Building Muscle Is Hard

Something we hear frequently is some variation of:  “I don’t want to get big so I lift a little weight a lot of times,” or “I don’t want to get big, I just want to tone up.”  Guess what?  Toning up is building muscle!

It is harder to build big muscles than you think.  A lot harder.  Even if you did want to get as big as those bodybuilders you see on stage, you would be hard pressed to get there just by lifting heavier weights.

What’s in this blog?  You will find some of the fundamental principles of building muscle, you will develop an understanding of the value of lifting heavy weights, and [if you’re a beginner] I have written a free beginner’s strength training routine for you!

Mechanics > Consistency > Intensity

Before we get too far, I would be remiss if I did not iterate just how vitally important it is to lift well.  Lifting heavy for the sake of lifting heavy can be a recipe for acute injury or damage over time.

Ask me how I know.

There is immense value in having someone there to watch you move, make corrections, and give you feedback.  Feedback is not to be avoided, it is to be sought after.  And it really doesn’t matter who that comes from so long as they are knowledgeable and experienced in training themselves and others. And as you found last week, there are certainly things to watch out for in a bad trainer.

So, build good mechanics, build consistency across movements, and then [and only then] should you add more weight to your movements.

Now that we have had a brief discussion on quality…

Why Build Muscle?

  • Stronger bones
  • Improved blood sugar regulation
  • Stronger and more durability for daily activities
  • Better stress management both psychologically and hormonally
  • Improvements in metabolism
  • Improvements in mental toughness
  • Better understanding of movements to keep you safe during physical labor
  • But mostly, why the hell not?

The FITT Principle For Strength Training

The FITT Principle is a great way to understand how manipulating training variables can drive ongoing results.  Let’s take a look at each principle in a little more detail.


Frequency can be thrown into a few different categories.  You could consider this the total number of training sessions during the week.  Frequency could also consider this the number of times you train a specific movement or muscle group.  Lastly, you could even throw in session volume or the number of sets and reps you complete in one specific training session.


Intensity could be quantified as heart rate relative to cardiovascular training but since we’re strength training, it has to do with the difficulty of the sets and reps in question.  Generally, changing intensity [by itself] is done with changing the weight you use.  As we talked about above, once you have developed good mechanics and can do them consistently, then you can add intensity to the mix.

If you add so much weight that your consistent mechanics disappear, you have gone too far and you need to regress with what you have loaded.


Maybe the work is done for a certain amount of time instead of a certain amount of reps?  What if we altered your rest time to make it shorter or longer?  What if we changed the tempo of the reps being performed to slow on the way down and slow on the way up?

Time is by far my favorite variable to manipulate because it takes exercises, which would otherwise be moderate intensity, and makes them much harder.  There is magic in increasing your time under tension because you do not need to make the weights heavier.  Simply change how long each rep takes!

With intensity comes discomfort and with discomfort comes results.

Consequently, this is among the least favorite variables to be manipulated from my client’s perspective.


This has to do with the objects, or lack of objects, you are utilizing to get your training done.  For example:  barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, machine bench press, push ups on the ground, push ups on rings, etc.

All of these movements are training your upper body [horizontal] pushing muscles.

And Your Point?

My point is this:  do not get stuck in the closed loop of simply adding more and more weight to your training.  Not only will you run out of room because you will likely add weight faster than you can build the strength to lift it, you will also decrease the quality of your movements by increasing too fast.

Lack of quality > acute injuries or overuse injuries

Not a path you want to go down.

A Beginner’s Strength Training Program

NOTE:  Each movement has a video link for reference.  Any additional questions, email me at [email protected] 

When writing this, I tried to keep a few things in mind:

First, I wanted to attack your whole body each day as that is an effective way to progress (more than one muscle group per day [at least, initially]).

Second, 3 days per week is plenty for the beginner to glean results from but can also give adequate time for working through muscle soreness.

Third, the workouts are aimed at taking 45 to 60 minutes or less.  There is no need, at this point, to manufacture grueling 90 minute to 2 hour sessions.  Nor do a lot of people have time for that.

Lastly, with regard to sets, reps, and rest times – mid-range for everything was appropriate as a starting point as it will provide plenty of challenge and intensity for the beginner lifter [assuming you choose the correct weights].

Day 1

Dumbbell or Kettlebell Goblet Squat – 3 Sets of 10 Reps
90 seconds rest after each set

Chest Supported Dumbbell Row – 3 Sets of 10 Reps
90 seconds rest after each set

Hardstyle Plank – 10 Sets of 10 seconds on / 5 seconds off
Focus on keeping as much tension in your core as possible

Day 2

Kettlebell Deadlift – 3 Sets of 10 Reps
90 seconds rest after each set

Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 Sets of 10 Reps
90 seconds after each set

Standing Banded Pallof Press – 3 Sets of 10 Reps Each Side
60 seconds rest after both sides completed

Day 3

Box Step Up (with or without weight) – 3 Sets of 10 Reps Each Side
90 seconds rest after both sides completed

Seated Lat Pulldown – 3 Sets of 10 Reps
90 seconds rest after each set

Dumbbell Bicep Curls – 3 Sets of 10 Reps*
90 seconds rest after each set

*Can alternate this with Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extensions.  Or you could do both each session

Spend 3 days per week at this and increase weight as needed. But remember, you can also change your rest times, your tempo in the reps themselves, and many other variables before you ever have to (or should) get to maximal weights.

Have Some Fun Building Muscle

Lifting weights can be frustrating but it can also be fun and empowering all at the same time!

I encourage you, as the beginner or intermediate lifter, to spend some time in a program to see what you get out of it.  How much time?  30 days is the absolute bare minimum but better would be 60 to 90 days. Beyond that, if you have any questions or you would rather a professional guide you and write for you, head HERE and we will be more than happy to sit down with you and build you a customized journey to your goals!

Schedule your free intro

Talk with a coach about your goals, make a plan to achieve them.

Fill out the form below to get started

Take the first step towards getting the results that you want

By providing your phone number, you agree to receive text messages from Iron Hero CrossFit