This post is going to be about the best way to gain muscle mass.
If you don’t know yet, I am a natural bodybuilder, that fell in love with weight training from an early age (you can read my story here).
In over 25 years of an active practicing of bodybuilding, I haven’t found any other better way to gain muscle mass than natural bodybuilding.
Although I have never even tried to take steroids in order to maximize my results, I know that this path will not bring any significant long-term results and it is just a complete waste of time and money.
If you understand this too and look for a lucrative method that will help you to gain muscle mass, here are my tips that I have gathered in all these years of researching and testing what works best in the world of natural bodybuilding.
Tip #1. Use the 3 Pylons of Bodybuilding in CONJUNCTION
Bodybuilding (or muscle building) is not just regular training. Training is only a piece of the mosaic. Only a small part of it. Proper training is not worth a penny if there is no proper nutrition and recovery.
If your goal is to build muscle, remember, it is not possible to accomplish without the 3 main pylons (training, nutrition, and recovery).
These 3 pylons give real results only when they are applied in conjunction. Separately – no, only in conjunction!
To elaborate a little more on this, let’s examine the following situations:
If you consume proper nutrition for muscle growth, but you are not performing your workout, guess what result you will get? Muscle growth? No. Excess fat? Yes!
After all, the purpose of training is to trigger future muscle growth, but the realization of muscle growth itself depends on nutrition and recovery.
If you properly perform your workout, but not eat enough and healthy food, you will not see any muscle growth because your organism needs a sufficient amount of nutrients (proteins, carbs, fats, and water) for healing “damaged” by training muscle tissue and their subsequent growth.
If you eat enough healthy food and exercise accordingly, but you don’t rest (sleep) a sufficient amount of time, instead, partying all nights or working night shifts, for example.
In this case, unfortunately, you will not see any muscle gains simply because muscle grow when you are resting (sleeping). If there is no rest, there will be no muscle growth!
If you work out properly and rest sufficiently, but not eat enough nutrients, again, there will be no muscle growth because nutrients for our muscles are like bricks for buildings construction.
Without bricks, it is impossible to construct a building, tight? The same is with nutrients, they are essential for muscle growth.
To conclude, these 3 pylons give results only when they go hand in hand, together. If you can understand this, the remaining part of the process is easy to accomplish!
Tip #2. Duration of The Strength Training
The strength training duration for a natural bodybuilder should not exceed 45 minutes. If you train for longer than 45 minutes, you will only harm yourself, directly destroying your own muscles.
Here, your goal is to pump them up, and with a long training session, on the contrary, you are depriving yourself of this opportunity by destroying them.
Therefore, training should be short, 30-35-40-45 minutes, not longer, this is an extremely important factor.
Tip #3. Use Compound Exercises – Forget About Isolating Exercises
Give preference only to the best exercises for muscle growth, that were already tested and proven to bring real results.
These are basically compound, multi-joint exercises. It is best to perform not more than five exercises per workout.
Forget about isolating exercises, there is no sense in performing isolating exercises and you will not get any result with them.
There is a very simple explanation to this: an isolated exercise loads only one specific muscle and the mechanics of these movements are not sufficient to stimulate the growth of muscles.
Tip #4. Perform a Warming Up Approaches (Sets)
Before we dive deeper into this tip, I would like to tell the youngest readers of my blog, what exactly an approach is? And the difference between the approach and repetitions, just in case.
So, repetition is when you started to do the exercises and count how many times you performed the movement.
The approach (it is a series, a shortened set) is when you have completed the required number of repetitions and completed the movement.
For example, you did 10 barbell lifts to the biceps and put it down – this is 1 approach (series), which means that you made 1 set in 10 reps.
If you rest for 1 minute and repeat everything again (that is, do 10 repetitions and put down the bar), this will be the second approach. Thus, you have already done approaches or sets.
If you do not want to get hurt and say goodbye to bodybuilding for a long time, you will have to perform warm-up approaches. Our muscles and joints should be warmed up before hard strength exercises in the gym.
So whoever tells you that cool fighters do not warm-up, don’t believe them, any conscious athlete is warming up when working with huge weights.
Tip #5. Apply a Golden Middle Way in Terms of Sets Number
How many approaches do you need to complete per training? how many approaches do you need to do for each muscle group, so that there is a maximum benefit in the form of muscle growth?
The questions are very confusing, misinformation is everywhere … some people believe that 1-2 approaches will be enough, another say 5-6 is necessary.
There are athletes for who 1-2 approaches are enough, but for others, performing even 5 approaches will not be sufficient.
This happens, in my opinion, because of genetics and psychology. For some athletes, it is psychologically easier to tune in and perform one but a qualitative approach, instead of 5, but made, let’s say, anyhow.
Usually, I notice this among advanced athletes, because beginners are just not capable yet for such manifestation.
Personally, I performed both the maximum and the minimum number of approaches, after which I decided to stop at the golden mean.
My golden mean is represented by 3-4 working approaches, after 2-3 warming up in the first exercise (which is quite enough for a warm-up).
Let’s see how it looks in practice in the bench press lying on a horizontal bench.
For example, your working weight is 80 KG and you perform 8 sets (approaches).
So, the golden mean looks like this:
♥ Warm-up with an Empty Bar 20 KG (always start with an empty bar);
♥ Warm-up with 40 KG X 12 Reps;
♥ Warm-up with 60 KG X 10 Reps;
♥ Warm-up with 70 KG X 8 Reps;
♥ The First Working Approach – 80 KG X 6-12 Reps;
♥ The Second Working Approach – 80 KG X 6-12 Reps;
♥ The Third Working Approach – 80 KG X 6-12 Reps.
As you can see, warm-up approaches are done with low weights and bigger amount of repetitions. This is done in order to prepare your muscles for the maximum weight in your workout.
After this, follows, a working approach, which is the most important.
As a rule, when you are still fresh and full of energy, in the 1st working approach, you should try to regularly increase working weights (to progress the load).
The second working approach stimulates the development of the muscle, it is also a strength approach, the only thing worth noting here that most likely, you can not do the same number of repetitions as in the first, because your muscles are already tired.
And finally, the third working approach: here it is more than likely that you will make even fewer repetitions than in the previous (second approach).
Further, I think that in the following exercises on the chest, it is not necessary to perform warm-up approaches because our muscles are already warmed up and even more than tired.
But, if you feel what you need (just in case, so to speak), then one will be enough.
Why It is Important to Perform Several Working Approaches (Sets)?
For a newbie athlete, it is difficult to achieve returns from one approach in the exercise. Moreover, this is hardly possible for even more advanced athletes.
This happens because you still can not feel very well your muscles, you simply can’t make them work as they should. That is why in several approaches you have a chance, unlike in one.
Only professional bodybuilders are capable of such a return, but even they never perform so few approaches, because they often train according to highly intensive schemes.
Tip #6. Apply the Golden Middle Way In Terms of Number of Repetitions
How many repetitions it is best to perform in each exercise?
There are plenty of different opinions regarding that, someone believes that it is good to complete big number of repetitions (like 20, 30, 40), others recommend a smaller amount (6, 8, 10), while others think that even smaller number of repetitions (3, 6) is quite enough.
So, who is right, who is wrong?
Have you noticed that during the execution of repetitions in the approach, with each repetition, you lost the energy needed for further completing of the repetitions?
Most probably, you think that the first repetitions are much easier to do than the last ones, because in the beginning you still have strengths, but in the end, you don’t (or there are very few).
The fact is that muscle strength has nothing to do with that because what you lose is energy that falls below such a level, where you are not able to perform at least one more repetition.
In bodybuilding, this is called “muscle failure”, when we can not anymore raise weights on our own.
This is an extremely important thing to understand that, specifically, the depletion of energy during repetition (when the muscles are actively working) causes microtraumas, which later (with proper nutrition and rest) recover and begin to grow.
Therefore, if muscles work actively, energy is lost (it is depleted, i.e. there is an increased energy expenditure). So at this very moment, our body begins the synthesis of new energy.
There are two ways in which the synthesis of new energy in the body could be accomplished:
- glycolysis for fast fibers;
- oxidation for slow fiber.
Since we are bodybuilders, we should aim for the first method because glycolysis allows us to perform a long-term approach (for example, with a duration of 1 minute).
The second method is appropriate for a very long aerobic load and we know that muscles do not grow from aerobics.
If we are bodybuilders and our goal is to increase muscle growth, then we want to perform our approach during a maximum of 30 seconds.
Because when there is an increased energy expenditure during the exercise and then, when the body begins to create new energy using the 1st method, i.e. glycolysis, there will be no microtraumas created after 30 seconds has passed.
In consequence, you want to perform your set (approach) in the first 30 seconds – this is the interval of time when microtraumas are created.
The best evidence that you got microtraumas is muscle failure, that is when you can no longer perform another repetition.
So, if you do not achieve this within the first 30 seconds and exit beyond this time interval, you will not get any microtraumas.
And if there are no microtraumas, there is nothing to be restored, which means there will also be no muscle growth.
Now, let’s answer our question: how many repetitions it is best to perform in one set?
The truth is that no matter how many repetitions you do (4-6 repetitions, or 8-10, or 20-30), the numbers are individual for everyone because the speed of these repetitions in the approach is not taken into account.
We all do our sets at our own pace, right? Each of us has its own style, someone has a fast pace of repetition, someone slow (controlled), someone average, it is all purely individual.
The most important thing here is the time we spend under load and this time shouldn’t exceed 30 seconds from the moment that you have started your set.
In other words, you want to do so many repetitions in the approach that will allow you to achieve muscle failure in the range of the first 30 seconds.
For example, when I perform an exercise on the quadriceps, let’s say squats with a barbell during this time (30 seconds), I will get no more than 8-10 repetitions, and someone, having a fast pace, will manage to perform 12-15 repetitions during this amount of time, someone, in general, could do 20 and more repetitions.
It is in this time interval you must achieve muscle failure, otherwise the approach is not counted because there will be no microtraumas, and therefore, will be no subsequent growth either.
That is, no matter how many repetitions you do, it is important to perform the repetitions and manage to achieve muscle failure within the first 30 seconds of your set.
Tip #7. Apply the Golden Middle Way In Terms of Rest Time Between Sets
This is another important aspect to consider if you want to achieve considerable results in muscle building. First of all, the amount of time that you rest between sets determines the duration of your whole workout.
Ideally, one strength training workout for natural bodybuilders shouldn’t exceed 40-45 minutes. In some cases, for example, when you do your leg workout, the duration of the workout may be extended up to one hour but not more.
This doesn’t apply for people that take steroid drugs, they could train longer.
Secondly, the duration of rest between sets also determines the amount of work performed per training session.
For example, you used to do 4 exercises of 3 sets in each, in 40 minutes, and if you reduce the rest time, you will be able to complete 4 exercises, but 5 approaches, in the same 40 minutes.
Increasing the amount of work per training session is one of the ways to load progression. In turn, if you don’t increase loads of your workouts as time goes by and you become more and more experienced, there will be little to no muscle growth.
Alternate Loads with Rest Time
All loads in bodybuilding are repeated after a certain amount of rest time because this method is used to more strongly influence the trained function.
Therefore, the rest is an integral part of the training process. Here are some basic rules of rest time in bodybuilding:
Rule #1. Sufficiency
Rest should be sufficient to restore strength so that you can repeat the following approach at a sufficient level of power.
Rule #2. Decrease Of Lactic Acid in the Muscles
Rest should provide a decrease in the concentration of lactic acid in the muscles so that the muscle can again develop the maximum rate of energy expenditure.
That is why each subsequent approach is less effective than the previous one, in view of the gradual decrease in the power of contraction due to the residual accumulation of acidic metabolic products in the muscle.
A complete withdrawal of lactic acid from the muscle is ensured only after a few hours after exercise, but only a few minutes are enough to significantly reduce the concentration of lactic acid in the muscle.
That is why a classic rest between approaches in bodybuilding is considered to be no more than 1, a maximum of 2 minutes. Ideally, as you train and get more and more experienced, rest should be reduced and shortened, reaching up to 30 seconds.
During this time (1-2 minutes), the lactic acid, of course, will not be completely eliminated but will be reduced to such a level that will let you make the next approach at your full potential (at a sufficient power level).
The advantages of this period of rest time also lie in the fact that you are working on gaining muscle mass and increasing endurance at the same time.
Rule #3. Rest Time According to The Muscle Group
Rest time is not equal for all exercises and all muscle groups.
The more effort an exercise requires, the more rest is required (these are, for the most part, compound multi-joint movements, such as barbell squats, deadlift, leg press in the simulator, pull-ups, etc., in general, very hard exercises).
The less effort the exercise requires the less rest you need. For the most part, these are isolating movements, but compound exercises are not excluded.
There are basic movements, for example, lifting the barbell to the biceps (in fact, it involves only one joint, elbow). Therefore, the exercise is not so difficult, but it is generally considered a compound exercise.
Exercises that are not difficult to perform (for example, the extension of the arms at the block, calf standing in the simulator/calf sitting, etc.) shouldn’t require a long time of rest.
In terms of muscle groups, chest, back, and legs require more rest time, and such muscles as shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, shins require less rest time.
All this is a guideline for the initial and intermediate level of athletes.
I would like to say a few words for professional athletes too, although they may already know this just due to their level of physical activity.
Professionals, advanced athletes, those who train seriously, they can switch the reference point of 1-2 minutes, and try the very unsafe method of load progression in the form of an increase in the amount of work performed during a workout.
The essence of this progression is that you increase the total volume for a workout over the same period of time. For example, if before you did 5 exercises, each exercise had 3 approaches, i.e. 15 sets per workout and the time of the workout was 40 minutes.
If you decide to use this method of load progression, you are already should be doing not 5 exercises, but for example 6, and not 3 approaches, but 5 each, as a result, you have got not 15 approaches for training, but 30, while the time of your workout remained the same 40 min (as it was, this is very important).
I want to emphasize here that this method is appropriate only for the experienced athletes and even they should move towards this method very, very slowly and gradually decreasing the amount of rest time between sets even under 1 minute (for example, 45 seconds).
This is something that could be trained not in months, but in years amount of time and this is how exactly pro bodybuilders do.
What is The Case Of Longer Periods Of Rest Time?
If you hear that somebody is practicing longer periods of rest time (like 3-5 minutes), these guys are having as their main goal not muscle growth, but an increase of muscle strength.
If you train to increase strength indicators (or strength), then some muscle growth, in any case, will be inevitable because strength and muscle growth go hand in hand.
When people talk about an increase in strength, they usually mean an increase in the maximum in one repetition of an exercise.
In this case, it is effective to use the maximum or almost maximum weights in your workouts (this is already more about powerlifting than bodybuilding).
Such approaches usually require a long rest period, usually between 3-5 minutes.
Tip #8. Use Micro-Periodization
Micro-periodization is the alternation of hard strength workouts with light strength workouts week after week. Why is this important to apply in natural bodybuilding?
Well, because micro-periodization ideally converges with all phases starting from destruction and ending with super-compensation (i.e. muscle growth).
To make things simpler, I will try to show how muscle growth works:
First is the destruction phase of muscle cells that occurs during training.
This is the shortest phase lasting 40-45 minutes (as I have mentioned above, strength workouts in natural bodybuilding usually do not exceed 40-45 minutes).
Next is the restore phase to the initial level. This phase occurs after training, to the initial level. By the initial level, I mean the state that was before the training (before muscle destruction).
The time of this phase is very individual because it depends on the destruction severity of muscle cells, muscle size, level of physical activity, genetics, your regime, etc.
Finally, the growth phase starts after the recovery phase, approximately within 1 week.
This, in turn, means that it is not correct to apply constantly heavy training (the only exception may be macro-periodization (when for months, heavy training is applied, that is alternated with months of light training).
When you constantly apply hard training for a long time, most likely that you will face an interruption in muscle growth, even with proper nutrition and 8+ hour sleep.
And the phase of growth loss will occur if you have missed training for a too long time, thereby holding the growth phase under the initial level.
Tip #9. Use Load Progression During Your Hard Training Week
Without progression of the load, muscle growth is impossible in principle. Progress in bodybuilding lies in muscle growth.
If nothing changes from training to training, the load does not change, there is no progression at all in your workouts, then why should muscles change?
If you want to practice natural bodybuilding, it is extremely important to include a load progression and it is very, very important to apply it specifically during your hard training week.
Why it is so much important to do this during a hard training week? The fact is that any progression of the load (for example, an increase in weights) should take place specifically at the growth phase. Not before, not after, but exactly at the time of the growth phase.
Tip #10. Pay Attention to Exercise Execution Technique
If you want to see real muscle growth, you will want to constantly work on the improvement of the exercise execution technique.
It is completely normal that when you first start out with your strength training, you still don’t know how to execute the exercises correctly. This will improve with time, as you train more and more.
Tip #11. Develop Connection Between Brain and Muscles
This is called neuromuscular connection and it works very well in conjunction with tip #10. These two are extremely important due to the fact that they greatly accelerate muscle growth (make it much more effective and fast).
The mental connection brain-muscle is the link between the brain, nervous system and muscle.
This is a step-by-step process, which proceeds as follows: every time you lift some kind of weight (barbell or dumbbell or work out somewhere on the simulator), your movement starts with the fact that your brain consciously directs a signal into your muscles, causing them to pull or push in a certain direction.
This signal is sent to the muscles through the central nervous system, and when the muscles receive this signal, they respond to it by starting to pull or push – just as the brain tells them.
Signals from the brain to the muscles are transmitted in the form of nerve impulses.
The strength of each nerve impulse, the total number of nerve impulses and the frequency with which impulses are transmitted from the brain to the muscles, is the most important factor that determines what effort you can develop in a particular movement (exercise).
Usually, it takes from 3 to 5 months to develop the mental brain-muscle connection) and during that time, of course, you want to constantly work out in the gym.
It is always better to start with the development of this connection from the very beginning of your path to natural bodybuilding.
If you don’t do this, sooner or later you will ask yourself, why I am not seeing any result in muscle growth?
Hopefully, you will start to look for answers and in the end, you will find your reasons, which is completely fine.
But, at the same time, this also means that you will find yourself already spent a couple of months, uselessly exercising in the gym.
That is why I am saying that it is best to start developing this special connection between brain and muscles in your very first days of exercise.
Tip #12. Avoid Aerobic Loads
Any aerobic activities (like running, swimming, walking, basketball, football, volleyball, cycling, stepper, exercise bike, etc.) will negatively affect muscle growth, especially in natural bodybuilders.
It’s simple, the power load (anaerobic training) forces our body to produce anabolic hormones, which subsequently trigger growth reactions, while aerobic training, on the contrary, fights this phenomenon by triggering a decay (catabolism) reaction.
Therefore, aerobic with anaerobic loads are not compatible, if your goal is maximum muscle growth.
If your goal is muscle growth and weight loss, read more How To Do Cardio Workout Without Losing Muscle.
The Bottom Line
This post turned out to be a very long one and if you have read it till the end, I want to congratulate you, this means that you are serious about your bodybuilding future plans.
This golden mean training method is very effective. I hope that someday, you will discover for yourself the most effective set of exercises in a strong manner.
But, not now, the time has not come yet. All successful athletes who are now practicing a limited number of approaches (and there are very few) or those who use a huge number of approaches, began with simple training methods.
You can’t just take and jump above your head. Start small and achieve a lot.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and now, you know what is the best way to gain muscle mass.
If you have any questions or thoughts about the above aspects, or you have something to add or share your story, please leave them in the comments section below and I will get back to you asap.
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All the best,