If you don't plan on working out yet, skip ahead to Measuring your gains.
The workout plans below are designed to help reduce the rate of hitting early plateaus (where your muscles stop growing).
These plans do this by employing exercises, set volumes and cadence, and exercise order in such a way that you can maximize recovery.
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, I suggest starting with exercise Plan A.
Plan A entails 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 their workouts. They're also harder to do at home with just dumbbells. (Barbell squats and deadlifts, however, do become critical in the intermediate plan that you quickly transition to.)
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.
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 start by producing the same results as the more intensive Plan B while requiring less effort and less time.
Eventually Plan A will stop producing size gains for you. When you fail to measure size gains on your arms after a month of working out on Plan A, switch to Plan B. We'll talk about measurement in a bit.
Specifically, 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're new to building muscle, you may be prematurely plateauing and should refer to the overcoming plateaus section at the bottom of the cheatsheet.
Here's Plan A:
📝 Exercise form notes.
Notes on Plan A:
At the 8 week mark, your muscles will likely need greater stress to continue growing. So we change a few things:
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 try proving this to yourself if you’re feeling bold and measure closely.)
📝 Exercise form notes.
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 reuses a muscle group. (For example, you use your biceps when performing back exercises. So, avoid doing a back exercise right after a bicep exercise.)
One of the unique aspects of this program is how Plan B splits some exercises into two sessions per workout. Meaning, 2 sets of one exercise are performed at the beginning of a workout and the remaining 2 sets are performed at the end. (Read more here.)
Notes for exercise Plan B:
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.
For those wanting to get bigger, becoming a powerlifter requires extreme dedication, and it’s outside the scope of this handbook.
It's also worth pointing out, however, that 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, the science suggests 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 will need to keep going to the gym to maintain it.
Whichever path you take, there’s also a genetic reason why your gains will eventually slow: your muscles can only get so big. Research has shown that 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? Perhaps 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're unlikely to get as muscular as a much larger person could.
If you enter your email to receive this guide's summary cheatsheet, there's a "Science of ab workouts" bonus section in it. The cheatsheet is here.
You can stop Plan A or Plan B whenever you’re happy with your size.
Then, if you simply want to maintain the muscle you’ve already built, this should do the trick:
📝 Exercise form notes.
Soon, 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. But before we cover that, let's cover the topic of weight heaviness.
You need a reference point for how heavy you can lift when you first start. To do this, refer to the find your starting weights section from Prep Week.
After 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 shouldn't produce faster gains. Research suggests 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 proper weight stress they haven't experienced before.
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 cheatsheet for help pinpointing the culprit.
If you switch an exercise from free weights (dumbbells and barbells) to its pulley machine variant, consider dropping 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 may need to ramp up to this new tension profile. Failing to lower the weight during the transition can lead to overworking your muscle, which can cause you to lose a workout's worth of size due to muscle catabolism.
Let's take a break. You've done a lot of reading.
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:
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 of these actors may take steroids and other performance/size-enhancing drugs, so be careful using all of them as natural physique targets. (That doesn't mean they didn't put a ton of hard work in, though. Hear them talk about it.)
Off topic: This year, I got tired of overlong books and bad book summaries. So I made a newsletter that just shares the most interesting highlights from famous books. I distill each book's key lessons into short paragraphs. 50,000 people read it. Subscribe to see the first issue. I only email once per month.
It’s time to learn how to measure your muscle size gains so you know when you're doing things right and wrong. And a secondary benefit to measuring your growth is staying motivated week to week by verifying we're growing despite the visual changes being too subtle to notice.
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.
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 should likely 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 should 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 over the same number of days. According to the measurements I've anecdotally done, that's not the case. Hopefully you can prove this to yourself by taking measurements too.
The fact that muscles mostly grow within a 12 hour post-workout period is why it's so important that you nail your nutrition and sleep regimens on your workout days.
We will use the arm we write with as a proxy for the progression of our growth. I've found that 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. It's hard to detect small gains. The arm is also easy to get a fairly consistent size measurement on.
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's a simple proxy for whether we're eating, sleeping, and lifting right.
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 cheatsheet.
To measure your arm, wrap body tape around its thickest part. Measure this exact same part each time you do this. To get an accurate measurement, stand in front of a mirror and follow this:
The reason we don't measure with a flexed arm is because it's very difficult to always ensure you flex to the same degree each time. 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.
Watch this video to see how a measurement is performed:
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 cheatsheet and the research behind this guide.
Below is the cheat sheet for this entire handbook. It's the same as the one on the previous page.
If you enter your email below, the cheat sheet is emailed to you so you can easily reference it in your inbox. I will not send you any other emails.
This guide contradicts some of the popular workout advice. But, it tries to back up its claims. Below, I explore the science behind my recommendations.
There are two types of warmups: stretching and lightweight sets.
Research suggests neither is necessary: 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 that provides no performance benefit is a light starting set before lifting your normal weights (study).
There are a few exceptions, however:
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 counter-constructive.
As you’ll see from your weekly measurements, when a muscle is stressed by a workout, it appears to 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 should 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? Using the technique outlined earlier on this page, 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. Research suggests at least 2 minutes of rest between sets (study), and it appears you can go much longer than that without it affecting your gains. I repeat: Contrary to popular belief, your gains shouldn'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 might just mean 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 consider taking a short break between arm changes so your heartbeat can return to normal.
Personally, heartbeat is how I 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.
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 should be fine if you stop at 8, 9, or 10 in any set. In short, 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 shouldn't decrease your rate of gains and it increases your recovery time between sets so that you can complete all your reps (study, study).
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, focus on staying within the 8–10 rep range: do 10 when you have high stamina and 8 when you don't.
According to some studies, 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 with, perhaps go lighter. According to studies, this is because women have muscle fiber distribution that responds better when stimulated with higher reps (study, study, article).
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. Three sets of one exercise should be enough to trigger a muscle's per-workout growth limit for the first 8 weeks. More sets would likely 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 anecdotally 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 potential 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 potentially misguided workouts are likely the result of either:
I repeat: Contrary to popular belief, 4 sets of 10 reps at the heaviest weight you can lift should be all you need to maximally trigger muscle size growth in a workout. (As always, you can verify this for 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.
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 further down this page.
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.
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: use proper form for every single rep. Failing to do so can result in injury, under-training intended muscles, and/or not getting bigger after your workouts.
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 might defeat the purpose of the exercise. (It should be obvious what the intended muscle is for each exercise. If not, ask a professional trainer to guide you.)
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 likely 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 of form:
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 often switch off the bench press for several months. There’s no need to 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 appear to 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, I don't see a need to switch off it. There are a couple reasons why you could, though:
If you're hitting a plateau and want to "switch things up," take a look at the plateau advice at the bottom of the cheat sheet.
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 should 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).
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.
If you regularly do cardio, you need to schedule it around your weightlifting sessions.
I couldn't find 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, I suggest doing 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, research says 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 that activity equal to a brisk 20 minute walk per day reduces your chances of dying from unnatural causes by up to 30% (study).
So here’s the conclusion: Don’t worry about light cardio being conflicting, but do worry about intensive cardio. Schedule the latter on non-workout days and follow these two rules:
Yes, unless otherwise noted. Specifically, the research suggests (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’ve only lost one or two weeks worth of gains, I suggest you 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 shouldn't regain the size you lost by re-traversing.
This is because, over the course of just a couple weeks, we likely 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. Hopefully.
In either case, I haven't found evidence that a muscle regrows faster than it originally grew. This means if you run an extreme calorie deficit for two days, which could potentially result in the loss of two workouts' worth of size gains, it could 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!
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.
Here are the likely reasons why much of the popular workout advice is wrong:
Some protein myths are rooted in research misinterpretation. “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.
Three research suggestions that can be misleading:
Consider the following:
The energy—or calories—in your meals and drinks come from three nutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Each plays a critical role in your body. You probably 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 shouldn't affect workout gains, so don’t worry about applying this rubric to your meal selection. I’m just listing this for the curious.
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 breakdown I'm about to share will be hard for some to swallow. Accepting it means 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!
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" is a misleading statement: 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 probably like doing the barbell bench press twice.
Now, because it’s not possible for us to do more than 5 sets yet we're considering two same-muscle exercises in a single workout, we must lower how much weight we lift on the second exercise to accommodate. 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.
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 the research suggests that more than 4 sets is not productive for maximizing muscle size.
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 consider turning 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 a pulley movement, time to switch fully over to barbells. When you start getting very high up in weight, I recommend having someone spot you. A lack of supervision can be dangerous. 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.
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 should 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.