Last Updated: Aug 10, 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 in your muscle building workouts. The following are just a few of the common training mistakes beginner lifters fall victim to quite often, that will no doubt hamper the effectiveness of your overall bodybuilding and strength gain program:
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 Mchines 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 (1-2x a week)
Session 2: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (1-2x a week)
Session 3: Back, Biceps (1-2x a week)
This is how the most popular, effective muscle building programs in the industry work for the most part, and for good reason as for most people it's a smart way to break up and combine the major muscle groups to hit them for maximum gains and maximum recovery. 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, intelligently-crafted (based on science-backed principles) and overall well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan to effetcively build muscle as a skinny guy (AKA a lifting hardgainer). When you have a great program used by other successful hardgainers that have gone before you, you can't go wrong if you simply stick with it.
But here's the thing:
You don't just randomly stumble upon a highly-effective program that's designed specifically for hardgainers by simply browsing a popular fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill personal trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in the classroom). No, instead, to create the best weight training and nutrition program for maximum results, you must be a little more selective in the program you choose to follow.
So, here are the 3 different paths you can take to guarantee you follow a finely-tuned, effective program that will leave nothing to chance and give you the best muscle building and strength gains of your life (again, if you simply execute and don't quit after a mere week 'cause you don't notice a change...).
See our flagship 7-step introductory guide to building muscle for beginners which covers all the basics you need to know, and guides you through designing and creating an effective program for muscle gain without getting fat. If you don't want to spend any money buying a pre-made program or finding a (good) personal trainer, and/or you're the DIY type who enjoys researching every little detail and knowing about how everything works and fits together, this is probably the path for you if you have the patience.
If you don't want to take the time to plan your own natural bodybuilding plan from scratch, following an already made, high-quality, credible program from a true expert in this field can save you a ton of time.
It can give you a great head start on your transformation journey and makes things a whole lot simpler as it's simply a matter of understanding what the program involves, how to do perform all the exercises, how to execute on the included meal plans (taking into account your own perferences as you'll want to tweak any pre-made diet plan for your own needs), and then simply executing week in and week out.
Sean Nal's popular hardgainer program is the one I currently recommend most, as it's the most complete, easy to follow program for beginners that I've seen (and I've experimented with many over the years). It's also the exact program that initially changed everything for me and I owe a fair part of my overall hardgainer success (going from 132lbs/60kg to 220lbs/100kg - mostly muscle) to being fortunate enough to having stumbled upon this program when I was struggling with gaining weight and building muscle. See my full review of Sean Nal's program here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't for everyone though as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing, and most importantly has got great results themselves (ideally starting out in similar shoes to you) can be quite costly. This is the path you should probably really consider if you have any type of serious injury though.
Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and self-confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but if you really understand that last sentence, you're not gonna need it, friend. I wish you nothing but success.
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)