You don't need an expensive gym membership to gain muscle mass. With just a few pieces of equipment or your own body weight, you can do challenging home workouts that will build muscle fast. You just need to know the important factors involved in muscle gain, and you can make them work for you anywhere you choose to work out.
To build muscle fast, you need to challenge each muscle group with high-volume, twice-weekly workouts.
Equipment for Home Workouts
Do you really need equipment to build muscle and strength? According to Al Kavadlo, CSCS, the answer is a resounding no. Classic calisthenics exercises, such as pushups, pullups and squats, are enough for the beginner to start building muscle quickly at home. For the more advanced athlete, progressive variations can keep your muscles challenged and growing for years, Kavadlo says.
But some people like using equipment, and that's fine too. You can outfit your home workout space with the essentials — or more, depending on your budget — that will allow you to do a variety of fun and challenging exercises in your home workout. Consider using:
- A yoga or gym mat
- A pullup bar
- Resistance bands
- A stability ball
If you have the budget and the space, you can consider investing in:
- Dumbbells — starting with three pairs, light, medium and heavy
- A weight bench
- A plyo box
- A barbell and plates
Fastest Way to Build Muscle
There's good news and bad news about building muscle fast when you're just starting a resistance-training program. The bad news is that during the first few weeks of your program, you might not make any gains at all.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Physiology found that while muscle damage — necessary for hypertrophy, or muscle growth — was highest among untrained subjects in the first three weeks of a resistance-training program, it was not associated with hypertrophy. This is because muscle protein synthesis during this time is mainly directed at repairing the damage, rather than building mass.
As the body adapts to exercise, there is less muscle damage after training sessions and greater muscle growth. The study researchers concluded that hypertrophy only occurs after accumulated intermittent increases in muscle protein synthesis.
Rate of Muscle Gain
The good news is that you only have to wait about three weeks until your body starts building, rather than just repairing, muscle. After that period, you will put on muscle relatively quickly. According to strength and conditioning coach Eric Bach, beginners gain muscle at a faster rate than intermediate and advanced lifters.
On average, the maximum rate of muscle gain for beginners is 1 to 1.5 percent of total body weight per month compared to 0.5 to 1 percent of body weight for intermediate lifters and 0.25 to 0.5 percent for advanced lifters. Of course, this depends on a lot of variables, including training intensity, body type and diet, among other things.
Volume and Frequency
Whether you're working out in a gym or at home, workout volume and frequency — in addition to your diet — are the biggest factors in building muscle fast. Although you should be conservative in the first few weeks while your body is adapting to exercise, after that you will build more muscle faster by working out often at a high intensity and with a high volume (sets and reps). Basically, the more you challenge your muscles, the more growth you'll stimulate in a shorter period of time.
According to a 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis in the Journal of Sports Science, volume is crucial for hypertrophy. In the 15 studies analyzed, the researchers found that each additional set of an exercise led to an increase in muscle size. This dose-response relationship means that the more sets you can get in, the faster you'll see growth. Having access to your home gym makes this easier, because a workout is always just a few steps away.
As for frequency, a 2016 meta-analysis and systematic review in Sports Medicine found that training each major muscle group twice a week proved more effective for hypertrophy than only training once a week. The researchers could not, however, determine if training muscle groups three times per week leads to greater increases, but if more volume leads to more hypertrophy, then it's safe to say getting in three workouts per week per muscle group certainly can't hurt.
Optimal Repetition Range
There are a lot of opinions on the best number of sets and reps to do and the best rest period length between sets to build mass. As far as reps go, the usual recommendation is eight to 12 per set for hypertrophy, with higher reps being more effective for muscular endurance and lower reps more effective for strength.
However, it might not actually matter that much. A 2016 study in Journal of Applied Physiology found that whether participants lifted lower weight for more repetitions or more weight for fewer repetitions, there was no difference in the amount of muscle growth at the end of a 12-week total-body resistance-training program.
When you're working out at home, it will mainly depend on your available equipment. If you only have your own body weight to work with, you'll need to do more reps to exhaust your muscles.
Sets and Rest
When you're starting out, aim for 10 to 12 sets per muscle group, per week. As you start to see results and your body adapts, you should add more sets for more volume. With this approach, you can build muscle at home and improve your overall fitness.
In a 2019 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, participants who performed five sets per exercise per body part achieved significantly more muscle growth than participants who performed one or three sets. In total, the group that saw the most gains performed 30 sets for the upper body and 45 sets for the lower body per week.
Rest periods between sets for hypertrophy are generally 60 to 180 seconds. However, you may want to lean toward the end of that range. In an eight-week study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2016, participants who rested three minutes between sets gained more mass than participants who rested one minute, even when all other program variables remained the same.
Rest days are crucial for gaining mass. Your muscles grow between your workouts not while you're training them. Allow adequate rest between training sessions for the same muscle group. If you feel that you're getting weaker, not stronger, and you feel fatigued, you're not allowing enough recovery time.
Best Exercises for Fast Gains
Now the really confusing part — which exercises should you do to build muscle at home? The exercises you choose can be either compound, or multijoint, moves like squats and pullups, or they can be isolation, or single-joint, exercises like biceps and hamstrings curls. Which is better for hypertrophy?
This is hotly debated in the fitness field, but according to research, both are equally effective. In a 2015 study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 29 male participants trained the biceps using either lat pulldowns, a compound exercise, or biceps curls, an isolation exercise.
At the end of 10 weeks, there was no difference in results between the compound and isolation group. The researchers concluded that exercise selection should be based on individual preference, time commitment and available equipment.
Compound Body Weight Exercises
You're not going to have as much variety at home as at the gym — no machines, maybe not even dumbbells or resistance bands. In that case, compound exercises that use large muscle groups and activate a lot of muscle fibers at once are going to be your best bet. Calisthenics expert and author Paul Wade recommends these exercises for your home body weight workout:
- Body weight squats, pistols and shrimp squats
- Australian pullup variations
- Handstand pushups (against a wall — lower skill, more effort)
- Leg raises
Of course, these are pretty challenging, and you may not be here quite yet. Start with the basic variation of each exercise and add on challenge and complexity as you get stronger.
If you do have resistance equipment at home, you can do heavy squats, dead lifts, military presses and other classic lifts that build mass. The key is to continue to progressively load the muscles, which is what will encourage the most muscle growth ASAP and over time.
- Progressive Calisthenics: How to Build Real Muscle Using Bodyweight Methods: Part I
- Bodybuilding.com: Bodyweight Bodybuilder: The Mass-Building Calisthenic Workout
- Journal of Physiology: Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Integrated Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Are Related to Hypertrophy Only After Attenuation of Muscle Damage
- T Nation: 10 Rules for Building Muscle Without Getting Fat
- Journal of Sports Science: Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Sports Medicine: Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Neither Load nor Systemic Hormones Determine Resistance Training-Mediated Hypertrophy or Strength Gains in Resistance-Trained Young Men
- Asian Journal of Sports Medicine: Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy