Last Updated: March 7, 2021
No point sweating it out in the gym week in week out if you don't have sound strategy and structure to your workout sessions. If you want to learn how to train for muscle gain, here we'll break down the scientific principles at play and get straight to the point so that you can start training more effectively starting today. If you just wing your weigh training plan without much thought, you are practically guaranteeing that you'll be at around the same levels of muscle size and strength a few months or a few years from now - even if you hit the gym often.
See Also: The Best Premade Mass Gain Programs
Building muscle doesn't just happen by throwing a bunch of weights around, and if you want to ensure you don't waste your precious time in the gym getting nowhere, you must apply a little strategy to your routines. After reading this article you will literally already know more than the majority in the gym who haphazardly throw weights around at random without much thought-out strategy, and if you implement these principles and stick with them you will reap the rewards over time and give yourself every chance to transform your physique from skinny to muscular and change your life in the process. Let's get straight to it.
For the best muscle-building results in the gym it's critical to focus most if not all your energy on what's called compound exercises/lifts (instead of targeted/isolation exercises). Compound exercises are the lifts that target multiple muscle groups at once, and are the most taxing on the body overall. They lead to the most muscle breakdown, and therefore have the most potential for muscle growth, but they also have the biggest potential to trigger growth hormone within the body (like Testosterone which is important for gaining muscle).
These are compound exercises that should form the majority of your workout routines if you want muscle gains:
Most of these also work your core and abdominals too. Performing less intensive, targeted exercises (also called isolation exercises, think bicep curls, flyes, calf raises, etc) do have their place but they should always be second to the big lifts if you're serious about results, and also if you're serious about building a well-balanced functional body without muscular imbalances (eg doing bicep curls all day and ignoring triceps for instance is not a good long-term strategy).
Your muscle building workouts should also concentrate on free weights like barbells and dumbbells, and not machines or cables. Using free weights will work your muscles more because you have to guide and balance the weight yourself, and also because it allows you to lift more weight (in most instances). Machine exercises can be okay for targeting specific muscle groups or for rehabilitation purposes, but they shouldn't be the focus of your routines if you want to build muscle mass effectively.
Your body will only pack on new muscle mass if you put it under more and more stress over a period of time. If you used the same amount of weight and did the same number of reps every week, then your body would adjust to this and your muscles would stay the same size. If you want to build the most muscle that you can, and as fast and effectively as you can, each and every session you should aim to slightly improve on either the weight you lifted or the amount of reps you performed.
Do this and you are bound to see gains in strength and muscle mass in no time assuming you have your diet down right. This basic principle of progression, technically called progressive overload in the fitness industry, is everything when it comes to building muscle. No progress in your lifts? No gains. There are different ways you can apply progressive overload in your muscle building workouts to apply more intensity to your muscles than what they are normally accustomed to:
If you want to build as much muscle as you can, you absolutely must use heavy weights - or at least eventually progress to that point. By heavy, I mean weights that are challenging for you. Everyone is different, and a weight that is challenging for you might be a walk in the park for that veteran lifter across the gym. Also, when I say lift heavy, that is NOT at the expense of good form. Always use proper, controlled technique when doing any weight training exercise, and only increase the weight on an exercise when you have the form down perfectly with light weights if you're new. Get injured and you ain't building any amount of muscle any time soon, and you don't want to develop bad habits either which can lead to bad posture or muscular imbalances (both of which are bad news).
If you're new to an exercise, start with a light weight to get your body accustomed to the movement and don't worry if you look silly in the gym lifting light weights to start with. Who cares what people think. As for the amount of reps to perform - that's a crucial part of effective muscle building. You'll see many guys in the gym performing 15 reps or more on an exercise. For building muscle mass, this is not what you want to be doing. You need to lift a weight that is heavy enough so that you can only perform a low amount of reps (for example, 5-10 reps). Using heavy weights with lower repetitions causes much more stress on your muscles and that's how they grow the fastest. You simply won't get the same muscle building results by lifting lighter weights for more reps, that's a fact.
See Also: How Many Reps to Build Muscle?
A common mistake newbie lifters make in the gym is training certain muscle groups either too much or too little relative to other muscle groups, as well as overtraining in general. Let's cut to the chase: you don't need to workout every day to build muscle mass effectively. Furthermore, if you train the same muscle group back to back on consecutive days, or even every other day, you're not giving your muscles enough time to rest and recover and are therefore overtraining.
How often have you heard someone proclaim they do X amount of pushups or sit-ups or [insert exercise] every single day. It's a common strategy because it seems logical, right? Train every day and achieve more gains, right? Hitting the same muscle group daily, or near daily, may be good for stamina if you're doing light weights/reps, but for muscle growth (ie hypertrophy if you want to get technical) it's ineffective at best, and clearly detrimental to strength and size gains at worst (and even risking injury too).
Muscles don't grow in the gym; during a workout you are breaking down muscle fibers, and when you are resting, eating, and sleeping is when your body repairs muscle tissue and grows back stronger.
In other words, proper rest between workouts is crucial. So how do you structure your workouts to avoid overtraining, but to also make sure you're training frequently enough?
For an effective program, make sure to structure your workouts so that you give each muscle group a few days rest. You could still train on consecutive days if you want, but never work the same muscle group back to back. Again, I would even highly suggest avoiding training the same muscle group within 2-3 days (even 4 or 5 if you structure your workouts properly).
There are 3 main ways to structure a program for muscle gain:
Full Body Workout
This is the simplest and involves training all muscle groups in one session, then having a couple days rest (or perhaps even longer) and repeating so that you're doing the workout 1-3 times a week (though I think 3x is way too much if you're going heavy). The downside is you must include a fair amount of sets in your workout to ensure you cover all muscle groups, which can drag on your workouts for a while. Another downside is that they can really be taxing and hard to recover from since you're cramming in a ton of workload in a single session.
Legs Push Pull
This is generally more effective for muscle gain as you can hit particular muscle groups harder by dedicating that entire workout for them. Legs push pull simply means splitting up your program into 3 sessions:
You then add-in rest days wherever is most convenient for you, such as in-between each workout, so long as you're hitting each session a minimum of once a week and a maximum of twice a week. It's also an effective way to structure workouts as you can group muscles together that work synergistically.
For example, when you train your chest with the bench press it involves your shoulders and triceps as well, so it would be wise to group those three muscle groups into the same workout session. This is how many popular muscle building programs in the industry are structured, and for good reason as for many it's a smart way to break up and combine the major muscle groups to hit them for maximum gains and maximum recovery.
The bro split refers to splitting up your workout routines into more targeted sessions, such as training a different specific muscle group each day for instance. These can be good for advanced trainers wanting to break a plateau, or if you enjoy hitting the gym daily and can properly structure your workouts to avoid overtraining and balance all muscle groups evenly (harder to do with bro splits). I would avoid if you're new, but even as a more experienced lifter I much prefer the simpler legs push pull.
The difference between those who build a little bit of muscle here or there, and those who consistently make gains over time to completely change their physique is the intensity during workouts. You don't have to turn into a wild animal in the gym and imitate David Goggins or your favorite Super Saiyan, but you must focus your mind and body to the task at hand and really give everything you have to progress your lifts with each sessions (or during as many sessions as you can; if you don't progress on a certain day, doesn't mean it wasn't an effective workout).
You don't have to train to muscular failure in order to gain muscle size and strength, which is when you push yourself so hard during an exercise than your muscles "fail" and you literally cannot move any more. But you do need to bring some intensity, because if you don't try and push yourself then you won't make much if any progress.
Also, remember to properly rest in-between your training sets as much as you can. In other words, give yourself enough time to recharge as much as possible before performing your next set, so that you can be as close to 100% (or thereabouts) when picking up the next weight.
Training for muscle gain is about lifting the heaviest weight you can (with good form), and if you don't give yourself enough time to catch your breath so to speak then you won't lift anywhere near as much weight (or perform anywhere near as many reps) if you force a short rest period like 30 seconds to a minute. Even 2-3 minutes may not be enough for you in-between heavy sets such as Deadlifts, Squats, Bench Press, etc. Just don't take it too far, and limit your rest to 3-5 minutes at the absolute maximum.
Once you have done the research to plan an effective training program for your particular situation, you want to monitor how your program is coming along over the next few weeks and months so you can see how you're coming along and tweak things where necessary.
Track Strength Increases
Progressive overload is the single most important thing to plan for and track. That is, making sure to write down how many reps and sets you did for how much weight, whether on paper or on your phone. Otherwise you won't know what the target is next time around; if you just wing it and try to remember what you lifted last time, you're setting yourself up to be like most in the gym who spin their wheels for weeks, months, and even for their whole life. It may be a little annoying to write everything down, but it's probably the most important thing you can do in the gym besides lifting those weights.
Track Body Weight
You'll obviously want to be tracking your overall bodyweight to get a sense of how much weight you're gaining (or not gaining). Just make sure to weigh at the same time everyday as your weight can vary quite a bit during the day. So for example, stick to weighing yourself first thing in the morning before eating breakfast, or at the end of the day before bed.
Track Body Fat Percentage
If possible you also want to monitor changes to your bodyfat percentage using skinfold calipers or another methods to make sure you're not putting on too much excess body fat during your mass gain program. Some scales also include this capability, though it's not going to be as accurate as skinfolds (which aren't perfect themselves though, but good enough to monitor relative changes over time).
Track Muscle Size Increases
Whilst not as important as tracking weight lifted and reps, tracking the actual size of each of your muscle groups using a measuring tape can be a helpful way to monitor your progress as well, and to potentially stay even more motivated - if you see your measurements improving, it will solidify your belief and give you peace of mind that your program is working. Sometimes it's difficult to notice gains in the mirror since the muscle growth process is slow. This isn't crucial to track though, and personally I never bothered with this, but it's something to consider if you perhaps need a little extra motivation and confidence that your workouts are working.
Anyway that wraps up our guide on how to train for muscle gain. Hopefully you learned a few handy tips and are now much better positioned to plan an effective mass gain program that gets results. If you want a full ready-to-go program that incorporates all of these important principles, check out our recommended bulking programs that many others have used with success over the years (including myself). Good luck and keep at it.
Should Men and Women Train the Same Way?
In terms of hypertrophy (ie building muscle), the male and female body responds in the exact same manner. Therefore, if your goal is to build muscle, whether you are a man or woman the aim should be the same - progressively increasing stress (weights) over time. Women should not fall for the myth that they will quite easily become overly muscular if they train with heavy weights, since the the female body naturally produces less testosterone and more estrogen than males (who generally produce more testosterone and less estrogen). Testosterone is the most important hormone for building muscle, so women should not fear that weight training will all of a sudden develop a "bulky" physique.
How Long Should Workouts Be to Gain Muscle?
The most effective way to train for hypertrophy is to perform low reps with heavy weights. This requires short bursts of intense effort, rather than long workouts of lower intensity (ie high rep ranges and/or light weights). That means you shouldn't drag your workouts on for too long, as the longer your total workout time is, the lower your strength and output levels will be. In other words, if you were to do a weight training session for 2 hours, the second hour is not going to be very productive. Besides, such a long workout is completely unnecessary if you split your program up into different sessions as explained earlier.
Another reason that 'less is more' when it comes to training for muscle gain is that studies have shown testosterone levels peaking within the 1 hour mark of intensive training (not necessarily after 1 hour though, and it could peak after just 15-20 minutes with intense training) and declining quite quickly soon after that timeframe. For that reason and the fact that you want to train hard and heavy, aim to keep your workouts under an hour at all times. Even 30-45 minutes can be enough if you train intensely for that period and properly split up your routine.