Workout Plans
Header image featuring woman eating, sleeping, and working out

This is page three of a How to Build Muscle guide. Start with page one to understand how realistic it is to build more muscle.

Topics

Let's start the program

This page contains the complete science of how to work out.

It's a complete reference that covers:

The catch is there's a lot you must know. Muscle building is finicky, which is why people fail to see consistent gains.

The reward is sweet: When you're done, you'll feel confident about bodybuilding — perhaps for the first time. You'll understand the science and be free of the pseudo-science that has you eating and lifting the wrong things.

This guide contradicts some popular building muscle workout advice. But it backs up its claims. At the bottom, there's an optional Science and FAQ section that explores the rationale behind the recommendations made. Skim these if you have unanswered questions or want proof of this guide's claims.

At the bottom of this page, there's also a cheat sheet recapping everything in this guide — including workout and meal plans — so there's no need to take notes.

Workout plans

If you don't plan on working out yet, skip to ahead to Measuring your gains.

Why follow this workout program?

The workout plans below are designed to reduce the chances of hitting a plateau (when your muscles stop growing).

They do this by employing the right exercises, the right number of sets, the right order of exercises, and the right amount of rest time in between sets and exercise days so you can recover.

Exercise Plan A: Your first 8 weeks

If your arms are already as muscular as these, you can skip exercise Plan A to start with the intermediate Plan B detailed momentarily.

Otherwise, even if you’ve lifted before, start with exercise Plan A.

Plan A entails of hitting each muscle group once per workout. It's a starter plan without barbell squats and deadlifts, because these exercises can intimidate beginners from completing workouts. They're also harder to do at home with just dumbbells.

And the point of this ramp-up period is to get you acclimated to working out with as few excuses as possible. I want you to build the habit of working out — so that it sticks.

(Barbell squats and deadlifts, however, do become critical in the intermediate plan you quickly transition to.)

For your first two months of working out, your inexperienced muscles will grow efficiently even with the lesser stimulus of starter Plan A. In other words, Plan A will produce the same results as the more intensive Plan B while requiring less effort and less time. This means you’re more likely to complete this program.

Eventually Plan A will stop producing size gains for you. When you fail to measure size gains on your arms after a week of working out on Plan A, switch to Plan B. 

Gains on Plan A should stall around 8 weeks in if you're properly following all the advice in this handbook. If the stall occurs sooner than 6 weeks, and you haven’t worked out extensively in the past year, you may be prematurely plateauing and should refer to the overcoming plateaus section at the bottom of the cheat sheet.

Alright, here are the plans. First, the starter plan.

Clicking on an exercise will load a demonstration video.
º  8–10 reps   º  Stop 1 rep before limit   º  3 sets per exercise   º  60 min total  º  Rest 2.5-5 min
† Cannot be done with home equipment. These exercises aren't critical, so you can skip them.
Do hand gripper exercises on your off days.

📝 Exercise form notes.

The exercises have been chosen according to the criteria laid out here and here.

Do the three day cycle once per week. Rest at least one day between workout program days, but resting longer isn't necessary. This means you can do Monday-Wednesday-Friday, Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, or Wednesday-Friday-Sunday. 

If you happen to skip a day, that's okay! Just pick up from the day you missed when you start working out again.

For your first week on Plan A, do 2 sets of each exercise instead of 3. Your body won’t need the extra stimulus yet.

You'll also likely want to take an extra day's break between workout days on your first week or two. Your sore muscles may need the recovery time.

Exercise Plan B: 8 weeks and beyond

By the way, if you're starting to feel like you're being overloaded with information, remember that this page is purposely in-depth because it's a complete workout program reference. All you actually need to remember is what I summarize for you in the comprehensive cheat sheet at the bottom of this page. So don't worry! Just relax and learn the reasoning behind it all.

At the 8 week mark, your muscles will need greater stress to continue growing. So we increase the sets per exercise from 3 to 4, we switch to exercises that allow us to scale to heavier weights, and we focus on specific muscles within each workout.

The exercises in Plan B will require bonafide gym equipment, so if you've been working out from home, now’s the time to get into the gym.

Since exercise Plan B is more intense, it requires 4 days of rest between workout day types.

You can do all three workout types on back-to-back days if desired. But you must take 4 days of rest before repeating a day type. For example, you can do Day 1 on Monday, Day 2 on Tuesday, and Day 3 on Wednesday, but you have to wait until Friday to repeat Day 1, Saturday to repeat Day 2, and Sunday to repeat day 3.

There are no exceptions — even if your muscles “feel fine.” If you wind up overworking your muscles, you can lose an entire workout’s worth of size gains. (You can prove this to yourself if you’re feeling bold and measure closely.) 

The order of exercises and workout days in Plan B is critical. Don't rearrange them or you'll risk not having the strength to complete all your sets. The exercises are ordered to allow your muscles adequate recovery time so that exhaustion from one exercise doesn’t make it difficult to perform another that re-uses a muscle group. (For example, you use your biceps when performing back exercises. So, avoid doing a back exercise right after a bicep exercise.)

The importance of exercises' order means that if you need gym equipment that's in use, ask the person who's currently using it if you can work in with them — or wait until they are finished with it.

Below is the intermediate Plan B.

As always, click on an exercise to load a video of how it's performed.

Biceps, triceps, back

Seated pulley row
Lat pulldown
Julian tricep extension (2 sets)
º Or tricep pulldown (2 sets)
Bicep curl (2 sets)
Repeat tricep exercise  (2 sets)
Forearm curl up (15 reps)
Bicep curl (2 sets)
Forearm curl back (15 reps)
º  8–10 reps   º  Stop 1 rep before your limit  º  4 sets per exercise   º  60 min total  º  Rest 2.5-5 min  
Note: Exercises with an or option should be alternated between workout days.

📝 Exercise form notes.

Notes for exercise Plan B:

(As with Plan A, B exercises are chosen according to the criteria here and here.)

What comes after Workout Plan B?+

Short answer:

Learn about powerlifting. I would suggest searching Yelp for a “strength gym” in your city. The senior trainers there can push you further than I ever could.

I've also heard good things about Stronglifts 5x5.

Long answer

Plan B doesn’t have to end. It’s the workout plan you can use for as long as you see results. Despite what you've heard, there is no need to switch up exercises to continue growing. We talk more about that in this FAQ.

At some point, you will notice your rate of muscle gains slowing. (In the next section, we learn how to measure our muscle gains so you can identify when this happens.)

Some people will want to stop at this point because they'll consider themselves sufficiently muscular. But they'll need to keep going to the gym to maintain it.

For those wanting to get bigger, becoming a powerlifter requires extreme dedication, and it’s outside the scope of this handbook.

Whichever path you take, there’s also a genetic reason why your gains will eventually slow: Your muscles can only get so big.

In your lifetime, the total size you can naturally reach is relative to how large your skeleton is (study). Are you a broad-shouldered man with thick wrists and ankles? Expect to get way past the 3” (7.5cm) arm gain if you keep up your workouts. Are you a smaller 5’4” (1.65m) person with narrow hips? Even if you naturally worked out for a decade, you won’t get as muscular as a much larger person could.

How to get abs

I automatically send a "Science of ab workouts" bonus section when someone subscribes to my newsletter. You can subscribe at the top of Cheat Sheet here.

I am very sensitive to not annoying people with emails, so I only email you to announce when a new handbook is released. I release one every 3-4 months. 

Maintenance workout plan

You can stop Plan A or Plan B whenever you’re happy with your size.

Then, to maintain the muscle you’ve already built:

The maintenance plan’s exercise order doesn’t matter since we’re not pushing ourselves to the max. So, feel free to rearrange exercises as is convenient:

•  8–10 reps  •  Stop 1 rep before failure   •  2 sets per exercise   •  Rest 2.5-5min  •  40min workouts

📝 Exercise form notes.

How heavy to lift every workout

Before we get to the exercises, let's cover the topic of weight heaviness.

You need to start with a reference point for how heavy you can lift. Refer to the find your starting weights section from Prep Week.

Once you have that, each time you return to the gym, lift 2.5lbs (1.15 kg) heavier per arm or leg for each exercise. With exercises that are repeated twice weekly, increase by that amount just once per week.

This means if you're doing a single-handed exercise, such as a bicep curl or a trap raise, increase the weight by 2.5lbs on each hand when you return to the gym.

(If you're performing a two-handed or two-legged exercise, such as a benchpress or squat, increase the weight by 5lbs (2.25kg) so that it averages to 2.5lbs per hand/leg.)

If your gym's equipment does not increase in 2.5lbs increments, use magnet weights, which you slap onto dumbbells, barbells, and racks to make them a bit heavier. You want to get the 1.25lbs magnet weight variant in addition to the 2.5lbs weight for when you need to slap a 1.25lbs on each side of a dumbbell for a total of 2.5lbs.

If you're successfully gaining size using 2.5lbs (1.15kg) increments between gym visits, increasing the weight delta further will not produce faster gains. Your muscles don't grow proportionally to how heavy you lift; they grow by the same fixed amount each time they experience a sufficient volume of a weight heaviness they haven't experienced before.

Here are two more reasons not to increment by greater than 2.5lbs per arm/leg:

If you feel that the 2.5lbs increment isn't producing consistent gains, either (1) you started at too low of a weight and you still need to find what your real starting weight is or (2) your lack of gains is likely the result of something else. Consult the plateaus section at the bottom of the cheat sheet to help pinpoint the culprit.

Further down this page, you'll learn to measure weekly muscle growth. You can use these results to prove to yourself everything I'm claiming is working for you.

Quick note on pulley machines

If you switch an exercise from free weights (dumbbells and barbells) to its pulley machine variant, drop 7.5-10lbs (3.5-4.5kg) when doing the exercise on the pulley.

Pulley exercises do a better job than free weights at keeping tension through an exercise's range of motion, and your muscles will need to slowly ramp up to this shocking new level of tension. Failing to lower your weight can lead to overworking your muscle, which can cause you to lose a workout's worth of size.

Celebrity bodies

Let's take a break. You've done a lot of reading (with only have 10 minutes left)!

Below is a comparison I put together to compare celebrity superhero physiques. I wanted to know if their sizes were the result of Hollywood magic or if the actors were genuinely large.

Click the image to expand it:

Celebrity muscle size comparison

This is not a scientific comparison; I couldn't control for camera angle, distance, and lighting. All I could do was scale their heads to similar sizes and line up their clavicles.

Some observations: The Rock is leagues above everyone else, Henry Cavill has a broad frame, Chris Hemsworth has a tiny waist, and Daniel Craig is a small person.

More than one of these actors take steroids, so be careful using them as natural physique targets. That doesn't mean they didn't put a ton of effort in, though. Hear them talk about it.

Off topic, to read handbooks (like the one you're reading now) a few months before I publish them, you can provide your email below. I'm releasing how to write fiction, think critically, and play piano. I only email once every three months.

Measuring muscle growth

It’s time to learn how to measure your muscle size gains so you know precisely when you're doing things right and wrong.

A secondary benefit to measuring growth is staying motivated week to week by verifying we're growing despite the visual changes being too subtle to see.

This section is the unique result of my year-long experimentation. I have not seen this information shared elsewhere online. Which is strange because what I'm about to say is so easily provable for any beginner taking measurements.

So if I seem over-confident about anything I’m about to say for which I don't have corresponding research to link to, remember that you can prove all of this to yourself by just working out then measuring your muscles the next day. Also, remember that there's a detailed The Science section that dives into the research.

When and how your muscles grow

For muscles to grow after a workout, you must get enough calories and sleep on the day you worked out. Calories provide energy for new muscle to be built, and it’s in your sleep that your muscles recover.

When you wake up the morning after a workout, the size growth resulting from the previous day's workout will be complete, and you'll need to hit the gym again for those muscles to grow further.

Meaning, if you gain 1/8” (3.2mm) on your arm after a workout, that 1/8” can be measured the next day and will not increase throughout the coming days.

The timing of this cycle might come as a surprise. People often assume that because muscles might remain sore for multiple days, that muscles also grow in size over that same number of days. They don't. You can prove this to yourself with accurate measurements.

And the fact that muscles mostly grow within a narrow 12 hour post-workout period is why it's so important that you nail your nutrition and sleep regimens on your workout days.

(Further down this page, we discuss how to calculate your daily calorie targets.)

Because of the consistency I've identified surrounding the eat → workout → sleep → growth process, we can exploit it to ensure we’re correctly following this program. If our muscles don't grow by the morning after a workout, we know we did something wrong.

Measuring your muscle growth

We will use the arm we write with as a proxy for the steadiness of our total growth.  Arm increases are the easiest to track because the combined minor growth of two muscle groups (biceps and triceps) is easier to measure than one muscle group.

While our arm is not a full representation of how our body is doing — it’s possible that you worked your arms properly but not your other muscles, and vice versa — it lets us avoid measuring our entire body, which is hard to do accurately.

(That said, once every 6 weeks, measure your shoulders, chest, calf, forearm, legs, and glutes to make sure everything else is growing too. For each muscle, measure its circumference at its thickest point. If one muscle hasn't been growing while others have, consult the plateaus advice at the bottom of the cheat sheet.)

Measuring an arm also takes just a few seconds.

To measure your arm, wrap body tape around its thickest part. To get an accurate measurement each time, stand in front of a mirror with the body tape and do this:

On Plan B of this program, note that there is only one arm workout per week (Biceps, Triceps, Back), so you can take your weekly arm measurements at least 30 minutes after waking up the morning after that day.

How to measure muscle growth

Watch this video to see how a measurement is performed. You can see that finding the correct measurement only takes a couple seconds:

You can’t risk mis-measuring otherwise you'll think you’re not gaining when you are or, worse, that you lost muscle size. This will cause you to wrongly overthink your workouts, and it’ll demotivate you. So measure carefully every time.

Don’t measure your arm when flexed. It's too difficult to always ensure you flex to the same extent. If you flex just a tiny bit harder than the last time you measured (and this would be impossible to keep track of), you can skew your measurement by greater than the 1/8” (3.2mm) increment we’re looking for.

How big your muscles can get

In your first 3-6 months, you can see an increase of around 1/8” (3.2mm) in arm size after each workout day that worked both your biceps and triceps. This is enough of a difference to see on a tape measure so long as you’re measuring consistently.

If a workout trains only your biceps or triceps, expect half that growth (1/16" or 1.8mm). Given how this program's workout plans are structured, you can expect about 1” (25mm) per month or 3” (75mm) for each arm after 3 months.

That might not sound like a lot, but it really is. 2–3” around your arms can be the difference between looking frail or athletic. (Again, here’s the reference for a 2.5” gain.)

Depending on your frame, after 6-12 months, you will begin to see diminishing size returns from working out. The bigger you are, the harder it is to grow.

Commit to your workout plan

You now have everything you need to complete a body change. It's time to start.

Continue to the last page

Nutrition is critical for these workout plans to be effective. You have to learn how to eat — or the advice on this page will prove useless.

So, the next page covers how to eat for building muscle. 

What's left on this page is the cheat sheet and the research behind this guide.

Cheat sheet

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Four principles of gaining muscle

Workout plans

How to work out

Supplements

Food

Overcoming plateaus

Return to the top of the page.

The science (optional reading)

This guide contradicts some of the popular workout advice. But, it backs up its claims. Below, I explore some of the science behind my recommendations. Skim these if you have unanswered questions or want proof of this handbook's claims.

If you have suggestions or criticisms, please do reach out. I love hearing about any mistakes I've made, and I want to make sure this guide is kept up to date.

Warming up+

There are two types of warmups: Stretching and lightweight sets.

Neither is necessary.

Research concludes there is no need for stretching before weightlifting (study). Pre-workout stretching can actually decrease weightlifting performance (article — see bottom for sources) and the evidence for its help with injury prevention is mixed (study, study). Don’t get angry at me! I’m just the messenger!

Another warmup type that provides no performance benefit is doing a light starting set before lifting your normal weights (study). 

So unless you have a good reason, save yourself the time and skip warmups. You already have enough to do. There are a few exceptions, however: 

Rest times+

The fitness expression “no pain no gain” is misleading. The only “pain” you should encounter is from lifting weights that are a bit too heavy for your comfort. Beyond that, overworking your muscles through high volume or low rest is a BAD idea.

As you’ll see from your weekly measurements, when a muscle is stressed by a workout, it can only grow by a fixed amount for the next ~12 hours. So if you do more reps or sets than this program calls for, you will experience no further gains per workout, and you’ll endure unnecessarily longer recovery times that will keep you out of the gym.

Want to prove this to yourself? Measure yourself the morning after a workout containing 50% more sets than this program calls for. So long as you’re doing everything else right, you’ll see no increase in gains over the previous workout. 

It’s not only very high volume that needlessly overworks muscles, but also very short rest times between sets. You want at least 2 minutes of rest between sets (study), and you can go much longer than that without it affecting your gains. I repeat: Contrary to popular belief, your gains won’t be reduced by taking, say, a long-ish 5 minute break between sets instead of the more common 2 minutes (study, study, study). 

Even though it’s more painful to do a second set within a short amount of time (such as 1.5 minutes), the increased pain does not mean you’re exhausting the muscle better for the purposes of growing bigger. It just means you’re rushing yourself and you're mistaking discomfort for progress.

In Plan B, we exploit the fact that long rest times are acceptable by doing 2 sets of bicep curls at the start of the workout and the remaining 2 sets at the end of the workout. I call these split sets. They help us retain the bicep strength needed to complete every rep with proper form. If we don't complete all reps, we don't grow.

Note that ample rest time also applies to unilateral (one-handed or one-legged) exercises where one side of the body is worked at a time. The bicep curl is a good example: It’s commonly performed with one arm completing all 8–10 reps before switching arms and repeating. But don't forget to take a short break between arm changes so your heartbeat can return to normal!

Heartbeat is actually how I personally determine rest times: I wait for my heartbeat to return to normal and for my muscles to feel “energetic” enough that I'm confident I can do another full set with proper form. 

Resting also applies to the time between workout sessions. Don’t do all three of your weekly sessions back-to-back. Your muscles need ~48-72 hours to recover (study, study). So even if you "feel" you could repeat Day 1 of your workout plan within 48 hours, you’re being mislead by your body. They might not feel sore while sitting at your computer, but if you go the gym and do a set, you'll feel a strange discomfort.

Rounding out the myth of “no pain, no gain," know that muscle soreness following a workout is not a reflection of how well you exhausted your muscles in the gym. Soreness sporadically occurs when compounds such as inorganic phosphate build up in the muscle and hinder its ability to contract (study). This may or may not happen depending on your body’s state that day and your genetics (study).

Reps+

When working out for muscle size (as opposed to strength), use a weight that’s light enough to do a set of at least 8 reps with and heavy enough that you can't easily do more than 10 reps (study, study). 

This range of 8 to 10 reps means it's fine if you stop at 8, 9, or 10 in any set. Go as high as you can while stopping one rep short of the maximum you feel you could do. 

Stopping one rep short of exhaustion is the best kept secret in weightlifting: It doesn’t decrease your rate of gains and it increases your recovery time between sets so that you can complete all your reps (study, study). A win-win.

It will take a couple weeks of working out to begin recognizing when you have the capacity to do just one more rep in a set. Until then, simply focus on staying within the 8–10 rep range — do 10 when you have high stamina and 8 when you don't. 

We now come to the point in this program where there’s a physiological difference between men and women that changes this program’s recommendations: Women will build muscle faster by choosing a heaviness that lets them get closer to 10 reps rather than 8. So, if you’re a woman lifting a weight that’s too heavy to complete 10 reps on, go lighter. This is because women have muscle fiber distribution that responds better when stimulated with higher reps (study, study, article).

Sets+

For size gains, the optimal number of sets is between 3 and 6 (study, study). This is how many sets you should do for each muscle targeted by a workout.

Plan A of this program consists of 3 sets per exercise. In Plan A, no muscle group is directly hit by more than one exercise per workout. This means if you do the bench press in a given workout, you won't also do another chest exercise in that workout. 3 sets of one exercise is enough to trigger a muscle's per-workout growth limit for the first 8 weeks. More sets would increase recovery time without increasing growth rate. 

At the 8 week mark, you switch to Plan B, which builds on top of Plan A in part by advancing to 4 sets per exercise. This becomes necessary to continue stimulating your more developed muscles. 4 sets is in accordance with both the bodybuilding research (study) and decades of best practice. I have also personally found no evidence that doing more than 4 sets is advantageous when employing the 8 to 10 rep range, which is the range that maximizes muscle size gains (study, study).

The implication of 4 sets being optimal is that doing, say, two chest exercises in one workout where the combined number of sets across both exercises exceeds 4 is overkill. Yet most workout plans found on the web instruct you to do 3–4 sets of 8–10 reps for the bench press (which directly works your chest) followed by 3 sets of the butterfly (which also directly works your chest)! This of course sums to 6+ sets that all target the same muscle, which is above the 3 or 4 sets recommended above.

These misguided workouts are probably the result of either:

I repeat: Contrary to popular belief, 4 sets of 10 reps at the heaviest weight you can lift is all you need to maximally trigger muscle size growth in a workout. More than 4 direct sets overworks the muscle. (As always, you can prove this to yourself by measuring your arm growth after a workout.)

If you avoid overworking your muscles, your recovery times are shorter, and you avoid the risk of re-training muscles before they’ve recovered. (When this happens, you fail to lift heavier weight and you waste a workout.)

Out of all the myth busting I’ve done in this handbook, I know that "no more than 4 direct exercises per muscle" is the most difficult to digest for experienced weightlifters who’ve been doing otherwise.

So I've written a detailed reasoning in the FAQ. 

However, there are two important distinctions that should clear up your disbelief:

You don’t have to wrap your head around all the implications above if you're following this program’s exercises. To the extent reasonable, they take all this into consideration.

Exercise form+

Note: To see how each exercise is performed, click its name in the exercise lists.

If you're committing to spending 2.5 hours in the gym every week, be smart and use your time efficiently. Being efficient in the gym means lifting weights with the correct form for every single rep. Failing to do so can result in under-training intended muscles and/or not getting bigger after your workouts. Don't risk it. Form matters.

The goal of weightlifting is not to move a weight from point A to point B. The goal is to maximally stress the muscle that is most responsible for moving a weight from point A to point B. The way you do that is by contracting that muscle throughout an exercise's motion to remind yourself that it should be doing most of the lifting.

Don't let unintended muscles do so much of the lifting that your intended muscles don’t feel the majority of the load. That would defeat the purpose of the exercise. (It should be obvious what the intended muscle is for each exercise. If not, ask a trainer.)

Be careful to not just lift with proper form for your first set then switch your brain onto sloppy autopilot for the rest. Did you think you could blissfully tune out while lifting? You can’t. It takes a fully conscious effort to perform every rep properly. You need to constantly remind yourself of proper form. For every rep. For every set. Forever.

You might be able to get away with sloppy form for your first two months of working out because your beginner muscles will respond well to just about anything. But, you won't continue seeing good results using poor form once you hit Plan B.

Alright, we just spent 5 paragraphs purposefully saying the same thing repeatedly.

Let's move on: Another mistake beginners make is not completing their full range of motion. For example, on a bicep curl, they won't bring a dumbbell up to where their forearm touches their bicep. But if you don’t start at the lowest point in a motion and push all the way through to the end, you’re not making best use of the exercise to exhaust your muscle. Sooner or later you’ll stop getting stronger on that exercise.

So, to recap, two pointers: (1) lift using an exercise's intended muscle and (2) lift fully.

Now let’s cover the best practices for exercise form:

Switching up exercises+

Needing to stress a muscle through different exercises to “keep it guessing” or “hit it from new angles” is a semi-myth. While there is definitely truth behind the intention of the myth, it's very misleading. 

Consider this: The biggest bodybuilders and the strongest powerlifters work their chest and legs using the same exercises (bench press and squats) every week. They don’t switch off the bench press for several months. There’s no need because it's great at exhausting the chest thanks to consistent tension and wide range of motion. 

The other muscles in your body aren't different. Muscles have no intelligent awareness of how they’re being worked. So a change in "angle" is misleading. What a new angle actually does is introduce variation in these three exercise factors:

If you're already using a safe exercise with the widest range of motion and most consistent tension, there's no need to ever switch off it. There are a couple reasons why you could, though:

The exercises in this program take whole body muscle development into consideration. So if you stick with them, you don't have to overthink your routine.

Here's the key takeaway: It’s not this program's exercises that will stall your gains. See the plateau advice at the bottom of the cheat sheet to identify the real culprit.

Compound, isolated, and pulley exercises+

In your first 8 weeks of working out, you can do just about anything and your growth-happy beginner muscles will grow. With that in mind, Plan A’s exercises are chosen to:

If you've lifted weights before, you might think Plan A’s exercises (e.g. chest flies and goblet squats) are “non-hardcore” and ineffective, but that would be bodybuilding folklore clouding your judgment. The plans' chosen exercises work for everyone when heavy enough weights are lifted. 

You don’t “need to hit the rack squats and bench press” to “trigger growth hormone” that’ll “jumpstart your gains” (study). More myths.

This isn’t to say we won’t be doing the bench press and bar squat exercises (“compound exercises”). We do them in Plan B, and they're very important. They involve supporting muscles, which builds whole-body stability when lifting heavy weights (study). Stability is important for injury prevention when doing intensive labor or playing sports. 

Additionally, compound exercises work complementary muscles that you might not be targeting directly through isolation exercises. 

But compound exercises aren’t the only exercises worth doing. For one, they don’t necessarily hit muscles proportionately: Just doing bench presses, which works your shoulders and triceps in addition to your chest, will not maximally develop your three tricep or three shoulder heads. These heads could be directly targeted with isolation exercises. 

One acceptable way to target specific muscles is pulley machines:

Cardio+

If you regularly do cardio, you need to schedule it around your weightlifting sessions.

There isn’t much research on how intensive cardio (aerobic exercise) impedes weightlifting. (We’re defining intensive cardio as over 30 minutes of high-speed running, biking, swimming, etc.🏃🚴🏊) Based on the research available, I suggest abstaining from intensive cardio on workout days. It can conflict with your muscle gains (study) by competing with your body’s repair mechanisms, and it complicates calorie requirements because you’ll be burning extra calories you must account for.

(If you insist on intensive cardio on workout days, do it before weightlifting and track the calories you’re burning to get that much more from your meals that day.)

If you want to be lightly active on workout days, that’s fine. Going for an hour-long walk won't conflict with weightlifting, and it's a smart thing to do. In fact, taking two brisk 20 minute walks per day will extend your lifespan if you're currently living a sedentary lifestyle.

A well-publicized study concluded activity equal to a brisk 20 minute walk per day reduces your chances of dying from unnatural causes by up to 30% (study). Wow.

So here’s the conclusion: Don’t worry about light cardio, but do worry about intensive cardio. Schedule the latter on non-workout days and follow these two rules:

If the purpose of your intensive cardio is to lose fat (as opposed to staying healthy) then I have some news for you: You’ll have to put your fat loss regimen on hold until you’re done this program. While it is possible to simultaneously gain muscle and lose fat, it is not a good idea because:

You can read more about fat loss in the bonus Losing fat section of this handbook.

FAQ

Here's some in-depth FAQ for the curious.

Does all this advice equally apply to women?+

Yes, unless otherwise noted. Specifically, (1) women can avoid creatine and (2) women should do their best to aim for 10 reps instead of 8 or 9 reps given their different muscle fiber distribution. You can read more about this in the Reps section.

If you're wondering if you can skip most of the advice in this handbook and build a bit of muscle through light weights, yoga, and stretching, the answer is no. Stretching and cardio have nothing to do with gaining muscle. There's only one way to gain.

What should I do when I lose muscle?+

If you’ve only lost one or two weeks worth of gains, continue as normal: Keep trying to lift heavier than you did in your last workout. If you can’t lift heavier, go back to the weight level from your last workout. You'll need to retrace your weight levels until you begin newly gaining size again; you won’t regain the size you lost by re-traversing.

This is because, over the course of just a couple weeks, we lose size quicker than we lose strength given the way muscle growth is a function of two different means: neurological and cellular. The terms I'm using here makes it sound like a redundancy, but it's a simplification (study).

Alternatively, if you’ve fallen off the wagon and lost a significant amount of strength and size by running a calorie deficit for an extended period of time or not going to the gym for a few months, re-traversing previous weight levels should regain your muscle size in lock step with the weight levels you originally used to grow them.

In either case, I have found zero evidence that muscle regrows faster than it originally grew. This means if you run an extreme calorie deficit for two days, which can result in the loss of two workouts' worth of size gains, it will take you two workouts plus the rest days between to regain the size. That's a span of 5 days to make up for 2!

Geek note: Our muscles respond more negatively to calorie deficits than a lack of exercise: You can lose muscle in a single day just by failing to eat 50% of your daily calorie target. On the other hand, you can actually skip workouts for ~2.5 weeks without losing any size whatsoever.

If any of these claims seem questionable to you, you can easily prove all this to yourself by taking your regular muscle measurements after running a deficit.

Why is so much workout advice wrong?+

Here are the likely reasons why much of the popular workout advice is wrong:

I've found most of the advice on Bodybuilding.com, MuscleAndStrength.com, and MensFitness.com to be misleading. I recommend you ignore those pages and stick with the information in this handbook.

Why are there so many protein myths?+

Popular protein myths are rooted in research misinterpretation. Three examples: 

Here’s the problem: “Protein synthesis” hasn’t actually been shown to lead to greater muscle mass gains once your body’s low synthesis threshold is reached (study). Conflating synthesis with size gain is what leads to all the protein myths on the web.

It's really that simple. Not every blogger has the patience to parse a study.

Why is [exercise] missing from the workout plans?+

Consider the following:

Should I eat a specific macronutrient ratio?+

The energy — or calories — in your meals and drinks come from three nutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Most foods contain some of each nutrient. Each plays a critical role in your body. You should not avoid one unless a doctor told you to.

Thankfully, there isn't a strict ratio of nutrients we must adhere to for maximizing muscle gains (study). So follow the global dietary guidelines. Those numbers are:

To learn how many calories you’re getting from each nutrient in a given food, read its nutritional label or search MyFitnessPal.

Again, these nutrient ratios don't really affect workout gains, so don’t worry about applying this rubric to your meal selection. I’m just listing this for the curious.

Why is it ineffective to do more than 4 sets?+

This answer is a continuation of a discussion from the Sets section.

Most workout plans found on the web instruct people to lift more than 4 sets per targeted muscle group, so the reality I'm about to expose will be hard for many people to swallow — accepting it entails admitting that they've wasted a lot of time in the gym. But they can prove everything I'm saying to themselves by taking — you guessed it — their regular muscle measurements!

Alright, let's demolish this myth.

First, consider how it's rarely possible to do more than 5 sets of 8-10 reps on an exercise if you're lifting as heavy as you can (which you're supposed to in order to grow). You can test this for yourself the next time you go to the gym. 

Second, consider my earlier note on how hitting muscles from "new angles" isn't really a thing: Meaning, you don't have to use multiple exercises to target a muscle in the same workout if the first exercise already had a wide range of motion and provided consistent tension. For example, a barbell bench press followed by a dumbbell bench press is like doing the barbell bench press twice.

Now, because it’s not possible for us to do more than 5 sets on our first exercise yet we're now doing two same-muscle exercises in a single workout, we must lower how much weight we lift on the second exercise. Because our muscle is already in a weakened state from the first exercise. Put another way, if you were to do your second exercise as your first, you'd lift heavier weights on it than you are now. 

The implication here is that you're actually lifting sub-optimal heaviness on your second exercise; you're lifting below what is required for your muscles to experience a new level of stimulus, which is required for growth. In fact, you're likely using a weight lower than how much you could have lifted on that second exercise if it were your first exercise on your previous workout! That's not making progress.

That's silliness.

To repeat, doing two exercises that hit the exact same muscle is effectively the same thing as doing 4 sets on an exercise then dropping its weight by 10-20lbs (4.5-9kg) and doing another 4 sets on the same exercise. But we’ve already learned (and read the research) that more than 4 sets is not productive for maximizing muscle size.

What if the weights in my gym aren't heavy enough?+

For Plan A, you won't be in danger of maxing out weight since gyms have dumbbells that go up to ~75lbs (34 kg). You won't need heavier weight for your first 8 weeks.

For Plan B, which requires a pulley machine, you want to choose a gym that has a pulley machine that reaches around 200 lbs (90 kg). If you can't find one, a 100 lbs (45 kg) machine is workable if, when an exercise calls for a two-handed pulley movement, you turn it into a one-handed exercise with each side of your body worked independently. This will double the effective pulley weight available to you. 

(By the way, if you have a lot of money to spare, you can get away with skipping the gym and buy one of these for your home :) You'll have to switch up exercises a bit.)

If you eventually max out the one-handed pulley variation of your exercise, this might be as strong as you're going to get on this exercise! Unless, of course, you pursue the alternative of piling a lot of weight onto a barbell, which is totally fine... but, depending on the exercise, extremely heavy barbell movements require incredible whole-body strength (including grip, forearms, lower back, and abs), and they can be dangerous to perform without professional training and supervision.

If you're at the point where you're lifting very heavy weights, see a professional trainer who can assist you in pushing yourself further.)

Should I do supersets?+

Supersetting is when you alternate between sets of two different exercises so that you finish both around the same time. For example, you could do one set of bicep curls followed by one set of tricep extensions then repeat this 3–4 times in total depending on how many sets your workout plan calls for.

Supersets provide no benefit other than reducing your gym time. If you do them, make sure you're still taking your normal rest time between sets. Otherwise, an elevated heart rate or unrecovered muscles prevent you from completing your reps.

You can get away with supersetting on Plan A, but Plan B’s exercises are deliberately ordered so that muscles used in multiple exercises have enough time to recover. So do not superset on Plan B. I would rather you play it safe — even if there are a couple opportunities for you to do it.

I have an unanswered question.+

It's hard for me to offer support — whether it's via email or Twitter. It takes up a lot of time, and I want to focus on writing my next guide so I can teach you more cool stuff. I suggest chatting with an expert trainer at a local strength training gym.

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Workout diet

How to eat so your workouts are effective. It truly matters.

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