How to Build Muscle Fast: A Science-Based Guide For Busy People
Training Principles To Follow for Gaining Maximum Muscle in A Minimum Amount of Time
Are you working hard at the gym with hardly any results to show for it?
Whether it’s not having a properly structured program or not having an idea of what really works… We’ve all been there.
In this guide, I’m going to tell you the time-tested and scientifically-proven principles of building muscle — strategies I’ve used to transform my own physique — so you can stop feeling overwhelmed and start getting results.
Let’s dive right in!
Are You Making Any Of These Training Mistakes?
Tell me if this situation sounds familiar to you…
You’ve got yourself a brand new gym membership, or resolved to finally make use of the subscription you’ve been ignoring for months.
Maybe you’ve even shopped for new gym clothes and decked yourself out with fresh new gear.
You’ve researched all sorts of programs, and settled on one that looks pretty promising. Or maybe you’ve cobbled together some random exercises from a bunch of “best exercises to grow your XYZ” videos into your own super duper routine.
I’m not surprised — because I went through the exact same thing many, many times.
See when you’re starting out, your motivation to get your ass in the gym is at an all-time high. While the determination is admirable, there’s a huge problem here:
Not all programs are built the same.
In fact, a lot of the popular ones downright SUCK for building muscle.
And if you have no idea what pitfalls to look for? You’ll fizzle out very quickly before you get any meaningful results.
This is the very exact thing that happened to me with my early efforts to get in shape.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I wasted my entire twenties with multiple attempts to get fit only to wind up flat on my face.
It wasn’t until I figured out the principles behind TRAINING PROPERLY that I started seeing some changes to my physique — without long 2-hour lifting sessions that had me working out 6 days a week, exhausting high-intensity cardio, or restrictive diets that banned all my favorite foods.
To help prevent you from falling into the same trap, I wrote this beast of an article to show you exactly where the science stands when it comes to training and maximizing muscle growth.
First, we’ll talk about the five most common problems that cause beginners to fail when it comes to training.
After that, we’ll talk about the 5 scientifically-proven factors of proper and effective training that will result in the most muscle growth in the least time possible.
Mistake #1: Not Hitting All Body Parts In A Balanced Manner
A lot of popular programs don’t make any sense when it comes to how they balance exercises across different muscle groups.
For example, Stronglifts has you doing 30 sets of squats and 15 sets of bench press every 2 weeks. FST-7 from Bodybuilding.com has 4 days of upper body exercises and 1 day dedicated to legs.
This is also a common syndrome among those who aren’t following a specific program and only work on “mirror muscles” (chest and arms for the dudes, legs and butt for the dudettes).
If an imbalanced, disproportionate physique is what you’re after, programs like these are your ticket there.
Mistake #2: Doing Too Much Volume
This might get me in a bit of trouble, but I’m not a huge fan of nSuns 5/3/1. I’d too tired to do anything after 17 sets of the first two exercises. I didn’t have the time to be in the gym for 2 to 2.5 hours per workout either.
You’ll also see this with programs like ICF 5×5, which basically took the Stronglifts program and added every accessory exercise in the world plus the kitchen sink.
Whenever I see someone at the gym absolutely killing themselves with an insane amount of exercise (like 6 different chest exercises in one workout or running full speed for an hour), 85% of the time I’ve never seen them come back after a week or two.
Mistake #3: Following A Rigid and Complex Schedule
A lot of programs have you in the gym for 5-6 days a week (i.e. metallicadpa’s PPL). Now, don’t get me wrong — I actually think this program is decent.
So why is this an issue?
Because if you’re just starting to build the gym habit, trust me… You WILL end up having to miss a day or two.
It’s even worse when you combine this with a program that changes up your workouts just for the sake of changing shit up, like Jim Stoppani’s Shortcut to Size.
Missed a couple of workouts? Then you’ll probably have to restart next week. And before you know it, you’re 4 months in what was supposed to be an 8-week program — if you’ve haven’t managed to drop out yet, that is.
Mistake #4: Not Pushing Yourself To Lift More
Of all the problems I’ve listed, this is the worst offender of all.
I see a lot of people at the gym working out just for the sake of working out. They do the same exercises with the same exact weight day in and day out.
If you’re not told exactly how to make progress as time goes by, then you don’t have a program — all you have is a list of exercises.
If you’re not tracking your workouts and doing more work over time, then you’re not improving. You’re just maintaining the amount of muscle and strength that you already have.
How Do You Fix These Problems?
Now, knowing what NOT to do is just one side of the equation.
You also have to know WHAT TO ACTUALLY DO.
Not to worry — I got you covered.
You see, in the larger context of things… Whatever program you use DOESN’T MATTER.
Because any program will work AS LONG AS it follows a few key principles of training — principles that have been tried, tested and proven by science.
Any good program that allows these principles to take place will work — regardless of how it’s organized or structured.
These principles are something I like to call the VIPER Protocol.
These five principles are the pillars of every successful workout program.
If one of the pieces are missing, prepare for mediocre (or even zero) results.
Let’s break down each principle one by one. I’ll tell you why it matters, and more importantly, how you can use it in your training.
What Is Volume?
First things first.
Volume — the total amount of work that’s being done — is by far the most important factor for gains and size when it comes to weight training.
Volume is typically calculated multiplying the total reps you’ve performed for a certain exercise by the weight you used. So if you bench pressed 100 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps, that can be measured as 3,000 lbs of total volume.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with measuring volume this way, and in fact, it’s a great way to measure progress over time.
But it does come with its own set of problems.
Let’s say you used the chest press machine instead of a barbell. Since you can move more weight when using the machine, on paper it’ll look like a higher volume workout.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was more effective.
By quality set, I mean any set taken close to failure — anywhere between 1-2 reps left in the tank. That’s because stopping the set well before failure results in inferior improvements on muscle size.
How Many Sets Should You Do Per Workout?
The research shows that you can get greater gains with higher training volume.
But watch out: more isn’t always better.
While we don’t have enough research to determine the true upper limit in terms of volume, at a certain point you get into the territory of diminishing returns.
2-3 sets per exercise will give you significantly better gains than 1 set, and 4-6 sets will give you slightly better gains than 2-3.
However, there’s a much larger difference between 1 and 2-3 than there was between 2-3 and 4-6. Each additional set after that will result in less and less benefits in terms of muscle gain.
And if training volume reaches excessive levels? Hypertrophy will actually DECREASE.
You can see this in this study where the group who performed 5 sets actually gained more muscle than the lifters who performed 10 sets.
So what’s the sweet spot?
So how do you put this information to use?
First: in case you’re really strapped for time, you’ll be okay with a minimalist training program.
Results will come a bit slower, but you can still make steady progress.
Remember, it’s never an all-or-nothing situation — you’re always going to be lapping everyone else on the couch.
And second: using a program with crazy volume is likely an inferior way to train.
This goes especially for the typical bro-split style of training that blasts each muscle part with 20+ sets once a week. Unless you’re on Vitamin S, this amount of volume just isn’t necessary and is potentially dangerous.
Jumping into such an extreme style of training makes you more likely to drop out when motivation begins to dip several weeks after. Why do you think the gym is always empty in February?
You’re better off working your way up slowly and finding your happy medium, then focusing on building the gym habit instead.
Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
"The Pencil Curl" Thought Experiment
If you took a pencil and curled it for 10,000 reps everyday for the next 12 weeks, how much effect do you think that would have on building your biceps?
If you answered NONE (or close to zero), then you’re correct.
Well, it doesn’t take a genius to know that it probably wouldn’t have much effect on muscle growth simply because the weight is just too light.
And even if it did, I think we can all agree that spending 166 minutes on a single exercise probably isn’t the most time efficient way to go about doing things.
There’s a reason why the jacked guys in your gym are probably the ones lifting the heaviest weights.
And that’s what this section is about: intensity.
What Is Intensity?
When I say intensity, I don’t mean the “have a puke bucket next to you at all times” type, or how sore you get after the workout.
What I mean is how much weight you’re lifting, and how heavy/light that weight is for you for that specific exercise.
The lighter the weight is, the lower the intensity and the more reps you can do per set. And the heavier the weight is, the higher the intensity and the less reps you can do per set.
All of this pretty much comes down to one thing: how many reps should you do per set?
And if you’ve been around fitness long enough, I’m sure you’ve heard all sorts of tropes about this:
“1-5 reps is purely just for strength, bro!”
“8-12 reps for hypertrophy, bro!”
“Anything more than 12 reps is just cardio, bro!”
“Low reps for size, high reps for definition, bro!”
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit… And definitely bullshit.
How Many Reps Should You Do Per Set?
You see, when we take a look behind the curtains and see what the science has to say.
This study found equal growth between a group who trained with 7 sets of 3 reps each vs. another group doing 3 sets of 7 reps each.
Another study also showed equal muscle growth between the group performing 4 sets of 3-5 reps and the group performing 3 sets of 9-11 reps.
But what about sets with much lighter weights?
Research has shown that while using low weights can still cause muscle growth. However, loads of at least 60% of your max (approximately 15-20 reps per set) is probably necessary to maximize your gains under normal conditions.
This is how I make use of these principles in my programs.
First, it’s probably unwise to make extreme intensities the bread and butter of your training (either 1-3 reps per set or anything above 20+ reps).
Personally, 3 sets of 15 reps for lateral raises already exhaust the crap out of me. Pushing a 20-30 rep set of squats to failure? That’s just asking for a puke party.
Training exclusively with heavy loads isn’t the best idea, either.
When we look at this study which compared 10 rep-max loads against 3 rep-max loads, the 3RM group took an hour to finish their workouts while the 10RM group finished in 17 minutes on average.
The 3RM group also reported feeling more beat up and tired, experienced more joint pain, and had more dropouts due to injury.
Second, you probably shouldn’t train EXCLUSIVELY in the middle zone either.
There are some scenarios where low reps and high reps have an edge, and you’ll probably miss out on some growth if you confine yourself to just the middle zone.
For example, some exercises just don’t play well with heavier weights. Bicep curls, for instance, are almost impossible to do in the 3-5 rep range without massive amounts of cheating.
That’s why accessory exercises that target one muscle group at a time lend themselves really well to lower weights and higher reps. This way, you can provide a training stimulus without compromising your form and putting yourself at risk for an injury.
Meanwhile it’s probably smart to use heavier weights with compound exercises like squats, bench press, and deadlifts.
Not only are these a lot more tiring with more reps, but getting stronger at these lifts allow you to use heavier weights with your other exercises. And doing more volume is the key to getting bigger, stronger muscles.
Let's Talk About Wet, Disgusting, And Smelly Sweat...
(Don’t worry, this will all make sense in a second.)
You know how you sweat when it’s hot? That’s because your body realized that your internal temperature is higher than what it should be.
Whenever your body needs to cool your core temperature down, it’ll produce sweat in order to create a cooling effect on your skin.
What does this have to do with muscle growth? Absolutely nothing.
However, the reason both occur is exactly the same:
Muscle growth is simply your body’s adaptive response to the environment.
So just like you won’t sweat if it’s not hot, your body won’t build muscle unless you put it in a situation where you NEED more strength output.
In other words…
Muscle growth Is What happens When your body senses that it has to adapt to increasing demands in order for you to keep up with your normal, day-to-day activities.
This Is Progressive Overload.
Let’s use an example to make this clearer.
Say that right now, you can currently bench press 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps.
If you continue to lift the same 75 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps for the next 10 years, you will not gain any new muscle at all — you’ll simply maintain your current state.
Because you already have all the muscle that you need to be able to perform this task on a regular basis.
But let’s say on your next workout, you try to bench press 80 lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps.
You may not be able to complete all the reps, but that additional 5 lbs of tension is exactly what you have to do to trigger the muscle building response.
Your body won’t build any new muscle unless you put it in a situation where you NEED more strength output.
Weight training, in of itself, won’t build any new muscle if you’re not forcing your body to adapt to doing more work.
Hell, I’ve known guys who have been going to the gym for years and look exactly the same as they did on day one.
Progressive overload is what happens when you increase the demands placed on your body, thus forcing it to adapt to a stimulus beyond what it’s currently capable of.
And these changes and adaptations that occur? They come in the form of more muscle mass.
You’re basically telling your body, “Hey doofus — you have to do more work now, so let’s build more muscle so we can actually perform this task, shall we?”
As long as you’re gradually progressing over time by increasing the overall work your muscles are doing, you give your body a reason to continually improve and keep building new muscle mass.
So how do we apply this information to our training?
Simple: whatever program you’re using, make sure that there’s a clear strategy on how you can make progress over time.
If your program doesn’t tell you how to make progress, then you don’t have a program — all you have is a list of exercises with sets and reps next to each.
There are several ways you can do this:
Increase the weight. If you did 5 sets of 5 reps at 100 lbs today, aim for 5 sets of 5 reps at 105 lbs the next time you perform that exercise. This is the simplest way to keep making progress and is common with most beginner programs such as Starting Strength or Stronglifts.
Increase the number of reps. If you did 3 sets of 8 reps at 100 lbs today, aim for 3 sets of 9 reps at the same weight the next time you perform that exercise.
Increase the number of sets. If you did 3 sets of 6 reps at 100 lbs today, aim for 4 sets of 6 reps at 100 lbs the next time you perform that exercise.
Increase the amount of work being done in a given time period. If you did 3 sets of an exercise with 3 minutes of rest in between each set, reduce the rest time to 2 minutes the next time you perform that exercise.
Any combination of the above. You’re not restricted to using just one method to make progress. You can combine any of the above, i.e. if you did 3 sets of 6 reps at 100 lbs today, aim for 4 sets of 8 reps at 105 lbs the next time you perform that exercise.
Depending on your exact goal and experience level, some of these progression methods are more ideal for you than others.
"What's The Best Exercises For XYZ?"
“What exercises should I do to get six-pack abs?”
“What exercises should I do to get bigger arms / toned legs / a tighter butt / a bulging chest?”
Questions like these are commonly asked by beginners when they first start training.
And understandably so. There are literally hundreds of different exercises to choose from, and it’s a little confusing if you don’t fully know what you should be looking for.
You wanna know a “secret?”
There’s no such thing as a “required” exercise that you absolutely MUST DO if you want to grow a muscle.
Your body doesn’t have a DNA sequence that determines how much gainz you should get when performing XYZ exercise.
The only thing your body knows is resistance — and it doesn’t care whether you’re using a barbell, a dumbbell, or a machine to provide it.
So how do you go about choosing the correct exercises for your training program?
How Do You Choose Which Exercises To Do?
So how do you go about choosing the correct exercises for your training program?
To answer this question, first we need to look at the different ways to categorize the hundreds of different exercises there are.
Category 1: Body Parts And Movement Patterns
One of the common problems with a lot of training programs is an uneven distribution across your muscle groups.
Using a program that has 3 or more upper body exercises per 1 lower body exercise is a one-way ticket to looking like this:
Going a little further than just body parts, you also want to balance your exercises across movement patterns.
See, even though there are hundreds of different exercises, there’s really just a few basic movements that the human body is capable of doing.
I call this the Symmetrical Six, and are as follows:
- Horizontal push. These are any movements that push something away from your torso, and primarily uses your chest and triceps. Think barbell or dumbbell bench press, or the chest press machine.
- Horizontal pull. These are any movements that pull something towards your torso, and primarily uses your back and biceps. Think barbell rows or cable rows.
- Vertical push. These are any movements that involves pushing a weight up vertically in relation to your torso, and primarily uses your shoulders and triceps. Think shoulder presses or lateral raises.
- Vertical pull. These are any movements that involves pulling a weight down vertically in relation to your torso, and primarily uses your back and biceps. Think chin ups, pull ups, or lat pulldowns.
- Quad-dominant. These are movements that use your quadriceps (aka the front of your thighs) as the primary mover for the weight. Think squats, lunges, or leg press.
- Hamstring-dominant. These are movements that use your hamstrings (aka the back of your thighs) as the primary mover for the weight. Think deadlifts or leg curls.
Why does this matter? Because if your program doesn’t have an equal amount of exercises for every movement pattern, you’re missing something and failing to train your entire body.
Having an uneven amount of pushing exercises in relation to pulling exercises also leads to posture imbalances — or even worse, shoulder injuries.
This is what I call Mirror Muscle Syndrome. It happens because plenty of guys care more about getting a bigger chest and massive shoulders than they do with having a bigger back.
You want to make sure that everything is carefully balanced to ensure that the exercises and total volume for each movement pattern is equal and balanced.
Category 2: Compound Exercises And Isolation Exercises
Now that we know the different movement patterns we need to train, it’s time to start selecting some exercises.
As I mentioned earlier, there are hundreds of different exercises you can do, so first we have to narrow them down a bit into two different types:
- Compound exercises. These are exercises that use two or more muscle groups at a time as primary movers. For example, the bench press uses your chest, your triceps, and your front shoulders to move the weight.
- Isolation exercises. These are exercises that use a single muscle as the primary mover and isolates it from everything else. For example, a bicep curl just uses your biceps to move the weight (if you’re not cheating your form and using your back, that is).
So when choosing exercises for your program, should you do compounds or isolation exercises?
Want to know what the research says?
When comparing muscle activation of the primary movers, there’s no difference between compound or isolation exercises.
That means that your chest muscles get recruited an equal amount whether you’re doing a bench press or chest flyes.
Slam dunk for isolation exercises, right?
To hell with squats, bench press, and deadlifts — leg extensions, leg curls, and chest flyes for the win!
Err… Not quite.
You see, because compound exercises use more muscle groups at a time, you can generally lift a lot more weight.
This in turn allows for faster progression, which in turn leads to faster muscle growth.
What do you think has the potential to build your chest better: adding 50 lbs to your bench press, or adding 5 lbs to your chest flyes?
There’s also the time factor. Again, because compound exercises use more muscle groups at a time, you can get more work done with less sets.
Replacing 3 sets of bench press with isolation exercises mean you’ll have to do 3 sets for your chest, then another 3 sets for your triceps, AND another 3 sets for your front shoulders.
Not so ideal for those who are strapped for time.
Does this mean you should just do compound exercises and ignore isolations?
Err… This doesn’t quite work either.
Because using isolation exercises allow you to directly train muscle groups that might need more work without adding unnecessary volume to other muscle groups.
Isolation exercises make for a great way to bring up weak points to help you make consistent progress for your main lifts as well.
For example, if you figure out that weak triceps are causing you to stall during the bench press, doing isolation exercises is an excellent way to get stronger triceps.
Yeah, I’m serious.
That’s all this section is about: getting more sleep.
See, your muscles don’t grow when you’re in the gym. They grow outside of training when you’re resting and recovering.
Now, I know that simply telling you to get more sleep isn’t sexy.
It’s definitely nowhere near as exciting as new training protocols or a new diet.
But when the statistics show that more than 1 out of 3 Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep every night — the rest of the world ain’t doing so hot either — something has to be said.
Why does this matter, you ask?
Because lack of sleep directly interferes with your ability to look good.
Let’s take a look at what the science has to say, shall we?
In this study, participants were put on a calorie-controlled diet and had to stay in bed for either 8.5 hours or 5.5. hours per night.
Both groups lost an average of 6.6 lbs after 3 months.
But here’s the kicker: the weight loss composition between the two groups couldn’t be any more different.
The 8.5 hour group lost 50% body fat, and 50% muscle.
The 5.5 hour group, however, lost 20% body fat and 80% muscle. They also reported increased hunger, which was confirmed by the increase in ghrelin (otherwise known as the hunger hormone).
Lack of sleep isn’t just keeping you pudgy, either. Here’s two ways lack of sleep affects your ability to build muscle:
Don’t get enough sleep and you’ll lift less than you should be able to. This reduced force output, over time, could actually negate the effects of strength training completely.
Testosterone and IGF-1, hormones that help you build muscle, are much lower. Cortisol levels are increased, which leads to more muscle breakdown.
Yeah, it doesn’t look good, does it?
Moral of the story: get more fucking sleep, or you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to get better gains.