How to Gain Lean Bodyweight – Part 3: How To Train To Gain

Please ensure that you have read Part 2 of this article: How To Gain Lean Bodyweight – Part 2: Meal Ratios, Meal Frequency & Food Choices.

Getting Brilliant on the Basics

“Big Ernie,” one of my old lifting buddies from Pennsylvania, e-mailed me last month after reading the articles on my website about proper nutrition for weight gain.

HM = BC + HW

I was rolling on the floor laughing when I read this, but afterwards I got to thinking that he was absolutely right – the formula for getting big isn’t anything overly complex or scientific – it’s actually very simple; just eat big and lift big on basic exercises. This may seem like an oversimplification, but that’s really all there is to it. I’ve already discussed eating to get big in the first two parts of this series, so now I’d like to discuss the third and final component; how to train big to get big. A successful approach to gaining muscle involves choosing basic, compound exercises, progressively adding resistance, allowing enough recuperation and keeping workout sessions brief and intense.

Get “Back to Basics”

When Vince Lombardi took over the Green Bay Packers everyone asked him what he was going to do: “Are you going to change the playbooks?” “Are you going to change the players,” “what are you going to do differently?” To these questions he replied, “I’m not going to change anything, we’re just going to get brilliant on the basics. Our opponents may be able to predict exactly what we’re going to do, but we’re going to be so good at the basics that they won’t be able to stop us.”

When your goal is to gain muscle, your training mantra must become “back to basics.” I believe there are three reasons why people fail to get back to basics. The first is because they have been on a fat-reducing plan for so long that they become locked into a fat-burning training and nutrition mentality and they simply refuse to shift gears for fear of getting fat. You should stay reasonably lean all year round, but trying to stay ripped all the time will severely limit your size gains. When you’ve finished dieting to lose weight, shift gears, get back to basics and get focused on a mass-building mentality.

The second reason people fail to get back to basics is because the basics seem so basic. What I mean is that people don’t see the forest for the trees. People are always looking for some exotic, esoteric, magical formula, theory or program. Meanwhile, the answer is right in front of their face, but they overlook it because it seems too obvious.

The third reason people fail to get back to basics is because the basics are so darn hard! It never ceases to amaze me how people always gravitate towards the easiest exercises while avoiding the harder, more result-producing exercises. Let’s face it, squats are tough – real tough! But if you don’t learn to love heavy, basic exercises like squats, you’ll never join the ranks of the massive.

Choose Compound vs Isolation Movements

First and foremost, “back to basics” means using compound, multi-joint exercises over isolation movements. Compound movements are those that involve the largest muscle groups as well as smaller, stabilizing muscles. Because they utilize a greater muscle mass, they allow you to lift the heaviest weights possible. There is a direct correlation between the amount of weight lifted in an exercise and the size of the muscle. Therefore, it is logical that compound exercises like squats have a greater potential for building mass than isolation movements like leg extensions because squats allow the utilization of much heavier poundages, resulting in much greater hypertrophy.

The Best Mass Building Exercises

Here is a list of the best basic mass building exercises for each body part:

Quads: Squats, Front Squats, Leg Presses
Hamstrings: Stiff-Legged Deadlift, Lying Leg Curl
Back: Deadlift, Bent Over Row, One Arm Dumbbell Row
Chest: Barbell Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, Weighted Wide Grip Dips
Deltoids: Press behind Neck, Dumbbell Press, Military Press, Shrugs
Triceps: Lying Tricep Ext., Close Grip bench Press, Pushdowns, Seated Tricep ext.
Biceps: Standing Barbell Curl, Seated Alternate Dumbbell Curl, Preacher Curl
Calves: Standing Calf Raise, Donkey Calf Raise, Seated Calf Raise

If you don’t Squat, You Ain’t Squat!

Out of all these basic mass building exercises, no exercise is better for packing on pounds of quality muscle than the squat. Ironically, however, no exercise is more ardently avoided either. I’ve heard just about every excuse in the book for not squatting, and believe me, after rupturing a lumbar disk, I’ve had every reason not to squat myself. Despite my injuries, I squat any way. Why? Because barbell squats are positively the single most result producing exercise you can do. I’m not suggesting that you ignore the advice of your physician if you have an injury, but if you are physically capable of squatting and you’re not doing them, you are compromising your results. Squats hype your metabolism, pump up your legs and make your whole body grow! Leg presses are OK, but they just aren’t the same.

Rest and Recuperation

Muscles don’t grow during a workout. They grow between the workouts – if you allow them to rest, that is. All too often, the over-enthusiastic trainee works out longer and more often under the impression that more is better. Over training is the arch-nemesis of the bodybuilder. Training by itself does not necessarily translate into growth; training plus recuperation does.

Proper recuperation includes two separate components; specific recuperation and systemic recuperation. Specific recuperation refers to how much time you allow between training a particular body part. The rage these days seems to be training every day and hitting each muscle group once per week. This is not a bad idea, but if you’re training six or seven days per week, you’re defeating the purpose of one body part a week training. Individual muscle groups need to rest between training sessions, but so does the entire body. Systemic recuperation means allowing your entire body to recuperate by not training too many days in a row. If you train too frequently, this places excessive demands on your nervous system. Two or three days of weight training in a row is the most you should ever do. If you are a “hard-gainer” then an every other day routine might be even better. A two on, one off schedule where you work each muscle every five to seven days is extremely effective. This allows individual muscles and your entire body sufficient recuperation for maximal growth.

Progressive Resistance – The # 1 key key to gaining mass

There are many factors involved in building a muscular physique, but in the long run the only thing that really matters is that you progressively overload your muscles. There are many ways to overload a muscle such as decreasing rest intervals, increasing volume, slowing rep speed, increasing time under tension, doing more repetitions, and using stricter form, but the granddaddy of them all is simply adding weight on the bar. The more weight you can lift in strict form, the bigger the muscle will get, period. Constantly adding weight at every session can seem like an insurmountable task at times, but the best way to achieve this goal is to make tiny, incremental increases consistently over time. Don’t attempt large jumps in weight loads too quickly. Aim for adding just 2.5 lbs to 5 lbs with every workout on the basic exercises. You may not always be able to increase the weight, but you must make progress in some form at every single workout or you are wasting your time.

Keep your workouts brief in duration and high in intensity

The definition of intensity is the degree of momentary muscular effort that you exert during a set. In other words, intensity is how hard you workout. Most people simply do not train hard. Most likely this lack of intensity is due to the volume being too high. There is an inverse relationship between intensity and volume. The harder you train, the less sets you’ll be able to do (and the less sets you’ll need to do). As a general rule, it’s most effective to keep your workouts brief and intense (under 60 minutes). More is not better, harder is better. Always train to the point of failure or just short of failure.

Avoid excessive cardio work

The entire point of adding a 250-500 calorie surplus to your diet is to allow extra nutrients and energy to support the growth of new muscle tissue. If you continue to do cardio every day for prolonged periods as you do in a fat-reducing program, you’ll only be burning off those extra calories you needed for growth. Never completely stop doing cardio. Everyone should always do 20-30 minutes of cardio 3-4 days per week year round regardless of your goals – that should be a part of any healthy lifestyle. But too much is counterproductive.


Getting big is not the result of using some secret eastern bloc training program, a miracle diet or a super muscle building supplement. Gaining muscle isn’t rocket science. The formula for getting big is deceptively simple; it is just a matter of being “brilliant on the basics.” Do yourself a favor; stop wasting your time searching for an easy way, because it doesn’t exist. Just eat big, work hard, work heavy on the basic exercises and get plenty of recuperation and you’ll soon be adding pounds of lean body mass faster than you ever thought possible.

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author of Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for and the nutrition editor for and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.