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How to Build Muscle Mass – A Beginner’s Guide

Building lean muscle mass is the goal of most people who work out but how often can you see people working out for months and years without improving their physique? Most people get a gym membership, start working out without making any progress and dump it after a few weeks or months. No wonder those people are frustrated and think they just can’t gain any muscle mass because of their genetics. But it’s absolutely possible for anyone to build muscle mass even with the worst genetics ever.

What’s the Best Way to Build Muscle?

Most athletes struggling with building muscle mass follow workout schedules printed in muscle magazines or plans from professional athletes. Those plans are way to extensive for beginners and most athletes in general so it’s no wonder they’re not progressing. Usually these plans are 4 or 5 days splits with lots of exercises and sets for every single muscle group which might be right if you’re working out on an advanced or professional level but as a beginner you’d be better to approach your muscle building goals in a different way. Also consider the fact that professional fitness athletes and bodybuilders usually didn’t start that way.

A Beginner’s Guide to Building Lean Muscle Mass and Strength

I personally started working out at home so I had to do basic compound exercises as I had no machines or other gym equipment except an adjustable bench, a barbell, 2 dumbells and some weights. I also had no opportunity to ask anyone for advice which meant I had to learn all exercies on my own. Thankfully I never hurt myself because I always focused on proper execution. Although I didn’t gain much weight because I wasn’t eating right I gained strength and little muscle mass. If I had this guide it would have saved me a lot of time.

1. Weight Lifting:

Lifting weights doesn’t sound surprising but most beginners get it totally wrong because they listen to some dubious “personal trainer” who tells them to avoid free weights, certain compound exercises, heavy weights and advise them to train on machines because it’s safe and comfortable.

Free Weights: Free weights and especially dumbbells allow for more comfortable movements than machines which are fixed. Another reason is that you can go heavier as machines often have a weight stack which you’ll have maxed out after some time. I’m not saying machine training is useless as long as machines are used in addition to free weights. Cable exercises like lat pull downs shouldn’t be mistaken for machines as they are more like free weights.

Isolation Exercises: Isolation exercises are single joint movements like leg extensions, triceps pushdowns and biceps curls or machines which isolate a specific muscle or muscle group. As a beginner you don’t need more than one isolation exercise for biceps and triceps because you should focus on compound exercises first. Calves are an exception since you have to do isolation exercises like calf raises to train your calves properly. Although some say you don’t need isolation exercises because compound movements recruit every muscle group, this isn’t right because in compound exercises certain muscle groups dominate over others which could lead to imbalanced muscle growth. With isolation exercises you can focus on underdeveloped muscles to improve your muscular symmetry. But you shouldn’t worry about this unless you’re training for at least 2 years.

Strength: When doing compound exercises like squats, bench press, and barbell rows etc. you’ll gain strength as well as muscle mass. Obviously you’ll be stronger in isolation exercises as well but you won’t get strong by just doing exercises like machine flies, machine rows or triceps kickbacks. Be careful with gaining strength too quick since our tendons don’t adapt as fast as muscle tissue. Some say getting stronger equals getting bigger but this is not necessarily right since there are more ways to increase intensity.

Rest: Rest between sets depends on your goals. If you want to focus on strength your rest periods should be about 3 minutes but as we want to focus on muscle hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth) rest periods should be about 1 – 2.5 minutes depending on the exercise. Smaller muscles like biceps recover faster between sets than legs or back. Especially compound movements like squats, deadlifts and barbell rows require more rest than isolation movements.

Heavy Weights: Work with weights where you reach positive muscle failure within 6 – 12 reps using proper technique without cheating. Positive muscle failure is the point when you can’t perform another rep without assistance. Complete beginners should go for 15 – 20 reps because you’ll develop a better mind-muscle-connection which is absolutely crucial for feeling the working muscle. You’ll gain muscle mass anyway because you’re muscles experience a whole new stimulus. After 4 – 6 weeks you can decrease reps and increase weights but you should always feel the working muscles.

I recommend including some high rep sets as well as low rep sets to hit all muscle fibers types which is necessary for complete muscle development. But don’t decrease weight too much in high rep sets; always go as heavy as possible with proper form.

Lifting Speed: Also quite important and often neglected is how fast you perform one repetition. The concentric (positive) phase of the movement should be performed explosive while you should allow 2 – 3 seconds for the eccentric (negative) phase. The concentric phase is when you push or pull the weight i.e. when doing bench press the concentric phase would be pushing the barbell away from you. Always try to perform the positive phase quick and explosive but still controlled while you focus on a slow negative phase so you’ll recruit as much muscle fibers as possible.

Progression: It’s always important to improve steadily especially as a beginner you should try to increase weights in compound exercises every 1 – 2 weeks by 5 – 10 lbs. Of course you won’t be able to do this for much longer than several weeks or months because then you’d be squatting 2000 lbs some day, but you should focus on beating your personal best even if it’s just one rep more. Only increase weights if you’re able to control the weight over the full range of motion (ROM), using strict technique. Never sacrifice form for weight!

2. Compound Exercises

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman and all the other big guys as well as fitness models did compound exercise and anyone gains muscle mass and strength by doing squats, bench press, barbell rows, deadlifts and pull ups. Think of your body as building a house where you wouldn’t start with windows and doors as long as there is no framing. Compound exercises are a given in every workout.

Compound exercises are movements where several muscle groups have to work together in order to move the weight. An example would be the barbell bench press where not just your chest but also your shoulder and triceps come into play. Always tighten your core muscles (abs and lower back) when doing compound exercises. Squats, Barbell Rows and other multi joint exercises release great amounts of anabolic hormones like textosterone and growth hormones.

Squats: Without doubt the most exhausting exercise and that’s what makes it so special. It doesn’t just work the legs but the whole body because you’ll have to be completely tight to perform squats. Make sure to perform squats with perfect technique because otherwise you’re likely to hurt yourself. Alternativess are front squats but never ever leg extensions..

Barbell Bench Press: Performed in the right way you’ll be using your whole body instead of just your chest, shoulder and triceps. There are many different variations of the bench press but I think the best bench press technique to learn for beginners is taught by Dave Tate. I tried it with my elbows out, back on bench and even though this technique’s supposed to hit the chest the best I struggled to feel my chest. Once I changed my bench pressing technique I started to feel my chest working.

Barbell Rows: My favorite exercise for a thick muscular back and it also works the lats which are responsible for back and shoulder width. I’d like to use an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width while my torso’s bent forward about 45°. Use full range of motion and touch your lower abs with the barbell to get the most out of this exercise.

Barbell Shoulder Press: Performed standing you’ll have to tighten your whole body while pushing the barbell up. You can also perform this exercise seated which isolates the shoulder muscles more. The barbell shoulder press is the best exercise to develop big cannonball shoulder muscles and every athlete should include it in their routine.

Close Grip Chin Ups: Just like barbell rows are great for back thickness chin ups are with no doubt the best exercise for great lat development which makes up your back width. Using an underhand grip slightly narrower than shoulder width causes a full stretch of the lats when in hanging position. Pulling yourself up with your elbows tucked to your body emphasizes maximum contraction of your lats.

Deadlift: Similar to squats deadlifts work the whole body but mainly the back and legs. You can use a heavy load which makes this exercise very intense. Variations like “rack deads” focus working the back more than the legs. If I do deadlifts then it’ll be rack deads as I want to focus on my back. You really can tell by the look of an athlete’s back

3. Full Body Workouts or 2 Day Splits

For a beginner it’s more appropriate to do full body workouts or 2 day splits because their muscles don’t need much recovery as they’re still little developed. At the beginning you usually won’t be able to train as intense as advanced athletes so you can train your muscles more often. After 6 – 8 months you might want to try a 3 day split.

Full Body Workouts: Usually performed 3 times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example) full body workouts are recommended for beginners but there are also many advanced and professional athletes doing full body workouts. Include compound movements but avoid squats and deadlifts in the same workout.

2 Day Split: On a 2 day split you’ll work your whole body on 2 days so you’re able to do more work for certain muscle groups. Normally a 2 day split is performed 2 times a week, some even do 3 times but it would be way too much for a beginner as well as most natural athletes. A common way to do 2 day splits is on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday where you do workout A on Monday as well as Thursday and workout B on Tuesday and Friday. Popular 2 day splits are upper/lower body or push/pull splits.

4. Nutrition for Muscle Growth

Probably the most neglected factor by beginners because they just don’t know what to eat to support muscle growth. Although nutrition isn’t as important as lots of people claim, it’s crucial to get enough calories because you’ll only gain weight i.e. muscle mass when being in a caloric surplus. Protein intake should always be high while calories are cycled through carbs and fat. This means you increase your carbs on workout days because you’ll burn lots of calories while working out and on free days you decrease carbs while increasing fats slightly to meet your caloric needs.

Protein: The most important macronutrient and necessary in every diet regardless if your focus is on losing fat or building muscle. Make sure your protein intake is high enough to support your muscles with amino acids needed for muscle recovery. Protein is the bodies construction material for new cells, muscle tissue etc. so you know about the importance of protein in your diet. Recommended protein intake is about 1 – 1.5g per pound of lean body weight. Stick to protein from animal sources like meat, eggs, cottage cheese, chicken breast, protein powder etc. as these are of higher quality than vegetable protein.

Carbohydrates: Carbs are the bodies’ main energy source and are stored in muscles and liver as glycogen. Glycogen is the primary energy source for weight training and other high intensity exercises and if you don’t replenish them your workouts will suffer because you lack of energy. Depending on your body type you have to be careful with carbs because you’ll easily gain fat but if you’re a hardgainer you shouldn’t worry about this. People who tend to gain fat quickly should consume most of their carbs around workout time.

Fat: Healthy fats are extremely important because they are responsible for maintaining hormones like testosterone, increasing energy levels and fat burning. Omega 3 oil, flax seed oil, almonds, olive oil and walnuts are popular healthy fat sources. A little fat from red meat won’t hurt at all as it increases testosterone levels but don’t overdo it. Also you don’t have to worry about egg yolks because its cholesterol won’t influence your body’s cholesterol levels, so it’s no problem at all to have 2 – 3 yolks a day.

Stay Hydrated: Drink lots of water and calorie free drinks like green tea, water and diet drinks though I recommend drinking mostly water and green tea. Our bodies are made of 70% water and even being slightly dehydrated will cause lack of energy which means your workouts will suffer. Make sure to drink about 1 liter per 45 pound (20kg) of body weight or 1 gallon per 165 pound of body weight. For every hour of intense training add another liter water. Just by the way, a 3% loss of water can result in a 10 – 15% drop in strength.

Vegetables and Fruits: Make sure to include vegetables and fruits into your daily diet for the simple fact that vegetables and fruits are healthy and full of important vitamins and nutrients. I personally like apples, grapefruits, bananas, strawberries and other kinds of berries the most because they are lower in carbs than most other fruits (except bananas). For vegetables I like to eat of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and mixed salad. Spinach is also a great vegetable source but I don’t like it very much.

5. Supplements

I’m pretty sure you’ve seen those commercials for muscle building and fat loss products which make ridiculous claims like “Gain 20 pounds of lean muscle mass in 8 weeks” and so on. Well, even though those supplements might work you’ll never be able to get the “promised” results and most of such supplements are pretty expensive. Fortunately there are some “classic supplements” proven to work for anyone, beginner or advanced. But keep in mind that supplements are no magic products; they are just nutritional supplements which can help you achieve results faster if your diet and training are in order. You still have to eat right and train hard to get desired results.

Protein Powder: The most popular supplement is with no doubt protein powder as it’s an easy and comfortable way to increase your daily protein intake. There are hundreds of different protein products so don’t get confused if you don’t know which one is right f or you. Just go with a whey protein and you’ll be fine. There are also protein blends available consisting of different protein components like whey, casein and egg. While whey protein is best used after workout, a protein blend is a fine way to increase protein intake during the day.

Glutamine: Glutamine is the most common amino acid in the body and if your body is stressed by intense workouts then you’ll benefit from supplementing glutamine because it improves recovery and strengthens the immune system. It also has anti-catabolic effects on your muscles which is quite important when dieting.

BCAA: Branched chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are three essential amino acids you have to take in through nutrition or supplements. BCAA are metabolized as soon as they get into the muscle so they’re used preferably pre, during and post-workout to improve recovery while creating an anabolic environment. You won’t induce protein synthesis with whole foods due to reasons like digestion time etc. BCAA will help you keeping up your strength and energy so you’ll be able to train with high intensity. I use BCAA pre and post workout and I also recognized a bigger muscle pump due to more blood flow which supports recovery after working out.

6. Rest and Recovery

Your muscles don’t grow while working out so training more often isn’t the way to go. Muscle mass is built while resting, especially while sleeping.

Sleep: Make sure you get at least 7 – 8 hours of sleep a night so your muscles are able to recover from intense workouts. While sleeping your growth hormone levels increase which have a huge impact on muscle recovery. Your concentration and strength also benefits from a long relaxing sleep.

Eat: You can’t build a house without bricks and other building materials so you won’t build impressive muscle mass if you don’t eat right. Food, especially protein is the muscle building material so make sure you provide your body with the needed nutrients.

Cardio: At least 2 times a week for 30 minutes you should do steady state cardio at 70 – 75 % of your estimated max heart rate. Besides burning extra calories cardio helps your body recovering from the intense workouts and it also strengthens your cardiovascular system. Always keep in mind that your heart is the most important muscle of all.

Go light: Training to muscular failure is intense so listen to your body and include some lighter workouts without going to muscular failure. Usually I train light for 1 – 2 weeks every 6 – 8 weeks. Every once in a while I take a week off from training to give my body the rest it needs to fully recover, but not more than 4 weeks spread throughout a year.

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