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The Ultimate 7-Step Beginner’s Guide To Building Muscle

142 Comments | Gain Muscle

beginners workout build muscle

Note: This guide has just been updated in 2015 with brand new information regarding tracking, a new workout split, and new info on nutrition. 

Note #2: This guide is intended for the absolute beginner who has never touched a weight before or the person who has been screwing around the gym for the past 5 years and hasn’t seen any progress at all.  

Step #1 – Find your motivation (exactly why do you want this?)

The first step of achieving any goal is to ask yourself “why?”

Why do you want to gain muscle? Why do you want to transform your body?

Did you get bullied as a kid and want to be more intimidating?

Do you want to impress women and get laid more? <—– 90% of male population

Whatever your reason, just make sure that you understand why you’re doing this. Dig deep.

Peel back the onion layers (like Shrek told Donkey) and reveal the root cause of why you’re putting in all this hard work. And every time you feel like quitting, remind yourself of why you’re doing this.

fitness motivation shrek

Remember, the journey of building muscle is just as important as the end result. It’s on this “journey” that you grow not only physically, but mentally as well.

This is why so many guys struggle with building muscle – because they don’t have the mental “toughness” to pull it off.

Step #2 – Reprogram your mindset, set realistic expectations

  • Gain 50 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks…
  • Our proprietary blend of armadillo amino acid milk and cow liver extract is guaranteed to increase muscle mass by 117.54%…
  • Scientists have recently discovered an ancient muscle building trick used by the Aztecs, just pay $97 to learn all about it….
  • Learn how to get jacked without spending any time in the gym (sit on your couch and watch tv to get jacked)…

You see, ridiculous, “too good to be true” claims are usually just that, too good to be true.

They sound sexy, and prey on the minds of the uneducated and the sad thing is that it works. People believe in these shady marketing tactics and wonder why they aren’t seeing results after dropping $100 on that new “revolutionary” supplement.

If you want to have success with building muscle, you need to reprogram your mindset.

This is one of the fundamental concepts of the non-fitness lifestyle I teach on FitMole.

You need to understand that:

  • There are no quick fixes.
  • If proper training and nutrition is taken care of, a beginner can expect to gain anywhere from 15-30 pounds in their first year of training depending on your current height, weight, age, and various genetic factors. That might not sound like a lot but trust me, it is. If you need a visual, just think of a 20 pound steak, and imagine that being added to your body
  • Unless it involves sticking a needle in your body, most muscle building supplements are bullshit. Anything that claims to be “revolutionary” usually is not and anything that markets itself to be the reason you’re not gaining muscle should be ignored entirely.

Stick with the basics – train hard, eat well, and get enough rest, limit the amount of stress in your life and it’s pretty much impossible to fail

Never try to cheat the system, because it NEVER works.

Step #3 – Track yo’ shit (weight, tape measurements, progress pics)

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If you’re not tracking then you’re just guessing.

Sure, you could just go lift, eat a crap ton of food and hope for the best…but why would you do that when you have a wide variety of methods to help track and optimize your progress so you make sure you’re gaining actual lean muscle mass and not just a bunch of fat.

Here are the various methods I recommend you to use to track your progress when building muscle.

I recommend using all of these methods.

Method #1 – Measure your weight via a scale

Recommended Frequency: 1x per week right after you wake up and take a piss. Do not eat or drink anything before weighing yourself.

This is the most commonly used method to track progress.

But what most guys don’t realize is that the scale measures your weight, that’s all.

It doesn’t measure your body fat or lean muscle mass, it measures everything in your body. So if you get boob implants, the scale would effectively go up.

Also the scale is heavily influenced by water weight which constantly changes depending on the types of food you eat. High carb foods, excess sodium, and supplements like creatine monohydrate make people hold more water.

This is why the scale should be used as only one measuring point.

Measure yourself 1x per week, on the same day, preferably in the morning after you piss and before you eat/drink anything.

In terms of how much weight you should be gaining, the first week is typically more due to spikes in water and glycogen, but after that, you should be gaining about 0.5 pounds per week.

Method #2: Tape measurements

Recommended Frequency: 1x per week right after you wake up and take a piss. Do not eat or drink anything before measuring yourself. 

Tape measurements are another way of measuring progress.

As you workout and eat more, body parts including your waist, shoulders, arms, and legs will grow bigger.

A good indication that you’re progressing in the right way is when all other body parts excluding your waist is getting bigger.

If only your waist gets bigger but other parts of your body remain the same, then that’s an indicator that you’re gaining way too much fat.

Here are the body parts I recommend taking weekly measurements of:

Notes: Obviously take off your clothes when measuring and make sure to use soft (not hard) measuring tape so you can easily wrap it around your body. 

  • Shoulders (at the widest point)
  • Chest (right across nipples)
  • Legs (at widest point)
  • Waist (at belly button)
  • Arms (take measurement with biceps flexed at widest point)

Method #3: Progress pics

Recommended Frequency: 1-2x per week right after you wake up and take a piss. Do not eat or drink anything before taking a pic. Take front and back pics.

Photographer

This is my favorite way to measure progress because the mirror will never lie to you.

The majority of you are here to visually improve your body, and there’s not better way of measuring that than by simply looking at yourself in the mirror and taking pictures.

Take a picture at the start of your muscle building journey and 3-7 days, take another picture.

This shouldn’t be hard especially with how easy it is to create photo albums on smartphones.

Slowly over time, you should see your body get bigger, leaner, and more muscular and within a few months you’ll have a badass photo collection of your transformation.

Step #4 – Use the sample 3-day muscle building workout below

There are A LOT of different muscle building workouts out there.

But which one is most popular and will yield the greatest results for a beginner?

While single body part splits can work (giving a body part its own dedicated day), research has shown that natural lifters respond best when hitting a muscle group multiple times per week.

This is why I recommend beginners to perform a 3-day full body split like the one below.

And no, this isn’t a basic “bench, squat, deadlift” workout. I find routines like those too be overly complex and unbalanced for beginners as most don’t even know how to execute those 3 movements properly.

Here’s the workout…

Note: If you’re not a beginner and want something more challenging, check out this ultimate guide on upper/lower workout splits.

Day 1

  • Back squat/front squat/leg press (pick one) – 3 sets x 5-7 reps, rest 2 min between sets [SS]
  • Dumbbell Lunges – 3 sets x 6-8 reps per leg, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Incline barbell press/incline dumbbell press (pick one) – 3 sets x 5-7 reps, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Seated cable row – 3 sets x 6-8 reps, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Cable crunches – 3-4 sets x 10-15 reps, rest 1 min between sets [SS]

Day 2

  • Conventional deadlift/sumo deadlift/trap-bar deadlift/rack pull – 3 sets x 5-7 reps , rest 2 min between sets [SS]
  • Dumbbell lunges – 2 sets x 6-8 reps, rest 2 min between sets [SS]
  • Seated dumbbell shoulder press – 3 sets x 6-8 reps, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Chin-ups – 3 x 6-8 reps, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Barbell curl & triceps extension superset – 3 x 10-12 reps, rest 30 seconds between supersets [SUS]

Day 3

  • Leg press – 3 sets x 5-7 reps, rest 2 min between sets [SS]
  • Leg curl machine (seated or lying down) – 2 sets x 8-10 reps, rest 1 min between sets [SS]
  • 1-arm dumbbell row – 3 sets x 5-7 reps per arm, rest 2 min between sets [SS]
  • Incline barbell press/incline dumbbell press (pick one) – 3 sets x 5-7 reps, rest 1.5 min between sets [SS]
  • Dumbbell lateral raises & dumbbell rear lateral raises superset – 2 x 10-12 reps, rest 30 seconds between supersets [SS]
  • Cable crunches – 3-4 sets x 10-15 reps, rest 1 min between sets [SS]

Notes about the workout:

  • [SS]: Straight Set, meaning you pick a weight you can push for the specified rep range. For example, if you’re told to bench press 3 sets x 5-7 reps, you need to pick a weight you can only lift for 5 reps. Then you keep working this same weight until you can easily do it for 7 reps. Once you hit 7 reps, then you increase the weight by 5 pounds or so.
  • [SUS]: Super set, meaning you perform both exercises in the SUS without any rest in between. For example, if you’re told to SUS push ups and dips till failure then you perform one set of push ups until you can’t do any more and you immediately move to dips and do as many as you can. Once you’re done with the dips then you’re done with one SUS.
  • Make sure you’re lifting with proper form. If you’re performing an incline dumbbell press but feel it more in your shoulders, then chances are you’re not using correct form. Make sure the exercise you’re doing is working the intended muscle.
  • The workout is done on an alternating day schedule. So for example, you can do Day 1 on Monday, Day 2 on Wednesday, Day 3 on Friday. Just make sure you have at least one day of rest in between each workout.
  • You should be getting stronger every single week. If you aren’t progressing in either the amount of reps or the amount of weight you’re pushing, then something is wrong. Without progressing, there is no way you can grow new muscle tissue.
  • You can do this workout for at least 6 weeks before making modifications. But if you continue to continue to get stronger and see results, then just keep doing the program.

5) Rest and don’t overdo it on your off-days

rest day build muscle

You’re training 3 times per week. Do you understand? I said 3, not 4, not 5.

Don’t be like most guys who try to squeeze in a an extra gym session because you think it’ll help. Trying to do more will just impact recovery, making your next gym session feel like shit. Remember, you’re a beginner so you need to rest. The time you rest is the time you grow.

Doing more simply because you “feel” like you need more is almost never the answer.

If you’re training with the right amount of intensity and as long as you’re not trying to cheat the workout by doing less sets or reps than specified,  then you should be begging for those rest days.

Structure your rest days so you’re not doing anything that’s terribly high intensity. You can do some light walking, foam rolling, mobility work, stretching, etc… just don’t overdo it.

6) Determine your calorie needs

Muscle building food

You need to eat in a calorie surplus to gain muscle, meaning you need to eat more than you burn.

It’s the exact opposite of going on a fat loss diet.

But will you get fat from eating so many calories?

Yes I’m not going to lie, you might gain a few pounds of fat, but that’s nothing compared to the amount of muscle you will gain. And once you’ve gained enough muscle, you can easily lose the fat in a matter of weeks.

To calculate daily calorie intake: Multiply your bodyweight in pounds by 16-18.

Start at 16 if you’re very inactive, meaning all you do is sit in front of the computer.

Start at 18 if you’re already very active and your daily life involves a lot of moving around

But also remember – if you’re super active on your off-days (e.g. you walk around the office or campus a lot) you might need to use a number even higher than 18. In these cases, just throw in an extra 200-300 calories on those specific days to make up for whatever calories burned. 

Once you use the formula above to calculate your calorie intake, you need to adjust accordingly. No matter how complex a calorie formula is, it’s always just a crap shoot.

For example, if you use a 16x multiplier but don’t gain any weight the first 2 weeks, then it’s time to bump up the calories by 200-300. The same goes for gaining too much weight. If you go 2 weeks and gain too much weight, then it’s time to lower calories by 200-300 calories.

So you need to learn the art of dynamically adjusting your calorie intake.

7) Determining your macronutrients

macro food

After calculating your calorie intake, the next step would be to calculate your macros (aka your proteins, carbs, and fats).

First off we have protein. Protein is necessary to build muscle and at a minimum, aim to consume a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. There’s no problem with eating more protein, but 0.8 grams should be the minimum.

Then we have carbs which are absolutely crucial to help fuel training and refuel muscle glycogen stores.

And last we have fats which are needed to to keep testosterone and hormone levels up.

In the end, it’s best to have a balance of all 3 macros. You don’t want to sway too heavy in any one direction because then you’ll start experiencing negative consequences of going too high or low in any one macro.

While there are formulas to help calculate the exact carb and fat intake you should be getting, I recommend you to focus on your overall calorie and protein intake.

Beginners who try to track all 3 macros (protein, carbs, fats) tend to stress out a bit too much and that’s totally understandable. Tracking protein and overall calories is much easier and as long as you’re getting a nice variety of food, you should get a good amount of both carbs and fats.

Random thoughts

If you do 90% of what I say in the above 7 steps, then I guarantee you’ll have success with gaining muscle. And with that said, here some concluding thoughts I have on the muscle building:

Get 6-8 hours of sleep every night. You’ve heard it all before but without adequate sleep you’ll risk limiting your muscle growth and a lack of sleep almost always translates to shitty training sessions.

Don’t be fooled by supplement marketing. Supplements are one of the most controversial and shady markets around. There is very little legal control as to what you can put on the label, so supplement companies are known to stretch the truth, a lot. When building muscle stick with the basics – a multivitamin, fish oil (6-10 grams per day), creatine monohydrate, and whey protein.

Fill the majority of your diet with nutrient dense foods. Eat foods like fruits, veggies, oatmeal, fatty meats, fish, whole eggs, and nuts…you know typical health food stuff.

Don’t be afraid to eat your favorite foods. Even though your diet should mainly consist of nutrient dense foods, there’s no reason why you can’t have some ice cream every night. As long as the majority of your calories are coming from whole nutrient dense foods, then feel free to throw in a doughnut, some french fries, or whatever you fancy.

Pre-workout nutrition isn’t necessary. It’s entirely okay to train fasted, but if you find yourself low on energy, then try a cup of coffee or something with caffeine before you workout.

Enjoy the process. When it comes to building muscle, I would say the training is harder than the diet, so be sure to bring your A-game to the gym. Eating is relatively easy. You almost never go hungry since you’re in a caloric surplus but the important thing is to just be consistent.

Be sure to leave any comments or questions you have about building muscle as a beginner and I’ll answer them below.

Photo credits: bouche, brtsergio, Dawn

Sam - July 8, 2016

Hey Keith, I just realized on day 3 cable-crunches you have it as [SUS] but only one work-out. What were you referring to as the super set compliment of the cable-crunches?

Best.

Reply
Tania - July 5, 2016

How can i measure my calories?

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    Keith - July 5, 2016

    Look up the nutrition facts for the foods you eat.

    Reply
Chris - June 10, 2016

Hey Keith,
Great article. So I’ve been lifting for around a year now, and in the past year I’ve gained almost 20 pounds. I’m 5′ 6″, and currently weigh in around 145. I never really started off with a three day full body split; I had some friends that lifted and they got me into a PPL split from the beginning, but recently I’ve been feeling as though getting back to the basics might be beneficial. Do you think there’s any benefits in me starting your routine now, or will I not necessarily see that much progress? I’m benching 145, squatting 185, and deadlifting 235 (all for 5 sets of 5 reps). Thanks for your help.

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    Keith - June 10, 2016

    Well you’ll never know till you try it for a few weeks.

    PPL is cool, but the 6x per week protocol that a lot of guys are doing is absolutely brutal for a beginner.

    Reply
      Chris - June 10, 2016

      Cool, thanks for the response. On an unrelated note, I’m going to be away from home this summer for three weeks and won’t really have access to a gym for that period. Any advice you have for not losing too much strength? Doesn’t need to be super specific, thanks,

      Reply
        Keith - June 10, 2016

        Keep protein intake high, other than that, you should expect to lose some muscle but you’ll regain whatever you lost within a week or so.

        Reply
John - June 8, 2016

For how long can I get away with tracking overall protein//calorie intake before I need to start tracking macro’s and eating less on off days like you mention in your article “How To Gain Muscle Without Fat”?

I’ve only been working out for about a month now with a 3-day full body split and I’ve put on more weight than most articles say is possible for muscle building. (13 lbs total, though at least 6-7 of this came after a week of creatine loading and is likely water retention)

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    Keith - June 8, 2016

    You can technically do it forever. You don’t need to track carbs and fats down to the exact gram. The lean bulk protocol is about eating more on training days and less on off days, but it’s talking about overall calories still.

    Reply
Matt - May 25, 2016

Hi Keith,

Great article. I have been lifting for almost 30 years but am just getting my kids into lifting and was wondering why you don’t have flat bench presses included at all. I actually do almost exclusively incline myself now but I wondered what the reasoning was for you here.

Thanks,
Matt

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    Keith - May 25, 2016

    Creates a more aesthetically pleasing chest. People who focus only on flat/decline presses tend to have a man-boobish look to their chests. Not saying you can’t do it, but I’d like to focus more on upper chest.

    Reply
Lupain - April 15, 2016

Dear Keith

I am a woman, 34 yrs old, I used to do aerobic exercise and spinning, and used to have good body shape before pregnancy (around 9 years ago). I am overweight now (185 lbs) my height is 1.70 meters (something around 5′ 7″) and I never workout nowadays, but my goal is to start from the beginning correctly. I found your website, I love your posts, but I have some doubts, your articles can be applied for both men and women? Cause sometimes I feel you write more inclined to men, and you know men metabolism is very different to women, so I am a bit confused, I hope you can clarify this for me, if my main goal as a beginner is to loose all the fat and get back to my ideal weight that is around 136 lbs, is it right for me to still apply the principle you mentioned here of focusing on starting to build muscle first and then lose all the pounds with the calorie intake and exercise base, or this should apply only for men, or for both men or women but that their main goal is to gain muscle? Thanks in advance for your help!

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    Keith - April 16, 2016

    yes i do write a bit more towards men since it’s just more natural for me but the same principles apply to women.

    You can do this workout and eat in a deficit to lose fat. IF you’re a beginner, you’ll gain muscle simultaneously since weight lifting is so new to you.

    Reply
Gabriel - April 7, 2016

hey kieth, is it possible to add cardio to these workouts ? and if so, do you have suggestions when I should be doing it ?

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    Keith - April 7, 2016

    Yes you can add it after the workout, but I would be careful not to slowly ramp up and add in extra calories to compensate for the calories the cardio burns.

    Reply
Gabriel Salas - April 6, 2016

Hey Keith,

Love the article and very helpful but I have a question.

I did the multiplier for the calories and I got 3189.6 calories a day. I’m 19, currently 5’10 1/2 and 187.6 pounds. is that correct or is that too much ? I work retail and usually take 15,000 – 18,000 steps a day and plan on following this routine. I’m a complete newbie in the gym, I’ve been dabbling in different routines for 2 weeks now but haven’t stuck to anything consistent.

Reply
    Keith - April 7, 2016

    Since you walk a lot you can start with an 18x multiplier. You need to play around with the calories, what i give is just a starting point.

    Reply
Ireign - March 16, 2016

Hey Keith,
I am 19 years old.
5’7
Weigh around 111 pounds

Never had any gym experiences before but I do have some lean muscles as being an athlete.
I do have a good torso. but fatless biceps and legs.

As you can see to look like a beast I need to grow a lot.

I really want to gain muscles as fast as I can.

Please can you suggest me how and what kind of workout plan I should follow?

Reply
Karlyn - March 2, 2016

Hey thanks I appreciate the help, but I need help, so I plan on starting this in a couple weeks, but my problem is I work nights nd take the bus so I get to work and hr early nd so trying to go to the y is extremely hard, so don’t you know if wally world sells bars? Also I can’t have nuts nd eggs don’t sit well with my body nd so do u have any subs I can put in? I was thinking pistachios for nuts, but egg??? Wat do I do?? Please nd thanks p.s. I only got fri-sat off nd I work 4-close everyday

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    Keith - March 2, 2016

    Please be more clear with your question. I have no idea what you’re actually asking.

    Reply
Donner - February 17, 2016

Hey. i started going to gym last week, everything was going nice and smooth until this monday i hurt my back really bad. What would you suggest me to do? Should i rest it out or go out there and do my workout with lower weights? Really like this workout routine tho, its not as complicated as other ones ive saw.
Best regards.

Reply
    Keith - February 17, 2016

    No you should rest if it’s really bad. Doing anything else could just make it worse.

    Reply
Sahil - January 25, 2016

Hey Keith,

Been reading your post here and this is some great information.

So I am a beginner to this weight lifting thing. I am 36 years old, about 5’11” and weigh 237lbs. I’ve never really been a gym rat so most of physical activities have come from outdoor sports, baseball, basketball, football etc. But that was 10-15 years ago. I am now married, have 2 kids and been stuck behind a desk job for years. Not really active most days, I’ve started walking about 30 mins 5 days a week, doing push ups here and there.

For someone like me what would you suggest? I don’t really know where to start in terms of weight lifting. My goal is to get down to 190lbs and I don’t want to do it overnight or in 3-4 months. I want to change the way I eat and start working out, but again not sure where to start or what program to follow. I don’t have a gym membership but my work has a decent gym (not a full gym) that is free. I work from home 3 days a week, and I’m in the office 2 days so I have free gym access those 2 days.

Is there a plan that you recommend? From reading your post, you mentioned to lose some of the belly fat or fat in general before starting up a weight lifting program.

Any advice is great appreciated.

Reply
    Keith - January 26, 2016

    You’re no different than someone who’s single, doesn’t have kids, and has a desk job.

    I understand time is an issue but you need to find time if you really want it.

    You can still do this workout to lose weight. You can cut back volume slightly by 1 set or so.

    The big thing is your diet. You would use a 10-12x multiplier instead of what I stated in this post.

    Reply
mohammedkhan - December 3, 2015

hii,boss
i doing each part each day workout.is it ok to do or not well i getting changes in my body to do like this

Reply
    Keith - December 3, 2015

    Sorry i’m confused by your question.

    This is a 3 day per week workout. Each workout is done on a separate day.

    Reply
mohammedkhan - December 3, 2015

if i doing each part workout each day than is it wrong
in one weak i doing 2 times chest workout & all other part only one time is it possible to do like this or not

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Denis - November 22, 2015

Hi Keith, really appreciate your diet tips! I’m somewhat of an intermediate lifter, been squatting/bench press/deadlifting for years but only just started getting serious about diet, regular lifting schedule, etc. If I can do the basics, would I be ok just doing a program like SS or Stronglifts 5×5?

I’m 6’1″, 151 pounds, pretty skinny but never considered myself underweight. Going for a leaner bulk so I am shooting for 2400-2800 calories a day.

Reply
    Keith - November 22, 2015

    Hey denis,

    Yes Strong lifts can work but i find it to be a slightly unbalanced program if you’re looking for a more aesthetic physique. For that, my SS 2.0 program would work better.

    Reply

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