Is “working out more” on your list of resolutions this year? You may already have a plan, but how do you know if it’s going to work? If weekly publications of men’s fitness magazine is any indication, the world of physical fitness, training, or “getting in shape” is convoluted and rather intimidating. However, as with most complex subjects, the science of “working out” is underpinned with a few basic fundamentals. Once you are clear about the basics, you’ll be able to navigate your own fitness journey – and see actual results.

I’ve gained about 30 lbs since I started “strength training” regularly – not all muscle, I confess, but most of it is. I won’t be getting a modeling contract any time soon, but I’ve consistently received compliments about the way I look. I’ve also found it much, much easier to find clothing that fits me – I fill them out better with a more muscular frame. I’m more confident, my annual physicals always return with stellar results, and… I enjoy my workouts. Well, most of the time anyway.

Albeit at a slower pace, I am still seeing improvement in my physique. The thing is, I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing now as I did when I first started in 2013. Sure, I’ve switched routines and exercises around, but I follow the same fundamentals I learnt when I began my journey – and they still deliver. And now I’m sharing them with you.

Why strength training is the best way to gain muscle

muscular man strength training

Strength training is largely based on lifting weights. The point is to get stronger, or, being able to lift more and more heavy loads. In order to do so, the muscles in your body have to grow. Scientific research has borne out these truths:

  • Calories give you energy. You gain weight when the calories you consume exceed the energy you expend. Conversely, to lose weight, you need to expend more energy than you consume.
  • It is easier to consume calories (eating, drinking) than it is to expend calories (activity, exercise).
  • The more muscle mass your body has, the more energy you expend, even at rest.
  • To gain muscle mass, you must force your muscles to grow. Muscles only grow if they need to bear loads greater than they can currently.
  • The most efficient way to overload your muscles is lifting weights. Why? Weights offer reliable, systematic progression. Being able to increase the weights at structured intervals, you can progressively overload your muscles, forcing them to keep growing until you hit your goal.

That brings us to the first conclusion:

The most effective way to gain muscle mass is progressively overloading a routine involving lifting weights.

Why should my goal even be gaining muscle? No matter if you’re overweight, underweight, or just an average guy – gaining muscle is a sure way to improve your physical fitness. Some guys say they just want to be lean, not bulky. Sure, lean muscle is exactly what lifting weight produces.

In fact, it’s quite difficult to “become bulky” without the help of steroids. Also, when your body is forced to gain muscle, other healthful benefits follow – reduced mental stress, better concentration, improved testosterone levels, and so much more. The crux is that you fully understand what lifting weight is all about, and how to do it with proper form and frequency.

The Basics of Strength Training

muscular man strength training shoulder press

This is what research in physical science and sports medicine tells us:

Compound exercises stimulate more muscle than isolation exercises. The more muscle is stimulated, the more potential for muscle growth. An example of a compound exercise is the flat bench press. On the contrary, a concentration bicep curl would be an isolation exercise.

Each muscle group responds best to an average of 60 – 75 reps of intensive training a week (with the weight set at 80% of your maximum strength).

This brings us to our second conclusion.

A good strength training routine should include mainly compound exercises, which allow you to safely and progressively increase the weight.

For each exercise, the repetitions should be kept low for each set, so you can lift the most amount of weight. Your strength training routine should be structured on a weekly basis.

Now for the nitty-gritty.

For each compound exercise you do, you should set the weight high enough so that you can only perform between 6 to 8 reps, in strict form, for each set. The final repetition should bring you to “failure” – the inability to perform another repetition. 

Keep your set frequency for each exercise between 2 and 3. Once you’re able to perform more than 8 reps on any set, increase the weight by 5 – 10 lbs. If you can do 6 reps in the first set, but only 4 in the second, lower the weight. The minimum you should do is 6 reps on any set.


To conclude this first part of our series, here’s a quick recap on the things you should keep in mind:

Any guy can benefit from incorporating lifting weights into their fitness program. The most effective way to gain muscle is to lift heavy, and progressively increase the weight. Therefore, you should do mostly compound exercises, which allow you to safely increase the load. Your routine should involve low repetitions, so that you can lift the most weight possible throughout each set.

arnold strength training with cats#1 Tip from Arnold: Kittens are optional.

Ready to give strength training a shot? Stay tuned for the next part in this series to get an example of what a weekly routine looks like. We’ll spell out what exercises you can do for each muscle group, and how long you should be resting in between reps. We’ll also tell you how often you should be hitting the gym weekly, and talk about the elusive 6-pack abs every guy wants.