Last Updated: Jan 1, 2019
One of first things to learn as a skinny-guy / hardgainer / ectomorph / newbie is how to plan and execute the best muscle building workouts for effective muscle mass gains.
No point sweating it out in the gym week in week out if you don't have a sound strategy and structure to your workout sessions otherwise you're wasting valuable time and energy and will likely only ever get average results.
There is a science to effective muscle building workouts, so understanding these proven principles that other guys have successfully used before you to plan the most effective workouts is a wise move.
If you just wing your weigh training plan you will practically guarantee you'll be around the same size and strength a month, a year, and 10 years from now (which is the norm if we're being honest). Not hating; just being realistic. The guys that get great results over and over again, and for the long term to eventually completely transform their physiques...they are implementing smart muscle building workouts. Let's stop beating around the bush and get into the most important principles to keep in mind when designing the best training program for max results.
Want to Build Muscle? What NOT to Do
First of all it's good to be aware of what you shouldn't be doing. The following are just a few of the common workout mistakes beginner lifters make that will no doubt hamper the effectiveness of your muscle building workouts:
Heavy Weights + Lower Reps = Mass Gain 101
If you want to build as much muscle as you can, you absolutely MUST use heavy weights. 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 the guy next to you. Don't let that discourage you, and don't compare yourself to others.
When I say lift heavy, I don't mean that at the expense of good form though. Always use good form and only increase the weight on an exercise when you have the form down perfectly.
Think about it...if you get injured then your muscle building goals will be stopped right in their tracks so it's not worth it. Plus, if you use incorrect form you are hurting your posture and possibly developing muscular imbalances which is bad news. Trust me on that one...I learnt the hard way. 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. To learn more about why lower reps are most effective to increase muscular mass, check out our popular article on How Many Reps to Build Muscle.
Compound Lifts vs Isolation Lifts for Mass Gain
To build muscle the most effectively, you absolutely must focus on the bigger, compound lifts that require a lot of different individual muscles to complete the movement, which therefore triggers more overall muscle breakdown (which is what you want to grow).
Plus, compound exercises have no equal when it comes to building size and strength because they also help to stimulate growth hormones in your body such as testosterone as they really tax your body and nervous system. This means you'll feel sore the next few days, more sore than with easier exercises, but that's how you get as strong and big as possible.
These exercises are the foundation of the best muscle building workouts for weight gain and muscle growth:
These are by far the best exercises for packing on significant muscle mass, and you should take the time and effort to learn how to perform them correctly and safely. Some of these compound lifts may be a little intimidating and/or difficult to perform if you're brand new to bodybuilding, and you might get discouraged by this and opt for an easy workout routine.
But if you're serious about maximizing your time in the gym and transforming your physique for real, whatever you do don't wimp out and ignore them. Take the time to ease into them and learn them properly; you'll eventually learn to love them. Also, don't go heavy at first and always start light as a beginner. Isolation exercises, which are those that target a single muscle group such as bicep curls, can be a good way to finish off a workout to really target a specific muscle group. However, never base your program around them, and always do them AFTER your main, big lifts as you want to put all your energy into those as they give the most bang for your buck.
Free Weights vs Machines for Building Muscle
Your muscle building workouts should concentrate on free weights and not machines. Using free weights will work your muscles more because you have to guide and balance the weight yourself, and this means you will build more muscle than you could with machines. Machine exercises are handy for targeting specific muscle groups, but only AFTER you have performed the main compound exercise work. They should not form any basis for your workouts.
Go Hard or Go Home. Lame? Or Real?
Without getting too serious here, if you want results and to transform your physique and strength for real, you should kinda liken the act of hitting the gym similarly to going to a mini war - it's a mental and physical battle against your muscles, against your previous best, against your own laziness and weakness. A little dramatic perhaps, and I'm not saying you should actually think like you're going to war and wear a commando outfit to your local gym to be laughed at, but building muscle won't happen if you just "hang out" at the gym.
You gotta bring a certain level of intensity to your training. Doesn't mean you need to shout at the gym and have everyone stare at you like some juiced up freak who's perhaps just out for some attention, but head to your mission with a clear mission to smash out all your sets and reps with focus and intensity, and give it your all.
The more/heavier reps and sets you do (whilst not overtraining and not lifting too heavy that your form suffers), the more muscle tissue you'll be able to break down during your workout, which means the more potential for new muscle tissue to then by developed by your body during your rest and recovery stage. So, the old kinda-overused saying "go hard or go home" is in this case quite scientific after all.
Although, keep something in mind... You don't HAVE to train to muscular failure to get good results from your muscle building workouts, but you should focus on performing every set you do with as close to 100% intensity as you can (and aim to beat the amount of reps/weight you did last time).
How Often Should You Workout for Muscle Gain?
When trying to build muscle a lot of misinformed people believe that the more you train, the better, and hitting the gym every single day is the best strategy for muscle growth. Kinda sounds like it would make sense though, right? The more you put into something...the more you should get out of it.
However, in reality, this common logic doesn't really apply to building muscle and bodybuilding. Overtraining your muscles is a very real, very common problem that does indeed sabotage guys. Giving your muscles and overall body (nervous system, joints, etc) plenty of time to rest, including days where you don't do any workouts, is crucial to repairing the heavily broken down muscle tissues from your heavy workouts and coming back fresh, stronger than before, and 100% to give it your all again.
A proven way of structuring muscle building workouts that I and many other hardgainers have successfully used for great results is to work each muscle group once or twice per week, and that's all. If you train with full intensity on every set, once a week for each muscle group is actually all you will need to trigger maximum muscle growth, despite what some people may say. This is coming from personal experience, and not just theorizing. But twice a week is great, too.
Working out each muscle group three times a week is where you may start overdoing it a little. You could get away with it, but it's just not necessary. Remember that building muscle is a maraton, not a spring, and you can only grow so much new muscle tissue at a time so it's no rush. And like I said, once to twice a week is all you really need if you train hard, use the right exercises, focus on progressing slightly each sessions, etc.
Split vs Full Body Routines for Muscle Building Workouts
A split program is a common bodybuilding workout style and is popular because it works and allows you to really target individual areas of your body. You should also aim to group muscles that normally work together into the same workout session in what's called a split program.
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. A typical split routine for building muscle might look like this (and remember a warm-up and cardio before each session, a cool down, and rest days in-between workouts):
Session 1: Legs, Abs/Core
Session 2: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Session 3: Back, Biceps
As for doing full body workouts for mass gain, despite what some guys might say who only ever do split routines, they absolute can work well for building size and strength too however you gotta be smart about it. I've done both types of routines over the years, split and full body, and have seen good results with either type of program.
But yeah, if you wanna do a full body workout to maximize muscle growth, make sure you balance the whole program out by covering every single muscle group and working each group as much as the other. As for how many times to go a full body routine, personally I would do it twice a week which gives you plenty of time for rest days inbetween as it's going to be real taxing. Overall I prefer split routines for the most part because doing an intense full body session that covers all your muscles is really draining for the next couple of days. But your call, warrior, as both can work if you design it well.
More Tips on Planning the Best Muscle Building Workouts
We have covered the basics to structuring great muscle building workouts. Following these guidelines for your own workouts will maximize your muscle size and strength. The following articles go into much more detail on specific training topics and contain some true secrets to muscle gain that most people simply do not know:
How To Overcome An Exercise Plateau
When you reach a plateau in your weight training it can be very frustrating because your muscle gains come to a halt. Learn how to overcome a plateau easily with my tips in this article.
The Most Useful Tool to Building Muscle Fast
Explains the importance of progression in your weight lifting workouts, and why a pen a paper is a very powerful tool to building a great physique.
Build More Muscle Mass by Resting Properly Between Sets
Resting between sets is something that most people don't go about the right way. Learn the best method of resting to build the most muscle that you possibly can!
How Many Reps is Best to Gain Muscle?
Explains why using lower reps in your workouts is much more effective than using higher reps for muscle growth, and why a rep range of 5-7 is ideal.
Weightlifting Warm Up The Right Way
Learn the importance of a proper warm up before your heavy weight training sets and details on how to perform an effective warm up routine.
Training Too Much Can Prevent You Building Muscle Mass
If you're looking to gain lean muscle mass then you should realize that spending more time in the gym isn't necessarily better. Over-training is a very common problem that beginner weight lifters make.
The Muscle Pump Misconception
A lot of weight lifters think that the "muscle pumps" they get in the gym has something to do with how much muscle they will build. This is a common bodybuilding myth and we give you the truth here.
Weight Lifting At Home
Building a strong, muscular body doesn't have to be done in a normal gym. This article takes a look at the advantages of a home gym and what equipment you will need for your muscle building workouts.
A Critical Muscle Building Tip
A very interesting tip on how to achieve the very best muscle gains you are capable of and why only a fraction of time you spend in the gym will lead to actual muscle growth.
Weight Lifting Basics: Choosing A Gym
Takes a look at the factors you should consider when choosing a gym to sign up with.
Best Time For Weight Lifting Workouts
When is the best time to train for muscle gain? Is it early in the morning when you first get up? Or late at night before bed? Read all about timing your workouts here.
Gain 10 Pounds Of Muscle In 3 Days
If you believe the ads that make outrageous claims such as this, then you have a lot to learn my friend. This article exposes the truth on these miracle "B.S" programs or supplements that pollute bodybuilding magazines and websites.
How Do Muscles Grow
Learn the basic science of bodybuilding with our article on how muscles actually grow. If you want to see great results with your muscle building workouts then you will want to understand how this works.
Muscle Fiber Types Explained
Learn about the three main types of muscle fibers here. Most importantly, find out which fibers contribute to muscle building and how you can focus on stimulating these particular fibers.
A Thought on Gaining Muscle FAST
Learn this one secret that will improve your odds of achieving fast muscle gain tenfold! Gaining a lot of muscle mass in a short amount of time is what most bodybuilders strive for.
The Best Weight Lifting Exercises
Find out which are the best exercises for you to include in your muscle workouts. For muscle gain you must focus on compound exercises like I mentioned just before.
8 Mental Tricks To Build Mass Muscle
Here you will learn some special tricks to help you push through pain barriers at the gym. Cranking out just one additional rep can make all the difference.
Should You Train To Muscle Failure
What is training to muscular failure and should you train this way to gain muscle? Find out the truth here about training to failure.
Faster Recovery After Workouts For Building Muscle
Learn how to recover faster after your intense weight training workouts with these handy tips.
Hopefully this article has helped, but always remember to never get stuck in research land - information is great, but what's infinitely more important and the only thing that actually matters to get results and change your life is to be hitting the gym week in week out, with a properly structured, well-balanced and optmized training and nutrition plan for your specific goals (which if you're reading this is likely building muscle mass as a hardgainer/skinny guy).
To do that there's essentially 3 paths you can take, each with their pros and cons:
Path A: Design Your Own Mass Gain Program (cheapest)
Learn all the crucial basics, principles and over-arching strategies you need to know about planning the best well-balanced, science-based, all-natural mass building program for your specific goal and workout/diet preferences with our pillar 7-step comprehensive guide for beginner lifters and future heros. If you don't want to spend any money at all, this is how you do it, but be sure to thoroughly research all aspects of your DIY muscle gain program as an unbalanced/bro-science/straight-up-bad program can mean little to no gains at best, and bad posture, injuries and a whole lot of having to backtrack later at worst.
Path B: Follow A Proven Mass Gain Program ($)
To save time having to research and plan the best muscle building program for your specific goals as a hardgainer/skinny-guy/skinny-fat-dad-bod/whatever, there are indeed some excellent pre-made online programs out there that have stood the test of time in getting guys great results. It can give you a great head-on your transformation journey, and will make things simpler for you as it's simply a matter of executing a specific eating and workout program and not having to worry about getting all the little important details of your program on-point.
Sean Nal's hardgainer transformation program (you can see my full review and before/after pics using the program here) is the complete all-in-one online program I'd recommend to most people and especially beginners, and is the one I personally got the most out of when I first started.
Ignore any slick marketing, this guy's the real deal and easily one of the smartest hardgainers-turned-fitness-models I've come across online. Vince Delmonte's Mass Gain program comes in at a close second, who's another smart guy with the real-world results to back it up, who has another effective and proven step by step online program that's helped thousands of guys transform over a few months (rather than years).
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer ($$$)
The most expensive option to achieve your dream physique, but if you have the money to spend (1 on 1 coaching can quickly add up in costs) then ensure you pick a trainer who understands the science behind muscle gain, fat burning, supplementation, nutrition, etc, and most importantly choose one who practices what they preach and has similar results to what you want. If you're a hardgainer, ideally you'll want a trainer who has been in your shoes before and started out as a skinny hardgainer themselves and managed to build muscle successfully, otherwise they may not understand the best course of action for you and give you unhelpful generic advice.
Whichever path you choose - stick with it for long enough, don't give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but you understand that last sentence I said you won't need it ;)
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)