Updated: May 8, 2018
Since you are here I assume that you are looking for that amazing workout that can help you build muscle as fast as possible. Or maybe you are just looking for some interesting ideas. Either way I am going to share with you some basic principles that can guide you to set up a workout routine to build an amazing physique that you did not even think it was possible!
When I am setting up a new plan either for myself or anybody else, I always go back to the basics and look at all elements that can affect muscle gain and then prioritize what is most important. I am going to explain you how you can in just a few steps create a plan that will serve you for lifetime, and that will maximize your muscle gains with minimum time wasted. This way you know that everything you do will work and all you need to do is stick to it until you reach desired results.
Step 1: Understand what is sustainable and what is not
This would be the single most important thing when it comes to setting up any workout plan. The main reason why many coaches out there put this at the first place is because without consistency there is no results. This is why when you are setting up a plan you need to understand that there is no magic workout plan or split out there that will give you an edge or some magical results. At the end it comes down to hard work and being consistent in the gym and outside of the gym. This is exactly what separates many people from having a six pack and an amazing physique and being just an average Joe who has been stagnating for the last 2 years in the gym having exactly the same physique for a very long time without any progress.
To be consistent you need to create a workout that you might enjoy more, or is less painful for you. This is something that I strongly recommend for someone at the very beginning. If you prefer a PPL (Push, pull, legs) split then do that split instead of full body workouts. It is that simple! There are many variations out there and they all do the same thing: hitting your muscle groups frequently enough with volume that produces muscle growth.
Another important point to consider is staying healthy and injury free. This will allow you not to miss any workouts and keep progressing over time. This part is strongly related to the next step that I am going to talk about.
Step 2: Understand volume and intensity
For everyone looking to gain muscle size, volume and intensity are one of the foundation blocks that you can build your whole program around. Let us talk about volume first.
Volume affects muscle gain through increased protein synthesis where your muscles start building new protein, increased anabolic signaling that activates muscle cells to start creating new protein, and increased number of satellite cells that help repair the damaged muscle fibers. According to the scientific study Burd et al., 2010, multiple sets are better than one and anabolic signaling is higher with 10 sets per session compared with 5 (Ahtiainien et al., 2015). When it comes to satellite cells 18 weekly sets per muscle group resulted better than 6 sets (Hanssen et al.,2013). And finally, there were better improvements in strength with 16 weekly sets compared with 8 (Marshall et al 2011).
What can we conclude with this findings?
Safe zone for each muscle group is in a range of 12 - 18 sets per week.
Now lets discuss intensity. Intensity of load refers to the percentage of the your 1 repetition maximum. To give you an example you can bench press 100kg for 1 rep then your 80% intensity of load would be 80kg. There are three ''zones'' of repetition ranges. Heavy (1-5 repetitions), medium (6-12) and light (15+). Should we use all three zones to maximize muscle growth? The short answer is yes. However understanding what each zone does might help you to know when to use each zone.
Generally speaking heavy zone (1-5 reps) is best for gaining strength as it produces high mechanical tension and greater neural adaptations. You simply become more skilled over time by practicing specific movement. As a result you strength might go up but it is might not be followed by muscle gain necessarily.
Medium zone (6-12) is the bread and butter of gaining muscle because it stimulates full array of muscle fibers while also allowing you to achieve adequate volume resulting in muscle development.
Light zone (15+) achieves the highest metabolic stress (muscle pump) and activates Type I fibers (slow twitch) helping you develop endurance.
To combine all 3 zones your focus should be 6-12 rep range, and then building around that. For example, you can do a muscle building meso cycle (one month) where you mainly focus on 6-12 rep range followed by a heavy zone where you want your muscles to re sensitize again to medium rep range. You would also build strength during that month, mainly focusing on 1-5 rep range, which will allow you to use more weight for medium rep range the following month. This will most certainly result in muscle gain.
Step 3: Understand training frequency
How often should you work each muscle group per week? According to the current research it would be anywhere between 2 and 4 times per week depending on the muscle group with some research even showing as high as 7. Lets see why frequency matters and how much of a difference does it make.
Muscle protein synthesis
As workouts elevate muscle protein synthesis, the process by which your muscles build new protein, it is usually the most frequent point mentioned as a benefit of training more than once a week. Research shows us that MPS can stay elevated between 2 to 4 days, depending on how heavy your workout was, and then returns back to normal. This tells us that training each muscle group every 2 to 4 days makes sense if we want to keep MPS elevated.
Muscle damage recovery
When you lift weights you cause muscle damage which is why your muscles feel sore the day or sometimes even 2 or 3 days after. Most of the research out there points that it can take up to 4 days for muscle fibers to fully recover. This indicates that training every muscle group every 4 days makes most sense.
After training legs on Monday for example, it would be very difficult to train them again the following day with a sufficient enough volume. So how long does it take to fully recover your strength? Research shows us that it can take anywhere from 2 to 4 days depending on the workout, volume and intensity. This means that you should work each muscle group every 2-4 days.
Comparison between working out once a week and twice a week
There was a number of studies comparing differences in working out each muscle group once a week and twice a week (Gentil et al., 2015, Mclester et al., 2000, Shoenfeld et al., 2015, Arazi & Asadi et al., 2011, Thomas & Burns et al.,2016, Yue et al., 2017). Surprisingly in most studies that were equated by volume, there were no major differences, where numbers slightly favor higher frequency which is 2 times per week.
The bottom line is that training once or twice or even more times does not give you significantly better results as long as you meet the required weekly volume. This means that frequency should not be a priority and that you should adjust your frequency to your lifestyle to make it sustainable. You can build a good physique by working out each muscle group even once a week (bro split). Now to optimize and fine tune your program you would probably want to exercise each muscle group twice per week. However if you previously used to train every muscle group once a week this does not mean that you need to double your volume. Simply split the session in two parts and be in a range of 12-18 or 16 - 25 sets for females per muscle group weekly and you are good to go.
Step 4: Understand how to use progression
Measuring lean muscle gain can be very difficult simply because it takes so much time to build it in the first place. If you think about it, you want your body to build a completely new tissue, and to have a visible results it take months to achieve it. To give you an idea, if you are just starting to lift weights you can expect to gain 2-4 kg of muscle in 3 months. After a year of training this will likely go down to a lower end. On the other hand if you are experienced lifter you might be expecting gains of around 1-2 kg in 3-4 months time at best. That is not a lot of muscle and it is very hard to track it. Just gaining weight does not mean anything, as it can be fat or water. You simply don't know how much of it is muscle.
So how do we measure it? By progression in the gym.
If you are a beginner, your compound lifts improvement might not give you a good idea of muscle gain as your body is learning new movements and getting better at it. This results in higher performance, which does not necessarily mean muscle gain. On the other hand, isolation movements might give you a better idea for your gains if you are a beginner. The more trained you become your gym performance will correlate better with muscle growth both in compound and isolation movements.
As an experienced lifter you should be focusing more on increasing your total volume than just strength. Instead of increasing weight that you are lifting with micro plates you should be aiming at increasing the reps first, this way you perform more volume. A great way to do this is to start your barbell curls with 4 sets of 8 and work your way up till you reach all 4 sets of 12. After that you can increase your weight and repeat the process. You need to see an improvement in performance in all sets if your goal is to maximize muscle gain. How does this look in real life? Here is an example:
Set 1: 100 x 8
Set 2: 100 x 8
Set 3: 100 x 7
4 weeks afterwards
Set 1: 100 x 11
Set 2: 100 x 10
Set 3: 100 x 10
In this case you can be certain that you gained muscle as your performance increased in all three sets. So instead of focusing only on your first set you need to look at all three sets as the volume is key for muscle growth.
It has also been shown that improvement in low skill movements like leg extension are more correlated with muscle growth to a specific muscle compared with multi joint movements like squat. This is simply because multiple more muscles are involved in compound exercises.
Step 5: Pick your exercises
Exercise selection is very simple. To fully maximize muscular growth you need to incorporate both compound and isolation exercises. This is pretty much common knowledge, however what is not common is to stick to these exercises for a long enough period to actually get stronger and make progress. You see, when you switch an exercise neural mechanisms need to adapt first. This is why you get stronger in a particular new exercise in the first few weeks without necessarily getting bigger simply because of motor learning.
To summarize it you should make a selection of exercises and stick to it for the entire meso cycle (one month). After you complete the cycle you can then change 1 or 2 exercises per muscle group to have a variety. Weather you pick barbell or dumbbell bench press does not really matter as your focus should be on more important elements, like volume and progression over time.
Step 6: Use deloads every 4-6 weeks
You need to manage your fatigue through deloads. Simply giving your maximum every time in the gym will either lead you to injury or to stagnation, where your muscles will not have enough time to fully recover. This is why you need to plan your progression over 4-5 weeks and then take a deload in the week 6 where your volume drops by 50% allowing your muscles and connective tissues to fully recover and heal. This way when you come back the following week you are fresh to attack another block of muscle gaining.
How to deload?
It is very simple, you have 2 variables, volume and intensity. You can reduce both or one at a time. The way I like to do it is simply by cutting volume in half but also reducing intensity by 10%. So if you did 4 sets of bench press with 100kg the previous week, you would simply do 2 sets with 90kg during your deload week. Your body will thank you and you will come back even stronger the following week.
Using all steps above as your guiding principles, you will be able to select a workout plan that suits your needs and your lifestyle. When you are picking a new workout plan, always go back and start from the first step to make sure it aligns with all other steps I mentioned above.
Putting it all together
To sum it all up, whether your are just starting or you have a couple of years of training experience, your starting point should be to consider what is sustainable for you and whats not. Then once you decide on how many days do you want to work out per week you simply make sure that you train specific muscle group with enough volume and repetitions per week. Only after this comes the frequency, whether you should train muscle group once, twice or even more times per week. If you can, workout each muscle group twice a week, but even once a week is also fine as it does not make a huge difference as long as you have enough volume. The next step is to make sure that you pick a variety of exercises and stick with it for a period of 1-3 months, this way you know that you are progressing. And finally make sure you take recovery weeks where you reduce volume and intensity allowing your muscles to fully recover.
For a more in depth guide check out my free Workout 2.0 eBook below!