For beginners, there are a few really big mistakes that occur when it comes to building muscle. Hardly anyone ever gets started on the right foot, at least initially.
For many, a first attempt to build muscle means thumbing through the latest bodybuilding magazine and picking the 6-day body part split being promoted by the cover model.
The problem with this approach is that these routines for building muscle (aka hypertrophy) are far too advanced and unnecessary for the budding beginner and most won’t need a routine like that for a long time, if ever to reach their muscle building goals.
So here’s the JCDFitness Muscle Building Guide For Beginners, by JC Deen and Jordan Syatt.
Focus On Strength Training
First you want to learn the basic compound movements. We’re talking about Squats, Deadlifts, Chin-ups, Bench and Overhead pressing, Rows, Dips. Building muscle is a product of strength training, and progressive overload (more on this in a bit).
Pick A Great Strength Training Program
- Starting Strength – this is the popular strength routine by Mark Rippetoe where you’re squatting and pressing 3x per week.
- JCDFitness Beginner Routine – In my routine, you’re training 3x per week, full body each time. Check out the JCDFitness Beginners Routine.
- Syatt Beginner’s Routine – In Jordan’s routine, you’re training 3-4 times per week using an upper/lower split. Check out the Syatt Fitness Beginners Routine.
Focus on Progressive Overload
Progressive overload simply means you are doing more work over time. Building muscle is a result of continually adding weight to the bar, adding reps or reducing rest periods.
If you aren’t getting stronger or improving your work capacity, you’re likely not going to build muscle mass.
How Long Does It Take?
Nothing worth having ever comes easy. We recommend committing to your training and muscle building efforts for at least 6-12 months.
- It’s possible to make 20-25lb gains in muscle within the first year of training if your workout program doesn’t suck. (about half of this can be achieved for females). Ladies, see our guide: How To Build Muscle for Women.
- After the initial 6 months to a year, you’ll likely be classified as an intermediate lifter. At this point, recovery from session to session is not as easy as it used to be. Building muscle will slow down considerably after your initial muscle mass and strength gains.
- For the love of Moses, don’t jump from program to program. Stick with what’s working until it no longer works anymore. Don’t develop program ADD, as you’ll not make the progress you wish for.
- While it’s not entirely possible to build muscle and lose weight for most people, beginners may experience this as they simultaneously burn body fat and build muscle mass. Just understand that it won’t last forever. This is also known as ‘Newbie Gains’ or ‘The Newbie Effect.’
How To Eat For Muscle Gain – 4 Principles
1. You Must Eat A Caloric Surplus – Without providing enough calories to build muscle, you can forget reaching your goals altogether. A good starting point is 16-18 calories multiplied by your body weight to create the calorie surplus. If you’re not gaining weight, you must increase your intake. Gaining 3-4 pounds per month is a good gauge of progress
2. Eat Enough Protein – Protein is essential to the muscle building process. Studies show anywhere from .8 grams all the way up to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight is sufficient for muscle gain. Starting off with 1x body weight in pounds is a good place to start.
Here’s a Small List of Protein Sources
- Protein Powder
3. Consume Plenty of Carbohydrate Rich Food and Fat From Whole Sources – Carbohydrates are important for providing the energy you need to train, and to recover. We put most of our clients on higher carbs when building muscle is the main goal.
Here’s a Small List of Carbohydrate Sources
- Starchy Veggies (potatoes, corn)
Don’t Skimp On Fat – make sure your diet is anywhere from 15-30% comprised of fats.
Here’s a Small List of Fat Sources
- Whole Eggs (yolk is good for you)
- Fish (salmon, and other fatty sources)
- Fatty Meat (beef, lamb, duck)
- Whole-fat Dairy
- Olive Oil
- Nuts and Nut Butters
4. Have a Pre and Post-Workout Meal
(1-3 hours before training)
25-40g Protein (any source is fine)
25-40g Carbohydrate (any source is fine)
10-15g Fat (usually trace amounts from food)
(Within 90 minutes after training)
30-50g Protein minimum* (whey, dairy, animal)
30-50g Carbohydrate minimum* (we like some fruit and then starch)
10-15g Fat (usually trace amounts from food)
*We mention minimum because you can eat much more than this if you’d like and if it fits within your macronutrient goals for the day. Jordan and I tend to train and eat later in the day, so we save a lot of calories for our post workout meal – sometimes upwards of 100g protein and 200-300g of carbs. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many meals you eat, as long as you get some food around training and hit your macros for the day.
How Do We Calculate Our Macronutrients?
Note: Kcal = calories
Bodyweight x 1 = grams of protein
20-25% Total Kcal Intake
Remainder of calories
Step 1: (g of Protein x 4) + (g of Fat x 9)
Step 2: (Total Kcals – Answer)/4 = Total Carb
Example intake for a 175lb Male
Total Kcal: 175 x 18 = 3150 Kcal/day
Protein: 175 x 1 = 175g Protein/day
Fats: (.25 x 3150)/9 = 88g Fat/day
Step 1: (175 x 4) + (88 x 9) = 1492
Step 2: (3150 – 1492)/4 = 415g Carbs/day
*females should start at the lower end (15-16x bw)* For more on female training for muscle gain, check out How To Build Muscle for Women.
Keep A Food and Training Log!
The best way to make sure you’re building muscle and getting stronger is by tracking your results. Unsure of how to accurately track your macros and calories? Simple, read the No-BS Calorie Counting Guide.
- Nutrition – Make sure you’re eating enough nutrients to support your muscle building goals by tracking your intake of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Use the calculations above and make sure to hit those numbers daily.
- Training – Track every workout and aim to beat the logbook. If you benched 135 pounds for 3 sets of 5 last workout, aim for 140 pounds during the next workout
Rest, Recovery and Off-Day Activities
It’s important to take time away from the gym. We build muscle when we’re resting and recuperating, not necessarily while we’re in the gym.
Here are a few activities that are acceptable for your off-days.
- Foam rolling and other forms of myofascial release
- Mobility Drills
- Brisk Walking (30-60 minutes a day can be helpful in minimizing fat gain)
Jordan and I highly recommend you stay away from high intensity cardio (such as sprints, HIIT workouts and intense cycling) on your off days.
Simply because if you’re training how you should be on the weights, you’re already doing 3 high intensity training sessions per week. Adding more training in the form of HIIT will likely cut into your recovery and could limit the muscle gains you’re seeking.
Understand We All Have A Genetic Potential and Limitations
You Must Be Realistic With Your Muscle Building Expectations
The most coveted physiques are built over many years, not months. No one ever gets his or her training and nutrition right from the start. We all screw up, get injured, get off track, or something just gets in the way. It takes time, but the process is worth the time spent.
Casey Butt, fitness researcher, has done extensive work on the subject and there seems to be a limit to how much muscle we can carry naturally (without the assistance of pro-hormones or anabolic steroids). If you have an interest in this subject, check out his book, Your Muscular Potential (not an affiliate link). I have it, and it’s a great read.
While supplements are not necessary, they may provide various benefits while attempting to achieve your muscle building goals.
Protein powder is in no way, shape, or form essential. However, some individuals find it difficult to eat a sufficient amount of protein (at least 1g/lb of body weight) through whole foods alone. In this case, supplementing with protein powders may be beneficial in helping you reach your daily quota.
In addition to numerous other benefits, Vitamin D is essential for the metabolism and absorption of calcium which is of the utmost importance during weight training. If you regularly get 30+ minutes of direct sunlight or go tanning you likely won’t need to supplement with Vitamin D. However, if you are not consistently getting direct sunlight, supplementing with Vitamin D may be in your best interest.
Fish Oil has so many benefits. Not only has fish oil been associated with reduced inflammation, lower body fat, and overall better health and longevity, but fish oil has also been shown to have a significant role in muscle growth and development. Unless your diet includes a great deal of fish you would do well to supplement with fish oil.
Like Vitamin D, it’s crucial in maintaining adequate bone health. If your diet includes dairy you probably do not need to supplement with calcium. However, if you are lactose intolerant or don’t eat a lot of calcium-rich foods, using a calcium supplement may be in your best interest.
This is perhaps the most extensively studied training supplement on the market. It is safe and in certain individuals has been shown to markedly improve strength. While a decent percentage of people are non-responders, others experience fantastic results. It is by no means necessary but supplementing with Creatine may enhance performance.
So there you have it – The Ultimate Muscle Building Guide for Beginners.