This page prepares you for the gym. The next page shows you how to work out.
To build muscle, you need to eat enough, sleep enough, and lift heavy weights.
Working hard in the gym accomplishes nothing if you don’t eat and sleep enough on the day of a workout. That's how important the non-bodybuilding part of muscle development is: After exercising, your body builds new muscle using energy from that day's food. Later when you're sleeping, your body repairs your muscles.
To ease you into these lifestyle changes, this program begins with a prep week. When you’re done prep week, you have fewer surprises and excuses when committing to the workouts. You'll be much less likely to quit on your physique goals.
In other words, this handbook is more than the science of working out. It's also focused on holding you accountable so that this isn't just a throwaway blog post you read.
Prep week has only one hour's worth of tasks for you to perform. You will:
Before we begin, I want to stress that the easy reading portion of this handbook is over. What remains is a long-form walkthrough. So set aside 30 minutes to read this. While building muscle is very straightforward, there's a lot to know to avoid wasting your time. Do you want to gain 20lbs (9kg) in 2 years or 3 months? Then learn it properly.
At the end of this phase, I will provide you with an exhaustive cheat sheet. So there’s no need to take notes whatsoever. On the next page, we'll finally dive into the most efficient workout plan on the web. Just hold tight.
This takes 5 minutes.
If you don’t have a reference for what your body looked like before you started working out, it's surprisingly difficult to appreciate how much your body has changed over time. We humans are not wired to notice our own bodies' gradual changes.
Weekly, your muscle size gains will not be noticeable — you're only gaining a few millimeters. But, when gains are consistent, like they are on this program, adults can add 2.5” (6.35cm) of circumference to each arm after ~3 months. That’s significant.
Pictured below is just a 2” (5cm) gain. (If you’re a woman who’d like to stay smaller than this size, you can stop this program whenever you’re happy with your results.)
So here's what you need to do for your first task in prep week: Beginning today, take one set of body photos every 6 weeks. This is the interval at which physique changes are noticeable. For each set of photos, stand in front of a mirror and follow this:
This takes 15 minutes.
A weak grip makes it increasingly difficult to perform exercises as you progress to heavier weights. It results in prematurely reaching strength plateaus on up to half your exercises. The importance of building grip strength is well known in the sport of powerlifting but it is oddly missing from almost all beginning bodybuilding advice.
Specifically, an underdeveloped grip makes it hard to perform heavy upper back, trapezius, and forearm exercises. A weak grip forces tension into your forearms (study), which consequently have difficulty sustaining the stress of a full workout. This makes it hard to finish all your exercises with proper form. If you've had difficulty progressing on back exercises in the past, this likely played a part.
Gyms rarely have grip training equipment, so you must buy your own grippers. Each gripper you buy will have a fixed force. Over 3 months, you will buy three force levels as your grip strengthens: Men with average-sized hands should start with the trainer level. Women with average-sized hands grips should start with the guide level. Work your way through to the next two levels.
You’re welcome to keep going to higher levels, but it will have diminishing returns for our intermediate lifting objectives. Unless this is the lifestyle you want for yourself 😂:
Before I explain how to perform grip exercises, let’s define two bodybuilding terms:
One rep of the grip exercise entails squeezing the gripper's bars together then slowly releasing them:
So here's your task: Using your current force resistance level, do 3 sets of 10 reps for each hand every other day. (If you can’t complete 10 reps, work your way up to it over the coming weeks.) Take a 3 to 4 minute break between each set.
Be sure to always start with your non-dominant hand. You want this hand to set the limit for how many sets you do on your dominant hand so that it doesn’t get disproportionately stronger over time.
Whenever a resistance level starts getting easy to do all 3 sets of 10 reps with, buy the next grip resistance level and start using that instead.
Remember there’s no need to take notes on anything I'm saying here. I wrote a comprehensive cheat sheet at the end of this page.
Building muscle costs you 70 bucks a month in protein. You can buy protein on Amazon, at a grocery store, or at a local gym.
You also must spend a one-time 30 bucks on workout accessories.
You'll need to know your body weight to calculate the calories you should eat per day.
Either hand-mix your protein into oatmeal or make protein smoothies with a blender:
Magnet weights help you when you have a hard time lifting heavy weights.
If you have the money to spare, working out from home instead of the gym is incredible for maintaining your motivation and consistency. It’s what I did for my first month of working out so that I didn't have any excuses whatsoever. All I had to do was roll out of bed to begin lifting my weights for the day. I didn't miss a single workout.
If you think you’ll give yourself a bunch of excuses around traveling to the gym three times per week, then consider saving up the cash to buy the equipment below before you start this program. This program’s first two months are purposefully designed so you can work out either at the gym or at home (using the equipment below):
The total equipment cost for working out at home is around 500 bucks.
Believe it or not, this equipment doesn’t take up much space. (The workout bench is very narrow and low to the ground.) It can easily fit into any small space in your living room or garage. Because I'm a bachelor, I put mine in my bedroom for a month 💯
I should probably be using the 😞 emoji instead...
At the 2 month mark on this program, you will need to begin going to the gym now since you'll require more heavy duty equipment. (Alternatively, you could choose to stop gaining muscle at the 2 month mark if you're not looking to get very big. You could then maintain the muscle you've already built just using your home equipment.)
I always cite research when possible, but I don't blindly follow a study’s conclusions. (Not all studies are well designed.) For each topic, I try locating numerous studies then I read each with a skeptical eye. I experiment with the findings and compare them against alternative methods I test for several weeks. Throughout, I take muscle measurements to identify when something’s working for an extended period.
The next page of this handbook fully explains your nutritional requirements for gaining muscle. For now, let's just focus on the supplements. Both men and women should take supplements during prep week in order to get used to their taste and to develop the habit of taking them regularly.
There are only three safe supplements that I can conclude are worth taking for gaining muscle. I don’t recommend taking supplements other than the three listed below (unless recommended by a doctor) as they are unlikely to have a significant impact on your gym performance. Worse yet, they are probably not backed by sound research or their usefulness has been misinterpreted.
Your body needs a particular amount of protein to operate nominally and to build new muscle. You are unlikely to get enough protein from the meals you eat.
Weightlifters take protein powder instead of protein bars (and other related products) because (1) bulk powder is much cheaper per-serving than pre-made snacks and (2) you can buy plain powder without sugar and other unnecessary additives.
Choose one of the two protein powders listed below. In either case, you'll be averaging around 1-1.5 containers per month:
While some research shows that whey has a very slight benefit over the other sources of protein (study, study), this advantage is negligible over the long-term. So don’t get caught up in the differences. I've been using rice protein for a year now to great effect.
You need much less protein than most bodybuilding advice would have you think.
Here’s how to calculate your daily requirement: Multiply your current weight in pounds (measured when you wake up — before eating breakfast) by 0.8 to get how many grams of protein you should eat daily (study, study, study). If you weigh 150 lbs, that’s 120g of protein. (In kg, multiply your weight by 1.8. So, 68kg is 120g of protein.)
You already get protein from the meals you eat. Look at the nutrition labels on your foods to see how many grams of protein you’re getting per serving (or type
"[food_name_here] nutrition" into Google for an overview.)
Here are some reference points:
Since you’re already eating at least 30% (likely more) of your daily protein target from your meals, you only need to make up for the remaining 70% through powder.
Geek note: Even if you do reach your full daily target exclusively through meals, you still need powder because proteins in everyday foods might not have a complete ratio of amino acids, which is a requirement we won't get into here.
Let’s now adjust our calculations to take meal protein into account: We only need to multiply 0.60 times our bodyweight in lbs (or 1.32 times our bodyweight in kg) to determine how much daily protein we must get from powder. If you weigh 150lbs (68kg), that’s 90 grams (3.17oz), which is just a few scoops of whey or rice protein.
Protein easily mixes into smoothies, cereals, and oatmeal.
Here is the science on protein timing and serving sizes:
If you’re surprised by anything here, you can read more about protein myths in the FAQ. There are a ton of misconceptions about the best way to take protein.
By the way, here's the shake I make every morning:
Creatine (click for Amazon link) is a flavorless powder that you can mix into anything. Your body produces creatine naturally, and when supplemented with more, it can build muscle faster. Second only to protein, creatine is the most thoroughly researched workout supplement in the world. No adverse side effects have been reported so long as you don’t have existing renal issues (study, study, study).
Research is inconclusive about how creatine actually improves muscle size gains. But it is conclusive that it does — to the tune of up to doubling the speed of strength gains (study, study, study, study, meta-analysis, research overview). This program emphasizes lifting heavier weights every single week, so creatine’s benefits are very valuable to us.
Creatine doesn’t work for everyone (study), but it’s inexpensive and it has been widely deemed safe. To test its efficacy, stop taking creatine one month into this program then watch for a decrease in weightlifting performance over the next 2 weeks. If there isn't a decrease, you can permanently stop taking creatine.
This program only requires you to take creatine while building muscle — not while maintaining it thereafter — so you won’t be taking creatine forever.
There’s no research concluding that it substantially matters what time of day you take creatine — so take it at the same time you take protein in order to keep your supplement regimen simple. As with protein, take creatine every day, and try to take it with a bit of food (study). You can mix it into the same food or drink as your protein.
Note that nearly all creatine studies are designed with a “loading week” in which 4x the typical daily dose is taken for your first week in order for the creatine to saturate throughout your body. So, whereas the typical daily dose of creatine is 5g, you’ll be taking 5g four separate times a day for the duration of this prep week (study, study).
All this is recapped for you in the cheat sheet found at the end of this section.
If you’re not looking to get very muscular and don't plan to continue past the 2 month mark of this program, you can skip this since you won’t need the endurance boost.
Citrulline malate (click for Amazon link) is the third and final supplement worth taking. Citrulline malate (CM) has been demonstrated to significantly increase the volume of sets (we’re talking an extra 50%) you can perform in a workout session (study, study). We’re going to need the muscle endurance boosts CM provides when we hit the third month of this program.
CM is an amino acid found in several foods including musk melons, squashes, gourds, cucumbers, and pumpkins. There are no known side effects when it's taken at the recommended doses. (You can dive into the CM research over at Examine. You can also peruse the reviews left for citrulline malate products on Amazon.)
The recommended dose for CM is 8 grams (0.28oz), which is 4 scoops of the product linked above. Take this 60 minutes before your workout. (The timing is important; you won't feel the endurance enhancing effects until 60 minutes have passed.)
There is no benefit to taking CM post-workout or on non-workout days. Just take it before workouts.
A heads up that CM is incredibly sour 😬 Mixing it with other drinks will completely ruin them. So take it with a tiny bit of water and drink it in one shot!
Of the remaining supplements that don't affect your hormones, they are either a) backed by research with dubious results, b) negligibly effective, c) filler ingredients combined with CM, creatine, or protein, or d) a scam. So save your money and stick to the three supplements I’ve listed above.
Yes, you can skip "NO boosters," multivitamins, and BCAA’s (study).
This takes around an hour.
Find a gym close to you. All gyms should have the necessary equipment for completing the exercises in this handbook, which don't require anything uncommon.
During prep week, you’ll need to get yourself into a gym for three reasons: to learn proper form, to find your starting weights, and to reduce mental friction.
Learning proper form is critical to avoiding injury and understanding how to properly exercise your muscles so that the workouts are maximally effective.
Below are the exercises you’ll be performing for the first two months of this program. Clicking on an exercise name will load a demonstration video underneath.
📝 Exercise form notes.
(This exercise list is repeated in the cheat sheet at the bottom of this page.)
If you can afford it, it’s helpful to hire a trainer at your local gym for a couple sessions so he or she can walk you through the exercises. Take the list with you (or just have this page loaded on your phone) and insist that you're taught each one.
The next page in this handbook also has advice for how to lift with proper form.
You need to discover your starting heaviness for each of the exercises you’ll be doing.
When you get to the gym, perform each exercise in the list above with a heaviness that isn’t overly challenging but also isn’t so light that you can barely feel it. Once you've found a weight that satisfies this criteria, do 7 reps with it. Then take a 3 minute break and increase the weight to the next heaviness level to see if you can do 7 reps again.
Keep incrementing the weight and taking 3 minute breaks until you get to a heaviness you cannot lift the full 7 reps with. When you get to this level, make a note of the level that came before it. This second-to-last level will be your starting weight when you begin working out next week.
(You can save these numbers in the free mobile app (iOS, Android) I decided to make the app genuinely free — there are no paid gimmicks — in the hope that people who use it would share this handbook in return.)
If you’re working with a trainer, ask them to walk you through this weight-finding process. If you don't have a trainer, don't be be overwhelmed. It's straightforward.
You’re also using this first gym visit to get used to the transportation and parking situation you’ll be dealing with three times a week. (And don’t forget to sign up for a membership while you're there!)
Your goal is to minimize any and all annoyances that stand between you and the gym. The less of a hassle you perceive going to the gym to be, the less likely you are to use it as an excuse to quit this program partway through.
Go figure out what your process is going to be. Start with a small step.
Without good sleep on the night of a workout, your entire day’s worth of proper nutrition, exercise, and supplementation will be severely if not completely canceled out. You also need a good sleep the night before your workout to have enough energy to exercise without getting exhausted (study).
Research concludes that a “good sleep” is around 7 hours (study). Anecdotally, I’ve found no muscle gain and repair issues when I get just 6.25–6.5 hours of sleep, whereas my gains absolutely do stall if I get less than that.
The takeaway is to schedule your late-night partying on days where (1) you aren't working out and (2) you’re not going to be working out the next day either. Because this program requires you to work out three times per week, if you don’t think you can get decent sleep for half the days over the next three months, address your sleep issues before starting this program. Hopefully the advice below will help.
Before we get to the advice, let me remind you that I am not a doctor. If you have chronic sleep issues, see a doctor and check out the National Institute of Aging’s advice for next steps. Further, if you suffer from anxiety that makes it difficult to fall asleep, consider seeing a psychologist who has experience treating insomnia.
Now let’s start with advice for reducing how often you wake up in the middle of the night. Waking up for a moment then going back to bed isn’t a problem. But if you wake up repeatedly throughout the night or have a hard time falling back asleep once you’re up, you need to address this.
Do not drink anything (including soup) within 3.5 hours of sleeping. This is hard to do if you're a nighttime eater, but it can really make a difference (study).
Not drinking before bed requires that you drink more water earlier in the day. For example, if you typically get ~4 bottles worth of liquid every day (any form of liquid is fine, including soups), then get all 4 bottles before the 3.5 hour sleep window begins. Otherwise, you’re at risk of waking up thirsty in the middle of the night.
Next, I’ve anecdotally found that consuming more than ~5% of the recommended daily intake of sodium (salt) within 3.5 hours of sleeping triggers nighttime bathroom visits. Listed on the labels of food items is how much sodium there is per serving. Take note.
Low-sodium foods include unsalted beans, raw veggies, protein powder, plain unsalted oatmeal, and anything else that has no more than trace amounts of salt.
Finally, be sure to 🚽 as much as you comfortably can right before going to bed.
If you live in a humid climate, buy a hygrometer (a humidity measuring device). If the humidity in your bedroom is above 40–45% at night, you’re at risk of getting worse sleep (study) due to either ambient discomfort with the humidity level or your body needing water after prolonged sweating.
To decrease bedroom humidity, first check that you’re not leaving windows open since it’s the outside air that brings it in. Then try one of these two tactics:
If you sleep in a noisy environment, buy a noise machine. It’ll create a constant, low-volume “white noise” that will mask the inconsistent sounds you hear at night. This is helpful because it's actually not a low level of ambient noise that prevents you from falling asleep, but rather noise that intermittently starts and stops, e.g. sirens and, dogs barking (study, study). A noise machine works by masking the inconsistency.
Have a hard time falling asleep ("insomnia")? Try these tips:
Here's the recap: º Try to sleep at roughly the same nightly. º Do cardio in the mornings. º Avoid naps and caffeine in the evening. º If you often wake up to pee, don’t consume liquids or salt within 3.5 hours of going to bed. º If you wake up from dry mouth or sweating, make sure your room is not too humid. If it is, turn on the AC or buy a dehumidifier. º If noise wakes you up, try a white noise machine.
In any case, first consult a doctor.
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📝 Exercise form notes.
Of friends I've polled, most people who complete prep week go on to gain at least 10 of their 20 possible beginner pounds of muscle.
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