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

This is the last page of the handbook. Start at page one.


1. Workouts: Plan A and Plan B

2. Muscle measurements

3. Nutrition

4. Cheat sheet

5. Background research

6. FAQ

Let's do this

This page explains the science of weightlifting and how to eat for building muscle.

I've designed this program so that you're actually likely to complete it. I really want you to — otherwise you've read this for nothing and you won't feel compelled to spread the word about my handbooks. 

But, there's a catch: There's a lot you must know. Bodybuilding is finicky, which is why readers have failed to see gains in the past.

There are a several ways to cancel out all your progress in the gym, and we have to learn what they are. So set aside 30 minutes to read this final page.

Based on the friends I've polled, those who don’t make it through this last page don't wind up starting the program. Ever. Of those who do finish the page, maybe around half get into the gym within a month. That's a pretty great ratio.

So force yourself through this. The reward is sweet: When you're done, you'll feel confident about bodybuilding for the first time. All the mystery will finally be gone.

"If I had ten hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend nine hours sharpening my ax."
– Abraham Lincoln

At the end of this page is a cheat sheet with everything you need to know. It's your new master reference for bodybuilding and nutrition. So there's no need to take notes.

This final page covers:

This is science, not a rambling blog post

Before we begin, a word on advice: Just because someone you know is muscular, they are not necessarily the right person to give you educated bodybuilding advice. If something worked for them, they may assume it works for everyone else. But anything could work for anyone when done long and hard enough.

This guide contradicts most of the popular workout advice. And it backs up its claims. After the cheat sheet is a Research and analysis section that explores the rationales behind all of the recommendations. Refer to it when you want proof and clarification.

What’s the story behind this handbook?Expand

Since college, I’ve wanted to be muscular. But, despite working out consistently and eating well, I never got big. I concluded it was my genetics and I assumed bigger guys were taking steroids (although some were, most weren’t). After a couple years of no progress, I stopped going to the gym.

Recently, I got the itch to work out again after a friend referred to me as "skinny." That actually came as a surprise as I hadn't realized how thin I'd gotten. Looking back, I'm embarrassed about it. I look like a complete 👻 in this interview I gave last August.

After being called skinny, I Googled, “What’s Chris Hemsworth’s workout routine?” (I had just watched Thor and was amazed at his size.) Nothing useful came up, so I searched, “The science of weightlifting.” Nothing useful came up either.  

All I found were YouTube stars spouting non-scientific nonsense and magazine articles talking about how celebrities eat tons of chicken to prepare for shirtless scenes.

How is this possible? In 2016, there are great, free guides for everything except bodybuilding? Doesn't everyone want to know how to get bigger?

I mean, sure, I get that I should go to the gym and do benchpresses. But reading that over and over isn't going to help me. I need something to tell me exactly how much weight I'm supposed to lift, what I should do when I can’t lift more, how I'm supposed to design meals, whether I should take supplements, and whether I should switch up my exercises on a regular basis. There was just too much uncertainty for my liking.

I was reluctant to start going to the gym unless I knew the answers so that I could avoid wasting my time again. So I committed to spending months geeking out over the research and self-experimenting. I read a thousand pages worth of weightlifting studies. I wanted to know, If I followed all the scientific recommendations, could I build muscle quicker than most people? 

It normally takes people over a year to see ~20-25lbs (9-11kg) of muscle gains. The speed boost I researched and distilled was incredibly important to me because had I been told that I had to go to the gym for a year in order to get where I wound up at the 3 month mark, I would have been overwhelmed by the commitment and likely wouldn’t have done it at all. I assumed other people felt the same way.

So I wrote this guide.

My journey continues. Read more on my blog and say hello on Twitter.


Why you should follow these workout plans

If you don't plan on working out just yet, skip this section by scrolling down to Measuring your gains. Continue to the end from there — the rest is important.

Unlike other exercise plans found on the web, these are designed from year-long research and experimental evidence — not guesswork and copy-pasting. Try to get the other plans you've seen before out of your head. They were likely highly inefficient. You can read all the underlying research at the bottom of this page.

The plans below are carefully designed to reduce the chances of hitting a plateau (which is 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 sufficiently recover.

Finally, these plans balance whole body muscle growth with not overworking yourself.

I should mention that if you haven't downloaded this handbook's app (iOSAndroid) already, it's the easiest way to follow the program. It's completely free, and it has:

If you’re following this program, there’s honestly no reason not to use the app:

How heavy to lift every workout

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

You need to get a starting reference for how much you can lift. Refer to the find your starting weights section from Prep Week.

After you have that, each time you return to the gym, lift 2.5lbs (1.15 kg) heavier per arm (or leg). 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. (This of course includes exercises with two single-handed lifts at the same time, e.g. dumbbell chest fly.)

(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 slightly 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 to get to a total of 2.5lbs.

If you're consistently gaining size using a 2.5lbs (1.15kg) increment, increasing it more 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 pinpoint the culprit.

Further down this page, you'll learn how to measure your weekly muscle growth. You will use your measurement results to prove to yourself everything I'm claiming here.

If you ever 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 drop lower your weight can lead to overworking your muscle, which can cause you to lose a workout's worth of size.

Workout Plan A: Your first 8 weeks

If your arms are already as muscular as these, you can skip Plan A to start with the more intense Plan B detailed momentarily. Otherwise, even if you’ve weightlifted before, start with Plan A. It consists of hitting each muscle group once per workout.

For your first two months of working out, your inexperienced muscles will grow efficiently even with the lesser stimulus of 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, which is the ultimate goal.

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 are prematurely plateauing and should refer to the overcoming plateaus section at the bottom of the cheat sheet.

Alright, here they are. Clicking on an exercise will load a demonstration video below.

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 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 will need time to recover.

Workout Plan B: 8 weeks to infinity

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 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!

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. Unless you want to buy this.

Because 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.) 

🚨  The order of exercises and workout days in Plan B is critical. Never rearrange them or you 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 doing back exercises immediately followed by a bicep exercise isn’t a good idea.)

The importance of exercise 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. Whatever you do, do not temporarily rearrange the exercise order.

As always, click on an exercise name to load a video underneath 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 Plan B:

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

What comes after Plan B?Expand

Short answer:


Long answer

Plan B doesn’t end. It’s the plan you’ll be using for as long as you want to keep growing. It'll last you forever. 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 assess this.) There are two reasons for this: First, it becomes increasingly difficult to stress your stronger muscles. You are required to keep lifting heavier weights to gain more muscle, but at some point, pulley machines won't have enough weight to keep your muscles challenged.

The alternative is then to use free weights (e.g. dumbbells and barbells) for all your exercises, but there are many exercises for which using very heavy free weights becomes difficult due to the whole-body strength required. Or it becomes unsafe unless you have someone watching and assisting you, which may be impractical. 

Most people will want to stop at this point because they will be fairly muscular already. For those wanting to continue, becoming a powerlifter requires extreme dedication, and it’s outside the scope of this handbook. I would suggest searching Yelp for a “strength gym” in your city. The trainers there can help push you further.

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 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 5’4” (1.65m) woman with narrow hips? Even if you worked out for a decade, you won’t get as muscular as a larger man naturally could.

If women want to avoid "masculine" musclesExpand

The incline chest press, overhead press, front raise, shrug, calf raise, and lat pulldown can be skipped if you want to only build your bicep, tricep, back, butt, hamstring, and quad muscles. The muscles  being excluded are are your chest, traps, lats, and calves. Refer to the illustration below:

Human muscle diagram

If you want to skip these muscles for fear of getting a "masculine build," the downside is that you will not build whole-body strength, which is important for sports, physical labor, and when progressing to heavy barbell exercises.

If you want to skip them, my recommendation is to split the difference: Work all your muscles by performing each exercise in the green box above, but stop increasing weight on the excluded exercises once you reach the 2 month mark. This way those particular muscles will stay at their new and improved size, but won't continue getting bigger like the rest of your muscles will.

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. 

Workout maintenance plan

You can stop Plan A or Plan B whenever you’re happy with your new size. To maintain the muscle you’ve already built:

The maintenance plan’s exercise order doesn’t matter since we’re not pushing ourselves very hard. Feel free to rearrange exercises as is convenient:

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

📝 Exercise form notes.

If you're following the reduced female workout (where you're skipping incline chest press, overhead press, front raise, shrug, calf raise, lat pulldown), your maintenance plan only consists of one workout per week:

Female reduced maintenance plan

Julian tricep extension
Pulley crunch
Seated pulley row
Oblique twist
Hanging leg raise
Bicep curl
•  8–10 reps  •  Stop one rep before failure   •  2 sets per exercise   •  Rest 3-5 min  •  50 min workouts

Commit 💍

Having a workout partner can help sustain your commitment. You can share your goals on Facebook to find someone who'll join you. For example, "I'm starting a weightlifting program. I want you to hold me responsible for seeing this through. Anyone want to join me? This is the guide I'm using: {}."

If you'd like, the button below will let you quickly post on your timeline.

How big superheroes are

Let's take a break. You've done a lot of reading (and you 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:

Nutrition   I know for a fact this is the point where many readers get tired and quit. Don't you be one of them. You're so darn close. This is the final section 😘  Here's a bear to keep you alert... Great, now that I have your attention...

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 don't use them as target physiques.

Measuring your muscle growth

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

This section is the unique result of my year-long experimentation. I have not seen this information shared anywhere else online. And it’s very strange to me that no one else is writing about the human muscle growth timeline and measurement cycle when my results are reproducible for anyone who measures their muscles after working out! 

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. No BS. Also, remember that there's a Research and analysis section that dives into the science.

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 that 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, 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.

Now you also understand why you can actually get away with being lax on your non-workout days: not eating your daily calorie target on non-workout days has no relation to or impact on your size gains in the post-workout 12 hour window. But you still can't risk under-eating or you'll lose muscle you already gained.

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

Measuring your muscle growth

Because of the consistency of the eat → workout → sleep → growth process I've identified, 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.

Another benefit to measurements is staying motivated week to week by systematically verifying we're growing despite the visual changes being too subtle to see.

We will use the arm we write with as a proxy for the growth of the rest of our body.  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.

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 every week. Measuring an arm takes a few seconds.

(With this said, once every 6 weeks, measure your shoulders, chest, calf, forearm, legs, and butt 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 overcoming plateaus advice at the bottom of the cheat sheet.)

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

Body tape muscle arm measurement

Watch this video to see how a correct measurement is performed. You can see that finding the correct measurement point 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 everything you’re doing, and it’ll demotivate you. So measure carefully every time.

🚧 We don’t measure our arm when flexed because it is difficult to ensure that you always flex to the same degree. If you were to 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 will 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 is the difference between looking frail or athletic. 

(Again, here’s the reference for a 2.5” gain.)

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

Diet and nutrition 

This is where many readers get tired and stop reading. But, you're so darn close!

Here's a crazy animal to keep you alert...
Great, now that I have your attention...

... I want to tell you that eating and sleeping are as important as working out. 

While tricks like timing your meals and taking supplements can improve your performance in the gym, they will not make or break your gains like sleep and calories will. In other words, if you do everything else wrong on a given workout day but do the following things right, you will still gain muscle strength or size by the next morning:

To repeat: If, on a given day, you nail a workout but don’t eat enough calories, you risk gaining ZERO muscle mass by the next morning. (You might still gain strength.) Further, if you nail your workout plus reach your calorie target but you only get a couple hours of sleep that night, you risk not getting stronger or delaying your muscle recovery.

Interestingly, after a year's worth of testing, I can conclude that how much you eat and sleep on non-workout days doesn’t affect your workout day gains unless you’re consistently sleep or calorie deprived. With that said, you still want to get enough sleep on the night before a workout so you have enough energy to lift heavy weights.

Here’s the takeaway: If you suspect you’ll be unable to eat or sleep enough on a workout day, reschedule the workout to a day where think you will. On non-workout days, avoid being sleep and calorie deprived, but don’t stress about it too much.

Geek note: Research shows that, given the same total duration of sleep, your performance in the gym is more negatively affected by waking up earlier than usual than going to bed later than usual (study). So, if you’re unable to stick to your normal sleep schedule (if you don’t have one, now’s the time to start), try prioritizing sleeping a couple hours late rather than waking a couple hours early.

Your daily calorie target and BMR

On workout days, you have to eat enough calories to build new muscle. On non-workout days, you have to eat enough calories to avoid losing existing muscle. 

If you don’t reach your daily calorie target, your body turns existing muscle into energy. In fact, if you measure the circumference of your arm the day after running a calorie deficit where you only ate half your target, you’ll notice you’ve lost one workout’s worth of size gains! This is the one and only annoying part of weightlifting.

The Rock claims to eat nearly 5,000 calories per day. Want to see what 5,000 looks like? 

Your daily calorie target is derived from your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the amount of calories you burn just by being awake for a day; your body uses a lot of energy to perform its basic functions like pumping blood and powering your brain.

This means if you eat precisely your BMR’s worth of calories in a day, and you perform no physical activity (e.g. walking, running, weightlifting) that burns calories, you will get enough calories to prevent your body from breaking down your existing muscle.

However, since most of us aren’t completely sedentary, plus we’re now going to the gym three times per week and that burns calories unto itself, we must eat calories beyond our BMR to avoid being in a calorie deficit by the time we go to sleep.

Use the calorie calculator below to estimate your daily target. The numbers outputted are how many calories you must eat on your workout and non-workout days. Workout days require extra calories to make up for what you burn while weightlifting.

For the weight field, select your weight upon waking up (before eating). For the walking and non-weightlifting exercise fields (e.g. running, biking, swimming), enter your average hours performed each week.

  Male     Female

Height — (move slider)
Age — (move slider)

Weight — (move slider)

Walking — (move slider)

Non-weightlifting exercise — (move slider)
Workout day target

Non-workout day target

The numbers above include
0 cals from 0g of protein powder

Saving your calorie targets to a text file is not good enough. You need to keep these numbers top of mind. They must always be in your face. Write them on a post-it note.

Note that the numbers above reflect the calories you must eat including those you're getting from daily protein powder supplementation. Each gram of protein is 4 calories.

The Rock is 44 years old and weighs 260lbs (118kg). In an interview, he said he does 1 hour of cardio per day. We can input these numbers into the calculator above to estimate that he walks for 3 hours a day on average!

In the next section, we develop an important framework for consistently achieving our calorie targets… through delicious meals 🍴 Although the following three sections are optional, I highly recommend you read them before you officially begin working out.

Meal plansExpand

There is no special "bodybuilding diet." There's just common sense nutrition and calorie targets.

To consistently reach your daily calorie target, it’s critical to develop a reliable meal plan based off what I call “core foods.” These are healthy, high-calorie foods you should keep stocked in your kitchen to form the basis of most meals:

Bowls of oatmeal, brown rice, black beans, and quinoa

Every single day, you must eat enough to reach your calorie target.

Decide which of these foods you’re willing to eat. Then buy a ton of them. Because of the importance of consistently hitting your calorie target, don’t overlook the convenience of having these simple go-to foods on-hand.

If your target is 2,000 calories and you’ve chosen to eat the majority of your calories from beans and lentils (350 calories per can), that’s 5.5 cans of beans/lentils to eat.

Of course, you can also eat other foods beyond these core ones. You have a life to live, and who doesn't like dining out and making home cooked meals! That's no problem. But you’ll need to develop a rough idea of the calories in the non-core meals you eat so you know how much of your core to avoid eating that day. 

For example, if you eat a 500 calorie restaurant lunch and a 1000 calorie restaurant dinner, subtract 1,500 from your 2,000 daily target to determine how many calories you must get from core foods. 500 remaining calories is 1.5 cans of beans or lentils we must eat. Hopefully we add some spice and veggies to keep it interesting!

To keep your calculations simple, make these assumptions when dining out:

Low, medium, and high-calorie meals

These numbers are low-balled by 25-35% because we can’t risk undereating. Failing to hit your calorie target will hinder or completely prevent your muscle size gains from that day’s workout. (Yes, slightly overeating on workout days means you might gain a couple pounds of fat by the end of this program, but I will show you how to quickly burn it off.)

If you’re ever in doubt about hitting your daily calorie target, follow this:

If there are certain foods or meals you regularly eat, take the time to note the calorie counts listed on their nutritional labels. If you’re eating a prepared meal that doesn't have a label, use MyFitnessPal to tally up the calorie counts for the meal’s individual food items (e.g. steak, potatoes, gravy). You don’t have to constantly do this. The goal is just to have a rough idea of how many calories you’re getting from non-core meals so you instinctively know how many cups/cans of core foods you can avoid that day.

As a reference, here’s a sample food plan. Note how most of the calories come from beans and oatmeal (the “core foods”):

Don’t worry: You don’t have to eat this healthy, and you don’t actually need to overthink how much oil you eat per day. Just consider sauces as uncounted excess calories that you'll burn off at the end of this program with my fat loss advice.

Below is an incomplete list of healthy foods. If you want to go beyond what is necessary for bodybuilding and also optimize your diet, try eating these:

While we’re on the subject of eating healthy, keep in mind 🍸🍹🍺 are common sources of sneaky calories. They add up quickly, especially if you party frequently. A typical 250ml bottle of fruit juice is 120 calories, and 1 can of coke or beer is 150 calories. Be sure to count these calories toward your daily target.

Meal timingExpand

In Prep Week, we concluded protein timing is not important. Meal timing, however, can be: While it won’t make or break your gains, eating both before and after a workout increases your workout endurance and decreases your post-workout exhaustion. 

To make meal timing convenient for yourself, try to schedule your workouts near breakfast, lunch, or dinner so you only have to add a pre- or post-workout snack into your schedule. If you eat very light breakfasts or skip breakfast altogether, avoid working out in the morning. Wait until after you’ve had a big lunch or dinner.

As for post-workout meals, one study suggests it increases your rate of muscle gain (study). Another study suggests it makes you more mentally alert for the next few hours (study). This post-workout meal doesn't have to be big — it can just be a snack. The study above suggests at least 50g (roughly 300 calories) for a person weighing 150 lbs (68kg). That equates to two packs of instant oatmeal, a can of beans, or 1.5 cups of rice. (To find a food's calorie count, read its nutritional label or search MyFitnessPal.)

Before we move on, let’s bust some myths:

If you’re not hungry enough throughout the day to hit your calorie targets, try this: 

🚧 Remember that you lose your muscle mass very quickly if you don’t get enough calories. Getting your calories isn't a bonus — it's a requirement!

How much water should I drink?Expand

The common workout advice is that you should drink 2.5-3 liters per day, but there's actually no health benefit to chugging back water all day (study). 

Just like you get protein from the normal foods you eat, you also get water from your food (article, overview). So even if you did require 2.5L per day, you wouldn't have to drink that entire amount. Research hasn’t reached a consensus on exactly how much water we need, but a rule of thumb is to drink two cups at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

Two notable exceptions are if you live in a hot climate or sweat a lot, in which case you should be diligent about getting enough water to avoid becoming dehydrated. 

To repeat, for the purposes of bodybuilding, I have found no evidence that there’s a specific daily water intake that will benefit your gains. Just don't get dehydrated.

Time to start

You now have absolutely everything you need to surprise your friends with a body transformation. How much more information do I have to give you before you commit?

Let's freaking do this.

Use this page as your reference for how to work out during those 90 days. Just refer to the Cheat Sheet below.

Next steps

Next up is the cheat sheet. It recaps everything in this handbook.

After the cheat sheet are the optional Research and FAQ sections. They explore the science and reasoning behind the recommendations made in the cheat sheet. Skim these if you have questions or want proof of this handbook's claims.

If you want to have fun sinking your teeth into bonus content, check out the Losing Fat + Podcast. The podcast explores the science behind motivation.

If you liked how I wrote this handbook, you might like my Grow a Startup one too.

— Julian Shapiro

Cheat sheet

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Four principles of gaining muscle

Workout plans

How to work out



Overcoming plateaus

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Research and analysis (optional reading)

Warming upExpand

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 timesExpand

The fitness expression “no pain no gain” is misleading. The only “pain” you should encounter in the gym 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 that contained 50% more sets than this program normally calls for. So long as you’re doing everything else right, you’ll see no increase in gains over your 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 your 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 perfect form. If we don't complete all our 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 enough 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).


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 reps 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 grow faster by choosing a weight 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, use a lighter weight. The reason for this is that women have muscle fiber distribution that responds better when stimulated with higher reps (study, study, article).


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 will be shorter, and you’ll 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 formExpand

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 forcefully 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, there is no way you will continue to see 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 exercisesExpand

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 its consistent tension and wide range of motion. 

The other muscles in your body are no different. Muscles have no intelligent awareness of how they’re being worked. So a change in "angle" is a misleading notion. 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 exercisesExpand

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. In fact, most of the bodybuilding recommendations you've heard before are rooted in 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. They involve multiple 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 hit your 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 should be directly targeted. 

And guess what the best way to target a specific muscle is? Pulley machines (one-sided machines are good too) — not free weights like barbells and dumbbells. Pulley machines are fantastic because:

Let’s dive into that first point: Some compound exercises, like those for back and traps, will eventually become exceedingly difficult because your forearms and grip strength will become limiting factors. Once you reach this point, you can consider training the intended muscles with isolation exercises that remove grip strength from the equation. This is done by using a pulley machine, which is in part why pulley exercises are heavily incorporated into Plan B of this program. 

Pulley machines are also less intimidating and less of a hassle for beginners. There's simply no reason to not incorporate them into even the most advanced routines.


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) interacts with 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’ll need to account for.

(If you insist on doing 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.


Does all this advice equally apply to women?Expand

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 very 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?Expand

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, for example, 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?Expand

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

🚧 I've found most of the advice on,, and to be misleading. I recommend you ignore those pages and stick with the information in this handbook. One site I do recommend is There’s a lot of evidence-based analysis there.

Why are there so many protein myths?Expand

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?Expand

Consider the following:

Should I eat a specific macronutrient ratio?Expand

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 our muscle gains (study). So simply follow the global dietary guidelines. Those numbers loosely 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?Expand

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 our earlier discussion 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, doing a barbell bench press followed by a dumbbell bench press is effectively the same thing as 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 exercise, 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?Expand

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?Expand

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, your elevated heart rate or your unrecovered muscles will 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'm in the mood to buy stuffExpand

How does this compare to StrongLifts 5x5?Expand

Hopefully you learned something new in this handbook. Thank you for being open-minded and reading it.

What size is Julian at today?Expand

I wrote the first draft of this handbook months ago. I meant to publish this then. But I unexpectedly lost half the muscle I had gained. 

This is what happens when you're staying with friends before moving into a new home. I couldn't sustain a diet; I didn't have a kitchen and I was constantly running around. 

Ultimately, I under-ate for weeks.

It was demotivating to lose that much muscle. But I came to realize it was a blessing in disguise: Now I could experiment to understand how muscle is lost when you under-eat (it's proportional to how much you under-shoot your daily calorie target) and whether there are effective techniques to gaining muscle back quickly (there aren't). 

So this finalized guide reflects all these additional learnings, and it's much more comprehensive for it. In the end, I didn't mind retreading months' worth of work because I rather this guide be thorough than my body transformation be impressive.

As of this guide's publishing, I'm back to the biggest I've ever been — although that isn't saying much at all. My next goal is to get about a third bigger from where you see me in this photo (on the right side).

All the while, I'm trying to appreciate my own advice on being realistic about body image. I have to remind myself that I don't need to be huge. The goal is just to be at something reasonable, which we've already discussed means looking like this.

I want to thank you for taking the time to read all this. I put a lot of work into it. I hope to share advice with you for decades to come.

Read more of my story on my blog and come say hello on Twitter.

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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.

Although, I'm happy to answer a few questions for anyone who's gracious enough to buy the bonus content (below)!

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