progress, the best way to gain muscle mass is to do the following:

Focus On Compound Exercises

Doing isolation movements such as triceps kickbacks, concentration curls and leg extensions will do little or nothing to put muscle on you. You need to focus most of your attention on the big compound lifts if you want to get big. These include squats, deadlifts, bench press, bent-over rows, overhead press, chin-ups and parallel bar dips. These work the most total muscle when you perform them, and they also stimulate the highest levels of hormonal response, so doing them will pack muscle on you faster than anything else!

Split Your Body Up Correctly

If you are a beginner or early intermediate the best body part split for you is no split at all. Instead you should do a brief full body workout three times per week. This will enable you to train each muscle group more frequently, so you will make better progress over time.

When you are a bit more advanced however, you will be using heavier weights and training with a higher level of intensity, so you'll now make better progress if you split your body up. However a basic upper/lower split routine, training three or four times per week, will still yield better results for most people than the usual body part splits you see in most of the muscle mags.

So if you were using this approach training three times per week, you would simply alternate your two workouts (an upper body workout and a lower body workout), which would mean you would be training each body part every 4 or 5 days. Or if you recover well enough you could do both workouts twice per week. Try both ways to see which works best for you.

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Train At The Right Rep Range

Using lighter weights for 12 reps or more will do little to stimulate muscle growth in naturally skinny individuals. You need to lift heavy if you want to grow big.

However training below 5 reps, while great for developing strength, will not do much for growth either.

So the ideal rep range for building big, strong, hard muscle is 5 - 8 reps. Use this for most of your training if your main aim is to get big.

Use The Right Training Volume

You also need to do the right amount of sets. Too few will not provide a sufficient stimulus for optimum muscle growth, but too many could soon result in recovery issues. So the right amount for most people is about 3 or 4 sets per exercise (and 4 - 6 exercises per workout) when working in the of 5 - 8 rep range.

Do a couple of lighter warm-up sets first though to properly prepare yourself for the heavier work.

Keep Adding Weight To The Bar

This is known as progressive overload. You must keep getting stronger if you want to get bigger, so always strive to add weight to the bar whenever you can. If you are a beginner this might be every workout, but when you have been training a while your progress will slow down and you won't be able to do it as often. But do it as often as you can.

Know When To Stop

However, although you need to train hard, don't go overboard. If you train to failure (or, worse still, do forced reps) too often you will only exhaust your central nervous system. And if your CNS is burnt out you won't be building any muscle any time soon.

So a good way to do it is to start with a weight that you could do 7 or 8 reps with, but just do 3 sets of 5 (after your warm-up sets). Build up to 3 sets of 8 and then increase the weight a little and drop back to 3 sets of 5. Continue to advance in this manner for as long as you can; but if your progress stalls reduce the weight a little and build back up again. By cycling your intensity in this way you'll be able to make progress for much longer, without encountering that dreaded plateau.

It's also important to get your workouts done relatively quickly. So you should aim to finish within about an hour. If you train for much longer than this your testosterone and growth hormone levels will drop off and your cortisol levels will increase. High cortisol levels cause muscle loss and fat deposition, which is the last thing you want.

And finally, take a short break from training occasionally. This is not so important when you are just starting out, but when you've been training a while you'll benefit from taking a week or so off three or four times per year. This allows your body to fully recuperate from all the hard work you've been doing, so you'll make better progress when you return to training again.

These then are the main principles you need to know in order to construct an effective workout program; and training in the way described here is without doubt the best way to gain muscle mass for the vast majority of people. Add to this a good muscle building diet that provides you with a calorie surplus and sufficient protein (about 0.8 - 1.0g per pound of bodyweight per day), and ensure you get sufficient rest and sleep, and you’ll finally be able to achieve the results you’ve been looking for.

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