How To Increase Muscle Mass: The Complete Guide

Increasing Your Muscle Mass With Training And Diet
Wondering where to start when it comes to building muscle mass? Here is the best place to start if you're looking to add on some muscle mass the right way!

Jacked, diesel, yoked…doesn’t matter what term you prefer, pretty much every male wants to get huge. Sure, 150lbs with abs might look good on Instagram but in real life, you’re not going to impress anyone with your 13-inch arms and narrow shoulders.

So now the question remains, where do I start?

Well, I’m sure you’ve seen tens, if not hundreds of these articles from various authors but the truth is, they should all revolve around some of the same basic points.

I think the message continues to get rehashed because people don’t want to accept the facts that have been consistently proven time and time again.

They’re looking for the “secrets they’ve been missing all along” when many of their goals can be accomplished with hard work and dedication.

Some of this might be new to a few of the readers but if you’ve been training hard for a few years, then most of this should be ingrained in your memory. If not, learn it now and never forget it.

Training: The Bread & Butter Of Being Big

You can’t get big if you don’t lift, right? Well I mean you can but the fact is your physique is going to suffer.

Building a wide back, big legs, or a thick chest is the result of patience and effort; they don’t just magically appear when one starts slamming protein shakes and eating out of Tupperware every 2 and half hours.

If you remember nothing else from this article, take this one point with you for the rest of your life: training should always revolve around the principle of progressive overload.

If you’re not performing more total work compared to the last time you lifted, then you’re won’t produce positive physiological or neural adaptations.

However, keep in mind that progressive overload can be accomplished through a variety of means: increased repetitions, weight, sets, time under tension, density (work completed in a set amount of time), range of motion, degree of exercise difficulty, or exercise order. Often times as lifters become more advanced, weight can’t be added to the bar as quickly so they must look for other variables to manipulate.

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Besides progressive overload, you must also let specificity dictate your training. Essentially, specificity and overload go hand in hand.

You have to ask yourself what qualities you’re looking to improve; this will determine which method you use to enhance the overload stimulus.

For example, if you want to improve your back squat, you should be emphasizing the squat pattern or a variation of the movement (front, goblet, safety bar, etc.).

I’m sure this seems rather rudimentary but I see a lot of folks mess this up in their accessory work. No, the missing variable for your weak bench is not cable flies or tricep kickbacks; get better at the specific motor pattern you’re trying to improve.

One final note that bears repeating: if you want to make any sort of long term progress and actually attain a decent physique, you should be sticking to a given program for at least 3-4 months at minimum.

Personally, I’ve been running a modification of DUP for the last year straight with few slight exercise variations but if I emphasize the above concepts, the results will continue to improve.

If you feel like you’re doing everything absolutely right but your training has hit a standstill, you should check out my other article: 11 Reasons You’re Not Getting Stronger.

Intensity or Volume?

Why not both? Each has their place within a program but it depends entirely upon their application.

A good coach understands where to prioritize each variable within an athlete’s mesocycle but if you’re writing your own programming without much background knowledge, it can make things quite tough.

If you want a bit more guidance on program design and how to incorporate both variables within the same routine, you should check out Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP).

Anytime someone mentions that they are on the road to swoledom, it can be assumed that they’re looking to increase muscle cross sectional area in order to generate the appearance of being as big as possible. When one is looking to maximize all aspect of their hypertrophic programming then there is a few variables, which they need to prioritize at a physiological and biomechanical level.

I’ve written extensively about these in the past and you can find them here if you’re interested in enhancing your program design: Train Like An Athlete, Look Like a Bodybuilder

However, it would be a graven mistake if I didn’t address an error that I see many young trainees making: stop abusing volume. Training is a stressor to the body, accumulate enough stress and the body will adapt, that’s how we’re designed at a physiological level. But, stress also follows the concept of a minimally effective dose - once you’ve hit a certain threshold, positive adaptations will occur but more is not guaranteed to incur even greater adaptations.

If one starts out with an incredibly high volume routine (for example: 10 sets of 10), it’s going to be a tremendous stress upon the body from both a physical and neurological standpoint, but what happens when the body reaches homeostasis at that level of volume? Are you going to bump things up to 15 or 20 sets of 10? I hope not.

Stick to the minimally effective dose and progress incrementally. Rhabdomyolysis never helped anyone, trust me.

Proper Nutrition And Training Needed For Growing Muscle

Supplementation: You’re Probably Taking More Than You Need

Supplementation is pretty much the fallback plan for every lifter when they aren’t seeing gains.

“Maybe I need to start taking BCAAs, double my glutamine dosage, and pick up a test booster?”

How about instead, you learn how to eat and train according to your goals?

Supplementation is likely going to make a subtle 5% difference in your training, recovery, and lifestyle but each recommendation below is evidence based, fairly cheap, and a beneficial addition for those who are looking to take their performance to the next level.

1. Creatine Monohydrate

Without getting too much into the physiological mechanism behind creatine, we can suffice to say that it merely aids in the re-phosphorylation of ATP in order to enhance energy production with in your phosphagen system.

Don’t get too caught in the mechanism but in order to understand its benefits, you must realize that it is a supplement whose effects aren’t immediately felt. You can’t compare it to caffeine or beta alanine but if you understand physiology, you’ll realize it’s importance given the vast amount of research demonstrating improvements in power output, glycogen-loading capacity, strength gains, and anaerobic metabolism. [1,2,3]

However, whenever I mention creatine to an athlete, the first question I always get is, “Won’t it make me gain weight?” In short, yes. But, this newly acquired weight is not actual tissue; it is merely an increase in intra-cellular water retention that is often misinterpreted.

When someone (aka every single male in the gym) is “chasing the pump”, they are generating metabolic byproducts from various energy systems and also changing intra-cellular water concentration through cell swelling. This mechanistic change actually signals anabolic pathways as your body tries to maintain homeostasis.[4] The end result is an increase in muscle protein synthesis and cellular adaptation to prevent future damage.

So, don’t worry about any water weight increases from creatine monohydrate supplementation, you’re actually enhancing hypertrophic adaptations when you combine it with glycolytic training.[5]

2. Fish oil

If you’re just hearing about fish oil for the first time in this article, you need to step up your supplementation game. Research has shown that it is rather beneficial in management of triglycerides, blood pressure, vascular function, and a host of other factors.[7,8,9]

The typical American diet is heavy in omega-6 but rather lacking in the omega-3 department so that’s where fish oil comes into play. Sure, you could just eat some cold water fish such as salmon 2-3 times per week and be fine but some people may not have the money or the interest for that so supplementation becomes necessary and beneficial.

3. Vitamin D

If you’re like most of corporate America, you spend the vast majority of your career indoors. On top of that, if you’re reading this website then we can assume that at least one of your hobbies (aka lifting) takes place indoors as well.  However, sun exposure is one most important determinates of vitamin D levels within the body and most don’t get enough.

If you’re ever in doubt, you can get a simple blood panel run to check your levels and if you’re below 50nmol/L, I would recommend you supplement with some additional vitamin D due to its influence on muscle mass, strength, and function.[6]

4. Multivitamin

I’ll be honest with you, I think if more people understood the importance of quality nutrition, I wouldn’t even need to add this last point. However, given that’s not the case, a multivitamin certainly won’t hurt.

That being said though, I would strongly recommend you do your research as some companies use cheaper forms of certain vitamins and/or minerals that have poor bioavailability. The end result is a weak product for the consumer but a larger profit margin for the manufacturer.

If you’re interested in doing your own research and seeing which ingredients are best, head over and check out the good folks at, they’re one of the most comprehensive and unbiased sources on the internet today.

Nutrition: The Elephant in the Room

At the end of the day, most trainees understand that nutrition is the answer for their lack of gains, it’s just nobody wants to admit it. I've worked with many high school, collegiate, and even a few pro athletes who all seemed to share the same problem: they can't gain weight even though they want to.

Sure, that seems like a happy "problem" to have but in some instances, it might actually hamper the athlete's performance or restrict their competitive eligibility. The conversation usually goes something like this...

Me: "How are things going nutritionally? Scale moving in the right direction?"

Athlete: "I wish...I eat SO MUCH and I can't seem to put on a single pound. I feel like I eat all day but yet never gain weight."

Sound familiar? Well, truth be told, gaining weight can turn into a part time job for some athletes.

If you've ever worked a highly active job, played collegiate sports, or weight trained intensely with the goal of packing on lean body mass, then you know just how much food it can take at times.

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Get Your Mind Right

First thing’s first, if you’re someone who gets full half way through a burger or your idea of a “hearty breakfast” is a couple eggs with a piece of toast and some fruit, then you’ve got some work to do.

You have to understand that there WILL be times when you’re not hungry and you won’t feel like eating, that is just the fact of the matter. Your body has various homeostatic mechanisms in place that are meant to regulate body weight but you have to remember your goal.

However, if you’re one of those guys with a metabolism that’s clipping along at warp speed, you should be getting in some calories every 3-4 hours.

Eating must become your job. Every time you sit down to have a meal, you should absolutely crush calories. When you begin to get remarks from folks like, “Are you really going to eat all of that right now?” or “Wow, you eat enough for two!” Then you know you’re probably on the road to swoleville.

Until you change your beliefs about “eating big”, you’re not going to pack on the pounds. It all depends on how badly you want something; if you truly desire success, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

How Can I Afford That?!

I know what you’re thinking, “Food is so expensive these day and it costs even more to eat ‘healthy’, there’s no way I can afford that!”

Definitely not the case, I’m on a fairly limited budget and most weeks I only spend $55-65 on groceries. I make the most of my hard earned cash by buying meat in bulk, utilizing cheap carb sources, and only purchasing specific produce when it’s in season.

If your weight seems to have hit a plateau, here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling again…

Eggs - As the age old saying goes, “the incredible edible egg.” What’s not to love? Cheap, extremely high bioavailability, great sources of choline, and very easy to prepare. They’re pretty much a bachelor’s best friend, aside from his dog, of course.

Oats - These are incredibly versatile - make protein pancakes, throw them in a shake, whip up some overnight oats…the possibilities are endless!

Potatoes - Lets be honest, steak and potatoes is where it all began. Don’t limit yourself to just the sweet variety either; white potatoes are full of beneficial vitamins and minerals and one of the cheapest carb sources around.

White Rice - “But I thought only brown rice was good for you?” Alright, listen here mac, this bad boy has 200 calories per cup and is one of the easiest foods to get down if you’re struggling for calories. Not to mention, foods with high fiber contents usually increase satiety thus making it much more difficult to eat them in high amounts.

Coconut Oil - If you’re just reading about coconut oil for the first time in this article, then it’s time to step your game up. Not only is this super food high in medium chain triglycerides and lauric acid; it’s also one of the best choices for cooking given its low oxidation rate at high temperatures.

Bananas - This one should be a no brainer for every hardgainer. Why would you not have at least a dozen on hand at all times? They’re portable, cheap, and nutritious. In fact, before you read the rest of this article, you should go make yourself a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

"I'm Always Full, What Do I Do?"

This isn’t uncommon and as I mentioned before, part of this is just the way your body is designed. Some guys have ravenous appetites and others can barely put down 2000 calories in a day without feeling stuffed.

However, there are a few simple tips and tricks, which can help you out immensely. In fact, you might already be using a few of them without even realizing it.

  1. Eat More Often - set a watch if you need to, but every 3-4 hours is a good place to start.
  2. Limit Foods That Are High In Fiber - Contrary to what you were thinking? Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to eat 4500 calories of sweet potatoes, chicken, and broccoli, but it’s rather unpleasant, if not impossible. Not to mention, eating excessively high amounts of fiber can limit or even block absorption of certain vitamins within the gastrointestinal tract.
  3. Utilize Liquid Calories - No need to buy a mass gainer, just make your own:
  • Whole or coconut milk (Adjust as needed if lactose intolerant.)
  • 2-4 Tablespoons of nut butter
  • 1-2 Scoops of whey protein
  • 1 Cup of oats
  • 1-2 Bananas
  • Couple handfuls of spinach (Guarantee you won’t taste it.)
  • 1-2 Tablespoons of honey
  • Cinnamon
  1. Eat More Fruit - Sweet foods are quite hyper-palatable and fruit is also very high in vitamin and minerals. If you’re a hard training athlete, I recommend 3-4 servings per day.

How Bad Do You Want It?

Eating big comes with patience and consistency. Over time, your stomach will adapt to larger volumes of food in a single sitting and you’ll be able to pack away enough calories for a family of 4.

Nobody is forcing you to eat all those calories; it’s up to you whether or not you want to reach your goals. It’s all starts with a simple step: put down the weights and pick up your fork.

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Practical Takeaways

Gains 101: it’s not rocket science, it’s all just a question of whether or not you want to accept the hard facts and put in the work. I know the article was slightly lengthy but here’s the important concepts which you should walk away with today:

  1. Your training should revolve around the concepts of specificity and progressive overload.
  2. Training stressors should be based upon a minimally effective dose - more volume does not equate with more gains for everyone.
  3. Incorporate both intensity and volume if you’re looking to maximize all of the components of hypertrophic adaptations.
  4. Supplementation should be minimal but there are a few which might provide some benefits: creatine monohydrate, vitamin D, fish oil, and perhaps a multivitamin.
  5. Your lack of growth is likely related to your nutritional intake or poor recovery.
  6. Nutrition should synergistically aid training; you can’t train yourself into the ground if you’re going to eat like a weight-conscious teenager.
  7. No one got big in 12 or 16 weeks, dedication and hard work will take you further than most if you’re willing to learn the basics and apply them relentlessly.

Questions, comments, concerns? Drop ‘em below and we can talk shop.