How to Build Muscle in 2021

The single greatest piece of fitness advice nobody told me when I was 20 that I’d now tell my former self: build as much lean muscle mass as possible.

I outlined the reasons in a post here, and a lot of people wanted resources, so I’ve put together this resource guide. I wrote this keeping in mind exactly what I wish would have been in a single article when I got back into fitness 6 years ago.

What to know before diving into the resources:

  • I’m not licensed to give medical advice, so that’s not what this is. Talk to a doctor if you wonder whether any of the below is appropriate for you.
  • I’m also not a world-class athletic competitor — just a dad who has spent the last 15 years passionate about fitness, the last 5 of which saw 25+ lbs. of muscle gain. What I’ve learned comes from 10K+ hours of personal experience, reading books/blogs, online and in-person seminars/certifications, and helping lots of people (mainly new dads) get fit over the past few years.
  • The below resources mainly focus on building muscle (which is what the above post was about), not on losing fat. Some very smart people think you can do both at the same time (see leangains.com) but chances are that you’re better off focusing on one or the other at the beginning. To figure out what the right place is for you to start, I recommend this article.
  • Before you embark, set an aggressive intention around sleeping enough and eating a lot of high quality protein-rich meals. Your ability to achieve lasting and significant results is 80% dependent on these two factors, and only 20% dependent on training.
  • One reason people stop and regress is obsessing too much over how they look. Expecting to make visible progress in the first few weeks and then getting discouraged and thinking the whole thing’s pointless. Or noticing slight changes then getting worrying about whether you’re going to get too big/muscular without realizing that it’s almost impossible to get as big as a bodybuilder without a decade plus of lifting every day, plus steroids.
  • Another reason people stop and regress is injury. How to avoid it? 1) Fix your poor posture in daily life —possibly even hiring a physiotherapist — so that you’re not entering every workout with your neck, shoulders, lower back or knees already in a state of stress; 2) Before you start with any kind of bodyweight or weightlifting routine, hire someone (ideally in-person, though the web has a lot of great form videos available for free) to teach you how to move properly. 3)Warm up properly before each session, or incorporate warmups/mobility into your day to reduce the amount of time the workout itself takes. 4) Prioritize consistency over intensity — pushing it too hard especially early on in your fitness journey can lead to excessive soreness and stiffness which can be discouraging and dangerous.
  • If your goal is to build muscle and get stronger, then at least at first: avoid HIIT classes, CrossFit WODS, and really anything else that’s going to get you sweating a lot, breathing hard, and making your muscles “burn”. These are the things that you would want to feel if your goal were to build cardiovascular or muscular endurance, but not if you’re trying to get bigger or stronger. Endurance can be useful for other things, like if you’re trying to get in shape to climb a big mountain, complete a triathlon, or improve at a particular sport…but it’s not useful for getting bigger or stronger. That said, if you DO want to improve your cardio conditioning while getting bigger and stronger it’s possible to do so (contrary to what some may say), but those workouts should be thought of separately from strength workouts (also despite what you might read in magazines).
  • It’s possible to build muscle with bodyweight, free weights (dumbells, barbells, kettlebells), and machines/cables…though functional strength (being able to use your strength in real life) is best built through a combination of bodyweight and free weight exercises. The obvious benefit of bodyweight training is that you need minimal equipment (a pullup bar, maybe parallelettes). Kettlebell training is also home-workout friendly.
  • If your goal is to get bigger/stronger, the most important thing to ensure regardless of the type of training you’re doing is that you’re following the principle of “Progressive Overload” — that you’re increasing intensity, volume, frequency, or tension over time, from one workout to the next. This is also the reason that just paying for ClassPass isn’t going to help you get bigger/stronger— because following an instructor that’s teaching 20 people all at different levels isn’t helping you progress in a measured way against your own goals. Here’s an article about this.
  • “Rest Days” should really be called “Active Recovery” days — sitting on the couch all day is far less effective at helping your muscles recover for the next workout than getting outside for a hike, spending 30 minutes on your Peloton, playing soccer with your kids, or doing something else active.
  • Lack of time is not an excuse. Warmups and stretching can happen throughout the day, workout sets can be spaced out in between emails or done with your kids in the room playing lego. You don’t need 2 hours of uninterrupted time with headphones in like you did in college.
  • Measure and track every workout. You can use an app like Strong or you can use a notebook like this article shows how.

Enough with the introduction — onto the resources!

Benefits of Strength Training

Resources for Beginners:

Bodyweight Training for Beginners

  • If you have zero lifting experience, my opinion is that the best place to start is with your own bodyweight. This is because bodyweight training requires the least equipment to get started or learn how to use, is safer than barbell and kettlebell training, and helps you build awareness and confidence in the way your body moves through space.
  • You don’t have to stay with only bodyweight forever, though you can if you want. The way I’d think about progressing beyond using your own bodyweight for resistance is that you want to work up to a certain level of strength first. Here are a few standards (for men) to achieve with your own bodyweight before you move onto lifting external objects: 25 slow, perfect pushups without stopping, 5 perfect slow pull-ups without stopping, and 50 perfect slow squats/lunges without stopping. For women, adjust to 10 perfect pushups, 1–2 slow pull ups, and 50 squats/lunges. Then and only then moving on to barbells and kettlebells. Some may disagree with me; that’s okay. Just one man’s opinion.
  • Here’s a good article summarizing many of my thoughts on bodyweight training.
  • If you want to use an app to get started with bodyweight training, I’ve heard great things about Freeletics.
  • I recommend that if you have the time and interest, you also enroll yourself in the GMB Fitness Elements virtual program. It will teach you how to move properly and counteract a lot of the negative effects of sitting and hunching over that many of us do in our day-to-day lives. You can do the program before you start bodyweight training, in parallel, or even after you’ve built bodyweight strength and are looking to begin weightlifting. It will help you regardless.

Weightlifting for Beginners

  • If you have weightlifting experience and/or you meet the bodyweight exercise thresholds mentioned above, then there are two places you can start for weight training: kettlebells or barbells.
  • The best place to start for kettlebell training is a program called Simple and Sinister — here’s an article summarizing this very effective workout routine. There’s a whole book about this routine and how to use it if you decide that’s what you want.
  • Here’s how to know what size kettlebell to buy to get started. I’d recommend starting out with a cast iron kettlebell, not a sport kettlebell or a urethane kettlebell. The best place to buy kettlebells is Kettlebell Kings or Rogue Fitness.
  • If you have access to and experience with barbells, then the best place to start with would be Starting Strength. Here are a couple other programs that are similar to Starting Strength: this Big 3 Routine, and this Beginner Powerlifting Program.
  • If you’re looking to buy a barbell lifting setup, I’d recommend looking online for a good, stable, adjustable squat rack and bench press (ideally combined). This can get pretty pricey so buying good brands like Rogue Fitness used on Craigslist can be a good way to go.
  • One I used 3x during 2020 to great results is Simple Strength for Difficult Times. What I like about it is that it’s super simple and works with both kettlebell and barbell movements. This program doubled my weighted pistol squat strength, and increased my overhead press and bent over row numbers by 60% each.
  • Last thing here: Commit to 2–3x/week for at least 6–12 months, track all your workouts, then see about going to intermediate if you’re ready. The reason I put these in bold is because far too many people go “program-hopping” when getting started, meaning that they start a program, do it for 5 weeks, decide that it’s boring or wonder whether there’s another better program out there, and then switch to a new program. This behavior kills progress. Pick a program, and be consistent for 3–6 months; then look up and see if you want a change.

Nutrition for Beginners

  • If you want to get bigger and stronger, you need to eat more than you’re used to eating. Here’s a very simple guide on what to eat.
  • For a more tailored look at how much you should eat, and when, and what kind of foods, is to click here and use the Ultimate Macro Calculator from Precision Nutrition. It’ll give you a custom PDF of what you should eat based on a short diagnostic survey you take. It doesn’t have an option for vegans but if you’ve made the conscious choice to be vegan then I recommend you also conduct research on how to get adequate protein, iron, and vitamin B12.
  • Meal preparation ends up being pretty important if you don’t want to end up ordering everything on Instacart and also don’t want to end up stressed out about what to cook every few hours. Here’s a simple guide that helped me. Every few days I cook a few pounds of fish and ground beef, as well as a few butternut squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and some rice. Then I also keep a fridge full of eggs, spinach, bell peppers, olives, pickles, and beets, and a cupboard full of oatmeal, tuna, fruit, and protein powder. Altogether this means a solid meal is never more than 10 minutes away.
  • Most fitness supplements are a scam in that they either don’t work, are super unhealthy, or both. The only supplements I recommend are protein powder (whey, or pea/rice if vegan), creatine monohydrate (it’s the only supplement that’s safe and scientifically proven to help you build muscle faster), and vitamin D-3 (since none of us get enough sunlight and vit D3 is super important for your immune system, which you have to keep strong if you don’t want your workouts to be interrupted by getting sick).

Sleep

  • A few years ago my second son was born, and he had very restless nights as a newborn, so I was up a lot at night and working during the days. I lifted weights every day and ate a lot but didn’t see any progress for months. The reason? I was only sleeping 5–6 hours/night, then occasionally dozing off for a few minutes in the afternoon. That’s not nearly enough sleep to get bigger and stronger.
  • To see gains, you need to be sleeping at least 7 hours/night, ideally 8 or more.
  • Can you make up for shorter nights by napping during the day? I.E. Will you make the same kind of gains if you sleep 6 hours at night and nap for 2 vs sleep 8 hours straight? It’s not entirely clear, and may depend on the person. But here are a few things to know: napping can help regenerate your cells to be energized and help you push hard in a workout, but the deep sleep at night is when your body actually grows/builds muscle and releases a lot of the hormones that support anabolic growth. So you’re probably better off just going to bed earlier.
  • Here’s a helpful infographic with lots of ideas on how to get more sleep, and reminders on why it’s important.

Resources for Intermediate Athletes

Bodyweight Training for Intermediate Athletes

  • Roughly speaking, once you can do 10+ sets to failure of pushups and pullups without feeling sore the next day, you’re ready to explore more “intermediate” forms of bodyweight training. What this means with regard to the main goal of this article — getting bigger and stronger — is finding harder movements. Things like handstand pushups, pushups/pullups with a weight vest, single leg (shrimp/pistol/cossack) squats, and more. Use the same kind of Progressive Overload planning outlined in the Beginner Bodyweight section above to improve your numbers on these exercises. The Simple Strength for Difficult Times plan is also a great choice here.
  • At this point, it’s worth purchasing a weight vest, parallettes, and a pullup bar if you hadn’t already. Gymnastics rings can also be a good addition.
  • If you can do all the movements listed above and you want to take things up a notch, it can be very rewarding to learn gymnastics movements such as the front lever, planche, and various holds. I wasted a lot of time trying to build my own program around gymnastics in 2019 before I found the website Gymnasticbodies which has incredible courses and programs that will take you from total novice to able-bodied gymnast-in-training pretty efficiently, building strength and size inevitably along the way.

Weightlifting for Intermediate Athletes

  • Once you’ve been weightlifting seriously for a year or two (sometimes more depending on how you define “seriously”), and you have a solid foundation of strength and excellent lifting technique, programs like Starting Strength may start to produce progress more slowly. At this point you may want to move onto other styles of training. Here are a few good options…
  • German Volume Training. 10 sets of 10 reps. Pretty high volume, and pretty high in terms of stress/stimulus to the muscles. This type of training will take more time and energy to do, but is effective at sparking a new phase of muscle growth if the beginner routines have slowed their progress.
  • Reverse Pyramid Training. RPT is even more effective if you’ve hit a plateau, and it’s also more time efficient than GVT. But it’s also much more physically/mentally taxing approach to building muscle, because it pushes you to near-failure on every set. So unless you have excellent form and a very strong foundation, it’s not recommended because the injury risk is higher than most other programs mentioned so far. Here are two links about RPT and how to create your own program: 1) A Complete Guide to Reverse Pyramid Training and 2) The Reverse Pyramid Training Guide.
  • Intermediate Powerlifting Routine. This is a good routine to use if you want to change things up a bit from the beginner programs listed above, but aren’t looking for something as extreme as German Volume Training or Reverse Pyramid Training.
  • Here are some strength standards for men to aspire toward. And here are the equivalent scaled strength standards for women to aspire toward. It would take a normal person several years of dedicated consistent effort to achieve these standards. At some point in the latter half of that journey, you may start to consider yourself an “Advanced” athlete but I personally reserve that term for people with decades of experience and competition. When it comes to thinking about progress, what’s greatest about strength training is that your only competition is yourself. And the weights never lie.

If you have specific questions feel free to reach out — happy to help. And if you’re a new or expecting dad, check out deepfitdad.com and email me at tedgonder@gmail.com — I’d love to help you get fit for fatherhood.

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Impact entrepreneur and growth exec. Board member and co-founder, former CEO @Moneythink. Loves family, nature, wolves, kettlebells.

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Ted Gonder

Ted Gonder

Impact entrepreneur and growth exec. Board member and co-founder, former CEO @Moneythink. Loves family, nature, wolves, kettlebells.

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