How To Build Muscle: The Ultimate Muscle Building Guide for Beginners

After viewing the muscle building infographic, make sure you read the article at the bottom.

how to build muscle

For beginners, there are a few really big mistakes that occur when it comes to building muscle. Hardly anyone ever gets started on the right foot, at least initially.

For many, a first attempt to build muscle means thumbing through the latest bodybuilding magazine and picking the 6-day body part split being promoted by the cover model.

The problem with this approach is that these routines for building muscle (aka hypertrophy) are far too advanced and unnecessary for the budding beginner and most won’t need a routine like that for a long time, if ever to reach their muscle building goals.

So here’s the JCDFitness Muscle Building Guide For Beginners, by JC Deen and Jordan Syatt.

Focus On Strength Training

First you want to learn the basic compound movements. We’re talking about Squats, Deadlifts, Chin-ups, Bench and Overhead pressing, Rows, Dips. Building muscle is a product of strength training, and progressive overload (more on this in a bit).

Pick A Great Strength Training Program

  • Starting Strength – this is the popular strength routine by Mark Rippetoe where you’re squatting and pressing 3x per week.
  • JCDFitness Beginner Routine – In my routine, you’re training 3x per week, full body each time. Check out the JCDFitness Beginners Routine.
  • Syatt Beginner’s Routine – In Jordan’s routine, you’re training 3-4 times per week using an upper/lower split. Check out the Syatt Fitness Beginners Routine.

Focus on Progressive Overload

Progressive overload simply means you are doing more work over time. Building muscle is a result of continually adding weight to the bar, adding reps or reducing rest periods.

If you aren’t getting stronger, or improving your work capacity, you’re likely not going to build muscle mass.

How Long Does It Take?

Nothing worth having ever comes easy. We recommend committing to your training and muscle building efforts for at least 6-12 months.

  • It’s possible to make 20-25lb gains in muscle within the first year of training if your workout program doesn’t suck. (about half of this can be achieved for females). Ladies, see our guide: How To Build Muscle for Women.
  • After the initial 6 months to a year, you’ll likely be classified as an intermediate lifter. At this point, recovery from session to session is not as easy as it used to be. Building muscle will slow down considerably after your initial muscle mass and strength gains.
  • For the love of Moses, don’t jump from program to program. Stick with what’s working until it no longer works anymore. Don’t develop program ADD, as you’ll not make the progress you wish for.
  • While it’s not entirely possible to build muscle and lose weight for most people, beginners may experience this as they simultaneously burn body fat and build muscle mass. Just understand that it won’t last forever. This is also known as ‘Newbie Gains’ or ‘The Newbie Effect.’

How To Eat For Muscle Gain – 4 Principles

1. You Must Eat A Caloric Surplus – Without providing enough calories to build muscle, you can forget reaching your goals altogether. A good starting point is 16-18 calories multiplied by your body weight to create the calorie surplus.  If you’re not gaining weight, you must increase your intake. Gaining 3-4 pounds per month is a good gauge of progress

2. Eat Enough Protein – Protein is essential to the muscle building process. Studies show anywhere from .8 grams all the way up to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight is sufficient for muscle gain. Starting off with 1x body weight in pounds is a good place to start.

Here’s a Small List of Protein Sources

  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Pork
  • Protein Powder
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Fish

3. Consume Plenty of Carbohydrate Rich Food and Fat From Whole Sources – Carbohydrates are important for providing the energy you need to train, and to recover. We put most of our clients on higher carbs when building muscle is the main goal.

Here’s a Small List of Carbohydrate Sources

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Oats
  • Bread
  • Fruit
  • Starchy Veggies (potatoes, corn)
  • Beans

Don’t Skimp On Fat – make sure your diet is anywhere from 15-30% comprised of fats.
Here’s a Small List of Fat Sources

  • Whole Eggs (yolk is good for you)
  • Fish (salmon, and other fatty sources)
  • Fatty Meat (beef, lamb, duck)
  • Whole-fat Dairy
  • Avocado
  • Olive Oil
  • Nuts and Nut Butters

4. Have a Pre and Post-Workout Meal

Pre-Workout Guides:

(1-3 hours before training)
25-40g Protein (any source is fine)
25-40g Carbohydrate
(any source is fine)
10-15g Fat
(usually trace amounts from food)

Post-Workout Guides:

(Within 90 minutes after training)
30-50g
Protein minimum* (whey, dairy, animal)
30-50g Carbohydrate
minimum* (we like some fruit and then starch)
10-15g Fat
(usually trace amounts from food)

*We mention minimum because you can eat much more than this if you’d like and if it fits within your macronutrient goals for the day. Jordan and I tend to train and eat later in the day, so we save a lot of calories for our post workout meal – sometimes upwards of 100g protein and 200-300g of carbs. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many meals you eat, as long as you get some food around training and hit your macros for the day.

How Do We Calculate Our Macronutrients?

Note: Kcal = calories

Protein (4kcal/gram)
Bodyweight x 1 = grams of protein

Fats (9kcal/gram)
20-25% Total Kcal Intake

Carbohydrates (4kcal/gram)
Remainder of calories

—–

Step 1: (g of Protein x 4) + (g of Fat x 9)
Step 2: (Total Kcals – Answer)/4 = Total Carb

—–

Example intake for a 175lb Male
Total Kcal
: 175 x 18 = 3150 Kcal/day

Protein: 175 x 1 = 175g Protein/day
Fats: (.25 x 3150)/9 = 88g Fat/day

Carbohydrates:
Step 1: (175 x 4) + (88 x 9) = 1492
Step 2: (3150 – 1492)/4 = 415g Carbs/day

*females should start at the lower end (15-16x bw)* For more on female training for muscle gain, check out How To Build Muscle for Women.

Keep A Food and Training Log!

The best way to make sure you’re building muscle and getting stronger is by tracking your results. Unsure of how to accurately track your macros and calories? Simple, read the No-BS Calorie Counting Guide.

  • Nutrition – Make sure you’re eating enough nutrients to support your muscle building goals by tracking your intake of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Use the calculations above and make sure to hit those numbers daily.
  • Training – Track every workout and aim to beat the logbook. If you benched 135 pounds for 3 sets of 5 last workout, aim for 140 pounds during the next workout

Rest, Recovery and Off-Day Activities

It’s important to take time away from the gym. We build muscle when we’re resting and recuperating, not necessarily while we’re in the gym.

Here are a few activities that are acceptable for your off-days.

  • Foam rolling and other forms of myofascial release
  • Mobility Drills
  • Brisk Walking (30-60 minutes a day can be helpful in minimizing fat gain)

Jordan and I highly recommend you stay away from high intensity cardio (such as sprints, HIIT workouts and intense cycling) on your off days.

Why?

Simply because if you’re training how you should be on the weights, you’re already doing 3 high intensity training sessions per week. Adding more training in the form of HIIT will likely cut into your recovery and could limit the muscle gains you’re seeking.

Understand We All Have A Genetic Potential and Limitations

You Must Be Realistic With Your Muscle Building Expectations

The most coveted physiques are built over many years, not months. No one ever gets his or her training and nutrition right from the start. We all screw up, get injured, get off track, or something just gets in the way. It takes time, but the process is worth the time spent.

Casey Butt, fitness researcher, has done extensive work on the subject and there seems to be a limit to how much muscle we can carry naturally (without the assistance of pro-hormones or anabolic steroids). If you have an interest in this subject, check out his book, Your Muscular Potential (not an affiliate link). I have it, and it’s a great read.

Supplements

While supplements are not necessary, they may provide various benefits while attempting to achieve your muscle building goals.

Protein Powders
Protein powder is in no way, shape, or form essential. However, some individuals find it difficult to eat a sufficient amount of protein (at least 1g/lb of body weight) through whole foods alone. In this case, supplementing with protein powders may be beneficial in helping you reach your daily quota.

Vitamin D
In addition to numerous other benefits, Vitamin D is essential for the metabolism and absorption of calcium which is of the utmost importance during weight training. If you regularly get 30+ minutes of direct sunlight or go tanning you likely won’t need to supplement with Vitamin D. However, if you are not consistently getting direct sunlight, supplementing with Vitamin D may be in your best interest.

Fish Oil
Fish Oil has so many benefits. Not only has fish oil been associated with reduced inflammation, lower body fat, and overall better health and longevity, but fish oil has also been shown to have a significant role in muscle growth and development. Unless your diet includes a great deal of fish you would do well to supplement with fish oil.

Calcium
Like Vitamin D, it’s crucial in maintaining adequate bone health. If your diet includes dairy you probably do not need to supplement with calcium. However, if you are lactose intolerant or don’t eat a lot of calcium-rich foods, using a calcium supplement may be in your best interest.

Creatine
This is perhaps the most extensively studied training supplement on the market. It is safe and in certain individuals has been shown to markedly improve strength. While a decent percentage of people are non-responders, others experience fantastic results. It is by no means necessary but supplementing with Creatine may enhance performance.

So there you have it – The Ultimate Muscle Building Guide for Beginners.

6-19-12 UPDATE – a few people have asked a few questions so I posted a follow up video to building muscle here.


June 6, 2012
69 Comments.

  • GingerBeardMan February 13, 2014

    I know you’re a busy guy so I’d appreciate it if you could offer some guidance relating to the beginners guide to building muscle. I’ve been “reverse dieting” and tracking my macros for some time now and I’m up to 300 grams of carbs per day by slowly adding 10-20 grams of carbs a week. I’m currently holding a steady weight of 175 lbs. That being said I don’t want to immediately add 600+ calories a day to my diet for fear of fat gain. I’ve been training for sometime now with little gains to speak of so I’m wondering if I’m adding calories too slowly. What are your thought?

    My current stats:
    Bench – 165 5×5 :-(
    Squat – 270 5×5
    O/H Press – 115 5×5
    Row – 145 5×5
    Dead – 285 1×5

    Thank you for your time!

    -Al

    • JC Deen February 24, 2014

      you can continue to add the kcals slowly, but keep adding them so you don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’re eating enough when you’re not.

  • Shane November 23, 2013

    Found this through Impruvism – pretty cool summary. Thanks guys :)

  • PAUL CUGINI October 08, 2013

    I want to take a moment to thank you for this tutorial . I want your body! Not in a gay way, a look alike way. Man you got it together. I am 53 y/o and have been working out all my life periodically but in the last 5 years I’ve been more committed than ever before. I have good reason to do so but I also do plenty of cardio and some days I run/brisk or power walk 9 miles a day, usually 3 days a week, 4-6 miles the other 3 days with Sunday my day for rest. Being a “older/seasoned” gentleman it’s more difficult in my stomach region, also I had back surgery at the age of 32. are there any exercises you could recommend for the abs that won’t tear into my back? I’ve been in bad accidents a few times, a motorcycle wreck that left me with a broken rib cage that punctured a lung, yet I still give my best to obtain a good healthy body and overall am muscular but would like a little more without doing any further harm. One thing I never understood is the “rest period”. I think most people feel the more we do the more we build muscle but after reading your tutorial I see the opposite is true. Any advice you can give will be appreciated. I realize at my age there are limitations but I still feel I could be a little more muscular. Thanks, look forward to your reply.

    • JC Deen October 09, 2013

      Thanks for the compliments, but fairly hard for me to give an exercise recommendation over a comment like this. sorry.

      • Paul November 29, 2013

        Thanks for taking the time to read. I am learning something new every time I visit the site so that’s appreciated.

  • Kevin January 27, 2013

    Hey JC,

    I like that this post puts a lot of the fundamentals (spanning BOTH diet and exercise) into an easy-to-understand format for beginners. I do have one concern though with your comment that after 6 months to a year (and 15-20lbs of weight gain) the lifter will be intermediate.

    I think that estimate holds true *if* the beginner follows the routine perfectly for 6-12 months and of course that ~50% or more of that weight gain is muscle (an indicator that they are doing it correctly). Unfortunately, I think this is very rare in reality, especially for a beginner. I bring this up because problems can arise when a lifter assumes they are intermediate before they actually are (which is admittedly easy to do since the ego wants that to be the case). I think many of us have either seen (or been!) a person who jumped off of a solid beginner program too early because we believed ourselves intermediate, only to stall out when trying an unsuitable or unnecessarily complicated program.

    I just thought it was food for thought that you may want to qualify your intermediate statement a bit more. Alternatively, I’d also love to her your opinion if you disagree or have had different experiences with this. Thanks and great job!

    • JC Deen January 27, 2013

      pretty much agree with you, but this is a pretty generic guidelines here. Jordan and I couldn’t really go too deep into what it takes to get to intermediate status.

  • Edward December 07, 2012

    Great point JC especially about the rest part, I have seen far too many people who work the same group muscle multiple times a week only because they enjoy to do so, & it does more harm than good for the body actually

  • Jon November 22, 2012

    Killer infograph.

    I don’t disagree with your suggested exercises, but I have to say I get great gains with cable exercises as well. I love the steady tension cables provide for certain movements. Almost every workout I do I incorporate some cable work. I can really focus on the muscles and contract like crazy. Just my 2 cents’ worth.

  • Shazid September 06, 2012

    Great article! I must say that I really enjoy reading the stuff on your site mainly because it’s a breathe of fresh air from all the BS out there.

    What would be your recommendation after 6 of months of a strength training program gaining 15-20 lbs?

  • Jared August 15, 2012

    I wish I had found this years ago! Everything you need to know in one place, this is getting bookmarked dude! Thanks :)

  • Mike Fitness On Line July 22, 2012

    Great Article. I love the pamphlet style leaflet. There should be more simple yet effective information like this around on building muscle.

  • Claire July 16, 2012

    Magnificent….I can always come back to your site when I’m overcomplicating and get my head smacked back to sanity

    • JC Deen July 16, 2012

      :)

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