Credit: Tim Arndt
Putting on lean muscle mass is a common fitness goal, especially among young men and athletes.  Despite what the magazines may say, gaining quality weight doesn't require any secret formulas or special workouts.  There are several core principles to a muscle gaining program that are easy to implement and won't require you to live in the gym or take expensive supplements.  In this article you will learn the principles behind muscle-building and how to implement them into a weight lifting program. 

Muscle Building Physiology

The stimulus for your muscle growth will come from exercise in the form of weight training.  It's important to understand why this works so that we can maximize this stimulus. When you lift a heavy object, your muscles will develop a "micro-tear" along with partially depleting their immediate supply of ATP, the energy source for human movement. After exercise, the body repairs these tears and replenishes the ATP stores so that the muscle is now larger, more full of energy and stronger.  On a larger scale, intense exercise creates a hormonal response that releases, among other things, testosterone which is a muscle growth signal to the whole body.  The hormonal response is in direct proportion to the amount of muscle exercised and the intensity of the stimulus. 

Exercise Selection

Bodybuilder Training In A Gym
Credit: David Castillo Dominici
Understanding this human biology at a high level helps us build the foundations of a program.  If we are looking to stimulate lots of muscle we should select compound exercises, movements that require multiple joints to move at the same time, as the core of our workouts.  A barbell squat is a classic compound movement that works all the major muscles of the legs, hips and back.  A solid muscle building program will include exercises like the squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-up, military press, row, dip, and lunge. 


Credit: gregoj
In order to get the most out of our workouts, we must use the proper intensity and volume of exercise.  Intensity is controlled by the amount of weight lifted.  Studies have shown that muscle-building is optimally produced at intensities between 70-85% of one rep maximum. As the lifting intensity drops below this level the muscle building response decreases significantly.  If you were to drop too low, 50% or less, then the exercise will have little value in putting on muscle.  Lifting at above 85% will still stimulate muscle growth, but to a lesser extent, as the volume of work you can do at that level of intensity is limited to just a few reps and very short sets.


Having an appropriate amount of lifting volume is the second key to get the muscle building stimulus from exercise.  Volume is determined by the amount sets and repetitions you do in a workout.  There are many ranges that work, but the general rule is to do 3-5 sets of 5-12 repetitions.  Each set getting to within one to two reps of maximum for a set.  For instance, if the max reps you can get on a bench press is 10, you would end the set at 8 or 9, then repeat that set again in 1 to 3 minutes.  Common rep schemes are 5 sets by 5 reps or 3 sets by 10 reps.  

Sample Workout

Man With Dumbbell Weight Training Equipment On Sport Gym
Credit: David Castillo Dominici
A sample workout might look something like this:
  • Barbell back squat
    • Intensity: 75%
    • Sets: 3
    • Reps per Set: 10
  • Military Press
    • Intensity: 80%
    • Sets: 5
    • Reps per set: 5
  • Dumbbell Row
    • Intensity: 75%
    • Sets: 4
    • Reps: 6-10 (depending on feel)
  • Dips with weight
    • Intensity: 80%
    • Sets: 5
    • Reps: 5-8, max reps on last set
  • Walking Lunge w Dumbbells
    • Intensity: 70%
    • Sets: 3 
    • Reps: 10
In general you would rest from 1-3 minutes between each set and exercise.  You should be able to complete every rep of each set otherwise the weight is too heavy or your resting too little between sets. 

A workout like this would cover all of the major muscles in the body and provide a powerful muscle building stimulus.
Following these keys will give you a solid foundation for understanding what you need to be doing to build muscle.  If you select the right exercises, apply the proper intensity, and complete a sufficient amount of volume, then you'll have the elements for a successful program.