The Pyramid of Muscle Gains


People can get very particular about things that are important to them. I am no exception. But it seems as if nobody gets quite so particular about insignificant details as when it comes to building muscle, being strong and getting leaner.

This isn’t their fault: the internet is an excellent tool for discovering loads of new information. What’s lacking is a sense of perspective. Newer lifters (and some more experienced ones) lack the framework that gives context to new knowledge. I think it should be obvious to everyone that some things matter more than others – I also think that this framework need not be too complicated. Therefore I present my pyramid of muscle gains:

The Pyramid of Muscle Gains

At this point I should point out I’ve never claimed to be a graphic designer.

My pyramid is made up of mostly trapezoidal bricks stacked in layers (because it’s 2D and easier to draw that way). Each brick contains a factor – a thing you can do or an effort you can make that will move you closer to your goal. Pyramids are collections of layers; each layer stands on a larger one below it. In my universe the level in which the brick is found denotes how important it is: bricks near the top of the pyramid are less important, and bricks near the bottom are more important. This is because each layer is needed for the one above to stand on. Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of possible factors – the bricks give examples of things of similar relative importance.

Now as I see it, gaining muscle and accomplishing those associated cool goals are composed of three elements: training, nutrition and recovery. The Pyramid of Muscle Gains is divided into these three sections, and each contributes a brick to each layer. It’s crucial to realize that things you do or efforts you make are hierarchical – some should come before others. That isn’t to say, though, that doing cardio is useless unless you’re sleeping 8 hours per night: what it means is that you get more muscle and strength gains from bigger bricks, so you should take care of those first.

Something should be obvious to anyone who has spent any amount of time talking to gym bros: a lot of the things people seem to obsess over are towards the top of the pyramid, especially supplements and isolation/accessory exercises. Also note that, in general, the items towards the bottom of the pyramid are things you do more often. That is to say, you sleep more often than you do cardio, and you do cardio more often than you get a massage. When I say things like “lift weights” and “sleep 8 hours/night”, habit is implied. It’s more effective to go to the gym in a simplistic yet consistent manner than to go in a clever yet sporadic manner.

If I’d thought to do it, the way I would have drawn this pyramid four years ago would probably look different to this one. I’m sure also that in four more years I might draw it another way still, and think I was stupid for ever doing it this way. People I know and work with might well disagree with me over what order I put a few of the bricks in (and I admit the decisions are complex). But the basics will always be the same: consistent hard work that gets harder over time, plus plenty of protein and other calories, plus good rest and cardiovascular health equals the majority of muscle gain. A great way to never progress is to have a workout routine that’s complicated and includes every small exercise you can imagine, prioritize supplements over good food, and not bother about your sleep, stress or cardio.

The triangle I drew had to be roughly equilateral to be able to fit enough text into it. But the real pyramid of gains – where the area of each brick corresponds to what proportion of muscle gain comes from that factor – would be much wider and much flatter. I estimate 80% of its area would be included within the bottom two rows.

Practical Message

On your quest to maximize your muscle and minimize your fat – a quest we’re all on ultimately – get yourself organized in the order shown in the pyramid. Get the bottom level sorted first, then the second, and so on. Don’t skip ahead, because it’s inefficient, and there are no prizes for effort. You can worry about the more advanced stuff when you’ve got everything below it nailed. Of course, certain parts of the pyramid rest on assumptions – you can’t lift well or productively if you don’t know how to move properly. You can’t eat enough of each type of nutrient without knowing how much “enough” is. These things are more complicated, and a story for another time.