Progressive overload is one of the foundational principles of both strength training and hypertrophy training. It’s the idea that as we get stronger, we need to gradually lift more weight to continue challenging our muscles. And then, as we continue challenging our muscles, we keep growing gradually stronger.
- To keep getting stronger, keep lifting more weight.
- To continue lifting more weight, keep getting stronger.
Kind of chicken-and-egg riddle, yes, but it’s also the most crucial principle of gaining muscle size and strength. In this guide, we’ll teach you how to do it.
We’ll also teach you about the least-talked-about aspect of all—how to progressively overload your calories to continue gaining weight and building muscle. Not understanding this part is why most skinny people struggle to become big and strong. It held me back for many years.
To build muscle, you have to challenge your muscles enough to stimulate muscle growth. Then you need to fuel that growth by eating enough calories and protein. And then you need to rest and recover. That gives you just three things to focus on: lift enough, then eat enough, and then rest enough.
But there’s nuance here. Some types of resistance training are better for stimulating muscle growth than others. Some types of calories can help you make faster, leaner gains. And you don’t want to eat so much that you get fat.
So, how should you train, eat, and rest to build muscle? Let’s dive in.
When you lift weights, you stimulate muscle growth. How long does that stimulus last? And how long does it take for your muscles and tendons to recover between workouts? If you can figure that out, then you’ll have a better idea of how often to train each muscle.
If you’re bulking—gaining weight to build muscle—you also want to make sure that your body is primed for muscle growth before you shovel down all of those extra calories. So again, it helps to know how long you build muscle after working out.
Giant sets are one of the best methods for gaining both muscle size and strength. They aren’t better than straight sets or supersets, but they are more efficient, allowing you to stimulate more muscle growth in a given amount of time.
Giant sets are also great for your overall health and conditioning. Because you aren’t resting very long between each set, your cardiovascular system is getting a hearty workout, too. And because each individual muscle is still getting plenty of rest before being worked again, giant sets are still great for gaining muscle size and strength.
So, what are giant sets? And what’s the best way to program them?
Skinny people often have a few traits dragging their weight down: thin bones, narrow frames, small stomachs, meagre appetites, and fast metabolisms. In this article, we’ll focus on that very last piece of the puzzle: how to gain weight with a raging metabolism. This is something we know all too well. I’ve lived it. So have Marco and Cassandra. And so have the 10,000 clients we’ve coached through it.
It’s not quite as simple as people often assume, though. Your trouble gaining weight probably has less to do with having a “fast” metabolism and more to do with having an “adaptive” metabolism. As in, the more food you eat, the more your metabolism revs up, and the more calories you burn. This is what the term “hardgainer” refers to. I think it’s also why some skinny people are dubbed “non-responders” when they first start lifting weights.
So, how can you gain muscle, strength, and weight with a fast metabolism? Let’s dive in.
Many people start weight training because they want to improve their appearance. They focus on building bigger muscles. Hypertrophy training. Bodybuilding. And that’s great. Building bigger muscles can make us look bigger, stronger, and healthier.
But how well does that extra muscle size translate to our strength? What if we follow a bodybuilding routine that’s designed purely to build muscle mass. Will that make us strong? Or will it make us big but weak?
High-intensity training (HIT) proposes that we can gain muscle size and strength faster and more efficiently if we keep our workouts short, infrequent, and brutally intense. It’s not the most popular way to build muscle, but it’s had a loyal following for the past 50 years and shows no signs of giving up.
During these past 50 years, though, thousands of muscle-building studies have been published, and many of them have looked into the principles that define HIT. So, how many sets should we do per exercise? How often should we be training? Should we lift to failure?
Most of all, is HIT good for building muscle?
Our biceps aren’t big muscles. They’re a mere fraction the size of our quads, glutes, shoulders, and chests. But they’re disproportionately prominent. Building bigger biceps can make us look much stronger. And with good reason. Our biceps play a large role in our general strength.
There’s an old strength training adage, though, telling us that all we need to build bigger biceps is to get stronger at compound lifts—at chin-ups and rows. That’s not quite the case, and perhaps that’s why most people’s biceps lag behind. We don’t train them directly enough, hard enough, or often enough.
So, what’s the best way to build bigger biceps?
It’s fairly well established that if you spend most of your time being sedentary (aka sitting), then you’ll burn fewer calories, and you may find yourself getting out of shape, gaining weight, and losing muscle over time. Perhaps that’s why so many people who work desk jobs complain of being “skinny-fat.”
The solution to sedentariness is typically thought to be doing exercise, and that’s true. Exercise is the best way to specifically address these issues:
- The best way to improve your cardiovascular fitness is to do cardio.
- The best ways to gain/maintain muscle are to lift weights or do callisthenics.
The other obvious piece to this puzzle is getting your calorie intake right. If you’re eating more calories than you’re burning, you’ll gain weight. Or, if you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning, you’ll lose weight.
- Lifting weights while eating in a calorie surplus (bulking) is the best way to gain muscle.
- Lifting weights while eating in a calorie deficit (cutting) is the best way to lose fat while maintaining your muscle.
So you might imagine that by doing cardio, lifting weights, and keeping your calories under control, you can maintain good health and body composition. And that’s true. But even when we control for all of that, sedentariness is still a factor.
Even for people who regularly exercise, eat well, and eat the correct amount, spending too much time sitting still has a negative impact on our body composition.
There’s a common rule of thumb that we should get lean before we bulk, and then stop bulking once we reach around 20% body fat. The idea is that as we get leaner, our insulin sensitivity improves, allowing us to make leaner muscle gains. And then as we bulk up, our body fat percentage gradually rises, our insulin sensitivity falls, and we begin to gain proportionally more fat.
But there’s new evidence that calls this idea into question. Two researchers, Greg Nuckols, MA, and Eric Trexler, PhD, have been going through hypertrophy research to see which body-fat percentages tend to yield the leanest muscle growth. I spoke with them and they shared their early results and recommendations, which are already creating waves among the top experts.
So, does having a higher body-fat percentage make it harder to build muscle leanly?