How to Gain Muscle In and Outside the Gym

Looking to gain a little bit of mass? Here, experts break down how to gain muscle so you can look and feel stronger, stat.

Woman lifting a 20 lb weight in the gym
Photo: Kolostock/Gettty

Not everyone is looking to lose weight. In fact, gaining weight in the form of muscle can be seriously beneficial. For one, it can help you feel stronger mentally and physically. But strengthening certain power muscle groups (think: your glutes) can also improve your performance in the gym and make everyday tasks during day-to-day life easier.

Functionally, muscles protect your bones, organs, and tissues — and even help you heal quickly. Muscles can also be an important factor in maintaining your weight, says Kathryn Sansone, a certified fitness trainer and the founder of GreekGirl Beauty Protein. "Muscle requires more energy and therefore burns more calories than fat. The more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism is." More muscle means burning more calories at rest, plus being able to work harder during your workouts. Double-win. (More here: 8 Health Benefits of Lifting Weights)

All these perks have you wondering how to build muscle, stat?

Of course, just as with weight loss, building muscle isn't all about what you do in the gym. It also comes down to caloric intake, sleep, hydration, and recovery. Ready? Follow this two-part plan for how to gain muscle both inside and out of the gym. (

And just remember: Not everybody is the same when it comes to weight loss or gaining muscle (see: why some people have an easier time toning their muscles), so be patient and give yourself time to see changes. (The best things are worth waiting for, right?!)

How to Gain Muscle Inside the Gym

1. Do compound strength exercises.

Strength training is a huge factor when it comes to how to gain muscle mass. But not every move is created equal. Jaclyn Sklaver, a functional sports nutritionist and trainer based in New York favors compound movements (think: total-body exercises). They burn more calories. "Full-body workouts are ideal for maximum muscle growth," she says. "The more a body part is used, the more hypertrophy that occurs."

Focus on working the largest muscle groups in your body: your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, cleans, burpees, walking lunges, and plyometric moves like jump squats and box jumps with or without weights. (

P.S. Don't be afraid to lift heavy. You can start small and build up. If you're doing eight to 10 reps of any move comfortably, for example, increase your weight. For bodyweight moves? Simply do more reps (if you can — some bodyweight exercises are challenging enough!).

2. Switch up your rep speed.

Should you go for as many reps as possible in a minute? Or stretch out lifts so each rep is an extra challenge? The truth is, there's no one ideal way to give your muscles the time under tension that elicits the most strength growth, says Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a kinesiology researcher at McMaster University in Ontario.

"A standard lifting cadence, or time under tension, is 1:1:1 — lift the weight for one second, pause one second, and lower it one second. Some people prefer a more controlled cadence like 2:1:2, 3:1:3, or even a super-slow 6:1:6 or longer," he says. "Some mixture of the above would be a good idea." (See: How Slow Strength Training Can Benefit Your Muscles)

As for doing high-intensity intervals with weights, "it's cardio conditioning as much as it's strength work," he says. It has its place in the mix with this caveat: "If form suffers for the sake of getting an extra rep, that's not a good thing." (Bad form is just one of the exercise mistakes you could be making.)

3. Dial down on the all-out sets.

The thinking with weights has been that going harder is better for building muscle and the strength that comes with it. But lately science is shifting that view on how to gain muscle. A new meta-analysis in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that stopping short of failure while doing reps results in equal or better gains in strength, power, and muscle mass, as does maxing out on each set.

The real key is training volume, says Eduardo Cadore, Ph.D., a coauthor of the study. "In other words, if you typically do one set of eight reps to failure, the results would probably be the same if you perform two sets of four reps at the same load," says Cadore. And considering that reps to failure requires longer recovery between training sessions and may stress joints more, the divide and conquer may be optimal. (FYI, partial reps can be super beneficial for your muscle-building journey too.)

4. Don't stick with the same reps or weights every workout.

You will level up your strength faster if you alternate heavy and light days rather than repeat the same sets each session before going for bigger dumbbells, says Eric McMahon, the coaching and sports science program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Yes, you still need to obey the principle of progressive overload — that is, gradually bumping up the loads you lift. "But we've moved on from strictly linear models to more flexible ones," says McMahon. "Instead, have a day lifting heavier weights in the three-to- five-rep range, then one where you do moderate weights in the eight-to-12 range." You could cycle in a third day where you remove the load and do more athletic drills or stick with the simple high-low approach.

5. Think outside the squat.

Another paradigm shift when it comes to how to gain muscle has been that your strength isn't simply defined by a bilateral movement like a barbell squat or a deadlift," says McMahon. "Single-leg strength exercises do a lot to improve your strength and overall function and may relate more closely to what you do in real life."

If you don't have access to a weight machine, remember that there's so much you can do to turn up the intensity on bodyweight exercises to move the needle on your strength. Consider the push-up. Beyond doing a decline version, you can add weight (like a weighted vest) or try an off-center press, says McMahon: Start in plank position with one palm flat on the floor, the other on a gliding disk. As you lower, slide out the gliding disk, then return it to start as you press back up. (Here's more: How to Build Muscle with Bodyweight Exercises)

6. Stick to low-impact, light cardio.

Cardio gets your blood flowing so that your muscles are receiving more oxygen, which promotes muscle growth. But you don't need much of it. A good plan for how to gain muscle? Stick to is strength training three times a week and one day of light, low-impact cardio. Also, don't do cardio before your strength training session if you do choose to do them on the same day. This will likely fatigue your muscles and you could sacrifice form and increase risk of injury. (

How to Gain Muscle Outside of the Gym

1. Keep tabs on what (and when) you eat.

"Muscle requires the right amount of nutrients to grow. That includes protein, carbs, and fat," says Lisa Avellino, director of fitness at NY Health & Wellness. More specifically, your muscles need carbs for their energy stores (aka glycogen) and protein to build their fibers. Keeping a food diary can minimize guesswork and measure your results. But how much and when?

Aim for 0.7 gram of protein per pound of body weight. A recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that getting much above that (or 0.74 gram per pound) may provide no more muscle-building boost."Complete proteins are any lean animal source, dairy, eggs, fish, and some protein powders," says Sklaver. For vegetarians, opt for quinoa, buckwheat, or soybeans, or combine nuts with whole grains to make a complete protein. (This guide will help you meet your plant-based protein goals.)

Eating more carbohydrates at breakfast and immediately after your workout can help maximize muscle recovery (carbs are super important for your workouts), as well. Your body has a short window post-workout to restore, so try for a carb-and-protein mix to help replenish glycogen stores within an hour or two of your workout, says Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D.N., the author of The New Power Eating (Buy It, $18, and a member of the Shape Brain Trust — "especially if you're on a low-carb diet where muscles may not fully refuel otherwise."This can help with muscle recovery, increase lean muscle gains, and increase human growth hormone levels.

Water also matters when it comes to how to gain muscle. Aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water daily so that your muscles stay full and saturated.

2. Sleep.

The most important tip for how to build muscle actually has nothing to do with eating or working out: Your bed is where the magic *really* happens (in fact, it could be the absolute best thing you can do for a healthier body). After a workout, your muscles use the nutrients and water you've ingested during the day and will work during your sleep to build and grow your muscles.

According to Avellino, our human growth hormone levels are highest when we are asleep. "Many studies suggest an association between a lack of sleep and high cortisol levels," she explains. "Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that is linked with stress and can break down muscle tissue." So don't skimp on shuteye.

3. Track your gains.

New tech has enabled us to peek under the hood and track how our reps are translating into muscle. Workout studios offer quick scans on sophisticated devices like InBody "that can break down the total pounds of muscle in five segments: trunk — including abs, chest, and back — arms, and legs," says Michelle Miller, a clinical nutritionist who uses one with clients at Physio Logic studio in New York. But a body composition scale that breaks out muscle mass percentage, such as the Withings Body+ (Buy It, $79, will do as a way to ballpark your total and see which way it's trending.

Miller suggests a weekly weigh-in first thing in the morning. And if you don't see an uptick, remember this, says Cliff Robertson, a trainer at Performance Lab in New York: "Getting stronger doesn't necessarily mean bigger muscles. The weight you're able to lift will go up even if your body composition stays the same."

4. If you're not gaining muscle, see your doc.

Sometimes an inability to put on muscle could have to do with health conditions you may not be aware of. Sklaver says it's important to find out if you have any conditions that may affect your metabolism, endocrine system, or thyroid.

Updated by
Mary Anderson
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Mary Christ Anderson is the former deputy editor for Shape magazine, where she oversaw the publication's front-of-book, beauty, and fitness sections. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, InStyle, Glamour, and more, and has won awards from MIN, Folio, and Meredith.
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