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The Ideal Muscle Building Workout

Updated on July 28, 2015

How to Build Muscle

Building muscle requires learning which exercises are most effective, how many repetitions to do, how often to train, and how to combine cardio and weight training effectively.

This article provides answers for these and other important questions faced by aspiring bodybuilders in the early stages of training. Most of the tips given here are based on personal experience of what makes the ideal muscle building workout. The purpose is to impart essential knowledge to anyone wishing to achieve muscular hypertrophy (growth) through weightlifting exercises.

What Muscles Should I Train?

Young guys will typically go to the gym to work their biceps or pectoral (chest) muscles because they think it will turn them into Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most will get wholly unsatisfactory results. The problem is that exercises such as bicep curls are extremely specific to particular muscle groups. While you might get bigger biceps, your stature and overall size will hardly change at all.

Experience has shown that people looking to build muscle are actually looking for greater stature, which essentially means how big, masculine and strong you look. To achieve greater stature you should focus your workout on developing your shoulders and back.

Iron Gym Total Upper Body Workout Bar
Iron Gym Total Upper Body Workout Bar

This is the pull-up bar I use. It can be placed above most doorways without screws.


Suitable exercises include the lateral pull down (pictured below) and pull-ups, which are like chin-ups but with hands facing outwards. I use an Iron Gym pull-up bar, which allows me to workout my back and shoulders at home.

By all means train your biceps and chest too, but unless you have a very specific goal of developing these muscles, let shoulders and back be the focus of your workout.

The lateral pull down. Hands should be about two shoulder widths apart.
The lateral pull down. Hands should be about two shoulder widths apart.

How Many Repetitions?

To achieve muscular hypertrophy it is recommended that you perform 8-12 repetitions of an exercise. If this is too easy then increase the weight until it is difficult. To increase muscle size, perform each repetition slowly, taking 4 seconds to complete the whole motion. Only go faster if you are looking for explosive strength and power. Once you have completed 8-12 repetitions, rest for a couple of minutes before doing another set. Repeat until you can no longer do 8 repetitions in a set. Ideally, you want to be doing between 3 and 6 sets in a workout.

How Often Should I Workout?

The optimum frequency of your training depends on your body type. Skinny people, or ectomorphs, require more rest and sleep because they take longer to repair their muscles after a workout. They should train no more than 3 times per week, otherwise they risk preventing growth by working muscles that are still damaged. Larger individuals, or endomorphs, can train 5 times per week because they have larger glycogen reserves and quicker recovery time.

Do not train more than this! Something all aspiring bodybuilders should know is: you don't grow muscles in the gym, you damage them. Muscles only grow when the body repairs them, and this happens during the time you allocate for rest, sleep, and recovery.

Can I Do Cardio and Weights?

A good idea is to alternate by doing cardio (running, cycling, rowing, swimming) one day and weightlifting the next. Ectomorphs should only do cardio 1-2 times per week, whereas endomorphs should do cardio every other day (3-4 times per week).

If your visits to the gym are limited and you want to do both cardio and weightlifting in the same session then you need to evaluate your goals. Doing cardio before weightlifting means you will have less energy, or glycogen reserves, left for the weightlifting. So ectomorphs should always do weightlifting first. For endomorphs I would recommend cardio first until you have lost enough fat, then switch. Ultimately, weightlifting should be done first if your sole goal is gaining muscle (although don't forget to warm up).

It's best to avoid high-intensity cardio because this significantly depletes your glycogen reserves and damages muscles in a way that focuses repairs on adapting the body for cardio rather than strength. Low-intensity cardio is better because fat is burnt, but the body is not shaped and defined by the exercise. Cycling is also better than running because it is less intense, and less damaging to the muscles.

Cycling is better than running for building muscle.
Cycling is better than running for building muscle. | Source


The ideal muscle building workout depends on knowing what muscles to train, how many repetitions to do, how often you should train, and what kind of cardio to do. Anyone can achieve muscular hypertrophy if these basic conditions are met.

Of course, building muscle depends on combining these workout rules with an appropriate diet. Whether you are hopelessly skinny or terribly overweight, the basics of diet and exercise are paramount. To learn how to to modify your diet by eating high-protein foods, please visit my other article.


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    • CollegiateFitness profile image

      CollegiateFitness 5 years ago

      Strong hub, good to see someone finally addressing the anatomy. My chest is still relatively small but everyone comments on my mass gains because my lats spread my back out and I really worked on developing my delts and rotator cuff muscles (to increase my stability with UE exercises)

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 5 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for the comment. Most of what I wrote in this article comes from years of scouring the internet for the best tips on how to exercise, but the bit about anatomy comes purely from experience. I used to be one of those guys working my chest and biceps. Then I got a pull-up bar for home, and started doing the lateral pull down in the gym, and suddenly I was breaking out of my t-shirts.

      Also, guys who work chest and biceps generally look like they're trying too hard, which just makes people think they're a bit of a douche. Guys who work shoulders and back look naturally masculine, which I think is more attractive to the opposite sex tbh.

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