Let’s take a step back and break down four of the high-level principles behind building truly epic levels of strength and muscle mass.
Muscle Building Philosophy 1: Lift Heavy
It should be obvious that lifting heavy weights builds more strength than lifting light weights—after all, that’s precisely what strength is. But just to be sure, scientists have studied it, and lifting heavy does indeed build more strength than lifting lighter weights for more reps.
Studies are more equivocal on whether lifting heavy is important for muscle growth, with some finding it makes no significant difference and others finding that lifting heavy is indeed better. However, most of the null results are likely due to small sample sizes; a meta-analysis found that lifting heavy does indeed led to greater muscular hypertrophy (or muscle growth).
Fairly heavy loads—at least 70 percent of one-rep max—appear to be necessary to stimulate tendon growth. Since you want your tendons to strengthen along with your muscles in order to prevent injury, this suggests that lifting at least moderately heavy may actually be safer in the long run.
Lifting heavier and/or more explosively improves the nervous system’s ability to recruit muscular motor units, resulting in higher levels of muscular activity during training. This increases strength, but in the long run it increases hypertrophy as well.
In short, lifting heavy—over 70 percent of 1RM, and possibly as high as 90 percent—is absolutely essential to building strength. For building mass, it’s important, but more so in the long run than the short run.
Muscle Building Philosophy 2: Training Volume
There’s a lot of confusion about how training volume should be determined. Many people measure it in terms of sets per workout, sets per body part per workout, or total amount of weight lifted—sets x reps x weight—per week.
For program planning purposes, training volume is best thought of in terms of sets per body part per week. Muscle growth is primarily a local process, so training volume is relevant on the per muscle rather than the whole body level.
As it turns out, the ideal weekly training volume is higher than most people think. Most everyone benefits from doing at least ten sets per muscle group per week. However, training age makes a big difference here; more advanced trainees are more resistant to muscle damage, and as such they are able to benefit from higher training volumes.
Overall, the literature suggests that training volume should go up as you get more advanced. As an initial guideline, novices will want to start out with 10-15 sets per muscle group per week, intermediate trainees should do 15-20 sets, and advanced trainees should usually be doing around 20-25 sets per muscle group per week.
Those are just guidelines; some people will want to do less, and many people will get better results by doing more. You’ll need to start with those numbers, and adjust up or down based on your recovery capacity.
As a final note, the total number of sets you do per week depends not only on your training volume, but also your exercise selection. For example, a set of leg extensions would only count as one set for your quads, while a set of squats would count towards your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and arguably also your lower back.
Muscle Building Philosophy 3: Pick the Right Exercises
This part isn’t particularly secret, but I’ll say it anyway: The best exercises are almost always compound movements that use free weights.
Why compound movements? They work more muscles at once, so you get more bang for your buck. But they’re also more natural to the body; isolation movements rarely occur in nature. As such, compound movements have more carryover to other movements.
Compound movements build more strength than isolation movements; however, they don’t necessarily build more muscle mass—though, again, you’d need to do more sets of isolation movements to equal the same work volume as fewer sets of compound movements. Unsurprisingly, compound movements also build more cardiorespiratory fitness than isolation movements.
As for free weights, they’re also more natural to the body because they don’t force you into a specific movement pattern the way machines do. This makes them safer in addition to allowing more muscle fibers to be engaged in the exercise; for example, using rotating handles increases muscle activation on pull-ups and pull-downs.
All other things being equal, exercises that give you more freedom of movement are preferable. In general, the hierarchy goes dumbbells>barbells>cable machines>regular machines. Again, that’s with all things being equal—many barbell exercises are still vital because they lack a direct dumbbell equivalent. The squat, for example, needs to use barbells because you can’t rest dumbbells on your back.
Muscle Building Philosophy 4: Feed Your Muscles
After a workout, there is a period called the anabolic window in which the muscles you trained are primed to take up more nutrients, and use those nutrients to grow. This period is commonly believed to be only a few hours; the truth is it’s longer. How much longer depends on training age—novice trainees have an anabolic window of 3-5 days, intermediate trainees are around 36-48 hours, while advanced trainees may have a window of only 24 hours, maybe even less.
It therefore behooves you to eat more of your calories and protein during this anabolic window. In other words, you need to calorie cycle.
As a general guideline, 50 percent of your calories should be specifically eaten during your post-workout anabolic windows. The other 50 percent should be spread evenly throughout the week, including those meals that take place during your anabolic windows.
In practice, this means that the more advanced you are, the harder you’ll have to calorie cycle. Novice trainees can easily spend all week in an anabolic state, while advanced trainees will have short windows in which they eat large meals, and then will eat very small meals outside of those periods.