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Q&A: How can I go about building some muscle?

by Steve Troutman on August 22, 2012

I recently received the following email:

My husband is trying to put on some muscle… he is 165 pounds, 6’1 (this time last year he was at his highest weight of 230). He is 18.6% body fat and as of right this second is not going to the gym but wants to as soon as he figures the right routine and what he needs to eat. Can you give me some pointers? He is also wondering how much protein to eat as well.

Here’s my reply to her husband.

Firstly, congrats for such an admirable weight loss.  Hopefully you feel better.  It sounds to me like you lost a good bit of muscle while dieting given how low your weight is relative to your height and body fat %.  Or maybe you didn’t have a decent base to begin with.

You should understand that:

1) Adding muscle generally requires a calorie surplus
2) By being in a surplus, you’re going to add more fat, like it or not.

It’s hard to judge anything without seeing pictures of you and it completely depends on what you’re ultimately trying to do with your physique.  Assuming you’d like to be leaner though, eating a calorie surplus isn’t going to accomplish this given your current level of body fat.  At least not initially.

Maybe you understands this.  Maybe you believe that your current base of muscle isn’t large enough to achieve a level of leanness (say sub 12% at a minimum) without being way too thin/light.  Your reasoning might be something along the lines of, “I’ll add some muscle now, try to minimize fat gain as much as possible while doing so, and then, down the road, diet the fat off again while working harder at maintaining as much muscle as possible.  Lean at 165-170 would look much better on me than lean at 150-155.”

Goal Weight = Current Lean Body Mass / (1-Goal Body Fat percentage as a decimal)

Goal Weight = 134 / (1 – .12)

Goal Weight = 152

I’m only mentioning this because I run into a lot of people who either a) think their perfect body lies in losing more and more weight, never really paying adequate attention to the muscle side of the physique equation or b) think that gaining more and more muscle, thus eating a perpetual surplus, is the key to their ‘perfect body,’ never paying adequate attention to the fat side of the physique equation.  In an ideal world, we could shed all the fat while building as much muscle as we need in one fell swoop.  Life is rarely ideal.

In reality, mere mortals who aren’t genetically blessed or using pharmacological assistance need to balance, juggle, and shuffle both – fat and muscle.  Often times, the path to a physique goal looks more like this:


Than this:

My intent is simply to make sure you understand your options.  To reiterate…

Option A – You can chase leanness by losing more fat while preserving as much muscle as possible.  If your goal is to look ‘big’ though, going much lighter likely isn’t going to help much, regardless of how lean you get.  Then again, I generally don’t tell people to eat a surplus when their body fat % is, say, above 15%.  However, in this case losing more weight might be counterproductive.

Option B – You can focus on muscle growth by eating a surplus, trying to minimize additional fat gain as best possible.  This is a valid approach in my mind.  However, you’d have to understand that at least in the short run, things might get ‘worse’ before they get ‘better.’  This approach would leave you with a bigger base of muscle to expose in a later fat loss phase.

Option C – In reality, given what I know about you, which admittedly is very little, it sounds like you are new to lifting weights.  Call it newbie voodoo or whatever you’d like, but beginners can actually experience considerable and concurrent changes to fat and muscle tissue. Put differently, although I’ve already mentioned that muscle gain requires a calorie surplus, I’ve had numerous clients simultaneously lose fat and gain muscle while eating a slight deficit.

This effect doesn’t last long.  Once your body catches on to the fact that you’re not feeding it enough to maintain itself, it’ll stop adding metabolically costly muscle tissue.  In the short run though, I think it’s important to take advantage of this window of opportunity where the novelty of lifting weights can cause muscle growth irrespective of calorie intake.

That said, I’d advise you to consume anywhere between a slight deficit (15-20% or so) and maintenance while instituting a progressive resistance training program.  Ride this out for a couple of months and reassess.  If you’re still seeing improvements, maintain the status quo until they stop.  Once they do stop, it’ll be time to reassess.  Those concurrent changes can do wonders for newcomers to the strength game.  Your mileage may vary though, and depending on how much muscle is gained, you’ll might have to decide between option A and option B depending on what more you want out of your physique.

At some point along the line, you’re likely going to have to eat a surplus to add muscle.  Especially if your genes aren’t conducive for packing it on, which seems to be the case.  It’s worth mentioning that building muscle isn’t about eating as much as you can.  Rather, it’s about finding that sweet spot, calorically speaking, where there’s more energy coming in the door than your body needs, which in turn, will support said muscle growth.  This sweet spot, unfortunately, does not equal ‘eat everything in sight.’  There’s a physiological limit to how quickly you can build muscle.  And that rate can’t be fast forwarded by eating more and more like some people choose to believe.

How do you find the sweet spot?  Don’t make this harder than it has to be.  Estimate maintenance and add 10% to that.  If, after a few weeks that’s not working, add another 5-10%.  Rinse and repeat.  If you don’t know how to calculate maintenance, read this book/article.  If you don’t track calories, simply start adding some calorically dense food, like peanut butter, to your normal eating pattern.  One way or another, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’re gaining at a rate that makes sense… say .5 – 1.5 lbs per month.  Slow and steady wins the race.

You asked about a program your should follow and I immediately brought up calories.  That’s because without calories aligned according to your goal, no program is going to “work” well.  Far too many people place an inordinate amount of care and attention on the intricacies of their workouts, most of which likely matter little, while placing too little care on nutrition and the role it plays in their goals.

For this reason, most gyms are littered with guys who’ve been training their asses off for years.  They may be a lot stronger than when they started.  They might look slightly better.  Relative to how much time and energy they’ve invested each and every week though, their results appear lackluster.  They’ll continue to refine their programs, chasing that one missing link, while never truly ensuring that they’re eating adequate calories to support muscle growth.

While they’re at it, they might as well drive their cars without ever putting fuel in them.

You also asked about protein.  Generally speaking I suggest .75 – 1.5 grams per pound.  If someone’s carrying a lot of excess fat, I’ll base those numbers on goal body weight rather than total body weight.  I don’t really have much more to say on that point unless you have specific questions.

Programming

With the nutrition diatribe out of the way, let’s discuss programming.

Waiting until you finds the ‘right program’ to start is erroneous at best.  Why?  There’s no such thing.  All programs work as long as a few core tenets are included.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best:

As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

These tenets include things like working hard and consistently, increasing the challenge over time, lifting heavy enough with sufficient volume, etc.  Sure, some programs are more appropriate for a given person or goal.  In your situation though, finding something that’s basic (not sexy or flashy) is likely the name of the game.

Waiting to find something that’s ‘just right’ is time missed where you could have been lifting weights and getting stronger.  And that ‘getting stronger’ variable tends to be the backbone of any appreciable physique change in my experience.  Form follows function.

In addition, this really is about figuring things out for yourself.  Remember, there’s no One Right Way.  I can explain every nuance of training as I see it, but you’re still not going to ‘get it’ until you dives in and starts testing things out yourself.

The variables to consider include things like training frequency, exercises, intensity, volume, reps per set, set structure, stress manipulation, etc.  That might seem overwhelming, but let’s break it down.  I think these concepts can be better understood when we frame them with questions that the typical client might ask me.

Frequency

How many days per week should I train with weights?  

Ideally you should train each muscle or movement with a frequency of at least 2-3 times per week.  Obviously there are a number of ways you could accomplish this.

  • Work your entire body each day that you train, exercising 2-6 times per week
  • Organize things by splitting your body up and training specific areas each day
    • One popular split is the upper/lower split, where you alternate training your upper body and lower body.  Monday might be upper, Tuesday lower, Thursday upper, Saturday lower.  Each movement/muscle gets hit twice per week.
    • You might do a 3 on/1 off split where you do something like upper body pushing, upper body pulling, lower body, off, rinse and repeat.
    • Another way of splitting things up is by bodypart.  This is often referred to as bodybuilding training and a lot of people frown upon it.  Truth be told though, there’s a time and a place.  This could be accomplished by doing something like Chest/Shoulders/Tris on Monday, Back/Bis on Tuesday, Legs/Core on Wednesday, Rest on Thursday, rinse and repeat.  Something along those lines… definitely not written in stone.

The possibilities are pretty much endless.  My suggestion would be to start with a full body program, since that will provide the highest frequency of exposure to the basic movements.  This will help with learning.  Getting more practice in during the early stages makes sense to me.  Plus you won’t really be strong enough to worry about having enough recovery between sessions.  Heck, even if you were the concept of recovery as traditionally used isn’t written in stone.  There are full body programs that people use that have them training their entire bodies 5+ days per week.

Starting out with a handful of full body sessions per week though is what makes the most sense to me.  Once the basics are cemented and you’ve developed good awareness and a decent foundation of strength, you can experiment with other frequency structures if so desired.

A great resource that I highly recommend is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength book.  In it he provides very detailed analysis of some of the primary lifts and a way of structuring them into a full body program that’s great for beginners.

Exercises

How do you go about choosing the perfect exercises for your goals?

People tend to get hung up on this.  I get it… there are hundreds upon hundreds of exercises out there and all of them can be done using bodyweight, barbells, dumbbells, suspension systems, kettlebells, bands, etc.

The good news is, there’s no such thing as perfect exercises.  Just as there’s no such thing as the perfect program, the right exercise is going to depend on the individual and their goals.  That doesn’t help make the selection process any easier, I understand.

If you zoom way out, you’ll begin to notice that exercises can be broken into categories.  Once we categorize things, managing them gets a bit easier.  I like to categorize exercises based on the involved movement patterns – how you’re moving your body during the execution of them.

  • Squat Pattern
  • Hip Hinge Pattern
  • Horizontal Pressing
  • Vertical Pressing
  • Horizontal Pulling
  • Vertical Pulling

Squat exercises include pretty much anything that has you flexing your knees bringing your body toward the floor and extending your knees bringing your body back up.  This category includes bodyweigth squats, goblet squats with a kettlebell or dumbbell, barbell squats, front squats, lunge variations, leg presses, step-ups, and RFESSs.

Hip hinge exercises are, well, exercises that have you hinging at your hips.  If you don’t know what hinging at your hips entails, imagine standing tall facing away from a wall.  Now imagine reaching your ass back towards the wall while keeping your spine and core stable.  It’d look something like this:

Hip hinge exercises include barbell deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, cable pull throughs, romanian deadlifts, glute bridges, hip thrusts, glute ham raises, rack pulls, single leg RDLs, etc.

The horizontal pressing category involves exercises that have you pushing the load away from your torso.  It includes modified push-ups, regular push-ups, push-ups on rings, push-ups with bands or chains, push-ups with one or two feet elevated, flat/incline/decline bench press with a barbell or dumbbells, close grip bench press, single arm bench press, etc.

The vertical pressing category involves exercises that have you pushing the load above you.  It includes standing presses with a barbell or dumbbell, push presses, single arm presses or push presses, bradford presses, arnold presses, handstand push-ups, etc.

The horizontal pulling category involves exercises that have you pulling the load toward you with your arms straight out in front of you.  It includes bentover barbell and dumbbell rows, seated or standing cable rows, inverted rows using a bar or rings, head supported dumbbell rows, pendlay rows, t-bar rows, chest supported rows, etc.

The vertical pulling category involves exercises that have you pulling the load downward with your arms overhead.  It includes pull-ups, chin-ups, pullovers, cable pulldowns, etc.

Please keep in mind that this list is incomplete.  There are many more exercises and in reality, you could even add more categories such as power exercises, isolation exercises, core, and activation/stability exercises.

Okay, but how do you know which to pick?

At a basic level, you could pick one from each category.  That’s a bit presumptuous though.  For example, many of my clients have overactive muscles on their fronts and underactive muscles on their back.  In those cases, I tend to include more pulling exercises than pushing.  In some cases, clients are trying to bring up a particular body part or two, so they’ll do what’s commonly referred to as a specialization routine where much more volume and attention is given to that muscle while other muscle groups or movement patterns are put on maintenance with lower volumes.

Since you’re just starting out though, doing a big leg exercise, a big pushing exercise, and a big pulling exercise each day is a great place to start.  You can vary these slightly from day to day if you’d like.  Or you could do the same exercises 2-3+ times per week.  You can add in some accessory stuff at the end such as arm and core exercises, unilateral exercises for your legs, activation exercises for postural issues,  or whatever really.

You can use the same exercises until you gets tired of them.  Or until you plateau in your ability to increase load.  Once that happens, you can drop the weight by 10-20% and start progressing again from there.  Or you could change exercises altogether.  If you go this latter route, you should definitely stick with the same movement category.  Replace a squat with a squat, a hip hinge for a hip hinge, a horizontal pull for a horizontal pull, etc.

Oh, and form!  Form is everything.  Make sure you understand what good form is for any given movement.  Hire a qualified professional, assuming you can find one, to show you the ropes.  Watch videos.  Take videos of yourself performing the movements and post them to the forums or email them to me for critique.  Proper form is extremely important at all times.  I’d argue that it’s most important in the beginning though.  When someone’s just learning a movement, right or wrong, things tend to get cemented.  Movement instructions start in the brain/nervous system.  The more you do a certain something, the better wired your brain becomes to accommodate it.  After some time, it can be very challenging trying to rewire that circuitry.  Not impossible mind you.  But difficult. Best to get it right from the get-go.

Volume & Reps & Intensity

How heavy to I lift and how many times do I lift it?

It’s tougher to water down the concept of volume into useable guidelines.  There’s just too many ways of structuring things and too much variability amongst goals and people.  One way of looking at it is to work backwards using reps per set.  Many rep ranges can get the job done.  In fact, using a variety of rep ranges is likely your best option.

Suffice it to say that something like 5-15 reps per set is a sensible range in the vast majority of cases.  It should be obvious that we’re talking about working hard here regardless of the rep range.  So if you’re focusing on sets of 5 reps, by the time you reach the 5th rep, you should be close to failure… maybe a rep or two remaining in the tank.  Likewise, if you’re training in higher rep ranges, such as 15 per set, the 15th rep should also feel close to failure.

With that said, it should be obvious that you’ll be using heavier loads in the lower rep ranges compared to the loads used in the higher rep ranges.  By definition, a load that’s challenging for 15 reps isn’t going to be very challenging if you limit that same load to 5 reps.

Which brings up the concept of intensity.  Traditionally intensity is measured by maximum effort and your proximity to it.  It can be based on however many reps you’d like.  A true max would be considered your 1 rep max (1rm).  That’s the heaviest load you can lift in a single effort.

When defining intensity using the percentage of one rep max, the loads used for 5 reps will be of greater intensity than the loads used for 15 reps. A load that you use for 5 reps might be something like 85% of your max and a load that you use for 15 reps might be something like 50% of your max.

Why is this important?

Frankly, it’s not.  I don’t calculate maximal efforts or repetition maximums in the vast majority of the programming I write for my clients.  One’s maximal ability can change with the wind.  It’s dependent on one’s level of readiness on any given day.  It’ll vary with sleep quality, nutritional status, stress levels at work, etc.

Assuming the goals are physique based, I don’t really care how proximal you’re working to your 1 rep max.  The important thing is to be working hard within the selected rep ranges on any given day.  If you’re doing that… if you’re training close to failure (but not at it), you’re going to be in the intensity zone we’re striving for.

So you can divvy up your reps and, in turn, your loads a number of different ways.

Going back to the 3x per week full body routine, you could have a ‘heavy’ day where the rep goal for each movement is 4-6, a ‘light’ day where the rep goal for each movement is 12-15 reps, and a ‘medium’ day where the rep goal for each movement is 8-12 reps per movement.

Or you could do some heavy, moderate, and light work each day that you train.  For example, let’s say that you only select 3 exercises to train the entire body: Squats, Barbell Rows, and Bench Press.  The movements are arbitrary as there’s a wide array of exercises you could combine in order to train the majority of the body in 3 movements.  If we were doing some heavy, light, and medium work each day that we trained, you could set it up like this (a la Joe Kenn):

Day 1: Squats heavy (4-6 reps per set), Rows medium (8-12 per set), Bench Press light (12-15 reps per set)

Day 2: Rows heavy, Bench Press medium, Squats light

Day 3: Bench heavy, Squats medium, Rows light

Granted, I’d likely add in more exercise variation along with some assistance/accessory work, but the point isn’t about exercise selection.  Rather it’s about pointing out the concept of volume and intensity variation across the workout or week.

You could also work this into the upper/lower split I mentioned previously.  It could look something like:

Day 1: Lower Body – heavy squatting (4-6 reps), light hip hinging (8-15 reps)

Day 2: Upper Body – heavy horizontal, light vertical

Day 3: Lower Body – heavy hip hinging, light squatting

Day 4: Upper Body – heavy vertical, light horizontal

The more reps per set, the lower the number of sets you’ll need and vice versa, the lower the reps per set, the higher the number of sets you’ll need.  That’s not written in stone, but it’s a decent general rule.

Something in the neighborhood of 25-50 reps per muscle group per session is a large but quality ballpark.  This can be spread over 1-2 exercises.   For a particular exercise 5×5, 3×8, 3×10, 4×6, and 2×15 could all work.

Again, nothing’s set in stone here.

Starting Weight

What weight should I start with in a particular exercise?

I get asked this question constantly.  As noted, you want to be using loads that are challenging for each respective rep range… a rep or two shy of failure.  But let’s be serious.  Starting with that sort of intensity right off the bat would be stupid. I’ve had many clients walk through the doors of my gym unable to execute a body weight squat using good form.  Throwing a barbell on their back would only stand to make matters worse.

In the early stages my recommendation is to err on the side of caution.  Select loads that feel light.  For some movements, this might mean simply using your body weight.  Practice the movement patterns with these conservative loads.  Get good at them.  Do this for a while. Maybe 2 to 5 sessions.  Then add 5-10 lbs per set (more if you’re naturally strong) in each movement until a challenging load is found.  This will be your ‘starting load’ that you base future progression off of.

That starting load shouldn’t be ‘grindy.’  I think Matt Perryman was the first person I saw to use that adjective and it’s a good one.  Grindiness implies that although maximal effort is being used to lift the bar, it’s moving very slowly.  Limbs might be quivering as you struggle.  Grindiness, especially when you’re determining your starting load, signifies that you’re going too heavy.

You want the reps to be smooth… especially at first.  Find that sweet spot where they’re smooth but challenging.  Ideally you find this load for each movement within 3-5 sets.

The next time you train these same movements, you’ll start with this ‘starting load’ and complete all sets and reps using it.

Set Structure

As I just noted, once you had your loads dialed in, you’ll be using it for all of your sets on a given day.  These are referred to as straight sets.  I think these are ideal for your situation.  As you advance, it would be worth your while to explore other alternatives such as reverse pyramid training and rest-pause training.  Saying anything else on this front is well beyond the scope of this article.  In fact, I’d like to say focus on getting stronger with the basic straight set structure.  When that stops working, heck, even then I think I’d like to see you experiment with changing exercises and/or altering loads before you experiment with different set structures.

Muddy the waters when, and only when, you’re a good swimmer.

Progression

Okay, so you know how to find your starting load.  But what happens when you can easily handle it for all of the planned sets and reps?  Logically it’s time to increase the load.  But by how much?  Again I like to err on the side of caution here.  People tend to get overzealous and add too much weight each successive workout.  This can feel good on the ego in the short run, but more often than not it’ll lead to premature stalls.  This isn’t a race to lift as much weight as quickly as possible.  The prospects of being strong are exciting.  I understand.  The results you’re after though are born from long term progression.  This takes patience and consistency.

A realistic range to increase might be 5-10 lbs.  On some of the bigger lifts, like deadlifts and squats, it might be reasonable to go up by as much as 15+ lbs if the previous workout felt insanely easy.  Why rush things though?

Only increase the load when you’re ready.  How can you tell when you’re ready?

I use a number of metrics.

  1. I prefer to use rep ranges.  Heavy work might be in the 4-6 rep range.  Medium work might be in the 8-12 rep range.  Light work might be in the 12-15 rep range.  The goal should be to use loads that keep you someplace within these ranges.  When you’re able to complete all sets for the high end of the rep ranges, it’s time to increase the load.
  2. I like to use a rating of perceive exertion.  This is merely a rating scale that measures how difficult it was to lift a given load.  If I’m at the highest end of the scale, even if I complete all sets for all reps, I likely will not increase the load yet come the next time the movement is trained.I think the meat of the scale that I prefer came from Mike Tuchscherer and his book, Reactive Training Systems.  It’s an awesome little manual.  Honestly though, I can’t remember if I’ve altered it or added other peoples’ ideas onto it at this stage.  Just trying to give credit where credit is due.  It goes something like:* 5 – Maximal, no reps left in the tank at end of set; reps are grindy, especially at the end
    * 4 – Last rep is tough but one rep left in the tank
    * 3 – Weight is too heavy to maintain fast bar speed but isn’t a struggle; 2-4 reps left
    * 2 – Weight moves quickly when maximal force is applied; “speed weight”
    * 1 – Most warm-up and activation loads

    Most work should be done using a load that equates to a 3-4 on this scale.

  3. I’ll also base things on how I feel on any given day.  Don’t get locked into doing something simply because the program says you’re supposed to do it on this particular day this particular way.  Rigidity and continuity are somewhat important… especially in the early stages of a lifter’s ‘career,’ but they must be paired with some flexibility.We are not machines that can perform to specific levels regardless of what’s going on around us.  You may have indicated in your training journal the previous workout that it was time to increase the load by 10 lbs in squats.  When that next workout comes around though, if you’re feeling like mushed poop, hold off on the load increase if you’d like.  The delay won’t make or break your progress.

Conclusion

Yes, I know.  Shut up already Steve.  Let me sum it up as simply as I can.  Set your calories according to whether you’re trying to add or subtract weight.  In certain circumstances such as yours, it’s reasonable to shoot for a short period of concurrent fat loss and muscle gain by introducing resistance training to a slight deficit or maintenance diet.

There are endless ways of setting up a program.  My suggestion would be to start with a 3x/wk full body setup.

That resistance training should be centered around big movements that require the use of a lot of muscle to execute.  The loads should be relatively heavy where the last rep in your sets are among the last one or two that can be executed with good form before fatigue causes things to go to shit.

Lift more weight over time.  That doesn’t mean each and every single time.  It won’t be that smooth.  Our bodies and their adaptable ability aren’t so linear and predictable.  Remember that it’s the longer term trend that matters most.

Also remember, there’s a reason why no program or exercise is perfect.  I suppose something can be ‘perfect’ at one particular point in time.  But what about next month?  Or better yet, what about next year?  Your body adapts in response to the stresses you’re placing on it.  That response will diminish with time if the stress isn’t altered or increased.  Since you can’t continually get stronger indefinitely, a variety of approaches over time is likely best.

Stick with something long enough to milk all the benefits its worth.  That continuity is important.  The answers that you’re looking for can’t be found in ‘program hopping.’  At the same time though, don’t be married to one particular method indefinitely.

Lastly, remember that regardless of what the marketers would have you believe, muscle growth is a very slow, arduous process.  Think months rather than weeks.  Hell, even years rather than months.  If at first gains come quickly, expect them to slow to more reasonable rates once your body catches on.  Most importantly, find ways to enjoy the process.  This is an experiment and you’re the scientist.  The best part about it is the results will include a stronger you, a healthier you, and a better physique.

Good luck!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mac MacDonald August 29, 2012 at 9:30 am

This is a helluva road map you’ve laid out – nice, in-depth, informative article! And yeah, without proper form and enough calories to fuel the machine, progress will suffer.

Reply

Steve Troutman August 29, 2012 at 9:58 am

Thanks Mac. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it.

Reply

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