Want to build muscle like this guy?
(Leopard print unitard optional but encouraged)
In this guide, we’ll provide step-by-step instructions that will help you start building muscle immediately! Like, today!
That may seem like a lot of topics to cover. DON’T PANIC!
Because gaining muscle and strength really comes down to three things.
If you want to build muscle, get bigger, and become stronger, these are the things you need to do:
- Lift heavy things
- Eat enough calories and protein for your goals
- Get enough rest
I realize doing those three things is much easier said than done – I struggled with progress for a decade and know exactly what you’re going through if you’re feeling unsure.
You probably don’t have years to make the mistakes that I did, and you just want to start getting results today.
In addition to the free resources below, we provide a free bodyweight routine, and a comprehensive gym training routine to get you started with strength training in our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. Grab your guide when you sign up in the box below:
Download our comprehensive guide
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
But enough of that, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to get started with strength training!
How Do You Build Muscle and Strength? Lift Heavy Things
If you are going to build muscle, you’re going to need to lift heavy things.
But what the heck does ‘heavy’ mean in this context? I’m so glad you asked!
Muscle-building is optimized when we perform exercises (bodyweight or weighted) within 1 to 3 reps of failure while maintaining good technique. (i.e. You could do 1 or 2 or 3 more repetitions of the exercise using a specific weight, but not more.) Usually, you’ll repeat this effort for multiple sets targeting multiple muscles in a workout.
That’s what we mean by ‘heavy’ – that you picked the right amount of weight to challenge yourself for the desired number of reps. (We’ll get into exact sets and reps in a bit.) This is the sweet spot where you’re muscles will want to rebuild bigger and stronger than before!
You can target your muscles with a wide variety of exercises. Free weights, machines, and bodyweight exercises are ALL good options as long as you can adhere to the guidelines we laid out above. 
While you can grow muscle using any type of strength-training exercise, having access to a gym with free weights and weight machines makes leveling up your muscle-building game all the easier. Increasing or decreasing the weight used in an exercise is probably the easiest way to get the exact right amount of stimulus your muscles need to grow. (Don’t have access to a gym? Take heart – our bodyweight workout will get you started on the right path.)
Some useful pieces of equipment to look out for:
- Squat rack
- Assortment of weight machines (like a cable pulldown machine)
- A spot to do pull-ups or chin-ups (assisted or unassisted)
- A spot to do dips (assisted or unassisted)
(Want even more ideas on how to find the right gym? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to the Gym for everything you need to know.)
Even having access to a few of these pieces of equipment will help us target an efficient and effective full-body routine to maximize your results.
We’ll show you exactly how to put together a full-body routine with compound exercises that train multiple muscle groups at once. They’re efficient, they create solid growth and stimulation, and they will keep you safe.
To create our full-body routine, each workout will start with one leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and a core exercise:
- Leg Exercises: Squats, Deadlifts, or Lunges
- Push Exercises: Bench Press, Overhead Press, or Dips
- Pull Exercises: Inverted Rows, Pull-Ups, or Chin Ups
- Core Exercises: Reverse Crunches, Hanging Knee Raises, or Planks
When should I add in isolation exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, calf raises, etc.?
You can add these in whenever you want to, though we recommend starting with the workout we laid out above FIRST and getting consistent with that. Muscle-building isn’t just about picking the right exercises and the right weights, it’s about building the habit of working out! If you try to do ALL THE THINGS at the very beginning, you’re increasing the risk that we won’t be able to make the habit stick. So start with compound exercises that give you the biggest bang for your buck, THEN sprinkle in isolation exercises that target your specific areas of need once you’ve got your rhythm. 
What about machines versus free weights? I’ve heard free weights are better…
Not true! (And this is something that we’ve changed our stance on over the years.) If a machine exercise feels safer, is more easily accessible to you, and targets the same muscles – go for it! 
Learn these few exercises, get really good at them, and your entire body will get stronger and bigger. Focus each week on adding more weight to each exercise.
For example, from one week to the next you could do:
- Week 1 Barbell Squat: 3 sets of 5 at 150 lbs.
- Week 2 Barbell Squat: 3 sets of 5 at 155 lbs.
If you do that, you’ve gotten stronger. Then, repeat next week. Eat right, and you’ll get bigger too.
Bottom line: if you want to get bigger muscles, you need to challenge them regularly with exercises that bring the muscle close to failure (1 to 3 reps). To start, we recommend picking big, compound movements that work multiple muscles at a time.
What’s a Sample Routine for Building Muscle?
Using the principles I’ve laid out in my “how to build a workout routine” article, here’s a three-day routine I’ve created for myself recently:
- Monday: Squats, Benchpress, Wide Grip Pull-Ups, Planks
- Wednesday: Deadlift, Overhead Press, Inverted Rows, Hanging Knee Raises
- Friday: Weighted Lunges, Weighted Dips, Weighted Chin-Ups, Reverse Crunches.
Each day has a leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and some core work.
Besides having rest and recovery days in between MWF, adequate rest intervals have been established in the workout itself!
By following the leg exercise, push exercise, pull exercise, and core exercise routine you will maximize rest in-between each exercise, therefore, limiting muscular fatigue and allowing you to perform each strength training exercise to its fullest extent.
I know what you’re thinking: that Steve is very clever.
While it’s possible to build out the perfect routine on your own, many of our Rebels end up spending hours and hours building something custom – only to realize it isn’t what they need (or isn’t effective) weeks and months later for their goals.
For people who want to avoid that altogether, we built the solution – our uber-popular 1-on-1 coaching program pairs you with your own Nerd Fitness Coach who will get to know you, your goals, and your lifestyle, and handcraft a workout plan that’s specific to not only your body, but also to your schedule and life.
Click on the image below to schedule a call with our team to see if we’re a good fit for each other!
How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?
We have a MASSIVE guide on the exact number of sets and reps (it’s where the video above comes from), but you can follow the basics here.
- For beginners, we recommend starting in the 5 – 15 reps range to increase both size and strength. (If you want to focus on more strength than size, stick to the lower end of that range.)
- As you get more advanced, you may find that it’s beneficial to do up to 30 reps of an exercise. (Though 90% of your work will still be in that 5 – 15 rep range.) The biggest drawback to higher rep ranges like this is it can be hard to target specifically that “1 to 3 reps before failure” when the rep count is so high. 
If you get bored, want to change things up, or you’re looking to bust through a plateau, you can do the following:
- This week, I might do 3 sets of 12 reps for each exercise (other than the core exercises), adding enough weight to each exercise so that it’s incredibly taxing.
- Next week, I’ll do four sets for each exercise, adding weight each time and doing less reps.
For example, I’ll do an overhead press in the following sequence:
- 100 pounds: 12 reps
- 105 pounds: 10 reps
- 110 pounds: 8 reps
- 115 pounds: 6 reps
The good news is that no matter which path you take (pure strength, size, or a mix of both), as long as you are adding weight each week – and eating enough – you WILL be getting stronger.
ANY path will work, provided you are progressively overloading your muscles with an increased challenge!
What’s progressive overload?
Coach Jim explains it all for you right here:
Progressive overload involves exerting slightly more effort than last time (lift a heavier weight or do 1 more rep) consistently.
Your muscles will have to adapt and rebuild themselves to get stronger. So in order to see improvements, your training must gradually and constantly increase.
We just have to make sure we get the right pace!
According to Mike Rebold from Hiram College:
Keep in mind that if the overload increases too quickly, poor technique and injury may result. And if the overload progresses too slowly, improvements will be minimal or non-existent.
Slowly but gradually increasing your challenge could look like:
- If you do 5 sets of 5 squats at 140 pounds this week, aim for 5 sets of 5 of 145 pounds next week.
- Or if you’re doing 3 sets of 10 at 100 pounds, then next week try for 3 sets of 10 at 105 pounds.
Get stronger, which is 20% of the puzzle. The other 80% is nutrition (which I cover later)!
As I said before, if you want even more info, you can head to our article “Determining the Correct Number of Reps and Sets” for a deep dive into the subject.
Any Other Muscle Training and Weight-Lifting Tips?
#1) Warm-up before exercising – don’t walk into a gym, slap 45-pound plates on the bar, and then start your routine.
Get your heart rate up and muscles warm first by doing a dynamic warm-up of jumping jacks, lunges, bodyweight squats, hip raises, push-ups, leg swings, jumps, etc.
After that, always start with doing a set or two of lifting JUST THE BAR. Only then should you start adding weight for some warm-up sets before moving into your work sets.
#2) Have a focused form – if you’re doing a bodyweight squat incorrectly, you might develop bad habits.
However, if you do a barbell squat incorrectly with 405 pounds on your shoulders, you could do some serious damage. If you’re just starting out, check your ego at the door: start with a VERY light weight and make sure you are doing the exercise properly.
There is NO SHAME in starting with just the bar. You can always add more weight next week if this week is too easy.
#3) Stimulate, don’t annihilate – I try to always have one more rep left when I finish a set.
Some trainers will preach working your muscles to annihilation, but I think that’s just asking for an injury, poor form, and beyond-sore muscles.
Your muscles get built while resting, not in the gym, so don’t worry about destroying them completely each day you step in the gym – it’s not worth it.
#4) Change up the time between sets – if you’re doing 3 sets of 5 reps of a really heavy weight, it’s okay to wait 3-5 minutes between sets – you’re focusing on pure strength here.
If you’re doing sets in the 8-12 range, try to keep the time between sets around a minute or so. This will affect your muscles in different ways. The most important thing is to rest long enough that you can give the same level of effort as you did in the previous set.
For more, learn all about sets and rep ranges.
Just be consistent between sets and when doing the same workout between weeks to track your progress.
#5) Don’t overdo it – More does not mean better in weightlifting. You don’t need to spend two hours in the gym, you don’t need to do 15 different kinds of chest exercises.
My routines last no longer than 45 minutes, I only do three or four sets (after warm-up sets) for each exercise, and it’s enough to stimulate muscle growth. I only need to add more if my growth plateaus or stops, and before I do that I make sure my intensity, diet, and recovery are dialed in FIRST. 
Three workouts a week is a great place for most to start – we’ve had clients build muscle on anywhere from 2 days a week to 4 days a week using a full-body routine like this! You need to give your muscles time to regrow bigger – remember muscles are made in the kitchen!
Less is often more – just make your routines really intense and exhausting.
#6) Write down everything – Keep a training journal, and write down exactly how many sets and reps you did for every exercise.
That way, you can compare how you did this time with how you did last time. You’ll know how much more you need to lift this week to make sure you’re stronger than last week.
#7) Follow a routine, have a plan. The best thing you can do is have a plan to follow and stick with it!
HOw Many Calories Should I Eat To Gain Muscle (and Which Supplements)
If you’re skinny and trying to bulk up, this will be 90% of the battle.
If you’ve been lifting weights for a while “but can’t seem to gain weight,” then you are not eating enough – it’s that simple.
I thought I was one of those people who just could never gain weight…and then I learned it was all diet, started eating 4,000 calories a day, and I put on 18 pounds in 30 days.
Yeah, I wanted to throw up from always eating along with three Muscle Milk shakes a day, but it worked.
Looking back I would have done things differently, but after 6 years of exercising without putting on any weight, it was great to see so much progress in such a short period of time.
4,000 calories sounds freaking insane, right? I know.
It makes eating a full-time job.
You’ll always either cooking, eating, or cleaning up after yourself.
But if you really want to get bigger and you’re struggling to do so, then all of your effort is going to have to go into eating more, eating healthier, and eating ALL THE TIME.
I’ve since changed my strategies and gotten much more calculated in my approach. It’s how I (jokingly) went from Steve Rogers to Captain America.
Here are the key elements for weight gain:
PART #1: Eat More – To gain weight, you’re going to need to seek a calorie surplus (i.e., hypercaloric diet). This can be achieved by consuming an additional 250-500 kcal/day or 10-20% above your typical diet.
You can get an estimate of how much you need to eat to just MAINTAIN your weight in our free calculator here.
When I first realized I wasn’t eating enough, I did it the hard way and just started adding in anything I could.
- Protein shakes
This is how I went from 162-180 pounds in 30 days. I’m not proud of how I ate, but it produced results and I remained healthy and strong.
PART #2: Eat enough protein – With all the hard training you’re doing, you want to not only gain weight but make sure your body has the resources to turn as much of that weight as possible into muscle.
That’s why we put together this handy protein calculator for you – so you can maximize your gains! For most people, targeting between 0.7-1.0g/lb of bodyweight gets you in the optimal muscle-building range.
If you’re not used to eating a lot of protein, that can be a struggle! Never fear we have more resources for you. In our Protein 101 Guide, we talk about sources of protein and simple ways to include more in your diet. Protein shakes can be another way to quickly and easily boost your protein intake.
“Which Supplements Should I Take to Build Muscle Quickly?”
As we lay out in our Nerd Fitness Supplement Guide, most supplements are a waste of money and completely unnecessary for building muscle.
However, there are two supplements that CAN BE helpful in building muscle quickly:
- Protein Shakes: If you are struggling to hit your protein and calorie intake goals for the day, adding in a high-calorie protein shake can be a game-changer.
- Creatine Supplements: Creatine helps your muscles retain water and can improve your performance, allowing you to push harder, for longer, in the gym.
Are you vegan and trying to build muscle? Read our full article on how to go plant-based properly!
Bottom line: If you don’t see any change, then you need to eat more.
- Yes, it will feel excessive.
- Yes, you will feel full all the time.
- Yes, it’s a pain in the ass and expensive.
But if you really want to be bigger, then you are going to need to really dedicate yourself in the kitchen.
Unless you’re a genetic mutant, it’s incredibly tough to build muscle and strength without overloading your system with calories and nutrients.
Just keep eating.
Won’t All of This Eating Make Me Fat? I Don’t Want to Get Bulky.
I get this question all the time in emails, usually from guys who are 6 feet tall and 130 pounds.
Don’t worry, if you can’t gain weight now, putting on extra weight is going to be great for you.
Yes, you will put on SOME fat along with the muscle you’re building if you’re running a calorie surplus.
This is why picking the right amount of calories per day is important:
- If you can build muscle at 3,000 calories, but you’re eating 4,000 calories, you’ll put on a pound or two of fat per week along with your muscle.
- However, if you need to eat 4,000 calories to build muscle and you’re only eating 3,000, you won’t see any changes.
Everybody is different, so you need to experiment and find out what works best for you.
Once you get to your desired weight (actually, aim for about 10-15 pounds heavier than your goal weight), you can scale back the calories, add in some extra sprints to the end of your workout, and keep lifting heavy – the muscle will remain, the fat will disappear, and you’ll be left with the body you want.
I’m not skinny, I need to LOSE weight – what’s different for me?
As Coach Matt explains above, you can actually build muscle and lose body fat at the same time.
You just have to be careful about how you do it.
We cover the subject in depth in the post, “Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?”
This gist goes like this:
If you are eating enough protein, and have decent fat stores to pull from for energy needs, you can build muscle even while in a caloric deficit.
As long as you are resting (next section) and strength training (previous section), you can shed body fat while still putting on muscle.
Now, this only works if you have plenty of fat stores to pull from. Once you start to lean out a little, you’ll likely have to increase your calories to start putting on more muscle.
I recently added some strength (and muscle) while losing 22 pounds in 6 months.
Just remember, you can build muscle while losing weight if you:
- Sustain a caloric deficit
- Lift heavy
- Prioritize protein
Let’s talk about that last one for a bit.
Rest Days for Building Muscle and Strength
As Coach Jim mentions in the video above, if you’re skinny and trying to bulk up and build muscle, avoid cardio like the plague (also avoid the plague).
Take a look at the best marathon runners in the world, and compare their physique to somebody like Usain Bolt, the best sprinter in the world – tons of muscle, power, and a body to envy.
There’s nothing wrong with EITHER body – we’re all awesome and are special and blah blah blah.
But you’re reading an article about how to build muscle fast, right? So focus all of your effort on building muscle!
You want all the calories you’re consuming to go towards “building muscle,” and not “fuel my run.”
I will admit that I’m biased against chronic cardio, but mostly because it bores me!
You can be far more effective when you focused on getting stronger and only do ‘cardio’ on things you enjoy – after all, your success will largely depend on your nutrition, NOT your cardio!
Personally, I spend three days a week in the gym, with each workout clocking in at 45 minutes.
I go for long walks on my off days along with a day of sprints to stay active, but I know that my muscles get built while I’m resting, not when I’m working out.
I really focus in on my workouts to make them as exhausting as possible, and then I give my body ample time to recover (while eating enough calories to produce a surplus).
If you’re lifting heavy, and eating enough, make sure you’re also getting enough sleep! 5-6 hours a night isn’t going to cut it – you need to get at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal muscle-building. Take naps too if you have the opportunity.
Sleep needs to become a priority, because while we’re asleep, growth hormone, a hormone responsible for regulating muscle growth is released.
If you’re a big guy/girl trying to slim down, a little extra cardio might speed up your fat loss but if you’re not eating correctly, it might result in losing some of the muscle you already have.
Don’t worry about going for 10 mile runs on your off days – do 20-30 minutes of intervals or go run hill sprints in your park. The weight will come off more slowly, but you’ll only be losing fat, not fat AND muscle.
Once you hit your goal weight and the target amount of muscle mass, I’d recommend adding back in some cardio for your overall conditioning, but keep it varied (sprints and intervals). The focus is to keep building explosive muscle and not long, slow, boring muscle.
If you love going for long runs and aren’t going to give that up, I’m not gonna stop you. Just know that the long hours of cardio will severely inhibit your progress on building strength and size.
Get Started Building Muscle Today
This is a basic overview to get ya started. It really boils down to a few major things:
- Lift heavy
- Eat lots of good food
Simple to understand, tough to implement.
Trust me, I know – I’ve been battling this for the past decade.
If you made it this far, and you want more specific instruction, here’s how Nerd Fitness can help!
If you are somebody that wants to follow a tailor-made program designed to build muscle and grow strong, check out our popular 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program.
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
PS: Be sure to check out the rest of our Strength Training 101 series:
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