You have this body in your head that you want to achieve.
It may be something along the lines of toned shoulders, lean arms, and definition in your legs.
Do you have to lose fat to get there? Yes, BUT, if you don’t dive into muscle BUILDING to some extent, you will never actually BUILD that body.
Because what most people fail to remember is exercise is meant to BUILD your body up, as opposed to tear your body down. Let your diet take care of the fat loss.
Or maybe you have lost some fat, you look and feel good, but you want to take that next step in your fitness journey to start to carve the body you really want.
Wherever you are at in your journey, I can assure you, muscle building should be apart of it.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE GOING TO GET HUGE IN 3 MONTHS.
Trust me, I WISH that was the case. I would have been there a longggg time ago.
This does mean though you will be set up on the right path to achieve that body you desire.
Through this two part guide you will learn the pyramids of importance when it comes to muscle building, this article will be training in particular.
I must first say, this article is greatly influenced by the incredibly smart Eric Helms. His muscle and strength pyramids created a while ago are the back bone to SO MANY coaches philosophies and recommendations today.
That being said, it has his influence and his studies backing a lot of it, but I put my own spin on it. I used it to come up with this hierarchy system of importance to give you a complete guide when it comes to how to train for muscle growth.
I hope you enjoy. If you have read my previous articles, I will refer to that pen and paper once again.
This one is going to provide you some exact numbers and recommendations you can write down and take with you to implement into your plan today.
By the end, you should feel fully confident to take this information and put it into action.
Let’s build some muscle.
Muscle Building Pyramid
To help categorize this article, I will be using this pyramid above in reference the rest of the time.
This was created to not only help categorize things, but give you a big picture look at what REALLY matters when it comes to muscle building.
This should give you a good direction of what to focus on and how much. For example, if you are struggling on how much rest you should be getting in between sets, but your intensity is not even there.. it won’t matter.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the base of the pyramid, Adherence.
This is by far the most important pice of this puzzle, and I would be doing you a disservice if I did not label it so.
The hard truth is, I can give you the PERFECT training program, with the PERFECT amount of reps and sets, the BEST exercises, and the MOST OPTIMAL workout schedule..
But the reality is, if you either A. Can’t stick to it or B. Thoroughly hate doing it, you aren’t going to follow it.
And no matter how “great” the plan is in theory, if you cannot stick to it for a long period of time, you will NOT see results.
Especially talking about muscle building, it takes time to build muscle (unless you are a beginner, which we will cover).
When talking about adherence, there are a few factors to look at. Let’s briefly chat over them now.
Schedule / Time Frame
This is why everyones own individuality is truly paramount.
If you try to create a training program that has you working out at 6 am 5x a week because that is what is going to give you the “best” results, but you have a 7 month old at home… That might not be the “best” program.
Likewise, if you are planning for 2 hour workouts, but on gods green earth if you get an hour to workout you think you hit the lottery, again, it might not be best plan.
This is simply because you will not adhere to it. You won’t be able to consistently train this way. You will not be able to realistically work it into your schedule.
There is one thing to make sacrifices, and cut out excuses when it comes to getting time in to exercise.
Trust me, I believe the #1 worst excuse for not exercising is time. That being said, if you are making unrealistic expectations for yourself and your schedule, none of the rest of this will matter, because you won’t be able to do it.
I understand some of you reading this may be either new to the muscle building world, or come from a world where cardio is king.
So in that aspect, I will say you have to just give it a try. Go into it with an open mind. Go into it with focusing on building yourself up, getting stronger, building a new body for yourself. Be okay with trying different things.
That being said, even if this is a new world for you, there are a million ways to tailor it towards your enjoyment.
If for example you do like feeling you are “working hard”, maybe you do more reps and sets than another person. This will give you a more metabolic feel to it, while still achieving the muscle building goal at hand.
Another example would be if you really enjoy doing a full body workout instead of one or two muscle groups at a time, then you program your training around that.
There are infinite ways to achieve this enjoyable factor. The point is, try things, find what works for you, try more things (because you never know what you may like), and roll with it.
If you are reading this, you probably have 1839393^12 other things to do right now. Like that math there?
That being said, your plan must have flexibility taken into consideration.
If you were meant to workout on Monday, but your kid got sick and now you have to workout on Wednesday, your plan should account for that.
Or if you have a crazy busy day at work and have to go for a 45 minute workout instead of a 90 minute, this should be worked into. it.
This is all because again, at the end of the day, consistency and adherence reign supreme.
I would much rather you follow a B- plan with 80% consistency, than follow an A++ plan with 55% consistency.
Undoubtedly, you will see better results form the B- plan followed with 80% consistency.
Consistency > Everything.
Before I continue on with this, I must define with I actually mean by intensity.
I am not defining intensity by how out of breath you are, how much you sweat, or how short your rest periods are.
Head HERE to view my thoughts on that.
What I mean by intensity is, how hard are you pushing yourself. What is your effort you are putting forth during a given set.
If it calls for a set of 10 reps, is that a set of 10 where you were texting during it, talking, thinking about what your girlfriend is doing, and probably could’ve actually done 10 more?
Or is that a set where those reps of 8 9 10 were GRINDERS. They were reps you really had to work for, mentally and physically. You really had to push your body and mind to get those last 2-4 reps.
THAT is what I mean by intensity, and if you want to build muscle, you better believe the ladder of those two scenarios is what is mandatory.
The reason I put this above how many actual set and reps you use is because without this intensity component, the sets and reps you do won’t actually matter.
In this day and age, people think more is better. That is not always the case, especially when it comes to muscle building.
You can increase volume, aka sets and reps, but never increase intensity. You can do more “work”, but not get any better results, because your work is not yielding results.
I would much rather you do 2 sets instead of 4 if that means you are going to give those two sets your max mental and physical effort.
It may look like 2 set is “less work”, but I promise, try it one time, and you tell me which requires more effort and “work” from you.
I go in depth about this on my podcast “Muscle building is a poor mans game”, link HERE for that.
Okay so, here is the thing, I am telling you to put forth more effort but, how can you really measure that?
Yes put forth more effort Eric but, that is kind of up for debate, is there something I can use that leads me to keep track of this better?
So glad you asked.
There is something called the RPE scale.
As you can see above, this is called the rate of perceived exertion scale. This can be a great guideline to allow you to rate your level of activity by a tangible measure.
If you can hold a conversation while doing a set.. sorry honey, you are not really working that hard.
To take this a step farther, and talk about actual reps and sets, another added to this is the reps in reserve.
Now, we can start to apply this theory to your sets.
If you really have 4-6 reps left… again, sorry darling, you are not working that hard. Your intensity is not that high, certainly not high enough to build muscle.
Whereas if you are stopping maybe one rep short of true failure, okay, you are getting up there in your scale of intensity.
I love these two things when it comes to gauging how much intensity and effort you are truly using.
The one thing I will say is, if you are a beginner, you should not be taking all sets to max failure.
Your #1 concern is going to be what we talk about here soon, and that is form and technique. Beginners will build muscle just through osmosis.
If you go from lifting no weights, to lifting any sort of weights, that is a new stress your body has to adapt to. From that, you will gain muscle and get stronger.
Once you get past that stage, you will need to really use these tools to help you.
And, it will take time. It is going to take time to know what a TRUE RPE of 9 looks like. Right now you are probably thinking you are at a 9 or 10, but you are at a 6 or 7.
It is going to take you realizing there is more in the tank, you having to push harder, get uncomfortable, and ramping up intensity to see results.
Okay, So Where Should Your RPE Be?
Since we just covered the RPE Scale, we can now talk about where you should be for muscle building purposes.
Truthfully, if the majority of your sets are not in the 8-10 range, you are not going to build much muscle.
This means the majority of your time should be spent in the gym should be time spent pushing yourself to these higher intensity levels.
The more you can figure out how to do this, the more muscle you will be able to build.
We’ve all seen it. The person in the gym who looks like a humpback whale as they deadlift.
Or the person who looks like they are literally humping the air getting ready for their spouse that night as they do a bicep curl.
I don’t have the time to go over form and technique for every single exercise you are going to do, that is not what this section is for.
This section though is for explaining the importance of technique is for building muscle.
“You Won’t Get Hurt!”.. Yea..
So, YES, the better form you keep, the less likely you are to get hurt.
Yet as a coach, I have seen that sometimes is not enough to get people to realize how important form really is.
So, I will throw this at you for some food for thought.
If you are doing a bicep curl, you are wanting to get better biceps, right?
But, if you are swinging the weight aggressively up and down, using your hips to swing it, your shoulders to finish the movement up top…. Are you actually working your biceps?
No. You are using momentum, and other body parts to assist in the movement.
This then means from that 15 lbs you are doing a “bicep curl” with, maybe 4 lbs gets put to your biceps?
And 4lbs to your hips, 3lbs to your shoulders, and so on.
So, you set out wanting to work your bicep to get it more defined, but ended up using everything but your bicep.
So you won’t actually see any change in your bicep because you aren’t actually using the right form to use the right muscle.
This is what I tell all of my online coaching clients, and I have seen amazing response from it. Think about using the right form and technique to get better results.
Through that, you will not only stay injury free, but actually get better results in the process. Remember what we said earlier, more is always not better.
Walking The Tight Rope
Okay so now, I have to contradict myself.
I just told you that form and technique is paramount, which it is. Though that does not mean you then don’t push intensity and don’t push the weight so you can keep your intensity high.
From what we just learned, intensity is one of the most important part of muscle building.
So it doesn’t mean go get 5 lb dumbbells and do superrrrrr slowww and concentrated bicep curls.
No, that won’t yield results either.
You have to walk that fine line of doing high load (weight) and keeping *damn near* perfect form.
Again, this will only happen through trial and error. Try things, see what works, keep a record of it, and follow your path to results.
Volume / Frequency
Volume and Frequency would be the next tier of the pyramid. Let’s define what these words mean in terms of training.
Volume is the total amount of work done in a set. It can also be quantified as “volume load” (sets x reps x load), total number of reps (sets x reps), or simply just the number of sets.
There is no one “right” way to think about it, they all have their pros and cons.
But, for the reason we are about to dive into below, we will be using (sets x reps x sets).
Why Volume Is Secondary To Intensity?
Intensity is what we touched on earlier, and I spoke about why it is superior to volume.
I want to now give you an actual math example of why this can be the case.
Let’s say you are doing 4 x 10 @ 100lbs for your bench press.
That would be (4 x 10 x 100) = 4,000 lbs total.
Without changing any sets or reps, you can increase the volume AND intensity, by lifting 5 lbs more.
This then would be ( 4 x 10 x 105) = 4200 lbs total.
So, without changing any reps or sets, your volume DID actually increase, but through higher intensity, from a higher load.
No extra sets, or reps, or time in the gym. Just making the time you do have in the gym work better for you through higher intensity.
Ok ok back to volume recommendations.
Truly there could be a different recommendation for every individual.
But for the sake of this article, I will give you some general guidelines to follow.
10-20 sets per muscle group / movement per week.
If you don’t know what muscle groups or movements I am referring to, head HERE to read my article on program design.
This means for every muscle group and or movement pattern you should aim to get a total of 10-20 sets per week.
So how can you do this? This is where frequency comes into play as a tool.
This refers to how many days a week you are training these muscles / movement patterns.
As far as frequency goes, it really is a tool that is used to get your total volume in for the week.
If you need to get 10 sets of legs in, you can do 4 one day, 2 the next, and 2 the next.
Or you can do 5 sets one day, 5 sets the next day.
It honestly depends on your split and how you choose to design your training program. Again, highly suggest you go read my article on program design if you want extra help with this.
The other cool thing that frequency can be used for as a tool is skill acquisition.
Piggybacking off our previous section, technique, properly learning how to squat or deadlift takes time.
It takes practice over and over and over. An mlb pitcher doesn’t pitch once a week, they pitch multiple times throughout the week to get better at it.
This is no different. If you want to use frequency as an opportunity to learn how to squat, or feel your lats when you do a row, this is where you can program in such a way to do that.
In todays day and age where instagram runs the world, and the internet is full of people trying to one up each other with their next coolest exercise, we have gotten lost.
Everyone is doing bosu ball squats, weird mixes of lunges and bicep curl, and thinking they HAVE to do something new every time because “muscle confusion, bro!”.
Just stop. Stop with the madness.
Muscle confusion is not a real thing. You should not be on a bosu ball doing a front raise or a squat. Get your ass off the bosu ball, go grab a barbell or dumbbell, and work on mastering the basic fundamental movement pattern of a regular ol squat.
I can’t tell you how many people significantly hinder their chances of making any real muscle building progress, and significantly raise their chances of injury, with this notion you need to be doing crazy exercises.
It is important to keep consistency throughout your training. If you can keep the same movement for 4, 6, 8 weeks, you can actually track what you are doing on it.
You can track if you are getting stronger, or if you are doing more reps, you can track if your form is getting better.
You can actually have a training program that is leading you to create a stress your body has to adapt to to then see results.
As opposed to just going into the gym and exercising.
I will go over what I believe to be a good time frame to switch exercises up, but after I talk about picking exercises, for YOU.
Selecting Exercises For YOU
This is where individuality becomes SO IMPORTANT.
I am 6’4. I have long legs, and I have previous back and hip issues.
I have trouble loading up a barbell and barbell back squatting. And that is 100000% okay.
No where in this article have I said you need to do only certain exercises to build muscle, rather I talked principles.
Intensity, sets, reps, etc.
SO, I do not spend a lot of time barbell back squatting.
It doesn’t fit my persona. It doesn’t allow me to actually work my legs, or stay healthy.
Instead I opt for a hack squat, or a front squat, or a single leg split squat.
If you consistently get hurt with a movement, or don’t feel it how you should, there is no reason to continue to keep banging your head against a wall.
Switch it out for something that is within the same movement pattern, which allows you to use a higher intensity and better technique.
As we know from the pyramid, THAT matters so much more than the exact exercise you use.
Recommendations For Exercise Variance
For me what I do with my online coaching clients, below has worked incredibly well.
For your main compound movements, I would keep those in for at least 4 weeks, if not 8-12 weeks at a time before you switch them out.
This allows you to progressively get stronger at them, perfect the form, add weight, etc.
This will give you the best return on your time in the gym.
For isolation / accessory exercises, this is where you can play around a bit more.
Things like bicep curls, shoulder raises, hamstring curls, you can change these a bit more often.
Usually anywhere from 3-4 weeks can work, and if you are more towards the advanced side, week to week may be an option as well.
I totally understand changing the exercise can lead to better enjoyment and adherence, BUT, you have to take into consideration the other factors of this pyramid.
If you can’t increase your intensity with an exercise, can’t get stronger, can’t do it long enough to learn it… You won’t build muscle.
There is a lot to be said for consistency, keeping things simple, mastering the basics, and doing that week after week after week.
Not sure the point of that picture, but it’s awesome.
Okay so we get to the top of the pyramid, rest periods.
I touched on this earlier, I had a link to a YouTube video I did on it, but I will say it again.
You should not be taking 10 or 20 seconds breaks when focusing on muscle building.
If you are pushing your intensity, and hitting a 9 or 10 on your RPE Scale, your muscles need time to recover.
And if you are thinking you are hitting a 9 or 10 on your RPE Scale through 20 seconds rest, you are not.
YOU ARE NOT WORKING HARDER BECAUSE YOU ARE CUTTING YOUR REST PERIODS.
Sorry. Just the truth.
It is actually probably leading you to work LESS hard because you can’t fully mentally and physically recover, leading your intensity to be less, leading to you not being able to build muscle.
So with that being said, I will provide some guidelines for rest periods below.
Rest Period Guidelines
For compound lifts, like your squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, your rest time should be around 2 minutes.
For your isolation / accessory exercises, like lunges, single leg deadlifts, bicep curls, these can be around the 1 minute mark.
But That’s Tooooo Longgggg
I know, for some of you, that is scary.
Here is my compromise to that, add a superset into your workout.
This can be done by doing two exercises back to back with no rest, and THEN taking a break after the exercises are completed.
These also usually tend to be antagonist muscles, like chest and back.
An example of this is below.
1a. Push Up
1b. Pull Up
Rest : 75 seconds after.
This can allow you to get some higher heart rate work in, push the envelope a bit more, but not compromise your intensity, and still leave you time to recover for the next set.
So, there you have it.
Whew, that was a ton.
I hope that pen and paper was rolling section by section.
Muscle building is NOT about one specific thing. It is not attributed to one source of results.
Rather it is comprised from multiple different variables and guidelines to operate by.
Adherence is the most important. That is individual to you.
Intensity is what drives muscle growth. Learning how to truly achieve this is a skill which takes time and effort.
Form / Technique is a principle that is based around actually making your time in the gym effective.
Volume can be used as a general guideline to follow and make your own individual preferences off of. Frequency is used for a tool to compliment volume, intensity, and basically this whole chart.
Exercise selection is less about picking ONE certain exercise to do, or the contrary doing every exercise known to man. Pick ones that work, stick with them, change when need be, and see great results.
Rest periods are used to complement the pyramid as well. Use the rest to mentally and physically recover to keep all of the other things in mind.
I truly hope you got some value from this article. I know it was a bit long, so if you read this whole way, thank you.
I promise you if you read all this, and implement it, you will see amazing results.
If this is all a bit much for you, and you have questions, please feel free to leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Or, if you would like to apply for coaching with me instead so I can help you every step of the way, head HERE to fill the form out to see if we would be a good fit.
Thank you so much for your time, and Happy Muscle Building.