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Routine Design for Muscle and Strength Gains

It happens all the time – guy’s (and gals) start up a new workout routine looking to build as much mass as possible, but instead of following a well-thought out and designed approach, they’ll run to the gym – literally every day – and do countless sets of countless exercises for seemingly endless hours with no plan or purpose.

I’ve run across this problem many, many times with guys new to fitness, even with guys more advanced – they hit the gym and just start knocking out random exercises – any exercise – training, in some cases, 7 days a week.

I also often see people picking out arms or maybe chest and just hitting that 2-3 times a week, even every day.

Rest days?Never heard of them!

Recovery? – That’s for wimps!

What’s worse is, as soon as I start to talk about rest and recovery as a vital part of the growth process, they just can’t be bothered!

Is this a recipe for disaster? You betcha!

If you want to build serious, proportioned muscle mass, and without injuring yourself, you have to have a plan.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail” – as cliché as it sounds, it’s true.

Your routine needs to be designed and set up for optimal gains as well as optimal recovery. In this article, I will show you how to design and set up a routine for growth. I’m gearing this article for those that do not have a lot of experience (beginner/intermediate trainee); also I typically write with the natural guy in mind, however anyone at any level should find some helpful gems in this article.

Importance of Progression

One of the primary keys to progress is progressive overload. Simply put, you have to make ongoing, consistent progress in your training sessions to see results. That will mean adding weight to the bar, typically when you hit a target rep total for two workouts in a row.

One other way is to aim for a rep goal and when that goal is reached for two workouts in a row, you add weight and drop back in reps. The old saying is true: increasing strength means increasing muscle size. A stronger muscle is a bigger muscle. This is how your body adapts to the overload demands that are placed on it.

I advocate keeping a training journal – track everything!

This lets you track your poundage progress and lets you see where you’re increasing/decreasing strength over time.

Progressive Overload Explained

Increase your reps, when you can easily go 2-3 reps over what the program calls for, add weight and go back to the program-prescribed rep total.

For example, let’s say you’re workout program calls for 8 reps of bench press, and you’re working with a weight that has you reach failure around the 8th rep. Eventually, as you gain strength, you’ll be able to hit those 8 reps easily and your failure point will become 10-12 reps. At this point it’s time to add some weight to the bar so that you’re reaching failure around the 8th rep again.

Repeating this processor every couple of months, or as you adapt to the weight is progressively overloading your muscle with tension and is crucial for growth.

The key point here is to work hard every workout to move forward, do not become complacent.

Without correct progression, your training efforts won’t get you far. Let’s elaborate on that. If, every week, you lift the same weights, the same number of reps, for the same number of sets, doing the same exercises, what will happen?

Well, things will remain… the same.

You’ll reach a certain level of strength and muscularity, and then… nothing.

You’ll have plateaued.

The cure for “plateauing” is progression – the gradual, careful increase of either more repetitions using the same weight or the same number of repetitions with a heavier weight – or a combination of the two.

Let’s say that right now, you can lift 85 lbs. for 10 repetitions. Well, as your muscles adapt, you’ll soon be able to move those 85 lbs. 12 times. After reaching that point, increase the weight to 90 lbs. – lift for 10 reps… You get the picture: a gradual increase in repetitions and weight.

This isn’t to say you have to make such increases every workout day – but do attempt them as often as is feasible. Bodybuilding is about growth – not just visible muscle growth, but about reaching new goals and progressing in terms of strength and ability.

Exercises to Build Muscle and Strength

Given the need for consistent strength increases, exercise choice becomes important. Compound or basic exercises are the best for building muscle quickly.

These are multi joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts and bench presses. The reason working these as opposed to exercises that isolate a muscle is better for growth is that you can handle much more weight, you bring into play more muscles and you’re working the body functionally. You’re able to create a great amount of growth stimulating tension across the muscle.

Think about it, when you perform a task, such as lifting a 35lb bag of dog food; several muscles come into play and work as a unit to get the job done. Compound exercises affect overall growth and give you the biggest bang for your buck. One other critical aspect, especially for natural bodybuilders, of using compound exercises is the effect they have on your body’s natural anabolic hormone output.

These types of exercises cause some increases in anabolic hormone levels thereby promoting quicker muscle growth.

Most Effective Compound Exercises for Mass

[tabs][tab title=”Squat”]Typically considered the single most important exercise you can do, it incorporates some 200 muscles and even though it’s mainly a lower body exercise, it’s been said that squats promote overall growth.[/tab] [tab title=”Deadlift”] sometimes considered superior or at least as good as squats, deads affect the entire body as well.[/tab] [tab title=”Shoulder Press”] a great upper body mass builder that primarily hits the deltoids.[/tab] [tab title=”Bench”]the “King of Upper Body Exercises” – a great chest, deltoid and triceps movement. We’ve all heard the “how much can ya bench?” mantra. In this case, when looking at chest development, the upper chest should not be overlooked and that does happen often because too many lifters focus solely on the flat bench press.[/tab] [tab title=”Rows”]a great back, bicep and rear deltoid exercise.[/tab] [tab title=”Pulldowns”]a great pulling movement that hits the back.[/tab] [tab title=”Curls”]the mainstay movement for biceps, many lifters use an EZ bar as opposed to a straight bar. I tend to advocate an EZ, because it’s easier on your wrists.[/tab] [tab title=”Extensions”]Triceps make up 2/3 of the upper arm, this is a great movement to work those triceps hard. In the routine section you will learn a new exercise built around this movement.[/tab][/tabs]

These movements make a great foundation for anyone looking to build muscle quickly. This is not an all-inclusive list but does include the very best exercises.

3 Day Split Routine for Growth

Here’s a workout program for growth that utilizes compound movements and incorporates them into probably my favorite split set up: the push/pull/legs split.

Having just done an article that talked about this split, all I’ll say here is that a 3-day approach like this works well for most lifestyles and it promotes optimal recovery.

Here’s how I’d set it up:


Day One – Legs

Since heavy back work and heavy squats both hit the lower back, I typically do legs on day 1 and back on day 3, allowing for more lower back recovery.

Squats – 3 warm up sets; this should be an easy weight for 12-15 reps.

Work sets – 6 sets of 6-8 reps. Your first set should be 8 reps, it should also be your heaviest set, work down weight-wise through your 6 sets and go no lower than 6 reps. When 8 reps becomes easy, increase the weight.

I’m not a big pyramid type guy – to me, “pyramiding” up through countless sets to finally hit your heaviest set at the end makes little sense. You’ve just worked up through roughly 5-6 sets, maybe 7, how heavy is your final set really going to be? Warm up and hit your heaviest set first, when you are fresh and at your strongest.

I believe squats are all you need for leg development and if you worked your 6 sets hard enough, you should be unable to even consider going on to do 5-6 sets of leg presses or some other quad movement. By the way, none of this going down almost half way and stopping stuff – go as low as you can slowly and under control and explode up. No pausing either! Squats have always been my favorite exercise and I want to see the world coming to an end on my best sets. Love it!

Leg Curls – 5 sets of 8 reps – do your heaviest set first, drop weight as needed but stay at 8 reps.

Standing Calf Raises – 5 sets of 10-12 reps – hit your calves hard with the heaviest possible weight. Get a good stretch on these. I like to hold at the top for a 3 count and then go back down. Keep your reps slow and controlled.

Rep performance – While there are many ways to perform a rep and each method has merit, unless otherwise indicated I advocate an explosive up and a slow, controlled down rep style. I see guys all the time struggle to get the bar up, then they just drop it, or let it sky-rocket down and bounce off the floor, effectively getting a cheat on their next rep. None of that here! Work the whole rep, from start to finish!


Day Two – Chest, Deltoids, Triceps

Bench Press – use the same warm-up as you did for squats.

Work sets – 5 sets of 6-8 reps. Pretty much the standard for chest, this also hits the front delts and triceps. I’ve seen people butcher this movement with extreme arching of the back, bouncing the bar off the chest to get a cheat on your reps – work the whole movement – explode the bar up and lower slowly, under complete control.

Incline Press – 3 sets of 6-8 reps. If you’re doing flat presses, you should always include an incline movement so your upper chest does not lag behind.

Overhead Press – 5 sets of 6-8 reps. A great deltoid builder, this also hits the triceps and is a great test of strength.

Triceps Extension/Pullover/Press – 3 sets of 5-7 reps per movement – that’s 15-21 total reps. This is the best triceps exercise I know and I may be one of only a handful of people that use it.

Here’s how it works: lie down on a flat bench and perform extensions skull-crusher style. Go right into pullovers but these are not lat/chest pullovers – hold the bar close to your head and bend your elbows and keep them tight to your sides, you’re only going behind your head with the bar – this style hits the triceps more. Go right into close grip bench presses. In effect, this is a tri-set and your triceps should be burning like a house on fire at the end.


Day Three – Back, Biceps

Deadlifts – These are full from the floor deadlifts, work the whole movement, no dropping the weight when you hit the top. Do 3 warm up sets of 8-10 reps.

Work sets – 4 sets of 6-8 reps. Use a controlled rep style on these, hold at the top and slowly lower back down, no bouncing, no resting the bar on the floor, keep the set going! This is a great exercise and one of my favorites.

Lat Pulldowns – 3 sets of 6-8 reps – this exercise by its very nature demands more of a continuous tension style rep. I like to hold it at the bottom (at the neck) for a 3 count on every rep. The key to back work is to begin the lift with your back, not your arms. Think of your arms as hooks that simply follow along as your back does all the work.

Bent Rows – 3 sets of 6-8 reps. A mainstay back movement. To me, there’s nothing like a great back. To this day, I love the various twisting back shots Arnold used to do – they really stood out and made him look exceptional. Then I saw the back double biceps shot of his with the Christmas tree lower back – one of the most motivating pics I have seen!

EZ Curls – 2 sets of 6-8 reps. The thing with curls is, you lose the movement at the top, so I advocate stopping about ¾ of the way and holding the bar for a 3 count before lowering slowly.

Hammer Curls – 2 sets of 6-8 reps. I like this movement because it not only hits the biceps, it also hits the forearms.

Ab work can be included as either a warm up or added in at the end of your workout. I advocate 3-5 sets 2 out of every 3 workouts.


Some may feel I advocate low set totals. While I’m not a “high-intensity” guy, I believe if you work hard enough, you should be unable to do a lot of sets.

Don’t Forget About Nutrition

No article of mine is complete without a look at nutrition. If mass is your goal, you have to look at your eating plan as much as your workout. This topic is an article unto itself, but typically, 18-20 calories per lb. of bodyweight is a great starting point for gaining muscle and the thing is, this number can be adjusted up or down if you’re gaining fat or if you’re not gaining at all.

Think lots of protein, as in 1 to 1.5 grams per lb. of bodyweight and yes I believe timing is important, take in your protein every 2-3 hours. Carbs have been viewed as the enemy for a while now and for fat loss you do need to control your carb intake but you need them to grow – however even in a growing stage, it’s sugar you need to be wary of.

Limit sugar to morning just after waking and post-workout, focus on complex carb sources at all other times of the day.

Carbs will make up most of your calories and you should start with 2 grams per pound of bodyweight. This is also an adjustable number that should be based on how you’re looking. I suggest using the Glycemic Index, a recognized carb digestion rating system, to help choose carbs that digest more slowly, avoiding insulin spikes.

The balance of calories, then, will come from healthy fats but I suggest a max of 20% fat to total calories. If you end up with a surplus of calories, add more protein – it’s hard to overtake this critical macronutrient.

As far as supplements, protein powder can help you hit your daily protein goal; supplements like creatine are great for promoting mass and a good addition to your program. As well, I suggest a good multivitamin and fish oil. I’m not really a big pre-workout guy but when I do use them I have good workouts.

The thing is, if you train late in the day, the last thing you want is tons of stims from a pre-workout. I do like the idea of an intra-workout; this should primarily consist of BCAAs. Training is, in and of itself, catabolic, so if taking a drink like an intra can help slow that down, I think that’s great.

So now you have a great routine to start with, some nutrition/supplement ideas – I’d say it’s time to get started!