The Ultimate Guide to Gaining Muscle Mass-The Smart Way

Female fitness instructor showing exercise progress on clipboard to young athletic woman at gym.

If you want to build muscle, you go to the gym and pick up some heavy stuff, right? Well, that’s part of it, but the truth is there’s a lot more that goes into building healthy muscle. You have to make sure you’re doing the right workouts and eating the right foods, and you need a way of measuring your progress so you’re not continually guessing about how to design your workouts and nutritional plan.

With that in mind, here’s your guide to gaining muscle mass the smart way: strength training, caloric intake, considerations of the differences between beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters, and tracking your progress.


Strength Training

There are lots of ways to train, and what’s right for someone else might not be right for you. We’re all starting from a different place with different capabilities and different goals.

The key for everyone is making sure you’re progressively overloading your muscles. What is progressive overload?

“This principle involves continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to continually make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, in order to get bigger and stronger, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used to.”

This is true for gains in any type of exercise for beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes alike. If you do the same workout day after day, you won’t make the progress you’re looking for.

There are several ways to practice progressive overload: you could increase the weight you’re lifting, increase the number of repetitions or sets, shorten your rest time between sets, or train more often. For example, you might start by squatting 100 pounds for two sets of eight reps. Every week for a month, you add 10 pounds to your squat. After that, you might continue to squat 140 pounds, but you do two sets of 12 reps. Then you do three sets of 12 reps. Then, you might do this for three days per week instead of two.

Every workout plan will be different, but the important thing is that you are, somehow, continually asking your body to do more if you want to continue to see improvements.

Lean muscle is a good thing. Even if you’re overweight and looking to lose body fat, you should still train to gain muscle. Putting more lean muscle on your body will increase your metabolism, so your body will burn more calories throughout the day. Building muscle will also give you more strength to power through your workouts and make it easier to navigate the tasks of daily living.

This article breaks down three muscle-building training routines. The first one features three total-body workouts per week, which may be good for a beginner.

“Since most beginners do not possess the same strength levels as more advanced lifters, it is good to trigger the muscle more often because the amount of weight lifted is significantly lighter and you will not need as much time to recover and repair before their next workout.”

After a few months of three workouts per week, you might move to a four-day split workout routine, where you train your lower body one day and upper body the next day, take a rest day, then do another lower body day followed by an upper body day. A five-day split is more advanced yet, and focuses on only one or two muscle groups per day.

You might want to work with a personal trainer who can help design workouts especially suited to your needs (including any limitations you might have due to injury or illness) and goals. An additional benefit of this is that he or she will ensure you’re performing every exercise correctly for safety and maximum benefit. A trainer will also help you keep progressing and avoid the plateau you may experience if you get in the habit of doing the same routine with the same weights every time.


“Make no mistake: Eating for muscle is just as important as lifting for muscle.” Even if your primary goal is body fat loss, you still need to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your body. Your cells and organs require a fairly large amount of calories every day just to sustain themselves, and if you’re working to build muscle, you need to make sure you’re eating plenty of calories and the right amount of protein to fuel those gains.

Your body’s changes will be dictated by three caloric strategies:

  • Maintenance: Consuming the same number of calories than you burn.
  • Deficit: Burning more calories than you consume.
  • Surplus: Consuming more calories than you burn.

Though it might seem like surplus is the one you want to avoid, it’s actually really important if your primary focus is muscle gain. Building muscle takes nutrients and energy, and if your body spends all its energy on basic survival, daily tasks, and the workout itself, it won’t have anything left to put toward building muscle.

Look at it this way: you’re allowed to pack up to 50 pounds in your suitcase. When you pack it just right, that’s like your body in maintenance. If you take something out of that suitcase, that’s like putting your body at a deficit—the suitcase is lighter! Let’s say you add something heavy to the suitcase, taking it just over the 50-pound limit. This is a surplus. It’s heavier—just like your body will be heavier and stronger, with more muscle mass.

Of course, you know what happens with an overweight bag: you might get charged the overweight fee. It’s fine to pay that $50 fee so you can carry that extra luggage—but you don’t want to add so much stuff that you level up to that $100 fee.

That’s the same fine line we experience in our bodies. We need to consume a surplus so we gain the extra muscle without gaining too much fat. This can become an issue if you eat in surplus in an attempt to gain muscle, but don’t lift heavy weights on a consistent basis. It’s much easier to carry that overweight suitcase when you’ve got a lot of muscle—it’s a lot harder to lug that suitcase if you have excess fat and no strength.

There’s no reason to build muscle with doubt when you can build it with data. Since daily caloric needs vary greatly between individuals, Elite Body Data can test your RMR (resting metabolic rate) to help you find your maintenance, deficit, and surplus zones!

According to NASM, the typical healthy adult can determine his or her protein needs by multiplying his/her weight in kilograms by 0.8. The result is approximately how many grams of protein you should consume in a day. For example, a 150-lb (68-kg) person needs about 54 grams of protein per day. However:

“This number does not take into consideration protein quality, energy intake, carbohydrate intake, mode and intensity of exercise, or the timing of the protein intake. Based on current research, which takes into consideration the above, more appropriate levels have been recommended depending on the type of exercise.”

Here are those recommendations. It may vary based on the person’s training status and ability as well as the duration and intensity of the exercise session.

  • Endurance training: 1.0 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

  • Strength training: 1.6 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

  • Intermittent training (soccer, etc): 1.4 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight

It’s not as hard to get that much protein as you might think. Check out the protein content of these foods:

  • 3 oz skinless chicken: 28 grams

  • 1 egg: 6 grams

  • 3 oz tuna: 22 grams

  • 1/2 cup pinto beans: 11 grams

  • 1/2 cup chickpeas: 7 grams

  • 1/2 cup cooked spinach: 3 grams

  • 1 oz pumpkin seeds: 9 grams

  • 1 tablespoon peanut butter: 7 grams

  • 6 oz Greek yogurt: 18 grams

The quality of your protein is also important. Animal proteins are complete proteins with all essential amino acids. Quinoa is a complete protein; other plant sources may have to be consumed in combination to complete the amino acid profile. As for protein powders, whey is often recommended right after exercise. Some plant protein powders, like hemp, pea, or rice, have been shown to be equally beneficial.

You also need to consume complex carbohydrates (your body’s preferred fuel source!) like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and bananas, and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

Of course, hydration is also important. ACSM says electrolyte drinks aren’t necessary for exercise lasting an hour or less—plain water offers the same results, and many store-bought sports drinks are high in sugar. It’s a good idea to consume about 17 ounces of water two hours before exercise; “During exercise, athletes should start drinking early and at regular intervals in an attempt to consume fluids at a rate sufficient to replace all the water lost through sweating…or consume the maximal amount that can be tolerated.” Make it habit to drink water throughout the day to maintain proper hydration.

The Difference Between Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Lifters

Depending upon where you are in your fitness journey, you might experience different results based on the same strategy.

Calorie Deficit

  • Beginner: Lifting can help with weight loss and promote muscle mass, even with a calorie deficit. Without lifting, they may see weight loss, but probably not any muscle gains.
  • Intermediate: With true deficit eating, they may experience loss of muscle, water, and fat. An unnecessarily large amount of muscle can be lost with a harsh deficit.
  • Advanced: True deficit eating will cause some muscle, water, and fat loss; again, a harsh deficit contributes to unnecessarily high muscle loss.

Calorie Maintenance

  • Beginner: It’s fairly common to experience significant muscle gains.
  • Intermediate: They might gain some muscle if training in progressive overload, but not as much as they could if they were eating in surplus.
  • Advanced: With progressive overload, eating in this range may promote only slight muscle gains—again, not nearly as profound as what would be possible with surplus eating.

Calorie Surplus

  • Beginner: They’re likely to gain significant muscle with surplus eating, but if it’s not closely monitored, it may result in fat gain, as well.
  • Intermediate: With progressive overload, they’ll see muscle increases. Again, monitoring is key to avoid gaining fat.
  • Advanced: The more advanced we get, the harder it gets to advance! With progressive overload and surplus eating, advanced lifters will see muscle gains, though not as quickly as a beginner or intermediate lifter. It remains important to monitor caloric intake to avoid gaining fat.


How do you know your training and nutrition program is working? You have to track results. The scale isn’t enough: sometimes that number doesn’t shift, even though your body composition has changed. In other cases, you might gain weight, which many people tend to think of as a negative thing—but if you’re losing body fat and gaining muscle, it’s a very good thing indeed.

Exercise testing is important to see if you’re getting stronger and building endurance. There are a lot of ways to do that. The important thing is to do the same test, whether it’s a one-rep max, a CrossFit baseline WOD, a one-mile run, or anything else, on a regular basis so you can see how you’re improving. Form is great, but ultimately, training is about function.

Testing your body composition is also essential to make sure you’re increasing muscle mass and decreasing body fat. At Elite Body Data, we use the Body Metrix Ultrasound to determine how much muscle, essential body fat, excess body fat, and water you have in your body. By testing at regular intervals, we can take note of increases in muscle mass and exactly where on your body those increases are occurring. This gives you an opportunity to adapt your training or nutritional habits as needed so you can keep growing where you want to see that growth.

While taking circumference measurements are, in many ways, more helpful than the number on the scale, they still don’t paint the whole picture of what’s within that circumference. If there’s no change in a thigh measurement, for example, is that because you didn’t experience any muscle growth? Or might it be because you gained muscle and lost body fat in that area—exchanging one type of tissue for another?

Body composition testing is the only way to know for sure, and we can do that for you in the comfort of your own home or your gym—or you’re always welcome to visit us at the Elite Body Data Lab. You don’t need to do anything special to prepare for it, so it won’t interfere with your eating, training, or sleeping schedule, no matter when you book your appointment.

Today’s technology is simple, accessible, and affordable, so there’s no reason to use guesswork where your progress is concerned. Call us today to schedule that first body composition test. While we’re at it, we can also test your RMR to give you a better idea of how much you should eat to fuel your unique body. Make sure you’re making the most of your training—if you’re putting in the work, you want to know it’s moving you in the right direction. Elite Body Data can help.



Read more articles by John Smith

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