To those of us after beefy amounts of muscle mass, and enough strength to surprise and amaze those watching us, workout systems are an obsession. We analyze - and overanalyze - every small thing we do in the gym.
Refinement and optimization is the goal.
Related - The Best Full Body Workout for Building Muscle
But this obsession with building the perfect workout program can be a trap. We often believe that the small differences between programs are big differentiators. But this is wrong.
We major in the minors. We miss the big picture.
If you are program hopper, jumping from workout to workout, here's a word to the wise. Stop. Programs don't really matter.
Yes, you read that right. If all the major pieces are in place, the program really doesn't matter. Understand what this means though. If you aren't making gains on a reasonable program, it's not the workout at fault. It's you. But I'm here to correct that and help you get on track.
My major pillars of muscle building success are:
Consistency. This is a no-brainer. Miss a lot of workouts, your progress slows. Stay away from the gym for weeks or months at a time, you perpetually spin your wheels.
Progression. Everything you do for the first several years of training revolves around progressive overload. You must get a lot stronger than you are now.
Exercise Selection. Choose the most challenging, high-impact exercises. Seek out easier exercises, you body will reflect this choice. Embrace the difficult and you'll be rewarded.
Make Every Set Count. This isn't something that's stressed very often, but I believe it's an essential. Why bother training if you aren't seeking quality sets? Push every set for as many safe reps as possible. Stop that set when you feel like your form is starting to slip, or if you might fail on the next rep. This approach yields consistent, natural progression of weight, reduced risk of injury, and recruitment of a maximal number of muscle fibers.
Eat Properly. I am not a fan of dirty bulking or overly-aggressive eating. I refuse to detach the aspects of health and fitness from the muscle building process. With that said, a lifter much listen tot heir body and not undereat protein and calories. When you eat clean, protein-rich, healthy foods 80 to 90% of the time, as long as you listen to your body it will be hard to pack on a lot of extra fat while you are building muscle. Just don't purposely undereat/restrict clean foods.
With these precepts in place, nearly any reasonable workout system will work - and work effectively. This elevates a principle that I've preached for quite some time. It's not the workout system that matters as much as how you work it.
This is not to say that refinement and evolution doesn't have it's place. It does. But I am certain that the average lifter could run a sub-par workout routine and make very quality gains by following the five pillars listed above.
So, with all this established, I'm going to show you how to build - and maximize - your own workout program. Let's dive in.
Constructing a Muscle Building Workout
Step 1 - Choosing Cornerstone Exercises
Here are the core essentials.
Squat Variation - Back squats or front squats. Perform one or both on a weekly basis. You can also perform squats multiple times per week.
Deadlift Variation. Floor deadlifts, or deadlifts from 3 or 5" inches off the ground. Perform only one deadlift variation per week.
Vertical Press - At least one weekly vertical press movement. Two max. These variations include barbell and dumbbell overhead presses, performed either seated or standing.
Horizontal Press. At least one weekly horizontal press movement. Two max per week. These include barbell and dumbbell bench press variations. These may be at slight inclines or declines, but preferably not a close grip bench press.
Vertical Pull. At least one vertical pulling movement. Two max per week. These variations include pull-ups, assisted pull-ups, lat pull downs, and inverted rows. Chin-ups are not allowed here. They are move of a bicep-centric exercise.
Horizontal Pull. Perform at least one horizontal pulling movement, also known as rows. Variations include dumbbell and barbell rows, and T-bar rows. One of these movements should be your primary pull. Secondary pulls/rows can also include seated cable rows and machine rows.
Now with the essentials in place, here are some secondary additions that are a must.
Marc Lobliner helps you find the best workout for your goals.
Step 2- Secondary "Musts"
Biceps Exercise. One biceps exercise at minimum. If possible, you want to chose a big hitter here such as barbell curls, dumbbell curls, EZ bar curls, chin-ups, or reverse grip lat pull downs. Other solid choices include machine curls, cable curls, concentration curls, and seated cable curls.
Triceps Exercise. One triceps exercise at minimum. Again, go with a big hitter when possible. These include close grip bench presses, lying triceps extensions, dumbbell skullcrushers, French press, dumbbell triceps extensions, and cable triceps extensions.
Hamstring Exercise. Preferably a top choice here such as Romanian deadlifts, reverse hyper, glute ham raise, or even leg curls.
Step 3 - Optionals
At this point all your physique-building bases have been covered, at least to a minimal degree. Body parts like abs, forearms, and traps have been hit during the major exercises. Does this mean you don't need direct work?
No. This simply means that with the "essentials" and "musts" in place, you can now flesh out your program with whatever work you feel is necessary and or fun. You can also experiment with movements here, learning likes and dislikes and how your body responds.
At this point not everything you do has to be serious or make sense. Heck, this is just fitness. It's not life and death. If you want extra abdominal work, do it. If you want to heavily target your traps, go after it.
Here are the optional body parts:
Step 4 - Special Considerations
Total Sets - For what I consider to be major areas of focus (chest, back, shoulders, and quads), perform 9 to 15 sets per week. How many you do is up to you. These can be broken down into any type of workout plan, from full body to body part split.
Minor areas of focus include biceps, triceps, hamstrings. Perform 6 to 9 sets per week. Optional body parts such as calves, traps, abs, forearms, and rear delts can be hit with 3 to 6 sets, if you feeld this amount of work is warranted.
Reps Per Set - Don't sweat the small stuff, meaning don't obsess over rep ranges. As long as your rep ranges are reasonable, you will grow.
For the big-hitting compound movements, 5-8 reps per set is a decent range. For lower impact, non-isolation exercises I recommend a range of about 8-12 reps per set. You can even take this as high as 15 reps per set, based on how a specific exercise feels and what you enjoy.
Isolation exercises can hover between 10-15 reps per set.
They key thing to remember is that progress is everything. Reps per set doesn't matter as much as how hard you push a set. This brings us to the next point...
Make Sets Count. To maximize the muscle building process, make every set count. Push each set for as many quality reps as possible. Stop a set under only two conditions.
First, if your exercise form starts to break down. Only quality reps here. Live to fight another day. Second, if you feel you might fail on the next rep. There is no need to train to failure.
By pushing sets hard in this manner, you maximize muscle fiber recruitment and (safe) progressive overload. This is the perfect recipe for rapid muscle gains.
Additional Exercise Choices. After your top exercises choices have been picked out, fill in the gaps with machines, cables, isolations, bodyweight movements, or more mild compound exercises. It doesn't really matter which secondary exercises you choose. Have fun, and get as strong as possible on them.
Unilateral Exercises. Unilateral exercises focus on training one side of the body at a time. I prefer to perform this style of exercise in an alternating fashion. For example, when performing the dumbbell bench press, I alternate reps between the left and right side.
Unilateral exercises are excellent choices and provide quality benefits. When attacking only one side at a time, the body is capable of calling into play a greater neurological push to this one side. The result? You can typically move more weight when focusing on one side at a time. More weight equals strength gains and greater potential muscle gains.
I recommend considering one unilateral exercise per body part, per week.
Building an Example Full Body Workout
First we start with our cornerstone exercise choices. Remember, these come down to personal preference. This is a muscle building program, not a powerlifting program, so bench press variations and front squats are welcomed.
Here are the "cornerstone" choices I go with:
Squats - Both back squats and front squats each week.
Deadlifts - Floor deadlifts each week.
Vertical press - Here, I'm choosing a challenging push press, and a slightly more moderate Arnold press with higher reps.
Horizontal press - My choices are the classic bench press, and alternating dumbbell bench press.
Vertical pull - Lat pull downs and assisted pull ups.
Horizontal pull - Dumbbell rows (unilateral) and seated cable rows.
Next, I add in my secondary musts:
Biceps - Seated alternating dumbbell curls (unilateral) and cable EZ bar curls.
Triceps - Lying triceps extensions and single arm overhead extensions (unilateral).
Hamstrings - Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts and single leg curls (unilateral)
Here we have the building blocks of a good full body workout routine. Before we choose any more exercises, let's see where we stand for each body part. The listed sets are personal choice. Remember, the set guidelines were presented earlier.
Back Sets = 13 sets... Deadlifts (2 sets), lat pull downs (3 sets), assisted pull ups (3 sets), dumbbell rows (2 sets), and seated cable rows (3 sets).
Shoulders = 6 sets... Push press (3 sets) and Arnold press (3 sets).
Quads = 6 sets... Squats (3 sets) and front squats (3 sets).
Hamstrings = 7 sets... Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts (3 sets) and leg curls (4 sets).
Biceps = 6 sets... Alternating dumbbell curls (3 sets) and cable EZ bar curls (3 sets).
Triceps = 6 sets... Lying triceps extensions (3 sets) and single arm overhead triceps extensions (3 sets).
As we can see, more chest, quad, and shoulder work is needed. The rest of our major body parts are targeted quite effectively. We decide to add in the following to flesh out these two body parts.
Chest - 4 sets of push ups for max reps
Shoulders - 4 sets of side lateral raises for 12 to 15 reps
Quads - 4 sets of leg extensions
Now it's time to slice and dice up this work into a full body workout. First we divvy up our posterior chain work - squats and deadlifts. After this, we intelligently add in chest, shoulder, quad, and back exercises.
Minor body part work is now added in. Finally, I decide to sprinkle in the gaps with some ab and trap sets. The result is as follows.
I don’t believe in magic training systems or rep ranges. My philosophy is simple: remain consistent, use the best possible exercises, focus upon progression and enter the gym looking to maximize each set. When you maximize each set, you maximize progress. Easy, obvious, insanely effective.
* Tiger Fitness does not imply any medical advice in this article. There are no guarantees of specific results and results may vary. Please consult your family Dr. before starting any diet or training program.