In this article we will go over the ten most important things that you need to do in order to optimize long-term muscle growth. Many of these tips could have entire articles written about them, and some of them do (which we'll link to), but that amount of detail is not required in order to understand the basics of each concept and apply them to your plan. As long as you follow these ten tips and trust in the process, you'll make great progress building muscle!
If you want to add mass to your body, you will need to eat in a surplus. This means consuming more calories than your body burns in a day. A general recommendation is to eat anywhere from 200-500 calories above your maintenance calories in order to gain muscle without gaining too much body fat. As you progress from a beginner to a more advanced lifter, you will want to go from the higher end of this range to the lower, because your ability to build muscle will become diminished the more muscular you become.
The first major reason for needing to be in a surplus is because eating more allows you to recover from harder training and higher volumes. The harder you can train and the more volume you can perform, the more muscle you will build.
The second major reason comes down to physiology. You can't add mass to your body from thin air, it has to come from somewhere. By consuming more food, your body can utilize the excess to repair and build more muscle tissue. There are very rare occasions where one may be able to build muscle tissue while not in a surplus (beginners and obese people while losing weight), but the muscle being built is quite miniscule and the duration is quite short.
This tip is straightforward and well understood as a necessity by most people. In order to build muscle, you need to consume enough protein. Protein is the building blocks of muscle tissue and if not consumed in high enough quantities, can result in hindered ability to recover between workouts and reduced muscle growth and progression.
So how much protein is enough? Most studies seem to suggest that 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is adequate and anything less than this may result in suboptimal progress. Going higher than this can be a good idea if you want to be certain you're eating enough protein, though it's likely not necessary. High amounts of protein are also very safe to consume so there should be no worries about eating too much protein.
Training volume is an extremely complex subject and I go into detail about it in [this article], but I'll try to make it short and sweet here. There are two major ways to define training volume. The first is by multiplying Sets x Reps x Load for each given exercise, which will give you what is referred to as "volume load". The second way to define volume is by counting how many sets you perform. This second method is the more practical way of defining volume in the context of hypertrophy training, and is the method we'll be referring to when using the word "volume".
Each muscle requires a minimal amount of volume to be maintained, which is called maintenance volume (MV), and a minimum amount of volume required to grow, which is called minimally effective volume (MEV). Performing more than your MEV will lead to more muscle growth, but only until you reach your maximum adaptable volume (MAV), which is the most volume your body can adapt to. Going over your MAV will not generate more hypertrophy, but risks going over your maximum recoverable volume (MAV), which is the maximum amount of volume you can perform while still recovering properly.
So in order to maximize muscle growth, you want to train over your MEV but below your MRV. The amount of volume that each individual should be performing is highly individual and impossible to predict by anyone who hasn't been training you for some period of time. That being said, a great starting point for most people would be to train each muscle group with a minimum of 10 sets per week. From there you can slowly add sets over a period of weeks to get a better feel for how much volume you need as an individual. Below is a starting point estimate for volume levels per muscle group. Credits to: https://rpstrength.com/
This topic is typically made more complicated than it needs to be and ripe with misinformation. Long story short, most rep ranges build roughly the same amount of muscle. The old claims of a "hypertrophy rep range" are a myth and should be left in the past.
Notice, however, that I said most rep ranges build the same amount of muscle. This is because the bulk of the research has found that rep ranges of 5-30 reps produce similar amounts of hypertrophy across the board, provided each set is taken near failure. Anything below 5 reps is less optimal due to how much fatigue they cause while having too few stimulative reps, and performing more than 30 reps is simply impractical.
So the take home point here is that as long as you're performing at least 5 repetitions and taking your sets near failure, you really don't need to worry about what rep range you're working in. If you want to maximize muscle growth, simply avoid training like a powerlifter and lifting extremely heavy loads too often, and stick to 5+ repetitions instead. Beyond that, you have a lot of flexibility in choosing rep ranges for each exercise.
We go into more detail about rep ranges in [this article].
There are two common types of training "intensity". There is intensity of load, which refers to how much weight is on the bar and there is "intensity of effort", which refers to how hard you push during a set in terms of proximity to failure. The closer you take a set to failure, the higher the intensity of effort. As mentioned previously, most rep ranges build roughly the same amount of muscle as long as that set is taken near failure, meaning intensity of effort is the deciding factor. This means that above all else, the most important factor that determines whether a set is effective or not, is the intensity put into it or "intensity of effort".
The closer you take a set to failure, the stronger the stimulus becomes. This is true for both strength and hypertrophy. This also means that there is an intensity threshold that should be hit in order for a set to be considered effective, and falling out of this threshold can result in suboptimal progress. It is vital that when you finish a working set that you did not leave more than 4 reps left in you. This is where the concepts of Reps in Reserve (RIR) and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) come into play.
RIR and RPE, put simply, are scales used to help you determine the intensity of a set. Which one you use is up to preference, as they essentially perform the same purpose. Reps in Reserve literally refers to how many more reps you had left in you when you stopped a set, while RPE is more of a rating of how much exertion you felt during a set or how difficult that set felt, with a rating of RPE 10 meaning maximum effort or maximum difficulty. View the images below for a better understanding of each.
When we perform any exercise, not only do we stimulate our muscles, but we also accumulate fatigue. This is why we have rest days where we allow the muscles we have previously trained to rest before we train them again - without properly recovering from previous fatigue accumulation, your training becomes less effective and your performance can begin to drop off.
This is why it's imperative to choose exercises that produce the maximum amount of stimulus with the least amount of fatigue, which is referred to as the Stimulus To Fatigue (SFR) ratio. There's no one size fits all for choosing exercises with good SFR, as everyone's body is different and some exercises may be good for one person while not so good for another.
An exercise with a good SFR should
- Cause a lot of tension (heavy sets) or burning (lighter sets) in the target muscle(s) during sets.
- Cause a decent pump in the target muscle(s) when your sets are done.
- Cause the target muscle(s) to feel tired, weak and/or sore after multiple sets.
- Not cause any discomfort, especially on the joints and connective tissues.
- Be easy to achieve a strong stimulus without requiring super high intensities (RPE/RIR) or excessive amounts of sets.
- Not weaken and tire out the surrounding muscles that aren't the primary muscles used in the exercise. For example, if barbell rows really destroy your lower back, hindering your ability to deadlift after, then consider a different movement.
Arguably the most important tip of all is applying progressive overload. Progressive overload is the concept of progressively making your workouts harder over time in order to force the body to continuously adapt and become better. For resistance training, this is typically done by adding weight to the bar, performing more repetitions and/or performing additional sets.
Progressive overload is the key to continuously progressing, whether it be strength or hypertrophy. As you get bigger and stronger, the same workouts you were doing previously become too easy, thus never taking your body close enough to it's limits (called "overload") in order to force adaptation. When this happens, you need to increase the difficulty of your workout in order to overload again, and this must be done progressively as you get stronger.
The simplest and most straightforward method of progressive overloading is to add weight and/or reps to your sets in order to maintain a healthy proximity to failure. If you are trying to progress, then you need to make sure your workouts are always using a load and rep scheme that allows you to reach at least 4 repetitions away from failure. If your sets are leaving you further from failure, it's time to apply progressive overload. We went into more detail about progressive overload [here].
A common pitfall when someone is new to resistance training is thinking they need to train all day every day and push every exercise to complete failure. This "go hard or go home mentality" is actually counter productive. While training hard and doing enough volume is vital to building muscle and strength, the time at which your body becomes bigger and stronger is when you're outside of the gym recovering from your workouts. If you do not give yourself enough time to recover between workouts, you can not only stunt progress, but begin to regress due to beating your body down and never letting it recover properly. You don't need to train every day for countless hours. As long as you're performing adequate amounts of weekly training volume, you can split that volume up in various different ways throughout the week to fit your personal preferences. We go into more detail about training frequency in [this article].
Outside of the gym it's important to make sure that you're eating properly, sleeping enough and reducing any unnecessary life stress to the best of your ability. When it comes to inside the gym, there are things you can do to make sure you're training intelligently and allowing yourself to recover between workouts. Below are some of the most important.
Manage volume properly. Make sure that you're not doing so much volume that you each consecutive week of training you go into the gym feeling beat up and weaker. If you consistently go into the gym not feeling fresh and ready, consider reducing the amount of sets you're performing.
Follow a proper workout schedule. Not scheduling your workouts properly can also negatively impact your recovery. You'll typically want at least one rest day between two workouts that target the same muscle(s). There are exceptions to this rule, but generally this will hold true. You don't want to perform multiple intense bench press sets today, then tomorrow go into the gym expecting a high quality, stimulative chest workout; you'd be better off doing those chest exercises on the same day as your bench press or taking a rest day before hitting chest again.
Perform your sets with recovery in mind. Choose exercises with a good stimulus to fatigue ratio, perform your sets with good technique to minimize stress on joints and muscles not typically used in the movement, and avoid consistently training to failure. By following these simple rules consistently, you'll be able to get a strong stimulus from your workouts without running into recovery issues.
Another often overlooked factor that can slow down long term progress is constantly changing routines or exercises, never allowing yourself to master technique and proficiency with exercises or building momentum. Building muscle tends to happen faster when you learn to master exercises that have good SFR for you as an individual and building momentum by steadily progressing on these movements long-term. By changing exercises too often, you hinder the ability to really master a movement and maximize it's stimulus by steadily progressing on it. However, this doesn't mean that rotating exercises periodically or changing your routine from time to time isn't a good idea - it's just that doing so too often can be detrimental to long term progression.
We recommend finding 3-4 exercises per muscle group with great SFR and mastering those movements to maximize their stimulus. You can change between those movements from time to time and change their rep ranges as well, but we recommend performing each movement for at least 3 weeks before changing them out for another.
Getting injured can take you out of the the game for quite a while or even permanently, so making sure you're training with proper technique is an absolute must; you won't be building any muscle if you're couch ridden due to an injury! It's very important that you always check your ego at the door and make sure to lift weights that you can use good technique with. Below, we'll list some important tips for staying injury free.
Check your ego at the door. Do not allow your form to break down just because you want to lift x amount of weight. Keep yourself safe and work up to being able to lift that weight with good form. In addition, if you're new to an exercise and aren't sure how much weight you should be lifting, err on the side of caution and start off lighter and work your way up. It's better to start out too light rather than too heavy.
Warm up properly. While there's no one right way to warm up for everyone, you shouldn't jump straight into a working set without at least performing 1-2 warm up sets. A warm up set is typically a set of the same exercise you plan on doing with very light weight in which you perform a few reps just to get the blood flowing to the muscles used. A warm up set should be no where near failure and shouldn't tire you out before your work sets. Warming up this way is more important for larger compound movements like bench press, squats and deadlifts and less important or even unnecessary for smaller movements such as bicep curls.
Stop a set if you feel discomfort. If you feel pain or discomfort during a set that feels unnatural, stop the set and rest a while before attempting the set again. If it continues, consider switching exercises, changing to a lighter weight and doing higher reps or skipping the muscle group completely. You'll make more progress long-term by skipping a workout due to discomfort than you will if you force yourself to workout and end up injured.
Don't use momentum just to perform more reps. We often get fixated on hitting a certain amount of reps with a given load, so much so that it's not uncommon for lifters to push harder than they should and allowing their form to break down just to reach a certain amount of reps. This is completely unnecessary and counter-intuitive. Remember, a muscle grows when it is taken near failure. If your goal is to perform 10 reps, but your muscles want to give out at the 8th rep, you've already adequately stimulated those muscles and allowing your form to break down by using momentum just to get 2 more reps will not be worth the injury risk and will provide little to no additional stimulus.
Training to failure is unnecessary. We previously mentioned that the closer you take a set to failure, the more stimulus is produced. However, taking a set all the way to failure will generate far more fatigue than it will additionally stimulus, and therefore it is not recommended to train to failure due to higher injury risks.