Muscle Building 101: Master the Basics

Next to losing weight, muscle building is why people flock to the gyms whenever they can. More than functional reasons, they aim for sculpted biceps, a carved core, etc., for aesthetic reasons. But, the question is, how does one build muscle effectively?

A great starting point for anyone looking to get that sculpted look is to understand what builds muscle.

What Builds Muscle

The first crucial requirement is a weight training program that signals the beginning of the muscle-building process. A 2010 study reveals that an excellent weight training program will generate the signal via a combination of muscular damage, metabolic stress, and progressive tension overload. Once the signal is generated, the body needs a diet that provides it with all the supplies needed to build muscles. And this diet should include sufficient calories, protein, carbs, and fat.

Also read: Best Muscle Building Supplements for 2023

In muscle building, you’re aiming for two goals- to build strength (strength training) and increase muscle size (hypertrophy training).

Strength training

This type of training aims to build your strength or increase the amount of force your muscle can produce. Most workout routines are intended to add muscle mass. On the other hand, strength training is designed to maximize your ability to perform body movements, including pulls, lifts, jumps, and squats. Strength training is typical in powerlifters who take part in competitions involving bench presses or deadlifts.

This type of strength training includes exercises that break down your body temporarily. This way, the damaged area receives more muscle fibres during rest periods. And because they allow you to target multiple muscle groups at once, your weight training program should include compound exercises that incorporate dumbbells or barbells. 

The way lifts are programmed in strength training sets it apart from hypertrophy training. You need to lift heavy weights with a lower training volume; meaning, you’ll use a heavier weight in performing a smaller number of sets. Besides, it focuses more on compound lifts that target smaller tendons/ligaments and bigger muscles. 

Hypertrophy training

If strength training is for powerlifters, this one is for bodybuilders who want to be as muscular and big as possible. Hypertrophy is a technical term referring to the enlargement of tissues/organs in the body. It’s used by scientists to describe different types of growth, but the bodybuilding world uses it to look at muscular growth.

Much like strength training, hypertrophy training involves the same exercises and exercise tools. The difference, however, is the goal of hypertrophy training. If strength training focuses on heavyweights with a lower training volume, hypertrophy training focuses on lighter weights with a higher training volume. This means that you’ll perform a higher number of reps and sets, but the intensity of your lifts will be lower since you’re using lighter weight.

Muscle Building Workouts

There are rules you should take into consideration when trying to build muscles, such as:

Rule 1: Get strong

Don’t expect to grow muscles by performing the same workouts all the time. Instead, you need to do more to challenge your body. The best way to do that is to add weight to the bar. Work big, fundamentally, in the range of 5-10 reps, and you’ll gain more muscles. That’s the best thing to do if you want to put on some muscles. The heavier the training, the more muscle fiber gets activated. 

Rule 2: Perform compound muscle-building exercises

Perform muscle-building exercises that target multiple muscles and joints at once. These exercises help you build muscle the fastest since they use the most significant amount of weight. While isolation training and a workout using machine exercises lay the foundation, these cannot be the backbone of your training. Therefore, you need to overload your body with the best compound muscle building exercises: weighted sledge work, rows, deadlifts, loaded carries, squats, low-incline presses, and military presses. Get stronger on these exercises in sets of 5-10 reps, and you’ll get bigger.

Rule 3: Combine big lifts and bodyweight exercises

Big compound dumbbell and barbell lifts have value. Still, these should be complemented by the following muscle building, bodyweight exercises: plank variations, glute-ham raises, inverted rows, pushup variations, single-leg squat lunge variations, dips, and chin-ups. By complementing the big lifts with bodyweight exercises, you can get a well-rounded physique that performs for the long haul.

Rule 4: Use the perfect technique to build muscles safely

The average trainer should use the perfect technique to build muscles safely, but sad to say; this is rarely the case in most public gyms. If you happen to walk in one, you’ll see people lifting with any form that lets them get the weight up, and this doesn’t guarantee a good rep. To break this practice, here’s everything you should do:

  • Before you lift, make sure to get tight from head to toe. Then, squeeze your glutes and brace your abs when performing standing exercises. If you’re using the bar, squeeze it as if you’re trying to break it. The bottom line is that total-body tension makes you stable, allowing you to lift strongly and safely.
  • Perform the lift’s eccentric portion in 2-4 seconds. Bear in mind to control the eccentrics for safety and more significant muscle growth. 
  • Contract your muscles forcefully to start the concentric. 
  • Don’t attempt to out your reps fast when doing extensive barbell exercises. The same rule applies to dumbbell and bodyweight exercises. 

Rule 5: Increase your training volume to build muscle

As mentioned above, each set should have you pumping in the range of 5-10 reps. But if you’re new to muscle building, 5-8 reps is good. After training correctly for several years, you can start doing more sets of 5-10 reps. You can even bump up the reps to 10-12. If you have been training correctly and you target higher reps, it’s essential to keep your mind on the muscles you want to build. According to some experts, you can activate your muscles better if you imagine them working and growing while training. 

As you get more advanced, incorporate old-school bodybuilding techniques as well as pump-enhancing techniques. These may include sets, drop sets, and pauses. 

Rule 6: Follow the best training split

The most important rule is not to overdo it. This goes without saying that you don’t need to spend 5-6 hard strength-training days a week like a bodybuilder. The ideal number of training days for the average trainer is 3-4, with the proper muscle-building workout split. This promotes adequate recovery, greater strength gains, and safer joints and spine. 

For beginners

Training with three full-body workouts a week is ideal for beginners. You should do a compound lower-body exercise in each workout, a compound pulling movement, and a compound pushing movement. These are enough to work your whole body, but you can add in a maximum of 2 other exercises if you want to do more.

For intermediate trainers

For intermediate trainers, the workouts should be split into lower and upper body days. A good rule of thumb is to train the lower body one day and the upper body the next day. This ensures that both areas get trained twice a week. If you train four days per week, you can do a lower body workout on Monday, an upper body workout on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, do a lower body workout again on Thursday, an upper body workout on Friday, and then rest on Saturday.

If you train three days a week, you can rotate lower and upper-body days. For example, in week 1, you can do a lower body workout on Monday, an upper body workout on Wednesday, and a lower body workout on Friday. The following week, you can do an upper body workout on Monday, a lower body workout on Wednesday, and an upper body workout on Friday. 

For advanced trainers

For more advanced trainers, your training split could look this:

Monday– chest, shoulder, and tricep exercises

Tuesday– rest

Wednesday– back and bicep exercises

Thursday– rest

Friday- leg exercises

Saturday– arm exercises

Sunday– rest

The problem with some muscle building programs is that they include wrong exercises with too many sets and reps. But if you use compound exercises, you could never go wrong with a body-part split, as mentioned earlier. Besides, this provides less stress to your joints compared to the average lower/upper split. 

Steps to Muscle Building

  1. Measure yourself. Start your muscle-building journey by taking your ‘before’ body measurements. Taking measurements of your current stats before you get started is the best way to keep track of your progress. While these can be any measurements you like, be sure to weigh yourself and take photos of your front, back, and side in underwear.
  2. Estimate how many calories you burn per day.It’s essential to estimate the total sum of calories you burn each day so that you can set up a proper diet to lose weight and a proper workout to gain muscles. Because this is an estimate only, expect to adjust it over time.
  3. Set your daily calorie goal.Shoot for 500 calories per day. Don’t go too far above this goal, as eating more foods doesn’t always equate to more muscle. 
  4. Set your daily protein goal.It should be relative to your weight. Aim for at least 1-2 g of protein per pound of body weight daily as this is beneficial for gaining muscles. 
  5. Track your calorie and protein consumption. Since calorie counting sounds like a full-time job, it is best to use calorie-counting tools. MyFitnessPal tops the market in terms of the best barcode scanner, food database, and suitability to many body weight scales and fitness trackers. Additionally, you’ll want to use a food scale to precisely measure everything you’re putting in your body, including toppings and additives.
  6. Track your progress measurements.The key is to take regular progress measurements, preferably weighing yourself every day, unclothed and on an empty stomach. Plus, you should take monthly progress photos of your body.
  7. Make adjustments to your diet over time.As you gain extra kilos, your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) will increase- more mass means more calories to fuel. This means that your starting calorie goal needs to be adjusted since it will eventually no longer cause weight gain.
  8. Don’t always go hard.When aiming to gain greater muscle mass, you should keep moving every day. However, this doesn’t mean that your workouts should leave you feeling fatigued and exhausted every day. Your workouts should make you feel good at the end of the day, not dead. The best way to do this is to pick your spots to attack and not take your body to its breaking point. Remember that your body doesn’t get the chance to grow if you work out to the point of exhaustion and fatigue every day. More importantly, taking your body to exhaustion and fatigue every workout session will be counterproductive to the recovery needed for muscle growth.

Muscle Building Foods

Muscle building isn’t just about lifting weights and working out. While it’s great to get in the gym and lift, you must also focus on what you eat. The truth is, bulking up depends, as much, if not more so, on your diet as it does on your training. And because gains happen slowly, it’s only right to get your nutrition locked down to be able to hit strength goals sooner. 

Here’s what you need to know: Working out is a must when you’re trying to get bigger and stronger muscles. It is what breaks down muscle tissue, and this tissue rebuilds stronger and bigger during recovery. But this new muscle tissue cannot be constructed by your body out of nothing- the right nutrients play a vital role in muscle construction. If you lift and do strength training without the foods needed for muscle building, you may have to deal with the loss of muscle tissue. Besides, you won’t gain the energy needed to perform workouts for muscle building without these foods. 

For maximum gains in muscle mass and strength, you need to:

  • consume surplus calories;
  • dial-in your protein intake; and
  • eat the right amount of carbs and fats.


The first thing you should consider is supplying your body with a surplus of calories. Your body will use these calories to generate new lean muscle mass tissues. If you’re worried about weighing more because of calories, understand that an excess amount of calories go into muscle development. As long as you’re working out in the right way, extra calories do not go into fat.

So, how many calories is needed per day when trying to bulk up? First, figure out your total calories needs. To that number, add 500 calories every day- eating any more might result in fat gain instead of muscle gain. Make sure to weigh yourself every day. Although monitoring the scale every day sounds too much, it helps you monitor your weight shift. As much as you dislike tracking the scale and calorie counting, these are vital to ensuring success. Otherwise, you risk accumulating a more significant percentage of body fat than lean muscle. 

The best ways to supply your body with a surplus of calories is to eat additional meals and increase your portion sizes. This may contradict your gym trainer’s advice of avoiding more frequent meals and eating smaller portion sizes. However, eating additional meals and increasing your portion sizes allow you to hit your caloric goal a lot easier. 

Now that you know how many calories to consume each day, let’s talk about how often you should be eating. Usually, people find they do best lumping their calories into 3 big meals. But since you’re aiming for 500 calories a day, this can be challenging to get in, and you’ll end up feeling bloated and sleepy after each meal. That’s why experts recommend dividing it up into 6 meals during the day. This way, you feel energized after each meal, and your muscles receive a steady flow of nutrients to jump-start the growth process. 


It’s no secret that protein is an essential micronutrient for those on the quest to bulk up, and even for those looking to shed some pounds. It’s the building block of muscle that speeds up the number of calories you burn through digestion. Simply put, eating protein helps you burn more calories, thus keeping your body fat down. 

But does this mean buying anything that says 30 g of protein on it? Absolutely not! All proteins aren’t created equally- some proteins are created in the body, while some need to be acquired through diet. When you’re looking to build muscles, the proteins created in the body are not enough. That’s why you need to source protein from foods in order to up your protein numbers. Ideally, athletes consume around 2 g per pound daily on the first 12 weeks of muscle training, then scales back to between 1.2 g-1.7 g per pound after 12 weeks. The reason why your intake of protein should be relative to your weight is that it stays consistent regardless of your total daily calorie count. For instance, if you eat 2 g of protein per kilo of body weight, you are fueling yourself with the same amount of protein regardless of the number of calories you’re packing- whether it be 2000 or 4000.


While focusing on your protein intake, make sure not to forget carbohydrates. This macronutrient is easily overlooked, primarily because of the impression that they make you fat. When it comes to bulking up, though, carbs are an essential part of any nutritional plan. These are taken and converted by the body into glucose, which is its preferred energy source. Moreover, glucose provides the fuel for brain function, so it’s vital for your physical and mental health. 

One of the reasons carbs get a bad rap is because people in most Western countries don’t consume the right kind of carbs. Instead of eating whole grains, way too many people eat refined starches like pastries, chips, potato, etc. The best sources of carbohydrates are popcorn, oatmeal, millet, bulgur, buckwheat, brown rice and barley. Carbohydrate sources should also be rich in fiber. It keeps you full throughout the day, hence reducing the chances of succumbing to unwanted cravings. The recommended intake of fiber each day is 38 g for men and 25 g for women. But the US Department of Agriculture argued that the American adults only eat 10-15 g of fiber per day. To make sure you’re getting enough fiber, get at least 1 g of fiber for every 5 g of carbs you consume.


Fats aid in hormonal functions, increasing testosterone counts in men. You’ve probably heard that the said hormone is vital for muscle growth. Also, you’ve probably heard that fats are categorized into good ones and bad ones. This can be confusing, but here’s the thing: you should only consume limited amounts of trans fats and saturated fats to eliminate the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The kind of fats that you should stick to are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated- fats that are necessary for cellular function.

Some examples of good fats include walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, salmon, sardines, mackerel, lake trout, herring, albacore tuna, sunflower oil, sesame oil, canola oil, and avocado.

Rest and Recovery

In addition to watching what you eat and working out regularly, it is important to take time to rest when you are building muscle. The muscle building happens when you rest. The micro tears caused to your muscle fibers will require time to recover and get you ready for the next session. The process is call muscle hypertrophy and this is what help you pack on mass and make massive muscle gains.

Building muscle is not as easy as lifting weights and eating protein. You need to give your body time to repair itself. Plan your workout in such a way that you include at least one day rest between heavy workouts to recover. If you feel that your body is not able to cope with the workout load and intensity, consider taking may be half a day more. Nothing is worse than working out when you are not recovered and end up injuring yourself.

Sleep is our favorite way to recover. Science backs this. Aim to get consistent amount of sleep every night. Try sleeping and waking up at the same time so that your body gets into a routine and is tuned to help you recover faster from your workouts.

The Takeaway

Don’t be like others who are very much in a hurry to see progress. Building muscles is so much different from gaining weight. Do not expect to gain 5 lbs of muscles per month. Also, do not expect to see dramatic changes for at least 1-3 months. Be patient and understand that muscles build slowly!