Yes and no. Asking whether you can build muscle at home requires you to answer a few questions yourself first, before a definite answer can be given.
Short answer though: yes, it is definitely possible, in some cases. As a rule of thumb, beginners have a lot more muscle to gain with home exercises than the more seasoned bodybuilders. Also, there are a lot more factors at play, that all have an effect on the amount of muscle and strength you can put on. In addition to working out, diet and sleep are two of the most important such factors. I call these three the Holy Trinity of Building Muscle. You heard it first here.
KEYNOTEBeginners have a higher chance of being succesful at building muscle at home. Building muscle at home and in general involves at least three important factors, namely diet, training and sleep.
In general, the less dumbbells you have touched in your life, the better chances you have to succeed with gaining significant amounts of muscle and strength at home. But never forget that the Holy Trinity is at play. So, let’s start from the beginning. If you have decided to avoid the overcrowded and way too expensive local gym of yours and put on some fresh homegrown muscle, let’s break down what makes muscle grow in the first place.
Eat, sleep, train, repeat.
Generally speaking, when you are trying to gain muscle, your body will respond best when your workout program, diet and sleep-wake rhythm are properly in place. We will have plenty of time to discuss the training part, but it is important to realize that if you truly want to build muscle at home, it is going to take more than only resistance training.
Especially the eating part of building muscle is in my humble opinion the biggest contributor to your success. Your diet is such an important factor to account for, qualitatively as well as quantitively.
We will not go into too much detail now – we will do that later, I promise – but there is some basic stuff you should know about. If you have come even this far reading the article, I’m going to go on a whim and assume you are a beginner with very little previous experience lifting weights. That is a good thing, since there is a lot of ground to be won, just by remembering a few rules of thumb regarding your diet.
Diet for building muscle at home
There are people that track every gram of protein, fat and carbohydrates (collectively called macros) and believe that is the only way to get maximum results from your lifting efforts. And there are people like me, who never counted a single calorie in their lives. Of course, anything in between exists as well. There really is no right or wrong here, it is just a matter of personal preference.
However, if you are beginner, there is no need to concern yourself with counting macros, just yet. The reason for this is that as a beginner, you are going to spend way too much time on a gram of fat fewer or more here and there, instead of spending that time and energy in a more efficient way. This is a beginners pitfall and can lead to demotivation in the long run. When it comes to building muscle as a beginner, diet follows the 80/20 rule where 20% of your efforts deliver 80% of the results.
That said, what should you eat then?
As a general rule of thumb, do not count macros, but instead follow two simple rules:
- Eat healthy
- Increase your protein intake
Now, the first rule is not too hard to follow. Eat wholefoods. Get your veggies in. Lay off the junk food (but allow yourself to live a little, every once in a while). Yada yada.
The second rule is important for muscle growth. The amount of protein you take in has a significant effect on your ability to build muscle. This is the only macro you need to keep an eye on. But still, no counting.
So why should you watch over your protein intake, but not the other macros? That is because if you adhere to rule 1, the amount of fats and carbohydrates you consume will be around the proper numbers. However, people will almost always eat suboptimal amounts of protein with a regular diet to actually build muscle mass.
How to adhere to rule 2? Just make sure you include protein-rich foods. Here is a non-exhaustive list to help you on your way:
- Chicken Breast
- Cottage Cheese
- Greek Yogurt
- Lean Beef
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Turkey Breast
- Brussels Sprouts
Make sure you include these types of foods, and more protein-rich foods, in your diet and you will not have to concern yourself with counting anything. And there is plenty more to choose from.
How much to eat to build muscle at home?
Depending on your goal (which is to build muscle, i.e. gain weight) you should always aim for a calorie surplus, meaning you eat more in a day than you burn. But if counting calories is off limits, how would you even know if you are in a surplus?
That’s easy. If you eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. Just let the scale tell you if you are in a surplus. Just don’t overdo it with the food. You ideally aim for about 1 to 2 lbs of weight gain per month to stay lean and minimize fat gain. Ease into it with the amount of food you consume and adjust weekly. If you don’t see the scale go up, eat slightly more the next week. If you gain too much, eat slightly less. It just takes a little trial & error to hit that sweet spot. But as soon as you do, you are well on your way to build some muscle at home.
Types of exercises to build muscle at home
Now to the fun part – putting in the sweaty work. Exercises come in all different shapes and sizes. An important distinction is compound vs. isolation exercises. You’ll want to include compounds in your workout program as much as possible. Isolations are mostly “extra”.
Compound vs. isolation exercises
What is the difference between compound and isolation movements?
In short, compound exercises use multiple joints to complete a movement. Take for example push-ups. To complete a push-up you need to rotate around two joints in your arm, namely the shoulder and the elbow. Two joints are more than one, which makes the push-up a compound movement.
Because multiple joints are involved in a compound movement, multiple muscles must be working together as well. This is simply the way muscles work. If you do push-ups, you are using at least two muscle groups in a major way, being the chest and triceps (there are actually more muscles involved, but I want to keep it simple for now).
Isolation movements involve a single joint. These types of exercises isolate a singular muscle. Hence, the name. Think of a biceps curl. The only joint involved in the movement is the elbow. The muscle that is being isolated is the biceps. Isolation movement are in essence simpler than compound movements.
Thinking exercise: Try to figure out if the squat is a compound movement by thinking about the movement and the amount of joints at play. And what about triceps extensions?
The fact that a compound movement requires multiple muscles to be working at the same time and in coordination, is exactly the strength of the exercise. It requires more strength and coordination and these types of excercises are typically more complex when compared to isolation. That is also the exact reason you want to stick to compound exercises as much as possible. Think 80/20. Compound exercises yield the best results for building muscle, by far.
KEYNOTECompound exercises invole multiple joints and muscles and are typically harder and more complex. Stick to compound exercises as much as possible for maximal gains.
Volume and frequency
Aside from sticking to compounds, an important driver in your workout program for building muscle at home, is progressive overload. Progressive overload means constantly challenging your muscle to lift heavier and heavier weights. This leads to microscopic muscle damage, repair and subsequent muscle hypertrophy. The latter is what leads to increased muscle size and strength. Progressive overload is key to making this happen.
The only way of progressively overloading your muscles to stimulate growth is by increasing volume as you progress. The volume for a specific exercise is weight x repetitions (reps). If you can manage to increase volume over time, you will get bigger and stronger. A small note is the rep range. You’ll want to stay between 6 and 12 reps per exercise. If you can manage 12, you need to either increase the weight or exercises difficulty, so that you will not be able to do more than 12 (but at least 6). For beginners, your own bodyweight will be sufficient. As you progress you may want to think about purchasing some weights for your new home gym.
Also, be sure to rest between 60 and 90 seconds inbetween sets.
KEYNOTEVolume = weight x repetitions. Increasing volume over time and staying in the 6 to 12 rep range is key to stimulating muscle growth and get bigger and stronger. This is called progressive overload.
4 exercises you can do at home to build muscle
There a few compound exercises that must be part of your home routine. Similarly to powerlifting, where the big four (being squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press) are the core part of the entire routine, so does working out at home require a few exercises that are a must-include to build muscle. The exercises we will discuss here target almost all major muscle groups in your body. That’s what makes them core exercises (not to confuse with exercises that target your core, i.e. abs and lower back).
To keep the exercises accessible – especially since you are probably a beginner – the four exercises listed out for you below, do not require a single piece of equipment, aside from maybe a pullup bar (since you may not have a convenient bar around the house you can pull yourself up from). Also, these exercises are very basic, and not too hard to properly execute. Make good form always priority number 1. Try to “win” every rep and stop when you cannot perform the exercise in good form any longer. This indicates you have hit your maximum amount of reps.
Now without further ado, below are four exercises that in my honest opinion must be part of your routine to build muscle at home.
How can we not start off with the golden core exercise of every home workout routine. The push-up is excellent because of its simplicity. You can do them literally almost anywhere. Push-ups can help you go a long way in building a big chest and arms. The two major muscle groups that you specifically target with push-ups are the chest and triceps. Push-ups also hit the front deltoids (shoulder muscles) and even your core, since you have to keep a straight back!
When performing a push-up take the following into account:
- Your hand palms should be a little more than shoulder-width apart and in line with your chest. This will result in a 45 degree angle between your rib cage and upper arm. Check this to make sure you are doing it right.
- Always keep a straight back and neck. Don’t let your hips or head hang.
- Extend your arms at the top and touch the floor with your nose. Exploiting the full range of motion is going to help you build that muscle.
Push-ups are also great because of the many possible variations. For instance, you can assume a wide grip, where your palms are further apart, to hit more chest muscle. Or you can opt for a close grip for more triceps work. These variations are mostly increasing in difficulty, so that will give you some room to progress when you surpass the 6 to 12 rep range. Another way to progress is by adding some weight. This can be tricky, and granted, you have to be creative. Think out of the box: let your little brother sit on your back while you perform push-ups, for example.
Works muscle groups: chest, triceps, front deltoids (front of the shoulders)
Progressive overload: with variations and adding weight in a creative way
Pull-ups are one of the bodyweight exercises that often don’t require extra weight or variations to make difficult. That is why this is an excellent exercises to build muscle at home. Pull-ups are not as accessible as other bodyweight exercises, since you need a bar, or at the very least something sturdy to hang from. In addition, unless you’re genetically gifted or have experience with weight training in the past, most beginners can’t even do a single pull-up. This is especially the case if you’re carrying some fat. On the upside though, this will give you plenty of progressive overload potential.
Because most people do not have access to a convenient bar at home to perform pull-ups, it is wise to make a small investment in a pull up bar you can attach to your doorframe. Amazon offers a variety of pull-up bars starting from as low as 10 dollars. There are two types of pull-up bars: ones to permanently attach to one of your doorframes and mobiles one. To make matters easy, I selected one in each category for you. These are in my opinion the best bang for your buck. Relatively cheap, but really good.
Mobile pull-up bar
If you do not want to mess up your doorframe permanently or want to try pull-ups in different places around the house, go for the mobile pull-up bar. The Iron Age Pull-Up Bar is an excellent choice for a relatively low price. This bar is high quality and won’t mess up your doorframe.
Click on the image below to check the specs.
If you want to go fully engulf yourself in the home fitness lifestyle and are ready to create a permanent pull-up spot, go for the bar that is screwed into your doorway. The Garren Fitness Maximiza Pull Up Bar is in that case my favorite. Cheap, neat and high quality.
Click on the image below to check the specs.
Choose the one that fits your needs. Pull-ups are essential. Make the investment. Thank me later.
The two major muscle groups you’re targeting with pull-ups are the lats (the major muscles on the back) and biceps. The rear deltoids (back of the shoulders) are targeted as well.
Like with every other exercises, pull-ups require you to pay attention to form:
- Start from a dead hang and pull yourself up until your head is completely above the bar. Make use of the full range of motion for maximal muscle growth.
- If the bar you’re pulling from is high enough, extend your legs completely and do not move them during the exercise. Do not kick your feet up to gain momentum, that’s cheating. Concentrate on using your back and arms to pull yourself up. If the bar is too low to extend your legs, you can fold them back at a 90 degree angle, but keep them steady at all times.
As mentioned, most beginners will struggle with even a couple of pull-ups. It is recommended though to be able to perform at least 6 pull-ups per set to make significant progress in building muscle. If you can’t do at least 6 pull-ups on your own, assist yourself during the pull-up with a resistance band. This will help to knock those 6 pull-ups out until you are able to do them on your own (which will be soon, I promise).
Works muscle groups: lats (back), biceps, rear deltoids (back of the shoulders)
Progressive overload with adding weight
3. Bulgarian split squats
Never skip leg day. Not even when you are working out at home. Or better yet, especially when you are working out at home, since your legs are far easier to ignore at home than in the gym.
The tricky part of working out legs at home is that you need a lot of resistance (i.e. weight) to challenge the muscles. Your legs are just so damn strong. In the gym it’s easy. Just slap some extra weight on the bar when squatting and your progressive overload is good to go. However, as you can imagine, this does not necessarily apply for working out at home (unless you have access to a home gym).
It is far from impossible to build strong legs, however. The Bulgarian split squat is an amazing example. First of all, the exercise works one leg at a time, making the exercise twice as hard compared to a double leg exercise like the squat. Second, there are tons of things around the house that are heavy enough to make progressive overload possible. You do not even have to be creative as to where to put the weight; you can just hold it in your hand. Think: toolbox, heavy books, crates with heavy stuff etc. These are all things that can make the exercise harder and build you muscle.
The Bulgarian split squat targets primarily the quadriceps (front side of the legs), hamstrings (rear side of the legs) and glutes (butt muscles). Your core is activated as well and receives some proper stimulus from this exercise.
As to how to perform the Bulgarian split squat, this YouTube video explains best. The bench is replaceable with anything that has an appropriate height (couch, small table, bed etc).
You can do variations on this exercise by standing closer to the bench (or bed or whatever) – this will target more of the quadriceps – or by standing farther away – this will target more of your hamstrings. Adding weight is easy. As mentioned eaerlier, just hold some heavy stuff in your hands.
Works muscle groups: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes
Progressive overload with variations and adding weight
After the exercises we have discussed until now, there is one group that remains relatively untrained. Although the core is activated and trained in almost any compound exercise (and certainly the exercises we discussed above), it is recommended to target the core directly as well when you are trying to build muscle at home. I am not going to dive into the details of the importance of a strong core, there are more than enough online resources available (I will write soon about this subject, though). For now just remember that you will not only look awesome with a six pack, but it is also going to help you make all kinds of gains.
The plank is an amazing and convenient exercise that you can do anywhere. A few pointers to remember when doing the plank:
- This exercise is called the plank, not the tower bridge or the mountain. So make sure your body is as straight as possible. Squeeze your glutes while you’re at it. This will not only prevent lower back injuries, but also contributes to the essence of the exercise. If you do not keep your body straight, you will not work your abs optimally.
- During the plank it’s easy to instinctively hold your breath. Do not do this! Remember to breath in a normal rhythm.
Works muscle groups: core (abs and lower back)
Progressive overload by extending the holding time
Congratulations! With these four killer exercises you are already well on your way to build muscle at home. Of course, there is a lot – and I mean a lot – more to working out at home. But don’t worry. Keep an eye out for new blog posts and we will discuss everything you need to know to build muscle at home!