How to Build Muscle

Learn how muscles grow, how to build muscle and make your muscles bigger, how much weight you should lift, how many sets to do, how often to weight train for muscle building, and muscle building recovery tips.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read

How Much Weight Should You Lift?

Your muscles must be subjected to enough weight for actual muscle fiber tearing to occur. For most people, that means lifting about  65-85% of what you can lift one time (your “one rep max” or “1RM”). For example, if you can bench press 100 pounds, then your weight for increasing the size of your chest muscles would be 65-85 pounds. Most people can lift 65-85% for 8-12 repetitions.

Quick and Dirty Tip: You don’t have to actually go try and test what you your maximum lifts are for each exercise. That can be difficult and dangerous. Instead, there are calculators and formulas that allow you to approximate your 1RM based on the number of times you can lift a certain weight. Here’s a link to one such formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-repetition_maximum

How Many Sets Should You Do to Build Muscle?

Because your muscles need a significant amount of time under tension (about 60 seconds) for actual muscle tearing to occur, multiple sets are crucial. Though you certainly could perform just one very long set for each muscle group, that is mentally challenging, extremely uncomfortable, and very risky. So instead, you should perform at least three sets and preferably five to six sets for each exercise. As I mentioned in a previous article on how to start weight training, some bodybuilders perform up to 20 sets! Each set should include one to two minutes of recovery for the muscle group you are working.

Quick and Dirty Tip: If you’re pressed for time, then rather than sitting down to rest between each set, simply work another muscle group during the recovery period. For example, while your chest muscles recover from bench pressing, you can perform a set for your calf muscles.

How Often Should You Lift Weights?

Beware! Before you rush off to do biceps curls every day until your arms are popping out of your coat, you must understand that there can certainly be too much of a good thing. If you stress, traumatize, or tear a muscle every day, your body will not have enough time to repair the muscle fibers, resulting in high levels of soreness, low muscle growth, and joint injury.

A proper muscle-building workout will give a muscle two to three days of recovery before re-stimulating those fibers again. You should also be sure to eat properly during your recovery. You’ll need 2500 calories for each extra pound of muscle you want to add. Unless you’re getting those extra calories from complex carbohydrates like whole grains and lean sources of proteins like fish, fat-free dairy, and protein powder, it can be very difficult to add muscle without gaining fat! Refer to episode #3 on what to eat before and after exercising for more tips on proper pre- and post-workout nutrition.

Quick and Dirty Tip: One very effective muscle growth strategy for the entire body involves exercising your chest and arms one day, your shoulders, upper back and abs the next day, and your legs and lower back the third day. You can then rest a day and repeat for a full week of workouts!

Ultimately, the trick to growing muscle is to adequately stress the muscle, allow the muscle to recover while eating enough healthy food to feed the new muscle, and then repeat! With this strategy, you can safely build one to two pounds of muscle each week--and since muscle is much less roomy than fat, those pounds will look tight and lean. Once you’ve built your new muscle, let me know. I have some heavy couches that need moving.

Once you've built muscle it's important to maintain it, even if you can't get to the gym regularly anymore. Check out my Quick Tip on maintaining your fitness level for more information.

Weights image from Shutterstock


About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.