Let’s face it: when you first start going to the gym, you don’t really know what to do. You want to lift weights and build muscle, but you don’t really know what exercises to do, how many repetitions to perform, or what program to follow.
The truth is that this stuff is complicated and takes time to learn.
When it comes to building muscle, there is no “one program fits all approach.” Instead, there are general rules and concepts that are important to include in your training to ensure that your muscles grow. This is why you might see two people with pretty different styles of training, and both are really muscular.
In this article, we share 10 lifting-related science-based tips that you should implement in your training to make sure that you're effectively growing muscle.
10 Rules For Maximizing Muscle Gains
Rule #1: Focus on big compound movements for the bulk of your training
Big compound movements include exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges for the lower body and exercises like the bench press, pull-ups, overhead presses, and rows for the upper body. Compound exercises work multiple muscles simultaneously and will give you the “biggest bang for your buck” when it comes to muscle growth. In general, you want to choose 1-2 compound movements for each of the major muscle groups to include in your training.
For the upper body, you want to make sure that you include some sort of pressing and pulling movements in both the vertical and horizontal planes. Examples of pressing and pulling movements in the vertical plane would include any sort of overhead pressing, and any sort of pull up or pull down, respectively. Examples in the horizontal plane would include any sort of bench pressing or rowing movements. It really doesn’t matter if you use dumbbells, barbells, or machines for these. What matters is the plane of movement.
For the lower body, make sure to include some sort of squatting movement like a hack squat or leg press, some sort of hip hinge movement like a deadlift or good morning, and some sort of single leg movement like a lunge or a Bulgarian split squat. As long as you include 1-2 compound movements for each of the movement patterns in your program, you’ll have a solid training plan.
Rule #2: Choose isolation exercises for muscles you want to emphasize more.
The first rule was all about big compound movements, but for a well-rounded program, you should also include some isolation work. Isolation exercises are those that train one muscle group at a time, and not several like compound movements. Exercises like triceps extensions, bicep curls, leg extensions, chest flies, and hamstring curls are all examples of isolation exercises.
If you do 1-2 major compound movements in a workout, follow it up with a couple of isolation exercises to further stimulate muscle growth. The reason you want to include some isolation work and not do only compound movements is two-fold. First, you’ll probably be pretty fatigued after a couple of big heavy movements, and since isolation exercises generally feel easier, they’re a great way to get some more stimulus without feeling absolutely dead. Second, some muscles aren’t really well trained with compound movements. For example, back exercises like pull-ups do train the biceps, but the biceps will grow much better with some isolation work.
Rule #3: Make sure you’re doing sufficient volume
For the purposes of this article, we are going to define volume as the number of hard sets performed for a muscle in a given week. If we look at the research literature on this topic, it seems like 10 sets per muscle group per week is the lower end of what’s necessary to stimulate substantial muscle.
For example, for your back that could be something like 3 sets of pull-ups, 3 sets of dumbbell rows, 2 sets of pull downs, and 2 sets of cable rows. That would be enough volume per week to grow your back if you pushed each of those sets hard enough.
There’s also a positive relationship between volume and gains, meaning that more volume should result in more muscle growth. However, there’s small caveats to this though. First, you need to make sure that you’re actually training hard. Doing an additional 10 sets for your chest won’t cause more muscle growth if you aren’t training hard. Second, you need to be able to recover from the training. More volume also means more fatigue and if you aren’t recovering properly, you’re not going to be progressing optimally.
Rule #4: Prioritize training intensity
We just mentioned that you should do at least 10 sets per muscle per week to grow. However, equally important is how hard or intensely you train. For muscle growth, you need to make sure you train with sufficient intensity so that your training actually stimulates growth. This doesn’t mean that you have to train to failure each set though. In general, as long as you are within 2-3 reps shy of failure on each set that you perform, you’ll be stimulating muscle growth pretty effectively.
What you don’t want to do is only perform 10 reps on an exercise when you could have performed 20 or more. That’s what we call junk volume and it’s not effective for muscle growth.
Rule #5: Make sure you train each muscle at least 2x per week
Traditional bodybuilding splits, where Monday is international chest day and you train each muscle group only one time per week, are not optimal for muscle growth.
There are two reasons why this is the case. The first reason is that when you train a muscle you only really stimulate muscle growth for 48 to 72 hours post-training. So, if you only train it 1x per week, you’re not maximizing your growth potential. Instead, you should be training each muscle every 3-4 days, or at least 2 times per week. The second reason is that if you do all of your training volume for one muscle in one day it's simply just too much work in one day and the sets towards the end of the workout suffer in terms of performance.
For example, if you do 15 sets for your chest for a given week you'll be much better off doing seven sets on one day and eight sets on the next day compared to doing all 15 sets in one day. that being said, it doesn't really matter if you train 3, 4, or 5 times per week as long as you train each muscle at least 2x per week. Personally, I like training 5x per week where days 1 through 3 I do a push, pull, legs, split and then day 4 and 5 are an upper body and lower body workout.
Rule #6: Don’t change up your training too frequently
It’s easy to get frustrated when your progress slows down, which it inevitably will, and you’ll want to switch programs. This is one of the biggest mistakes I see new lifters make which prevents them from making progress long-term.
When you start doing a new exercise, the first few weeks you make progress really quickly because your body is becoming more efficient at the exercise and learning how to perform it properly. This means that when you first start a new movement your nervous system is what’s learning how to perform it properly and you’re not really taxing your muscles effectively because you’re just not that good at the exercise yet. Once you’ve done it for a couple of weeks, you’re way more proficient at it and you can target the muscle much more effectively.
If you’re always “switching things up” you’re essentially never really allowing your body to adapt to the exercises you perform and never really making much progress. In reality, you don’t ever need to switch up the exercises you perform. You certainly can every once in a while to keep things fresh, but I would recommend keeping a handful of exercises that are staples in your training where you perform them every single week indefinitely.
Rule # 7: Don’t ego lift
You always want to make sure you prioritize range of motion and technique over using heavier weights. We’ve all seen people at the gym bouncing the barbell off their chest on the bench press or performing quarter squats with ridiculous weight. Ironically, these are some of the smallest people in the gym too.
Lifting in this fashion only increases your risk of injury and it isn’t effective for muscle growth.
You want to make sure you have good control of the weight you’re using, implement proper lifting technique, and prioritize training through a full range of motion. There’s ample research showing that full range of motion training is really important for muscle growth.
This means that when you squat, you should go as low as your mobility allows you to, Ideally all the way down to full knee flexion, when you bench press you should touch your chest, and when you do a pull up you should come all the way down to a dead hang.
If you can’t perform an exercise properly with the weights that you’re using on it, just drop the weights. It will be way more effective for growing your muscles.
Rule #8: Rest appropriately between sets
Training for muscle growth is very different from cardio, so don’t treat it like cardio. If you’re only resting ~60 seconds between sets, you’re leaving gains on the table. Your performance on each set is really important for muscle growth, so you need to rest enough to where you can perform pretty well on your next set. If you’re still breathing hard from your last set, you haven’t rested enough.
For compound movements, you should rest at least 3 minutes between sets, and for isolation movements at least 2 minutes. This way, you’re fully rested and can really push each set pretty hard.
Rule # 9: Prioritize getting stronger over time
There’s one indicator of whether you’re gaining muscle or not, and that is whether you’re getting stronger over time or not. Now, I’m not talking about your 1 rep max, but are you getting stronger by using slightly more weight and performing more repetitions over time on your main movements?
If you go from bench pressing 225 for 10 reps to 225 for 15 reps, or 250 for 10 reps you’ve definitely gained some muscle. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how good of a pump you get or how many drop sets you performed. If you’re not getting stronger you’re probably not gaining much muscle.
This is why it’s important that you don’t change up your exercises too frequently, it’s because you want to make sure you’re getting stronger on a few compound movements over time. Instead of always implementing new exercises, or new lifting techniques that you see online, just focus on getting stronger at the stuff you’re currently doing to ensure that you’re gaining muscle.
Rule #10: Choose a wide variety of rep ranges across different exercises
When it comes to muscle growth, it really doesn’t matter how many reps you do. Anywhere between 6 and 30 repetitions is going to be equally effective for muscle growth. What matters most is the intensity on each of your sets and not necessarily how many reps you perform. However, using different rep ranges on different exercises can help optimize your progress in the gym.
Rather than doing 6-8 reps on all of your exercises, choose different rep ranges on different exercises. In general, heavy compound movements like squats or deadlifts lend themselves really well to lower rep ranges like 6 to 8 reps and isolation-based movements like a cable biceps curl lend themselves nicely to higher repetitions like 12-15.
The best way to do this is by starting your workout using heavy weight and low rep ranges and then work toward higher reps and lower weights on isolation movements toward the end of your workout.
These ten rules are not exclusive, meaning that there are a whole host of other variables that are important for muscle growth. However, these ten tips capture the “big concepts” that are most important for muscle hypertrophy and will help you build a solid foundation for you to improve upon. If you’re currently not implementing any of these rules, you’re probably leaving some gains the table.