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How To Build Muscle

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This article discusses the basic theory of how to build muscle through weightlifting. The target audience for this article is individuals who wish to begin weightlifting to develop and strengthen their muscles but are uninitiated with the fundamentals of how to build muscle. It is important to understand the concepts discussed here before you begin lifting weights, as they will help you to develop an appropriate training program to meet your specific muscular development goals, but it's also important to understand that there are many more factors (for example nutrition and specific exercise techniques, to name a couple) that influence muscle growth that are not discussed in this article. We're working on more articles about this topic and we hope to post them soon.

Introduction to Muscle Building

view of a man's back while he builds muscle by lifting weights

Building and maintaining muscle mass is an important component of a well rounded fitness program. Some people, however, tend to avoid this aspect of fitness because they are afraid that extensive technical knowledge is required to understand how to build muscle, or because they think they will build too much muscle and develop an overly bulky physique. These fears are groundless and unnecessary. It is easy to learn how to build muscle through weightlifting, and it is entirely possible to create a weightlifting program that will allow you to significantly strengthen your muscles without acquiring excessive size. On the other hand, if your goal is to build muscle mass and add some bulk to your physique, that too is entirely possible. It is simply the type of weightlifting program that you adopt that will determine the strength, size, and endurance of your muscles. You just need to understand the theory behind how and why your muscles grow to be able to develop a training program that will allow you to achieve your ideal body type. Regardless of what your end goal is, by building muscle you will improve your overall health, increase your strength, improve your physical appearance, increase your metabolism, reduce your body fat, increase bone density, and improve your coordination, confidence, and athletic ability.


Weightlifting is a form of exercise that allows you to selectively develop muscular strength, size, and endurance by exerting forces against weight based loads. Weightlifting is the ideal activity for building muscle because it allows you to precisely control the amount of weight that you lift, the muscles targeted, the angle, speed, and range of motion of each lift, the number of repetitions that occur and how much rest you get during and between exercise sessions. Each of the preceding factors, and many others, influence the manner in which your muscles will grow. If you know how you would like your muscles to develop, it is possible to create a weightlifting program that will exploit all the necessary factors to achieve the results you desire, whether it is muscle strength, muscle size, muscle endurance, or any combination of these.

Weightlifting Terminology

Before we progress any further, some commonly used weightlifting terminology needs to be understood.

A repetition (often called a "rep") is a single completion through the full range of motion of a particular exercise. At the end of one repetition the weight that you are lifting should be at the same location that it was at when you started the repetition. For example, if you are doing push-ups (in this case the weight is your own body weight), you would start with your arms straight then lower yourself towards the ground and push yourself back up until your arms are straight again. That is one repetition.

One Repetition Maximum (1RM)
The maximum amount of weight with which you are able to complete one full repetition of a given exercise.

A set is a certain number of repetitions performed consecutively without rest. For example, while doing push-ups you might wish to perform one set of twenty repetitions. To complete this set you would need to do twenty push-ups without stopping between each repetition.

Rest means exactly what you would expect it to mean. It is a period of time during which a given muscle group is not active, and is therefore resting. Rest usually refers to the amount of time between sets, measured in minutes, or the amount of time between exercise sessions, measured in days.

In weightlifting terms intensity is a measure of the amount of tension created in a muscle, and the best way to control it is through the amount of weight that you lift.

Duration measures actual weightlifting exertion and rest periods. The number of sets you perform, the number of repetitions you perform per set, and the duration of your rest periods between sets are all duration factors.

Frequency is a measure of how often your exercise sessions occur. Frequency is usually measured on a per week basis. For example, you might complete an entire body workout three times a week.


Your body has evolved the incredible ability to adapt to the various demands that are placed on it. To build your muscles you need to subject them to demands that are difficult for them to meet and, as a result, they will adapt to make those demands less strenuous. Essentially, your muscles will become stronger only if you give them a good reason to. If you perform exercises that are easy for your muscles to complete they will experience minimal or no growth, because there is no perceived need to get any stronger.

The type of demand you need to place on your muscles to ensure they grow is called overload. This is just another way of saying that you need to perform exercises that demand more of your muscles than they are accustomed to. Hypertrophy (muscle growth) will then occur as an adaptive response. Overload is the key concept to keep in mind while training your muscles. A muscle must reach a certain overload threshold before it will recognize that adaptation is required. This is a fundamental concept that those who truly know how to build muscle understand. If you simply go through the motions without stressing your muscles beyond the overload threshold you will experience minimal or no muscle growth.

Application of Theory

Three variables, already defined in the terminology section, can be controlled to achieve muscle overload, and the manner in which these variables are applied will determine the nature of the adaptation that your muscles experience. They are intensity, duration, and frequency. Essentially, these are the variables that you need to manipulate to develop your weightlifting program so that your muscles adapt the way you want them to. It is through control of the intensity, duration, and frequency variables that you can achieve your muscle development goals, whether they are strength, size, or endurance.

Intensity, controlled by the amount of weight that you lift, has the greatest effect on the type of muscle growth you will experience. If muscle strength is your primary training goal then you should lift heavy weights, whereas if muscle endurance is your primary goal you should lift light weights. If your primary goal is muscle hypertrophy (increased mass/size) then you should lift an amount of weight somewhere in between. More detailed guidelines for how to develop your weightlifting program according to these principles are provided below.

Note: Since the amount of weight that each person can lift is different, the guidelines below prescribe the amount of weight you should lift as a percentage of your one repetition maximum (your one repetition maximum is defined in the above "Terminology" section of this article, we'll abbreviate one repetition maximum as 1RM from now on). Therefore, to figure out the right amount of weight to lift for each of your weightlifting exercises (i.e. bench press, squats, barbell curls, etc...) you need to first figure out your 1RM for each exercise. Visit our 1RM Calculator to estimate your 1RM.

How to Build Muscle Strength

If your main goal is muscle strength then you should create a weightlifting program with exercises that adhere to the following guidelines:

Amount of Weight Lifted85% of 1RM or more
Number of Sets Performed2 to 6
Repetitions Performed Per Set6 or less
Rest Period Between Sets2 to 5 minutes

How to Build Muscle Size (Hypertrophy)

If your main goal is muscle size, or hypertrophy, then you should create a weightlifting program with exercises that adhere to the following guidelines:

Amount of Weight LiftedBetween 67% to 85% of 1RM
Number of Sets Performed3 to 6
Repetitions Performed Per Set6 to 12
Rest Period Between Sets0.5 to 1.5 minutes

How to Build Muscle Endurance

If your main goal is muscle endurance then you should create a weightlifting program with exercises that adhere to the following guidelines:

Amount of Weight Lifted67% of 1RM or less
Number of Sets Performed3 to 6
Repetitions Performed Per Set12 or more
Rest Period Between SetsLess than 0.5 minutes

The the three tables of guidelines provided above are modified from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning by Baechle, Earle, and Wathen (2000).

Remember that for all of the above guidelines, no matter whether your goal is strength, size, or endurance, you should be overloading your muscles for each set. If your muscles are not being subjected to overload then you are just going through the motions and wasting your time. So the obvious question then, is how can you make sure that you are overloading your muscles for each set? The best way to achieve overload is to lift until failure. In other words, this means that you should lift until you are unable to complete another repetition with proper form. If this happens you have exhausted your muscles to the point where they can't continue, and there can be no question that you have subjected them to overload.

What about frequency? You might have noticed that none of the above guidelines indicate how often your weightlifting sessions should occur. This is a difficult question to answer accurately because it really depends on a number of different workout variables that are not discussed here. In general, weightlifters train between 2 to 4 times per week. Conventional muscle building wisdom holds that you should allow at least 48 hours of recovery time between exercise sessions for a given muscle group. For example, if you train your biceps on a Monday, you should wait until Wednesday at the earliest before you train them again.

It is important to understand that the topics discussed here cover only some of the most basic concepts concerning how to build muscle. There are many more factors to consider that influence the development of your muscles , but you now have a good foundation to get started. For further information about specific weightlifting techniques and programs, view the excellent Weightlifting Exercises Database and Workout Plans available at MyFit.ca. Good luck!

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