Skip to content

The absolute best and worst ways to build muscle

Die absolut besten und schlechtesten Wege, Muskeln aufzubauen

Advice on the best way to build muscle will take you in all sorts of directions, but here are two fundamental truths that will help you recognize nonsensical advice.

When it comes to building muscle, many people spend far too much time looking for shortcuts, hacks and secrets, while spending far too little time focusing on the basic 20% that will deliver 80% of the results.

I know this problem from personal experience. I used to waste hundreds of dollars each on more or less useless supplements and jumped from training program to training program and nutrition program to nutrition program for years hoping to finally find THE training and nutrition hack.

To make a long story short, I've probably made just about every muscle building mistake you can make and now that I'm on the other side, I've learned a valuable lesson:

Building muscle is not as complicated as many may believe

It requires that you understand a handful of principles and do a number of things consistently and correctly. It takes patience and diligence - not innovation and extremism.

In this article, I want to share with you what I believe are the two most important aspects of building muscle. If you do these two things right, then you will build muscle and strength. If you don't, then you will struggle just like I once did.

The best way to build muscle: Move heavy weights

I made a lot of mistakes during my early years in the gym and one of the biggest of these was doing so-called hypertrophy training with lots of repetitions. You know, those training programs you'll find in all the bodybuilding magazines: 8 to 12 reps per set, lots of sets, descending sets, supersets, mega sets, etc. I did these types of training programs for 7 years, 3 to 5 days a week, with no major breaks, and in that time I only managed to gain 12 kilos of muscle and mediocre strength.

I might have looked okay, but not for 7 years of consistent training. And I was also quite weak. On a good day, I could do maybe a few reps of squats and bench presses with 100 kilos, I couldn't use more weight on shoulder presses than on curls and I didn't do deadlifts.

At some point my body didn't really change any more. For the last 2 or 3 of those 7 years, I looked more or less the same and already thought I had reached my genetic limit. In reality, however, I wasn't even close to my potential, which I realized after I dramatically changed my training methods...

There were a few turning points that were responsible for these dramatic changes and the primary one was the realization of how important heavy training is for building muscle. The big "A-ha" was that training with high reps and feeling a muscle burn should never be the focus of a natural trainee. Our goal should be to get stronger.

Emphasizing high repetition training simply cannot build the amount of muscle that makes the difference between "normal" and "muscular" (about 20 to 25 kilos for the average man and about half of that for women). The only reliable way to achieve this is to move heavy weights week after week.

The repetition range that works best for this in my experience is between 4 and 6 repetitions, which is equivalent to training with 80 to 85% of your maximum weight for one repetition (1 RM weight). This repetition range is a great way to stimulate both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, resulting in big, strong, dense muscles that won't disappear when the pump fades or you define.

Trust me when I say that muscular, defined guys who perform 15 to 25 sets per session with 10 to 12+ reps per set with supersets, descending sets and other fashionable repetition schemes can only look like that because of illegal muscle-building substances.

This applies equally to men and women, although women generally cannot perform as much heavy training per session as men because their bodies produce far fewer muscle-building endogenous hormones and thus cannot repair muscles damaged by training as effectively.

The latter is why I advise women to start with a repetition range of 8 to 10 reps and as they get stronger, add some training in a repetition range of 4 to 6 reps on the heavy multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses and bench presses into their training.

I more or less treaded water for years until I learned this lesson. Don't make the same mistake. What Ronnie Coleman once said is true: "Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to move those heavy weights."

The worst way to build muscle: Incorrectly executed mass building and definition phases

Every aspect of fitness - be it nutrition, training or supplementation - has its own hotly debated controversies and one of these is the ongoing debate over whether the concept of mass building and definition phases actually works.

Many people believe in the simple and time-honored and stick to the old-school dictum that you have to eat a lot to get bulky and then go through the agony of near starvation and hours on the treadmill to get lean, while others claim that mass gain and definition phases are antiquated and nonsensical and that building muscle without gaining fat (body recomposition) is the new era of bodybuilding.

The truth, however, is that both groups are right and wrong. When done correctly, mass gain and definition phases are the most effective way to build an impressive body - but when done incorrectly, they are an extremely effective way to forever tread water in the long run.

To understand why this is the case, let's take a quick look at the physiology of the body:

One of the big "secrets" of building muscle is to eat enough food

Most people know that you need to eat enough protein to build muscle, but many don't realize that they also need to eat enough calories.

Your body burns energy to stay alive and you fuel it by eating food. The relationship between these amounts - energy burned vs. energy supplied - is also known as the energy balance.

If you supply your body with less energy each day than it uses, then you enter a state known as a calorie deficit. This is a state of negative energy balance (the body burns more energy than it consumes) and results in weight loss (a loss of water, glycogen, fat and sometimes muscle).

One side effect of a calorie deficit is that your body's ability to build muscle protein is reduced (1). This means that your body cannot build muscle efficiently when it is in a state of calorie deficit and this is also the reason why it is generally accepted that you cannot build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

So if you want to build muscle as quickly as possible, then you need to make sure that you are not in a state of calorie deficit. This is because, in a sense, you need to eat a lot to become bulky and muscular. No matter which way you eat - be it intermittent fasting, cyclical carbohydrate intake, IIFYM, etc. - if you are in a state of caloric deficit for several days and are a relatively lean, experienced exerciser, you will gain little to no muscle mass. There is simply no way to naturally outsmart this physiological mechanism.

The easiest way to ensure that you are not in a state of caloric deficit is to slightly exceed your body's caloric needs and thus maintain a caloric surplus or positive energy balance. This is exactly what classically happens during a mass-building phase and this approach is scientifically sound and supported by decades of bodybuilding research and real-world results.

However, many people overdo it...

The big problem with the traditional bulking phase

The traditional bulking phase is something of a nutritional sledgehammer. It makes you eat thousands of calories every day and you get fatter and fatter without really knowing why. Although this is a possible way to ensure a calorie surplus, you should ask yourself whether so many calories are really needed to build muscle? Fortunately for our wallets, our stomachs and our sanity, this is not the case. And when you get right down to it, such an approach can even be counterproductive.

The main problem with maintaining a large calorie surplus is that fat builds up quickly and this hinders muscle growth

Many people don't realize that as the amount of body fat increases, insulin sensitivity decreases (2). As your body becomes more insulin resistant, its ability to burn fat decreases and the likelihood of carbohydrates being stored as fat increases (3). In addition, insulin resistance suppresses the intracellular signaling responsible for protein synthesis, which means less muscle growth (4).

At the same time, levels of endogenous male muscle-building hormones decrease, while estrogen levels increase (5). Since these male muscle-building hormones play an important role in the muscle-building process and high oestrogen levels promote fat storage, the disadvantages of such a scenario should be clear.

The bottom line is that the fatter you get, the less muscle you will build, which is why I recommend that men never exceed a body fat percentage of 15 to 17% and women should never go above 25 to 27% body fat. Once these upper limits are reached, men should diet down to 10% and women to 20% body fat before going back to a state of calorie surplus.

How to calculate a suitable calorie surplus for building muscle

Here's a rule of thumb for building mass: Eat 10% more calories than you consume each day to maximize your muscle growth and minimize your fat storage.

An accurate way to measure how much energy you consume is to use the average of different online calorie calculators to determine your basal metabolic rate (calories burned at rest) and multiply it as follows:

  • By 1.2 if you exercise 1 to 3 hours per week.
  • By 1.35 if you train 4 to 6 hours per week.
  • 1.5 if you train 6+ hours per week.

This should give you a good estimate of your total daily energy expenditure, which is nothing more than the amount of calories you burn each day. To achieve a 10% calorie surplus, simply multiply your total energy expenditure by 1.1 to get your starting point.

For example, I currently weigh 88 kilos, have a body fat percentage of 7.5% and exercise 5 to 6 hours a week. My basal metabolic rate is 2,200 kcal per day. I multiply this value by 1.4 to get my actual energy consumption, which corresponds to 3,080 kcal per day. I then multiply this value by 1.1 to get my calorie intake during the mass-building phase, which is 3,400 kcal per day.

You know you're eating the right amount of calories when you're steadily getting stronger and gaining 250 to 500 grams per week as a man (and 125 to 250 grams per week as a woman).

In terms of muscle to fat ratio, most people will build fat and muscle in a 1:1 ratio (1 kilo of muscle for every kilo of fat), with some people tending to build slightly more muscle than fat and others tending to build slightly more fat than muscle. This is where your personal genetic predisposition comes into play.

The worst way to lose fat

So much for building muscle. Now let's move on to fat loss, which requires us to keep our bodies in a state of calorie deficit. There's no debate about the physiology here - no calorie deficit means no fat loss - but there are right and wrong ways to go about it. And unfortunately, the wrong ways are much more prevalent, giving fat loss a bad name.

The most common (and worst) way to define fat loss is to drastically reduce your calorie intake and do a ton of exercise. The combination of a large calorie deficit and a large amount of exercise is disastrous for the following reasons:

  • You'll lose fat, but you'll also lose muscle (7) and the less you eat, the more muscle you'll lose. And as you lose muscle, your body starts to take on that ugly "skinny fat" look. At the same time, your metabolism will slow down (8), your bone health will decline (9) and your risk of disease will increase (10).
  • You will feel progressively worse and worse (11). Your energy levels will drop rapidly, you will struggle with intense food cravings, your mental performance will decline, you will become depressed and much more.

A much better way to tackle this is to maintain a moderate calorie deficit of 20 to 25% (eat about 75 to 80% of the amount of energy your body burns daily). This will allow you to lose 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week while maintaining your metabolic health, energy levels, mental balance and mood.

In terms of quantity and intensity of training, 3 to 5 workouts with weights and three 20 to 25 minute high intensity cardio interval training sessions are a good starting point. This will burn plenty of energy and help accelerate fat loss, while this type of training is also effective for maintaining your muscle mass, which is just as important as fat loss during a calorie deficit.

The second worst way to lose fat

If your goal is to build a great body, then another big fat loss mistake is to use the "slow cutting" approach - a slower fat loss over a longer period of time with a lower calorie deficit of 5 to 10%. At first glance, slow fat loss may seem beneficial. You get to eat more, which means less hunger and better workouts, and you still lose fat (albeit more slowly).

The problem with this approach, however, is that even the slight calorie deficit will hinder your muscle growth, meaning that the longer you define, the longer you won't build new muscle mass. This insidious mistake can really hinder your long-term results, as if you keep working on your body and need to build more muscle to reach your goal, you can waste a lot of time and potential muscle growth.

I've seen people seriously mess this up and only build half to a third of the amount of muscle they could have built in 6 or 12 months because they stayed in a state of mild calorie deficit for too long. This is the reason I recommend that people use any safe and scientifically validated strategy for maximizing fat loss during the definition phase. The goal is to lose fat as quickly and comfortably as possible and get back out of the calorie deficit as quickly as possible to build muscle again.

Putting it all together: correct vs. incorrect mass gain and definition phases Having covered a lot of ground here, I'd like to finish by giving you a simple summary of the mass gain and definition phases:

The ineffective way to build and define muscle

  • Eat far too much during the mass building phase and build up far too much fat

This slows down your muscle growth and forces you to switch to a calorie deficit after just a few months, which is not enough time to build any significant amount of muscle.

And then...

  • Eat far too little and train far too much during the definition phase and lose equal amounts of muscle and fat proportionately

This often results in you losing all the muscle mass you built up during the mass-building phase, which sets you back to your starting point in terms of body composition.


  • Drag out your definition phase far too long and lose in 6 months what you could have lost in 2 months in a healthy way

This means you've spent 4 months building little to no muscle, when you could have spent those 4 months building muscle.

The effective way to build and define muscle

  • Follow a proper diet plan during the mass building phase, ensuring you maintain a mild calorie surplus and are careful not to lose control of your cheat meals

This will prevent drastic "overeating" and allow you to extend your mass-building phases for as long as possible - 4 to 6 months for most people - and build a significant amount of muscle and strength.

  • Use a safe but aggressive calorie deficit and an appropriate training and supplement program to lose fat quickly while maintaining muscle mass

This allows you to keep your definition phases relatively short - 2 to 3 months for most people - and maintain the muscle mass built up during mass gain. This allows you to build more muscle as quickly as possible.

The best ways to build muscle are simple and effective

If you make these simple changes to your training sessions and diet - if you focus on heavy training with basic exercises and take the right approach to mass building - you will see drastic changes to your body.

You'll build muscle and strength faster than ever before and come to the same realization I did - that if you do this long enough, you'll achieve the body you really want. No more anxiety, frustration or magical secret formulas. And that's the real reward - having full control over how your body develops.



By Michael Mathews

Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss