It's unfortunate but most people never reach their body goals. They purchase gym memberships, home fitness gadgets, diet plans and DVDs, yet remain unable to build muscle and/or get lean.
This isn't always due to a lack of discipline either. Gyms are packed with men and woman performing resistance training routines, and grinding out miles upon miles on treadmills. Most of these folks are very health conscious, and eat reasonably well, all things considered.
Despite this dedication, you don't see many fit, muscular and lean physiques. You do see a lot of individuals that are "in shape", meaning they aren't overweight and have added some muscle mass, but their bodies lack the muscular development and degree of leanness that they desire.
So then, the question becomes...now what? What to do when you are dedicated but don't know how to reach that next level? Such a broad question can be hard to answer, but I'll try to present some tips that may just be a game changer for you.
10 tips to help you build muscle
#1. Maximize every set
I don't believe in wasting gym time. By maximizing every set, I know that I am maximizing every workout and my muscle building results. Here's what I recommend:
Push every set for as many reps as possible.
Stop a set when you feel like you might fail on the next rep, or when your form starts to slip. By using this approach you will be challenging your muscles to a greater degree, and maximizing overload by adding more weight to the bar over time.
This seems like an obvious tip, but very few folks train in this manner. If you're looking to add muscle mass as quickly as possible, the act of pushing each set to its limits is the single best practice you can adopt in the gym.
#2 - Stop working out, start training
Many people work out, but few train. What do I mean? Let me explain.
How many times have you said: "Man, I killed it in the gym today! I worked up a great sweat and destroyed my body!" This is all good and well, but burning calories and punishing your body doesn't necessarily equate to a good bodybuilding workout.
Muscle building is not about burning calories, breaking a sweat, or necessarily punishing your body. To build muscle you need bodybuilding-specific goals.
Because progressive overload is king, I suggest the simple goal of trying to improve each set by at least one rep compared to your previous workout. This will allow you to continually push your body, get a lot stronger than you are now, and as a result speed up the muscle building process.
Train for the goal of progress, not pain or sweat.
Tip # 3 - Understand the lifting food chain
Training tools like drop sets, supersets, rest-pause training, slow negatives and burn sets are all good and well, but if you are not adding weight to the bar over time when using these tools, your body will adapt and gains will slow or stall.
Using advanced training techniques is ok, but they are not a replacement for progressive overload. No matter how you train, if you are not pushing exercises for more reps per set, and more weight over time, workouts will still feel "intense" but lack the potent mechanism that drives gains.
Tip #4 - Forget the idea of magic programs
One of the biggest mistakes I see is the obsession over finding a magic workout system. Magic training systems don't exist. Find a reputable workout plan, and stick with it.
Consistency and progressive overload are magic. The reality is this: most trainees fail not because of programs, but because they don't remain consistent, and don't push to add weight to the bar.
The best choice you can make is to find a workout system that motivates you to train, stick with it, and tweak it to fit your schedule and needs. Far too many times a lifter will try a program for a few days, dislike certain aspects, and move on to a new program.
If you don't like certain things about a system, change them. Remember, progress and consistency are more important than specific training tools.
Tip #5 - Try this simple 12 set protocol for major muscle groups
Don't know how to structure workouts for major body parts such as chest, back, legs and shoulders? Try this simple 12 set structure:
- Exercise #1 - Compound exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #2 - Compound exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #3 - Machine exercise, 3 sets
- Exercise #4 - Isolation/finisher exercise, 3 sets
Here you start with the most impactful compound exercises, such as squats, barbell rows, military press and bench press. You then move on to a second compound exercise. This movement should be slightly different in nature, such as the incline dumbbell bench press or leg press.
You can finish out the session with a machine and isolation movement. Here you can insert some advanced training techniques if you desire, such as slower negatives or drop sets.
Tip #6 - Push away from "minimalist" protein and calorie intake
When it comes to muscle building nutrition, some sources will tell you that you never need to eat more than 150 grams of protein per day, or more than 200-300 calories over maintenance. Well "never" doesn't work well if you aren't making progress. It's important that you try new things and make changes and tweaks if your current diet plan isn't working.
If you're pushing hard in the gym, adding weight to the bar and remaining consistent, but gains aren't coming...then it's likely your eating plan is holding you back. Try bumping your calories up by an additional 300 per day, and increase your protein intake by 30 grams.
These small changes might be exactly what's needed to move you from slow gainer to steady gainer. You have nothing to lose by trying to increase food intake for a month. Food is magic for the natural trainee. It can bolster recovery and strength gains, which will only help add more muscle in the long run.
If walking the minimalist line isn't working, add a bit more daily protein and calories.
Tip #7 - Use the "if you can't get it done in an hour" rule
I am often asked if it's ok to train longer than an hour. My response is simple:
If you can't get a good muscle building workout done in an hour, something's wrong.
This is not to say you can't, or shouldn't train longer than an hour. My point is simple: if you don't feel like you've "got it done" within the first hour of training, extra time in the gym probably won't help you.
Focus on quality first. Once you know that each and every workout is effective, then analyze whether more time in the gym might be beneficial. More is not better if your existing workouts are lacking.
Tip #8 - Give rest-pause work a try
I am a huge fan of rest-pause work for muscle building. The premise is very simple: you restrict rest in between sets to 20-30 seconds tops, and push every set for as many reps as possible. This approach allows you to tax a muscle, and beat it while it's down (so to speak).
Rest-pause workouts will move along rather quickly, and work better with a higher set volume. Don't panic though, rest-pause training isn't the same as high volume training. If you perform 5 rest-pause sets on the bench press, with only 30 seconds of rest between sets, your rep volume will drop dramatically per set.
So even though you are performing 5 sets, your total reps will be less. You'll also likely need to perform fewer total exercises, as rest-pause training can be particularly brutal.
Tip #9 - Stop half-efforting your exercises
The 2 biggest sins committed in an average gym are:
- Low-rep, buddy assisted bench press sets. You know how these sets go; your training partner or spotter typically is rowing the weight for you.
- Half-squats. Lifters will slap on too much weight, sink 4 inches and call this movement a "squat." It's not, and is hard on the knees to boot.
You are far better off dropping the weight on these exercises and maintaining proper form (and depth). It's nearly impossible to build quality chest and leg muscle when you are not taking squats and bench press seriously.
Drop your ego, drop the weight, hit the Internet and learn proper form, and progress from there.
Tip #10 - Build a base from head to toe
Not sure if your workout program is decent, or if you are training properly? Build a base.
My advice to trainees during their first 2-3 years of lifting is simple: get everything from head to toe as strong as humanly possible using conventional hypertrophy (muscle growth) rep ranges. These rep ranges are primarily 5-12 reps per set for compound lifts, and up to 15 reps per set for machines, cables, and isolation exercises.
By building a strength base, you will also be building a muscle base. While you don't need to train for one rep max strength, if your body is a lot stronger than it was 3 years ago, your muscle size will have improved dramatically.
10 tips to help you strip fat
Tip #1 - Use resistance training to build, and diet and cardio to burn
When stripping away fat, you also want to maximize your existing muscle tissue. If you don't, you will risk losing fat and muscle as you shed pounds, and end up thinner but with an unathletic physique.
Don't use resistance training as a "calorie or fat burn." Instead, continue to train normally in the gym, pushing for more weight on the bar (or at least try to hold on to your current strength levels). Use cardio and your diet to knock off the fat.
This simple tip, more than any other, will assist you in building your dream body while shedding the pounds. The human body needs a reason to hold on to muscle tissue during a cutting diet. Resistance training is the mechanism that does just that.
Tip #2 - Drop your calories slowly; don't make big jumps
This is a huge mistake that most men and women make. When they decide to lose weight or go on a cutting diet, daily calorie intake is dropped substantially. Don't do this.
Instead, pull back your calories slowly. I recommend dropping calories by only 300-400 per day during the first 2 weeks. This minor adjustment may be enough to lose weight consistently. This small change, compared to a sudden 1,000 calorie drop per day, is much easier to stick to. Duh, right? Why make your diet more difficult than it needs to be.
If after 2 weeks your fat burning rate isn't where you want it to be, drop calories by another 200 per day and monitor weight loss for an additional 2 weeks. Set a goal to lose about 2 pounds of fat per week, 3 pounds tops. This is usually an optimal rate for individuals looking to hold on to as much muscle tissue as possible while shedding fat.
This combination will help give you the athletic and/or muscular body you are after.
Tip #3 - Don't overkill cardio
Your diet should be the primary driving force behind your fat loss. For this reason, you want to dial in you calories first before adding in extra cardio sessions. In fact, you may not need to add in any additional cardio at all.
Aim for 3-4 cardio sessions per week, of 20-30 minutes each. This is an excellent way to improve your overall health and cardiovascular endurance. Don't add in any extra cardio sessions unless your weight loss stalls on your current diet.
If you are losing fat at a consistent rate, there is no need to increase your cardio. Don't mess with what is working.
Tip #4 - Drop resistance training set volume when cutting
When moving to a fat loss diet, I recommend keeping the same workout intensity (weight and reps per set), but decreasing the number of sets you do per exercise or workout. Recovery will be more difficult when you are eating fewer calories, so a reduction in overall sets by 20-30% may be beneficial.
So if you are performing 4 sets of 10 reps on the bench press, drop a set. If you are performing 20 total sets on leg day, back the volume down to 14-16 total sets.
Remember...do not decrease the weight used. You still want to push hard in the gym, maximizing each and every set (see the tip above in the muscle building section).
Tip #5 - Break away from boring cardio
Cardio doesn't have to be boring. In fact, cardio SHOULDN'T be boring. Get off the treadmill or elliptical and do something fun.
You cardio sessions can involve any form of movement. Go for a hike or swim. Try rollerblading or ice skating. If you can't break free from the gym, then try complexes, circuits or HIIT sprints on the treadmill. Even kettlebell swings are far more engaging than grinding out miles staring at a wall or TV screen.
Find a form of cardio you like. Exercise shouldn't be tedious. A calorie burned is a calorie burned. It doesn't matter how you burn calories, as long as you do so.
Tip #6 - Move away from low-fat and low-sugar processed foods
Try to avoid eating too many "low-fat" and "low-sugar" foods while on a cutting diet. Low-fat foods usually have added sugars and ingredients (thickeners), etc., to make them taste better. Low-sugar foods often have fats added to them to improve taste.
"Low" anything is not an indication that a food product is inherently healthier. Instead of opting for these types of foods, stick to whole foods such as meats, veggies, fruits, dairy, eggs and grains. Whole foods are more nutrient dense and will help you remain satisfied when trying to burn off extra fat.
On the other hand, food that isn't as nutrient dense might trigger cravings, as your body seeks to obtain vital nutrients for every day bodily functions.
Tip #7 - Stop eating bland meals that make dieting hard to stick to
A fat burning diet doesn't need to be comprised of plain meat, carbs and veggies. It's ok to have food that tastes good. Check out the recipes section here at M&S for some tasty suggestions.
If you hate, or are bad at cooking, try placing some simple sauces on your meats. They are very easy to make, and pack a lot of flavor. I use some of the following combinations:
- Abodo sauce (found in nearly every grocery store, look for it) and a small amount of heavy cream on tilapia
- Sour cream and salsa over chicken
- Hot sauce and minced garlic over beef and pork
I also make spinach salads using a homemade dressing of red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Sauces and seasonings can be a game changer. Don't hesitate to purchase items like spice blends, garlic powder or hot sauces to add some taste to boring meals.
Tip #8 - Forget trends, bad advice and fad diets
Structure diet plans around your eating tendencies. There will be many telling you to eat "this way or that way", or trying to get you to use the latest fad diet of the month. While these folks (and even trainers) mean well, it's best to analyze your existing eating habits and structure a diet plan based around them.
If you are a big night time eater, save more of your calories for 5-9 pm. If you like to snack throughout the day, plan high protein, low calorie snacks that satisfy your cravings.
Spend a week documenting your eating times and food choices. Then, try to structure a high protein, healthy diet that best fits these habits. You will be more likely to stick to a cutting diet if it isn't leaving you hungry when you typically want to eat.
Tip #9 - Ignore week one weight loss
The weight you lose during week one indicates very little. Here's why... When you drop calories, you are also dropping your carb intake. When eating cleaner foods, there is also a strong likelihood that your sodium intake will drop as well.
Both carbohydrate and sodium intake encourage water retention. Less carbs and salt, the less water your body will hold. Because of this, you will flush a lot of water during your first week on a reduced calorie diet. This is not fat loss.
During the second and third week of your cutting diet, the water flushing process is pretty much over and your weekly weight loss rate will stabilize some. It is during these weeks that the true impact of your calorie intake will become apparent.
Tip #10 - Make your cheat windows flexible
Having a cheat meal (not a pig out) each week is a good idea. It will help keep your metabolism humming along smoothly. I recommend one of two ways to cheat:
- One hour of as much clean food as you want. This allows you to eat a little extra once a week, but keep your calories in check.
- One dirty meal per week of anything, as long as you limit the quantity of food to a single plate. This allows you to eat at family gatherings, holidays, etc., and relax a bit without looking like a "bodybuilder who brings their own Tupperware meals" snob.
I recommend keeping these cheat periods flexible. By this I mean instead of scheduling them, let life or cravings dictate when you cheat. If you are having a stressful day at work and want a little extra food tonight, allow yourself to have an one hour clean food cheating period. If your employer suddenly decides to buy everyone pizza for lunch, use your weekly cheat meal and put 3 slices on a plate.
I have found that when I plan cheat meals/windows I usually regret it. Something unplanned always comes up later in the week. For this reason I prefer to just let life happen and cheat as my week dictates.
I have a body which like bulky means no cutting and all and i do 6days a week workout scheduled but no result noticed.i want musule having goid cuttings.so sujest me the kind and beneficial routine workout and what shoul i eat in breifly..
yep good read
I always had a terribly skinny body. A few months back I finally succeeded in gaining significant amount of mass but a lot of fat as well (alas). I basically trained very hard 3 - 4 days a week and gave my body plentiful sleep and rest to recover. I ate everything that I could manage to access throughout my day (which mostly consists of office hours around 10 hours a day). Now I am stronger and bulkier but my arms are still super skinny (better than before though) and have no wings whatsoever. But I my waist has immensely increased and so the stomach. I can be now called skinny fat (specially coz of the newly developed pointy chests) and fat stomach.
Now what would you suggest me? first cutting and then bulking, or the other way around or any other plan? btw, I'm 6'5, 170 pounder.
Lots of good information for confused people like me. Thank you. I think my biggest problems and those that I know is working out a good eating plan for those that work during the day. So hard facing eating out for lunch and breakfast five times a week but I'll find something eventually.
Hi Steve, I am a 45 yr old who has been training on/off for about 5 years, I have been more focussed over the past year and have managed to drop 30lbs and get down to 204lbs and from 28% bf to about 12%. Unfortunately i have injured my shoulder and need advice as to how to workout around the injury, I have to schedule a scan to determine the extent of the injury, I do not think it is a rotator cuff tear as I have full mobility and control when I lift my arm over my head, I am trying to get down to 7-8% bf and maybe back up to about 205lbs with the right diet and exercise I was wondering if you could help me set up a lower body focussed workout as this is my weak area.
Thanks in advance for any advice, your workouts have been a big part of my journey.
You are awesome steve
I have been eating good, jogging 2 miles daily and hitting the gym to workout different areas of my body. I did not lose any weight but gained. My pants are fitting looser, It seems I am building muscle but not shedding fat. what workouts do you recommend I work on? I appreciate any help. Thanks!
Steve, quick one on cardio - I'm trying to lose a little bit of fat whilst retaining (and dare I say it building) some muscle mass, keeping my diet and macros close to 100% in check. The fats not shifting like I feel it should on my current diet, so my question... When do you recommend doing cardio? My normal routine is to complete my muscle group workout, and jump on a cardio machine for 10 minutes straight after, roughly 3-4 times a week.
Any suggestions? Cheers.
Everything stated makes perfect sense , patience and dedication are key and reading well informed articles by yourself are a must .
This is the second article I have read from you Steve, and I must say; I really enjoy your pointers. Nice job keep up the good work.
Steve, I really appreciated the article. Clear, concise, and direct. I have one question though. Currently I am cutting back on the calories while maintaining training intensity. I always hear of "cheat meals" or "cheat days." What would one look like? Say I am losing consistently on 2700 cals a day, for 1 lb a week (therefore my maintenance is more or less 3200 cals). Would a cheat just be taking it up to my maintenance, or above maintenance? Thanks!
A cheat meal can't be quantified in calories. It's typically just used to keep the metabolism from flat-lining. If you use the advice on the tip you won't really go wrong, as long as you aren't making a monster plate of food.
Actually a great article! At first I thought it was going to be one of those male fitness posts which are often full of broscience and myths! Learned a few things and reinforced a few more.
Good post man.
Hi Steve, I enjoyed this post and a lot of what you said resonated with me. I am currently trying to lose about 8kgs without sacrificing too much muscle. I am cutting almost all carbs from my diet, sticking to no more than 24g of carbs per day. I am confused though when you say: "..stick to whole foods such as meats, veggies, fruits, dairy, eggs and grains." Because that sounds like all macros can go equally. What should then be excluded? I have heard that some grains are good for you and can even help fatloss. Can you please elaborate?
Exclude things like white sugar, white flour, canned foods, boxed foods, cookies, chips and other processed foods.
Awesome. Thanks Steve.
Nice one mr.Steve! But i cant figuer out a thing... Im 17 and i can't go to the gym now, i have some weights at home, and i want to know, how eficient are they? After making a pogram (based on your exercises) and stick with it, when i will see the results?
And as food, i dont take any proteins or something like that, onli home-cooking, is it gonna slow me down? I read that its good to have 5 to 6 meals per day, is it good?(excuse my grammar)
As long as you are pushing yourself on sets, try to add more weight, you'll be successful.
For protein foods, eat meat, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts. As long as you are eating some of these foods each day you will do great.
Safe to say I can use allot from this article, thanks
Steve, how much cardio is too much ? Whats the best cardio for fat loss ?
Great article, Steve! Will Bookmark this
All of this is really sound advice, something I'd pass along to family or friends. To be honest though, the "1hr" point doesn't fit in my case. I'm definitely ramped up and getting work done at the 1hr mark, but I feel/would feel like I left something on the field if I have to cut things short of more like 2hrs. Carbs are pretty hi pre-WO, and I feel great and have good intensity the whole time through. Should I be pulling myself out of the gym at 1hr because it's definitely counterproductive to stay even though I don't feel gassed yet?
Thanks for the info Steve! I am a newbie and this was a great article because I didn't have to wade through all the info that is out there. Just starting out at 60 years young! I have always been in "good shape" but look forward to being what I can be at this time in my life.
Thanks Bill and good luck! 60 years young is a good place to start. Never quit.
Great read! It's good to see others out there who provide CORRECT information AND give practical tips (I have an undergrad in ex phys and a masters in nutrition). The only thing I would add to this is on Tip #6 for protein and calorie intake/increases - really this is based on body mass so telling anyone person to increase PRO or kcals, by 30g or 300 kcals, respectively, is kind of a shot in the dark. Really depends on intensity and time spent in training each day/week. Overall, great article!
The dieting advice is just general information. The key to any successful diet really comes from tweaking based on results.
I goal to gain muslce and some fat loss for my legs. How many calories should I eat a day? I have been working out for 6 days a week with weight lift and cardio for just 20-30 mins everyday. I eat about 1800-2000 calories. Please advise and thanks.
If 1800-2000 is causing you to maintain weight, I would try 1600-1700 per day for 4 weeks to see if it causes you to lose weight. Weight lost during weeks 2-3-4 are the real test. If you are losing more than 2-3 pounds per week during this period bump your calories up by 100 per week until your rate of fat loss becomes more reasonable.
Thanks steve this was very helpful
Thank you Cruz.
I love this article,I'm gonna try it as from tomorrow.
Great article, more proof that this is easily the best site I've come across for simple info on how to build muscle and strength or cut fat. Being in this lifestyle for a good while I've grown sick and tired of the way things are done on many other sites.Thanks for the hard work Steve.
Thanks for the feedback Reed!
I got the answers for all the questions in one article . Thanks Steve
Steve, great article. Do you recommend counting calories or macros or something while cutting down on fat? Just curious of your experiences. Thanks.
Most of us want to look as good as possible, so some form of precision will be required. There is a saying in bodybuilding...the more precise the eating, the more precise the results.
When cutting I think you need to know your calorie ballpark. If not you are setting yourself up to (potentially) lose more muscle then you want to.
Thank you, Steve. I love these kinds of articles.
Thanks Todd I appreciate the feedback.
Thank you Simon.