How To Build Muscle: Your Top to Toe Exercise Guide

How To Build Muscle: Your Top to Toe Exercise Guide

19 min read


27 May 2024

Hack Beast Mode

  1. The golden rules to building muscle mass consistently
  2. The best muscle-building exercises uncovered
  3. Bonus tips for building lean muscle mass

You’re here for a reason: you want to build muscle.

And we’re here for a reason: we want to help you build muscle. So that’s what we’re going to do.

There’s already a ton of information out there about the best ways to build muscle. Different tactics, conflicting strategies, various opinions—some of it great, some not so much.

But we’re going to cut through all the myths, the clutter, and the fluff to share everything you need to know about how building muscle mass really works.

No fuss. No nonsense. Just pure results.

Whether you’re just starting out at the gym, have been going for a while but have hit a wall, or you just want to freshen up your routine and get the absolute most out of every gym session—we’ve got you covered.

We’ll take you through the golden rules of building muscle, the very best exercises for all the main muscle groups—and throw in plenty of tips and tricks for enhancing your workouts. We’ll also look at diet, muscle recovery, and supplement routines.

No more messing around. In we go.

The golden rules to building muscle mass consistently

Look, building muscle mass is hard! If it was easy, everyone would be walking around completely jacked, like a world full of Chris Hemsworths and John Cenas.

But muscle growth is also pretty easy in a way. You just need to know the rules and stick to them. It’s the effort that catches people out.

If you’re willing to work hard and really go for it, you’re already way ahead of 99% of the population.

Just combine that positive, up-for-it attitude with the following key concepts and Marvel will be calling you up to play their next big superhero before you know it. (OK, we can’t guarantee this – but it could happen, you never know…).

Rule 1: Go big or go home

man doing deadlift

It’s a bit of a cliche, but “go big or go home” absolutely applies in the gym. Not just in the effort and intensity that you put into your strength training, but in the types of lift you build your routines around.

Big compound lifts that incorporate multiple muscle groups should form the cornerstones of your workouts. We’re talking about things like…

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Bench press
  • Rows
  • Overhead press
  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups

There are lots of reasons for using these types of exercises as the foundations of each gym session, as compound movements…

  • Are highly efficient (as they work more muscles in a short space of time)
  • Burn more calories that isolation exercises
  • Enhance the strength and stability of your core
  • Improve your muscular coordination, mobility, balance, and flexibility
  • Promote bodily symmetry and reduce muscular imbalances
  • Elevate your heart rate
  • Stimulate release of testosterone and human growth hormone
  • Enhance your functional fitness for ease of movement during everyday physical activity
  • Increase your overall muscle growth

What’s not to love about compound exercises?

Of course, you shouldn’t solely focus on these big lifts. They should be the place to kickstart your workouts while you still have bundles of strength and energy left in the tank. 

Then you should round out your sessions with isolation exercises that target the specific muscle group you’re training that day.

Rule 2: Progressively overload your muscles

Progressive overload is what makes muscle growth happen.

If you just keep sticking to the same amount of weight or resistance level for the same amount of reps and sets, you’ll never make progress.

Adding more weight over time will test your muscles and make them work harder. This causes micro-tears in the muscle tissue, which will then heal bigger and stronger than they were before so that they’ll be better prepared for the next time they’re required to lift that amount of weight.

But if your muscles become accustomed to the same lifts and can do them with ease, there’s no incentive for them to grow. Why? Well, because they’re already able to deal with the amount of stress you put them through.

So, making your workouts progressively more difficult over time is the way to avoid plateaus and keep the results coming.

Some ways to freshen up your workouts, increase your overall workout volume, and challenge yourself include…

  • Upping the load (amount of weight or resistance level)
  • Adding more repetitions to a set
  • Performing additional sets
  • Reducing rest time between sets
  • Increasing the length or amount of workouts per week (just be careful of overtraining)

You can also increase the difficulty of exercises themselves in various ways, like…

  • Increasing the range of motion (e.g. standing on a raised platform with the weight on the floor for a deadlift)
  • Reducing the momentum (e.g. pausing at the mid-point of an exercise)
  • Adding extra resistance (e.g. looping a resistance band around the dumbbells during bicep curls)
  • Increasing the intensity (e.g. explosively pushing up off the ground during push-ups and clapping at the top of the movement or performing bodyweight jump squats)
  • Increasing the time under tension for increased muscle hypertrophy (e.g. slowing down your reps, especially on the eccentric or negative part of the movement)
  • Incorporate supersets (switching between two exercises and performing them back-to-back, with no rest time between sets)

No matter how you decide to switch things up to make constant and consistent progress, always make sure you’re lifting safely. And the way to do that is by adhering to the next point on our list…

Rule 3: Always lift with proper form

man spotting for woman

While all exercises have their own unique movements to go through, one thing they all have in common is that they require perfect form to help you avoid injury and get the absolute most out of every rep.

Here are some general guidelines to follow, regardless of what type of exercise you’re performing…

  • Start with a warm-up: Stretching and warming up your muscles before lifting weights will help prevent injury and prepare your body properly for the crushing workout ahead.
  • Keep your back straight: When weight training, it's crucial to maintain a neutral spine and avoid excessive arching or rounding of the back. It also makes this next tip easier too…
  • Engage your core: Activating your core muscles helps to stabilize your body and protect your spine while lifting weights.
  • Go through the full range of motion: Perform exercises through a complete range of motion to really work your muscles. You’ve got to avoid that temptation to use momentum or cheat with partial movements.
  • Focus on your breathing: Remember to exhale during the exertion phase of the lift and inhale during the release phase to help further stabilize your core and maintain correct form.
  • Use proper grip and hand placement: Pay attention to your grip on the free weights, whether it's an overhand, underhand, or neutral grip, and ensure your hands are in a comfortable and secure position that isn’t causing any unnecessary strain along your arms.
  • Maintain proper foot position: Keep your feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart to provide a stable base for lifting.
  • Control the weight: Avoid jerky or uncontrolled movements by lifting and lowering the weight in a slow and controlled manner. Remember that you’re in charge of the weights, they’re not in charge of you. So show them who’s boss.
  • Use the correct weight: Proper form and technique should be your main priority, much more so than the amount of weight you're lifting. Start off at a lighter weight until you’ve nailed the motions, you can gradually increase the weight as your strength improves.
  • Ask for an expert opinion: Consider asking a personal trainer or friend who knows what they’re doing if they can watch and assess your form. Mirrors are all well and good, but sometimes you just need an outside perspective to spot the little tweaks you need to make to finally perfect a lift.

The moral of the story here is that lifting less weight but with excellent form is far better than either struggling through lifts with heavier weights or just half-assing your reps (regardless of weight).

The better your form, the bigger your results.

TOP TIP: To make sure you’re lifting with the correct form on specific exercises, follow along with our athletes’ Movement Demos on the CrazyBulk YouTube channel.

Rule 4: Have a plan

Going into the gym to just randomly lift weights is better than doing absolutely nothing. But it won’t take you very far.

For real and lasting results, you need to follow a structured plan.

This also goes back to the progressive overload point above. Because how are you going to know if you’re making that progress if you don’t remember or know for sure exactly what you’ve lifted and when?

The short answer is: You probably won’t.

OK, you might be able to recall roughly what you did the day or week before. But beyond that, it can be a struggle to keep all of the relevant information in your head.

So make sure to get it down in writing. Or an app if you prefer. Or a spreadsheet…if that’s more your jam.

Whatever works best for you to track and measure your workouts, your diet, and your progress so far.

Seeing it all written out—and looking at pictures of how far you’ve come—is also incredibly motivating

To see how much weight you can lift compared to one, two, or three months ago really hits home when it’s staring at you in black and white (or a colorful spreadsheet).

Another reason to record your stats and gym sessions is that it makes it easier to make tweaks here and there.

If your plan is easily changeable, you’ll be able to switch it up when things are getting stale. or if your workouts are becoming too easy…or if you’ve hit a mini plateau.

Want to know how to build a gym plan to suit your specific goals? Check out our guide on how to easily create your own workout routine.

Rule 5: Eat your protein

high protein foods

Protein fuels your muscle growth by repairing the tears in your muscle tissue that you caused during your strength training sessions. 

So it’s important that you’re consuming enough to effectively mend those muscles and ensure they get the nutrients they need to become bigger than before.

How do you make sure you’re getting enough protein each day? Our old friend tracking.

Just as you’ll need to take note of your workouts—your macros and calories should be tracked and measured too.

That way if things aren’t going the way you’d like, you can easily see where the problems may lie and then make adjustments.

Gaining more body fat than lean muscle mass? Trim down your daily calories.

Not making the gains your workouts should be providing? Up your protein intake.

And it’s not just protein that you need to keep an eye on to support muscle growth. You need to eat in a calorie surplus, too.

You can’t make gains if your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to grow. So, take the time to work out how much you need to eat each day for your body type, your goals, and your specific dimensions.

Not sure how much you need to eat each day? Check out our guide to measuring your macros and calculating your calories. Then follow it up with our guide to creating your muscle-building diet.

Rule 6: Rest up

woman using massage roller

Building muscle mass isn’t just about the hard work in the gym and the foods you eat.

While progressive overload is the key to keeping your muscles challenged and protein is needed to make gains with muscle mass—the third part of the muscle-building puzzle is getting enough rest.

Your body needs time to heal between gym sessions. That’s when all the muscular mending and growing actually happens.

Hitting the gym every single day isn’t the best way to make gains. Overtraining your muscles can lead to injuries, stagnation, and physical and mental burnout.

Take one or two rest days from weight training each week to ensure your muscles get the recovery time they need for optimal progression.

Muscle recovery isn’t just about the rest days, though. It’s also about getting enough quality sleep.

When you’re sleeping, your body and brain are still doing a lot of work to help you stay fit and healthy. One of which is regulating your hormone levels.

While you're snoozing, a surge in the production and release of important hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone takes place—both of which are vital for repair and your muscle-building efforts.

If you don’t get enough sleep, your hormonal balance is disrupted, which can negatively impact your muscle gains.

The sweet spot for most people is between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, so aim for that if you’re serious about muscle gain.

It’s not the worst way to enhance your results really, is it?

As you keep forging ahead on your muscle-building journey, keep these rules at the forefront of your mind. They’re the bedrock of big results, massive gains, and constant progress.

If you use these golden rules as the basis for your workouts and diet plan, you’ll go far.

Now, let’s back up all of this muscle development knowledge with some specific examples of the best exercises to build muscle mass for all of the major muscle groups. You’ve got this.

The best muscle-building exercises uncovered

man lifting heavy weights

No matter how you split your workouts up across any given week, there are several main muscle groups that you should focus on. 

These are your chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs and glutes, and your abs, and core.

There are multiple ways to go about working each muscle group. Some people like to split their regular strength training into push sessions and pull sessions. 

Others prefer two or three full-body workouts per week that encompass all major muscle groups at some point. And some like to hit a specific muscle group or two during each session.

TOP TIP: We cover the most popular and effective training splits in our guide to creating your own workout. So do make sure to have a look there to find the perfect split to fit your weekly routine.

No matter what your preference, make sure all of your muscles get a look in. Listen, you don’t want to leave any out, as this just leads to muscle imbalances and underdevelopment in certain areas.

Then once you know what you’ll be working on and when, you can start to weave in some of the best exercises for each body part. 

Like these ones…

The best chest exercises for muscle mass

man preparing to lift barbell

Chest exercises tend to be largely push-based movements. As with all muscle groups, you’ve got plenty of options, no matter what equipment you have at your disposal. 

You can train your chest using dumbbells, barbells, your body weight, or a combination of them all.

Here are five of the very best to build your chest workouts around.

  • Barbell bench press: One of the most effective exercises for building mass on your chest. The bench press is a compound movement that stimulates multiple muscle groups, including your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  • Incline dumbbell press: This one targets your upper chest muscles, specifically the clavicular head of the pectoralis major. You’ll also engage secondary muscles in your shoulders.
  • Dumbbell flyes: Dumbbell flyes isolate your chest muscles and provide a deep stretch, targeting the pectoralis major. Maintaining proper form during flyes is crucial to avoid excessive strain on your shoulder joints.
  • Push-ups: A classic body weight exercise that engages your entire chest, along with the shoulders and triceps. Push-ups can easily be modified to accommodate different fitness levels too.
  • Dips: Dips primarily target your lower chest muscles and triceps. They’re a really effective compound exercise that can be performed using just your body body weight or with added resistance.

The best back exercises for muscle mass

Chest workouts tend to get a lot of glory, but you always need to work opposing muscle groups to maintain balance and symmetry across your body. And a broad back is key to looking big and hench.

So start with these predominantly pull-based exercises to really grow your upper body.

  • Deadlift: A huge compound exercise that hits multiple muscle groups, including your back, glutes, hamstrings, and core. Deadlifts engage your erector spinae muscles, which run along the spine, as well as the latissimus dorsi (lats) and trapezius muscles, among others.
  • Pull-ups/chin-ups: Two effective bodyweight exercises that primarily target your lats (the large muscles in the middle of the back). They also work your biceps and your upper back (including the rhomboids and rear deltoids).
  • Bent-over rows: Another effective exercise for your upper back. Bent-over rows also engage your biceps and the muscles of the lower back for stabilization. Can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands.
  • Lat pulldowns: As the name suggests, these hit your lats (which are responsible for the "V" shape of the back). Use a cable machine or resistance bands, and make sure to work through a full range of motion.

    The best shoulder exercises for muscle mass

    man doing shoulder exercises

    Shoulder muscles can sometimes go criminally undertrained and be a real weakness in the gym. 

    But strong shoulders are crucial for good posture as well as rounding out your upper body strength and building muscle mass.

    Add a few sets of these into your weekly routines to make sure they aren’t left out.

    • Overhead barbell press: A compound exercise that targets your shoulders, triceps, and upper chest, while also using strength generated from the legs and hips.
    • Dumbbell shoulder press: This one helps to develop both the front and the middle deltoids (delts) and can be done seated or standing.
    • Dumbbell lateral raises: Lateral raises target the side delts, contribute to the width and definition of your shoulders, and effectively isolate and strengthen the lateral deltoid muscles.
    • Bent-over dumbbell rear delt raises: The rear delts are often neglected, but they’re important for overall shoulder development. These will do the business.

    The best arm exercises for muscle mass

    Arm workouts are often split across push sessions along with chest exercises (for the triceps) and pull sessions along with back exercises (for the biceps). 

    But don’t forget those forearms either!

    Here’s some arm-burners to get you going.

    • Biceps curls: There are so many curl variations that you’ll be spoiled for choice. Barbell, dumbbell, hammer, Zoltman, wide-grip, narrow-grip, standing, seated, incline, decline, reverse, cable, preacher concentration, banded…Try different ones from time to time to keep things fresh and shake up your workouts.
    • Overhead triceps extension: These target the long head of your triceps muscle, which is often neglected in traditional triceps exercises. Can be performed with a dumbbell or an EZ-curl bar.
    • Farmer carries: Carrying weights, like dumbbells, kettlebells or weight plates, and walking for a certain distance or amount of time is a great way to build up your grip and forearm strength. A solid way to round out muscle growth across your arms.

    We’ve got plenty more arm exercises for you to try. Whether you’re focusing on biceps or forearms, we’ve got you covered.

    The best legs and glutes exercises for muscle mass

    man doing leg exercises

    It’s not just about your upper body. If you want to build muscle mass properly, you’ve got to give your lower body just as much of a workout.

    Get your leg-day sessions off to a flier with these bad boys.

    • Squats: Highly effective for growing your quadriceps (quads), glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
    • Deadlifts: Deadlifts mainly target your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, but they also engage your quads and calves.
    • Lunges: Great for building muscle mass in the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. They also help improve stability and balance.
    • Hip thrusts: These mainly target your glutes and hamstrings. They can be performed with a barbell, resistance bands, or just your body weight.

    Take your lower-body sessions even further with our favorite exercises for huge legs.

    The best core exercises for muscle mass

    No muscle-building routine is complete without some exercises to work your abs. 

    While compound exercises will get your core involved in the action, it’s always nice (well, not nice exactly, but effective) to end your strength training sessions with some core and ab-focused work.

    You’ve got a ridiculous amount of choice for abdominal exercises, but try some of these on for size.

    • Leg raises: You can do them lying on your back or hanging from a bar, either way, they’ll get your ab muscles firing.
    • Planks: There are numerous plank variations, and all of them will make you cry if you hold them for long enough. Great for building a strong core and gaining definition in your abs, though.
    • Weighted sit-ups: Crunches and sit-ups can be done pretty much anywhere just using your body weight, but throwing some actual weights into the mix can take things up several notches for insane results.

    To make sure you’re hitting every part of your abs, check out our top core exercises for building a mighty six-pack and strengthening your midriff.

    Bonus tips for building lean muscle mass

    weightlifter chalking hands

    Before we wrap things up, we’ve got a few more quickfire tips to help you really maximize your muscle gains.

    • Eat mostly whole foods: Ditch the processed junk foods. Stick to mostly lean sources of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs instead.
    • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially before, during, and after exercise – it’s essential for optimal muscle function and recovery.
    • Do some cross-training: Find different ways to exercise across the week that you actually enjoy. Things like cycling, swimming, climbing, and playing sports are all great ways to keep you moving and in a good mindset…especially on active rest days.
    • Get inspired: Check out the CrazyBulk YouTube channel for tons of inspiration, workout advice, and correct form demonstrations from our athletes who’ve been there and done it all.
    • Take advantage of supplements: Protein powder, creatine, BCAAs, and pre-workouts are the staples of any good supplement routine. But the real trick is to take it to the next level by finding the perfect stack to complement your specific goals.

    So there you go! You’ve got all the muscle-building workout advice above stored in your brain, so you should now be ready to go out there and absolutely smash it in the gym.

    It’s a hell of a journey, and it will absolutely test your very limits at times – but that’s when the good stuff happens.

    Growth comes from discomfort. So, if you’re finding it too easy in the gym, you aren’t doing it right.

    Lift big, lift hard, and lift with intensity.

    And if you’re ever in need of some inspiration or want to switch things up, we’ve got plenty more tips and tricks over on the CrazyBulk blog to keep you progressing and getting those gains.

    Now, go get them.

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