How to gain mass

June 21st, 2008  |  Published in Training art & science  |  3 Comments

It’s not a question I encounter as frequently as “how to lose bodyfat?” but there are lots of women out there who do want to be bigger, heavier, and/or more muscular. It’s a refreshing change to answer this question, frankly. The challenge, as many skinny folks have discovered, is how to do it healthily.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, it’s counterproductive to try to lose fat at the same time you try to gain mass. It’s like trying to build a house while someone keeps taking the bricks away. Pick one goal and eat and train accordingly.

Here I’ll cover training for mass gain. See also my article on eating for mass gain.

training for mass gain

There’s been quite a lot written about training for mass gain so I won’t go into excessive detail. But here are the basic principles, and my recommendations.

Focus primarily on multi-joint, compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, pulling movements such as rows and pulldowns, and pushing movements such as presses. If possible also incorporate the more difficult compound lifts such as cleans. You can also stick two or more exercises together into a hybrid (for example, a front squat plus a press = 1 rep). Don’t waste too much time with isolation exercises such as curls unless you have a specific need for them.

Train frequently enough to stimulate growth, at an intensity that is not maximal. Split routines, popular with bodybuilders in the 80s and 90s, are falling out of favour as research suggests that more full-body type workouts are more effective. For most folks, a full body (or approximately fully body) routine done 3-4 times a week is about right. This can be very basic, perhaps a few sets of squats, a few sets each of one well chosen pushing and pulling exercise, and that’s it. You don’t have to kill yourself at every workout — in fact it’s much better if you don’t. It’s better to be able to train more often, submaximally, than less often at your gut-busting max.

One of the classic mass gain routines is Bill Starr’s 5×5.  It’s a Monday-Wednesday-Friday program that’s organized around a squat-push-pull concept. Each day contains 5 sets of 5 reps for each of the three major exercises, but at different intensities. You start lighter with the first set, and work up to the fifth set being the heaviest. Monday’s 5 is about 80-90% max. Wednesday’s 5 reps is done about 60-70% of max. Friday is the day you add weight and let it rip for all you’ve got. Basic, brutal, and very effective.

Keep endurance cardio moderate, perhaps a few sessions a week of 15-20 min at most if that. Endurance training is generally not terribly compatible with mass gaining. Pick one goal or the other and train accordingly. A better choice for cardio conditioning is interval training or something like long sets of ballistic lifts such as dumbbell swings.

You can build mass with heavy, lower-rep sets. But a great stimulus for mass gain comes from higher-rep sets with short rest periods. Let’s be clear: this is not “swing a little pink dumbbell for 20 triceps kickbacks”. This is “grind out 20 reps of squats, snorting like a water buffalo by rep 15″.

Recommended programs for mass gain include Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST) and the 20-rep squat program (articles here and here); you can also buy the book Super Squats from Ironmind. But essentially, any intelligently designed program that prioritizes compound lifts and progressive resistance (increasing weight gradually over time) will do as long as you’re stuffing your face every 2-3 hours with good quality calories.

Why are you still reading this? Go and get something to eat!


  1. Damaris says:

    May 1st, 2010at 2:06 pm(#)

    Wow… I’ve been looking for good answers to my questions – and I found them. Thank you very much for all those great posts. Keep them coming :-D

  2. brooke says:

    July 19th, 2011at 2:18 pm(#)

    Hi Krista,

    I’ve got no understanding of anatomy and physiology. I’ve entered a contest where I can win plane tickets (very very coveted, as I live in a remote community that it costs a gazillion dollars to leave) as part of Biggest Loser Competition. However, the BL Competition is not measured by lbs lost but (and I love this) by percentage of muscle mass gained plus percentage of body fat lost. Weight is irrelevant.
    So. Questions: If I’m gaining muscle mass, does that mean that I am automatically losing fat? Or is it possible to gain muscle but not lose fat? How much of a percentage increase in muscle mass (and fat reduction) is reasonable to expect if I really work on this?
    I’m a lifter but I’ve been sitting around shiftlessly for 8 months, and I’m about 30 lbs overweight. I’ve started lifting again, heavy weight, low reps, frequently. This contest goes for 12 weeks.
    Love love love your site. Got me lifting in the first place years ago.

  3. Mistress Krista says:

    July 19th, 2011at 2:30 pm(#)

    @Brooke: Great challenge! Lean body mass (which includes muscle but also water, bone, etc.) operates independently of fat, because it’s different stuff.

    You’re in a very good starting point because you have some general skill but you’re detrained, so your body will respond very well — it’ll want to lose fat AND gain lean mass.

    For the next 12 weeks, don’t try to gain mass by eating more. Work on losing fat by eating less. If you eat a high-quality diet (plenty of lean protein, colourful veggies, some good fats), and train hard and heavy (being careful of your deconditioned joints of course), then as a newbie you’ll keep/gain mass.

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