“Hypertrophy” is the increase of muscle size through physical exertion, most commonly weight lifting. Not everyone who lifts weights knows the word, but almost all share one common desire: to gain muscle as fast as possible.
There is an insane amount of information out there today regarding the fastest way to gain muscle. Some of it emanating from credible sources, much of it emanating from questionable sources. In an effort to set the record straight we have sifted through the credible sources and compiled the following list of the 31 best ways to gain muscle fast.
1. Lift to Failure
Anyone with any weightlifting credibility will tell you in no uncertain terms that the fastest way to build muscle is to lift to failure. It’s not really open for debate. It works (1). There are a lot of reasons why people don’t push themselves to failure. Some are afraid they’re going to injure themselves if the bar comes down on them. Others don’t want to be seen as weak if they are unable to pump out that last bench press. While still others simply don’t want to work that hard.
If you are new to weightlifting you shouldn’t start pushing your muscles to failure during the first workout. But once you gain some experience and want to take things to the next level, then lifting to failure should become one of the bedrock principles of your routine. The key is not automatically stopping your workout when you hit failure. Instead, take a short break and then have at it again. If you can no longer lift what’s on the bar, reduce the weight a bit and get back after it, again, to failure.
2. Do Compound or Multi-Joint Lifts
When packing on muscle mass quickly it’s important that you don’t create imbalances. This can happen if you spend half your time on bicep curls. Sure, bicep curls have their place, and there’s no substitute for the quick, cheap thrill you get from flashing your bulging biceps on the street. But if you’re all biceps and no pecs you’re going to look pretty strange when you take your shirt off at the beach.
The best way to ensure your physique develops in a balanced fashion is to do lifts that involve multiple joints and muscle groups. The standing, bent over dumbbell row is a good example of such a lift (2). With every rep you’re involving your lats, biceps, traps, delts, pecs, abs and more. Squats, deadlifts and pullups are some other multi-joint exercises that will produce well-balanced muscle growth and a more well-rounded physique.
3. Do Fewer Reps at a Heavier Weight
There are those who argue that reps are the key to building muscle fast. But experience and science indicates that’s not necessarily the case (3). Piling on the reps is a good way to increase stamina, create definition, and generate a Herculean pump, but pump and actual muscle growth are not always the same thing. If your goal is to build muscle mass, i.e. bigger muscles, and you want to do it fast, cut back on the reps and up the weight.
Instead of doing 10-15 reps at 140 pounds on the inclined bench press, push the weight to 150 or 160 and do 5-10 reps. Then take a short break (30-90 seconds tops) and do 5-10 more and so on to failure. Then up the weight each succeeding week. You may not end up chiseled, but you’ll be significantly bigger and stronger than you would be if you kept doing lots of reps at the lighter weight (4).
4. Embrace Progressive Overload
Progressive overload (5) and lifting to failure go hand in hand when it comes to building muscle fast. The concept is simple: keep upping the weight. By progressively increasing the amount of weight on the bar you force your muscles to adapt by getting larger and stronger. By contrast, if you do the same routine every time out, lifting the same amount of weight, you may experience a temporary pump but the muscles won’t actually grow.
Most lifters start their workout with a lighter weight to warm up, and then gradually increase the amount of weight on the bar as the routine progresses. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say “progressive overload”. Progressive overload means that if your max weight this week is 180 pounds, next week it should be 190 and the week after that 200. Will you eventually hit a wall? Of course. But if you’re just getting started with lifting, that wall is a long way off.
5. Get More Sleep
Muscles that are pushed past the edge develop microscopic tears. While you sleep your body repairs those muscles, rebuilding them bigger and stronger than they were. But that takes time, meaning you need to get more sleep than you are likely accustomed to. It’s estimated that fully 1/3 of American adults get less than 7 hours of sleep per night (6), but that’s not going to cut it if you are serious about building muscle fast.
Most experts state that weightlifters need to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night if they’re going to give their muscles the time they need to recover and grow. The extra sleep will not only give muscles time to rebuild, it will also help maintain or even increase circulating testosterone levels that play such an important part in muscle building.
6. Stop Resting So Much Between Sets
If you spend enough time hanging out in the weight room at the health club you’ll likely wind up seeing many of the same people over and over. Some of them will be gaining muscle at an enviable rate. Others, though, will never seem to change. Even after 6 months they will look pretty much the same as they did the first time you saw them. So what gives?
If you observe a little more intently you’ll probably notice a subtle but important difference between those who are building muscle and those with the unchanging physiques: the amount of time they spend between sets. For optimal muscle growth you want to limit the amount of time between sets to 30-90 seconds, tops. Some would say even that is too much. By taking long rests you never really wear out and break down your muscles, and it’s that breaking down and rebuilding process that produces growth.
7. Use Proper Form
There are a couple of fundamental things that separate those enjoying robust muscle growth from those who maintain more or less the same physique year after year. One of the most important is form. Believe it or not there is a right way and a wrong way to lift if you want to gain muscle fast.
While the mechanics of each lift are different, there are some general guidelines you can use to help ensure you’re practicing proper form. For instance, make sure you keep a neutral back, move through the full range of motion for each exercise, take your time in order to put maximum stress on the muscle, and breathe out as you lift and in as you lower the weight. Will you still see muscle gains if you push yourself consistently but use less than optimal form? Probably. But not the kind of fast, impressive muscle gain we’re talking about here.
8. Eat More Often
If you’re eating one or two big meals a day and hoping to gain muscle fast, you’re likely to be disappointed. Research confirms what bodybuilders have been saying for decades; that it’s better to have numerous small meals during the day than 1 or 2 big meals. In fact, you may want to pencil up to 6 meals into your schedule if you really want to optimize muscle growth (7).
The not-so-secret mechanism behind muscle growth is Muscle Protein Synthesis or MPS. MPS is the process by which amino acids – the building blocks of all that protein you’re eating while you weight train – repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue. Research indicates that having numerous meals during the day is the best way to increase MPS and therefore the best dietary strategy when attempting to optimize muscle growth (8).
9. Embrace Supersets
Supersets are an idea that have been floating around for decades but have never quite made it over the hump to widespread acceptance. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an early and vocal proponent of supersets and credited them with helping him win 3 Mr Universe and 7 Mr Olympia titles during his heyday in the 1970s. Essentially a superset involves performing 2 different exercises as part of a single set with no rest in between the exercises.
Supersets can be particularly punishing, but they’ll also produce increased hypertrophy and provide metabolic benefits as well. A sample superset might include 10 reps of overhead barbell press followed immediately by 10 pullups. Or 10 bicep curls followed immediately by 10 tricep extensions. Supersets are also a great idea if you want an intense workout but are pressed for time.
10. Be Consistent
Inconsistency has been the downfall of many who aspire to have a more muscular physique. If you train for a few days in a row then take a week off, or do an intense workout one day followed by a short, easy workout a couple of days later, and then a moderate workout the day after that you’re guaranteeing disappointment. You’re also increasing your risk of injury.
The process of gaining muscle is a cumulative process. It requires that you consistently push your muscles past their comfort zone and break them down so they can be rebuilt bigger and stronger. If you push them for a couple of days then slack off for a week, any potential gains will be lost and you’ll wind up spinning your wheels.
11. Don’t Overdo It Right Out of the Gate
The goal here is to gain muscle fast. However, if you’ve never lifted before you have to accept that you’re starting from a point of (relative) weakness and go easy out of the gate. That doesn’t mean 6 months of using those cute little 1 pound aerobic “weights”. It means starting with a modest weight and a moderate number of reps, seeing how your body responds, and then pushing it a little further the next day, and the next day. After that, you might take a day off, before pushing it a little further the following day, and so on.
Before you know it your muscles will be used to the fact that you’re going to be asking more of them going forward and you’ll enter the land of true muscle building. Once there, you can start pushing things harder and building muscle faster. It might take a few weeks to reach the point where hypertrophy becomes your BFF, but in the long run you’ll be better off for having eased your body into it.
12. Watch What You Eat
Above we talked about the value of eating more often and how that promotes Muscle Protein Synthesis. But what you eat is just as important as how often you eat. If your body is to rebuild the muscles you’ve torn apart in the weight room it needs the proper materials to do the job. Ice cream and pizza, or a 6 pack and some nachos are not really the right materials.
Eggs, lean red meat, chicken breast, salmon, and cottage cheese are the right materials. In general, it’s recommended that lifters eat 0.5 -1 gram of protein for every 1 pound of body weight per day. But protein isn’t everything. You’ll also need plenty of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of carbs. Remember, gaining muscle fast is not the same as being on the keto diet. Carbs are the weight lifter’s friend. They’re where your energy comes from. People only get in trouble with carbs when they scarf them by the boatload and then sit around all day.
13. Warm Up First
One of the biggest reasons people have unsatisfactory workouts is because they don’t warm up properly first. If you’ve ever watched competitive weightlifting on TV you see the competitors backstage going through lengthy warm up routines before they ever step in front of the cameras. While you’re not a competitive weightlifter (yet anyway) the principle is the same. You need to wake your muscles up and start blood pumping into them before you start your lifting routine.
A good warm up includes things like jumping jacks, pushups and various types of stretching. After that you should do a couple of sets using only the bar. These can be squats or bench presses or overhead presses. Only then should you put your opening weight on the bar and start your workout. Warming up properly will not only enable you to have a more satisfactory weightlifting session, it will also help you avoid injury (9).
14. Focus on the Down-Lift
There are two parts to every lift; the up-lift (known as the “concentric” part of the lift), and the down-lift (known as the “eccentric” part). Most people look forward to the eccentric lift because they can take a tiny break while the weight goes through a controlled fall. But if you really want to build muscle fast you need to make the most of the eccentric part of the lift.
The easiest way to get more from the eccentric part of the lift is to slow things down. Instead of rapidly dropping the dumbbells to your side, count slowly to 2 or 3 as you drop them. This will greatly increase your eccentric effort and ramp up muscle growth. It’s also likely to bring you to failure faster.
15. Minimize Your Days Off
As we discussed earlier consistency is crucial to gaining muscle fast. That means continually pushing yourself to new limits rather than being sporadic with your workouts. A huge part of consistency is having regular off days. (That’s regular off days, not random off days.) These are days when you do no weightlifting. Everyone is different, but everyone needs to incorporate off days into their schedule.
Opinions vary widely on this subject, but the consensus is that you should have 1 – 2 days per week off. If you do splits – where you cover all the muscle groups over the course of 3 or 4 days – then you might take 1 day off at the end of the cycle before starting over again. If you want to build muscle fast, the most important thing is to make absolutely sure your day off doesn’t extend to 2 or 3 or 4 off days in a row.
16. Drink Lots of Water
The body is some 70% water. When you workout, you sweat, which means you lose a lot of water. If you don’t replace all that water you’re losing you will open yourself up cramping, potential injury and less than stellar performance.
The oft-repeated dictum that you should drink at least 8 glasses of water per day is not actually based in science (10). There are numerous theories regarding how this myth got started, but by now it’s taken on a life of its own in that it’s widely accepted, mostly because it’s widely accepted. When it comes to hydration the best approach is to keep a water bottle nearby while you’re working out and drink water when you’re thirsty. Duh, right?
17. Work Each Muscle Group 2-3 Times Per Week
Above we mentioned the concept of splits (11). This is where you split up your muscles into various groups (legs, back, chest etc) and then focus on one group one day, another group the next day and so forth. This is a great way to maintain workout momentum that is often lost when people do a full-body workout, and then wait up to a week to do another. Often that ‘other’ workout never happens.
If you schedule your splits right, you will be able to hit each muscle group 2 or even 3 times per week, which is essential if you want to gain muscle fast. You don’t have to do splits, however. You can do 3 full body workouts per week instead, alternating 1 day on, 1 day off. The end result will be the same. What won’t produce the desired fast muscle gain is 1 full-body workout per week. So, no matter how you get there, hit each muscle group 2 or 3 times a week.
18. Take Notes
If you’re like most people you have a lot going on and you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to remember every single lift you did in your last 10 workouts. That’s why we have pen and paper, or if you prefer, laptop and Word. It can be both instructive and motivational to be able to see the progress you’ve been making right in front of you in black and white.
Building a new body is like building a house. You can’t just proceed willy-nilly. You need to know where you stand at all times so that you don’t miss anything and you know what needs to be done next. By writing down everything you do you can also see what’s working and what isn’t and adjust accordingly. So take notes. The more detailed the better.
19. Know The Difference Between Being Sore and Being Hurt
If you are pushing your muscles well beyond their comfort zone you’re going to get sore. In fact, sore muscles may come to define your experience in a very real way. But there’s a difference between sore and being hurt, and you need to be mindful enough of what your body is telling you to be able to respond appropriately.
For instance, if you settle in under the bar to do some inclined bench presses and your delts are sore the first couple of sets, that’s no big deal. But if you’re in the eccentric phase of your bench press and you feel something pop in your elbow followed by a shooting pain, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Trying to push through in that case is only going to make matters worse and lengthen any recovery time.
20. One Word: Supplements
Some might interpret the word “supplements” to mean that we’re subtly endorsing steroids. We’re not. When we say “supplements” we’re talking primarily about things like bulking stacks with creatine, beta-alanine, and branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs as they’re commonly called. Creatine itself will not force muscles to grow upward and outward. What it will do is enable those muscles to work harder and more efficiently (12), and that will allow you to push the envelope and build muscle faster.
Beta-alanine is another must-have supplement if you’re serious about gaining muscle fast. It has the ability to raise the anaerobic threshold which enables you to ward off fatigue so you can increase your total training volume (13). This, in turn, allows you to speed up muscle building. Branched-chain amino acids have a different effect. They don’t power your muscles or ward off fatigue. Instead, they get to work in the hours after you lift to speed the process of repairing and rebuilding your muscles (14). Theoretically, this should enable you to get back in the gym faster.
21. Shock the Muscle
There comes a time for anyone who lifts weights on a regular basis when it seems like progress has ground to a halt. In fact, once you reach the upper limits of muscularity this is to be expected, simply because there’s less room for growth at the top than there is at the bottom. However, if you’re still in the early or middle stages of packing on muscle and you find yourself stuck, you may want to try shocking your muscles to get things moving again.
The concept is actually pretty simple and goes like this: instead of wading into your normal routine – which your muscles are used to and ready for – do something different. For instance: after warming up, add 10 lbs to your first set and 20 to what you normally do on your second set. Or, instead of doing straight sets of a single exercise, do supersets where you combine complementary movements. The goal is to get you out of your comfort zone and shock the muscle into responding.
22. Eat Right on Off Days
A lot of lifters make the mistake of thinking that an off day from lifting also means an off day from eating right. Specifically, they cut back on protein consumption on their off days, or they use their off day as a “cheat day” and load up on ice cream and junk food. The fact is, however, that most muscle growth takes place during these off days.
You probably don’t need as many carbs on an off day, simply because you won’t be expending as much energy. But your muscles still need protein if they are going to grow, so you shouldn’t replace that steak with a pizza just because you’re not lifting today. If you do, you’ll be starving your muscles of what they need to grow, and much of your hard work will have been for naught.
23. Don’t Forget Your Legs
Another mistake a lot of people make when trying to pack on muscle is forgetting about their legs. After 6 months of intense training they finally hit the beach to show off the results of their hard work and what people see is Mr Olympia walking around on toothpicks. It can be quite a jarring image and may generate more giggles than gasps.
The bottom line is that if you’re doing 2 or 3 full-body workouts per week, make sure they are true full-body workouts by including leg work. If you are doing splits, make sure one of your days is a leg day. Yeah, legs don’t have the cache biceps enjoy, but you’ll be glad you did the work when you unveil your nice, proportional body in July.
24. Have A Shake Before Lifting
Studies indicate that a good way to increase your stamina during a workout is to have a shake containing branched-chain amino acids about an hour prior to the start of your workout (15). Remember that BCAAs bolster protein synthesis, which is a fancy way to say they build muscles.
Typically, such a shake involves mixing 10 – 20 grams of your BCAA supplement powder with water. That’s about 1 scoop. The powder should include both amino acids and carbohydrates, which your body will use to provide energy during the workout. If protein shakes make you want to hurl, try a turkey and cheese sandwich. That will provide you with approximately the same amount of carbs and amino acids.
25. Stop Changing Your Workouts
No one goes from never having lifted to lifting like a champ overnight. It can take a few weeks for your body and mind to adjust to this new reality, as well as to nail down your form and settle on a workout schedule. That’s a few weeks, not 6-12 months or more. Don’t fall into the trap of endlessly changing your routine under the guise of searching for the perfect workout. If you do, any gains will be modest at best, and you’re likely to become so discouraged you quit.
Lifting to gain muscle fast is actually a pretty straightforward proposition. You obtain access to the weights and the bench setup you need, and you start lifting. Along the way you keep in mind the things we’ve said up to this point about warming up, progressive overload, short breaks, and lifting to failure, along with eating right and getting enough sleep. Make those principles the foundation of your workout strategy and you’ll get the results you want. Keep trying contradictory approaches and you’ll wind up dead in the water.
26. Give the Machines a Pass
Weight machines are a boon for older folks because it lessens the odds of them accidentally hurting themselves. But if you really want to pack on the muscle in a hurry, machines are only going to slow you down. When you lift free weights an array of muscles are activated that work to keep the weight stable and the action smooth. Weight machines provide much of that stability for you. So when you use the machine, you’re engaging fewer muscles.
Dumbbells in particular are great for getting a whole slew of muscles involved. When you’re doing dumbbell presses on a bench, for instance, each arm has to make constant adjustments in order to keep the dumbbells stable and to make the motion of your left arm coincide with the motion of your right arm. The extra muscle involvement equals faster muscle growth.
27. Cut Back on the Running
The goal here is to gain muscle fast. Running doesn’t help you do that. Running is great for your heart and for keeping your weight in check, but it’s not going to help you build muscle. In fact, it will have quite the opposite effect. First, you’ll burn off energy that could be put to better use in the weight room, and second, running actually causes big bulky muscles (the kind you’re after) to shrink.
Studies indicate that the farther you run the more muscle you lose (16). There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that running tends to make muscles more metabolically efficient. The bottom line, however, is that if your goal is to gain muscle fast, running is not going to help.
28. Make the Mind-Muscle Connection
If you’re doing seated bicep curls but your mind is wandering to that sweet thing you talked up at the club last night you’re going to lose out on potential muscle gain. If, on the other hand, you concentrate intently on lifting the weight with your bicep and making sure you experience maximum muscle flex with each rep, you’ll engage more of the muscle fibers and enjoy more rapid muscle growth.
This is called the mind-muscle connection and it’s a potentially potent way to help you gain muscle faster. This connection is no myth that sprouted up in a gym one day and took on urban legend status. It’s been scientifically verified in numerous studies (17) and it’s something you’ll incorporate into your technique if you want to gain muscle fast.
29. Do Lifts That Bolster Testosterone Levels
Every human has some testosterone circulating through their system. Most males simply have more of it than women do. Testosterone is not only necessary to normal male sexual function, it’s also one of the most important ingredients when it comes to building and maintaining muscle mass. Essentially, the more testosterone you have circulating through your veins the easier it will be to create big, strong muscles.
The great thing about testosterone is that you don’t need to take shots to increase your testosterone levels. There are lifting exercises that will do it for you. Compound lifts like the ones we talked about earlier (deadlifts, squats, pullups, etc.) are great for promoting the release of testosterone. If you really want to ramp up the testo keep the weight heavy, keep the rest periods short, and do as many reps as you can. You might also try a testosterone booster.
30. Acknowledge Your Limits
Some people are gifted with bodies that are ideal for sculpting. Everything they do just seems to bolster their V-shaped torso and pile well-defined muscle on top of well-defined muscle. Others are not so fortunate. It’s not their fault, it’s called genetics. That doesn’t mean they can’t markedly improve their physique, only that they may have to accept that their skinny wrist isn’t going to change much, or that their 6 pack is going to look more like a pan of bran muffins that have kind of melted into one another.
If you can accept the limits placed on you by genetics you can focus on being the best you can be. And that’s what it’s really all about anyway: not being a version of someone else, but instead being the best possible you.
31. Just Do It Already
Yeah, it’s an overused cliche as well as being a marketing term. But as is the case with many cliches, there’s more than a little truth in this one. A lot of people shoot themselves in the foot before they get out of the starting blocks by overthinking the whole thing. It’s not that complicated. Just get the equipment you need to workout at home, or else join a health club with a good weight room. Then start lifting.
Chances are you’re not going to do things perfectly at the outset, and you will probably have to make adjustments to your routine, your form, your diet and more along the way. The most important thing is to not sit around doing nothing because you’re unsure whether you should do 8 or 12 reps, or you’re waiting for the correct phase of the moon. As long as you take the tips on this list to heart, you’ll be okay. Now get to work!
The secret to gaining muscle fast is to accept that there is no soft, cushy way to do it. You will need to push yourself by lifting progressively heavier weight and being disciplined. That means no phone calls between sets, no sloughing off for days at a time, sticking to an ambitious schedule even when you don’t want to, lifting to failure, maintaining proper form, watching what you eat and getting enough sleep.
If you can commit to those things you will likely be amazed at the amount of muscle you are able to gain in a relatively short amount of time. If you cannot, well, you may still gain some muscle, but you will likely end up one of those people at the gym who never seems to make it to the next level.