How Long Does it Take to Build Muscle? 5 Signs You’re on Track

Ripped

As one of the oldest sayings in the iron house, ripped is definitely a description you’ve heard. Hell, if you’re rocking single digit bodyfat alongside decent muscle you’ve probably been strapped with the title yourself. Celebratory shots of pre-workout for you buddy.

But what does it even mean? Apparently, according to bodybuilding historians, it’s to do with veins and muscles looking like they’re ripping through the skin. This can only be possible with super low levels of body fat and a healthy dose of lean mass.

In the simplest terms, this dude is super defined with decent amounts of muscle. He might not be the biggest, nor the strongest, but he has consistent etchings across his body without fluff. This guy definitely doesn’t need an Instagram filter to make him look cut.

Under his shirt are highly visible abs, although they might not be totally symmetrical. Yet, see this guy walking down the street fully clothed and you might not even look twice. His muscle mass doesn’t really cut an imposing shadow and there’s nothing spectacular about his shoulder width.

After all, his aim isn’t to be the biggest guy on the gym floor, so size is simply an afterthought.

How to get ripped

Ripped guys typically focus their attention on athletic endeavors. This could be solo sports like boxing, team sports like football, or even functional bodyweight training like Calisthenics.

Anything fat burns fat can get a man ripped – so long as it’s combined with a high-protein calorie controlled diet. If you’re a natural endomorph who piles on the pounds easy calorie control is even more important.

Think about the physiques of dudes like Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Reynolds, Jason Statham, Manny Pacquiao, and Bruce Lee for a visual cue.

The Workout: 4-Week Weight Loss Workout Plan & Diet Program

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Supplement With Your Diet

Apart from pushing your physical limits, you also need to manage your diet. Protein is a key component in repairing damaged muscle tissue.

How Long Should You Be on a Bulk?

Bulking diets, just like weight loss diets, put a slight strain on your body. And being on a long term weight gain diet is not typically recommended for most people. The longer you bulk, the more muscle you potentially gain, however, you’re also gonna add a decent amount of fat in the process.

Many will aim to do a slower bulk lasting anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks during winter months when they don’t mind gaining a bit of body fat, or during a time period where they require adequate fuel for their training.

You can certainly bulk for longer than this or until you achieve your desired weight. However, you might find more success cycling through a series of bulks and cuts to achieve your ideal physique.

How to Cycle Through Bulking and Cutting Phases

If you are worried about fat gain, cycling through cutting and bulking phases is another way to approach this and get your desired results.

The body composition effect works the same in reverse. In other words, those with higher body fat percentages tend to lose fat more easily and maintain gains better than naturally lean individuals.  

Not to mention increasing the size of your muscles, will result in a potential increase in your metabolism – meaning you can eat more calories. This matters because your higher calorie burn makes losing fat a bit easier. 

If you are at a satisfactory lean starting body composition start with a bulk for 12 weeks, then rest for four to eight weeks, followed by a six to 12 week cut – depending on how much fat you gained. 

It’s important to include maintenance or reset periods lasting at least four weeks in between to allow your body to adjust to a new normal before jumping into the next phase. This will help your metabolism settle and allow you to maintain as much of your muscle growth as possible.  

Dieting results in a temporary metabolic adaptation where your metabolism and rate of fat oxidation slows – meaning you are prone to store more fat when calories are increased again (12,13). So if you have recently gone through a cut to have a lower starting body fat, you might want to consider maintaining your lower weight for a few weeks first to allow your metabolism to stabilize before trying to bulk.

And vice versa. Jumping into a cut too soon after a bulk could result in some unintentional loss of gains. 

Lifting Enough to Build Muscle

If someone tells you that powerlifting, strength training, aerobics, resistance bands, or callisthenics stimulate muscle growth, they’re correct. Most types of exercise stimulate muscle growth, at least compared to being sedentary. Still, some forms of exercise are better for building muscle than others. Even within the specific category of resistance training—training that’s designed to challenge the strength of your muscles—some styles can help you build muscle much faster.

Basic Lifting Terminology

We’re about to dive into the deep end. Before we do, there are a few lifting terms you need to know.

Repetitions: a repetition is when you do an exercise once. If you squat down and then stand back up, that’s one repetition. Same with push-ups. If you lower yourself down to the ground and then push yourself back up, that’s one repetition—one “rep.”

Sets: on most exercises, you want to do more than one repetition in a row. That way you lift more weight, do more work, and stimulate more muscle growth. So maybe you do ten squats in a row before you rest. That’s ten repetitions. We call that a “set.”

Volume: in most workout programs, you want to do more than one set. Again, the idea is to do enough work to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth. So maybe you do a set of squats, rest for a couple of minutes, and then do another set. That’s two sets.

If you’re doing two sets of squats, and each set has ten repetitions in it, we call that “2 sets of 10 repetitions.” We can shorten than to “2×10.”

If you’re training for muscle growth, you can tally up how many sets you’re doing for each muscle. Two sets of squats is two sets for your quads and butt. If you do that three times per week, that’s six sets per week. That’s your weekly training “volume” for those muscles.

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Now comes the question of how many sets to do. When you’re lifting in a moderate rep range, you don’t need to do as many sets as if you were strength training. Instead of doing, say, 5 sets of 5 repetitions (5×5) on your compound lifts, you can do 3 sets of 8 repetitions (study). You’ll build just as much muscle, and you’ll save some energy for doing isolation lifts afterwards. So instead of 5 sets of rows, you might do 3–4 sets of rows with 2–3 sets of biceps curls. It will take the same amount of time and your back will grow just as big, but your biceps will grow twice as fast.

If you’re new to lifting weights, start with

If you’re new to lifting weights, start with fewer sets. Your muscles aren’t very tough yet. They’ll get sore very easily. And if you’re too sore for too long, it can interfere with your performance in your next workout.

Start with something like this:

  • 2 sets of 8 repetitions for your compound lifts.
  • 2 sets of 12 reps for your isolation lifts.

Then add a set each week, working towards something like this:

  • 4 sets of 8 reps for your compound lifts.
  • 3 sets of 12 reps for your isolation lifts.

If you have trouble adding weight or reps from workout to workout, feel free to add extra sets, especially if the muscles you’re trying to work don’t feel all that tired, pumped, or sore. This is common for back and shoulder exercises (like rows and lateral raises). I think that’s because it’s hard to challenge those muscles in a deep stretch. The bottom parts of those lifts aren’t challenging enough. Adding extra sets can help.

After a few weeks of gradually lifting more weight and doing more sets, you might start to feel worn down. At that point, it can help to take an easy week—a “deload” week. For beginners, there isn’t that much damage or fatigue accumulating, and so deload weeks can be very simple. Every month or two, drop back down to doing just 2 sets per exercise and stop every set at least a couple of repetitions shy of failure. If you want, this can also be a good time to change up some of your exercise variations or swap in new isolation lifts. Then work your way back up again, adding sets and pushing yourself closer to failure.

In our workout programs, each phase lasts around 5 weeks. Then we begin a new 5-week phase, starting with an easier deload week. Each new phase is slightly different: slightly different rep ranges, different exercise variations, and different isolation lifts. But that’s up to you. Many people enjoy doing the same workout routine for several months in a row. If you’re making progress that way, there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.

How Often Should You Work Out?

Every time you train a muscle, you can stimulate 2–4 days of muscle growth. If you work out during that recovery period, nothing bad will happen. Your muscles won’t fall off or anything. But you won’t stimulate much extra muscle growth, and you’ll have trouble adding more weight or wringing out more reps. It can get in the way of progressive overload.

If you’re a beginner, it’s often better to stimulate all of your muscles with a full-body workout every 2–3 days, like so:

  • Monday: full-body workout #1
  • Tuesday: rest
  • Wednesday: full-body workout #2
  • Thursday: rest
  • Friday: full-body workout #3
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: more rest

During the week, you get one day of rest between workouts, which is almost enough time for your muscles to recover. If you’re brand new to lifting weights, even a short workout can cause days of soreness. That’s okay. After a week or two, you’ll be able to recover properly between workouts. You might still be a little bit sore from your last workout, but you should still be able to outlift yourself. Then, on the weekend, take an extra day of rest to get rid of any lingering muscle damage and soreness. That way you start the next week feeling fresh.

As a beginner, taking a full 1–2 days of rest can be really helpful. Your body isn’t used to lifting weights yet. If you work out every day, alternating between different muscle groups, your hands might feel raw, your lower back might feel sore, and your traps might ache. These areas will grow tougher over time, allowing you to train more often, but at first, it’s often better to take full rest days. Plus, you can stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth with just those three workouts. If you have extra energy, you can invest it into a chill type of cardio, such as going on long, brisk walks.

As you get stronger, you’ll be lifting heavier weights and working bigger muscles. You’ll probably be in better shape, too. You’ll be fitter and tougher. But even so, front squatting 315 pounds is harder than goblet squatting 35 pounds. At a certain point, it’s hard to train every muscle in a single workout. It’s just too tiring. So when full-body workouts get too long and tiring, you might want to do shorter workouts more often. Maybe you try an upper/lower split, like this:

  • Monday: upper body
  • Tuesday: lower body
  • Wednesday: rest
  • Thursday: upper body
  • Friday: lower body
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: rest

Or you might want to train even more often. Maybe you try a 6-day push/pull/legs routine, like this:

  • Monday: push
  • Tuesday: pull
  • Wednesday: legs
  • Thursday: push
  • Friday: pull
  • Saturday: legs
  • Sunday: rest

But these are just ideas. As an intermediate lifter, the world is your oyster. There are a ton of different training splits that are amazing for building muscle. Or you could stick with full-body workouts. For more, we’ve got a full article on workout splits here.

How Heavy Should the Weights Be?

When you first start lifting, you won’t know how strong you are. You’ll need to do gradually heavier warm-up sets to find your “working” weight. The bad news is, it’s trial and error. There’s no magic trick or algorithm. The good news is that you need to warm up anyway, and a bit of extra practice never hurt anyone.

To find the right weight, grab a weight that’s much too light. Do 8 reps or so. Then grab a heavier weight and warm up with that, too. Another 8 reps. And then an even heavier weight. 8 more reps.

Keep using heavier weights until those 8 reps start to challenge you. Now you’re getting close. Grab a heavier weight and attempt a working set. Let’s say you’re trying for 10 reps per set. If you get 10 reps, try eking out a few more. If you get a few more, you need an even heavier weight—keep moving up. You’ll know you’ve found the right when you can only do 11–12 reps with it.

On some exercises, you might wind up doing far too many warm-up sets. You might also wind up accidentally hitting failure. That’s okay. The first week of a workout program is usually shorter and easier anyway. You might only have 2 working sets per exercise. Even with the extra warm-up sets, the workout won’t be that long or hard.

How Good Should Your Form Be?

Cautious people tend to focus on lifting with great technique. The problem is, becoming good at something takes practice. Beginners can’t lift with great technique. And so, for fear of getting hurt, careful people tend to lift light weights slowly. But that isn’t enough to challenge their muscles, and so they fail to make progress. They don’t get hurt, but they don’t accomplish very much, either.

Bold people tend to focus on challenging and pushi

Bold people tend to focus on challenging and pushing themselves. The trouble is, if someone is always focusing on lifting more weight, they’ll be tempted to heave, swing, and cut the range of motion short. They jerk the deadlift bar with a rounded back. They do quarter squats. They swing the barbell up instead of curling it up. This doesn’t always result in injury, but it can. Perhaps a bigger problem is that reckless people never learn to lift properly.

To build muscle, you want the best of both worlds. You want to lift as deep as you can manage, to get gradually better over time, and to push yourself. Think of flooring the gas pedal on a Ferrari. The acceleration is powerful but also smooth. That’s what you should strive for. But it will take practice. It’s okay if your technique is bad at first. We’ve all been there.

The other thing to keep in mind is that flawless, perfect technique is never the goal. Your back will round with the stress of a heavy deadlift. Your stance might not be symmetrical when squatting. Your elbows might flare to different degrees when doing push-ups and bench presses. We aren’t built symmetrically, so if you try to force it, you can get in the way of your natural athleticism. The goal is to lift powerfully and athletically, not to look perfect in the mirror while doing it.

Keep in mind that most beginner lifts are pretty safe. Taking a set of goblet squats all the way to failure just means guiding the dumbbell back down to the floor. No harm done… unless you lose your grip and drop the dumbbell on your toe. So don’t be afraid of taking some of your compound lifts to failure now and then, just to see how far away failure really is. Trial and error is the only way to learn how close to failure you’re lifting.

How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Rest times don’t matter that much, and beginners don’t need to rest that long between sets anyway. The idea is to rest long enough to get another good set in. If you get 10 reps in your first set and 4 in your second, you know you haven’t rested long enough. You’ve hemorrhaged too many reps. But if you get 10 reps in your first set and 8–9 reps in your second, that’s totally fine.

For beginners, 1–2 minutes is usually enough. If you’re in a hurry, or if you’re keen to improve your fitness, you can time your rest periods. 2 minutes for big compound lifts like squats, push-ups, deadlifts, and chin-ups. 1 minute for smaller lifts like biceps curls, lateral raises, planks, and hip thrusts. If you aren’t in a hurry, you can wait until your heart rate settles down and you’re ready to lift again. Just try not to get too distracted between sets or your workouts might start to drag.

You can also do supersets and giant sets. That way you can cut down on your rest times, keep your heart rate a bit higher, and still give your muscles enough time to recover between sets. To do that, you’d alternate between different exercises. Here’s how that might look:

Circuit 1 (Squat + Chin-Up Superset)

  • Goblet squats, rest 1 minute
  • Chin-ups, rest 1 minute
  • Goblet squats, rest 1 minute
  • Chin-ups, rest 1 minute

Circuit 2 (Deadlift + Push-Up Superset)

  • Romanian deadlifts, rest 1 minute
  • Push-ups, rest 1 minute
  • Romanian deadlifts, rest 1 minute
  • Push-ups, rest 1 minute

Circuit 3 (Giant Set for Your Arms)

  • Biceps curls, rest 30 seconds
  • Triceps extensions, rest 30 seconds
  • Lateral raises, rest 30 seconds
  • Biceps curls, rest 30 seconds
  • Triceps extensions, rest 30 seconds
  • Lateral raises, rest 30 seconds

This full-body workout will take you about half as long as a regular workout while still stimulating just as much muscle growth. It’s also great for your general fitness.

If you’re doing circuits, the trick is to alternate between exercises that don’t train the same muscle groups. It also helps to choose exercises that can be done without using too much equipment. For instance, to do goblet squats and chin-ups, all you need to do is bring a dumbbell over to the chin-up bar. To do Romanian deadlifts and push-ups, all you need to do is bring your body over to a barbell. And to do biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises, all you need is a pair of dumbbells or a cable stack.

For more, we have a full article on rest times. There’s some nuance to it. Like how short rest times can be better for bodybuilding “pump” training, whereas longer rest times can be good for strength training and progressive overload. Both have their place in a good muscle-building workout program.

WATCH THE CLOCK, NOT YOUR PHONE

Once your set is done, what are you doing with your time?

This is where many people fall off the path.

If you sit around and let far too much time pass between sets then you are dramatically decreasing the effectiveness of the workout.

Rest times should be prescriptive and serve to keep your muscles stressed for the entire workout. They should not be looked at as times to jump on social media because it will take you out of the frame of mind necessary for building muscle.

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