Struggling to Put On Lean Mass? Don’t Give Up.

Nearly everyone can build a significant amount of muscle, even you. If you’re struggling to do so, it’s probably because you’re not focusing on the right things.

There’s a huge body of scientific research that illuminates the most important elements of training, nutrition, and lifestyle to support muscle growth – we’ve read most of it. With a little perseverance and the right strategy, you absolutely can get on track and get jacked.

On this page I’ll walk you through some of the most powerful steps you can take by way of sharing a case study on how we helped one of our clients pump up his gains. Let’s get into it!

EBA Client Case Study: Erwin

That’s Erwin in the picture up above. He’s jacked. But, he didn’t look that way when we started working together. His transformation has been incredible.

Hubba… hubba… right?!?!?!

To get started, we created a two-part program for Erwin, Phase 1) fat loss emphasis followed by Phase 2) muscle gain emphasis. In this case study, I’m going to focus on the latter. Click over to our fat loss page if you’re more interested in that topic. Ok, let’s dive into how Erwin packed on all that lean mass.


Exercise is the big lever for building muscle. I know some of you may spend inordinate amounts of time in the gym without achieving anything close to what Erwin has accomplished though, so let’s talk through the most important elements of training for building muscle. It honestly doesn’t require being in the gym all day. In fact, Erwin averaged 4 – 5 workouts per week at about 1 hour per session.

Lifting Weights

No big shocker, but lifting weights is THE key training element for building muscle. Where most people go astray though is with their lifting program. You may have heard a bro or two in the gym mention that you have to use sets of 8-12 reps to build muscle. It turns out that isn’t true, and blindly following that advice may lead you to a dead end.

The truth is, sets of 8-12 can work, but so can more reps and perhaps surprisingly, so can fewer reps. There is no magic number of reps to optimize your muscle building efforts. The magic is in something called training volume. Volume is the number of sets times the number of reps you lift in a session. So, if you do 5 sets of 3 reps of back squats, your squat volume is 5 x 3 = 15. 6 sets of 5 reps of pull ups is 6 x 5 = 30. Make sense?

Now, researchers have conducted studies on experienced lifters with wide-ranging volumes and found a total daily volume of 42-66 per muscle group is the sweet spot. Lifters that did less achieved 43% less muscle gains. AND, lifters that lifted more did just as poorly as those that lifted the least!

Now, depending on how much you’re lifting today, jumping straight to that sweet spot might not be the right move, but keep it in mind as a target to build toward. In the peak of Erwin’s bulking protocol, most of his training days featured volume in that sweet spot range. Below you can see a single training session where he was going 10 reps of 6 sets of incline bench press for a daily volume of 60 reps.

There’s a lot more you can optimize, like your lifting split, the specific movements you’re doing, etc. but start with volume. Don’t worry about those other training variables until you get volume dialed in.

What About Cardio?

When emphasizing muscle gains, we reduced Erwin’s cardio – something he had been doing regularly during his initial fat loss phase. Cardio combined with lifting is known in scientific literature as concurrent training. There’s a lot of research on the topic, most of which indicates the more cardio you do, the harder it is to build muscle. The plot below is an example I marked up from one such study.

So, if building muscle truly is your top priority, let your cardio take a back seat. You can always pick it back up after you’ve made significant gains like Erwin and want to prioritize fat loss or recomposition.


The two biggest nutritional factors for bulking are protein and total calories.


You can definitely build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but can’t do either optimally at the same time. This is why we approached Erwin’s transformation in two phases. First, we cut the fat and got him lean. Then we focused on bulking. To optimize bulking, it’s all about eating calories in slight excess of your daily maintenance amount. There’s a lot that goes into this. I’ve written elsewhere about how you can determine your maintenance level. Click here to subscribe to my series, Fat Loss is Simple for more details (part 3 walks you through the calculation).


Protein needs vary from person to person. A rule of thumb, shared by bros everywhere, is to consume 1g of protein per pound of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 200lbs, that’d be 200g of protein a day. Weigh 150lbs? Then, 150g of protein. On this topic, as demonstrated in this study of experienced lifters, it turns out the bros are right.

It is possible your personal needs are less that the amount dictated by this simple rule of thumb, perhaps as low as 0.75g per pound of bodyweight, but unless you have access to the equipment the researchers used to conduct the above study, or have done a ton of personal experimentation, it’s best to target 1g / lb for best results.

A few exceptions to this are:

  • If you’re not already fairly lean you can bias these numbers down to your total lean mass instead of body weight.
  • If you’re a female, you can bias toward the lower end of this spectrum.
  • If you’re 50+ years old, you may want to bias toward the top end, it appears we need more protein as we age to elicit the same effects.


Here’s a snapshot of Erwin’s macros during a random week of his bulking phase.

Before you ask, carbs and fats can play a role in training and recovery, but for bulking they are far less important than total calories and protein. So work on those first, worry about the rest later.

One last thing, if someone at some point in time convinced you that eating this much protein can be harmful for your kidneys, I recommend you check out this excellent, science-based article on the topic.


Don’t forget that recovery is an essential part of building muscle. In the gym you apply the stimulus that leads to muscle growth. But, it’s outside of the gym is when the real work of building all that new muscle tissue occurs. If your recovery isn’t on point, your results will be diminished. So… Sleep. Stay hydrated. Vary your diet so you get plenty of micronutrients. Minimize other stressors in your life. I know some of that seems woo-woo, but it makes a real difference.

For Erwin we were tracking his sleep, HRV, water intake and other factors that influence recovery to ensure he was getting the biggest bang for the efforts he put in at the gym.

Building Muscle: Key Points

  • Volume is the most important training variable. Pay close attention to your sets x reps each week.
  • Cardio interferes with building muscle, minimize it during a bulking phase.
  • Losing fat and building muscle can happen at the same time, but not optimally. Eat at a slight caloric surplus to maximize your muscle gains without adding fat.
  • Protein needs vary from person to person, but 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is a good target unless you have a preexisting health condition.
  • Lifestyle and recovery factors are very important, don’t write off good sleep habits, adequate hydration, and balanced nutrition.

Educate Yourself Further

There’s a tendency for lifters to put the cart before the horse. To ignore the basics above and focus on the sexier, more technical topics. Those are also the lifters struggling to make significant progress. Master the basics first, trust me. If you do want to dive deeper though, below are some of our article and podcast episodes you may find useful.

Relevant Evidence Based Athlete® Articles

Relevant Episodes from Our Strength & Scotch Podcast

Don’t use “bulking” as an excuse to pack on a bunch of fat, lean gains are the way to go.

Check Out Episode 253

Everything you need to know to use creatine for maximizing your muscle gains.

Check Out Episode 218

If you want to optimize your training volume to maximize gains, your lifting split matters. 

Check Out Episode 267

Super Size Your Gains With Our Help

Erwin is just one example of an Evidence Based Athlete client that packed on some serious muscle. We’re far from a one trick pony. Ty and Mona (pictured below) are two other great examples. Fun fact, Mona competed at the CrossFit Games.

1:1 Coaching

We work closely with a small group of clients like Erwin, Ty and Mona that want to leverage the countless hours we’ve spent reading research, tracking data, experimenting with clients and delivering results. If that interests you. If you’ve been struggling to build the muscle mass you want. If you want accountability. If you want an evidence-based strategy tailored to you and your genetic predispositions. We can help.

More of a Do It Yourselfer?

If you’re not ready to make an investment in your gains, but still want to make sure you’re taking the right steps to optimize muscle growth in your own training, diet and life, click below to download the Evidence Based Athlete: Max Muscle Checklist. It outlines the small handful of steps that have the biggest impact on your future gains.