How to Start Building Muscle in a Gym

Most beginners get off on the wrong foot when it comes to building muscle.

The first attempt to build muscle usually involves flicking through the latest fitness magazine and picking up some sort of 5 day split routine, in which a different body part is worked each day. The typical workout will include multiple single-joint exercises and leave you in the gym for hours. These workouts are often promoted by bodybuilders and athletes, which are fine for them, but almost useless for beginners.

The problem with these routines is that they are designed to work particular muscles individually. Bodybuilders aim to scuplt the body, so they train individual muscles at a time in an attempt to perfectly balance their bodies, and athletes train for a particular sport. A beginner, on the other hand, wants to get as big and strong as possible in the shortest time possible.

If you stop to think about it, these magazines have to produce new routines and exercises so people keep buying them, otherwise they would only ever sell a single issue.

Contrary to what you might see in the magazines, full body workouts are the perfect choice for almost all beginners looking for the quickest gains in strength and size. The more muscle you can stimulate in a workout, the more muscle you will grow.

It’s really that simple.

The exercises that stimulate the most muscle are compound exercises. Compound exercises, as opposed to isolation exercises which work a single joint, work multiple joints and multiple muscle groups through a range of motion. Recruiting multiple muscles allows you to lift more weight and thus stresses the muscles to a much greater degree than isolation exercises ever could. For example, you would never be able to barbell curl as much weight as you could bench press. A curl almost exclusively engages the biceps, whereas a bench press engages the chest, triceps, shoulders, and to some extent the biceps as well.

Other than the bench press, popular compound exercises include the squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-up/chin-up, barbell row and the Olympic lifts.

Take your time learning these exercises and perfecting form. Doing them wrong can easily lead to injury and put you out of action for months. You really need to obsess over form for compound exercises, especially the squat and deadlift.  There’s no need to be afraid of compounds, but you should never push past bad form. Once you have completed the prescribed sets and reps in a workout with perfect form, then it’s time for you to add a little bit more weight.

The process of adding a little bit more weight to the bar is known as progressive overload. All this means is that you’re continually forcing your body to grow by adding weight, increasing the number of reps or reducing rest periods. If you aren’t getting stronger or increasing your work capacity, then there’s almost no chance you’re building muscle.

There’s a lot of good programmes built on these principles, but these two are my personal favourites and  are amongst the most popular out there…

Starting Strength

The starting strength routine looks like this:

Workout A: 

3×5 Squats
3×5 Bench Press
1×5 Deadlift

Workout B:

3×5 Squat
3×5 Overhead Press
5×3 Power Cleans

The first number represents the number of sets, and the second is the number of reps. You can take as much time as you need to recover between sets. This should be around the 2 minute mark, but no more than 4 minutes. You alternate the workouts with a day off in between to rest. For example, Monday: Workout A, Tuesday: Rest, Wednesday: Workout B, Thursday: Rest, Friday: Workout A, and so on…

Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe is a fantastic book for anybody involved in strength training and the advice on form/technique is second to none. Pick up a copy from Amazon.

Stronglifts 5×5

Stronglifts is very similar and follows the same format as Starting Strength.

Workout A: 

5×5 Squats
5×5 Bench Press
5×5 Barbell Rows

Workout B:

5×5 Squat
5×5 Overhead Press
1×5 Deadlift

Stronglifts is an awesome online resource put together by Mehdi Hadim. It’s all free so go over and check it out…

Keep in mind

  • Both these programmes are awesome and will yield massive gains for beginners.
  • Pick a plan and stick to it for at least 6 months. For the love of God don’t keep switching programmes.
  • As a beginner, there’s a good chance you’ll build muscle and burn fat using these programmes, but understand this won’t last forever.
  • If your nutrition isn’t up to scratch, your gains will suffer.
  • Make sure you get enough rest. Muscle is built when you rest, not in the gym. Get at least 8 hours sleep a night.



Take our short assessment and we'll build you a week of personalized bodyweight workouts, completely free.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Nice entry – I’ll def. focus on the compound moves. I started seriously exercising back in mid July going to the gym about every weekday and rotating my exercise workouts between weights and cardio. That combined with eating steel cut oatmeal in the morning (with a protein shake), now, about 1.5 months later, I am already feeling and seeing results. I’m going to give myself another 1.5-2 months and then I’ll consider myself to be beyond the “beginner’s” stage and ramp it up from there. My overall goal is to bulk up but not to some massive level.

    Tnx again!

    • Hey Matthew!

      Thanks for leaving a comment and congrats on getting started!

      A program like this can yield great results for a year or even longer for some people, so don’t worry too much about adjusting your workouts as soon as possible. As long as you’re still getting stronger and building muscle that’s all that counts.

      If you need help with *anything*, let me know I’ll do my best to help you out.


      • Tnx for the comment back, Will! Wasn’t sure from this post….during the week, how should the workouts go? 4 days in a row or day on day off?

        • It’s every other day Matt – I’ll try to make that more obvious in the post – thanks!