Illustration of a bodybuilder doing chin-ups instead of pull-ups.

The Best Pull-Up Alternatives (for Building Muscle)

Pull-ups are one of the very best back exercises, rivalled only by chin-ups and deadlifts. The problem is not everyone can do them. Some people aren’t strong enough. Others don’t have a pull-up bar. Fortunately, there are near-perfect alternatives. You won’t miss out on anything.

Over the past twelve years, we’ve helped over ten million readers and over ten thousand clients bulk up their backs with or without pull-ups. They’re a great exercise, but you don’t need them.

Without further ado, let’s talk about what the pull-up does and how to replace it.

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Illustration of a bodybuilder with a huge bowl of food. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Outlift.

How Many Calories Do You Need to Build Muscle?

To build muscle, you need extra calories. Those calories don’t always need to come from food. Many of us carry quite a lot of extra energy in our guts. If that’s you, you’ve got plenty. You can listen to your appetite, eat a comfortable amount of food, and stimulate muscle growth with your training. No problem.

If you’re thinner or leaner, you’ll need to get the extra calories from your diet. You’ll need to eat in a calorie surplus. The size of that surplus is up to you. If you eat 100 extra calories every day, you’ll build muscle slowly and leanly. If you eat 750 extra calories, you’ll build muscle faster, but you may also gain more fat. I’ll give you some options below.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. To eat in a calorie surplus, you need to build on what you’re already eating. One approach is to take your current diet and increase the serving sizes or add snacks. Another approach is to count calories. Both methods work.

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Illustration of a man flexing burning muscles.

How Many Calories Does a Pound of Muscle Burn?

A pound of muscle burns around 6 calories per day at rest (studystudystudy, study). However, it also takes energy to carry around and use those muscles. Your heftier leg muscles need to haul your beefier upper body around. This can double or even triple the calories your muscles burn.

All told, a pound of muscle burns more like 8–16 calories per day. I’ve given a full explanation below. I’ve also made a simple calculator.

Perhaps more importantly, I want to talk about the implications of burning those extra calories. Usually, burning more calories is a good thing. You get to eat more food, which means you get to eat more nutrients—more energy, but also more fibre, probiotics, and micronutrients.

However, many naturally thin people worry that to maintain the muscle they gain, they’ll be forced to eat an uncomfortable amount of food forever. I had that same worry.

To my horror, my worst nightmare came true. I gained nearly 60 pounds of lean mass, and my calorie needs went up by over 700 calories per day. To my great relief, it wasn’t anything like I expected.

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What Happens If You Spread Your Workout Throughout the Day?

What if, instead of doing your workout all at once, you spread your sets or exercises over the day? Maybe that means doing your squats before work, your push-ups before lunch, and your chin-ups before dinner. Or maybe you spread your five sets of chin-ups throughout the day, resting a few hours between each set.

There are many different ways you could split up your workout. How will that affect muscle growth, muscle recovery, fat loss, and your health?

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Cartoon illustration of a bodybuilder going for a jog to improve his cardiovascular health.

How Does Calorie Intake Affect Cardiovascular Adaptations?

We need an abundance of calories to build muscle. We use it to convert protein into muscle mass. Without it, we won’t build muscle. To get those extra calories, we can burn excess body fat or eat more food.

It’s less clear whether we need extra calories to make cardiovascular adaptations. Will eating in a calorie surplus help us build more blood vessels? Will a calorie deficit interfere with our ability to build a stronger heart?

Let’s dive into it.

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Illustration of a bodybuilder jogging to improve his cardiovascular fitness.

How to do Cardio While Building Muscle

In this article, we’ll teach you how to improve your cardiovascular fitness while building muscle and getting stronger. We want the health benefits of doing cardio, but we aren’t trying to lose weight. We’re trying to build muscle. That changes things.

  • You need to schedule your cardio and muscle-building workouts. That means you’ll need to schedule your cardio somewhat carefully. Otherwise, the so-called “interference effect” can interfere with the muscle-building adaptations you get from lifting weights. Some people downplay this effect, but the latest research shows it can cut your rate of muscle growth in half (study).
  • Lifting weights improves cardiovascular fitness. Lifting isn’t ideal for improving cardiovascular fitness, but it’s not too bad. If you lift weights, you’re probably in significantly better shape than the average person.
  • If you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll have different questions about cardio. What type of cardio should you do while bulking? Will doing cardio help you build muscle more leanly? Can weight training count as cardio? How can you maximize cardiovascular and muscle-building adaptations at the same time?
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Cartoon of protein powder and mass gainer supplements.

Will Mass Gainers Make You Fat?

Mass gainers are near and dear to my heart. They’re the only supplement on the entire supplement market that’s designed specifically for skinny people who are trying to gain weight. For a naturally skinny dude like me, sick of drowning in an ocean of fat-loss supplements I couldn’t care less about, that was a big deal.

I find the marketing for mass gainers appealing, too. Instead of needing to force down an extra meal, all we have to do is drink this high-calorie, high-carb, high-protein shake that’s specifically designed to help us pack on muscle quickly and leanly. No cooking, no cleaning, no chewing, and no eating. That’s pretty tempting!

On the other hand, mass gainers are packed full of cheap, highly processed carbs. It’s like cake mix with a scoop of protein powder tossed in. It’s processed food. Won’t that make us fat?

Let’s dive into it.

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Before and after results of a skinny guy building muscle.

How to Build Muscle If You’re Skinny—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 bodybuilder building muscle after working out.

How Long Do You Build Muscle After Working Out?

When you lift weights, you stimulate muscle growth. How long after your workout does that stimulus last? And how long does it take for your muscles and tendons to recover? If you can balance those two factors, you’ll know how often to train each muscle.

This is especially important if you’re bulking. You need to make sure your body is primed for muscle growth before you shovel down all those extra calories.

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Illustration of a bodybuilder doing giant sets.

How to Do Giant Sets

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?

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