You’ve recently started lifting, and can’t help but wonder whether a 3-day muscle building workout is sufficient for you to see gains. The reality is that muscle building is a complex process that takes time.
Designing an effective full body workout plan requires a deep understanding of how muscle-building works. In this article, we’ll answer the most important questions, including how long it takes for you to see progress once you’ve started lifting. We’ll also include a sample 3 days a week muscle building workout to get you started.
Sample 3 Days A Week Muscle Building Workout
The push/pull/leg split routine is one of the most often utilized three-day splits. Within these sessions, you may concentrate on working out your upper body, lower body, and major muscle groups (10).
This is a fantastic workout for people who are just getting started since it’s simple to do with minimal equipment (barbells and dumbbells are sufficient). It also assists you to achieve better results from strength training than traditional exercise routines.
The 3 day push/pull workout routine should be completed as follows:
Day One – Chest, triceps, and deltoids push exercises:
This day includes bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, dips etc.
Day Two – back, biceps, and forearms pull exercises:
These include pull ups (underhand grip), chin ups (overhand grip), curls, deadlifts etc.
Day Three – quads, hamstrings, calves and leg exercises:
This includes squats, leg press, hack squat machine exercises.
How Do Muscles Grow?
Putting more stress on your muscles is the only way to make them grow. Continuous stress on the muscles triggers three main mechanisms of muscle growth.
Muscle Tension: The First Mechanism Of Muscle Growth
The first mechanism that leads to muscle growth is called “muscle tension” (9). It’s the basis for everything else that follows and it has a profound effect on how we respond to exercise.
Let’s say you’re lifting weights. With every rep, your muscles lengthen and then return to their normal resting length. During the negative phase of the rep, or eccentric contraction, your muscles are actively producing force to control the descent of the weight. This is when you’re feeling more tired than on the positive movement, or concentric contraction.
Muscle tension isn’t just about lifting weights—it’s present in all forms of exercise. For example, when you run or jump, your muscles develop tension during the landing phase and then release it to achieve a positive movement in the air. The muscle contraction and relaxation cycle is key for building muscle:
As you can see, muscle tension development is greatest when there’s sufficient time under tension (TUT).
Muscle Damage: The Second Mechanism Of Muscle Growth
Even small tears temporarily reduce the strength of the muscle, but they also trigger important cellular repair processes that lead to bigger and stronger muscles through a process called “protein synthesis” (9).
Muscle damage is more common with high-rep training (8+ reps), especially when paired with low rest periods between sets. It’s why bodybuilders often perform supersets, which are two exercises back to back without any rest.
Muscle damage is also part of the reason why you might feel “sore” after your first few workouts. It takes several workouts for you to develop a tolerance to the muscle-building process, which is known as “accommodation.”
Metabolic Stress: The Third Mechanism Of Muscle Growth
The third mechanism of muscle growth is called “metabolic stress.” It’s not about tearing muscle fibers or exerting maximum force—it’s more about the accumulation of metabolites including lactate, hydrogen ions, and inorganic phosphate (9).
As you’re training, your muscles are using ATP for energy. As this happens, waste products called “metabolites” accumulate which causes the burn you feel at the end of a set.
Metabolic stress is increased when you exercise in a carbohydrate depleted state and when you train at high reps. When your muscles lack carbohydrates, their ability to produce ATP is inhibited and this leads to the accumulation of waste products (9).
The benefit of metabolic stress is similar to muscle tension: There’s increased damage to muscle fibers which triggers protein synthesis for bigger and stronger muscles.
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How Do Hormones Affect Muscle Growth?
The stimulus of muscle growth is more attributed to mechanical forces rather than hormonal factors. However, some hormones do limit the potential for muscle growth while others accelerate the process.
Testosterone plays a significant role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy by increasing protein synthesis. It also increases levels of IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1), which is anabolic to skeletal muscles (9).
Growth hormone (GH) also increases protein synthesis and stimulates the production of IGF-1 (9). When GH is injected, it actually can act synergistically with testosterone to boost muscle growth!
These hormones are important in promoting muscle growth, although they play a more “permissive” role than anything else.
How Fast Can You Gain Muscle?
The amount of muscle you can actually gain and how quickly is determined by many factors including genetics, diet, training, and hormones. And your starting body composition may also be an important factor to consider (4).
Generally speaking, you can gain around 30-40 pounds of muscle in your first year of weight training if everything goes right (4).
Why Is Rest Important For Building Muscles?
Your muscles need time to recover between workouts because this is when they actually repair and strengthen themselves. Without recovery time, it’s impossible for them to grow bigger and stronger.
Here’s what happens when you lift weights: You damage muscle fibers and this stimulates protein synthesis (which is your body producing new proteins to build new, bigger muscles). Protein synthesis stays elevated for about 48 hours after training before it returns back down to normal levels.
It’s during the recovery period that your muscles actually grow larger and stronger. Without enough rest, protein synthesis won’t be able to do its job and your muscles won’t grow (9).
Another important thing to mention is that when you lift weights, you actually damage more than just muscle fibers—you also damage the surrounding connective tissue (9).
Your body responds by laying down new collagen in order to help support and strengthen this tissue. This process takes longer than the 48 hours of protein synthesis to complete, which means you need even more rest time in order to allow your muscles to recover from not only muscle damage but also connective tissue damage (9).
Cardio And Muscle Gain
There’s a common belief that aerobic exercise can hurt your efforts to gain muscle mass. This is true to a certain extent because aerobic exercise does burn calories which is needed for muscle growth.
However, aerobic activity only burns a small percentage of your daily calories. And if you do it in the post-workout period when your body is already in an anabolic state, then aerobic exercise can actually be beneficial for muscle building (8).
What To Eat To Gain Muscle?
The biggest mistake most people make when trying to gain muscle is in not eating enough.
Here’s what you need to know: It takes a lot of food and hard work to gain muscle. When you’re deficient in calories, this causes a decrease in protein synthesis—and the only way to get it back up is by consuming more food.
How Much Should You Eat To Build Muscle?
A Calorie Surplus Is Essential For Building Muscle
This means that your energy intake needs to be higher than your energy expenditure and it is important not to err on the side of caution and overeat.
However, eating an overabundance of food will only lead to unnecessary fat gain which can negate any muscle gains you may experience.
Accordingly, having a calorie surplus between 20-25% should be sufficient for most people (5).
For those who wish to cut or lose weight as well as build muscle, there are no hard and fast rules but typically the smaller the calorie deficit the slower muscle growth will occur due to a decrease in amino acid uptake by your muscles fibers. Thus, maintaining a moderate calorie surplus would seem optimal.
The bottom line is if you are not gaining weight (i.e. mass) then you are not eating enough and if your weight is going up too quickly, then chances are you’re eating too much.
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What Is The Correct Macronutrient Ratio For Bodybuilding?
When trying to build muscle, it is particularly important to regularly consume much needed macro nutrients like high-quality proteins, complex carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Protein – 2g Per Kg Of Bodyweight
A high-protein diet is necessary to support the muscle-building process.
Your muscles are made up of approximately 20% protein and the rest is water, glycogen and fats (5).
The latter 3 components can be manipulated if necessary by making appropriate adjustments to your diet and exercise regime but getting enough high-quality proteins will always remain a priority.
Protein is known as the building block of muscle and plays an integral role in all body functions including growth, repair; hormone secretion; blood clotting etc.
Some ideal protein sources for a muscle-building diet include:
- Fatty fish
- Lean beef
- Plain low-fat yogurt
- Chicken breast
- Egg whites
- Whey protein powder
Complex Carbohydrates – 3-4g Per Kg Of Bodyweight
Complex carbs are used to provide fuel for your muscles both before, during and after training. This is important because it stimulates muscle growth. Carbs also play a significant role in the regulation of anabolic hormones like testosterone, IGF-1 and insulin which are responsible for initiating the muscle-building process by interacting with cellular proteins (2). The result? More efficient repair and growth of muscle fibers.
While simple sugars should be avoided as much as possible, complex carbs are essential so the trick to success is moderation. Examples include:
- Whole grains bread
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
Healthy Fats – 1g Per Kg Of Bodyweight
Healthy fats are necessary for optimal health and should be incorporated into your diet, particularly if you want to build muscle.
Fats provide the body with energy, which is important to fuel intense workouts; help maintain healthy hormone levels; support cell development; improve nutrient absorption and cushion internal organs among other things (6).
Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) like omega 3&6 are especially useful as they promote cardiovascular health, regulate hormones, decrease inflammation and help prevent diseases like arthritis among other things (1).
Some sources of healthy fat include:
- Organic meats
- Fish oil supplements
- Nuts & seeds
How Often Should You Eat To Build Muscle?
In order for muscles to grow, the body requires a sufficient supply of energy.
If you fail to feed your hungry muscles then they will begin burning off muscle tissue in order to provide themselves with enough energy and this is not what we want if we wish to build muscle and lose fat.
Thus, eating every two or three hours combined with intense exercise should be optimal for keeping your blood sugar levels constant throughout the day while simultaneously providing your body with enough energy to build strong muscles.
Tips For Gaining Muscle
Here are some extra considerations you should make while taking up a 3 days a week muscle building workout program after long rest:
Choose The Right Amount Of Weight
Stay away from going too heavy or too light. A good rule of thumb is that if you can complete a full set with perfect form and still have a little bit of gas in the tank, then it’s probably a good weight to use.
Choose The Right Exercises
Focus on compound exercises because these will help you gain the most muscle. You want to train your whole body and hit all major muscle groups (7).
Incorporate lifts that work multiple muscles at once such as squats, deadlifts, rows, bench press, military presses, etc. These are much more effective than exercises involving just one muscle group such as bicep curls or calf raises.
This is not to say that isolation exercises are not good. In fact, they are the best to do when you’re feeling less energetic and need to work out without focusing on all your muscle groups at a time.
This is very important—training too often can cause stagnation and actually prevent you from gaining any new muscle mass. The rule here is to do no more than 4 workouts per week, with at least a day or two of rest in between.
Make sure to set priorities and include the most important exercises in your workout routine. If you’re unsure, err on the side of fewer workouts since you can always do more once your gains start coming in faster.
For gaining muscle, sleep becomes even more important than it is for the average person.
You need to get 7-9 hours of quality shuteye so your body can maximize protein synthesis while you’re sleeping and recover from your workouts (3).
If you’re struggling to get quality sleep, try some of these sleep hygiene practices:
- Don’t train too close to bedtime. Make sure to wind down before bed by staying away from intense workouts and stressful activities.
- Incorporate relaxation exercises such as meditation or yoga into your daily routine.
- Change up your sleeping environment by making it warmer, cooler, or darker to suit your preference
- Avoid eating just before bedtime
- Limit your screen time in the evening
The Bottom Line
There are nearly an infinite number of factors that influence muscle growth and thus can affect how quickly you gain muscle.
However, as you can see, the basics remain the same no matter what: lift progressively heavier weights; eat plenty of healthy whole foods; and get enough sleep. To get you started, use the simple push/pull workout routines for muscle building 3 days a week.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods- a review (2014, nih.gov)
- Hormonal response to lipid and carbohydrate meals during the acute postprandial period (2011, nih.gov)
- How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? (2021, sleepfoundation.org)
- How Muscle Grows (2017, acefitness.org)
- Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training (2019, nih.gov)
- REGULATION OF FAT METABOLISM DURING EXERCISE (n.d., gssiweb.org)
- Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy (2015, nih.gov)
- Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy after Aerobic Exercise Training (2015, nih.gov)
- The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training (2010, lww.com)
- The Push/Pull/Legs Routine for Muscle Gains (n.d., aston.ac.uk)