Building Muscle: What Actually Matters

Type in “how to build muscle” on Google and you’ll get nearly five million results.
It’s no wonder skinny guys everywhere are so confused as to what actually matters for putting on size, and what doesn’t. You’ll read an article one day telling you to eat 300 grams of protein per day to add muscle mass. Then, you’ll see something the next day informing you to avoid taking in more than one gram of protein per pound of body weight.


One blogger tells you breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The next tells you intermittent fasting is the best way to go for gaining size. Who should you listen to? In the age of “information overload,” we’re bombarded constantly with bloggers, magazine writers, and YouTube personalities telling us what’s important for building muscle. Everyone’s going to have different opinions, and many of them probably work. It’s just so hard to know what’s actually important and what’s not. Let’s take a look at four things skinny guys spend way too much time worrying about and what they should actually care about instead. Before I get blasted by readers, I don’t think some of these things aren’t important at all. They’re just not as important as you think. Focus on what matters, and watch your muscles grow.

What you think matters: Varying exercise selection

What actually matters: Mastering a few exercises

The concept of “muscle confusion” has floated around lifting circles for quite a while.

Many believe you should rotate exercises constantly so your muscles don’t adapt and fail to grow. You know, if you do back squats for four weeks, you should switch to front squats for four weeks. If you do barbell curls for four weeks, you should mix it up and go with incline dumbbell curls for four weeks.

You’ve got to change that stimulus constantly, right? Well, apparently these folks don’t know about general adaptation syndrome, which describes the body’s response to stress. During the alarm phase, the body switches to “fight-or-flight” mode to defend itself from a stressor. Then, the body adapts to the stressor through the resistance phase (Rosenblatt, 247). That’s why progressive overload, or slightly increasing the challenge each workout, is so effective for inducing muscle growth and strength gains. Each time you train, you need to place a stress beyond what you typically encounter for your muscles to grow (Ivy and Portman, 2004). Believe it or not, increasing the resistance is a change in stress to your body. I know what you’re thinking – “but the top bodybuilders in the world all use lots of different exercises to ‘shape’ their muscles!” Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you’re staying skinny, you probably shouldn’t train like a bodybuilder. You need to focus on getting stronger. In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger famously followed Reg Park’s 5×5 routine the first several years of his training career. He focused on getting stronger in the basic lifts. If you’re already confused about what it takes to build muscle, you’re certainly not going to benefit from trying to learn 100 different exercises. Pick compound movements that have stood the test of time, and work on getting really good at executing them.

building muscle

The “muscle confusion” concept is largely smoke and mirrors. When you’re getting your feet wet in the gym, stick to the basics.

Alabama football coach Nick Saban was once asked what he thought about quarterback A.J. McCarron being on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Sharp, 2013). “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Saban answered the reporter. “You need to come here and walk around and follow me around for like a week. I haven’t seen the newspaper today, I don’t know what’s happening in the world. I watch The Weather Channel for 10 minutes in the morning while I have a cup of coffee so I know what the weather’s gonna be, so if we can practice inside or outside. Other than that, I’m happy for A.J. and I’m sure he looks great.” And, by the way, Alabama has won four of the last seven NCAA Division 1 college football national championships. While this example may be a bit extreme, you can see Saban’s extreme focus on just football and what really matters has allowed both him and his football team to have tremendous success. Coaches and athletes excel at their sports for good reason. They spend tons of time mastering the basic skills. LeBron James hones his skills as a basketball player every day. That’s why he’s one of the best in the world. Aaron Rodgers spends tons of time working on his skills as a quarterback. That’s why he’s considered one of the best in the NFL. As a lifter, focus on mastering the basic lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift and military press. Increasing strength is highly important for muscle mass. C’mon, do you really think you’re going to put on size lifting the exact same weight the rest of your life? How many big benchers do you know with puny arms? According to researcher Brad Schoenfeld, you need to lift loads of at least 65% of your one-rep max or higher to promote reasonable gains in muscle size (Schoenfeld, 2013). Lifting heavy is important.  You can’t lift heavy if you’re always changing which exercises you’re doing because you’ll be spending way too much time figuring out how to even do the movement!

Pick a really simple program to follow like a 5×5 routine:


Back Squat 5 sets x 5 reps

Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps

Deadlift 5 sets x 5 reps


Back Squat 5 sets x 5 reps

Military Press 5 sets x 5 reps

Bent-Over Row 5 sets x 5 reps

Perform this routine three days per week, alternating between the “A” and “B” workouts. Start extremely light on all exercises and focus on picture-perfect technique. Add five to 10 pounds to each exercise every workout. Have two warm-up sets and three “working” sets at the same weight. You’ll increase both your strength and muscle mass by just focusing on getting better in a few basic lifts. Whatever you do, you need to absolutely make certain you’re using proper form. If you’re a visual learner, watch videos on proper technique. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, have someone you respect coach you through the exercises. You can have the perfect program on paper, but if you don’t use solid technique, your efforts will be for naught. In fact, if you don’t use proper form, you may end up hurting yourself. In this case, you won’t be able to train at all. And if you can’t workout, you’re sure as heck not going to build any muscle!

building muscle

Who wants to talk about form?

What you think matters: Post-workout nutrition, protein intake, supplements and meal frequency

What actually matters: Energy balance

You read in bodybuilding magazines all the time you should eat six small meals per day.

That’s what all the top bodybuilders do. You see pre-workout and “mass gainer” supplements at your local store promising you’ll double your muscle growth if you take them.

You find an article online talking about the perfect mix of protein and carbs to take advantage of the “anabolic window” following a workout. A blogger tells you to take in twice your bodyweight in grams of protein per day for massive gains in size. While things like meal frequency, supplements, post-workout nutrition and protein intake all have their place in a mass gain protocol, they mean relatively little in the grand scheme of things. I know what you’re thinking, “Say what? You can’t be serious! Of course things like protein intake and the post-workout ‘window of opportunity’ are important for gains!” Well, they may be important, but they mean almost nothing if your entire diet isn’t on point. It’s thermodynamics 101 – to gain weight, you’ve got to take in more energy than you expend. You’ve got to take in more calories via food than you burn off via exercise. Let’s give an example of why energy balance trumps post-workout nutrition in terms of importance. Let’s say you need 3,000 calories per day to gain weight and build muscle. You create the perfect post-workout meal with your “mass gain” supplement. You take 30 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbohydrates, timing it so you get that meal within 20 minutes of your training session that day. “Awesome!” you think. “Now, my muscles have no choice but to grow. I replenished my glycogen stores and replaced my broken-down muscle tissue with amino acids.” Well, hold on just a second. You need 3,000 calories that day to put you in an energy surplus, but you eat only one more 600-calorie meal that day. You did eat a massive 800-calorie breakfast with eggs, oats and the works. But 30 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbohydrates gives you only 600 calories in your post-workout meal. So you’ve eaten only 2,000 calories that entire day, which is a whopping 1,000 calories below what you need to be consuming that day to add size. Sorry dude, now your “perfect” post-workout meal with your precious “mass gain” supplement promising muscle growth mean absolutely nothing. Calories matter.

The number of meals you eat per day really isn’t that important either (Bellisle et al., 1997). Using the example from above, if you eat six meals per day, but take in only 400 calories per meal, you’re still 600 calories short of your daily goal! You can eat three 1,000-calorie meals that day like a normal person, not have to stress out about eating every two to three hours and be just fine. At this point, you should also realize why protein intake doesn’t matter too much if you’re under your calorie budget for the day. But did you know consuming too much protein may actually have a negative impact of your weight gain attempts? Huh? It actually fills you up faster than fat or carbohydrate because it’s more satiating (Paddon-Jones et al., 2008). So you won’t want to eat too much protein because you won’t have the appetite to take in enough calories to get jacked. Energy balance rules. End of story.

What you think matters: Program selection

What actually matters: Consistency

Does this sound familiar?

You search the muscle magazines and blogosphere for the perfect muscle-building program.

You’re in luck because you find a program from a professional bodybuilder telling you to train six days per week using body-part splits.

You begin the workout the following Monday. But wait! The next week you find a program from an online guru who tells you he put on 22 pounds of muscle in just 10 weeks with a three-day-per week, whole-body routine. You switch to this program instead. So which program is better? It doesn’t freaking matter which workout you do! They all work. You just need to pick a program, and stick with it. Millions of guys around the world have gotten great results using all sorts of programs. The commonality among them was they all carried the routine out to the end. They didn’t change it midway through because they found some other “special” program. While you can certainly find some “bad” programs out there, you can get great results on many different workout routines. If you’re a skinny guy looking to pack on muscle mass, make sure the program focuses on getting stronger with predominantly compound lifts. Multi-joint exercises like squats, bench press variations and deadlifts recruit the most muscle mass and allow you to lift the most weight. As we talked about above, the program must focus on progressive overload to create a great enough stress to cause your body to change. If you never increase the challenge on an exercise (like never adding weight), your muscles are never going to grow back bigger and stronger. So quit throwing a 45-pound plate on each side of the bar and just doing three sets of 10 reps. You’re never going to build any muscle this way! As long as the program focuses on increasing the challenge each workout, just start doing it! Quit waffling and evaluating every detail about every single program you find. If you don’t take action, you’re never going to get results. These workouts will all build muscle for you – as long as you eat enough to support your training – you just need to start doing one of them!

building muscle

Look at all that “clean” protein.

What you think matters: “Clean” eating

What actually matters: Hitting your macronutrient goals

Chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, brown rice and broccoli.

These are all bodybuilding staples – and for good reason. They have nutrients important for muscle growth and are considered “clean, healthy” food choices.

If you need to take in a lot of calories, you can only eat so much chicken and broccoli before your head explodes! Besides, what does “clean” eating really mean? To the United States Department of Agriculture, “clean” foods include grains and dairy. But if you ask followers of the Paleo diet, they’ll tell you to avoid grains and dairy because they cause inflammation. Instead, you should eat lots of vegetables, nuts, seeds and meat. Ask a vegetarian, though, and he’ll tell you to avoid meat because you shouldn’t have anything that comes from animals. As you can see, the definition of a “clean” food isn’t exactly clear. In 2013, a high school science teacher from Iowa gained public attention when he lost 56 pounds, lowered his cholesterol, and lost 21 inches off his hips, waist and chest eating food only from McDonald’s (Pawlowski, 2014). He simply stuck to a 2,000-calorie diet and hit his targets for protein, carbohydrate, fat and sugar for the day while walking 45 minutes daily. While we’re obviously talking about gaining muscle weight in this article, the professor’s experiment shows the importance of calories and macronutrients for manipulating body weight. He didn’t eat any foods most of us would consider “clean,” yet he lost weight and improved health markers! Now, by no means should you think about even attempting this experiment on yourself.  You should start second-guessing your current approach. It’s OK to have some junk food, bro! It won’t kill your gains. If you need to hit 3,500 calories per day to gain weight, it’s going to be very challenging if you eat just lean meats, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats, and nuts. You’re going to find yourself failing to finish some of your meals because you’re sick of eating heaps of “clean” foods. As long as 70 to 80 percent of your meals are from whole, unprocessed foods, toss in a little “junk” food like cereal, ice cream and bagels. As long as you hit your macronutrient totals for the day, you’ll start gaining weight.

So what should your macros be? According to Precision Nutrition, you should hit the following macronutrient split:

-if you’re an ectomorph (naturally thin), get 25 percent of your calories from protein, 55 percent from carbohydrate and 20 percent from fat

-if you’re a mesomorph (naturally lean and muscular), consume 30 percent of your calories from protein, 40 percent from carbohydrate and 30 percent from fat

-if you’re an endomorph (naturally thick), take in 35 percent of your calories from protein, 25 percent from carbohydrate and 40 percent from fat (Berardi et al., 2015).

Let’s say you’re an ectomorph who needs to take in 3,000 calories per day to gain weight.

Before we calculate your macronutrients in grams, you should know one gram of both protein and carbohydrate is four calories and one gram of fat is nine calories.

If you need 25 percent of your calories from protein, you need 750 calories. So 750 divided by four is 187.5 grams of protein. If you need 55 percent of your calories from carbohydrate, you need 1,650 calories. So 1,650 divided by four is 412.5 grams of carbohydrate. Now, you need 20 percent of your calories from fat, which is 600 calories. So 600 divided by nine is about 67 grams of fat. So if you’re naturally thin and need 3,000 calories per day to gain muscle weight, you should take in 187.5 grams of protein, 412.5 grams of carbohydrate and about 67 grams of fat. Now, you’ve just got to find foods that fit!

Bellisle, F., R. McDevitt, and A.M. Prentice. “Meal frequency and energy balance.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 1997. Web.
Berardi, John, and Ryan Andrews. The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Second ed. N.p.: Precision Nutrition, 2015. Print.
Ivy, John, and Robert Portman. Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition. N.p.: Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004. Print.
Paddon-Jones, Douglas, Eric Westman, Richard D. Mattes, Robert R. Wolfe, Arne Astrup, and Margiret Westerterp-Plantenga. “Protein, Weight Management and Satiety.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008. Web.
Pawlowski, A. “Man Loses 56 Pounds after Eating Only McDonald’s for Six Months.” N.p., 7 Mar. 2014. Web.
Rosenblatt, Benjamin. “Planning a Performance Programme.” High-Performance Training for Sports. N.p.: Human Kinetics, 2014. 247. Print. Muscle Growth
Schoenfeld, Brad. The Max Muscle Plan. N.p.: Human Kinetics, 2013. Print.
Sharp, Andrew. “No, Nick Saban Didn’t See This Week’s Cover of Sports Illustrated.” Grantland. N.p., 21 Nov. 2013. Web.

About the Author

Luke BriggsA former skinny guy himself, Luke Briggs helps skinny guys push past their genetic limitations to build the muscular frame they've always wanted. He breaks down the science and gives you simple, actionable items you can implement immediately to help you get jacked.