How to Add More Muscle in the Gym

Written by Dave Thomas

At the risk of generalizing to a fault, there are typically three kinds of physique goals when it comes to gym avatars.

  1. Those who want to burn fat.
  2. Those who want to add muscle.
  3. Those who want some combination of both.

We addressed group number one last week and a few weeks before that.

We addressed group number three to a degree two weeks ago.

This week, we’re going tackle those of you who are either here to gain muscle, or are interested in doing so for a dedicated cycle of period of a few weeks.

Before I get into my specific tips for you, I just want to say two things.

First, adding muscle happens gradually. You ever see those commercials for the men’s shampoo that claims to gradually reduce grey hairs? “Use it until you like what you see” is the slogan, based around the product claim that each wash gets rid of just a little bit more grey.

Think of adding muscle like that, only true. You aren’t going to suddenly swell up overnight, so these tips today are effective for anyone who wants to add muscle from a couple of pounds to serious mass. You just follow the tips until you’re pleased with where you’re at.

Second, in order to gain any amount of muscle that would be noticeable, you need to specifically and consistently work towards that outcome. Meaning, you’re not going to magically get jacked just by showing up to the gym and lifting a little bit of challenging weight. I say this because I feel it relevant to two specific groups.

  1. Hardgainers who want to add muscle but don’t know where to start.
  2. Men and women who actively want to avoid “getting bulky” (more on this next week).

Adding muscle is a focused effort, so unless you’re creating some lifestyle habits around it, it’s not going to happen for you on any meaningful level. The good news is that it’s very possible with a few focused decisions.

1. Eat

You need a caloric surplus in order to add tissue to your body, whether it’s fat or muscle. You just do. So if you’re eating like a little birdie then don’t expect for your frame to change very much. You need to be eating about one gram of protein per pound of body weight, so start there (a good rule of thumb regardless of your goal, as that’s also a recommended baseline for fat loss, as well).

On top of that, I implore you to CRUSH whole food, complex carbohydrates. Potatoes, rices, oats, and grains you can tolerate them. Every meal. Big ole serving.

Finally, limit your fats. Muscle gaining meal plans can go sideways if you’re pounding down fats with your increased calories. Stick to lean cuts of protein (no meats with fat content above 85/15) and a good rule of thumb is don’t add fats to any foods. Limit the cheese, butter, oils, etc. Get your fats from whole food consumption like eggs and other animal protein and the gains you make will be mostly muscle.

If you want a handy, easy way to see where you should be in terms of calories then use this calculator.

2. Higher Reps + Heavier Loads

Contrary to what some of you think, you can actually gain muscle without bodybuilding. You just need to train higher rep, heavier loads on the days with multiple rep options (think middle of the board rep range).

Strength training at low rep sets challenges the Central Nervous System (CNS) and builds strength neurologically, which is why we have lots of lean men and women in the gym who are strong as hell. But, in order to actually build muscle you need to tear it down so that it can regrow, which is most optimally done with higher rep sets and more volume.

The more reps that you perform in a set, the more you transition away from the CNS and the more you move towards the Musculoskeletal System (MS). For example, if you perform squat sets of 3R of 85% of your one rep max squats, you’re almost entirely focused on the CNS. You’ll get super strong, but your physique won’t change a ton. However, if you perform 8R squat sets at 70% of your one rep max, your CNS is less in demand and your MS is, quite literally, doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

On days where you have rep options, always go with the highest option and challenge yourself on the load, even if it means you do a round or two less than you would at lighter weight. You don’t have to take three minutes between sets to grow muscle. It’s plenty physiologically possible within the confines of a PSC class.

3. Compound Movements

The good news is that we always set the table for you, all you gotta do is eat. Meaning, we always feature the right movements that will create the most change for you, whether it’s strength, fat loss, or muscle.

When it comes to building muscle, you want to base your program around the major lifts that train multiple joints (ie compound movements). The reason is that when you work more joints, you work more muscles, and when you work more muscles you are creating a much greater demand on your body AND you are releasing more favorable hormones to create a growth friendly environment in your body.

One big major caveat, and it’s a biggie. You gotta hit full range of motion. The biggest muscle building mistake you can make is load up far too much weight than what you’re capable of lifting and move to partial range of motion. You’ll overload joints and tendons, get little work on the muscle, and be left sore in all the wrong areas for all the wrong reasons.

There is a vast difference between programmed partials on a lift and incomplete range of motion on a lift intended to hit full ROM. Don’t be that guy or gal.

While big, compound barbell movements will always be superior in the world of physique goals, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for isolation movements like curls or extensions. There is benefit in those movements, but if you’re not laying the foundation with high rep, heavy squats, pulls, presses, rows, lunges and deadlifts then you’ll never do much in the muscle building department.

4. Increase Recovery

Recovery is just as important as lifting when it comes to muscle growth. If that is your primary goal or focus, I forbid you to go to the gym more than four times in a week. The process of building muscle is literally creating microtears in the muscle and allowing them to regrow bigger. Muscle growth (aka hypertrophy) training is trauma training, and if you are never allowing your body to recover and grow from that dosed trauma then you’re asking for problems.

Decreased output. Disrupted sleep. Bad health and quality of life.

In addition, focus on getting quality sleep. Growth hormone (GH) spikes highest while we’re snoozin’, so the more of it you get the better recovered you will be. Growth hormone gets a bad rep for being the headlines when it comes to cheating in sports. While yes, large outside doses of it pumped into your body will get you jacked, normal elevated levels of it that your body naturally produces (women, too) is helpful and necessary in order to create the anabolic environment needed for muscle growth.

A Note on Cardio

Ever heard of the concept of cardio interference when it comes to gaining muscle? If you haven’t, it’s the idea that doing cardio will stunt your body’s ability to build muscle or strength, and it is a giant load of crap.

You’d have to be training for a marathon in order to see those interference effects, not hitting a class that contains a half hour circuit twice per week.

It hurts my soul when I see people only hit the gym for the purpose of strength or muscle without much care or thought towards their cardiovascular and aerobic system. Our aerobic system is our health. Period. In fact, I could make the argument that an adequately developed aerobic fitness will actually improve your chances of building muscle, because you’ll no longer be sucking wind after one set of 10R squats.

While true, your focus should be on your lifting when it comes to developing muscle, you’re way better off including some conditioning along with your efforts. This will help your body continue to burn fat while also keeping your fitness levels up, and you are not sacrificing a thing when it comes to the physiological ability to build muscle.

In summary:

  • Eat more, but not crap.
  • Go heavier and higher rep, most of the time.
  • Focus on the days we have compound barbell movements.
  • Limit to four days per week.
  • Make sure you’re including conditioning to stay balanced and healthy.