The Evidence Based Way to Building Lean Muscle

The end of my senior year in high school (2010) I began an obsession of shaping my body through weight lifting.  I was a 3 sport athlete and was always consumed in some sort of physical activity.  Once my final game was over my senior year I quickly realized I needed some sort of hobby to fill the gap that had just permanently ended.  That’s where my weight lifting journey began.

Starting out,  I really had no idea where to begin.  I remember getting on the internet and researching how to gain muscle.  Before I knew it I was buying a stack of supplements from a nutrition store that were suppose to get me ripped in 30 days!  If you’ve ever done something similar don’t feel ashamed, I think the majority of us have been there at some point.  There’s a big misconception to beginners that it takes more than just efficient work in the gym to make progress.  We think we have to have the magic supplements, the best branded exercise gear, and a fitness social media profile to go along with it.  Well, it’s all bull crap.

Today I’m writing this article for my 18 year old self.  When I first began if I could have come across this piece I would have been put on the fast track for REAL progress.  Not countless lies about a supplement or magical program I have to buy that makes every promise in the world to get me the results, but in reality is only wasting my valuable time and money.  I feel as if I wasted most of the first year or two of my efforts in the gym.  I was spinning my wheels and trying a ton of different things.  Mostly leaving me without much progress and a ton of frustration.

I am confident this will be the best help/advice for you as well if you’re in the beginner to intermediate phase of a weight lifter.  As long as you take the knowledge and run with it…

Lets get started:


Step 1: Training Split

Get started with a workout split that actually makes sense.  The traditional “bro split” isn’t going to be the best choice.  Stay away from chest day, back day, arm day, shoulder day, and leg day once per week. Scientific studies have proven time and time again that for natural weight lifters, training each muscle group 2-3 times per week leads to more muscle gain than training each muscle only once per week.  Think of it like this:  if you can stimulate a muscle 2-3 times a week through training, it’s common sense that it should progress faster than a muscle that is only stimulated once per week right? Look at doing an Upper/Lower split with 4 workouts per week or a Full Body split with 2-3 workout per week for the first 1-2 years of training.  After that you can advance to some sort of Push/Pull/Legs format if you desire.

Step 2:  Exercise Form & Selection

Focus on learning how to perform the compound movements properly (Bench, Squat, Deadlift).  Take your time and get feed back from others via internet, coaches/trainers, and videos of yourself.  If you need, it may be a good idea to hire an online or in-person trainer to help for a month or two.  Over the long run, you’ll thank yourself for gaining the knowledge needed to help prevent injury and make the most of your “newbie gains” in the beginning.  As for selecting exercises for each workout,  emphasizing compound movements will give you the biggest bang for your buck.  A compound exercise is an exercise that involves two or more joint movements in one exercise.  These exercises will be best because you are working more than one muscle group, giving you more stimulus, which will lead to more growth overtime.  Here are compound exercise variations to focus on for the main body parts:

Quads & Glutes: Squat Variation

Hamstrings & Lower Back:  Deadlift Variation

Chest: Horizontal Press Variation

Back: Horizontal & Vertical Row Variation

Shoulders:  Vertical Press Variation

Adding 1-2 isolation exercises for these muscle groups after performing the compound movements would be my suggestion.  As for arms, calves, and smaller parts of the shoulder, add in some tricep pushdowns, bicep curls, calf raises, and lateral raises towards the end of the workouts.

Step 3:  Track Your Progression

Once you have mastered form on all exercises it’ll be time to starting progressing in your lifts.  To put on muscle you’re going to need to make progress in your workouts.  What do I mean by progress?  Well, if the first week you were able to perform the bench press at 3x135x8 (3 sets x 135 lbs x 8 reps) next week you should be aiming to add a little weight, an extra set, or 1-2 more reps.  I would suggest working at adding another rep or two instead of more sets or weight for the first while.  It should look something like this:

Week 1:  3x135x8

Week 2:  3x135x9

Week 3:  3x135x10

Week 4:  3x145x8

Week 5:  3x145x9

Week 6:  3x145x10

Once you have made a good amount of progress it will begin to become harder and harder to keep adding weight this way, but for the first good amount of time you will see great gains in strength and muscle from this progression format.

Step 4:  Volume

What is volume?  Volume is the amount of work you are doing for each muscle group, each week.  Total Sets x Total Reps x Total Weight = Volume.   This matters!  Doing more is not always going to lead to more results.  I see new lifters come into the gym all the time and do an insane amount of work for each muscle group.  The body can only handle so much work in order to recover properly and leave you fresh for the next workout.  Remember, we are looking to hit each muscle group 2-3 times per week.  In order to do that, it will be required to do a less amount of volume for each muscle group each workout.  When first beginning aim for 10-12 sets for each muscle group per week.  After 6-12 months you can start adding in more sets to muscle groups you want to develop further.  Somewhere between 10-20 sets per week for each muscle group is a good guideline to follow for intermediate lifters looking to make progress.  Once you are an advanced lifter you may require even more sets to continue progress, but remember when you are first beginning, 10-12 sets a week, per muscle group, is going to be right around the sweet spot.

Well, there you have it.  There is plenty here to focus on to begin making the best progress your body is capable of.  Once I began applying these core principles to my training things got much more enjoyable and sustainable.  When you don’t really know what you are doing in the gym, it feels like you are throwing a dart at a board with blindfolds on.  At least I felt this way.  I was putting in a ton of work, I just didn’t know if it was leading to actual results or not.

If you apply theses principles to your training, you will know without a doubt you are doing things correctly to achieve your goals.  Which may lead to you sticking around and not giving up.  At least that’s what it has done for me.

As always,

Happy Lifting