How to Build Muscle: Exercises, Programs & Diet

How should you train to build muscle as fast and efficiently as possible?

Few things are more frustrating than when you put in hours at the gym, without getting any noticeable results. And conversely, few things feel better than when you’re clearly seeing that you have gained muscle mass and strength.

In this guide, we have compiled our best and most important advice on how to maximize your muscle growth. This guide is based on science (and you will find many references throughout the text), combined with our long experience of strength training.

Now – let’s build some muscle!

How Fast Can You Build Muscle?

Woman exercising and building muscle in the gym

How quickly you gain muscle depends on several factors, such as your …

  • Training program
  • Training experience
  • Age
  • Genes
  • Diet
  • Sleep

Generally, the following rates of muscle gain are pretty common in training studies that last 2–3 months:

Beginners

  • 5–15% muscle thickness
  • 10–30% muscle area
  • 4–6 lbs (2–3 kg) fat-free mass

Experienced

  • 3–10% muscle thickness
  • 6–20% muscle area
  • 2–4 lbs (1–2 kg) fat-free mass

Sources.1 2 3 4 5 6

Exactly how quickly you will gain muscle mass is impossible to know beforehand, as the individual variation is big. But if you play your cards right, there are no reason to suspect that you can’t place in the top range of the muscle gain rates above.

Muscle growth in biceps

The diagram above shows the increase of muscle area in the biceps, in a massive study where a total of 1 300 previously untrained subjects trained their biceps two times a week, for twelve weeks.

More Reading:

What Causes Your Muscles to Grow?

Your muscles grow when you load them, and then provide protein via food.

Two things happen when you train, not necessarily connected to each other:

  1. Your muscles are damaged and needs repair.
  2. Your muscles send signals that they need to grow, and a growth process is initiated.

Research have shown that after a rigorous workout, the muscle protein synthesis (that is, the process in which new muscle protein is generated) is elevated for 48–72 hours, with the greatest increase during the first 24 hours, somewhat depending on how much and hard you trained.7 8 9

Muscle growth from 1 vs 3 sets

After another day or two, your muscles are usually completely recovered and ready to be trained again. Exactly how long it takes depends on how hard you have trained in relation to what your muscles are used to.

How Often Should You Train?

The key to building muscle without getting yourself injured is to train stimulating workouts, with adequate rest between sessions.

When it comes to training for performance (such as strength), the relationship between stimulus, rest and performance is often illustrated with a curve similar to the one below. The same principle is also applicable in training where muscle growth is the objective.

Recovery between workouts

How often you should train is closely tied to how much and how hard you train every session, since you need more time to recover after a grueling workout than a light one.

Currently, the research shows that there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference at all between training your muscles one, two or three times per week as long as the total volume is the same, so your training frequency and disposition of sessions seems to be more a matter of personal preference and individualization than anything else.10

Recommendations:

  • Train each muscle about 1–3 times per week.
  • Generally let your muscles rest at least 2–3 days after a hard workout.

How Much Should You Train?

The more you train, the more you’ll grow – to a point.

Where that point lies is the topic of much research and debate, and the issue is complicated by the fact that optimal training volume for you likely depends on your specific circumstances:

  • How used are you to training?
  • How good are your recovery capabilities?
  • How many workouts do you spread your training volume over?

At least 10 sets per muscle and week seems to be a good volume to aim for, for the great majority of trainees. Up to that level, the rate of muscle gain increase the more you train.11

Training volume and muscle growth

But where is the upper limit where additional training no longer leads to greater growth?

Today, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one good study on trained subjects where an advantage to higher training volumes have been observed (all the way up to 32 sets per muscle and week)12 – and several where no advantage have been observed compared to a more moderate volume of 10–12 sets per week.13 14 15

In practice, a large number of bodybuilders (whose sole training goal is muscle growth) train considerably more than 10 sets per muscle and week, and a conservative guess on my part is that a training volume that is productive for many when they are accustomed to training, is somewhere between 10–20 sets per muscle and week.

Note that the numbers above generally applies to sets taken to failure. If you do easier sets where you stop further from failure, you might be able to increase that number, or have to increase it to reach the same effect.

Recommendations:

  • Do at least 10 hard sets (= close to failure) per week and muscle for optimal growth.
  • The upper limit where more training no longer leads to more muscle growth is currently unknown, and likely depends on several factors. A guess is somewhere around 15–20 sets per week for a trained person with good recovery capabilities.
  • The closer to failure you train, the more stress that particular set induces. If you stop a few reps shy of failure, you can probably increase the number of sets and do a little larger total volume, with better muscle growth as a result.

More Reading:

How Heavy Should You Train?

Recent research has shown that it doesn’t really matter if you train with light or heavy weights – you can build muscles using both, provided that you exhaust your muscles with them. That is to say: train close enough to failure.16

The exception to the rule is if you use very light or very heavy weights – the the muscle building effect per set will decrease, even if you train close to failure.17 18

Muscle growth from training with light or heavy weights

The diagram above shows the muscle growth (measured as cross-sectional area) in a study where the subjects where divided into four different groups, which all trained with different loads for 12 weeks. It turned out that only the group which trained with very light weights experienced sub-optimal muscle growth – in the other three groups, muscle growth was similar. The lightest group used 20% of their 1RM (max), which they lifted for about 50–85 reps per set.

The most classic “muscle-building zone” when it comes to load, is probably to use a weight where you can do about 8–15 reps per set. It is both effective for muscle growth, and from a practical perspective also a pretty comfortable weight to work with – not so heavy that it is challenging to maintain technique, but not so light that you have to do endless reps until your muscles feel like they are burning in the end of the set.

Recommendations:

  • Train with a weight where you can do about 5–40 reps per set, for the greatest muscle building effect. A good rule of thumb is to strive for about 8–15 reps per set.
  • If you train with heavier weights, where you only can do about 1–5 reps per set, the muscle building effect per set decreases, but on the other hand you will likely make better gains in strength.
  • Don’t train to failure in every set, but stay 1–3 reps short of failure in most sets. Maybe take one or two sets per exercise to failure, for example the last ones.

More reading:

The Best Exercises to Build Muscle

What makes an exercise good for building muscle?

It is an exercise that …

  • trains multiple muscles at the same time – often called compound movements.
  • trains the muscle through a long range of motion.
  • is stable enough for the muscle force to be a limiting factor of your performance, not balance.

Exercises where you train multiple muscles at the same time are time effective, and makes a good foundation in your training routine.

Four examples of exercises that together trains pretty much all the major muscle groups in your body is:

  • Squats which trains your quadriceps, glutes, adductors and lower back.
  • Bench press which trains your chest, front deltoids and triceps.
  • Deadlifts which trains your back, glutes and posterior thighs.
  • Lat pulldowns or barbell rows which trains your biceps, lats and rear deltoids.
Four exercises: bench press, rows, deadlifts and squats. If this was all you did in the gym, you’d still train nearly all major muscle groups.

Exercises that isolate the training to one or just a few muscles, such as bicep curls, can however be useful when you really want to focus on one muscle and make sure that it gets trained thoroughly.

A classic recipe for a good, muscle-building workout is to start the session with compound movements that train multiple muscles at the same time, and then move on to isolation exercises to target individual muscles.

Recommendations:

  • Begin your workout with compound movements that train multiple muscles simultaneously, to save time.
  • Move on to isolation exercises that targets the muscles in which you want to prioritize growth.
  • Use exercises that are stable and let’s you work in a long range of motion.

Training Programs For Building Muscle

Which training program is the best for you?

That depends on:

  • Your conditions: How used are you to training? How often can you train?
  • Your goals: How ambitious are you? A little training goes a long way, but more training can generally produce even better results, even if the returns are diminishing.

Here are some recommended training programs that are effective for building muscle, for different levels. All programs are available in our app StrengthLog – download it here for iOS or here for Android.

  • StrengthLog’s Beginner Program, 3 days/week: Our most time effective training program to get started with building muscle. Three workouts per week, with three exercises per workout, that together provides a solid foundation of training for your whole body. This program suits you who are new to strength training, and want to get started with an effective routine that doesn’t take too much time, since it is completely based on compound movements.
  • StrengthLog’s Full Body Hypertrophy, 3 days/week: In this program, things get a little more serious. You still train three times per week, but you train all muscles much more thoroughly each workout, using a combination of compound and isolation movements. This is an excellent three day-routine for building muscle!
  • StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Program, 4 days/week: The number of workouts have increased to four per week in this program, and the training is split between two upper body workouts and two lower body workouts. This program is more minimalistic than the previous one above, and only contains compound movements in it’s basic form. But if you want to, you can complement it with additional isolation exercises.
  • Bodybuilding Ballet, 4–6 days/week: Our best and most ambitious hypertrophy routine, for you who wants to maximize your muscle growth! It comes in three versions: four, five or six workouts per week, where every muscle group is trained primarily on it’s own focus session, but also is trained indirectly in one or two additional workouts per week.

What Should You Eat to Build Muscle?

There are two main things you should pay attention to in your diet when you’re looking to build muscle:

1. Protein

  • Resistance training increases your protein requirement, and a sufficiently protein-rich diet will give you better training results, both in terms of greater strength gains as well as muscle growth. Protein that you eat in connection to training has a large muscle building effect.
  • The average person eats about 1.1 g of protein per kg each day, but research has shown that maximal muscle growth needs about 1.4–2 g protein per kg and day.19 20

2. Calories

  • The amount of calories you eat affects your muscle growth in several ways. By eating enough to meet your daily caloric demands (or even more), you will get the best conditions for gaining muscle: you will both get energy to fuel hard training, and your body will have plenty of resources to spend in reparation and adaptation afterwards.
  • A caloric deficit can lower your muscle protein synthesis (that is, your rate of muscle growth) by 20–30%, while a caloric surplus increases it.21 22

Are you uncertain of how many calories you need to eat per day? Use the calculator in our app!

So, What Should You Eat?

Exactly what you eat doesn’t really matter too much. As long as you meet your protein and caloric requirements, then your muscles will have the most important prerequisites to grow in place. In general, however, it is a good idea to let the majority of your diet consist of varied, nutritious and not overly processed foods.

For more details on how to eat to optimize your muscle growth, check out our big guide: Eating for Muscle Growth: When, How, and How Much to Eat for Adding Lean Mass.

Supplements for Building Muscle

There are no supplements that will either build muscle or burn fat for you. Avoid supplements that claim to be muscle building, testosterone boosting or fat burning.

As of today, there are only two supplements that robust scientific evidence for being beneficial for your muscle growth and strength gains:

Protein Powder

This isn’t actually even a supplement, but simply a processed food. Protein powder works by increasing your protein intake, which benefits muscle growth, recovery and strength. Common kinds are whey, caseine and soy protein powder.

Protein powder has no special effect that you cannot also get from eating more protein-rich food, so it’s benefits lie more in it’s low pricing (per gram of protein) and practicality.23

Creatine

To date the best supplement you can take for aiding your muscle building. Creatine works by increasing the stores of creatine phosphate in your muscles, which is used as a quick energy source when training. It has been studied in more than a thousand clinical trials and has consistently been proven to increase performance in high intensity activities, such as resistance training or sprints.

If you do resistance training and take extra creatine, you will get slightly larger gains of strength and muscle volume, than if you only had trained. Furthermore, creatine seems to be able to decrease the muscle damage following a workout.24 25

Other than protein powder and creatine, there’s only one other supplement worth mentioning in the same breath, and that is caffeine. Caffeine can be positive for your muscle growth by improving your performance in the gym: if you train harder, then you can stimulate the muscles to grow more.

Frequently Asked Questions About Building Muscle

I’m going to wrap this article up by answering some common questions on gaining muscle.

  • Can you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
  • Is it harder to build muscle as you get older?
  • Does women have a harder time building muscle than men?
  • Are free weights or machines best for building muscle?
  • How long should you rest between sets?

Can You Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer begins with maybe, and Andreas has written a thorough article on the subject: Building Muscle and Losing Fat at the Same Time – Is it Possible?

In summary, it is certainly possible to gain muscle and lose fat during the same time period. Both in untrained and trained persons, it is a pretty common result that after 2–3 months of resistance training, they have gained a few pounds of muscle and lost a few pounds of fat.26 27 28 29 30 31 32

The less trained you are, the more likely it is that you will have these kind of results (or the more profound they will be), since muscle mass simply increases faster in untrained muscles.

Other factors that will positively influence your ability to build muscle and lose fat at the same time is:

  • Protein. A high enough protein intake, about 1.4–2 g protein per kg body weight and day.
  • Sleep. Enough sleep increases your muscle growth, decreases your muscle breakdown, and leads to a better body composition (the ratio between muscles and fat). Most adults need between 7–9 hours of sleep per night, and hard training likely increase the need for sleep.

Is It Harder to Build Muscle as You Get Older?

It is a fact that we, on a population level, lose muscle mass as we age. If you lead a sedentary life, you will start losing your muscle mass sometime after 30 years of age.

Muscle loss due to aging

That is probably an effect caused by several factors that usually accompanies increased age:

  • Lower muscle protein synthesis
  • Chronic inflammations
  • Physical inactivity

The good news is that resistance training is an excellent medicine against muscle loss, and something of the fountain of youth in this regard.

But maintaining muscle mass and strength is one thing – what about increasing them? Is it harder to build muscle as you get older?

  • One study with 70 men and women, which were around either 65 or 25 years of age, found that the participants at 65 years of age built about 75% of the muscle mass that the 25 year olds did, on the same training program. In the same study, it was found that the older participants needed to train slightly more than the youngsters to gain muscle and strength.33
  • In another study with 287 participants, age didn’t have any effect at all on muscle growth. During a 22 week long training period, participants between 60–78 years old gained just as much muscle as the ones between 19–45 years old.34

Note that this is for relative gains. As older persons generally have less muscle mass than younger persons to begin with, the absolute gains are probably slightly lower.

Even if the conditions for muscle growth gets worse with age, we can at least conclude that even a very old person that takes up resistance training can increase their muscle mass and strength, even upwards 80–90 years of age.

If you have been training all your life, then you shouldn’t expect to raise your muscle mass to higher levels as an 80-year old than you had as a 30-year old, but at least the weight training will be very effective in slowing your decline, and keeping up good strength and function for a long time.

Is It Harder for Women to Build Muscle Than It Is for Men?

Once again, it is relevant to talk about the difference between relative and absolute muscle gains.

  • Women and men get an equal amount of muscle growth from resistance training, relatively speaking.35 36
  • But, as women generally has lower muscle mass than men to begin with, the absolute muscle growth is generally smaller.37

The similarity of muscle growth in relative terms is clearly seen in the enormous study with 1 300 participants (58% women, 42% men) mentioned earlier in this article, where the researchers didn’t see any difference between the sexes.38

Similar muscle growth between men and women

More Reading:

Are Free Weights or Machines Best for Building Muscle?

For a tool to be effective for building muscle, it should be:

  • Stable enough so that muscle force, and not balance, is the limiting factor of performance.
  • Able to place a large enough load on the muscle, through a long range of motion.

Both free weights and machines can fulfill these demands, and it is rather a question of what specific exercises or machines we are talking about, than a sharp line in the sand.

  • Machines often have the benefit (in terms of muscle hypertrophy) that they take care of the balancing for you. If your primary goal is to train a muscle to complete exhaustion, then that might be an advantage as you can focus completely on the muscle instead. An advantage of machines however, is that they seldom fit all body types, or can even be poorly designed in general. And of course: you do miss out on the balance training.
  • Free weights demand that you balance and stabilize the weights yourself. This could potentially distract you from focusing on the working muscles. Many exercises done with free weights are however stable enough and therefore excellent for building muscle. Free weight training have the additional benefit that they fit more body types in a way that machines don’t. They will also give you more so called “functional training”, in the sense that you get more practice at actually lifting and moving physical objects.

Both tools can work excellently for muscle building, and it is likely other factors that will determine which is the most useful for your situation.

More Reading:

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

The short answer is: as long as you need to.

The most important factors for muscle growth is to exhaust your muscles by lifting sufficiently heavy weights in sufficiently large volumes. Rest between sets can therefore both aid or impair that goal:

  • If you only have a short time to train, then it benefits you to have short rest periods between sets, so that you can squeeze in as many sets (and thereby more muscle work) as possible.
  • If you have plenty of time to train, and have a predetermined amount of sets that you are planning to do, for example if you are following a training program that says you should do five sets of an exercise, then it benefits you to rest as long as possible. That will make you perform better in each set, either by lifting more weight or doing more reps, which in turn has been proven to yield better muscle growth.39 40

A standard recommendation that often is appropriate is to rest about 2–3 minutes between sets. It is long enough to recover your performance for the next set, but not so long that your workout will take overly much time.


That’s it! You’ve reached the end of our guide on building muscle.

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References

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1 thought on “How to Build Muscle: Exercises, Programs & Diet”

  1. Thank you for sharing such an helpful article. This information helped ma lot to achieve my fitness goal and in between this according to me, I think of discipline as the key to living a better life, To achieve fitness goal, I go to the gym every day with motivation and hit weights to get in shape as everyone did commonly.
    Regards

    Reply

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