"In a year from now, you'll wish you started today." – Karen Lamb
Most bodybuilding advice is misleading.
This guide 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:
How to eat to gain muscle.
The best exercise routine.
Measuring your weekly muscle growth.
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 guide is free.
Hi, I'm Julian. I write well-researched guides that explain hard topics. When something strikes me as overwhelming but worthwhile, I try to figure out how to make it easy for everyone. Then I give away my work for free.
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:
Take a look at the physique below. Download the image and glance at it whenever you need motivation to continue working out:
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:
Or, if you’re already big, you can level up with enough hard work:
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 (study, study): 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:
(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.
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 steroids, insulin, 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 here, here, 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 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 (source, study). 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:
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:
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 (study, study, study). (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 (study, study).
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 (study, study)!
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.
I'm finally putting together a gallery of reader transformation photos. Please send them here.
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:
Have a history of not following through? Identify the person you respect most in life — someone who you don't want to think of you as a quitter. Tell them about your 90 day fitness goal and ask them to hold you to it. Create a calendar event for 3 months from now and include them in it.
Too lazy to commute to the gym? I'll explain how to work out from home.
Concerned it’ll take too long? Men only have to get to this size to be maximally attractive to women! It takes ~90 days. You do not have to get enormous.
Have a hard time scheduling workouts? Wake up an hour earlier than normal and work out in the mornings before your day kicks off.
Don’t have the time? Getting bigger only requires 1 hour three times a week. C'mon.
Are you embarrassed to go to the gym? Pay for a couple training lessons at your local gym so you can learn proper form.
Afraid you don't have the talent? Bodybuilding requires zero talent. You don't have to be an athlete whatsoever. If you can put food in your mouth and lift your groceries, you can lift weights. Human bodies are naturally wired for it.
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
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:
Buy your workout accessories.
Take your starting photos.
Get into the habit of sleeping enough.
First 2 months: Low-volume workouts with non-intimidating exercises anyone can do — even with only dumbbells. The workouts are 45 minutes long. You don’t have to push yourself hard yet because your unexercised muscles will respond quickly.
2 months to infinity: This phase is for those who want to continue getting as big as possible. This plan consists of a higher volume and intensity of exercise, which will become necessary for your muscles to continue growing.
After the following disclaimer, we can move onto the next section: Prep Week!
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.