If your fitness goal can be distilled to five words: "I want to get big," then what you will need to do in order to achieve that goal is build significant muscle mass. Little research has been done specifically on best practices for muscle building, however, millions upon millions of dollars have been channeled into building the most effective training programs possible for professional and Olympic athletes and rehabilitating muscles in medical settings. By drawing from that research, we can extrapolate scientifically grounded advice on how to make major muscle gains.
Using Science to Build Big Muscles
A primary goal for many individuals engaged in weight training—or contemplating the initiation of a weight-lifting regimen—is to build big muscles. To make significant, consistent progress toward that goal, it's valuable to have an understanding of certain biomechanical principles.
Studies show that the strength of a given muscle in an adult human is proportionate to its size. In other words, an equally sized cross-sectional area of muscle from any two men or women (assuming one does not have an exceptional training background) will be able to generate approximately the same amount of force. At baseline, all human muscle tissue has approximately the same strength capacity. This means that the greater the cross-sectional size of a muscle, the greater the strength. When it comes to utilizing that strength, however, things become far more complex. Factors such as bone structure, muscle attachments, and neural components all affect a person's ability to perform feats of strength. Though two individuals may have equivalent cross-section areas of muscle, they may in reality perform quite differently when given a test of strength.
So, how does this knowledge relate to the pursuit of bigger muscles? If you want to increase your muscle mass, you should focus on increasing the cross-sectional area of your muscles. As your muscle tissue increases in size, its innate strength capacity increases too (though as discussed in the previous paragraph, your successful utilization of that capacity will not necessarily track along the same growth curve). The most effective way to train for muscle growth is to work to increase the amount of force you can generate.
This training mentality will have far more impact on whether or not you reach your goal than the specific exercises you do will. Deciding which types of exercises to include in your training program will determine which muscles you stimulate, while the methods behind that program will be the force helping you to build muscle mass.
Though scientists have been investigating muscle growth and recovery for centuries, much of what we know about effective training principles can be dated back to the years just after World War II. During this era, the approach we now know as resistance training began to solidify. It has proven to be a highly effective method for rapidly building muscle, a key priority for those in the medical community seeking to help patients move through a targeted rehabilitation program to recover as quickly as possible. Those engaged in high-level athletic pursuits have also put this knowledge to good use in order to maximize performance across sports disciplines.
What research consistently shows is that an approach known as progressive resistance training produces the most impressive muscle growth results regardless of an individual's initial fitness level or size.
What Is Progressive Resistance Training?
The earliest references to the concept of progressive resistance training come from the work done by an army physician named Thomas L. DeLorme in the latter years of WWII. American military hospitals could not keep up with the number of orthopedic injuries afflicting servicemen. In part, this had to do with the overwhelming number of soldiers who needed treatment, but rehabilitation protocols requiring long recovery times worsened the situation.
In 1945, Dr. DeLorme began experimenting with a novel rehabilitation protocol based on strength training exercises used to help him recover from a childhood illness. DeLorme hoped this type of heavy training might be equally beneficial for the injured servicemen. The rehabilitation protocol he developed involved multiple sets of heavy weight-lifting exercises that required patients to lift their 10-repetition maximum.
By 1948, DeLorme had evolved the system so that it featured progressively heavier sets of 10-repetition maximum (10 RM) lifts. He called it Progressive Resistance Exercise. His high-intensity approach to rehabilitation proved to be substantially more effective than previous protocols, leading it to be widely adopted by both military and civilian physical therapists. The publication of a book on his technique in 1951, as well as his academic publications on progressive resistance exercise, further legitimized his strength training protocol among other physicians and medical professionals and formed the foundation for further inquiries into the science behind resistance exercise.
5 Key Elements of Progressive Resistance Training Programs
Research done on progressive resistance training since its inception has confirmed the beneficial effects of much of the original protocol. Before diving into specific concerns relevant to the core elements of the protocol, let's review some general findings about progressive resistance training.
Studies have shown that completing two sets at maximum effort generates faster increases in growth and strength than performing a single set. Completing three may yield somewhat improved results compared to two, but no evidence indicates that carrying out more than three sets brings additional benefits though it also does not appear to impede results.
With the exception of a warm-up set, each set should be carried through to the point of exhaustion at which it is not possible to complete another repetition. The ideal length of time to rest between sets falls anywhere between a minimum of 1 minute and a maximum of 5. Within that range, all rest periods seem to influence growth and strength gains in comparable ways.
When developing a progressive resistance training program, the key elements to consider include:
Researchers have determined that repetitions ranging from 3 to 12 result in positive changes. It also appears to be vital to incorporate at least one set of 10 RM lifts into each session. For those new to lifting weights, that means completing a set at a weight heavy enough that you cannot complete more than 10 repetitions.
Within that structure, you can vary the sets however you like. You might do a set of 3 repetitions followed by a set of 6 then a set of 10, or a set of 12 followed by a set of 11 followed by a set of 10, or three sets of 10.
Some have proposed that the inclusion of the 10 RM set serves primarily as a control for researchers, but given that it falls within the recommended range for repetitions, there's no real reason not to include it.
Given that "progression" appears in the name of this training approach, it should come as no surprise that it's vital. The concept behind progression is to increase the amount of weight you lift from session to session.
This element is why it can be quite helpful to include the 10 RM set, which can serve as a control. Each week you should simply incrementally increase the amount of weight used for that set.
Scientists have found that quick contractions catalyze more considerable increases to strength and growth than slow ones. That said, the speed at which you can lift heavy weights will necessarily be slower than that at which can you perform other athletic movements.
You should complete each movement as quickly as you can without sacrificing proper form. That means that you should avoid jerking the weight or attempting to use momentum to power through the movement. Instead, you should complete the movement rapidly yet smoothly.
Some benefits have been shown when individuals engaged in just one progressive resistance training session per week. For individuals with prior training experience, the greatest benefits appear to be derived when they train each muscle group no more than 3 times weekly. Those without training experience, who therefore will be using lighter weights, can see impressive results from training up to 5 days each week.
Finding the correct balance between pushing yourself and overworking your muscles can be challenging. It can be very useful to work with a trained professional, especially at the outset.
This can be one the most frustrating elements of any physical training regimen. At some point, the reward for your hard work will be that you reach a plateau, meaning your muscle mass and strength gains will begin to slow. At some points, you may be progressing so slowly that you feel you are at a standstill.
Though progressive resistance training has been shown to produce faster, better results than other methods, no training program can eliminate the plateau effect.
Typically, you will experience rapid changes to muscle mass and strength during the first 3 to 6 months of your training. Then those gains will begin to slow down. Though this can be discouraging, try to frame it as an opportunity to step back and look at the whole picture of your physical health. Are you weaker in certain areas? Could you improve your diet? Once you've established an effective overall training program, you can begin to finesse specific elements to produce further results.
"I Want to Get Big" — Combining Physical Movement, Recovery, and Nutrition to Reach That Goal
"I want to get big," you say. To follow through on that intention, you will need to craft a carefully calibrated training program that stimulates muscle growth throughout your entire body.
Jumping from one flashy plan to the next tends to be ineffective, no matter what tempting promises the creators wave in front of you. You're far more likely to see the results you're hoping for if you stick to one plan firmly rooted in the best, most up-to-date science on building muscle (as explained in the preceding section).
Your plan for building muscle should take into account three foundational concerns: physical movement, recovery, and nutrition. In this section, we'll provide in-depth information to help you formulate a training program suited to your particular needs.
Physical Movements: How to Form the Foundation for Major Muscle and Strength Gains
Though this advice might not have the panache of certain branded workout programs, the truth is that when it comes to building muscle mass, basic bodyweight exercises are some of the most effective tried-and-true physique developers.
There’s a reason why bodyweight exercises like pull-ups/chin-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups have been a staple of military workouts over the course of history—it’s because they maximize your strength and fitness, fast. In fact, it’s possible to develop nearly every muscle group on your body—quickly and effectively—by utilizing this type of approach.
Moreover, bodyweight exercises are also a great indicator of a person’s overall strength. Many images of Arnold Schwarzenegger from his envy-inducing muscular ‘70s heyday show him performing a wealth of classic bodyweight exercises, such as pull-ups and dips.
The Benefits (and Drawbacks) of Bodyweight Exercises
Of course, Schwarznegger included more than just bodyweight exercises in his training regimen, and if you hope to model your muscle gains after his, you will likely need to do the same.
That said, it is possible to build big muscles solely through bodyweight conditioning. For instance, consider the physique of Olympic gymnasts, who have built their muscles over years of intense bodyweight workouts. In order to do that, however, you must consistently increase the difficulty of the bodyweight exercises you do, which many people struggle to put into practice.
If you're new to strength training, using bodyweight exercises as the foundation of your plan will help you cultivate the type of raw strength necessary to stack a bar with heavy weight plates and perform weight-lifting movements like squats, deadlifts, and presses with proper form.
Bodyweight exercises can also be advantageous in that they can be performed with only minimal equipment, if any equipment is required at all. Many individuals simply can’t find the time to make it to the gym as frequently as they’d like. Therefore, bodyweight exercises that can be carried out in a home or office-based gym, can be a valuable alternative. Exercises like free squats and sit-ups can be done just about anywhere, while many playgrounds feature bars perfect for pull-ups (or you can inexpensively purchase one to install with no screws required in a doorframe in your home).
Once you reach a certain point of physical fitness—a good benchmark would be being able to do 15 or more repetitions of an exercise in a single set—sticking to a bodyweight training program won't produce more muscle growth if you do not increase the challenge. One easy way to do this is to increase the amount of weight you're moving by using a weight belt. You can also make the movement itself more challenging; for example, progressing from pull-ups to muscle-ups and even gymnastic complexes.
Plus, bodyweight exercises may be uniquely beneficial to your overall health and longevity, according to a study that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study looked at the association between bodyweight exercises and long-term outcomes related to mortality.
The data collected by the authors showed that, on average, participants who regularly participated in strength training (the authors defined regular participation as two sessions a week totaling 50 to 60 minutes) had a 23% reduction in all-cause mortality and a 31% reduction in cancer mortality. Furthermore, they found that bodyweight exercises showed clearer associations than gym-based strength training in terms of both all-cause and cancer mortality, though participation in both types of activity was linked to the largest reductions of all.
7 Essential Movements for Building Muscle
To build muscle as effectively as possible, you must not only identify the key movements that will stimulate muscle growth, but also ensure you're consistently challenging yourself during your workouts in order to progress. Whether that means using heavier weights, completing more repetitions, or scaling a bodyweight exercise to increase the difficulty, you need to be working out hard enough that you break down your muscle fiber, provoking it to rebuild stronger.
When devising your training program, focus on a few movements that engage multiple muscle groups. While bicep curls and calf raises have their place, you need to establish a solid foundation first. Then you can begin to explore more nuanced questions, like whether to include the bench press, incline bench press, and decline bench press in a training session targeting your chest muscles, or the relative merits of cable chest flys versus dumbbell flys, or if it's important to target all three heads of the triceps muscle.
Utilizing some combination of the following seven movements, ideally, a rotation of all of them, will constitute an effective strength training program for rapid muscle growth.
- Bench press
- Overhead press
Those exercises will engage all the muscle groups in your body. Until you're able to lift seriously heavy weights, or successfully execute advanced bodyweight exercises, there's no need to worry about isolating specific muscles.
The Difference Between Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups
Though these two exercises overlap in a number of ways, it's important to distinguish between pull-ups and chin-ups from the start. While they’re both effective, they’re not the same thing and they target different muscle groups.
The basic difference between the two is the grip you use to perform them. On that note, it can be helpful to chalk your hands prior to performing both pull-ups and chin-ups in order to avoid losing your grip.
- Chin-ups: When performing a chin-up, your palms are turned toward your body in an underhand grip. This position forces you to pull primarily with your biceps. Chin-ups also work, to a lesser degree, the lower atissimus dorsi and lower trapezius. With your hands placed just outside your shoulders on the bar, and keeping your core tight throughout, lift your feet off the ground. Then pull yourself up to the bar in a single smooth motion. Do not attempt to jerk or swing yourself toward the bar. Once your chin clears the bar, you can begin to smoothly lower yourself back to your starting position.
- Pull-ups: While chin-ups build your biceps, pull-ups build your back—specifically, your posterior deltoid, middle trapezius, and upper latissimus dorsi. To execute a pull-up properly, your palms should be turned away from your body in an overhand grip. From here, the procedure follows the same progression as the chin-up. As you pull yourself up to the bar, be sure to keep your elbows directed downward to your hips rather than flared out to the side.
The difficulty of both movements can be increased by adding weight. The technique does not change, but you will need additional equipment: a sturdy weight-lifting belt with chain, loop, and clamp attached. To perform a weighted chin-up or pull-up, you'll select the weight plate of your choosing, slide it through the chain, clamp the chain to the loop, and begin.
Adding additional weight to bodyweight exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups can be a very effective method for breaking through plateaus.
Understanding Closed-Chain and Open-Chain Exercises
The human body is composed of different segments—head, torso, arms, legs, hands, feet, and so on—made mobile by your joints. The term kinetic chain refers to the concept that these joints and segments affect one another during movement. Moving your hand, for instance, instigates a chain of events that affect your wrist, elbow, and even shoulder.
Experts divide kinetic chain exercises into two types: open-chain and closed-chain. “In closed chain exercise, the foot or hand is in contact with the surface on which you are exercising. In open chain, they are not,” Dr. Eric Hegedus, founding chair of the doctor of physical therapy department at High Point University in North Carolina, explains.
Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups are classified as closed-chain kinetic exercises, because the segment furthest away from the body — technically known as the distal aspect, and in practice, usually the hand or foot—is in contact with a solid, unmoving surface. Seated leg curls and chest fly using dumbbells, in which the feet and hands respectively swing freely, are open-chain exercises.
A study was performed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information to determine if closed-chain or open-chain exercises were more effective for building strength quickly. The authors tested subjects prior to training and at the completion of the study’s prescribed training period. Barbell squat, isokinetic knee extension, and a vertical jump test were used to monitor the effects of participants’ training. The study notes that while significant improvements were seen in both groups, in the barbell squat test, the closed-chain group improved significantly more than the open one. The same was also true of the vertical jump test, with improvements in isotonic strength from neither group transferring over to the isokinetic knee extension test results.
Optimizing Your Mental State
Your mental state intimately influences the results you'll get from the physical activity you engage in. When engaging in physical activity training programs, the two most common mistakes individuals make are to push themselves harder than they should, or to fail to push themselves hard enough.
While both these mistakes impede progress, the first can end up being more detrimental and far harder to correct. Pushing too hard results in overtraining. It can sap not only your time but also your health and motivation. It's also virtually impossible to sustain.
In order to make long-term progress, it's vital to settle on a workload that falls between the two extremes. Assuming you have a well-designed program that progressively overloads your muscles (and that you're allowing adequate recovery time and fueling your muscles with the correct nutrients—more on both later), then developing appropriate mental balance to push yourself to, but not past, your limits will allow you to steadily and swiftly move you toward you goal.
During your workouts, you should remain focused on the task at hand. There's nothing wrong with socializing with your gym friends, assuming you don't allow chatting to detract from your engagement with your workout. Distractions can come from within as well. Some days you may not be in the mood to exert yourself, or you may feel frustrated with your performance. It's important to cultivate mental tools to help you overcome those obstacles.
One specific technique for doing so, called mental imagery or visualization, has been shown to be particularly effective. Research on mental imagery and strength training proves that this technique can significantly enhance your weightlifting performance.
The visualization technique used in the study cited above involved four steps:
- Visualize the workout you plan to do and the goal you want to achieve. Perhaps you hope to set a PR or you're working to get your pull-ups to a certain rep range. Make the scenario as vivid as possible. Try to engage all your senses.
- Before you start your set, visualize yourself successfully completing your first rep. Again, make this as vivid as possible.
- Run through the same visualization before each subsequent rep.
- Once you have completed your set, reflect on how it went. If you ran into any issues, visualize how you could correct them. Then picture yourself executing a problem-free set. If the set went well, picture yourself adding weight to the bar and completing another excellent set.
Recovery: Why You Need to Take Rest Days to Maximize Muscle Growth
When we think about building muscle, it's common to focus on physical activity. But the process of recovery that begins—whether or not you notice it—once your workout ends is every bit as important. In order to perform at our best, we must allow our muscles adequate time to recover.
The Mechanics of Muscle Protein Synthesis
All the cells in the human body are constantly cycling through a process of growing, dying, and being replaced, a process known as cell turnover. A complicated matrix of hormones and other cellular signalers controls this process. Naturally, muscle cells undergo this same process.
The specific mechanism by which muscle proteins are cyclically replaced is called protein synthesis. For individuals in good health who provide their bodies with appropriate nutrition, muscle tissue percentages tend to remain relatively consistent. Add in resistance training, however, and that changes.
When you work your muscles, they must continually contract to meet the demands you place on them, which causes microscopic tears to form. As your body works to repair those tears, muscle protein synthesis makes your muscle fibers bigger and stronger. For 24 to 48 hours following a workout, your body is actively responding to the effects of that workout. Per a National Institutes of Health study, muscle protein synthesis transpires at a 50% higher rate 4 hours after a resistance workout and a 109% higher rate 24 hours post-workout.
The Essential Role Played by Sleep
Given the vital role recovery plays in the muscle-building process, it's quite worthwhile to find ways to optimize it.
Nutrition, and specifically amino acid intake, is a vital facet of that process, which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.
Sleep is another. As a study published in Medical Hypotheses explained, sleep is essential for cellular, organic, and systemic functions. Failing to get enough sleep can harm your health, leading to negative changes to glucose regulation, blood pressure, cognitive processes, and certain hormonal axes.
A lack of sleep increases cortisol levels while decreasing testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) levels. According to the authors of the Medical Hypotheses study, sleep debt decreases the activity of muscle protein synthesis pathways and increases the activity of degradation pathways. This creates conditions in which the loss of muscle mass is favored. Not only does this hinder muscle recovery, but it also makes it far more difficult to gain muscle.
Nutrition: The Raw Materials Your Body Needs to Build Muscle
If you're already physically active and have good recovery habits in place but are still struggling to build muscle, you likely have a nutrition issue.
In order to stimulate muscle growth, you must consume enough calories. Chances are, that number is higher than you think. In fact, serious bodybuilders often struggle to find time to eat enough calories at each meal—one reason why protein shakes and other liquid methods of caloric delivery are so popular in the bodybuilding community.
Of course, you don't want to simply gain weight, you want to gain muscle. This means you'll want to build your diet around high-quality, nutrient-dense foods such as sweet potatoes. No workout routine will allow you to successfully build muscle in the absence of a good diet.
The Single Most Important Macronutrient for Muscle Growth
As you most likely know, when it comes to muscle growth, protein is the most significant macronutrient. Eating a high-protein diet not only on the days you train but also on rest days is key to building muscle.
So, how much protein should you eat? The National Academy of Sciences Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), widely accepted as the most authoritative source for defining nutritional requirements, sets your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein at 0.8 grams for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. That means a 175-pound person would need to eat about 63-65 grams of protein (or 2.2 ounces) per day to meet the RDA.
However, the RDA represents the minimum amount of protein a person needs to eat in order to avoid losing muscle mass. Most people benefit from eating substantially more protein than that amount. Those seeking to build muscle should eat even more.
A good diet for muscle growth should contain the optimal amount of protein, not the minimum amount.
If you're eating a caloric deficit to encourage fat loss, experts estimate that you should aim to eat approximately 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you are a man with over 20% body fat or a woman with over 25% body fat, adjust that ratio to 1.2 grams per pound of lean body mass.
If you're not in caloric deficit, eat 1 gram per pound of body weight. Again, if you're over 20% body fat for men or 25% body fat for women, adjust that to 1 gram per pound of lean mass.
Does Meal Timing Matter?
Those familiar with the world of weightlifting nutrition have likely encountered the idea that in order to effectively build muscle, you should be eating protein every few hours. A study published in Nutrition and Metabolism offers evidence to support that idea.
The authors assigned participants, all of whom were engaged in resistance training, to one of three groups. Group one consumed 80 grams of whey protein as 8 x 10 grams every 1.5 hours, group two consumed 4 x 20 grams every 3 hours, and group three 2 x 40 grams every 6 hours. Participants ate their first protein meal after performing four sets of knee extensions, 10 reps each.
The authors determined that the timing of protein ingestion, not only the total daily amount of protein consumed, influenced whole-body protein metabolism. They concluded that those seeking to maximize their net protein balance "would likely benefit from repeated ingestion of moderate amounts of protein (~20 grams) at regular intervals (~3 hours) throughout the day."
The Limitations of Dietary Protein Intake
It can be difficult to meet the body's optimum needs for protein intake from diet alone within the context of a balanced diet that also contains balanced quantities of the other macronutrients.
Amino acid supplementation can help you meet your body's protein needs. In fact, research indicates that combining an essential amino acid supplement with resistance training makes both more effective at stimulating the production of new muscle protein.
Exercise readies the muscle to speed up muscle protein synthesis, but it can only go so far if there aren’t enough essential amino acids available to build that muscle. Taking essential amino acids before and after your workout can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and enhance its muscle-maximizing benefits.
Amino acid supplements provide the active components of dietary proteins without the accompanying non-protein components, namely, carbohydrates and fat. While some experts advise the use of specific amino acid supplements such as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), the benefits of those supplements can only be obtained when all the amino acids are present in appropriate quantities.
The same holds true for other popular bodybuilding supplements such as creatine and carnitine.
Creatine, a substance created by the body and found in foods like red meat, is one of the most-researched and most popular supplements available. While supplementing with creatine can certainly bring impressive benefits, such as reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation, the overall muscle protein synthesis process is dependent upon an adequate supply of all the essential amino acids. You can learn more about creatine (and the interplay between creatine and amino acids) here.
Carnitine is a compound that your body produces from the amino acids lysine and methionine, and it plays a vital role in the generation of cellular energy. As that description indicates, carnitine and amino acids are intimately connected. You can learn more about carnitine here.
Amino Co scientists are among the world's foremost nutrition experts, and after years of exhaustive research they've determined the precise concentration of essential amino acids, including the BCAAs, plus creatine, to maximize muscle growth. They've put it all together and patented it into one muscle-building protein supplement called Perform, proven to stimulate muscle protein synthesis 4 times more than any other muscle maximizer, including testosterone and HGH. Perform also reduces recovery time and gives you more energy during your workout. You can find out more about Perform here.
To build big muscles, you need to combine a training program that stimulates muscle growth with good recovery habits and a solid, protein-rich diet. It's often helpful to include an essential amino acid supplement to meet your muscles' protein needs. Armed with the information contained in this article, you have all the tools you need to get big.