How to build as much muscle as possible, without steroids | Training 101

Quick-start hypertrophy guide.
 

Let’s be having it then.

The quick-start guide to maximising hypertrophy as a natural (drug-free) lifter.

No time to read the whole thing? Comprehensive summary can be found at the bottom of the page. 

Jargon buster

Hypertrophy: Muscular hypertrophy is essentially the more technical way to describe an increase in muscle size. The number of myofibrils within a given muscle fibre increase, causing the fibres to grow in size (note: the number of fibres in the muscle remains the same however) resulting in the overall “hypertrophy” of the given muscle.

Where are you currently?

Your current physical state is going to dictate the ideal approach to building muscle (in both nutritional and training terms).

In this article, I’d like to purely address those who’s entire focus is on putting on muscle and just generally gaining mass.

If you have fat that you wish to lose – well then you’re going to have to be in a caloric deficit. Whilst it is definitely possible to gain some muscle whilst losing fat – it is far from optimal (in fact, it couldn’t be further really).

Therefore, I’d recommend anybody with fat they wish to lose go ahead and lose that fat first, so that they can comfortably commit to a period of “bulking”. Don’t worry – if we do this correctly, unnecessary fat gain should be mitigated (that doesn’t mean there won’t be fat gain – note the word “unnecessary”).

Check out my fat loss guide here – if you need that.

How to eat for maximum muscle gains:

The most fundamental part of eating in regards to gaining muscle mass, is being in a calorie surplus.

This means the amount of calories you consume on a daily basis needs to be greater than the amount of calories you burn.

If you’ve read my fat loss article(s), you know that to lose fat the opposite is true, and a deficit is required. This is why trying to build muscle whilst losing fat is a counterproductive situation – and only feasible for certain populations.

Those trying to gain as much muscle as possible need to be in a calorie surplus and therefore, calculating the amount of calories you need on a daily basis should be your first step.

Use my free calculator here to work that out.

I’d recommend that the vast majority of us just eat in a small-moderate surplus, around 10% (maybe pushing 15% for beginners with more scope for growth). This should mitigate unnecessary fat gain (fat gain will still happen though) whilst still providing the necessary calories for hypertrophy.

Knowing this, those who have never tracked their caloric intake before should definitely start doing so.

Not forever, just so you get an idea of what you’re actually eating. I’d estimate that probably 90+% of individuals that “can’t gain muscle/are hardgainers” are just under-eaters (in terms of the calories they actually need every single day to bulk up).

That’s the crucial stuff covered.

If you want to learn more about structuring your diet for a lean bulk – check out my lean bulking article here.

However for now just be sure you know that you need to be in a caloric surplus (approximately a 10% surplus) every single day/week. Don’t stress over meal timing, food-choices etc. It is far less important than actually hitting your caloric goal.

As long as your diet involves whole foods, fruits/vegetables, plenty of protein – it’s probably fine. Could it be better? Of course, but take small steps.

Once you’re nailing your calories, then start worrying about macros etc – which again, you can read about in my lean bulking article.

What training split?

Before you read on, I’ll give you a spoiler – there is no ‘best’ training split, there’s just too many variables which, when combined with individual differences (there’s >7billion of us and we’re all unique) makes it impossible to give a one size fits all answer.

However, here’s some things to think about so you can determine your ideal split.

After intense exercise, namely, lifting weights – muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is elevated for a period of time. You can consider this the length of time in which you are able to “make gains” from your training session.

For how long is this elevated? Research seems to indicate that it will likely be elevated for up to around 48 hours [1] [2].

Jargon buster

‣Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS): The formation of proteins within the actual muscle tissue.
Increased protein synthesis within this muscle tissue is what will promote hypertrophy (growth), and is an acute response to physical exercise.
On the other side of the coin you have muscle protein breakdown (MPB):
If MPS > MPB, then hypertrophy can occur (positive net protein turnover).

So, if MPS is elevated for up to 48 hours before returning to baseline – does this not mean it would be wise to now train this muscle again (after the 48 hours)?

Probably, yes.

This is a major problem with most conventional routines that focus on hitting each muscle group once a week – they are not capitalising on this ability to train more frequently in order to achieve a more sustained increase in MPS over the entire week.

Why be able to gain muscle 2 days a week (for a particular muscle), when you could be able to 7 days a week? A massive oversimplification but you get the point.

An effective training split will therefore having you training each muscle at least 2x per week [3].

(Infographic below taken from strengthandconditioningresearch.com)

How does this effect programming (volume, intensity etc)?

Training once a week in that typical bodybuilder magazine way will likely not suffice once you increase your training frequency – i.e. you can’t have 2-3 full-out, obliterate-yourself leg days per week (well you probably shouldn’t anyway).

The short and sweet version – picking a split:

If you’d like to train 3x a week – consider 3 full-body workouts.

4x a week2x Upper/lower split or maybe a full-body 3x a week with a 4th day for conditioning/GPP.

5x a weekUpper/lower/push/pull/legs.

6x a week2x Push/pull/legs.

Hopefully you get the idea. There is nothing to say any one of these splits is better than the other, it’s about how you programme them.

Volume:

Volume can typically be defined as the total workload done – i.e. sets x reps x weight. 3 sets of 6 reps at 50kg = 900kg lifted in total.

For those used to training each muscle group once per week, I’d just recommend you generally divide your total weekly volume over the 2-3 sessions per muscle group as best you can.

I.e. A once a week chest day involving maybe 15-20 total sets for chest, would be split up in to 7-10 sets per push workout, or 3-5 sets per full-body workout.

The more often you train, the more you’re going to split up bodyparts –  and likely the more total volume you’ll be capable of doing without annihilating a specific muscle within a session. This doesn’t necessarily mean more gains – but we do know that volume is a very important variable when seeking hypertrophy.

However you’d now get the benefit of increasing MPS throughout the week, without obliterating yourself one day per week when you likely already exhausted the majority of your growth in the first 6-10 sets. 

You’re also likely to see further neural adaptations meaning you may get stronger on these movements quicker due to increased frequency – this may pertain to further increases in hypertrophy over time.

The amount of volume you do in a session/week should gradually increase as you become more advanced. A beginner will have a lower work capacity and should train accordingly, however over time this capacity will increase and so should the total workload.

Not to mention, for a beginner it is just not necessary to over-complicate the process, as adherence and staying safe will always be number #1. Additional volume is just more room for injury at that stage, in my opinion anyway.

Because of that, it may make sense for a beginner to start with a full-body routine, where total volume is still relatively high but individual muscle volume per session is quite low. As the trainee becomes more advanced, they would begin to split this up further so that they were working particular muscle groups each session (like a push pull legs), as they can now increase the volume per muscle group over the week.

Specific volume prescriptions requires analysis of the individual and constant manipulation from there onwards – something I aim to provide to those who sign up for online coaching or a custom training programme (shameless plug here) – however if you’re not going to hire somebody’s services, it’s going to take some trial and error on your part.

In one sentence – you want volume to be high enough so that you can force adaptation, but still adequately recover from. Anything over that – unnecessary.

From Eric Helms’ et al. paper (a highly recommended read)- Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Resistance and Cardiovascular Training:
“Muscle groups should be trained 2 times weekly or more, although high volume training may benefit from higher frequencies to keep volume at any one session from becoming excessive. Low to high (~3-15) repetitions can be utilized but most repetitions should occur in the 6-12 range using 70-80% of 1 repetition maximum. Roughly 40-70 reps per muscle group per session should be performed, however higher volume may be appropriate for advanced bodybuilders.” [4]

More volume seems to improve hypertrophy, up until that point where each additional rep is just contributing to fatigue rather than to actual beneficial stimulus. It would be wise to be somewhat cautious with your volume to begin with, and then you can scale this up over time.

The most important factor is progression (more on this further down).

Intensity:

Intensity should be thought of as “what percentage of your 1 rep max you’re working at”. So essentially, how heavy you’re lifting.

Heavier (higher intensity) weights are going to correspond to fewer reps, and vice versa.

The majority of research out there does tend to show that a higher intensity (1-5 reps) is somewhat favourable for strength and roughly similiar for hypertrophy – when compared to more moderate intensities (6-12 reps).
This 2015 paper conducted a short-term study which actually showed an increase in hypertrophy from high intensity training compared to moderate intensity in resistance trained men [5].

The following image from Strengtheory compares some of the research done and, shows quite clearly that higher intensities promote better strength gains accross the board, however hypertrophy if often not affected (unless the rep ranges are extreme).

Image taken from an article written by Nathan Jones at www.strongerbyscience.com (no affiliation, just appreciate their content) – “The New Approach to Training Volume” [6]. All rights to the image above belong to strongerbyscience.

There also seems to be sort of a threshold of lifting at an intensity of 60% of ones 1RM or greater for stimulating hypertrophy, as this seems to maximise MPS after exercise [7]. Although it is definitely possible to achieve hypertrophy at lower intensities, at this point is seems sub-optimal.

So why not always lift heavy?

The problem lies in that lifting extremely heavy all of the time is not practical as it causes mental fatigue, increases the risk of joint soreness and injury, and finally just doesn’t allow enough total volume to be implemented weekly – 10 sets of 3 takes a lot more time (and effort) than 3 sets of 10. The hypertrophic response likely would have been virtually equal as well.

That is why the traditional “hypertrophy” rep range of 6-12 reps can be a blessing and is likely where you should spend the most of your time. It provides that balance between lower intensity/higher volume, whilst still being a relatively heavy load.

If you combine the above with some heavier work in the 1-6 rep range (which pertains itself very well to additional strength increase), and even some time in the higher rep range of 13-20 (albeit, not as much) – you’re probably covering all bases effectively.

This intuition is in line with the conclusions drawn in an excellent paper by Brad Schoenfeld – “Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?” [8].

Exercise Selection:

We’re going to categorize exercises into 2 main types – Compound exercises and isolation exercises.

  • Compound exercises work over more than one joint angle, and require multiple muscle groups to perform. Examples include: Bench press, squat, pull-up, bent-over row etc.
  • Isolation exercises work only on one joint, and aim to target only one muscle (group) at a time. Examples include: Bicep curl, tricep extension, chest flye, side lateral raise etc.

The majority of your training should be centered around compound exercises, however, unlike certain strength athletes – those training for maximal hypertrophy should also include an array of (intelligently programmed) isolation exercises.

Beginners in particular should focus the majority of their time on compound movements, with less focus on isolation movements as they are not necessary at this early stage (that doesn’t mean that they should be actively avoided – just not a primary concern given time/volume constraints).

As experience increases, so can the implementation of further isolation work to help develop weak points, accumulate further volume etc.

When programming exercises, it is important to bear in mind specificity of training. Aka programming your training towards you and your goals.

Obviously, your training split is going to dictate the amount of exercises you can perform for a certain muscle (a push workout will include more pushing movements than a full-body workout…) – some guidelines:

  1. Pick 1-2 main compound movements for each muscle group. These can then be used to benchmark progress.
  2. If applicable, pick 1-2 isolation movements for the necessary/relevant muscle groups that you feel require additional attention.
  3. Focus on compound movements at the beginning of a workout, transitioning in to isolation movements as fatigue builds during a session.
  4. The exercise/muscle group trained at the beginning of a workout will likely see the greatest “results” from that specific workout.
  5. Exercise rotation is definitely important for hypertrophy, but progressive overload is even more important.
    For example: You may focus on a flat barbell bench press for 4-6 weeks, and then when a certain level of strength has been achieved, switch to a incline dumbbell press. Alternatively, you may swap exercises weekly, but focus on a consistent progression across the board.
    I’d argue the less experienced/more of a beginner you are, the less you need to swap exercises around. Progression is key – only employ more advanced techniques when the simpler techniques have been exhausted.
  6. Compound movements would be the ideal time to focus on the higher intensity (lower rep) work, whereas the isolation movements are very useful at accumulating further volume, and therefore may be ideal for the “higher” rep work.
    The above is not a rule/law, you can vary rep ranges – but that is a common, effective approach.

An example – Upper Body workout:

Barbell Bench Press 4 sets of 4-6 reps – Higher intensity exercise – (assume bench/chest is priority).

Seated Dumbbell Press 3 sets of 6-8 reps – Auxilliary compound movement for “push” muscles.

Bent over Barbell Row 4 sets of 6-8 reps – Main compound movement for upper back.

Barbell Shrug 3 sets of 8-10reps – Auxilliary upper back movement  (assume upper traps are lagging and need additional work).

Skullcrusher 3 sets of 10-12 reps – Isolation work for triceps which may be under-stimulated (particularly the long head).

Seated Incline Dumbbell Curl 3 sets of 10-12 reps – Isolation movement for the biceps which will definitely be under-stimulated from rows and shrugs.

Face-Pull 3 sets of 12-15 reps – Rear delt movement necessary for shoulder health and to help keep the pull:push ratio favourable.

This could be considered “Upper Body workout A”. Then later in the week you would perform Upper Body B (two upper/lower sessions per week), which could involve different exercises/reps/ordering etc. It’s all dependent upon the person’s goals.

Everything discussed above is largely unimportant without one thing…

Progressive overload.

I’ve mentioned this already a couple of times this article, however it definitely requires it’s own section.

Thankfully, I’ve already written a piece on progressive overload – which you can read here. However, let’s briefly talk about it in this article for completeness.

In order to stimulate hypertrophy we require the above variables.

There needs to be a stimulus, and it needs to be adequate for the individual’s circumstances. However…

In order to see continued adaptation, the stress/stimulus needs to increase over time. There must be progressive overload.

This is the fundamental principle to any kind of adaptive response in the body.

Our bodies repair themselves to be able to handle the demand placed on them – if that demand is not continually increasing in some capacity, there will be no further growth.

Remember, achieving maximal hypertrophy may seem awesome to us, but for our bodies it is completely unnecessary. We need to provide enough of a stimulus, which gradually increases, in order to make our bodies think it’s necessary

So how to facilitate this?

The most obvious answer is to simply get stronger. 

Lift more weight over time. If you can currently squat 60kg for a set of 6, and you want bigger legs – try taking your squat to 100kg for 6, and then to 140kg for 6, and then 160kg for 6…

It would be impossible for your legs to not grow. How much they’ll grow is down to many other factors (size of calorie surplus, genetics, total volume, auxilliary movements etc).

Obviously – getting stronger isn’t always feasible, and even some times when it is possible that doesn’t mean it’s the best idea, because training at high intensities and high volumes all of the time can result in fatigue and injury.

This is why we periodize our training – setting a programme up to have times of differing intensities, volume, exercises and so forth, in order to over-time achieve an end goal of more muscle & strength.

Other forms of progressive overload include: More reps with the same weight, more sets, decreased rest period, increasing the lever length (making the lift harder by being in a more mechanically disadvantageous position) etc.

Like I said I have written a piece on progressive overload which you can check out – but I think what I’ve said here illustrates the point:

If you want to see continued adaptations (aka: muscle gainz), you need to provide an increasing stimulus that tells your body “hey, we need more muscle to handle this demand”, over and over and over again. Just don’t be too keen and get yourself injured – effective programming will lead to effective progress.

Your complete “gaining maximum muscle mass” summary:

What is the most important variable regarding nutrition to see gains in muscle mass?

A calorie surplus.

All other factors regarding nutrition are simply elaborations on this fact. Maximal hypertrophy will require excess calories.

To try and limit unecessary fat gain, I recommend a surplus of around 10% for the majority.
Beginners may want to push 15% as they have more muscle to gain, and more advanced trainees may choose to go as low as 5% (although this may be hard to quantify).

My free calorie calculator here.

My lean bulking article here.

How often should each muscle group be trained per week?

Between 2-3x per week.

This should allow the lifter to capitalise on the fact that muscle protein synthesis falls back to baseline after around 48hours max.

More frequent training also allows for more total volume without annihilating a muscle in a single session.

Training splits to help this include:

3x per week full-body workouts.
4x per week upper/lower split (each completed twice per week).
6x per week push/pull/legs (each completed twice per week).

I would generally recommend a beginner start with a full-body and “progress” to the more split routines which involve higher volume per muscle group.

How much volume should you perform for maximal hypertrophy?

More volume seems to result in more hypertrophy, to an extent.

Beginners generally do not need as much volume, increased risk of injury is not worth the potential for more growth (which may not even exist at this point).

Volume should generally increase as the trainee becomes more advanced.

More split routines (i.e. a pull workout compared to a full body workout) will allow for more volume per muscle per session, which is why they are recommended for more advanced persons.

Roughly 40-70 reps per muscle group per session should be performed, however higher volume may be appropriate for advanced bodybuilders.” – Eric Helms.

What intensity (rep-range) should you train at (with)?

Predominantly the 6-12 rep range (moderate – moderately high intensity).

Higher intensities should definitely be used as well, as they show promise for being better at promoting strength gain whilst resulting in at least the same hypertrophy.

The problem with higher intensity is that it is much harder to reach the necessary amount of volume – as well as increased risk of fatigue & injury when consistently training at a high intensity.

Some lower intensity, higher-rep work should also be utilised too.

Low to high (~3-15) repetitions can be utilized but most repetitions should occur in the 6-12 range using 70-80% of 1 repetition maximum. – Eric Helms.

I’d recommend around ~25% of time is spent in the higher intensity zone (1-5 reps), ~60% of time spent in the moderate intensity zone (6-12 reps) and the remaining ~15% spent in the lower intensity zone (13-25 reps).

What about exercise selection?

Compound movements should be prioritised.

They result in more total body muscle growth/activation for a given amount of time. Beginners especially should focus on compound movements over isolation movements.

These movements should usually be performed at the beginning of a workout when energy levels are highest. Also, the movement/muscle(s) trained at the beginning of a session will likely see the most growth – bear this in mind when programming.

Isolation movements should definitely still be utilized when training for maximum growth, as they provide a greater stress on one particular muscle. Ideal for brining up lagging body-parts and accumulating additional volume.

I’d recommend an advanced lifter utilizes more isolations than a beginner – especially as their routine is likely to be more split up.

Isolation movements would be a good time to do higher rep work and compound movements a good time to do the lower rep (higher intensity) work.

The most important variable for continued muscle growth is...

Progressive overload.

In order to see continued adaptations, the level of “stress” placed on the body must increase gradually over time.

The simplest example of this is getting stronger. 

Other examples include doing more reps, more sets, shorter rest intervals etc.

Volume, intensity etc are the framework for stimulating hypertrophy – in order to see continued gains, progression must occur. This is the most crucial element to hypertrophy/adaptation.

Below is a little infographic from my instagram – be sure to follow me there for more informative content and to follow my own fitness journey – @lukeknightspt.

  References/acknowledgements:

  • [1]  MacDougall JD, et al. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 1995 Dec;20(4):480-6. PubMed PMID:8563679.
  • [2] S. M. Phillips, K. D. Tipton, A. Aarsland, S. E. Wolf, R. R. Wolfe. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism Published 1 July 1997 Vol. 273 no. 1, E99-E107
  • [3] Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. Review. PubMed PMID: 27102172.
  • [4] Eric Helms et al. Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding ContestPreparation: Resistance and Cardiovascular Training. J Sports Med Phys Ftiness 2014 Jul 05
  • [5] Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Gonzalez AM, et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports. 2015;3(8):e12472. doi:10.14814/phy2.12472.
  • [6] Nathan Jones. “The New Approach To Training Volume”. www.strongerbyscience.com
  • [7] Kumar V, Selby A, Rankin D, et al. Age-related differences in the dose–response relationship of muscle protein synthesis to resistance exercise in young and old men. The Journal of Physiology. 2009;587(Pt 1):211-217. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2008.164483.
  • [8] Brad Schoenfeld. Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations? Sports Med (2013) 43:1279–1288

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