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Training for Optimal Muscle Gain

Training for optimal muscle gain is a subject of much debate.

These days, you’re likely to come across countless opinions on what training strategy is optimal for packing on muscle mass.

But, the truth is, there isn’t one single program that works best. Instead, we have overarching principles we should adhere to. So long as we do that, we can achieve the same outcome through different means.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some vital considerations of training for optimal muscle gain.

1. Do Enough Work

Training volume represents the amount of work we do in a given workout or training week. Research and anecdotes both suggest that doing more work delivers better results (1).

If everything seems to be in order, but you do not see the growth you hope for, the most reliable way to kickstart progress is to do more.

But, there also comes the point where doing more work becomes counterproductive. Instead of leading to more growth, it leads to overtraining and muscle loss.

So, we need a healthy medium. In the context of traditional weight training, recommendations are as follows:

· Between 12 and 16 weekly sets for the large muscle groups - quads, back, and chest

· Between 6 and 10 weekly sets for the smaller muscles - shoulders, triceps, biceps, and calves

2. Train Your Muscles Twice Per Week

Besides training volume, the next important thing to look at is the weekly training frequency. In general, research shows that training each muscle group twice per week leads to superior results (2).

One potential explanation here is that muscle protein synthesis tends to go back to baseline after 36 hours of training (3, 4). If we wait a whole week before training the same muscle again, we lose out on the opportunity to stimulate the muscle again.

For example, say that you want to do 16 weekly sets for your chest. Instead of cramming all of it in a single workout, distribute it into two workouts - for example, do eight sets in each session.

Photo by Binyamin Mellish from Pexels

3. Avoid Pushing Yourself to Your Limits All The Time

Training to failure seems like a great way to build more muscle. After all, “Go hard or go home.”, right?

In truth, research doesn’t seem to find any extra benefits of pushing yourself to your limits all of the time (5). In fact, training to failure often prolongs time to recovery, hinders our performance, and prevents us from doing enough quality work (6).

In turn, we do great on a few sets but poorly on the remaining ones, which slows down our growth over time.

It’s much better to train near our limits and focus on leaving a couple of repetitions in the tank across most sets. In doing so, we benefit from pushing ourselves without doing too much or increasing the risk of overtraining.

4. Include Bodyweight Work

Bodyweight training is fantastic because it’s effective, adds variety to our training, and helps keep us honest with our weight gain (7).

For example, if you’re in a caloric surplus and aiming to build muscle, you might find yourself eating more than you need to and gaining more weight than you should. Bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, inverted rows, and push-ups are great because they keep you in check every week.

For example, if you find that your pull-up performance worsens from week to week, but your other pulling exercises do well, you can examine your weight and conclude that you’re overeating and gaining too quickly.

Plus, you can do bodyweight training everywhere. For example, if you enjoy outdoor training, head out and find a nice park in Santa Monica where you can do some core bodyweight exercises - pull-ups, dips, and similar.

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