We get it. If you’re new to working out or trying to overhaul your physique and add all-over mass, you want it to happen sooner rather than later. A transformation over a year’s time is great and all, but if you can expedite the process, why wouldn’t you?
Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, a Medical and Science Advisory Board member for Blueprint for Athletes and the director of Rutgers University’s Institute For Food, Nutrition, and Health Center for Health & Human Performance has created a roadmap that highlights how your nutrition and training need to change over the next five weeks. If you’re a skinny guy struggling to put on the pounds or a bigger guy looking to cut back on fat and gain lean mass, we’ve noted where your regimen will differ to address those goals. Ready for a transformation?
The Most Important Factors For Gaining Muscle
“In short, it’s the intensity and volume of your workouts, how often you’re training, how many sets you’re doing, in total, per body part, and whether you’re getting sufficient protein quality and quantity,” says Arent. We’ll go into the nutrition specifics in a bit; but if you’re aiming for at least a gram of protein per pound of body weight, that’s a good place to start. Though, Arent notes, recent research says a little more protein might even be better. Rest and recovery is also a huge component. Give your muscles time to repair and give them the nutrients necessary to do that. Protein gives your body amino acids that repair, build, and maintain muscle; and carbs replenish your energy stores and get you ready for the next intense workout.
“Let’s clarify what we mean by bulking up,” Arent notes. “If you’re just adding weight, which is muscle, a large portion of the process is going to be eating,” he explains. You need to eat a lot of food to stay in a positive calorie balance.
“If you’re just trying to build muscle without putting on fat, three very critical aspects are your volume of training, the amount of protein you’re taking in, and your recovery—how much you’re sleeping,” Arent adds.
And now for the nitty-gritty details:
How Often You Need to Hit the Gym
If you’re an absolute beginner or have only been lifting for a few months, you should be working out a minimum of 3 days a week. Research proves this will produce noticeable results without overloading your body. As you improve, move up to 4 days a week.
If you’re someone who’s been doing this for a while (at least a year), 4-5 days is great. “I prefer 4 days because you can allow for recovery days and alternative movements,” Arent says. What he means by alternative movements is it’s not just about getting in the gym: go for a hike, ride a bike, hit the pool. You don’t need to be clanking weights six days a week; that kind of volume is overkill. Go up from 4 to 5 days a week if you’re advanced and looking to add more volume in your training and mass to your body.
Where Cardio Fits In
“We do know cardiovascular exercise of long duration can interfere with strength and hypertrophy gains,” Arent says. “But it also depends on what your goals are.” If you’re a big guy looking to lean out and/or trying to keep your body fat to a minimum, cardio isn’t bad.
BUT, it may be better incorporated as high-intensity intervals. “Brief, shorter bouts of cardio fit more into the type of training you’re doing since it has an anaerobic base,” he explains. “There’s also interesting research that says there may be a positive impact if you do aerobic work in the morning and resistance training later in the day; there seems to be a priming effect that could help with adaptation.” Now, you’re not going to wake up with bowling balls for biceps because you start doing HIIT routines in the morning and traditional lifts at night. But if you do want to continue doing cardio, then this is how you should do it.
After all, cardio is good for you. Muscleheads will say time and time again that it’s a waste of time. But cardio helps your heart and builds better cardiovascular conditioning, which helps with your recovery. So long as the emphasis of your regimen is resistance training, then your road to building the most mass you can in a little over a month will be a fairly smooth one.
Sets Per Body Part
Research supports the theory that more sets tends to be better for amassing mass. “Roughly 10-12 or 10-14 sets per body part per week seems to produce significantly greater hypertrophy than 3-6 or 6-8 sets,” Arent says.
For example, if you’re working chest, you can use a traditional body part split where you do chest one day, back another, and shoulders another so it’s spread across a week. But that’s not the only way. You can do an upper and lower body split over 4 days: Monday (upper), Tuesday (lower), Thursday (upper), Friday (lower). “On your two upper body days, between the two of them, you want to do enough sets for chest that equals 10 or more. So you might do 6 sets for chest each day that breaks down like this:
Monday: 3 sets of bench press and 3 sets of flyes
Thursday: 3 sets of incline press and 3 sets of pec dec or cable crossovers
There’s your 12 sets for the week. Arent adds: “It’s the weekly running total that seems to make a difference. Now, you could do all 12 in one day; but there’s nothing to suggest that’s better than hitting the same body part multiple times a week.” If you can rotate through these workouts with more frequency, that’s ideal. Here’s why:
When you train a muscle, there’s a breakdown process. You’re doing damage to it and that’s why it grows and adapts; it heals. “But if you allow that healing to go on and you wait and don’t re-target it again once the healing is at its peak, you get a return back toward baseline so you’re missing super compensation where the muscle has healed and grown and developed beyond what it was before,” Arent explains. If you do do your next body part-specific workout in that period of time, you’ll be stronger, which means you can lift more weight, do more volume, and get better.
Bottom line: You don’t want too many days between your body part workouts.
Another solid split alternative is a push-pull programs. “These traditional workouts provide a built-in recovery as you go from exercise to exercise, like bench to rows to shoulder press, because by the time you get to shoulder press, your anterior delts have had enough time to recover while you were going through the others.” Another great split is going chest and back, shoulders and arms, and legs so this is done over a four-day period:
Day 1: Workout 1 (Chest and Back)
Day 2: Workout 2 (Shoulders and Arms)
Day 3: Workout 3 (Legs)
Day 4: Workout 4 (Chest and Back)
As you cycle through two weeks, everything gets hit at least twice. **We’ve included an example upper-lower body split as well as a chest/black, arms/shoulders, and legs split on the last page for you to use for training.**
A Note On Nutrition and Meal Frequency
How often you should eat:
Arent is a fan of meal frequency and nutrient timing. Does that mean you have to eat protein right after your workouts? No. “One of your best bets is spreading out your protein intake throughout the day,” he adds. “Small, frequent feedings, somewhere between 20-40g (even 50g if you’re a bigger guy) at a time. You’re looking at .3-.35g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If you’re a 100kg guy/220lb, aim to get 35-40g per meal spread out throughout the day.
Eat 5 to 6 meals every 2-3 hours. “And stop thinking of it as 3 meals and 3 snacks!” Arent says. “Because when you think of a snack, you’re probably eating crap.” Don’t reach for prepackaged food; eat meat and vegetables, fruit, or a starch. (Also, this isn’t to say you can’t gain mass on 3 meals a day. But most people have an issue with the math.)
How much protein you should get:
There’s a ceiling or a cap on how much protein your body can utilize from a meal and it hovers around 30-50g per meal. Anything above that won’t spike muscle protein synthesis. So, if you weigh 100kg/220lb and need 2-2.5g of protein per kg, you’d have to eat roughly 70-80g of protein per meals if you’re only eating three times a day. Think about it: The math doesn’t add up if the protein cap is 30-50g per meal for protein synthesis. You have to eat 6 times in order for this to work. If it’s just weight loss you want, then sure, meal frequency isn’t absolutely necessary; but if you want to maximize your body composition, lose fat, and gain lean mass, then frequency is necessary.
How much time after a workout can pass until you should eat:
“Every feeding is a chance to hit your luecine threshold,” Arent says. Leucine is the amino acid largely responsible for protein synthesis and your gains. When you can spike that response, you get the best results. “Some guys think there’s no such thing as an anabolic window; well, there is, but it’s more like a garage door (it’s much bigger than you think),” Arent says. This “window” lasts about 24 hours. So, why not squeeze in as much protein as possible? To utilize more of the protein you take in, the timing does matter.
Where most guys go wrong:
“If you’re not eating enough protein throughout the day, it doesn’t matter if you eat right after your workout; you’re still missing the basement layer and not getting enough protein,” Arent explains. But if you do get enough protein and add timing on top of it, you’ll see even better results.
If you’re carrying too much body fat and trying to get leaner while adding muscle, then your dietary intake is going to be different, calorie-wise, than someone who’s lean but wants to be bigger. Your starting point and goals are the main drivers here.
How many calories you need per day:
“One commonly applied rule of thumb is 15-20 calories per pound of bodyweight,” Arent says. “I recommend you stick to the 16-18 calorie range, but this is a rough approximation.” From here, adjust up or down depending on your ratio of fat to muscle and rate of gain. Make sure you adjust the calories down a bit by ~300 or so on non-training days.
“Another approach is to use guidelines for energy availability,” Arent says. “This is your dietary intake minus the energy expended by exercise—so it’s basically the amount of energy left for your body to perform all its other functions after you account for exercise, growth, repair.” An energy availability of about 45 calories per kg of fat free mass (not just bodyweight) is usually associated with optimal health and performance in athletes. Fewer than 30 calories per kg fat free mass (FFM) per day tends to result in a slower metabolism and hormonal dysregulation. Below 25 kcal per kg FFM can cause thyroid hormone disruption. (Though most of this work has been done in females, it still applies to men, Arent says.)
Skinny Guys: “If you want to add mass and put weight on, eat before you go to bed,” Arent suggests. “Anywhere from 60-70g to top off for what you didn’t get throughout the day is good. Plus, research shows this has a positive effect on body composition, repair, and recovery.
Bigger Guys: You still want to target about 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight and then adjust accordingly. If you’re gaining too much fat, increase your protein intake a bit and bring down the carbs.
Here is one workout for each of the days in a chest/back, shoulders/arms, and leg split and one each for Upper Body, Lower Body split. We’ve also included 2 example HIIT workouts for those trying to lose fat. Lifting programs don’t differ for body type (skinny vs bigger), says Arent.
Deadlift: 4×6-10 reps with 120-180 sec rest
DB Bench Press: 4x 6-10 with 120-180 sec rest
Seated Row: 4×6-10 with 120 sec rest
DB Incline Press: 4×6-10 with 120 sec rest
Wide Grip Pulldown: 4×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Pec Deck: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Straight Arm Pulldown: 3×8-12 with 90 sec rest
Arnold Presses: 3×6-10 with 120-180 sec rest
Shrugs: 3×6-10 with 120-180 sec rest
DB Lateral Raises: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Reverse Pec Deck: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Tricep Pushdowns (rope): 3×8-12 with 90 sec rest
DB Bicep Curls: 3×8-12 with 90 sec rest
DB Tricep Extensions: 3×8-12 with 90 sec rest
DB Hammer Curls: 3×8-12 with 90 sec rest
Squats: 4×6-12 with 120-180 sec rest
Lunges: 4×6-12 per leg with 120-180 sec rest
Romanian Deadlift: 4×6-12 with 120-180 sec rest
Leg Extensions: 4×10-15 with 120 sec rest
Lying Leg Curl: 4×10-15 with 120 sec rest
Standing Calf Raise: 3×12-18 with 90 sec rest
Seated Calf Raise: 3×12-18 with 90 sec rest
Bench Press: 4×6-10 reps with 120-180 sec rest
One-Arm Dumbell Row: 4×6-10 with 120-180 sec rest
Standing Shoulder Press: 4x 6-10 with 120-180 sec rest
Pullups: 4xAMRAP with 120 sec rest
Dumbell Incline Flye: 3×8-12 with 120 sec rest
High Pull: 3×8-10 with 120 sec rest
Tricep Pushdowns: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Preacher Curls: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Front Squat: 4×8-12 with 120-180 sec rest
Bulgarian Split Squat: 4×6-10 per leg with 120-180 sec rest
Good Mornings: 4×8-10 with 120-180 sec rest
Lateral Band Walks: 3×8-10 per leg with 90-120 sec rest
Hip Thrusts: 3×8-12 with 90-120 sec rest
Leg Extension: 3×10-15 with 90-120 sec rest
Seated Leg Curls: 3×10-15 with 90-120 sec rest
Donkey Calf Raises: 3×12-18 with 90 sec rest
“For those looking to lose bodyfat at the same time, I’d recommend 2 days of HIIT and at least one day of moderate-intensity steady state cardio if you’re lifting 4 days per week,” Arent says. Aim to do these in the morning if you’re lifting in the afternoon/evening. Start with a 5-minute warm up before you begin. *As the name implies, the idea behind high intensity is to barely be able to keep that speed for the allotted time interval. Don’t forget to warm up properly first!
Choose: Run (treadmill or outdoors) or bike (stationary or outdoors)
10 intervals: 30 seconds work with 1 – 1.5 min recovery
5 intervals: 60 seconds work with 2 min recovery
10 minutes constant speed at moderate to moderate-high intensity
4 intervals: 30 seconds work with 1 min recovery
4 intervals: 45 seconds work with 1.5 min recovery
4 intervals: 60 seconds work with 2 min recovery
3 intervals: 2 min work with 2 min recovery