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How to build muscle – 8 rules for life

Building a body you’re proud of takes time and effort but it needn’t be complicated.
Man gym barbell

According to some stats we just made up, there are now approximately 16.5 trillion articles on the internet about how to build muscle. 

Most of them are guff with many written only to persuade you to buy a particular wonder supplement. Or they are needlessly complicated and/or an attempt to fix what isn’t broken, i.e. offering useless variations to well proven concepts. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the infinite number of online guides and blogs, particularly as many contradict each other with the advice on offer. 

But while we always advise spending some time with an experienced personal trainer/lifting coach, if you can, the internet can still be a useful source for basic training information and motivation.

To this end we’ve set out 8 key training rules you should consider and adopt if you want to get the most from your training.

So ignore the pistol squatting while overhead pressing on a Bosu ball during your anabolic window crap and follow our muscle-building fundamentals instead.

They’re simple and they work.

Let’s get to it.

1. Have a training goal - be clear on what you want and have a plan to get there

Why do you want to build muscle? 

Is it for general fitness, strength, sporting competition, confidence, vanity? 

How much muscle do you think you want, and how will you feel when you hit this target? 

Building muscle is like accomplishing anything else worthwhile in life. You must have a focused, meaningful reason to want to do it or you’ll quickly lose interest and not put in the hard work required.

Many people spend countless hours in the gym but don’t seem to get anywhere worthwhile. 

A key reason for this is that they haven’t spent enough time thinking about what they want to achieve and why. 

This lack of direction often leads to unfocused and inappropriate training and, predictably, subpar results.

It’s important, therefore, that you spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve from your muscle building journey and why.

Having well defined training goals will push you forward by defining success and informing your actions.

Goals also give you a measuring stick to gauge your progress and hold you accountable, especially if you publicly declare what you plan to accomplish by telling friends and family.

Be clear on what you are trying to achieve and regularly review your fitness goals to remind yourself why you’re putting in the hard graft and how great reaching your goals will feel.

Take a look at our post on goal setting to help get you on the right track.

2. Follow a workout programme that matches your goals

Unfortunately, just rocking up to the gym occasionally and banging out a few bicep curls in the squat rack isn’t going to cut it.

To see results you must follow a well-structured workout plan. 

Following a plan will support consistency, and provide a benchmark for measuring your progress over time.

But, importantly, your training programme needs to reflect your ambitions and goals. 

There’s little point in following a powerlifting plan if your goal is to look your best on the beach. Similarly, there’s little point in focusing on the key ‘show’ muscles if you want to be competing in strongman.

That said, as a novice trainee, having an ironclad focus on strength, size or specific lifts is less of an issue. 

If you’re relatively new to working out then you will see gains regardless of whether you follow a more strength or hypertrophy (muscle size increasing) focused workout.

But you still need a structured plan that follows the proven principles of effective muscle growth; appropriate volume, frequency, intensity and progressive overload.

As a new or novice lifter, a full body 3 day per week plan based around the key big compound lifts (more on this below) is a great way to start.

As you become more trained you’ll add in additional gym sessions each week and/or move to what is known as a split programme.

A split programme sees you focusing on specific muscle groups on different days. 

A classic example of this is a push/leg/pull split where, as the name implies, each session is focused on different movements and muscle groups (i.e. push day focuses on push muscles; chest, shoulders, triceps. Pull day on pulling muscles, your back and biceps).

3. Be committed, consistent and disciplined - this is a lifelong marathon, not a 4 week sprint

Commitment is key.

YOU have to make yourself hit the gym, YOU have to put the hard work in every day, YOU have to make and prepare your own healthy meals, YOU have to say no to the post work beer (sometimes!) and get some sleep.

Building decent slabs of muscle takes commitment and time, a long time.

Sure, there is such a thing as noob gains. But packing on noticeable size and lean mass requires long term commitment and a whole heap of discipline.

The biggest lie in the fitness industry is that there are quick wins and shortcuts to a ripped physique.

Let’s be clear, there isn’t.

Building muscle and getting lean and in shape means forming new positive life habits, replacing current negative ones, and embarking on a fitness journey that for most people will last years and hopefully a lifetime.

Regularly refer back to your goals and remind yourself why you are putting in the hard graft. 

Motivation is vital, especially in the early days of your training, to help ingrain the regular training habits required to see your best results.

4. Hit each muscle 2-3 times per week with sufficient volume and make use of compound lifts

- How often should you train? -

Current research points to a training frequency sweet spot of 2-3 times per week for each of the major muscle groups. 

And, as we will expand on below, research also suggests there is an optimal training volume (the number of working sets) you should complete to see improvement.

Related to this studies found lifting weights triggers a muscle growth window that lasts around 24 hours. After this time muscles growth stops and a new stimulus (another training session) is needed to start another growth window.

All this growth will accumulate over time. So the more frequently you put your body into a muscle-building state, allowing for suitable recovery and nutrition, the bigger your muscles will potentially be (accepting your genetic ceiling and the laws of diminishing returns).

While you can, in theory,  see decent gains training just twice per week, hitting the recommended volume requirement across all major muscle groups in just 2 sessions can be hard going. That is, you may find you need to spend a long time in the gym each session. 

One of the potential drawbacks to this is that as the session wears on your energy levels inevitably drop. This means you may find you can’t hit the later exercises with the required intensity to see your best results. 

This is why the smart training programmes will see you working out 3, 4 or more days per week and splitting your volume and/or muscle focus across multiple days.

So while you can achieve results by hitting the gym just twice per week, you will see better and quicker results if you can commit to 3 or 4 times per week.

If you are new to the gym, 3 full body sessions per week is a great way to start. 

As you become more experienced and want to/need to increase your weekly volume, you will be best served by moving to 4 or more days per week

- What is the ideal training volume? -

As important as your training frequency, if not more so, is your training volume.

This is the number of sets you perform each week for a given muscle/muscle group. 

Research shows that for maximum muscle hypertrophy the majority of trainees want to be hitting each muscle/muscle group for 10-20 working sets per week. 

As a new or novice lifter, you will see strength and size gains at the lower end of this range, if not even slightly lower. 

As you become more experienced you will most likely need to increase your volume to see continued growth.

This isn’t a certainty, however, and you may see continued gains for many months at relatively low volume levels, provided you continue to work at a high intensity.

But as and when you start to hit plateaus or have a particularly lagging body part, increasing volume can be an effective tactic. 

Whether you are using an off the internet programme or have devised your own, try to stick within these volume guidelines to ensure you are creating enough stimulus for muscle growth but not overdoing it and filling your gym time with junk volume.

Also note that you don’t have to try and hit each muscle group in isolation and can hit your volume targets across multiple muscle groups by utilising compound moves (see below). 

- Exercise selection -

While there is no absolute ‘best’ move for any muscle group or any one individual, there are moves that anatomically make the most sense and that allow you to put the most stress on the target muscles in the safest way. 

These tried and true lifts are top dog for a reason and should form the core of your programme.

We’re talking the back squat, bench press, barbell row and deadlift.

By allowing you to safely shift the most weight these big compound moves promote all-over muscle and strength growth.

Utilising these moves will result in improvements across your entire body, not just in the target muscles.

This is especially the case with the squat and deadlift where the sheer amount of weight you’re carrying or lifting forces your entire body to adapt, growing bigger and stronger. 

While it isn’t right to say that these moves are non-negotiable, all things being equal and assuming you have no inherent problems/injuries stopping you from performing them correctly, these big compound moves should form the core of your workouts and the majority of your weekly volume.

As you progress with your training, and your training volume increases, you will want to introduce additional exercises to work muscles though different planes/angles.

woman deadlifting
Make use of compound lifts, like the deadlift, for total body strength and size gains

- How many reps? -

Although the research is far from settled, the consensus is that lower reps (2-6) promote greater strength gains while higher reps (10-20) promote more hypertrophy (i.e your muscles grow bigger).

As a beginner it is best to stick somewhere in the middle of these ranges (6-15 reps per set) for your main compound lifts to receive the most bang for your buck.

As you progress you can mix up your rep ranges throughout the week.

For example, in one session you squat in the 6-8 rep range with a heavier weight. Then, for your next squat session, you push a lighter weight and work in the 12-15 rep range.

Remember, regardless of the number of reps dictated by your programme, effort and intensity are paramount. You should be feeling the reps in every working set and not just going through the motions counting to 3, 8, 15 or whatever your rep target is. 

You want to be working to near technical failure for at least the last working set of each exercise. 

For more information on intensity and gauging your efforts take a look at our posts on Reps In Reserve and training to failure

5. Use progressive overload to build size and strength

Your body is amazingly adaptable and without a regular change in stimulus your gains will stall.

This is where progressive overload comes in.

As the name implies the idea is that you progressively increase the stimulus you apply to your muscles over time. 

This forces your body to adapt to ever-increasing demands by becoming stronger and growing more muscle. 

you do this by, for example, increasing the weight, reps or sets you lift/perform from one training session to the next. 

You should be logging all of your training sessions and using this as a benchmark to increase your workload/training intensity over time.

For example if today is a push focused day you use the log of your last push session completed as your benchmark and add additional reps/sets, or a small weight increase (5-10% is plenty), to 1 or more of your planned exercises.

As your experience grows you may start to plan your training in multi-week blocks or cycles. 

Rather than simply using a previous workout as your benchmark, you programme your training to support reaching pre-defined intensity peaks over say a 4 or 6 week period.

Remember, form is paramount and you should only be increasing intensity where you can safely and effectively perform a given exercise at the new weight or rep/set range.

And, by design, progressive overload is a stressful way to train. So you should add a rest or deload week into your programme every 6-8 weeks. 

During a deload you lower your training intensity by reducing the number of working sets you perform, or by adding in additional rest days. 

6. Your nutrition is just as important as your lifting programme

As important as your hard work in the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition. 

The amount you eat and what you eat matters. 

fruit and veg
When building muscle, the amount you eat and what you eat matters

It’s important to understand the following basic principle, you need a base level of energy to live and additional energy to fuel both your workouts and to grow new muscle.

This energy comes from the food you consume and is measured in calories.

A calorie is a unit of energy. When you hear something described as containing 100 calories, it’s a way of describing how much energy your body obtains from consuming it.

Your body needs a minimum amount of energy (calories) each day to keep up your core functions – breathing, moving, thinking, repairing cells, keeping warm and a whole host of other essential activities that keep you alive and well. 

The amount of calories needed each day to sustain these core basic bodily functions is referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Importantly, however, your BMR is the minimum needed to keep your body running. If you want to do more, for example, lift weights and grow muscle, you need additional energy to facilitate this. 

In really simple terms the amount of calories you need to be consuming each day to build muscle is a total of your BMR PLUS the calories required to fuel your workouts PLUS the calories required to repair and build new muscle tissue.

This total figure is often referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or, TDEE. 

Strictly speaking, your TDEE is a maintenance figure. That is, consuming calories equal to your TDEE would maintain your current weight. 

To increase your weight, or build muscle, you need to consume calories above your TDEE. 

Conversely, if you want to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than your TDEE figure.

So, you need excess energy to build muscle (that is, you need to be in a caloric surplus), but the amount is relatively small in terms of extra daily calories.

Despite this there are countless articles online promoting mega high calorie diets. 

For the vast majority of us, however, these diets are neither necessary nor sustainable and often end in excessive fat gain. 

High calorie bulks are followed by weeks of ‘cutting’ to try and get rid of this excess fat, usually to end up back where you started with minimal actual muscle gain!

Similar myths and over complications surround weight loss. 

There are numerous articles claiming magic weight loss results and/or that carbohydrates are evil and must be eliminated with an equal number saying the same about fats. 

The truth is both absolutely have their place in a healthy diet and the number one rule for losing weight is to ensure you are in a caloric deficit. 

That is, you are burning more calories than you are consuming.

We have a more detailed primer on nutrition for muscle gain here which covers in more detail how many calories you need and how to track your progress. 

But stick to the following guidelines and you won’t go too far wrong:

  • Use an online TDEE calculator (like this one) to get a ballpark daily calorie requirement*
  • If trying to gain wight/muscle, add 200-300 onto this initial TDEE figure. This is your daily calorie target. 
  • Log and track everything you eat and make sure you hit your daily calorie and macro figures**
  • For your daily macros:
    • Make sure you are getting 1.6g – 2.0g of protein in per kg of bodyweight (this will likely be around 20-25% of your daily calories)
    • Make sure you are getting a minimum of 1g of fat in per kg of bodyweight (this will likely be 25-30% of your daily calories)
    • Fill the rest of your calories from carbohydrates (likely 45-60% of your calories)
  • For all your food sources, focus on natural, unprocessed whole foods
  • Drink lots of water and eat your damn vegetables
  • Track your weight consistently and, if looking to gain weight, aim to add around 0.25 – 0.5% of your bodyweight per week (or, for an ‘average’ adult, likely ½ – 1 lb per week)
  • If the scales aren’t shifting, and you’re seeing no improvement in your gym performance,  increase your daily calorie intake by 200-300. If you are gaining weight faster than this decrease your calorie intake by 200-300. Repeat these adjustments, with smaller/larger increments, as necessary
  • Remember, your weight, strength gain and appearance are the best indicators of how many calories you need

*The figure you are given will invariably be wrong but this is ok! The variation in how we metabolise what we eat and how our bodies use energy is too broad for there to be an exact formula. This is fine, however, as we just want a ballpark starting point for us to build from. 

**you will never get a 100% accurate calorie and macro count for everything you eat so don’t sweat being off by small margins. Just make sure to log everything and get as close as you can. The regular weigh-ins will tell you if you are eating too much/too little.

7. Your rest and recovery is just as important as your nutrition

For your body to do the actual “growing bigger and stronger” part, it needs to be allowed sufficient rest and nutrition for the recovery to take place.

A significant part of muscle recovery and growth occurs while you are sleeping. So make sure you are getting that magic 7-8 hours sleep per night and find a sleep routine that works best for you.

You also need to allow sufficient rest between gym sessions.

While recovery rates vary by individual, as a new or novice lifter, it is sensible to allow 36-48 hours between each gym session, particularly if your sessions are full-body focused. 

So if you are working out on a Monday, take Tuesday off and return all guns blazing on Wednesday.

More experienced lifters running higher volume/higher frequency programmes require shorter recovery periods. But they should still avoid working the same muscles on back to back days. 

E.g. if Monday is an upper focused day (as per the popular upper/lower split) Tuesday would then focus on your legs. Wednesday can then be either a rest day, or you could complete another upper focused day. 

This way you are still allowing 48 hours recovery for individual muscles. 

Regardless of the training frequency you employ, it’s best to always allow at least one full day out of the gym per week to support recovery.

- Don’t neglect stretching and flexibility/mobility work -

Book into a regular class at your gym or get online and find a whole body stretch and flexibility routine you can do at home (but do it after, or completely separately to, your strength based workouts).

Dedicating just 15-20 minutes a day to improving your mobility and flexibility will pay huge dividends now and in the future. This becomes ever more essential as you become more trained and hit your later years.

For maximum gains, health and longevity you should look at mobility and flexibility as an essential part of your training.

8. Don’t get hung up on the numbers and comparing yourself to others - progress is being a better version of yourself than you were the week before

Where you are on your fitness journey is individual to you and you alone, just as everyone else’s current position is individual to them.

There will always be someone bigger, faster, stronger than you thus competing with others is pointless.

Take inspiration from the YouTube superstars and the ripped guys and girls in your local gym but don’t compare yourself to them.

Focus on yourself and your personal goals.

Progress isn’t lifting more than anyone else in the gym, it’s being a better version of yourself than you were the week before.

Final thoughts

The gym world can be confusing with its plethora of conflicting advice and guidance.  

There are, however, key fundamentals that have stood the test of time and proven time and again to deliver results. 

Clear purpose, consistency, following key training principles around volume, frequency and progressive overload, paying attention to your nutrition and recovery. 

These are the simple things that work. 

Learn to love, live and breathe them, and the gains will take care of themselves.

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Size Guide

Measure around the fullest part of your chest – keep the tape measure close under the arms

Size

Chest – Inches

Chest – CM

Small

31 – 34

78.7 – 86.4

Medium

35 – 38

88.9 – 96.5

Large

39 – 41

99.1 – 104.1

X-Large

42 – 45

106.7 – 114.3

2X-Large

46-48

116.8 – 121.9

Size

Chest – Inches

Small

31 – 34

Medium

35 – 38

Large

39 – 41

X-Large

42 – 45

2X-Large

46-48

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