1. Increase Training Volume
If you are a beginner, it really doesn’t matter how much volume you are hitting; you will see results because your body is constantly adapting. Increasing your training volume is crucial for breaking through plateaus.
A study done in 2019 showed that individuals who performed higher training volume could generate more muscle hypertrophy than if they were to complete other forms of training (1).
2. Eat in a Caloric Surplus
When combined with lifting weights, a slight caloric surplus can help your body build more muscle. The keyword here is slight. Once you start piling on the calories and going all-in on the “bulk,” you may find that the muscle you were looking to build is, in fact, a spare tire around your midsection.
Research shows increasing your calories too much can add an extra layer of unwanted fat and will only serve to cover up the muscle you worked so hard to build (2).
The first step to take is finding out how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight. Once you have this number, you should only be increasing your calories by 300-500 max.
Tons of websites can do the calculations for you to get an approximate number.
3. Do Compound Lifts
Compound lifts work muscles at more than one joint. These include exercises like squats, bench press, and deadlifts. Due to their multi-joint nature, compound lifts recruit big muscle groups to work together in performing that exercise.
This causes a huge release in hormones that support muscle growth, like testosterone and growth hormone, making it the most efficient way to build muscle in the gym. Research shows that compound lifts should be the majority of your workout regimen as they will give you the bulk of your muscle growth (3).
4. Train Heavy, But Not Too Heavy
When you are trying to change your body composition, different workout parameters stimulate your muscles in different ways. Lifting too light doesn’t build muscle efficiently, but weight that’s too heavy can either cause injury or provide you with more strength gains instead of putting on mass. Meaning you may get stronger but not bigger.
A 2016 study showed that heavy load training is better for achieving maximal strength goals, however, the moderate load was better suited for hypertrophy (muscle building) goals (4).
5. Focus on the Eccentric Phase
Lifting can be separated into two different portions: concentric and eccentric. The concentric portion of the lift is when your muscle is being shortened (curling up in a bicep curl), and the eccentric is when the muscles are being lengthened (lowering of the bicep curl).
Studies have shown that focusing on the eccentric portion of a lift helps gain muscle, particularly in the elderly or people suffering from diseases (5). Putting more emphasis on the eccentric part of the movements requires you to go slower and perform the movement with more control.
If you are trying this style of lifting for the first time, don’t be alarmed if you are more sore than usual the days following your workout.
6. Decrease Rest Period Between Sets
Rest is often overlooked as a critical component of working out. Resting between sets allows for a certain amount of recovery to occur in the muscles you are working on. According to research, if you are looking for muscle size, shortening your rest periods between 30-60 seconds is more effective than taking longer breaks (6).
When you perform your big compound movements, it’s crucial to take appropriate rest to allow your muscles to recover before the next set. When you get to the accessory portion of your workout, you don’t need that full-minute rest.
Let’s say you’re hitting your back and biceps. Take the full 30-60 second rest between back sets, but on your curls, you can get away with resting for 30 seconds or less to maximize your hypertrophy.
7. Eat More Protein
Eating adequate amounts of protein allows you to maximize your muscle growth potential, help with recovery and support a balanced diet. You may need to eat more than you are aware, and it can be difficult for many to consume the required amount to support your goals.
According to research, the average person needs 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight to maximize muscle growth (7).
For a 185-pound male doing an average amount of exercise, this comes out to be around 152 grams of protein daily. Do your best to get this protein from foods, but incorporating a protein shake during the day can be beneficial. It can get you to hit your daily protein requirement and is an easy, quick snack.
8. Try Casein
Milk contains two different types of proteins: whey and casein. Like whey, casein is an animal protein containing the full spectrum of all essential amino acids. This includes a large amount of leucine which helps with protein synthesis and muscle building (8,9).
It is very popular in the bodybuilding world to consume casein before bed because of its ability to be slowly digested. It’s thought to help with recovery and reduce muscle breakdown overnight. However, research has shown that as long as you are taking it consistently, it doesn’t matter when you take casein. You will still see the increases in strength and muscle mass when paired with proper resistance training (10).
Watch out for artificial sweeteners, additives, flavors, and look for a brand that uses grass-fed cows. If you are sensitive to dairy or lactose intolerant, you may want to stay away from casein due to its high milk protein content.
9. Sleep More
Sleep is so vital for effective recovery and is so often overlooked. Consistently not getting 7-9 hours can affect your overall health and not build muscle efficiently.
In 2011, a study showed that the participants who only slept for 5.5 hours per night had 60% less muscle mass than those who slept for 8.5 hours (11). More studies, looking at university students, showed decreased muscular strength with a lack of sleep (12).
Making it a priority in your routine will benefit you in several ways, including building muscle. Going to bed 30 minutes earlier than you usually do, not looking at your phone in bed, and being consistent with your sleep schedule can help improve your sleep hygiene.
10. Add in Creatine
Studies show that creatine can help increase exercise performance, muscle mass, and strength (13). It has been deemed by many as the number 1 supplement for improving your natural muscle building abilities.
It works to supply your muscles with more energy by increasing your ATP production, the body’s energy currency. This extra energy from the ATP allows you to push that extra bit in your workouts, giving you the opportunity for increased muscle mass over time.
It can increase total muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown in your body (14). A 12-week study done in weightlifters showed that creatine increased muscle fiber growth 2-3 times more than just training by itself (15).
You won’t be hard-pressed to find this supplement on the market.
11. Lift Weights
In order to build muscle, the muscles need to be put under a certain amount of stress to be forced into adaptation. Lifting weights does exactly that, and according to research, resistance training plays an imperative role in muscular development (16).
There are many different types of resistance exercise, however, your muscles respond best for growth when you are using weights. This puts your muscles under a greater amount of stress and causes many micro-tears in the muscles, which is how you grow more muscle.
Lifting weights also contributes to build stronger, more resilient bones, strengthen your immunity, improve joint health, and increase your anabolic hormone production.
12. Follow Progressive Overload
For us to overcome plateaus in our training, we have to implement what is called progressive overload. Progressive overload means that you continuously increase the training stimulation over time, so your body must continue to adapt.
For example, if this week you are benching 135 pounds for 3 sets of 8 reps, you have several different ways you can progress. You can increase the weight (even 5 pounds in total), you can add another set, a couple of reps, or a combination of them.
Although these changes may seem meaningless, they will amount to significant changes in both your physique and strength gains over time.
13. Take Rest Days
Just as important as diet, lifting weights, and sleep are, taking rest days is often disregarded but hugely beneficial to long-term muscle gain. Your body needs those rest days to have additional recovery time before you train again.
A good rule of thumb is to rest a muscle group for at least 48 hours before working it again (17). Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can peak two days post-workout, so it’s important to give those muscles an appropriate break from being used. Over time, not allowing your body proper rest can force you into an injury simply because your body needs a break.
If you have never taken rest days, it may be the key to getting you over a plateau or even a lingering injury.
14. Supplement with HMB
Hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB) is a chemical that the body produces from the process of breaking down leucine. Unlike anabolic steroids that work to increase muscle mass, HMB works by preventing muscle loss and minimizing the breakdown of protein and damage to the cells with intense exercise (18).
A 12-week study done looking at combat sport athletes showed that HMB promotes beneficial body composition changes and increases the athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic capacities (19).
15. Try BCAAs
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are found in most protein sources. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) consist of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These particular amino acids are vital for muscle growth (20, 21).
There is conflicting research on whether or not BCAAs are worth it. Some research suggests that taking BCAAs can stimulate muscle growth following exercise (22). While other research shows that BCAAs may not affect body composition and muscle performance (23).
Everyone reacts differently to supplements, and so it is likely that you may respond better to BCAAs if you do not have a good amount of high-quality protein intake in your diet.
It is recommended to take 5-10g of BCAAs 30 minutes before working out to help prevent muscle fatigue, promote protein synthesis, and aid in muscle recovery.
16. Practice Intermittent Fasting (IF)
Intermittent fasting is a diet regimen where you refrain from consuming any calories for an extended time, ranging from 8 hours to several days. Fasting for sixteen hours, including the time you are sleeping, has been shown to support faster weight loss, lower risk for diabetes, increased energy levels, and improved insulin resistance.
Another great side effect of intermittent fasting is that it increases your testosterone and growth hormones (24). Your anabolic hormones play a massive role in helping to put on muscle and shorten recovery time (25).
If you are someone who struggles with portion sizes, this might be the best of both worlds as it allows you to feast without feeling guilty. However, if you are consistently struggling to hit your caloric intake per day, you may want to avoid intermittent fasting as it shortens the hours you are consuming food.
17. Focus on the Pump
The “pump” refers to the temporary increase in muscle size due to increased fluid after performing higher reps with shorter rest time. It’s best to save your pump exercises for the end of your workouts for ultimate muscle growth.
Pump training is high-volume training that works to increase the sarcoplasmic fluid in your muscles. The sarcoplasm is the fluid surrounding the muscle fibers and contains energy, creatine phosphate, and water. When you put on muscle mass, you increase the muscle fibers you have, but increasing this fluid will give you an additional layer of muscle growth on top of the preexisting muscle you have worked hard to build (26).
This increase in sarcoplasmic fluid and blood to your muscles has been proven to decrease muscle breakdown and increase muscle protein synthesis (27). To get the best pump, you will need to perform lots of volume, 15+ reps, and 4+ sets, and rest less than 30 seconds between each set.
18. Make it a Habit
Everyone in the world wants a simple, quick fix to hit their goals. Staying consistent and building a habit will be the key to finally getting to the finish line. The phrase, something is better than nothing, can be applied here. Some experts argue that it’s better to go half-ass on your workouts and be consistent with them than do the best workout routine but miss workouts.
A study in sports medicine showed that the greatest impact on women’s muscle mass and strength was in relation to their workout frequency (28).
Even if one day you did 15 minutes, that is 100% better than doing nothing.
19. Be Patient
When it comes to building muscle and improving your overall physique, patience plays a significant role in your journey. A lack of patience can lead to a loss of motivation, frustration, and ultimately giving up.
If you are a beginner, you may see crazy improvements in your physique in the first six months to a year. Once you reach a point where your body is now accustomed to those changes, you will start to see those newbie gains taper and plateau. If you are more advanced, consistently seeing improvements is even harder.
If the process of putting on muscle were easy and straightforward, everyone would be huge and shredded. The fact that it’s challenging makes it all the more rewarding in the end.
20. Eat Lots of Carbs
Low carb diets are all the rage in the weight loss world, however, this is the exact opposite of what you need to put on muscle. Carbohydrates are your body’s primary energy source that is easily accessible and replace the glycogen in your muscles once it’s been used up and depleted (29).
Your testosterone, energy, and muscle growth potential all take a hit when you aren’t consuming an adequate amount of carbs (30). When trying to build muscle, it’s crucial to provide your body with quick fuel like carbs.
21. Perform Movements with a Barbell
Barbell exercises are essentially any exercise you can perform using a barbell; squats, bench, deadlift, rows. The barbell allows you to go heavier than you otherwise would with dumbbells or the cable machine. This allows for greater strength gains, an increase in muscle mass, and overall athleticism.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA) has proven barbell movements like squats and deadlifts are great at increasing your overall athletic performance (31). Most barbell exercises fall under the scope of compound movements which we already know to be beneficial to put on size.
For example, if you are in the gym benching 225, you have your 45 pound bar and two 45 pound plates on either side. This distributes the load more evenly compared to using dumbbells.
Load the bar up and slowly increase your weights
22. Eat Whole Foods
Whole foods will provide you with a much more full nutrient profile compared to processed foods. This means you’re feeding your body with more of what it needs to function at its peak and build more muscle.
Whole foods also tend to have more complex carbs and protein which are an integral part of a healthy diet for putting on mass. For example, bananas are among the best post-workout recovery foods, even outperforming sports drinks and water (32).
23. Add in Healthy Fats
Fats help to support and optimize hormones which can, therefore, aid in gaining muscle (33).
To put on muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. Protein and carbs both contain four calories per gram of each macronutrient. Fat has a whopping nine calories per gram. If you struggle to eat calories, incorporating more fats into your diets will get you there no problem.
24. Drink More Water
Up to 60% of the human body is water. It is essential to be drinking water and rehydrating your body. When you sweat, you lose potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes that fuel your muscles.
The more hydrated you are, the more efficient your recovery will be and the better performance you will have in your workouts (34).
Dehydration with a host of other health problems can also leave you looking small because there is less fluid volume in your muscles (35).
25. Program in Deload Weeks
If you’ve never heard of a deload week, you are missing out. Deload weeks are so important in a training program as they provide the body with active rest. Instead of just taking a full week off training, you do the workouts at a lower level of intensity.
Less weight, fewer sets, fewer reps; you’re going through the motions without pushing your body too hard to give it a break.
Using your deload weeks to focus on tempo or technique in your lifts is a great tool as it allows you to train different parts of the movement. Coming out of the week, you will have more energy to take on the next training phase.
26. Find a Training Partner
At times, we all need some external motivation to help us through a workout. Having a training partner can provide that motivation and accountability to never miss a workout. If you plan on meeting up with a friend at the gym, you are far less likely to cancel that workout.
You don’t have to do the entire workout together, but having some company can help both of you make some serious gains.
27. Use Proper Form
When you are lifting, it is critical to do so with near-perfect form. Using bad form or being lazy puts you at a high risk of developing muscular imbalances or even risking an injury that could take you out for months. All the work you had put in will be wiped clean because you didn’t take the time to practice technique.
Being meticulous with your technique and learning how your body moves will only allow you to see bigger improvements while avoiding injuries. Incorporating technique work into your workouts can be enjoyable and provide a new challenge for your muscles and brain.
For example, if you have hit a plateau on your bench and you simply just can’t increase the weight without feeling pain somewhere or failing the lift, switch things up. Lighten the weight and practice pause reps or double pause reps. It will provide you with a challenge and will force you to perfect your form.
28. Switch Up the Tempo
Increasing the time it takes you to complete each rep and increasing the time the muscles are under tension is a great way to switch up your workouts and blow past any plateaus.
One study showed the more time your muscles spend under tension, the more you maximize muscle growth potential. (38) Protein synthesis occurs at a higher rate and it’s when the body creates more protein to repair damaged muscle tissue during exercise. This is a crucial process for muscle growth to take place.
Start by counting 2 seconds on the down and 2 seconds coming back up in your rep. You can make that time longer and even add pauses in between. If you don’t have access to heavy weights or simply don’t feel comfortable lifting heavy, try incorporating this technique into your workouts, you won’t regret it.
29. Use a Spotter
Having a spotter can take the pressure off yourself if you are trying to hit a heavy weight. It will give you some peace of mind that you don’t have to worry about dropping the weight on your face. There is an added level of safety when using a spotter, but they can also help you push through and finish a lift.
A study published in 2019 showed that having a spotter improves bench press performance (39) – just another reason to have a gym partner.
Preparing your muscles before you train not only allows your muscles to get warmed up but also alerts your nervous system that it’s time for exercise.
Dynamic movements are the best to incorporate in your warm-ups. It’s also important to add warm-up sets with lighter weight than what you will be using during your working sets.
Leg swings, air squats, and arm circles are all examples of dynamic warm-up exercises. Save static stretching for the end of your workouts as it’s meant to relax your muscles and can lead to decreased performance (40).
If you have been given some stretches to do before working out that are static, or you simply enjoy them, just make sure you are doing those first and then following up with dynamic movements leading into the start of your workout.
31. Track Your Progress
Tracking your lifts will not only allow you to be a little more organized but also allow you to look back on the progress you’ve made. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t made any significant gains in weeks but when you have your workouts written down from day one, you can look to the beginning and see how far you’ve come.
You should also measure other progress metrics like your weight, body fat, and, if possible, some measurements like your chest, arms, legs, and waist. Along with writing your workout metrics, these body measurements will allow you to see the full picture.
There are a ton of different apps that allow you to track your workouts, weights used, and body metrics to make it seamless and easy. Research does show that tracking progress and health data works to increase the results (41).
32. Listen to your body and avoid overtraining
Taking the time to rest your body will allow you to steer clear of overtraining. This is caused by excessive exercise and not taking enough rest (42).
You may want to kick start your workout regimen and increase your training volume, but without breaks, you’re going to do more harm than good. You can cause damage to your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments if you are doing too much all at once. You’ll also take a huge hit to your motivation and overall progress.
Listen to your body and take the time to rest when you need it.
33. Incorporate full-body workouts
The benefits of performing full body workouts allow you to work your muscle groups more often during a week of lifting.
Studies show that the rate of protein synthesis is increased 36 hours after lifting, which means your ability to put on muscle is increased during this time (43). When you are doing full body workouts, you can take advantage of this protein synthesis more often during the week because you are using more muscles each time you lift.
Full body workouts can also be beneficial in incorporating more rest time in between workout days. Other splits require you to be in the gym multiple days in a row to hit the same volume.
34. Work the big muscle groups first
Bigger muscles take up the most energy and require you to be the most prepared when performing the lift. A deadlift will be much more taxing on your body than a bicep curl.
Keeping your big compound movements at the beginning of your workout will allow you to allocate the appropriate energy required to make gains. Once those lifts are done, it’s much easier to work through your accessory exercises to finish off the workout.
35. Optimize your testosterone
Optimizing your testosterone will do wonders for many aspects of your health, especially your ability to put on lean muscle.
If you have less than optimal levels of testosterone, even with the addition of weight training, which works to increase testosterone, you’re still at a disadvantage (43).
Natural testosterone boosters can work wonders in addition to making dietary and lifestyle changes.
36. Supplement with ZMA
ZMA is a popular supplement typically made up of Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6. Combining these vitamins and minerals plays an important role in overall health and contributes to increased muscle mass.
This supplement can help increase levels of testosterone in the body, help with speeding up recovery and build muscle. One study looking at football players found that taking ZMA daily improved the athletes muscular strength, functional power, and testosterone (44).
37. Supplement with Glutamine
Glutamine is an amino acid, and amino acids function as the building blocks for protein.
Some research has shown that glutamine can help decrease muscle soreness and improve overall recovery after vigorous exercise (45). Although glutamine may not directly contribute to putting on muscle, it does provide your body with additional support to boost recovery.
38. Supplement with beta-alanine
One study showed that taking four grams of this supplement every day for eight weeks increased the participant’s lean body mass more than the placebo group (48). Another study showed a whole pound more muscle put on, compared to placebo, following a six-week interval training program by adding beta-alanine (49).
39. Don’t Rely on Motivation
If you feel unmotivated to workout one day, how will you use motivation to go to the gym? Use motivation as a kickstart, but you need to rely on the habits you build to take you through to the end.
If you build a habit and are consistent with your workouts, diet, and recovery, your habit will take over the days you want to quit.
For long-term success, be consistent and keep your habits. They will serve you better for the long haul instead of relying on motivation that comes and goes as it pleases.
40. Incorporate stretching into everyday lifestyle
Working out but not releasing the tension from your muscles and joints will decrease your ability to execute movements well. Being flexible is a great attribute when trying to put muscle mass on.
For example, if you have poor shoulder mobility, your bench press will suffer. You won’t be able to get into the proper position, not get to the right depth to maximize the lift.
It doesn’t have to be a full yoga class everyday. Implementing even 5-10 minutes of stretching will help support healthy and effective muscle growth.
41. Try BFR training
Occlusion training also called Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training, is when you restrict blood flow out of a specific area of your body. When you block the veins from taking blood out of a certain area while allowing more blood to flow into that area via the artery, you force two things to happen.
One, you get a massive pump because you have so much blood pooling in that area. Two, you are going to accumulate a lot of lactate which is going to cause major burning. When this happens, you create metabolic stress within the muscle, which is a huge component of muscle growth.
It is done by wrapping elastic wraps or putting pressure cuffs at the top of a muscle. For example, you can wrap the top of your arm, just below your shoulder, before doing curls. You can perform the bicep curl normally, but the burning will take on effect fairly quickly and you’ll get a wicked pump.
42. Incorporate isometric training
Isometric exercises can work to strengthen your muscles without moving your body. Because there is no momentum when performing isometric holds, you can also drastically decrease the possibility of injury.
When you perform an isometric hold, it increases the pressure inside your muscles, essentially cutting off circulation and resulting in less oxygen. This lack of oxygen is a powerful stimulator for new muscle cells to grow to help the muscle survive. What you get is bigger, stronger muscles as a result.
43. Lift in the 8-12 rep range
The best protocol for putting on muscle is to stay within the 8-12 rep range. The weight you are lifting should be light enough to get to 8 reps at the very least but heavy enough that you cannot perform more than 12 reps.
Less than 8 reps, you are focusing on building strength, and more than 12, you are performing muscular endurance.
44. Don’t go keto
Keto diets can help you lose weight, but if you are trying to put on muscle mass, it may not be your best option.
Keto requires you to be super low carb. Because of this, your body will not have quick fuel to burn off during workouts. It’s important to feed your body with sufficient carbs in order provide your body with what it needs to put muscle on.
A study in 2018 showed that men who were doing resistance training had no improvements in putting on mass while on a ketogenic diet (50).
45. Add 10g of leucine to your shakes
Leucine, found in BCAAs, has the biggest benefits on muscle growth compared to other amino acids.
Not only will leucine kickstart your skeletal muscle mass to grow, but it will also contribute to muscle recovery as well. Throwing a scoop of leucine in with your protein shakes is a great and easy way to get it into your body and flip the switch on your muscle building abilities.
46. Avoid getting injured
Staying away from injuries is important for keeping on track with your workouts and overall progress. If you push too hard, don’t take proper recovery, or have a poor diet, you’re opening yourself up to potential injury. This could mean weeks or even months off the gym which would put a complete stop to your progress.
Being mindful of how you progress your workouts, fueling your body well, and incorporating rest and recovery will allow you to steer clear of injuries and stay on track to reaching your goals.