A Big Mistake When it Comes to Gaining Muscle Mass

Two guys gain the same amount of muscle over a 6 month period of time. Both guys are exactly 6’3″, 190 pounds and both are at the exact same body fat level.

They both put on 6 pounds of muscle in 6 months, yet one guy looks outstanding and the other looks almost visibly the same as he did 6 months earlier. How can this be?

How can two guys be at the same low body fat level and put on the same amount of muscle and look drastically different?


[Here is an outstanding example of muscle density. Notice how this athlete has compact, dense and an angular look to his muscles? This is much different that the typical rounded puffy bodybuilding look. This angular compact look is much more impressive than big and bulky.]

Gaining Muscle “Where You Want it” Matters Most

If someone came up to me and offered me $1 million dollars to put on 20 pounds of muscle in 12 months, here is what I would do. I would concentrate on the “big” lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

I have no doubt that I could put on 20 pounds of pure muscle in 12 months. The problem would be that at least 15 of those 20 pounds of muscle would be added to my legs, butt, and hips. The rest of that weight would be spread evenly over the rest of my body.

Here is the weird thing…visually, I wouldn’t look drastically different.

Gains Spread Over Your Entire Body Make a Small Impact

The irony about gaining muscle evenly over your entire body is that it creates a slightly bigger version of what you already look like now.

Each muscle will look a little better individually, but as a whole package you won’t look much different. In fact if you gain muscle in your dominant muscle groups at a quicker rate than your weak muscle groups, you will take a step backward visually.

I Think the Idea of Just Sticking to the Basics is a Mistake

The common advice of just sticking to the big lifts like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses is great if you just want to add mass and don’t care what you wind up looking like. In fact, this is your quickest route to putting on a lot of weight.

The problem lies in the fact that you are hoping that everything will look right after all the weight is added. I have seen beginners use this approach time and time again and wind up having the “professional wrestler” look…big butt, upper legs, hips, big around the mid section, massive traps…you get the idea.

“Want a Bigger Chest, Then Get Bigger Legs!”…I Disagree!

I have read this statement dozens of times when it comes to increasing the size of a muscle. Many experts claim that the fastest way to put muscle on your chest and arms is to put a bunch of mass on your legs, hips, and butt.

The problem is that your legs hips and butt will typically grow at a much faster rate than your chest and arms. So compared to the rest of you body, your chest and arms are proportionally smaller.

Muscle Specialization: A Smart Way to Create a Desired Look

As discussed before, adding 6 pounds to your shoulders, arms and chest can transform the way you look. Spreading that same amount of muscle over your entire body, not as visually impressive.

The only way to insure that this is accomplished is through muscle specialization…focusing the majority of your efforts on 1-2 muscle groups, while just maintaining everything else.

Higher Volume on Muscles That You Want to Grow

I like the approach of increasing the volume of muscles that you need to grow and backing WAY down on everything else.

If you want a bigger chest with a special focus on increasing your upper chest, then dramatically increase the volume on various incline presses, incline flyes, hammer strength machines, etc. To compensate for that increase in volume, back off a bit when it comes to some of your other body parts.

How Much Volume for Targeted Muscle Groups?

You can go as high as 15-20 sets per workout for muscle groups you are trying to add size to. You can even setup your workouts so that the targeted muscle group gets worked more often than the other muscle groups.

I also suggest using a combination of free weights, cables, and machines when aiming for muscle growth.

How Much Volume for Everything Else?

This is tougher to answer, because it depends upon your genetics. I have some friends that never have to work their calves because they are naturally huge.

I never do sets for traps or lower chest. For the most part you want to work each muscle group at least a little each week. My suggestion would be to pick 1-2 exercises for 3-5 sets of 5 reps…and do maybe 12-20 total sets per body part each week to maintain. You could probably get away with less than this.

I Recommend Doing This in 2-3 Month Bursts

What I think works best is to specialize for 2-3 months on a body part, then have a more balanced routine for a 1-2 months (as a precaution to insure that you don’t neglect the other muscles).

What you will find is that you can systematically build an ideal physique by giving selective attention to body parts that need extra work.


80 thoughts on “A Big Mistake When it Comes to Gaining Muscle Mass”

  1. Great article going to give this a try, just to be clear 15 to 20 sets for chest would be 3 to 5 sets of incline dumbell press, 3 to 5 sets of incline dumbell fly, 3 to 5sets of bench and 3 to 5 sets of dumbell fly?

  2. Actually, the discussion of hormone release due to workouts may be moot anyway:
    “Another ‘Bro-Science’ Myth Busted
    “While certain training strategies can spike post workout release of GH (and testosterone and IGF-1), there is no evidence to show that these spikes in any way enhance muscle growth or strength gains.”

  3. @Ryan

    “I am skeptical, however, because doing big lifts like squat have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. How can muscle mass be added in relatively small muscle groups without being augmented significantly by an increase in test. and HGH? Thoughts?”

    The answer is found by parsing your explanation. You note that big lifts “have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. ”

    I’ve seen a lot of people reach this same erroneous conclusion, that because big lifts release the MOST of these hormones, then ONLY big lifts cause release of these hormones. They will naturally cause more increase because you’re working the largest muscle groups. If you’re working on smaller muscle groups, you presumably don’t need as much and a lesser amount of hormone is released. Note that my interpretation is entirely that of a layman newbie.

    “There is nothing more unattractive to a woman then a guy who cares about his body image so much that he has to do curls all day to get bigger arms while neglecting the rest.”

    LOL. Thanks for letting us know what EVERY WOMAN ON THE PLANET feels. That simplifies everything!

    P.S. For those who have this bizarre idea that comment threads should be left as-is for all posterity, I disagree. Internet posts can be alive or dead. Keeping them alive is a beautiful thing :^).

  4. Heyy im a skinny fat. I do the vacational blue print. And im down to 120lbs now. Im 135lbs before. Its just 2 weeks and i have lost that 15lbs. Some says I look so thin, Some says i look sexy. But still i dont have visible abs. Im 5ft 6inch and 120lbs now. I also dont have that mass in the chest. Thats why i think I look thin. But for me im pretty much lean. I gain strength while losing that 15lbs. I just want to add mass on my chest. So what should i do? One of your article says that higher the volume of a part of a body you wanted to put mass. My routine goes like this

    Back and chest
    Incline dumbells 5sets for 5 reps
    Incluine bench press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight increases
    Pulups 5sets for 5 reps
    Dumbel row 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
    Hanging leg raise 5sets 15-20reps

    Shoulder tris and bis
    Seated Dumbel press 5sets of 5reps
    Standing military press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
    Dips 5 sets for 5 reps
    Close grip bench press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
    Barbel curls 5sets for 5 reps
    Dumbel alternating curls 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight

    I do it for 4-6times a week. I do fast twice a week. So what should i do if i want to put mass to my chest. Because my chest dont have size and dont even have definition at all.
    Please help Rusty. I cant buy your program because I dont have creditcards and stuff. Im just a student. So please reply to this question. Thanks1

  5. is it really bad to work legs if you work in the 1-3 rep sets? Do you recommend that a 16 year old follow these workout principles?

  6. Hey Rusty,

    Are there any studies that prove that this method works, have you, or anybody you know, such as clients, had success with this?

  7. Hey Rusty,

    I understand the benefits of specialization, which is great aesthetically, but I must disagree as well. This is in large part because the studies in the journal of exercise physiology have demonstrated a considerable increase in growth hormone release using multi-joint exercises. That is not to say specialization is not good because you can apply other methods like short rest periods to increase intensity (something I think you extol on your site). I just consider it as a supplemental aspect of training.

    I have a few questions to ask as I am trying to reconcile your other posts and their ideas with this one.

    I know your general philosophy is gaining strength and muscles tone without developing ‘soft’ muscles from high rep to failure bodybuilding schemes.

    You mention a lot about the low-rep high volume matrix supported by Pavel. If you are developing strength, you still do high volume but avoid failure which is also known as greasing the groove (“How to get Stronger at Push ups”), or if you are developing muscle mass, you sill do high rep low volume but you do go until exhaustion e.g. when you cannot maintain perfect form as in the article “A ‘Sensible’ Way to Build Muscle.” The exception to the Pavel’s strength program is your “Lift Light Weights For Low Reps” article in which to develop strength, you should go with low reps and low volume (i.e. sets). This makes sense to me because in Pavel’s model, you are not focusing on your muscles contracting specifically, so you would reduce the volume. This is analagous to Dynamic Effort training but you are coupling the explosiveness with tension.

    Okay, so my questions are this:

    Are you still advocating a low rep scheme in conjunction with high volume here?
    Does this mean that total sets of 15-20 are used per workout on the body part on interest while the maintaining body parts are done only 15-20 sets per week ?
    Are you still avoiding failure while still maintaining low rep high volume?

    I just want to make sense and synthesize all the information you provided so I can allocate as per my fitness goals.

    (Btw, I should mention as well that Gymnasts experience a lot of negative movements for long periods of time as well as isometric or static holds, so we cannot ignore that completely 🙂 )

    Great stuff on this site Rusty. Thanks again.

  8. I always wonder how something seems so simple when you know about it and you think “hey, how come I couldn’t figure it out by myself?”.

    It is the problem after I had gained a lot of mass my proportions remained the same – thin arms in comparison with torso (38 inches chest and 13 inches biceps) and it is really difficult to get clear info on how to specialize.

    I know a lot of guys who are generally thin (150-160 pounds) but they look just stunning shirtless, like the man in the photo above – definition, angular look, and they are strong also!

    Thanks a lot, this blog is one of the best in terms of delivery of “doable” information.

  9. I think even with identical stats when comparing two people it’s purely genetics when it comes to visuals.

  10. Hey Rusty.
    I have been sticking to the “big lifts” since i starting working out about ehh 2 years ago. I’m now 17 and my numbers are pretty big, but like your article, i am basically exactly what you are talking about. I am really interested in getting my body image up. If you could recomend workouts that I could do at my house with a Powertec Rack with a incline bench of a ton of different postions, i also have some dumbells. I am looking into hitting my triceps, shoulders, upper/inner chest, and biceps. If you could put together a basic routine that i could work with weekly, I could GREATLY appreciate it, and help spread the word of the AWESOME website.


  11. Great post. I see some guys at the gym with huge muscles, but they don’t look so good. They do a lot of dead lifts and such exercises. I also see guys with great shoulders, arms and chest, and spindley legs.

  12. This is great info for me, since I have been back in my workout routine for the past few weeks. I have always been pretty small so I will still stick to my all round approach so I can gain some mass first. But thanks for the article, because I would have just continued my same routine every day for months. Now I’ll be sure to target my upper body in a few weeks, thanks again!

  13. This is an interesting approach. Everytime I begin a muscle building phase I always put on A LOT of mass in my legs, to the point where my pants dont fit in the thighs and butt, but my upper body looks virutally the same. I am skeptical, however, because doing big lifts like squat have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. How can muscle mass be added in relatively small muscle groups without being augmented significantly by an increase in test. and HGH? Thoughts?

  14. I’ve tried to gain muscle for years, sometimes with success, sometimes without success. Whenever I do proper gym work, deadlifts, bench presses etc… I do get stronger and weigh more with a slight improvement to my look. The best success I’ve had with looking better is a combination of press-ups, sit-ups and light jogging to lower body fat and make the muscle more visible.

  15. I think bumping up the volume on excercise i.e 15-20 sets for one body part to build density etc is the single most ridiculous approach to training i have ever heard. Being ripped shredded is a function of body fat lean body mass ratio, body builders sometimes have a puffy look due to excess water retention caused by supplements or anabolic hormones they use. The idea of focusing on simple lifts is because with compound lifts like squats, deads etc u can go HEAVY, which stimulates the release of your bodies own hormones. Just try 15 sets for your biceps at high intensity (clean- no juice) and u will see absolutely no results and more importantly will hold u back for important excercises like rows, pulls etc, look at modern day powerlifters from japan they train with no isolation of the biceps, shoulders etc and are absolute animals, ripped to shreds

  16. Pingback: abdominal muscle gain

Comments are closed.