With a quick search for a muscle-building workout program yielding endless results (including many from hardcore bodybuilding websites), many novice trainees don't know where to begin when setting out to build muscle. The thing is, you don't have to train like a bodybuilder or competitive weightlifter right from the start. Let's walk through the first three months of a solid muscle gain program.
The Truth About Beginners: Almost Everything Works
Read enough studies on muscle-building exercise programs and a general pattern emerges: When the subjects are novice trainees, the vast majority of studies find no significant difference between one program and the next. Basically, any effort to build muscle is better than no effort.
If you're just getting off the couch and starting to lift weights, it doesn’t matter much what rep range you use, or even how many times a week you work out. Though compound movements (which utilize multiple muscles) work better than isolation movements (which isolate one), your exercise selection doesn’t otherwise make a difference.
Heck, even cardio-only programs can build some muscle if you’re totally untrained.
Eventually, you will need a more optimized program. However, for the first few months, pretty much everything works.
As a muscle-building beginner, you don’t need to sweat the details. You just need to get the ball rolling by following a few key principles.
Principle One: Keep It Simple
Since the details of a workout program don’t matter very much for beginners, there’s no reason to kick off with a complicated program.
Your task: Pick just two or three workouts to rotate between for the next few months.
Oh, and don't worry about technical terms like periodization, 'pyramid' rep schemes, drop sets, or any of that stuff. Stick with straight sets and very approximate rest periods.
Principle Two: Start Small
Beginners don’t need a lot of volume (think tons of sets) or a very high training frequency. That’s not to say that volume and frequency don’t matter; you wouldn’t want to go to the gym once a week and do only 10 total sets. However, beyond a certain (and quite modest) point, more isn’t better.
Beginners require a pretty low weekly training volume to make strong progress — around 30 to 50 sets per week.
Plus, since novices experience muscle growth for several days after a workout, they don’t need to train very often either. Not to mention, newbies often experience enough post-workout muscle soreness to make daily workouts pretty unappealing, anyway. (Typically, soreness subsides as time goes on and you become more familiar with the exercises in your workouts.)
To start, train two or three days a week, and include fifteen to twenty sets (think three or so sets of five or so moves) per workout.
Principle Three: Stay Safe
Novices tend to worry a lot about safety, so I want to address it. Good news: Lifting weights isn’t very dangerous at all, especially for beginners.
If you lift consistently, your muscular strength can easily double, triple, or even quadruple as time goes on. Your connective tissues, like your joints, ligaments and tendons, can get maybe only 50 percent stronger.
The takeaway: Lifting weights actually gets more dangerous as your muscles become stronger and stronger relative to your body’s structural resilience. As a novice, though, you’re literally too weak to hurt yourself with most exercises.
That said, there are a few exercises to avoid. High-speed exercises — like jump lunges or kettlebell swings — can still be dangerous, because you can hit yourself with a weight or twist an ankle. Plus, some complex exercises — like kettlebell snatches — can be risky for newbies, since you can easily move your joints (particularly your shoulders) beyond their safe range of motion.
Plus, since beginners can make good progress regardless of which rep range they use, don't push yourself too hard to lift heavy. For now, keep things a little lighter and focus on form.
Finally, though you may instinctively want to avoid more 'technical' exercises, like squats and bench presses, don't! Since lifting weights is safer now than it will be in the future, I recommend learning these movements early on. You’ll be safer in the long run!
Principle Four: Use Built-in Motivators
While optimal program design doesn’t matter much for novices, motivation does.
One surefire way to maintain motivation: Keep a journal of your workouts. Log what exercises you did, how much weight you used, and how many sets and reps you performed. This makes a game of the process, allowing you to see your progress and feel a sense of achievement over how far you’ve come.
Another: End every workout with something you enjoy. Whether it's saving your favorite exercise for last or spending a few minutes in the sauna, come up with a satisfying way to end your workouts. This follows a psychological principle called the 'peak-end rule,' which states that we judge how fun something was based on a combination of the most intense part of the experience and the last part of the experience.
Finally, allow yourself some flexibility with your exercise selection. Research shows that trainees are more motivated, train harder, and find the process more enjoyable when they have some freedom to select their exercises. Not to mention, this can also help you avoid having to wait to use equipment when the gym gets packed.
The Best Muscle-Gain Program for Beginners
Now, with all of those principles in mind, here’s a simple two-workout training plan for beginners who want to build muscle.
For both workouts, alternate between exercises in each pair until all sets are completed. Rest one to two minutes between sets.
When you have multiple exercise options, vary your selection from one day to the next. (For example, the first time you do Workout A, do barbell bench presses. The second, use dumbbells.) Just note that the more you mix it up, the more sore you'll likely be!
A1) barbell or dumbbell bench press, 3 sets of 6; A2) dumbbell bent-over row or one-armed row, 3 sets of 6
B1) dumbbell walking lunges or box jumps, 3 sets of 8 to 12; B2) front plank, three times, as long as you can hold it
C1) deadlift, 2 sets of 8; C2) pushups or pike pushups, 2 sets of as many as possible
A1) barbell back squat or leg press, 3 sets of 8; A2) Arnold press, 3 sets of 8
B1) assisted chin-ups or pull-ups, 3 sets of 6; B2) assisted dips, 3 sets of 10
C1) dumbbell monkey shrugs or barbell reverse drag curls, 3 sets of 8 to 12; C2) standing or seated calf raises, or seated calf extensions, 3 sets of 30 to 50
For your first month, do each workout once per week, with a few days in between. (For example, do Workout A on Monday and then Workout B on Thursday.)
For your second month, train on three nonconsecutive days a week (like Monday, Wednesday, Friday), and continuously alternate between the two workouts.
Related: 5 Tips To Get Fit Fast
In your third month, up your volume by adding an extra set of each exercise in circuit A.
After three months on this program, you’ll be doing twice as much weekly volume as you were at the beginning—and you’ll have the gains to show for it.