Build Muscle
Header image featuring woman eating, sleeping, and working out
"In a year from now, you'll wish you started today."
– Karen Lamb

Most bodybuilding advice is misleading.

This handbook is the result of one year's research into what modern science proves is the most efficient way to build muscle. It's for both men and women.

I wrote this guide because — even in 2017 — much of the casual weightlifting advice is unsubstantiated and misleading. I can't blame most bloggers for it, because many of the facts in this guide have not been broadly published outside of scientific literature. 

This guide contradicts much of the popular bodybuilding recommendations, including the myth that women have a harder time gaining beginner muscle, that exercise rest times should be kept to 1–3 minutes, that you have to regularly switch up your exercises, that machine exercises are less effective than barbell ones, and so on.

Throughout this guide, I consistently support my claims by citing studies and showing you how to measure your weekly gains so you can confirm you're growing. 

Speaking of growth, a beginning bodybuilder can expect ~20lbs (9kg) of muscle in 3 months when closely following a researched program like this. (After that, gains slow down drastically.) These results are achievable for every man and woman. Having “bad genetics” is not a thing that prevents anyone from building beginner muscle. That's yet another myth we'll dive into.

In addition to being scientifically accurate, this guide is also comprehensive. I dislike tutorials that provide 75% of what you need to know then leave you with unanswered questions. To make sure this guide is your complete reference for building muscle, I've spent a year fine-tuning this to include legitimate nutrition and workout plans.

We're about to learn what the research actually says regarding:

Inspired? You should be. If before now you haven’t been willing to spend 1–2 years in the gym to get results, get excited because you can compress that into 3–4 months.

Bear with me, as I know this sounds like an infomercial. But you will be impressed with this guide. If you're still skeptical after reading it, you can call me a fool on Twitter.

And I should mention: This handbook is free.

About Julian

I spend months researching topics so I can write concise, book-quality guides.

I release them online and for free because books must hit high page counts, which results in filler content that annoys readers.

Previously, I was a startup founder. My work has been profiled in Forbes, I’ve written a book, I’ve built a popular open source library, and I’ve started and sold a company.

If you were impressed with the quality of my Startup Growth handbook, you know I deliver when I make lofty claims about quality!

💪🏼 Come say hello on Twitter.

Bodybuilding advice for everyone

I'm covering the universal principles of how to build muscle. 

If you're a beginning bodybuilder, you'll learn how to add 20 lbs (9 kg) of muscle. If you're an intermediate, you'll learn how to break through plateaus. If you're looking to get stronger instead of bigger, 95% of this guide applies to you. 

How much muscle can I gain?

Let’s develop a realistic expectation so you’re not disappointed when you complete this program, and so you sustain motivation throughout your gradual weekly gains.

First, select your gender to display the appropriate content:

I'm male
I'm female

Male physique examples

Take a look at the physique below. Download the image and glance at it whenever you need motivation to continue working out:

Male ideal physique

This is a realistic reference for the muscle mass an average-sized male can reach after 4 months of working out. Charles looks healthy, he has the muscle mass most women prefer, and he didn’t need steroids to get there. (If you’re already much bigger than this model, I’ll show you how to overcome plateaus to continue getting bigger.)

♖ To repeat: Every adult male can get to the above model’s size without steroids and with only a few months of working out.

(If you are elderly or suffering from certain diseases, you may be at a disadvantage. Talk to a doctor before weightlifting if you are concerned about your health or safety.)

If you’re starting from complete frailty, ~3 months will get you to here instead:

Male mid-way ideal physique

Or, if you’re already big, you can level up with enough hard work:

Male large ideal physique

Note: Getting significantly bigger than the physique above requires years of work. It gets harder to continue growing after your first few months of exercising. Your increasingly strong muscles require increasingly high stimulus. When you enter this stage, you gain at a rate closer to just ~2 lbs (0.9kg) per year.

Recognize that all these guys have low body fat, which helps reveal their muscles. You will not actually lose fat by lifting weights, so weight loss is a separate goal altogether. 

If your motivation for getting huge is having women find you more attractive, here’s a reality check: Most women find the physiques shown above more attractive than the jacked physiques found on the covers of muscle magazines. Studies of women’s preferences are conclusive (studystudy): Women compare enormous physiques to when “a girl wears too much makeup” — meaning it’s too much of a good thing.

In other words, the majority of women prefer the left side to the right side:

Male physique comparison

(Still don’t believe it? Poll your female friends.)

So if your goal is to simply arrive at the optimal size for being attractive to women, you can get there in a few months on a decent workout program.

But, returning to the earlier note on body fat, know that many women prefer it to be as low as possible.

Steroids

Despite this reality check about women’s tastes, you're probably still curious how some people — like Hollywood superheroes — get huge. Well, here's the truth: Most (if not all) celebrities playing superheroes are or were at some point on steroidsinsulin, or HGH — the use of which can result in serious health issues. It is otherwise impossible to go from an average physique to Thor Size™ in just a couple years.

So get celebrities out of your head as physique targets. You've been lied to.

A discussion of what is natural to attain should touch upon natural bodybuilding competitions, wherein contestants are not permitted to use steroids. Here are some such contestants. However, recognize that their muscles are accentuated by tans, vascularity, low body fat, and having done pushups right before walking onto the stage. Also notice how they have thick torsos and broad shoulders — these men are outliers with big frames. And, certainly, they've put in years of incredibly hard work.

But here's the more insidious aspect: “Natural” doesn’t always mean you can’t take other substances like HGH and insulin, which hugely benefit muscle growth. (You can read amateur breakdowns of cheating herehere, and here. While not investigative, these reports present evidence for how easy it is to circumvent “natural” competitions.)

All of this is to once again hammer in that you must throw out the physique targets beat into you by pop culture and local gym rats if you want to build naturally.

What exactly do the results of steroids look like? Well, the model below has chest and shoulder muscles that are unnaturally large relative to his bone size. This relative size is not possible without artificial help. If your goal is to look like this or bigger, that's fine, but just know that you're not getting there naturally.

Male unrealistic physique

Male maximum muscle size

We still haven’t answered the question of how big we can naturally get.

Check this out: Researcher Casey Butt performed a fascinating analysis on the muscle size of the world’s top male bodybuilders (sourcestudy). He used data from the pre-steroid bodybuilding era, which means it reflects how muscular males can get naturally. We'll use his results to approximate the maximum size we can weigh at 10% body fat.

I’ve turned Casey's formula into a calculator below. This is applicable to men only:

Height — (move slider)
Ankle circumference — (move slider)

Wrist circumference — (move slider)
Maximum weight at 10% body fat
0.00

Maximum unflexed arm size at 10% body fat
0.00

To measure the circumference of your ankle and wrist, wrap body tape around the parts indicated in the images below:

Female physique examples

Here are two women with low enough body fat that you can clearly see their muscles:

Female thin physique
Female fit physique

The first woman is thin (look at the frailness of her arms) and the second woman is fit. 

(By the way, if you're looking for more inspiration, see here and here.)

Notice I’m not using the word “toned," which isn’t a thing. When a muscle is exercised, it responds by getting bigger. It can’t stay the same size and just get harder. So when people use the word “toned," they’re referring to the combination of (1) being thin enough that muscle definition is visible and (2) having muscles to begin with.

You might not want to get as muscular as the second woman, but getting just halfway there will still make an enormous difference in your physique. 

If you only want to be muscular in certain muscle groups, this program provides a workout plan for only building your arms (biceps and triceps), abs, butt (glutes), and hamstrings. Not sure what those are? Refer to the illustration below:

Human muscle diagram

Women gain muscle as fast as men

The limiting factor to how big you can get is the broadness of your skeleton (study). So if your body is on the smaller side (e.g. high school teenager), it will be impossible to reach the same maximum muscle mass as someone much bigger than you. In other words, the average woman will ultimately gain less muscle than the average man.

But this doesn't mean women reach their maximum muscle size at a slower rate. In fact, women develop muscle at the same rate as men (studystudystudy). (Hat tip to Menno Henselmans for compiling this research.) The difference is that women start with less muscle mass on average and ultimately gain less.

Even if you have an above-average sized frame, don’t be concerned about "accidentally" building lots of muscle too quickly. You’ll notice muscle gains early enough in the process to avoid getting “bulky.”

Yes, men have more testosterone, but testosterone is less important to the female muscle development process. In fact, women benefit from higher levels of IGF1 growth hormone, which is critical to muscle growth (studystudy). 

While there are fewer muscular women in the world, that’s a reflection of fewer women working to become very muscular — due to societal expectations. It’s not a reflection of it being more difficult for women to actually build muscle. You may have a hard time believing all this, so click on any of those studies to skim the research. 

It’s important you understand that you're not at a disadvantage when bodybuilding because thinking otherwise can deter your progress. For example, one study examined the opposite scenario, where men were tricked into thinking they were taking steroids when they weren’t, and they consequently lifted 350% more in weight (studystudy)! 

This suggests your confidence in the gym plays a critical role in how much you can lift.

Getting a butt

No amount of aerobic activity, yoga, or calisthenics will build your butt ("glutes"). It's all about using heavy weight as per a proper bodybuilding program.

Specifically, the squat exercises you'll be doing are responsible for building glutes.

There's otherwise no secret to training glutes. They respond just like every other muscle — you exercise them with 8-10 reps and use heavier weight each workout.

"Enthusiasm is more important than skill because the critical element in developing expertise is the desire to practice."
– Gretchen Rubin

Julian after three months

Below are photos of me before working out and 90 days later. You can get significantly bigger than the 90 day mark by continuing the program for another 2–3 months. (After 5–6 months, however, you gain new muscle at about ~2lbs or 0.9kg per year.)

My arms went from 11" (28cm) unflexed to 13.5"(34cm). Inspiring for just 90 days.

Author physique starting pointAuthor physique ending point

Reader images

I've just (April 2017) begun collecting images from readers. Please email your images here so they can inspire other readers!

The muscle gains below are from days 0 to 90. 

Ahmed, Pakistan

Author physique ending pointAuthor physique ending point

Ahmed's story of building muscle in PakistanExpand

I’m a recent graduate from the University of Warwick in the UK, and currently working as an A-levels Mathematics teacher in Pakistan. 

I came across Julian’s guide on a website bookmarking tool I check daily. I was hooked by how well written and planned it felt. I spent a couple hours going through the whole of it and felt really motivated by how straightforward he made it seem. 

Added to that, the fact that he made sure to backup any claims he made with scientific research papers, helped convince me to go for it.

There were of course other factors. I was going through a rough period. And I was interested in someone I knew well. She was into being healthy and keeping fit, while I was impartial about it. That had nothing to do with her decision, but it just kept nagging at the back of my mind that it might have been different if I were more fit. 

I decided to get started with the program on January 4th, 2017.

The first week was preparation. I got into the habit of going to the gym. I also learned the form for exercises, and tested my muscles to find my starting weights. There were of course problems I faced. I’ll go through the problems below so that anyone who wants to take this guide up can maybe learn a thing or two from my experience.

The first problem I faced was that my gym had weight increments in 2.5 kgs for dumbbells and 8 kgs for pulley machines. I had read in the guide about magnetic weights, which attach onto dumbbells, and that would have been the perfect solution. But the problem was that, in Pakistan, magnetic weights were very hard to come by. 

So I consulted with the gym trainer and asked Julian directly and came to the conclusion to buy strap-on wrist weights for 1.25 and 2.5 lbs. I used these to increment my weights as 2.5 kg was a bit too much for each time I went to the gym.

Next was that food here in Pakistan is pretty difficult to measure calories for. Many foods are cooked and served with gravy and even the majority of packeted foods have no caloric information given on them. 

The estimated calories on Myfitnesspal and elsewhere varied a lot and left me confused when I tried to follow them. So I decided after a while to just give it a rough estimate. As Julian had suggested in the guide, I tried to over-eat on my gym days by 20% and under-eat on non-gym days by 20%. 

I knew that my estimates couldn’t be too far off because they roughly matched what I had found online. Even now, I am going by estimating. I think I’ve gained a kg or two of fat due to this, but I should be able to burn it off in the coming months with the help of the guide's fat loss section.

Another problem was that I couldn’t find high-resistance hand grippers in Pakistan to improve my grip strength. The highest they would go is 40 kg. There really wasn’t any solution I could come across for this problem. But when I switched to Julian's plan B, it didn’t matter anymore since the weights I was using had increased to a decent heaviness, so my grip strength kept up automatically.

Additionally, for some exercises I couldn’t progress as the guide instructed. The goal is to lift heavier every time you go to the gym, but I made a mistake I think, in that my form for some exercises was not perfect and thus I couldn’t progress on them the next time I went to the gym. 

However, out of fear of not growing, I kept increasing the weights, albeit slowly. In hindsight I should have kept it at a lower weight until I could do the exercise perfectly, which is what I’m going to be doing from now. It’ll slow down my gains for a bit.

The last problem was that I couldn’t find Citrulline Malate powder in Pakistan (Julian's note: This is covered on the next page), and getting it imported was not an option. I don’t know how much an effect it’s supposed to have but according to the guide it’s very helpful for plan B. I hope to be able to get it in the days to come.

It’s been 3 months now and, as you can see, there has been a significant change in my physique. About 6.8 kg (15lbs) just in terms of muscle. Much of it in my legs as well. Indeed, my upright posture is better in the "after" photos, but notice how much bigger my triceps and upper chest are.

Over these 3 months, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve changed a lot. I’m more confident around people and I feel empowered to do whatever I want to, whether it’s public speaking or trying out a new sport. I think improving my posture and stature through proper exercise form has helped a lot with that.

I think the best part about the program is, that even though I started with the intention of leaving it after 3 months, now that I’m here I want to continue on. Because my whole lifestyle has changed. I don't shy away from going to the gym, running instead of driving, or eating healthy. I am addicted to identifying ways to stay fit and eat well. Now that I know how much of a positive impact it has on how I feel — and look.

Kudos to Julian for devoting the time and effort into writing this guide.

Get rid of your workout excuses

You know that cycle where you keep delaying a diet because you can’t stop saying to yourself, “Let me eat dessert tonight and I’ll officially start my diet tomorrow”? That cycle can happen with bodybuilding too.

Commit or don’t, but don’t lie to yourself.

Let's work through some of your potential concerns:

My favorite mind hack for gym motivation is only allowing myself to listen to my favorite bands and podcasts when I'm working out.

Don’t you want to finally be at a place where you wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and think, “I look pretty good.”? You're 90 days away from that. Go mark it in your calendar. Surprise all your friends with a big three-month transformation.

So stop procrastinating. Let's freaking do this.

Here's a final piece of motivation. Listen to the words spoken in this video:

"Never drop the ball pursuing a goal just because of the long time horizon. That time will pass anyway."
– Earl Nightingale

Guide overview

For as long as you want to continue gaining muscle, this program requires you to go to the gym three times per week for 45-60 minutes. Once you’ve reached your target size, you can switch to a maintenance plan of just two 40 minute sessions per week.

Here’s the breakdown of this guide:

Prep Week

Workouts

After the following disclaimer, we can move onto the next section: Prep Week!

Medical disclaimer

You are not on the website of a medical doctor, nutritionist, or registered dietitian. The opinions expressed on this website, including texts, images, and videos, are generalized. They are presented “as is” for informational purposes only without warranty or guarantee of any kind. Julian Dot Com, LLC (“we”, “our”) makes no representation and assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of information contained on or available through this website, and such information is subject to change without notice. We are not liable nor claim any responsibility for any emotional or physical problems that occur directly or indirectly from reading this website. We are of the ability and use of conversation as per articles 9 and 10.

You are encouraged to confirm information obtained from or through this website with other sources. Our content is not a substitute for qualified medical advice. The supplement summaries on this website may not include all the information pertinent to your use. Before starting a diet, taking new supplements, or beginning an exercise program, check with your doctor to clear any lifestyle changes. Only your doctor can determine what is right for you based on your medical history and prescriptions.

Never disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice or treatment because of something you read on this website. In case of medical emergency, contact your doctor and/or call 911 immediately. Again, you are not receiving professional medical advice.

Continue to prep week

Prep week is the pre-workout phase that eases you into the bodybuilding lifestyle. By going through it, you're much less likely to quit on your bodybuilding goals.

Next page →
———  Contents
——  Intro
——  Prep Week
——  The Program
——  Fat Loss
——  Cheat Sheets