How To Build Muscle: The Acute Variables

H​ow To Build Muscle: Exercise Selection

T​he exercises a trainee chooses to implement in their program should be selected based on their goals. If you want to build muscle, you do not need to do hang cleans, clean and jerks, or even multiple bicep exercises (there’s only so many ways to flex your elbow). The main movements of your training should be simple to learn and execute, so technical proficiency isn’t a limiting factor. I recommend constructing muscle-building programs around six movements:

  1. Barbell S​quat
  1. Barbell D​eadlift
  1. Barbell B​ench Press
  1. Barbell O​verhead Press
  1. P​ull-ups or Chin-ups and
  1. Barbell R​ows

L​earning these movements are simple, and they have derivatives for people who cannot perform them because of injury of strength level. Also, although there is a skill component to these movements, they are easier to learn than the olympic lifts. They also hit a wide array of muscles in the body, virtually leaving no muscle group untrained for those who want to build muscle.

W​hy The Squat? Why Not The Leg Press?

T​his is a valid, common question. The leg press grows the hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and the calves to an extent. But, the squat axially loads the body, meaning spinal stabilization is required to complete the lift. Because the weight sits atop the spine, the trainee’s core engages to prevent the spine from flexing. Spinal flexion is not a concern for the leg press, for the weight does not sit on the back; thus, the core does not have to be engaged to the same degree as in the squat. To build muscle in a time-efficient and effective way, you want to hit as many muscles at once. This makes the barbell squat a more sensible choice than the leg press.

T​rain Movements, Not Muscles

T​hese exercises should form the core of your training because they train movements that we use in everyday life. Since they train everyday movements, our bodies will strengthen the muscles associated with the movements, and our neurological efficiency will increase. Our body moves based on what the brain tells it to do, and since we’re training these movements in the gym, our brain will get more efficient at sending the signals to do the moves; and our muscles will be more efficient at receiving those signals and moving.

For example, if you prioritized an abdominal crunch in your training, your abdominals will get stronger, but not in the way we use them on a regular basis. A crunch requires spinal flexion (bending the back), a movement we don’t do on a regular basis. But, a squat, deadlift, or overhead press requires the abdominals to stabilize the spine while the extremities move; this is what our abdominals are asked to do on a regular basis.

W​hy Deadlift If I Squat? They Both Work The Legs, Right?

Y​es, they both work the legs. They both work the core, too! However, their knee and hip angles differ.

T​he deadlift is considered a hip dominant lift. The squat is considered a knee dominant lift. Although the knees and hips flex and extend in both movements, the degree to which they flex and extend change. Body position dictates this difference. A properly performed deadlift requires more forward body lean than in a squat.

A properly performed squat avoids the degree of torso lean required of a proper deadlift. The extra torso lean in the deadlift requires the hips to flex a lot more than the knees, placing more tension on the hip extensors (gluteus maximus and hamstring complex). The extra knee flexion in the squat places more tension on the quadriceps. To achieve a balanced, muscular lower-body, squats and deadlifts should be integrated in training.

B​ench Press and Overhead Press? Are Both Necessary To Build Muscle?

T​hey are not both mandatory to build muscle, but I recommend using both exercises in training. They both train the triceps, pectoralis major, and the forearms. Some major differences exist:

  1. T​he bench press requires the trainee to lay on their back
  2. T​he overhead press requires the trainee to stand
  3. T​he bar path on the bench press is horizontal
  4. T​he bar path on the overhead press is vertical
  5. C​ore activation varies because of body position
  • T​he overhead press involves axial loading; although the weight doesn’t rest on the back, the weight is pressed overhead, and the core must stabilize the spine to prevent it from overextending. This core stabilization equals more core activation than the bench press, since you’re laying on your back for the bench press.
  • T​he pectoralis major is stimulated differently because of the differing bar paths. In the bench press, the sternal head of pec major is stimulated the most. In the overhead press, the clavicular part of the chest is stimulated the most. Both heads are stimulated in each movement, but the degree of stimulation differs because of the differing bar paths.

Y​ou Said Do Chin-ups or Pull-Ups. What If I Can’t Pull My Bodyweight?

I​f you can’t do chin-ups or pull-ups yet, that’s okay. Barbell rows are a suitable alternative to the vertical pull (chin-ups or pull-ups). Why is that? Rows rely on muscular contraction from key muscles in the vertical pulls. Key muscles involved in both lifts include:

  1. b​iceps brachii
  2. b​iceps brachialis
  3. r​homboids
  4. l​ower trapezius
  5. m​iddle trapezius
  6. l​atissimus dorsi
  7. t​eres minor
  8. t​eres major
  9. i​nfraspinatus
  10. p​osterior deltoid

O​nce your muscles gain enough strength from the rows, it will transfer to the vertical pulls. Nothing to worry about there.

T​here will be special instances when an individual cannot, or will not, stick to the core six aforementioned movements. If so, they need good reason to abandon any of these fundamental lifts. If they are unsure of how to replace or program alternatives into their training, hiring a certified strength coach or personal trainer may be required. You don’t want to throw random exercises in your program for the sake of novelty; this is not a time-efficient and effective way to build muscle! Every exercise should serve a purpose besides treating one’s boredom in the weight room.

A​nalyze training meticulously to ensure you arent abandoning any muscles in your body’s development. Proper exercise selection and order, along with other acute training variables to be addressed in future blog posts (intensity, volume, etc.), are the scientific, proven ways on how to build muscle.

H​ow To Build Muscle: Effective Exercise Order

S​tart with the compounds; finish with the isolation movements. What does that mean? This means begin your resistance training with movements that involve two or more joints, which stimulate one or more large muscle groups simultaneously. Examples of these compound movements include the:

1. Barbell Squat (ankle, knee, and hip joints move simultaneously)

2. Barbell Deadlift (ankle, knee, and hip joints move simultaneously)

3. B​ench Press (the shoulder and elbow joints move simultaneously)

4. O​verhead Press (the shoulder and elbow joints move simultaneously)

5. Pull-up/Chin-up (the shoulder and elbow joints move simultaneously)

6. B​arbell Row (the shoulder and elbow joints move simultaneously)

Notice the word “move” is italicized; this is because you can argue that other joints are involved in the movements, but the listed joints are performing dynamically, not isometrically.

You may be wondering: “But why? Why start with compounds first? Suppose I prefer leg extensions over squats?” That’s a valid question. Since these movements use two to three joints, more muscles are involved. When more muscles are involved in a movement, more weight can be used. This remains important because more weight moved means more total work done. More total work done equals more muscular stress, which equals more muscular gains in the short and long term.

If you want to lift a heavy object, would you have an easier time with one or two people lifting it? You’d want two people, because more force can be generated with more muscles. The same is true with resistance training. The metabolic and structural damage that occurs from squatting your body weight plus the weighted barbell cannot be matched by the damage incurred by weight extended on a leg extension machine. Not to say machines that isolate a muscle group don’t have their place in training, but they are not as time-efficient and effective at building muscle as bigger exercises like the squat.

S​tarting with isolation movements contributes to workload necessary to build muscle, but the fatigue induced detracts from the force that can be inserted into compounds. For example, if you fatigue the quadriceps from a leg extension before performing a squat, you won’t push as much weight on the squat. This leads to less high threshold motor unit recruitment, a necessity to build muscle. Since you’re lifting less weight on the squat, the synergistic and stabilizing muscles receive less stimulation. These muscles include the:

  • gluteus maximus
  • hamstring complex
  • erector spinae
  • rectus abdominus
  • internal and external obliques
  • transverse abdominus
  • M​ultifidus
  • pelvic floor musculature and the
  • ​diaphragm

Since you can lift more weight with compounds, your bone mineral density (BMD) will improve. When squatting heavy and moderate loads (1 repetition maximums to 10 repetition maximums), your femurs and tibiae become denser. This added density decreases risk of stress fractures. This is more important for women and elderly lifters.

Finally, the caloric burn difference remains major for exercise order. When using two or more muscles for a lift, you burn more calories than an exercise requiring one muscle group. For example, a barbell squat will burn more calories than a leg extension or a leg curl. Most people’s health and fitness goals revolves around maintaining a low body fat percentage. You need to burn more calories than you consume to lose body fat. Even if your goal isn’t to build muscle, but to lose fat to make your muscles more defined, you’ll reach your goals faster by emphasizing compound movements.

How to Build Muscle: Volume and Intensity

F​or most of your training, there will be an inverse relationship between volume and intensity. This means you will not train with high volumes and high intensities simultaneously. There’s a time and place for that, but for mosttrainees, this rare instance remains unnecessary. If you’re training with low volumes, you’ll train with high or moderate intensities. If you train with low volume, you’ll train with moderate to high intensities. 

W​hat’s Considered High Intensity?

H​igh-intensity resistance training equals 90% or more of your 1 repetition maximum(1RM). You can argue high-intensity starts at 87% of 1RM. The more volume you can accumulate during training, the greater the magnitudeof adaptation. However, because high-intensity training can severely fatigue the central nervous system (CNS), you’d want to limit it. But because it will be limited, you’ll need more volume to compensate for the decreased intensity. 

W​hat’s Considered High Volume?

H​ighvolume is a relative term. What’s considered high volume for one person may be low for another. What’s enough to stimulate growth for you may not be enough to maintainthe muscle for your training partner. Not onlythat, but what’s considered high volume for you now may not be considered high volume when you become more fit. High and low volumes live on a sliding scale. 

Dr. Mike Israetelsays most people’s minimumeffective dose (MED) is around 10 sets per week per muscle. And most people’s maximumrecoverable volume (MRV) is around 20 sets per week per muscle. This means 10 sets for quads per week will be enough to stimulate growth for most people, and 20 sets per week will be the most sets most people should do. Any more than 20 sets per week for most people will deliver symptoms of overreaching; and if done long enough, symptoms of overtrainingsyndrome will manifest themselves. 

N​ow this doesn’t mean you can’t get results with less than 10 sets per week per muscle group. The ability to get results from less depends on your fitness level.

W​hat’s Considered Moderate Intensity?

W​hen discussing intensities, there’re points on the intensity spectrum when blending occurs. 

Training for one biomotor ability can develop another, but the intensity chosen will emphasize a certain biomotor ability.

This means what’s considered low, can arguably be considered moderate. And what some consider moderate can also be considered high. With that said, I’ll say moderate intensity rangesfrom 75% – 85% of your 1RM. Even going as low as 67% can be considered moderate volume. From 67% – 85% is where the majority of your muscle-building training should be. You can build muscle with less than 67% and more than 87% of your 1RM, but this range is more time and energy efficient than other ranges. 

W​hat’s Considered Moderate Volume?

A​gain, when discussing volume, it’s highly individual because of people’s tolerance and fitness levels. Generally speaking, low volume equals less than 10 sets per week per muscle. Moderate volume equals 10 – 15 sets per week per muscle. High volume equals 16+ sets per week per muscle, with 20 sets being the recommended upper limit for mosttrainees. 

S​o Where Should I Start?

G​ood question. If you’re a newbie to training, even two sets per week per muscle will yield results. You can start there and increase your weeklyvolume as you become more fit. Increasing this volume on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthlybasis depends on lifestyle factors. These factors affect your recovery abilities. These include nutrition, sleep, stress, and training itself. If you do not know which factor is negatively or positively affecting your training, seeking an experienced, knowledgeable mind to consult and adviseyou will save you some headache. It’ll also get you to do your goals faster while avoiding costly mistakes. 

T​he volume and intensity chosen determines the amount of sets and repetitions you will do. 

H​ow To Build Muscle: Frequency

Y​our training frequency depends on the amount of time you have to train, and the volume and intensity of your sessions. The fewer days you have available for training, the lower your frequency will be; the more free time you have, the higher your frequency canbe. Remember volume and intensity has an inverse relationship. Frequency also has an inverse relationship with these acute variables.

Rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and training age are also important variables, but they will not be the focus of this section. 

Someone who trains with low intensities can generally handle more volume per session with moderate to high frequencies. For example, someone who trains with 67% of 1RM can get away with training with 15 sets per week per muscle group. Someone trainingwith high intensities will train with less weeklyvolume, and one way to decrease this weeklyvolume is by reducing frequency. 

Despite the generalization illustrated by the chart, training with high intensities can go well with high frequencies. In order for this combination to offer benefits without overreaching, volume per session will need a reduction. This reduction keeps weeklyvolumes manageable despite high frequencies and intensities.For most trainees’ muscle-building goals, this combination isn’t necessary; they will be better suited training with moderate frequencies, moderate volume, and moderate intensities.

W​hat is Low, Moderate and High Frequencies?

L​ow Frequency equals one to two sessions per week. Moderate frequency equals three to four sessions per week. High frequency equals five to seven sessions per week. Yes, some people do resistance training every day. For most peoples’ goals, two to four times a week suffices. With these frequencies, you’ll be training enough to stimulate adaptation for extended periods of time. More than this, and you’re more likelyto burnout. Less than this and the probability of plateauing increases. Best case scenario is you progress slowly.

S​o Where Should I Start?

I recommend starting at two times a week. You can increase the frequency, but progress can continue for a long time with two sessions per week. Some people prefer this because it leaves five days to do other activities besides lifting weights. This is more important for people who cross-train. If you want to increase the frequency, three times per week is a happy medium: you still have four days per week to do other activities, and you’ll have enough training to stimulate adaption. 

Y​our training frequency shouldn’t be soleybased on free time. Being mindful of your intensities, volumes, RPEs, and training age prove to be some of the most critical factors determining your frequency. RPE refers to how hard you feellike you’re working. Training age refers to how long you’ve been following a structuredtraining program. Be mindful of these when determining youroptimal training frequency. 


Y​our resistance training should be based on six fundamental compound movements. These six will help you build muscle time-efficiently and effectively. Isolation movements can come afterwards, but they don’t have to. No matter your body composition goals (lose fat and/or build muscle), you won’t go wrong with the fundamental six. The rationale includes, but is not limited to, caloric burn and increased bone mineral density.

Remember your acute training variables have an inverse relationship among them. The amount of one will affect the amount of the other. If it doesn’t, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you need help designing training programming for your lifestyle, goals, and training age, let me know and I’ll be ready to help you.