The Ultimate 7-Step Beginner’s Guide To Building 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

160 thoughts on “The Ultimate 7-Step Beginner’s Guide To Building Muscle”

  1. Hey Keith, quick question(s), I’m 16 and weigh around 160.5 lbs (I know I’m overweight) and I was wondering if i should focus on slimming down before starting this or if I can just start this and gradually lose the fat later down the road? Any reply helps, thanks

    Reply
    • you can start lifting weights but yes, i would probably lose some weight too.

      BUt you’re only 16, i wouldn’t go too crazy with food tracking right now. Just lift and eat healthier.

      Reply
      • Do you think it would be better if I did this for 3 or so months then went on a caloric deficit while still lifting to lose most of the leftover fat?

        Reply
          • you don’t have much muscle to begin with in the first place so it wouldn’t really matter. Plus since you’re a beginner, you’ll likely lose weight and gain a bit of muscle at the same time.

  2. Hey there… Been reading almost all of ur articles. They r helping me a lot n r awesome.
    Am a vegetarian (I eat dairy products n I won’t eat eggs)
    Can u please suggest me some protein sources.

    Reply
  3. When you speak of the dumb bell and barbell, what weights would you suggest? I am 5’7″, 135 and very athletic. I have never done weight training before though. Thanks!

    Reply
    • to make it simple – pick a weight that you can only lift for the specified reps. For example, if it says to lift 5 reps, then pick a weight that you can only life for only 5 reps, the 6th rep should feel like failure.

      Reply
  4. my butt and thighs are pretty big and thick, they just need toning, are there any exercises that i could do that wouldn’t make my butt and thighs any bigger?

    Reply
    • You could do sprints in instead but I still highly recommend some direct leg work, you just don’t need to train to failure.

      Reply
  5. Hey Keith.
    I was wondering if it was a good idea to incorporate abs and calf workouts in your routine. And if so, when should they be incorporated and how many sets and reps. I am currently one month in.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • yes you could add a few sets for both if you want but since you’re a beginner, it’s not 100% needed.

      I’m working on a 2.0 version of this article that will optimize a lot of things.

      Reply
  6. Thanks for the article. Are machines less effective vs free weights? I have a all in one machine that I can compliment with free weights like bar/dumb bells. Unsure if I should go all free weights.

    Reply
  7. Great workout. Could I modify the Wednesday workout by replacing dumbbell shoulder press with military press? And I can’t do too many chin ups and lat pull downs, what should I do to get better at those exercises? Thanks!

    Reply
  8. I am 16 and I am trying to tone my abdomen muscles, and I am among to get the ‘v’ but I am struggling to find any exercises in the gym that I feel are useful. Could you please suggest some exercises that will ensure in working the lower core area.
    Thanks Amy

    Reply
  9. Hey Keith, quick question. How long do I stick to the workout routine you discribed above? I’ve heard that once your body gets used to s certain routine, muscle stops building. Is this true?

    Reply
    • of course, this isn’t the “end all be all” routine for the rest of your life. Do this for a few weeks and you will eventually plateau, but don’t worry about that until you get there.

      Reply
  10. Hey Keith,
    I’ve been doing this workout for six weeks now. I was wondering if I could add 3 sets of db curls along with 3 sets of tricep cable pressdowns after chin ups on Mondays and Fridays? And if so how many reps should I do of each?

    Thanks

    Reply
  11. Keith, my goal was to do this program for 3 months like you said. The thing is I did it for 6 weeks, but I couldn’t workout for weeks 7 & 8 because I was out of town. I going to continue the program starting next week at week 7. My question: is it bad that I missed 2 weeks in the middle of the program? Will that hinder my gains?

    Thanks so much

    Reply
  12. Hey Keith, I’ve been doing the dumbbell lunges and I’m up to point where I can do the lunge but my grip can’t hold the weight for the entire set. Should I switch to the hack squat where I can really push my legs without worrying about my grip?

    Reply
  13. If you’ve been doing the old workout, should you switch to the new one or stick through with the old?…and my gym doesn’t have a chin up bar, so I have been using the lat pull-down machine with a palm facing in grip to do the chin ups. I was wondering if that was okay?

    Reply
  14. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for the great article. It was a very informative read! I’m a 19 year-old, 143 pound male who is new to weight training and trying to put on a lot of muscle and get stronger. Is 2300 calories per day sufficient to get the maximum possible gains if i’m training 4 times a week but otherwise relatively sedentary? Also is it necessary to have a whey powder and creatine or can I just make sure I have enough protein from whole foods post workout?

    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • That’s a good starting point, but I would monitor my weight and adjust a couple hundred calories is needed.

      No whey and creatine isn’t necessary. If you can get enough protein via real foods, that’s all you need.

      Reply

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