There are two ways to build muscle: the long and hard way and the longer and harder way.
Despite what your favorite fitness model may have said in his latest YouTube video, there are no secrets and there are certainly no shortcuts. There are, however, some simple steps you can take to ensure you’re on the right track and getting there as quickly as possible, all while avoiding the dead-end mistakes that sabotage most trainees.
If you’re tired of spinning your wheels and wasting time, and are ready to build more muscle, follow these 7 steps.
Step #1 – Prioritize
There is the recreational lifter who gets in the gym when he “has the time”. Then there is the serious lifter who structures his days around his training.
Here’s the truth: if you can’t set 1 hour aside, a few days per week, to work on your fitness goals, you’re not serious. And to be frank, if you’re the guy who’s trying to “find” time to train, don’t expect to look like the guy who makes time to train.
One commonality you’ll find with all successful bodybuilders is: they put the house of pain before the House of Cards – the gym before their favorite TV show.
If you’re “too tired” to train after work, train before. If you’re too lazy to get up a bit earlier, this isn’t your thing.
This is not to say you can’t live a healthy lifestyle when you’re too busy to find time to lift, just don’t expect to look like the guys who make it a priority.
Don’t get it confused. If your goal is to build a solid, magazine worthy physique, you won’t have to sabotage your relationships or quit your 9-5 job – but you will have to put fitness higher up on your priorities list than The Walking Dead.
Step #2 – Be Proactive
“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” –Alan Lakein
There are 4 main training factors that attribute to muscle growth:
- Volume (sets x reps)
- Intensity (how heavy you’re lifting)
- Frequency (the amount of days you’re training per week)
- And progression
Successful bodybuilders know exactly how many sets, how many reps, and how much weight they’re using on any given exercise. Their training schedule is written in stone. And they walk into the gym, each day, with a goal in mind – be better today than I was yesterday. (Read This: How to Create Your Own Strength Program)
Think of your training program as a GPS navigating you to your goals. Without one, you’re bound to make left turns when they should have been rights, jump off on the wrong exit, and stop for directions. Sure, you might eventually make it if you’ve got a good sense of direction, but you’re guaranteed to waste time.
Bottom line: find a program that fits your needs and stick to it.
Step #3 – Be Calculated
If you’re going to build muscle, maximally, you’ve got to be in a positive energy balance: consuming more calories than you’re expending. If you want to burn fat, you do the opposite.
But eating more (or less) calories is just a prerequisite. Getting those calories from the right macronutrient breakdown to ensure you’re getting sufficient protein, essential fats, and carbohydrates is the real goal.
Guys who build muscle or lose fat, on demand, can do so because they’re calculated. They gauge and adjust their calories according to their goal – whether it be to gain mass or burn fat, they know (more or less) what they’re consuming.
I don’t care how great of a program you’re on, if you’re not eating enough, in the right macronutrient breakdown, you’re not going to build muscle. Same goes for fat loss – no matter how much cardio, if you’re not in a deficit, you’re abs will remain buried.
Sound like too much work? Let me simplify it: if the goal is the build muscle, aim to get 1g per pound of bodyweight in protein, daily. At the very least, you’ll need 0.3g per pound of bodyweight in fats. And as many carbohydrates as you need in order to perform at your peak, without going into too large of a surplus.
Step #4 – Set Realistic Goals
Half of the muscle we can expect to gain in our lifetime can be achieved in our first year of training.
This is due to our bodies being hyper-responsive to the newly introduced stimulus during the beginning stages of our lifting career.
Unfortunately, the further into our lifting career we get, the longer it takes to build muscle.
While a trainee who’s been lifting for 2-3 years can expect to gain 0.5-1 pound of muscle per month, a more experienced lifter may gain a fraction of that.
So what does this have to do with realistic goals? Everything!
If building 12 pounds of muscle in 1 month isn’t realistic, then why aim to gain 3 pounds per week?
Guys who build the best physiques in the least amount of time possible, do so because they’re realistic about what is attainable. This allows them to spend more time building (gaining muscle) and less time destroying (burning fat).
Here’s an example: During his second year of training, Joe spends 12 weeks bulking up, increases scale weight by 12 pounds, and 9 of that is body fat. He spends another 8-12 weeks dieting down to his starting body fat and, assuming he’s maintained every ounce of muscle, ends up 3 pounds heavier after about 5-6 months of grueling work.
Had Joe been realistic, he would have maintained a reasonable surplus and gained the same amount of muscle in half the time.
Step #5 – Be Present
If the simple act of showing up to the gym was enough, everyone would be jacked and shredded.
Guys who maximize their results don’t just show up and go through the motions, they’re focused on the task at hand.
A study published in The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that subjects were able to alter muscle activity in their rectus abdominis or obliques by simply focusing on the individual muscle when performing trunk curls.
Another study published in The Journal of Athletic Training found that subjects who were given activation cues for their glutes and hamstrings were able to increase activation in the respective muscle.
Bottom line: Don’t just show up – be present. If you want to maximize your time in the gym, train with intent. Make every single rep, during every single set, count.
Step #6 – Strive for Improvement
Make no mistake about it, if you’re not getting better, you’re not getting bigger.
The main pathway by which we elicit adaptations that result in hypertrophy is progressive overload: the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training.
This can be done a few ways:
- Increase weight without sacrificing reps
- Increase reps without sacrificing weight
- Increase Training Density
- Increase Power
- Increase Training Frequency
“Couldn’t we could just add more sets?”
This is certainly a viable option, but studies show that it’s only possible to a certain degree before we experience diminishing returns. Not only is this strategy not efficient past a certain threshold, but it’s impractical.
That said, you don’t have to bench press 400 pounds, but you should always walk into the gym with the goal to improve.
Step #7 – Be Patient
Once you understand what is truly attainable in terms of muscle growth, you’ve got two choices: quit or be patient.
Next time you see a guy in the gym with an impressive physique, ask him how long he’s been training. Although that number may vary, you’ll quickly realize one thing: it takes time.
The guys who have built a physique more impressive than 99% of people, were patient. They chipped away, day after day, month after month, year after year. It wasn’t some 90-day challenge or 7 day juice fast – it was hard work, commitment, and patience.
About The Author
Alain Gonzalez is a former skinny guy turned jacked fitness pro whose transformation story has been featured in articles on websites all over the internet. He has dedicated his life to helping naturally skinny guys like himself to overcome their genetics and take their physiques to the next level.
Certified Personal Trainer