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12 Rules for Building Muscle

Building Muscle

Everyone has their own opinions about what works or doesn’t work when it comes to building muscle, but all professionals and seasoned bodybuilders can agree on some basic rules that benefit everyone. Most of the time all the focus is on what you need to do in the gym, but there is more to muscle gain than just lifting weights. Things like how you recover, what you eat, and how much you sleep can really help or hinder your muscle building success.

For most people, moderate training, and a relatively healthy diet will result in an average physique. But if you’re looking to make real progress it takes hard work, discipline, and a lot of time in the gym and prepping your weekly meals. It’s easy to help your gains by using protein powders and other supplements, but your workouts and main meals are the most important things to keep in mind. In the gym, it’s most important to focus on increasing your strength. There is a proven correlation between increasing strength resulting in growth. This doesn’t mean you should just accept it if you aren’t seeing progress, but if you’re able to increase the amount of weight you can lift week after week then there’s no question that you’re gaining muscle.

Most bodybuilders are highly disciplined people who eat only for fuel, never miss a day at the gym, and know how to get proper rest, but anyone can learn how to do all of those things too. Just make sure you have carefully outlined goals before you get in the gym so that you can really track your progress. Write down your goals, track your progress, and if you’re seeing a plateau where you’re no longer gaining muscle, go back to the basics and just keep adding weight. If that doesn’t work then consult a professional or find a personal trainer. Just stay dedicated to achieving your fitness goals and you’ll always continue to succeed. If you’re new to weightlifting or you’ve been doing it for a while and are looking for new ways to progress through a plateau, stick to these 12 rules for building muscle.

Don’t Get Comfortable

weight training

When you first start weight training or bodybuilding you’ll notice a lot of progress and muscle gain for a few months but eventually your progress will start to plateau as your muscles get comfortable with your workout routine. The key to fitness is to never get too comfortable. Switching up your routine can be highly effective in confusing your muscles and challenging them to a new overload. It’s natural to want to get into a routine but changing your routine is what will make your muscles respond and start growing bigger and stronger again. You can confuse your muscles using a number of techniques. Some effective ones are to increase the weight as you get stronger, and manipulate other workout variables like rest, reps, training to failure, or order of workouts.

You should also be incorporating cardio into your workout program. This will increase your appetite so make sure you’re sticking to a clean diet, but don’t leave out cardio because the cardiovascular system is critical for lifting heavy weight. Lack of endurance will start making you lose muscle instead of gaining it because you can’t do as many reps when you get out of breath. Start doing cardio if you reach a plateau or can’t reach your desired number of reps.

Keep Reps Low

Reps Low

To gain strength and muscle weight you should keep reps low, aiming for 1-3. This is because we use our strongest energy source first for 10-15 seconds then our bodies resort to anaerobic energy sources which are less strong. It also helps to keep reps low on days you are training to failure. You should be training at your maximum weight so that you’re only able to do a few reps per set while your body’s energy output is at its strongest. Breaking down the muscles quickly with low reps at a high weight is a quick way to see real progress and muscle gain.

Keep Sets High

Reps Low

This rule largely has to do with the nervous system. Repeating movements several times helps teach the nervous system the movement and the more familiar the nervous system becomes with movements we do in the gym, the more it can activate muscle fibers. Since we are also aiming for low reps at high weights it makes sense to do more sets so that you’re still getting a full workout. Aim for at least 5 sets, but don’t keep going if you can’t hold proper form. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect in the gym.

Go Back to Basics

switching up

You should always be switching up your fitness routine and trying new exercises, but don’t ever be afraid to go back to the basic and fundamental movements you learned first. As beginners we usually stick to the same few basic movements, then as we continue to gain experience and get stronger we start experimenting with new movements and equipment, attacking body parts from different angles to get more muscle gains. This is certainly an effective muscle gain and weight loss tactic, but the best muscle builders are the basic but complex multijoint movements that you learn first. When you’re trying to gain muscle mass, always go back to those deadlifts, squats, bench presses, rows, and overhead presses. These workouts should be the foundation of your fitness regimen combined with other exercise variations of these basic moves.

Train with Intensity

gym session

When you’re a beginner in the gym you probably don’t know what truly hard training is because it’s not necessary to train to failure to see big results. But for seasoned bodybuilders, training to failure is necessary to fuel further muscle growth. Intensity isn’t really about how hard you’re working out, it’s about how much weight you’re lifting compared to your one-rep max weight. For moderate to intense workouts at every gym session, go with a weight that you can lift for 6-12 reps before reaching failure.

Train to Failure

Train to Failure

Training with intensity leads us to the next rule for building muscle: training to failure. This means lifting to a point where you can’t do any more reps with good form without help. It’s only temporary muscle failure and it’s very effective for stimulating big muscle gains. Lifting to failure creates a stronger anabolic reaction than training below your max target weight. Keep in mind that you don’t have to train to failure all the time. Focusing on form and maintaining muscle is valuable too, but if you keep lifting the same amount of weight all the time you won’t progress any further. A good rule of thumb is if you can do three reps in good form, increase the weight or make the movement more difficult.

Rest Periods

Rest Periods

This rule may not have proven much effect on muscle growth, but moderate rest periods help maximize the body’s hypertrophic response. However, resting for too long can also be counterproductive by reducing metabolic stress to the muscles. Aim for a rest period of 60-90 seconds for the best results.



Protein is essential to gaining muscle weight. You should never eat less than 30 grams of protein at the main meal. Most nutrition professionals recommend 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight as the ideal daily amount. You should also be drinking protein shakes if you are serious about bodybuilding or weight loss. Protein powders give you the protein you need that you aren’t getting from meals. Always have a protein shake within an hour of finishing a workout, and you can also drink them throughout the day as meal replacements or snacks. For getting adequate protein from your diet stick to lean proteins found in eggs, dairy, chicken, seafood, and red meat.

If you have an interest in supplements other than protein, give creatine a try. It’s one of the most well-documented supplements in today’s fitness market so it’s safe and proven to be effective for many bodybuilders. Creatine works through an osmotic process that removes water from the muscle tissue while simultaneously assisting the body in producing ATP, the main energy source used for muscle contraction during a workout. More efficient muscle contractions mean more power produced, and bigger muscle gains. Add 5-10 grams of creatine to your daily diet, splitting that amount between pre and post workout.



The saying that “abs are made in the kitchen” was made up for a reason. You only spend about an hour a day in the gym so weight loss and muscle growth largely depend on what you digest the other 23 hours a day. The key to nutrition for muscle growth is eating real whole foods and avoiding processed foods, with the exception of protein powders. It’s easy to eat mostly whole foods if you avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store. All of the fresh whole foods can be found in the perimeter of a grocery store where the fruits, vegetables, and lean meats are sold. Frozen fruits and vegetables are ok too and are usually on the cheap side. Be sure you’re also getting enough carbohydrates from healthy whole grains but don’t overdo it. Stick to sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal for some of the healthiest options.

Get Enough Sleep

Enough Sleep

Believe it or not, rest is just as important for muscle gain as nutrition. If you’re serious about building muscle, then take your sleep seriously too. Being tired hinders muscle gain because sleep is required for proper muscle recovery and growth. Just like with nutrition, you only spend an hour a day in the gym so the rest of your time needs to be filled with things that promote muscle growth after your work is done in the gym. You should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night to aid in catabolic muscle growth. Human growth hormone is released during sleep and for men 60-70% of their daily human growth hormone supply is secreted in the first few hours of falling asleep. Then during the REM sleep stage, the body restores the muscle tissues, which is the muscle rebuilding needed for growth after you break your muscles down in the gym.

Take Time for Proper Recovery

Proper Recovery

Similar to what we mentioned about the importance of sleeping, you don’t actually grow in the gym. Weightlifting is all about breaking down the muscles so they can grow back stronger, which means we have to give them time to do so. Training the same muscle group two days in a row leads to overtraining, and can lead to serious injury. The best way to stimulate growth is by working hard in the gym then giving your muscles an adequate amount of time to recover. Even if you’re working out different muscle groups every day, you still shouldn’t work out more than 6 times per week. Everyone needs rest days even if you go for active rest like a leisurely walk or bike ride. It’s easy to let weight lifting consume you and that kind of motivation is great for making gains, but everyone needs rest and we promise it’ll make your muscles even bigger and stronger.

Never Stop Learning

internet troll

Advice, whether it be a gym guru or internet troll, should always be viewed with skepticism until you do your own research and form your own opinion. Also, consider that what works for one person may not work for another so exercise and nutrition really vary from person to person. Always go through a process of trial and error to see what works best for you. There’s a ton of information about there and new studies are always popping up telling us what foods we should or shouldn’t be putting into our bodies, and what new workouts we should be trying for more muscle growth. Keep an open mind, use your critical thinking skills, and always consider yourself a bodybuilding student even if you’ve been doing it for years.

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