Top 5 Muscle Building Tips
How do I build an athletic and muscular physique?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. Building muscle doesn’t need to be complicated. Here are five of my top tips that will help you build muscle.
1. Use Compound Lifts
To elicit muscular hypertrophy (build muscle) you need to stimulate as much muscle mass as possible and through as large a range of motion as possible. Compound lifts do exactly this.
Focus on compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench press, bent over rows, pull ups, push ups and dips. These exercises recruit multiple muscle groups, move the body thought large ranges of motion and stimulate muscle growth. Perform compound lifts early in your training sessions and perform at least two per session.
2. Perform Multiple Sets of 6-10 Repetitions
Multiple sets of 6-10 repetitions seems to be a sweet spot for building muscle. This repetition range provides the perfect balance of load, volume and time under tension, without being overly taxing on the neuromuscular system. Additionally, sets of 6-10 repetitions maximise acute testosterone and growth hormone response, which is crucial for building muscle.
Repetition ranges of 1-5 and 10+ should also be utilised but sets of 6-10 with moderately heavy weights (~80% 1RM) for 3-6 sets should be primary focus of muscle building programs.
3. Train Frequently
Frequent stimulation (multiple training sessions per week) is more effective than one gargantuan effort every so often. I recommend 3-4 whole body sessions per week.
Try to stimulate your whole body every 2-3 days. Train hard, recover well and then go again. After a tough session (assuming you’re not brand new to training) your muscles will be ready to train again within a day or two.
If you’re training 5+ times per week then you might want to think about an upper-lower-whole body split. However, for most people, 3-4 whole body sessions per week will suffice.
4. Pay Attention to the Tempo
Tempo is a crucial weapon in the pursuit of muscle growth so pay attention to the speed of your movement. Eccentric muscle action (the lowering part of the repetition) creates greater muscle damage than concentric and isometric muscle actions so focus on a slow and controlled lowering portion of each repetition (~3 seconds).
Prolonging the eccentric action maximises the time under tension and the number of muscle fibres you’re tearing up. Some people will even perform the entire repetition (eccentric and concentric actions) in a slow and controlled manner (3 seconds down, 3 seconds up) but it’s my preference to perform powerful concentric actions, particularly if you are pursuing ‘athletic muscle.’ So, be slow and controlled on the way down and fast on the way up.
5. Variety is the Spice of Hypertrophy
“Keep the body guessing” is an often touted phrase in the fitness world. It’s basically a quick way of saying it’s important to vary the training stimulus.
If the body gets familiar with a movement pattern, repetition range or any exercise task, it will become much more efficient at it, won’t be surprised when called upon to do it, will use less energy and the task won’t create the same disruption.
For example, if you’ve been doing regular deadlifts and flat bench presses for months, switching to squat stance deadlifts and incline bench presses will provide new muscle building stimuli for the body to respond to and lead to further muscle growth.
Similarly, changing the sets, reps and structure of your training will also encourage new muscle growth. Some easy ways to vary your training:
Incorporate heavy, moderate and light loads
Perform super sets, giant sets and drop sets
Vary rest periods, exercises and tempos
Change grip and stance widths regularly
Use different training tools: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight only etc.
Doing the above will provide your muscles with new stimuli to respond to and maximise the hypertrophic effects of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage — the three key aspects of muscle building.
Consistency, hard work and good recovery are the cornerstones of any athletic training program. If muscle building is your goal, what you do outside of the gym is as important as what goes on in the gym.
For any athletic training program to succeed, you need to prioritise the following:
Avoid highly processed foods and focus on eating plenty of protein, vegetables, fruits and good sources of carbohydrates and fats (check out Nutrition Simplified here)
Sleep 8 hours per night
Keep stress levels low
Treat your body well — stay mobile and supple (yoga and foam rolling are a good start)
Be consistent with training and recovery
Read books on a variety of topics and call your friends and family often.
To build athletic muscle:
Utilise compound lifts with moderate loads and multiple sets of 6-10 repetitions.
Vary exercise selection and the structure of your training sessions.
Adequate sleep and appropriate nutrition are an essential part of the muscle building process.
Schoenfeld, B. J (2010) The Mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol 24, no. 10, pp.2857-2872