Workouts to Build Muscle Mass

Do you want to build serious muscle? You need three things: optimum nutrition, challenging hypertrophy workouts and plenty of sleep.

As a personal trainer in London with over 20 years experience helping clients lose weight, build muscle, get fitter, and in some cases bulk up, I know what works and what doesn’t.


Don’t be tempted to dive in at the deep end and go crazy in the gym. If you lift weights far heavier than you’re used to, you could injure yourself badly and delay your chances of achieving the physique of your dreams. At the start of the new year, it’s great to be enthusiastic and determined to work hard, but you need to channel that enthusiasm wisely.

If you’re a gym novice, it’s easy to let your ego get the better of you. Walk into any gym, and there will be bigger guys than you, who have been training for years. You might be tempted to copy what they’re doing. Resist that temptation, and start with moderate weights. This is the time to focus on getting your technique right (known as ‘good form’), and selecting the best combination of exercises for you.

Get a personal trainer or gym instructor to appraise your physique and identify any muscle imbalances or tight muscles, or particularly weak spots to work on. Your workout regime should take all these into account. There are plenty of excellent personal trainers in London gyms ready to advise you.


Weigh yourself, get your body fat percentage measured, and take some tapemeasure measurements of your chest, arms, waist (round the belly button), thighs. Then decide what your goal is. For instance it could be to increase your weight by two stone, from 11 stone to 13 stone, and at the same time to decrease your body fat percentage from 18% to 14%.  You could set a deadline of 28 weeks to achieve this, which is an average weight gain of 1 lb every week. This is challenging but achievable.


Don’t work out on a full stomach, or you’ll throw up all over your fellow gym-goers, simple as that, and you won’t be popular. You need to allow around 90 minutes to 2 hours to digest fully after a meal, before you enter the gym.  Equally, don’t work out if you’ve not eaten anything in the last 4 hours, or you’ll have insufficient glycogen stores to draw on. Glycogen is glucose energy stored in the liver and muscles. You’ll need plenty of energy for muscle-growth (hypertrophy) workouts.

And after your workout, eat or drink something straight away. There are lots of post-workout protein/carbohydrate shakes on the market. Currently I’m using Optimum Nutrition’s Serious Mass. It combines all the amino acids, some carbs, no added sugar, and it’s gluten-free. It’s very easy to blend with milk, and makes a great way to get protein and carbs into your system quickly straight after your workout, just the time when your body is crying out for nutrients.

Vary your daily carbohydrate intake according to how much exercise you do that day. So on a day of a heavy workout, eat more carbs than I eat on a rest day. The two meals to eat most carbs are your pre-workout meal, and your post-workout meal. Eat fewer carbs in your last meal of the day, and focus on filling your plate with more vegetables in the evening.


A good rule is to do 3 muscle-building workouts a week, for an hour each session, including warm-up, cool-down, and stretching. I do a 5 minute warm-up on the cross-trainer or Concept 2 rowing machine. Some people warm-up on a treadmill, but this doesn’t involve the upper body enough, so unless you’re doing a purely legs workout, I recommend the cross trainer or rowing machine to warm up.

The main session itself should last around 40 minutes, followed by 5 minutes cool-down on cross-trainer or rowing machine. Then stretch for 5-10 minutes. Never neglect stretching at the end, to bring your muscles back to original length, or even more flexible than before if you have any muscles which are too tight. If you fail to stretch, you’ll increase your risk of injury in the next workout.


Your first concern is injury-prevention, so make sure you master correct form (technique) with lighter weights before you progress to heavier weights. To build muscle, you need to be training in the rep range of 15/12/10 over 3 sets.

Apply the principle called ‘rep max’ which means you need to choose a weight that you can perform 15 reps with (which is ’15 rep max), so you’re really challenged on your last rep and you can’t do any more. If the weight is too light, and you can perform 20 reps with that weight and no more, that weight is your ’20 rep max’, so you need to select a slightly heavier weight.

Then your second set should be with a heavier weight than your first set. This weight will be your ’12 rep max’. And your 3rd set will be with a slightly heavier weight than your second set, which will be your ’10 rep max’. So it’s a process of trial and error. Make a note of the weights you lift so you can chart your progress over time, and review the effectiveness of your workouts.

Another key aspect of intensity is rest periods between sets. Aim for about 1 minute. You’ll see people in the gym chatting away to their friends, or texting, or just sitting and staring into space. They’re often resting way too long between sets, and sabotaging the intensity of their workouts. Make sure this is not you.

To build muscle you need ‘progressive overload’ which means you need to keep challenging your muscles to work just beyond what they can comfortably handle, otherwise they’ll have no incentive to grow. But this progression to heavier weights needs to be incremental, otherwise you risk injury. Before I became a personal trainer, I had a personal trainer in Tufnell Park, north London who drummed into me the importance of progressive overload. He was a bodybuilder, so he knew what he was talking about.


The most effective way to bulk up, the most time-efficient way, is to concentrate on the compound movements. The best of these are the barbell squat, the barbell (or dumbbell) chest press, the barbell bent-over row, pull-ups, and the barbell deadlift. I’d also add to that list the squat & press, which is a very demanding exercise which taxes the whole body.

These exercises will stimulate your body into growth. Don’t waste time on smaller movements if you’re new to working-out for muscle growth. The compound movements will get you the best results fastest.

I’ve trained in many different gyms in London, and I often see skinny guys spending ages doing bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, leg curls, shoulder lateral raises. These can be done at the end of a workout, but the bulk of your time should be invested in the big compound movements. Before I became a personal trainer, I hired a personal trainer in north London who emphasised the importance of progressive overload in every workout.


Beware of doing endless cardio and no resistance exercises. This won’t get you big muscles. But don’t neglect cardio either. Remember, muscle growth is just one aspect of your total fitness. The strength and health of your heart and lungs are vital too, and the best way to achieve this is cardio.

Research has shown that the most effective method is high intensity interval training, where you alternate bursts of high intensity with lower intensity. For instance, instead of 20 minutes running on the treadmill at a steady pace, alternate 1 minute fast, 1 minute slow, over 20 minutes. This is much more effective.


This is a very common question. I recommend you do your cardio on separate days. But you could do some core strength (abdominals and lower back) on cardio days. So your week’s exercise regime could look something like this:

Monday: chest/shoulders/arms
Tuesday: 20 mins cardio interval training
Wednesday: Back/core strength
Thursday: 20 mins cardio interval training
Friday: Legs/shoulders/arms
Saturday: 20 mins cardio interval training/core strength
Sunday: rest day (always have one rest day per week to recover!)


Another key principle to keeping your muscles guessing, and stimulating new growth, is to vary your workouts over time. I don’t mean do totally different exercises every workout, you need some consistency in building up the big compound movements on a regular basis.

Vary the order in which you perform exercises, vary the combinations of reps and sets, vary the length of rest periods, vary the tempo of the reps you perform (‘time under tension’), vary the angles at which you perform certain movements, and even do 2 sets of different exercises without any rest in between. There are so many ways you can add variety to your workouts. Just make sure you observe the key principles of progressive overload, and intensity (not resting too long between sets).

As a personal trainer in London, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to add variety to workouts. Here are a few examples of an exercise or combination of exercises, with a variation in brackets:

Dumbbell chest press (also incline dumbbell chest press for upper chest)
A workout of chest/shoulders/arms (a workout of chest/back)
Squats (4 sets instead of the usual 3)
Pullups (pullups with a different grip width, also chin-ups)
Shoulder press (a superset of shoulder press then pushups)
Set of 15/12/10 reps (set of 12/10/8 reps with the last set being heavier than usual)


The answer is no! If your muscles are sore, congratulations, you’ve done a great workout and really taxed your muscles. The soreness is a sign that they’re still in recovery mode. So let them recover fully before you train that muscle group again. You can still do a workout, just focus on muscle groups that are not sore. For example, if your chest is sore, do a legs and core strength workout.

If you’re looking for a personal trainer in London (within tube zones 1-3) to help you build muscle in 2023, get in touch!

(Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and an online nutrition coach.)

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