By Jody Braverman Reviewed by Andra Picincu, CN, CPT
The more you challenge your muscles, the faster they'll grow. You don't need an expensive gym membership to gain muscle mass. With just a few pieces of equipment or your own body weight, you can do challenging home workouts that will build muscle fast. You just need to know the important factors involved in muscle gain, and you can make them work for you anywhere you choose to work out.
To build muscle fast, you need to challenge each muscle group with high-volume, twice-weekly workouts.
Equipment for Home Workouts
Do you really need equipment to build muscle and strength? According to Al Kavadlo, CSCS, the answer is a resounding no. Classic calisthenics exercises, such as pushups, pullups and squats, are enough for the beginner to start building muscle quickly at home. For the more advanced athlete, progressive variations can keep your muscles challenged and growing for years, Kavadlo says.
But some people like using equipment, and that's fine too. You can outfit your home workout space with the essentials — or more, depending on your budget — that will allow you to do a variety of fun and challenging exercises in your home workout. Consider using:
Fastest Way to Build Muscle
There's good news and bad news about building muscle fast when you're just starting a resistance-training program. The bad news is that during the first few weeks of your program, you might not make any gains at all.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Physiology found that while muscle damage — necessary for hypertrophy, or muscle growth — was highest among untrained subjects in the first three weeks of a resistance-training program, it was not associated with hypertrophy. This is because muscle protein synthesis during this time is mainly directed at repairing the damage, rather than building mass.
As the body adapts to exercise, there is less muscle damage after training sessions and greater muscle growth. The study researchers concluded that hypertrophy only occurs after accumulated intermittent increases in muscle protein synthesis.
Rate of Muscle Gain
The good news is that you only have to wait about three weeks until your body starts building, rather than just repairing, muscle. After that period, you will put on muscle relatively quickly. According to strength and conditioning coach Eric Bach, beginners gain muscle at a faster rate than intermediate and advanced lifters.
On average, the maximum rate of muscle gain for beginners is 1 to 1.5 percent of total body weight per month compared to 0.5 to 1 percent of body weight for intermediate lifters and 0.25 to 0.5 percent for advanced lifters. Of course, this depends on a lot of variables, including training intensity, body type and diet, among other things.
Volume and Frequency
Whether you're working out in a gym or at home, workout volume and frequency — in addition to your diet — are the biggest factors in building muscle fast. Although you should be conservative in the first few weeks while your body is adapting to exercise, after that you will build more muscle faster by working out often at a high intensity and with a high volume (sets and reps). Basically, the more you challenge your muscles, the more growth you'll stimulate in a shorter period of time.
According to a 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis in the Journal of Sports Science, volume is crucial for hypertrophy. In the 15 studies analyzed, the researchers found that each additional set of an exercise led to an increase in muscle size. This dose-response relationship means that the more sets you can get in, the faster you'll see growth. Having access to your home gym makes this easier, because a workout is always just a few steps away.
As for frequency, a 2016 meta-analysis and systematic review in Sports Medicine found that training each major muscle group twice a week proved more effective for hypertrophy than only training once a week. The researchers could not, however, determine if training muscle groups three times per week leads to greater increases, but if more volume leads to more hypertrophy, then it's safe to say getting in three workouts per week per muscle group certainly can't hurt.
Optimal Repetition Range
There are a lot of opinions on the best number of sets and reps to do and the best rest period length between sets to build mass. As far as reps go, the usual recommendation is eight to 12 per set for hypertrophy, with higher reps being more effective for muscular endurance and lower reps more effective for strength.
However, it might not actually matter that much. A 2016 study in Journal of Applied Physiology found that whether participants lifted lower weight for more repetitions or more weight for fewer repetitions, there was no difference in the amount of muscle growth at the end of a 12-week total-body resistance-training program.
When you're working out at home, it will mainly depend on your available equipment. If you only have your own body weight to work with, you'll need to do more reps to exhaust your muscles.
Sets and Rest
When you're starting out, aim for 10 to 12 sets per muscle group, per week. As you start to see results and your body adapts, you should add more sets for more volume. With this approach, you can build muscle at home and improve your overall fitness.
In a 2019 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, participants who performed five sets per exercise per body part achieved significantly more muscle growth than participants who performed one or three sets. In total, the group that saw the most gains performed 30 sets for the upper body and 45 sets for the lower body per week.
Rest periods between sets for hypertrophy are generally 60 to 180 seconds. However, you may want to lean toward the end of that range. In an eight-week study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2016, participants who rested three minutes between sets gained more mass than participants who rested one minute, even when all other program variables remained the same.
Rest days are crucial for gaining mass. Your muscles grow between your workouts not while you're training them. Allow adequate rest between training sessions for the same muscle group. If you feel that you're getting weaker, not stronger, and you feel fatigued, you're not allowing enough recovery time.
Best Exercises for Fast Gains
Now the really confusing part — which exercises should you do to build muscle at home? The exercises you choose can be either compound, or multijoint, moves like squats and pullups, or they can be isolation, or single-joint, exercises like biceps and hamstrings curls. Which is better for hypertrophy?
This is hotly debated in the fitness field, but according to research, both are equally effective. In a 2015 study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 29 male participants trained the biceps using either lat pulldowns, a compound exercise, or biceps curls, an isolation exercise.
At the end of 10 weeks, there was no difference in results between the compound and isolation group. The researchers concluded that exercise selection should be based on individual preference, time commitment and available equipment.
Compound Body Weight Exercises
You're not going to have as much variety at home as at the gym — no machines, maybe not even dumbbells or resistance bands. In that case, compound exercises that use large muscle groups and activate a lot of muscle fibers at once are going to be your best bet. Calisthenics expert and author Paul Wade recommends these exercises for your home body weight workout:
Of course, these are pretty challenging, and you may not be here quite yet. Start with the basic variation of each exercise and add on challenge and complexity as you get stronger.
If you do have resistance equipment at home, you can do heavy squats, dead lifts, military presses and other classic lifts that build mass. The key is to continue to progressively load the muscles, which is what will encourage the most muscle growth ASAP and over time.
How Many Days a Week Should I Work Out to Build Huge Muscles?
Workout frequency is a much-debated topic in the fitness world. Is more better? Or do muscles need more recovery to reach their full size potential? The answer is, unfortunately, not cut and dried. While research reveals some benefit to higher training frequencies, it may be total volume that makes more of a difference. Ultimately, it's whatever works best for your own body.
Training Frequencies Explained
Training frequency is how often you train a single muscle group each week. There are many popular schools of thought on this.
According to competitive bodybuilder Doug Brignole, Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train each body part three times a week: chest, shoulders and back on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and arms and legs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. That was his bodybuilding training frequency of choice — or at least one of them — and it worked for him.
On the other end of the spectrum, renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin touted the German Volume Training method in which each muscle group is worked only once per week in a very specific volume — 10 sets per exercise. According to Poliquin, this training frequency helped Canadian weightlifter and Olympic silver medalist Jacques Demers build his massive thighs, and it was used by professional bodybuilder Bev Francis in her early career to increase muscle mass.
Workout Frequency vs. Volume
You can't talk about training frequency without also discussing training volume. Training volume is the amount of work you do in each workout — the number of sets and reps. For example, Brignole explains that Schwarzenegger and his counterparts used to do 20 sets per body part per workout — 60 sets per week. That's quite a high a volume.
Poliquin's German Volume Training method only includes 10 sets of a single exercise per body part per week, which is significantly less than Schwarzenegger's routine.
What the Research Says
If you find such disparity confusing, scientific findings aren't going to do much to clarify. A study published in 2018 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning concludes that doing eight sets per body part twice a week had only a slight hypertrophic benefit over doing 16 sets once a week.
A 2018 study featured in PeerJ compared the effects of equal-volume once-weekly or twice-weekly training sessions on muscle gain. The group training once a week had significant increases in biceps (elbor flexor) muscle thickness.
But a study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed no differences in hypertrophy between equal-volume workouts performed either once or twice weekly. Another study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism in 2018 determined that both a high-frequency, low-volume and high-volume, low-frequency training program increased lower body mass, but only the high-volume, low-frequency plan increased upper body mass.
Still More Research
Yet more research muddies the waters. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research concluded that high-frequency training volume was no more effective than low-volume training frequency on hypertrophy.
On the other hand, another 2018 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that there were significant hypertrophic benefits of high-frequency training for a group that performed five total-body workouts each week compared to a group that worked out each muscle group only once a week.
And an additional study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Exercise Science showed that there was no difference between equal-volume high- versus low-frequency training.
Making Sense of It
One wonders if there is a real answer among all this research. There are many variables to consider: the training status of the study participants (trained versus untrained), the methods used to assess growth (lean body mass versus muscle thickness) and the relative difficulty of measuring hypertrophy versus strength, which tends to have much cleaner results, according to competitive powerlifter and trainer Greg Nuckols.
Nuckols conducted extensive analyses of the research on bodybuilding training frequency and found that untrained lifters saw better results from higher training frequencies than did trained lifters. And in studies that assessed hypertrophy using lean muscle mass versus muscle thickness, higher frequencies also tended to have a greater hypertrophic effect, according to Nuckols.
Overall, higher-frequency training had significant benefit over low-frequency training; however, Nuckols notes that this benefit was smaller for trained lifters.
Getting to the Point
The goal of lifting weights is to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the post-workout state in which your body is creating muscle protein at a higher rate. Nuckols surmises that higher frequencies are more effective because they catalyze muscle protein synthesis more often throughout the week.
Whether or not more frequent sessions should be low volume or high volume is less clear. There is a dose-response relationship between training volume and muscle growth; more sets lead to greater muscle hypertrophy, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2017 in the Journal of Sports Sciences. If you do more per-session volume, muscle protein synthesis is increased and extended, explains Nuckols.
Because of that, it's unclear whether more frequent lower volume workouts are more or less effective than less frequent, higher volume workouts.
What Should You Do?
Ultimately, the answer is to do as much as you have time for but don't overdo it — which leads to overtraining and injury. If you're working out 6 days a week, you're not going to be able to do as much volume per session without it backfiring. If you only train once a week, you may find that you're fatiguing before you can get in as much volume as you'd like. Therefore, your sweet spot might be somewhere in between.
If you're not seeing the results you want with your current routine, first try adding frequency without adding volume, suggest Nuckols. Once you assess your body's response and ability to recover, you can add volume to each session.
Other Training Tips
Frequency and volume aren't the only factors involved in building big muscles. Rest periods between sets are also important. One to three minutes is the norm, but a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that participants who rested three minutes between sets gained more muscle than those who rested only one minute, even though the workouts were otherwise identical.
Your nutrition is critical. Even if you found just the right bodybuilding training frequency, if you're not getting enough calories and macronutrients, you won't put on mass. To build muscle, explains body transformation expert Michael Matthews, you need to be in a calorie surplus and consume adequate protein and carbs. This gives your body the energy and raw materials it needs to build muscle.
Last, recovery is just as important as the work you do in the gym. If you sacrifice proper recovery for more gym sessions, you will sabotage your efforts. If you add frequency and find that your workouts suffer, drop the frequency back down.
How to Make Your Arms Big Really Fast
Although it's impossible to naturally achieve huge muscle growth in just a few weeks, there are some steps you can take to dramatically speed up your progress. Your exact rate of muscle growth is largely determined by gender, age, body type and genetics. Over the course of a year, you'd be doing well if you steadily gained 0.4 pounds of muscle per month, but there are some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor and make gains as quickly as possible.
Exercise, Recovery and Nutrition
Complete one or two resistance training workouts per week, targeting your biceps, triceps and shoulders. Use free weights or cable weight machines to perform one or two exercises for each muscle group. Regular curls, hammer curls and chin-ups will target the biceps. For the triceps, body dips, dumbbell kickbacks and triceps extensions will be effective. Shoulder exercises include overhead presses, lateral raises, shrugs and reverse flies.
Do three to six sets of each exercise using a weight you can only lift six to 12 times using perfect form. A 2004 article published in the "Journal of Sports Medicine" concluded that the optimal load for muscle growth was between 80 and 95 percent of your 1-Repetition Max. A 1RM is the amount of weight you can safely lift for only one repetition, unassisted.
Add multi-joint compound exercises to your lifting routine. Limiting yourself to exercises that only target one muscle at a time is not the best way to gain size, even for that muscle. Doing compound exercises like pushups, squats and compound rows release more anabolic hormones which are key for protein synthesis within muscle cells.
Rest each muscle group for at least 24 hours, but preferably 48 hours or more before working it again. Full muscle recovery is key to muscle growth, so the belief that lifting more frequently will result in faster growth is flawed. Although it is important to stress your muscle fibers during a workout, the actual growth only occurs during the rest and recovery phase, and ideally, you want to give your body a full 48 hours to do its work.
Get a full night's sleep every night. Sleep is important for muscle growth because that's when the body produces hormones that stimulate protein synthesis.
Consume enough protein daily and vary your protein sources; 1.6 to 1.7 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is recommended. It's important to choose a variety of protein sources so that you get adequate amounts of all of the essential amino acids. The amino acid leucine is especially important to muscle growth. Healthy sources of protein include poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Things You'll Need
Eat a small meal or snack that combines protein and carbohydrate immediately before or after a workout, to optimize potential muscle growth. Remember that in order to gain weight, you'll need to eat more total calories. Just beware of consuming too much saturated fat.
Always use proper form when exercising. Anabolic steroids are not deemed safe and should not be used.
Written, Compiled & Edited by
The Bergen Review Media Team