A 4-Week Plan to Build Serious Muscle
Hypertrophy. Jacked. Ripped. Diesel. Project Swolification. Whatever your preferred descriptor phrase or word of choice, adding appreciable size in the form of muscle mass is at the top of most trainees' goals list.
Certainly there are health benefits to consistently lifting weights and increasing muscle mass -- improved bone health and density, improved immune function, increased energy, reduced risk of injury, improved insulin sensitivity and a vast decrease in the incidence of metabolic syndrome, just to name a few. But at the end of the day, what really matters for many trainees is being able to walk down the street in a medium T-shirt on and know they look yoked, with large, protruding muscles.
The problem is that while having biceps the size of Kansas and a chest that can deflect bullets are common goals for most guys -- and quite a few girls too -- many will never come close to achieving "the look."
Even if that's exactly what happened to you in the past, it doesn't have to happen again. Once you learn how to overcome the common sticking points, you can bust through and start building serious muscle.
Movements like chin-ups or deadlifts force your body to use a lot of muscle mass to get the job done.
Nick Tumminello, personal trainer
Replace Stagnation With Progression
A muscle will increase in size relative to the load that is placed upon it. It's as simple as that. If you want to get bigger, you need to make a concerted effort to lift more weight on a weekly basis.
Far too often, people use the same weight week in and week out. Then they're left dumbfounded when they look exactly the same as they did when they started going to the gym -- three years ago.
But the truth is, to make a muscle grow, you need to throw it a curve ball. You need to challenge it and make it do more work. Even if you only add 5 pounds to the bar, those additional pounds are moving you forward.
If there's one common mistake that many trainees make, though, it's assuming that training to failure on each and every set is, somehow, a way to make progress. These lifters believe that because they're training with such "intensity" -- so much so they're reaching the point of missing reps -- they will experience much more muscle growth.
This is flawed thinking.
It's true that at some point, adding five to 10 pounds every week will become a limiting factor. But when this happens, make use of the "two-rep window," which allows for some flexibility in your repetitions.
As an example, imagine that your program calls for 10 repetitions, but the weight you're using is proving to be a real challenge. Instead of missing reps, consciously shoot for eight to 10 repetitions. Likewise, if your exercise calls for five repetitions, the "two-rep window" would mean you would shoot for three to five repetitions.
So if you want to bench press five reps at 225 pounds, your first week might look something like this: Set 1: 225x5 Set 2: 225x5 Set 3: 225x4 Set 4: 225x4 Set 5: 225x3
You can see that by Set 3, you are cutting your sets short because of fatigue or poor technique. In this case, your progress challenge would be to try, in the following session, to hit the reps you previously left in the tank. So it may look something like this:
Set 1: 225x5 Set 2: 225x5 Set 3: 225x5 Set 4: 225x5 Set 5: 225x4
Compared with the first week, the lifter did three extra reps in the second week -- to the tune of 675 additional pounds -- 225 times 3.
In the following weeks, the hypothetical lifter would continue with this weight until he was able to complete all the reps successfully. Once he accomplished it, he'd give someone a high five, up the weight and repeat the process.
Replace Isolation Exercises With Compound Movements
When it comes to building muscle, popular belief says that following a body-part-per-day split is the most efficient use of your time. Monday, therefore, is generally known as "National Bench Press Day," with many trainees targeting their chests on that day. The rest of the week is then broken down in a similar fashion, working one or two muscle groups each day. So a typical week's grouping might be as follows:
Monday: Chest Tuesday: Back and biceps Wednesday: Shoulders and triceps Thursday: Hamstrings Friday: Quads Weekend: Off
But body-part splits are actually an inefficient approach. After all, you're only stimulating or targeting a muscle once every seven to 10 days. What's more, you're actually limiting the gains you could be making in the long run.
If you want to build slabs of muscle on your frame, you need to incorporate movements that not only utilize as much muscle mass as possible, but also provide the impetus your body needs to grow.
Instead of body parts, focus on compound, multijoint movements. Take it a step further: Instead of designating a particular day as "arm day," for example, make it a "chinup" day.
Nick Tumminello, a personal trainer and founder of Performance University in Baltimore, Maryland, noted that "movements like chin-ups or deadlifts force your body to use a lot of muscle mass to get the job done. As such, common sense tells you that the more muscle mass you recruit, the more potential there is for future muscle growth."
For a specific example, take a popular exercise like dumbbell bicep curls and add an average trainee wanting muscle growth. He's looking to put on some size -- any size -- and he's faced with two exercise options: an exercise that limits him to 25-pound. curls targeting one, fairly tiny muscle roughly the size of a tennis ball or chin-ups that not only force him to use much more weight, but also recruit muscles from his entire body. It's obvious the chinups are the more logical choice to meet his goal.
Another benefit of focusing on compound movements is that, by default, you'll be hitting certain body parts several times per week instead of only once, giving the muscles more opportunities to increase.
So nix the isolation exercises and focus more on compound movements. Instead of targeting specific muscles, target specific movements. Start each training session with a main movement, such as a squat variation, a deadlift variation or a bench press variation, then complement that particular movement for the remainder of your workout.
Include a Sets-and-Reps Inversion
Another aspect of building muscle that's often overlooked is the inversion of sets and reps. That is, instead of performing three sets of 10 repetitions on every exercise -- which, for some reason, has become the established golden rule of strength training -- you would perform 10 sets of three repetitions.
As strength coach Chad Waterbury, a neurophysiologist and author of "Muscle Revolution," noted, "In essence, you'll still be performing the same volume -- as dictated by the total number of sets and reps completed -- but now you'll be increasing the total tonnage of your workout, which will not only have a profound effect on the central nervous system -- and hence, strength gains -- but will also lead to unparalleled muscle gains as well."
So take the dumbbell bicep curls mentioned earlier and compare them with chin-ups.
Isolation Dumbbell Bicep Curl: Weight Used: 25 lbs. Sets: 3 Reps: 10 Total Volume: 30 repetitions Total Tonnage: 30 reps x 25 lbs. = 750 lbs.
Chin-Ups: Weight Used: 155 lbs. of bodyweight Sets: 10 Reps: 3 Total Volume: 30 repetitions Total Tonnage: 30 reps x 155 lbs. = 4,650 lbs.
A look at the numbers confirms the chin-up option will certainly lead to more muscle growth than the dumbbell bicep curls.
This does not mean, though, that you will apply this to every exercise you're performing in a day. For one thing, it would take an inordinate amount of time to train if you inverted the sets and reps for every exercise in your session.
Apply this inversion technique only to the main movement for that day -- in this case, chin-ups. Perform 10 sets of three reps of chin-ups, then use the more traditional set-and-rep scheme for the accessory movements.
Control and Explode to Grow
Generally the eccentric, or lowering, portion of the lift is considered the money component because that's the part that elicits the most muscular disturbance, the microscopic damage that prompts muscle growth. Using a controlled, slow eccentric leads to increased microtears in the muscle, which, in turn, provide the stimulus the body needs to repair and lay down new, stronger muscle tissue.
Consequently, many trainees automatically assume they should be performing the concentric, or lifting, portion of the exercise at a slow, deliberate pace as well. This is not true. It's best to explode, lifting the bar quickly.
Lifting with intent and purpose is a frequently ignored component of muscle growth. Unfortunately, that means many trainees leave untapped muscle growth on the table by not paying attention to how they perform the lift. But when they are cognizant of bar speed and focus on explosiveness while trying to exert force on a load, trainees will see increased strength gains as well as additional muscle mass.
Because of heavy weights, the actual lift of the bar won't always appear to be at high speed. But as long as the "intent" to be fast is there, the central nervous system will trigger your body to recruit more high-threshold motor units to get the job done.
And it's those same high-threshold motor units that have the greatest propensity for muscle growth. So for lifters who want an increase in mass, it's a win-win situation.
Putting It All Together
If your goal is muscle growth, a typical training week would look something like the following:
A. Deadlift Variation: 10x3. For example, trap bar deadlift, sumo deadlift, conventional deadlift, rack pull. Note: Rest 60 to 120 seconds between sets.
B1. Barbell reverse lunge: 3x8/leg
B2. Pushup -- feet elevated on box: 3x10 Note: Add resistance band for external load if necessary.
C1. Seated cable row: 3x12
C2. Pallof press: 3x8/side
D. 10-Minute Arm Circuit -- DB hammer curls: x10; tricep pressdowns: x10 Note: Because you're going to do arms anyway, you'll alternate among exercises for 10 minutes with as little rest as possible. Record total number of "rounds" completed, and try to beat that number next week.
A. Chin-Up Variation: 10x3. Try the underhand grip, overhead grip, neutral grip, Mixed Grip and so forth Note: Rest 60 to 120 seconds between sets.
B1. Bench press: 4x6
B2. DB Goblet squats: 3x10
C1. 1-Legged barbell Romanian deadlift: 3x8/leg
C2. 1-Arm DB row: 3x10/arm
D: Leg fnisher -- Bodyweight Bulgarian split squats (from 10 down to 1) Note: Perform 10 reps on each leg, then nine, eight, seven, down to one, with as little rest as possible. Record how long it takes to complete, and try to beat that time each week.
A. Squat variation: 10x3; For example, back squat, front squat, box squat. Note: Rest 60 to 120 seconds between sets.
B1. Chest supported row: 4x8
B2. Flat bench DB press: 3x10
C1. 1-Legged hip thruster -- off bench: 3x12/leg
C2. Split stance cable lift: 3x8/side
D. Shoulder Blaster: 2x10/each. For example, bent over dumbbell raise, lateral dumbbell raise, front dumbbell raise, overhead dumbbell press Note: Perform each exercise in circuit fashion with as little rest as possible between exercises. Rest 60 seconds, then repeat for a total of two circuits.
Tony Gentilcore has been writing professionally since 2006. He is a regular contributor to T Nation and has also been featured in "Men's Health Magazine." Gentilcore is also the co-founder of Cressey Performance, located in Hudson, Mass. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in health education from SUNY Cortland and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.