Updated: Aug 11, 2020
What’s the best workout to build muscle? How should I break down my weekly workouts? How do I get bigger? These are very commonly researched questions (albeit primarily by men) that lead to an endless vortex of information. Some of it may be useful, but most sites are ill advised and misinformed. Not saying that women don’t want to build lean muscle mass, but when it comes to adding size to a frame, it may require a different approach than what you’ve been doing.
When people think of lifting weights, many revert to a bodybuilding split. Chest day, back day, shoulder day, arm day, and maybe a leg day. Hit each once a week, sprinkle in some cardio and abs, and repeat. You will see some progress in the immediate term. Muscles will seem more defined, you will get stronger in your lifts, and it will feel pretty good to start. Then you plateau. What now?
Bodybuilding is a sport. These athletes are primarily training through hypertrophy in an attempt to increase individual muscle tissue size to build a certain physique. Endless hours in the gym, tubs of chicken, tilapia, rice, and vegetables, and a life that revolves around their training. Does that sound like you? No? Then why train like that?
Simply put, the amount of time and dedication it takes to achieve those similar effects when training like a bodybuilder is simply unrealistic. The goal of most is to incorporate training and nutrition seamlessly in with their lifestyle. For bodybuilders, this IS their lifestyle. So the first step would be to realize that maybe the way that you’ve been doing it may not be the best. And it’s no one’s fault. Bodybuilding has become synonymous with weight lifting, but they’re not the same. Bodybuilding is a TYPE of resistance training. But it probably isn’t the most optimal type for your lifestyle.
This is all not to say that training individual body parts/hypertrophy has no merit. There is a time and a place for it with almost any strength training program. The point here is that it probably won’t be the most effective workout breakdown for you. Let’s say you hit each body part really hard once a week, working out 5 times a week, and take 2 rest days a week. Chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs. That’s hitting one body part, once a week. Let’s say each of these workouts you do 100 reps. So that’s 100 reps of chest, 100 reps of back, etc.
Let’s say instead you took those same 5 workouts per week, but separated into upper body/lower body/full body days. 2 upper body days, 2 lower body days, and 1 full body day. Technically you’ll be hitting each body part 3 times a week then. If you do 40 reps per body part, thats 120 reps per body part, per week. 120 reps versus 100 reps. While that may seem like a minimal difference, this adds up. Look how much more training you have been able to get in on each body part just by breaking it up differently. 20 extra reps a week, per body part. That’s over 1000 reps a year. Think that won’t make a difference?
Hitting a muscle to absolute depletion once a week leaves it so sore and fatigued, that it doesn’t get fired up again until 7 days later. Approach it differently. The quicker you can recover, the quicker you can train that muscle group hard again, the more muscle you can grow. Now again, this is all under the assumption that you’re training 5 times a week. If that doesn’t fit your lifestyle or your needs, then disregard. But the idea remains the same. If you’re training twice a week, does it make sense to only train one muscle group at a time?
Now comes to the workout itself. What exercises, how many sets, how many reps? If you want to build mass, while staying lean, you need to lift heavy. Exhausting, grinding, more than you think you can lift, heavy. With proper technique of course, and not every workout, but about 2 of the five workouts should be centered around moving as much weight as you can efficiently.
Those 2 workouts should be as little volume as possible, maybe 60 reps total. These 60 reps don’t include all warm-ups and prep work, these just refer to the meat of the session. 3-4 exercises, 3-5 sets of each, 4-8 reps per set. It’s impossible to nail down an exact formula in this setting, so beyond this, it really does depend on the individual. The exercises should focus on your compound lifts. Deadlifts, squats, presses, rows, pull-ups, and heavy split stance movements. Save the bicep curls for another day, you want to hit these 2 days hard and efficiently.
The other 2 workouts, is when you can do your typical “bodybuilding” style workouts, but you’ll be hitting a total upper body, or a total lower body, session. This is when you want to hit as much volume as possible, working anywhere from 8-15 reps per set, 3-4 sets per exercises. How many exercises? It really depends on specific goals but it can be anywhere from 6-12. On these days you still want to hit your compound lifts but you can do more single joint movements such as your bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder raise variations, hamstring curls, etc.
The last day is labeled as a full body day and the idea here is to get your heart rate up, use a lot of supersets (pairing exercises with no rest), and hit a bit of everything. If you have specific body parts you’d like to focus on, then feel free to center the workout around that and give more emphasis to it towards the beginning of the workout. That’s when you are more focused, less fatigued, and your nervous system is still firing on all cylinders.
Again, there is no magical workout breakdown that’s guaranteed to build you more muscle than Schwarzenegger. But it stands to reason that if the way you’ve been training for years has led you to experience diminishing returns, then maybe it’s not about reorganizing or shifting around the same group of exercises. Maybe it’s time to step back and reevaluate your goals and where your efforts are being directed. The goal should always be efficiency in the gym. Time is limited and as you age it will get harder and harder to train consistently at a high output. You want every rep of every exercise to lead to progress.
Always remember...you could have the best workout program in the world, but if done without mindfulness and effort, it’s useless. It’s not always about what you do, but how you do it.