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Before and after results of a skinny guy building muscle.

How to Build Muscle—Full Guide

To build muscle, you need to do 3 things: challenge your muscles enough to stimulate growth, eat enough food to fuel that growth, and then recover.

We’ve helped over 10,000 people bulk up over the past 10 years, ranging from everyday people all the way up to college, professional, and Olympic athletes. This is what we live and breathe, all day, every day. It works every time, guaranteed.

But there’s nuance here. Some types of resistance training are better for stimulating muscle growth than others. Some types of food 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?

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Illustration of a man doing deadlift alternatives.

The Best Deadlift Alternatives

Conventional barbell deadlifts are one of the best compound exercises for gaining muscle and strength, but you don’t need them in your workout routine. There are plenty of great deadlift alternatives that use barbells, dumbbells, exercise machines, or your own body weight. Some of them are easier, safer, or gentler on bad backs. We’ll cover all of them.

If you want to explain your situation and get a personal recommendation, we’ll answer all the comments. We’re both certified coaches, and we have over a decade of experience working with clients ranging from desk workers to college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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Illustration of a man lifting weights to build muscle as quickly as possible.

How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle?

It takes most men about a year to gain their first 20 pounds of muscle. Those first 20 pounds are enough to add 1–2 inches to your arms and bump you up a clothing size. That’s when most guys start getting compliments.

If you succeed at gaining 20 pounds in your first year, then you can gain another 10 pounds in your second year, 5 more in your third, and smaller amounts afterward.

If you fall behind schedule, your muscles will still be ready to grow. You won’t “waste” your newbie gains. When you start building muscle again, you’ll be able to build it quickly.

Let’s go over some research, examples, and exceptions. We can also debunk some common claims.

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Illustration showing a man doing a barbell deadlift.

How Much Can the Average Man Lift?

How much can the average man lift? We can look at a few studies, and I also surveyed 600 of our newsletter subscribers, asking them how much they could squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.

Then, I broke down their answers based on how long they’d been lifting, seeing how long it takes people to reach a given level of strength and noting where they plateau forever.

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Illustration of a bodybuilder building bigger back muscles with dumbbell lat exercises.

The Best Dumbbell Lat Exercises

Your lats pull your elbows in closer to your body, meaning that the best dumbbell lat exercises are some variation of dumbbell row. And dumbbell rows are fantastic. That’s all your lats need. Still, it’s better if you have at least a couple of exercises, especially if you can find exercises that challenge your lats at longer muscle lengths.

If you have a pull-up bar or some gymnastic rings, you can do chin-ups and pull-ups, working your lats just like a lat pulldown machine would. Otherwise, you can do dumbbell pullovers, sort of. They’re surprisingly controversial.

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How Much Muscle Can You Gain in a Year Naturally?

The common rule of thumb is that a natural male lifter can gain about 20 pounds of muscle in his first year, 10 pounds in his second, 5 in his third, and gradually less after that.

Women build muscle just as easily as men do. However, they’re usually smaller, so their average rate of muscle growth is proportionally slower. For example, if the average woman’s frame holds 2/3rds as much muscle as the average man’s, she might expect to gain 14 pounds of muscle in her first year, 7 in her second, and 3 in her third.

More controversially, you can expect to build muscle faster if you’re starting off skinny (full explanation). If you have an athletic background, you might start off more muscular, but future growth might be slower.

Perhaps most of all, your rate of muscle growth depends on how well you train and how much food you eat.

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Illustration of a muscular shirtless bodybuilder man doing a biceps workout.

The Best Biceps Workout (Dumbbell, Barbell, or Full Gym)

I recommend training your biceps with 3–5 sets of vertical pulls (like chin-ups and lat pulldowns) followed by 2–5 sets of biceps curls (like preacher curls and lying biceps curls). That gives you 5–10 sets of biceps work per workout, and it trains both the short and long head. I recommend doing that twice per week, bringing you up to 10–20 sets per week.

In the rest of the article, we’ll go into more depth, talk about the best biceps exercises, and give you examples of good biceps workouts you can do with dumbbells, barbells, cables, or at a full gym.

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Diagram showing a bodybuilder's biceps activating during underhand chin-ups.

Are Chin-Ups/Pull-Ups Good for Your Biceps?

Chin-ups and pull-ups are heavy compound lifts, allowing you to heavily load your biceps while working them through a full range of motion. But they also train your back muscles, and some of those back muscles might fail before your biceps get worked hard enough. In that case, biceps curls might be the better biceps exercise.

Fortunately, a study comparing pull-downs with biceps curls found that they both stimulate about the same amount of biceps growth (study). Pull-downs work your biceps in the same way as chin-ups and pull-ups, so I suspect they’re similarly effective.

But there’s some nuance here. The short head of your biceps can work just fine during pulling exercises, but the long head can’t. The long head stabilizes the shoulder joint, so it can’t engage properly during pulling movements. It will grow faster if you do biceps curls.

Then, we need to consider that the distal portions of your biceps (closer to the elbow) grow faster when you challenge them at long muscle lengths (full explanation). Some types of biceps curls are better for that.

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Diagram illustration of a bodybuilder showing the short head of his biceps.

The Best Short Head Biceps Exercises

The short head of your biceps is the simple head. Unlike the long head of your biceps, it doesn’t cross the shoulder joint. Well, it might, but it seems to be less significant than with the long head (study). Regardless, the short head is primarily responsible for flexing your arms, with a secondary function of supinating your hands. That means:

  • You can train the short head perfectly well with regular biceps curls.
  • You can also train it with pulling movements like chin-ups, pull-ups, and lat pulldowns. Rows won’t challenge your biceps very much, though.
  • Exercises that are hard at the bottom are better for building muscle than exercises that are harder at the top (full explanation).
  • You don’t need to worry about your shoulder position.

If you want to keep it simple, keep doing chin-ups, pulldowns, and regular biceps curls. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

But you could do better. You can choose exercises that are hardest at the bottom of the range of motion. That exercise is called the preacher curl. It’s easily the best exercise for the short head of your biceps, and the difference is big enough that I’d expect noticeably better gains. I’ll explain why.

If you don’t have a preacher curl station, I’ll cover some alternatives that should be similarly effective.

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