Workout Prep

Header image featuring woman eating, sleeping, and working out

This is page two of a How to Build Muscle guide. Start with page one to understand how realistic it is to build more muscle.

Required workout knowledge

My research process: I always cite research when possible, but I don't blindly follow a study’s conclusions. Not all studies are well designed. For each topic, I try locating numerous studies then I read each with a skeptical eye. I experiment with the findings and compare them against alternative methods.

This page prepares you for the gym. The next page shows you how to work out.

Here's why this prep page is so important: To build muscle, you must eat enough, sleep enough, and lift heavy enough weights. And use proper form.

Working hard in the gym accomplishes little-to-nothing if you don’t eat and sleep enough on the day of a workout. That's how important the non-bodybuilding part of muscle development is: After exercising, your body builds new muscle using energy from that day's food. Later when you're sleeping, your body repairs your muscles.

To ease you into these lifestyle changes, this program begins with a prep week. When you’re done prep week, you'll have fewer surprises and excuses when doing the workouts. It helps make you less likely to quit.

In other words, this handbook is more than the science of working out. It also holds you accountable so that this isn't just a throwaway blog post you've read.

Prep week has one hour's worth of tasks for you. You will:

Before we begin, I want to stress that the easy reading portion of this handbook is over. What remains is a long-form walkthrough. So set aside 30 minutes. While building muscle isn't particularly complicated, there's a lot to know to avoid wasting your time. Do you want to gain 15lbs (6.8kg) in 2 years or just a few months? Then let's learn properly.

At the end of this prep week, I will provide you with an exhaustive cheatsheet. So there’s no need to take notes.

Task 1 — Take body photos

This takes 5 minutes.

If you don’t have a reference for what your body looked like before you started working out, it's surprisingly difficult to appreciate how much your body has changed over time. We're not well-wired to notice our bodies' gradual changes.

Weekly, your muscle size gains will not be noticeable—you're only gaining a few millimeters. But, when gains are consistent, like they hopefully are on this program, adults can add up to 2.5” (6.35cm) of circumference to each arm after a few months. That’s significant.

Pictured below is just a 2” (5cm) gain.

Male muscle transformation
In the next phase of this handbook, we learn how to measure our weekly muscle size gains to make sure we're training productively for size.

So here's what you need to do for your first task in prep week: Beginning today, take one set of body photos every 6 weeks. This is the interval at which physique changes tend to be visually noticeable in the early days. For each set of photos, stand in front of a mirror and follow this:

Task 2 — Build grip strength

A weak grip makes it increasingly difficult to perform exercises as you progress to heavier weights. It results in prematurely reaching strength plateaus. The importance of building grip strength is well known in the sport of powerlifting but it is oddly missing from most beginning bodybuilding advice.

A weak grip forces tension into your forearms (study), which then have more difficulty sustaining the stress of a full workout. This makes it hard to finish all your exercises with proper form. If you've had difficulty progressing on back exercises in the past, this could have played a part.

Many gyms lack grip training equipment, so you can buy your own grippers. Each gripper will have a set force. Over 3 months, you will buy three force levels as your grip strengthens: Men with average-sized hands can try starting with the trainer level. Women with average-sized hands can try starting with the guide level. Work your way through the next two levels over 3 months.

You’re welcome to keep going to higher levels, but it will have diminishing returns for our intermediate lifting objectives. Unless this is the lifestyle you're going for:

By the way, the man who popularized kettlebell exercises points out a neat grip trick: If you have difficulty completing your last few lifts, tightly gripping the weight while lifting gives you a strength boost due to the way the human nervous system works. So, if we strengthen our grip, we can better take advantage of this!

Before I explain how to perform grip exercises, let’s define two bodybuilding terms:

One rep of the grip exercise entails squeezing the gripper's bars together then slowly releasing them:

So here's your task: Using your current force resistance level, do 3 sets of 10 reps for each hand every other day. (If you can’t complete 10 reps, work your way up to it over the coming weeks.) Take a 3 to 4 minute break between each set. 

Be sure to start with your non-dominant hand. You want this hand to set the limit for how many sets you do on your dominant hand so that it doesn’t get disproportionately stronger over time.

Whenever a resistance level starts getting easy to do all 3 sets of 10 reps with, buy the next grip resistance level and start using that instead. 

Remember there’s no need to take notes on anything I'm saying here. I wrote a comprehensive cheatsheet at the end of this page.

Task 3 — Buy workout equipment

These are the five items I like to purchase.

1. Either whey or rice protein

2. Hand grippers

3. Body tape measure

4. Creatine — Optional

5. Citrulline malate — Optional

Optional items+

Scale

You'll need to know your weight to calculate the calories you should eat per day.

Blender

Smoothies make consuming a lot of nutrients (and calories) much easier.

Magnet weights

Magnet weights help when you have a hard time lifting heavy weights.

Magnet dumbbell weighs

How to build muscle at home+

If you have the money, working out from home instead of the gym can help with motivation and consistency. It’s what I did for my first month of working out so that I didn't have any excuses. All I had to do was roll out of bed to begin lifting weights for the day. I didn't miss a single workout.

If you think you’ll give yourself a bunch of excuses to avoid traveling to the gym three times per week, then consider saving up the cash to buy the equipment below before you start this program. This program’s first two months are purposefully designed so you can work out either at the gym or at home:

The total equipment cost for working out at home is around $500 USD.

Believe it or not, this equipment doesn’t take up much space. (The workout bench is narrow and low to the ground.) It can easily fit into any small space in your living room or garage.

At the 2 month mark of this program, you'll want to begin going to the gym since you'll require more heavy duty equipment. (Alternatively, you could choose to stop gaining muscle at the 2 month mark if you're not looking to get bigger. You could then maintain the muscle you've already built using your home equipment.)

Task 4 — Take workout supplements

The next page of this handbook explains your nutritional requirements for gaining muscle. For now, let's focus on the supplements for building muscle. Both men and women can take workout supplements during prep week in order to get used to their taste and to develop the habit of taking them regularly.

I don’t recommend going crazy with supplements and taking much more than the three listed below (unless recommended by a doctor) as they're unlikely to have a significant impact on gym performance. Worse yet, others may not be backed by sound research or their usefulness may have been misinterpreted.

Avoiding other supplements applies to multivitamins too! Plenty of research suggests they aren’t worth it (article, article, study, study, study, study, study, study) — unless you have a specific deficiency identified by your doctor.

1. Supplement: Protein

Your body needs a particular amount of protein to operate nominally and to build new muscle. You may not get enough protein from the meals you eat.

Powders

Most weightlifters take protein powder instead of protein bars (and other related products) because (1) bulk powder is cheaper per-serving than pre-made snacks and (2) you can buy plain powder without sugar and other unnecessary additives. 

Consider choosing one of the two protein powders listed below. You'll probably be averaging around 1-1.5 containers per month:

While research shows whey has a very slight benefit over the other sources of protein, this advantage is negligible over the long-term. So don’t get caught up in the difference. I've been using rice protein for years now.

How much protein you need

Research suggests you need much less protein than most bodybuilding advice would have you think.

Here’s how to calculate your daily requirement: Multiply your current weight in pounds (measured when you wake up—before eating breakfast) by 0.8 to get how many grams of protein you should eat daily (study, study, study). If you weigh 150 lbs, that’s 120g of protein. (In kg, multiply your weight by 1.8. So, 68kg is 120g of protein.)

You already get protein from the meals you eat. Look at the nutrition labels on your foods to see how many grams of protein you’re getting per serving (or type
"[food_name_here] nutrition" into Google for an overview.) 

Here are some reference points:

Since you’re already eating at least 30% (likely more) of your daily protein target from your meals, you only need to make up for the remaining 70% through powder.

Even if you do reach your full daily target exclusively through meals, you still benefit from powder because proteins in everyday foods might not have a complete ratio of amino acids, which is a requirement we won't get into here.

So let's adjust our calculations to take meal protein into account: We only need to multiply 0.60 times our bodyweight in lbs (or 1.32 times our bodyweight in kg) to determine how much daily protein we must get from powder. If you weigh 150lbs (68kg), that’s 90 grams (3.17oz), which is just a few scoops of whey or rice protein.

Again, there’s no need to write any of this down. There's a cheat sheet coming up.

Protein, by the way, easily mixes into smoothies, cereals, oatmeal, and other foods.

Servings and timing

Here is the science on protein timing and serving sizes:

If you’re surprised by anything here, you can read more about building muscle protein myths in the FAQ. There are many bodybuilding misconceptions that don't hold up when you look at the research.

By the way, here's the shake I make every morning:

2. Supplement: Creatine — Optional

Women, research has shown you benefit less from creatine supplementation, so you may avoid it if you want to simplify your routine and reduce cost (study, study).

Creatine (click for Amazon link) is a flavorless powder that you can mix into anything. Your body produces creatine naturally, and when supplemented with more, research suggests it can build muscle faster. Second only to protein, creatine is the most thoroughly researched workout supplement. I could not find any adverse side effects so long as you don’t have existing renal issues (studystudystudy). 

You can read more at the University of Maryland Medical Center or Examine.

Effectiveness

Research is inconclusive about how creatine actually improves muscle size gains. But it is conclusive that it does—to the tune of up to doubling the speed of strength gains (studystudystudystudymeta-analysisresearch overview). This program emphasizes lifting heavier weights every week, so creatine’s benefits are valuable to us.

Creatine doesn’t work for everyone (study). To test its efficacy, stop taking creatine one month into this program then watch for a decrease in weightlifting performance over the next 2 weeks. If there isn't a decrease, you can consider stopping creatine. 

This program only requires you to take creatine while building muscle—not while maintaining it thereafter—so you won’t be taking creatine forever.

How to take it

There’s no research concluding that it substantially matters what time of day you take creatine. So, take it at the same time you take protein in order to keep your supplement regimen simple. As with protein, take creatine daily, and try to take it with a bit of food (study).

Note that nearly all creatine studies are designed with a “loading week” in which 4x the typical daily dose is taken for your first week in order for the creatine to saturate throughout your body. Meaning, whereas the typical daily dose of creatine is 5g, you’ll be taking 5g four separate times a day for the duration of this prep week (studystudy). 

All this is recapped for you in the cheat sheet found at the end of this section.

3. Supplement: Citrulline malate — Optional

If you’re not looking to maximize muscle gains and don't plan to continue past the 2 month mark of this program, you can skip this since you won’t need the endurance boost.

Citrulline malate is the final muscle building supplement I personally use. Citrulline malate (CM) has been demonstrated to increase the volume of sets you can perform in a workout session (studystudy, study).

CM is an amino acid found in several foods including musk melons, squashes, gourds, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Although it hasn't been extensively studied, there are currently no widely reported side effects when it's taken at the recommended doses. (You can dive into the CM research over at Examine. You can also peruse the reviews left for citrulline malate products on Amazon.)

CM may not work for everyone. It may have a lesser effect on advanced bodybuilders and for certain exercises (study, study). I leave its use up to your discretion.

If you decide to take it, the recommended dose for CM is 8 grams (0.28oz), which is 4 scoops of the product linked above. Take this 60 minutes before your workout. (The timing is important; many people find you won't feel the endurance enhancing effects until 60 minutes have passed.)

A heads up that CM is incredibly sour. Mixing it with other drinks will completely ruin them. So take it with a tiny bit of water and drink it in one shot!

There is no benefit to taking CM post-workout or on non-workout days. Just take it before your workouts.

Creatine citrulline malate supplements

Other supplements

Many of the remaining muscle supplements that don't affect your hormones are either a) backed by research with dubious results, b) negligibly effective, c) filler ingredients combined with CM, creatine, or protein, or d) a scam.

I recommend saving your money and sticking to the three supplements I’ve listed above. You can skip "NO boosters,"multivitamins, and BCAA’s (study).

This isn't to say that everything other than what I've listed is junk science. I'm just recommending that you act conservative and don't go on a wreckless Amazon shopping spree.

Task 5 — Go to the gym

This takes around an hour.

All gyms should have the necessary equipment for completing the exercises in this handbook, which don't require anything uncommon.

During prep week, you’ll need to get yourself into a gym for three reasons: to learn proper form, to find your starting weights, and to reduce mental friction.

Go to the gym — To learn proper form

Learning proper form is critical to avoiding injury and understanding how to properly exercise your muscles so that the workouts are maximally effective.

Below are the exercises you’ll be performing for the first two months of this program. Clicking on an exercise name will load a demonstration video underneath.

º  8–10 reps   º  Stop 1 rep before limit   º  3 sets per exercise   º  60 min total  º  Rest 2.5-5 min
† Cannot be done with home equipment. These exercises aren't critical, so you can skip them.
Do hand gripper exercises on your off days.

📝 Exercise form notes.

(This exercise list is repeated in the cheat sheet at the bottom of this page.)

If you can afford it, it’s helpful to hire a trainer at your local gym for a couple sessions so he or she can walk you through the exercises. Take the list with you (or just have this page loaded on your phone) and ensure you're taught each one.

Go to the gym — To find your starting weights

Discover your starting heaviness for each of the exercises you’ll be doing.

When you get to the gym, perform each exercise in the list above with a heaviness that isn’t overly challenging but also isn’t so light that you can barely feel it. Once you've found a weight that satisfies this, do 7 reps with it. Then take a 3 minute break and increase the weight to the next heaviness level to see if you can do 7 reps again. 

Keep incrementing the weight and taking 3 minute breaks until you get to a heaviness you cannot lift the full 7 reps with. When you get to this level, make a note of the level that came before it. This second-to-last level will be your starting weight when you begin working out next week.

If you’re working with a trainer, ask them to walk you through this weight-finding process. If you don't have a trainer, don't be be overwhelmed. It's straightforward.

Go to the gym — To reduce mental friction

You’re also using this first gym visit to get used to the transportation and parking situation you’ll be dealing with three times a week.

Your goal is to minimize all annoyances that stand between you and the gym. The less of a hassle you perceive going to the gym to be, the less likely you are to use it as an excuse to quit this program partway through.

Task 6 — Improve sleep+

Without good sleep on the night of a workout, your entire day’s worth of proper nutrition, exercise, and supplementation will be severely if not completely canceled out. You'll likely also need a good sleep the night before your workout to have enough energy to exercise without getting exhausted (study).

(I’ve found that it doesn’t matter how much you sleep on non-workout days so long as you’re not chronically underslept. But this is anecdotal.)

Research concludes that a “good sleep” is around 7 hours (study). Anecdotally, I’ve found no muscle gain and repair issues when I get just 6.25–6.5 hours of sleep, whereas my gains absolutely do stall if I get less than that.

The takeaway is to schedule your late-night partying on days where (1) you aren't working out and (2) you’re not going to be working out the next day either. Because this program requires you to work out three times per week, if you don’t think you can get decent sleep for half the days over the next three months, address your sleep issues before starting this program. Hopefully the advice below will help.

Before we get to the advice, let me remind you that I am not a doctor. If you have chronic sleep issues, see a doctor and check out the National Institute of Aging’s advice for next steps. Further, if you suffer from anxiety that makes it difficult to fall asleep, consider seeing a professional. I am not a professional.

Let’s start with advice for reducing how often you wake up in the middle of the night. Waking up for a moment then going back to bed isn’t necessarily a problem. But if you wake up repeatedly throughout the night or have a hard time falling back asleep once you’re up, you should probably address this.

Waking up in the middle of the night

If you wake up to urinate ("nocturia")

Avoid drinking anything (including soup) within 3.5 hours of sleeping. This is hard to do if you're a nighttime eater, but it can really make a difference (study). 

Not drinking before bed requires that you drink more water earlier in the day. For example, if you typically get ~4 bottles worth of liquid every day (any form of liquid is fine, including soups), then get all 4 bottles before the 3.5 hour sleep window begins. Otherwise, you’re at risk of waking up thirsty in the middle of the night.

Related, I’ve personally found that consuming more than ~5% of the recommended daily intake of sodium (salt) within 3.5 hours of sleeping triggers nighttime bathroom visits. (The labels of food items list how much sodium there is per serving.)

Low-sodium foods include unsalted beans, raw veggies, protein powder, plain unsalted oatmeal, and anything else that has no more than trace amounts of salt.

Finally, be sure to 🚽 as much as you comfortably can right before going to bed.

If you wake up with a dry mouth

If you live in a humid climate, consider buying a hygrometer (a humidity measuring device). If the humidity in your bedroom is above 40–45% at night, you’re at risk of getting worse sleep (study) due to either ambient discomfort with the humidity level or your body needing water after prolonged sweating. 

To decrease bedroom humidity, first check that you’re not leaving windows open that let the humid outdoor air in. Then try one of these two tactics:

If you wake up from noise

If you sleep in a noisy environment, try a noise machine. It’ll create a constant, low-volume “white noise” that masks the inconsistent sounds you hear at night. This is helpful because it's actually not a low level of ambient noise that prevents you from falling asleep as much as it is noise that intermittently starts and stops, e.g. sirens and, dogs barking (study, study). A noise machine works by hopefully drowning out all the inconsistency.

Difficulty falling asleep

Do you have a hard time falling asleep ("insomnia")? Perhaps this can help:

In any case, first consult a doctor. Again, I am not a doctor.

Prep week cheatsheet

Okay, so we're now done with page two. Below is the cheat sheet. 

When you enter your email, the cheat sheet is immediately emailed to you so you can more easily reference it. I will not send you any other emails.

Success. Check your inbox and respond to the email with "Yes."

Buy a body tape measure
You'll need a body tape measure to assess your weekly growth so that you can verify you're following the program correctly. 
Take physique photos
Stand in front of a mirror and take a photo from your front, side, and back (have someone help you). For each angle, take one photo with your muscles relaxed and another where you're flexing as hard as possible.
Try supplements
Protein: Buy either whey or rice protein. It doesn't matter which. To calculate how much daily protein powder you need, multiply 0.60 times your current bodyweight in lbs (or 1.32 your bodyweight in kg) to get the number of grams. Get into the habit of mixing protein into drinks (e.g. smoothie) and foods (e.g. oatmeal). Split the total daily amount into two separate servings (e.g. one with breakfast and one with dinner.)
Citrulline malate — Optional: Just test taking 8g/0.28oz (4 scoops) of citrulline malate one time with a little bit of water. (It is incredibly sour, so don't mix it into drinks.) When you officially start exercising next week, you'll only be taking this immediately before workouts.
Creatine — Optional: For prep week, "load up" on creatine by taking one scoop (5g) 4 times per day. The time of day you take it isn’t important, but you should take it with food (even just protein powder is helpful) to increase absorption. (After prep week is over, you only have to take one 5g scoop of creatine per day.)
Begin strengthening your grip
Every second day, do 3 sets of 10 reps on your current gripper level. (Most men will start with the trainer level. Most women will start with the guide level.) Take as much time as you need between sets for your strength to recover (~3min). Start with the hand you don't write with, and do the same amount of reps with both hands. Once it's easy to complete all 3 sets of 10 reps, buy a higher level. You only need to move up two levels in total.
Get to the gym
Exercise form: Use a light weight to copy the movements in the exercise videos below.

Starting weights: When in the gym, find your starting weights for each exercise in the list below: Start with a light weight then keep moving up until you can't complete 7 reps with a particular heaviness. Mark down the heaviness that came before this one, and that will be your starting weight when you officially begin your workouts.

While in the gym, inquire about the cost of personal training sessions, as it's great to have a trainer show you proper exercise form.
Starting exercises
º  8–10 reps   º  Stop 1 rep before limit   º  3 sets per exercise   º  60 min total  º  Rest 2.5-5 min
† Cannot be done with home equipment. These exercises aren't critical, so you can skip them.
Do hand gripper exercises on your off days.

📝 Exercise form notes.

Next: Workout plans

How to work out effectively. Learn the science of it all.

Next page →