The Best Ways for Guys to Build Muscle

The Best Ways for Guys to Build Muscle

The Best Ways for Guys to Build Muscle

Harley Pasternak is a great trainer. Just ask GP. Or Robert Downey Jr. Or half of Hollywood’s action stars, who turn to Pasternak to get in shape to flip cars, knock out aliens, or save the world. That’s because Pasternak makes smart and efficient plans to build muscle that consider his clients’ diet, age, and body shape. He says that for guys, building muscle is, yes, about the way you work out—and he gives us some tips here on that account. But he also says the other 90 percent of the time is nothing to mess around with. Just as important, when you’re in beach-prep mode, is a lifestyle that works with you for both the short term and the long haul: regular activity, plenty of sleep, high-quality protein, and—stay with us—a healthy detachment from your favorite tech.

A Q&A with Harley Pasternak, MSc

What are the main principles of building muscle?

The overload principle and general adaptation syndrome:

You need to give your body enough stimulation to challenge the muscles and force them to adapt. The basis of this is something called the GAS, or general adaptation syndrome. Dr. Hans Selye was nominated for a Nobel Prize many years ago for coming up with this theory: When you expose an organism to a stimulus, it needs to physiologically adapt to that stressor to overcome it. That’s how muscle building works; we become stronger to adapt to the stress we put on our body.

Here’s another way to think about it: If I were to call you and say, “Hey, your house is on fire,” you would freak out; your heart would race. Then I would say, “Just kidding.” And then the next day, if I called you and said it again, you’d get upset again, but less upset than the first day. Then I would say, “Just kidding,” again. And if I did the same thing on a third day, you likely wouldn’t get upset at all, because you’d have adapted to the stimulus of me giving you a false fear.

It’s the same thing with your body and working out. Which leads us to the overload principle: If you give the body the right amount of stimulus, it will adapt to the stimulus over time either by hypertrophy, which is the growth of muscles, or hyperplasia, which is the growth of the number of muscle fibers. If the stimulus is too small—maybe the weight you’re lifting is too light, or you’re not doing enough reps—then it’s not enough for the body to register as a stressor. Meaning your body won’t have anything to adapt to. But if that stimulus is too great, then the body will not be able to adapt and it will experience injury.

The principle of variation:

If you keep giving your body the same kind of stimulation, even if it’s enough to challenge it and stimulate growth, at a certain point, the body will become used to it. And there are only so many hours in a day. There’s only so much weight you can lift and so many reps and sets you can do. You can’t just add more volume. You’d be in the gym for five hours a day—and you’d get injured.

So rather than continuously adding volume, we add variety by changing the number of sets, reps, resistance, the kind of exercises we do, the cadence, the angles, the base. Say we’re working on shoulder presses. Maybe instead of sitting on a bench, we sit on a ball. Instead of sitting at all, we stand. Instead of standing with two legs, we stand with one leg. Constant variety ensures constant development and continuous strength development.

What is the best way to eat in order to build muscle?

The typical protein guideline for maintaining muscle mass is eating around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For people doing resistance exercise and weight training to build strength and muscle, that number increases to 1.3 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you’re 170 pounds—that’s 77 kilograms—you’d need about 62 grams of protein per day for maintenance and 100 to 115 grams of protein per day to build.

But those numbers vary slightly depending on a number of factors.

If someone is a seasoned exerciser, they’re actually more efficient with protein and don’t require quite as much. But if someone’s new to working out, or if they’re trying a new kind of exercise, their protein requirements might go up. So if I’ve been doing Pilates my whole life, and all of a sudden, I’m switching to weight training with dumbbells and barbells, I’m going to need more protein to see results.

As we age, our body also tends to become more protein-efficient, and our protein requirements drop slightly.

Also, eating more does not necessarily mean your body will use more or absorb more. There’s something called the biological value of protein: This ranks protein on a scale of one hundred, based on the percentage of protein your body can actually use. The gold standard of protein is a whole egg; that scores one hundred. Down toward the bottom of the chart, you have things like soy protein, rice protein, and pea protein, which rank as low as sixty-four when eaten alone.1

How does your ability to build muscle change as you age?

There’s less margin for error in your training and in your diet as you get older. So as we age, we should aim for efficiency in weight training; our ability to recover is not the same as it was when we were younger. That means reducing load as well as volume.

When you’re a teenager, it’s okay to give weight training the kitchen-sink approach. You just do as much stuff as you possibly can, and it’s bound to work, and you probably won’t get hurt—and if you get hurt, you’ll bounce back. But as we get older, that isn’t necessarily the case.

When I was younger, I’d work out five days a week with weights, doing two areas of the body for an hour or more. Now with my workout partner—actually, Brad Falchuk, Gwyneth’s husband—we’ll work out three days a week, doing fifteen minutes per body part, and we’ll be more strategic. Right now, we keep changing up our splits. For example, this week, we did a torso, appendage, torso, and other weeks we’ll do upper body pull, upper body push, shoulders, and arms.

What muscle groups should guys focus on?

We should really focus on strengthening our posterior chain more than our anterior chain, especially as we get older. I focus more on rhomboids, triceps, glutes, hamstrings—and a lot less on pecs, biceps, rectus abs, and heavy quad work.

Posterior chain training allows us to function better, have better posture, and reduce our chance of neck, shoulder, and lower back injury. It’s also good for aesthetics; it draws our shoulder blades back. Think about da Vinci’s eternal man—it brings us more into that posture.

I also try to reduce any axial loading. Brad and I were joking the other day: When was the last time we tried to do a barbell back squat? The squat, this iconic movement. The bench press, too, was a staple we would do for thirty or forty minutes on chest day every weekend. Now we might do it for ten minutes once every month and a half.

Harley’s Posterior Chain Workout


Inverted TRX Rows (twenty reps)
Single leg dumbbell deadlifts (twenty reps)
Repeat for five sets


Lying hip thrusts (twenty reps)
Lying dumbbell triceps extensions (twenty reps)
Repeat for five sets

What’s realistic for guys who are smaller or who find it difficult to put on muscle mass?

You really have to understand your body type: ectomorph, endomorph, or mesomorph? Although we almost never fit neatly into those three categories, they can help us understand how our muscle builds. An ectomorph is someone who’s built long and lean. An endomorph is someone who has a higher propensity for gaining body fat. A mesomorph is someone who’s naturally very muscular.

So we take that into account when we’re setting goals. If you’re five-foot-seven and 140 pounds, you shouldn’t expect to put on 80 pounds of muscle. Really, that would be bad for you, and likely impossible. Whereas if you’re six-one, 220, putting on 5 pounds of muscle is realistic.

What are the most important factors in recovering post-workout?

Recovery is about not just what the workouts do to your body but what the rest of life does to your body. The important things to keep in mind are food, sleep, and stress management—and part of that is unplugging from technology for at least an hour a day.

I’m a huge fan of dairy, especially strained yogurt, for recovery because it has not just protein but both fast-acting and slow-acting protein: whey and casein. It’s naturally low in sugar, plus it has calcium, which is vital for healthy muscle function, as well as vitamin D. And the fermentation process for yogurt creates active bacteria that support a healthy gut flora.

As for protein powders, I’m a fan of whey. It’s easy to absorb and mixes seamlessly into smoothies and oatmeal.

That said, pre- and post-workout meals aren’t as important as people think, unless you’re an athlete doing exhausting, high-volume performance training, like a marathon runner or a college football player. The majority of people are training to look and feel good; focus on planning your three meals and two snacks a day, and decide where your workout fits among those, not the other way around.

Just make sure you’re staying hydrated. Our muscles, like the rest of our body, are largely water; it’s an incredibly important factor when building muscle. I have a low- or no-sugar electrolyte beverage like Propel before and during long workouts, especially when I’m in hot environments.

And I use my Fitbit to track my sleep—not just quantity but quality. And it calculates based on my sleep what the ideal time is for me to go to bed and wake up.

Harley Pasternak, MSc, is a trainer and a nutritionist. He has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and nutritional sciences from the University of Toronto, an honors degree in kinesiology from the University of Western Ontario, and certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine and the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology. He has written several books on diet and fitness.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.

1For low-scoring foods, you can maximize their biological value by combining them with other food. This is where contemporary food science meets the traditional wisdom of, for example, eating soy and rice together or beans and corn.