Lots of guys in the gym can get brawny. Chug enough protein shakes and heft enough dumbbells, and you’ll definitely stack on muscle that wasn’t there when you first walked into the gym. But getting that seriously chiseled physique—one that exposes not only your abs, but also the individual heads of your deltoids and the muscle fibers of your forearms—is a product of both intensive training and a seriously low body fat percentage.
“The first step? Pass on the mac and cheese,” says Toronto-based strength coach Scott Rankin, C.S.C.S. “The key to putting on lean muscle mass is to reduce your intake of simple carbohydrates and up the protein. If you already have size, decrease your body fat. On the skinny side? Start with a bulk-training style program with limited carbohydrates.”
But while diet is the foundation of an incredible physique, you’ll need a focused exercise program to get the muscle definition you want.
Rankin’s suggestion: “Follow a six-day cycle of heavy upper, heavy lower, day off, high repetition upper, high repetition lower, day off.”
Here are five of Rankin’s key tips:
1. Start With A Power-Based Exercise: When you’re building a workout routine, make sure you start your programming with a power-based push or pull exercise like a heavy bench, incline bench press, a weighed wide-grip pullup, or a weighted narrow-grip underhand pullup. As you increase the weight, decrease your reps to build mass. For your first set, warmup with 8-10 reps at 50% of your one-rep max—the amount of weight you can lift for one proper repetition. For the second set, use 55%-65% of your one-rep max for 8-10 reps. For your third set use 65%-75% of your one-rep max, increasing that to 70%-80% for your fourth rep for 6-8 repetitions. Finish off with a fifth set of 3-5 reps using 80%-90% of your total max. Rest for 2-3 minutes between rounds.
2. Push To Exhaustion: Exhaust a given muscle group by pushing to the max with an exercise you can control even when you’re at the point of fatigue. Consider pushups or a dumbbell press. Go to max effort, doing as many reps as you can, then rest for a minute. Go for one more round to break down the muscle as much as possible. This will help stimulate hypertrophy, which builds muscle size and improves definition.
3. Complete Two Supersets: Move away from the principles of bulking up and towards those of leaning out by using exhaustive supersets to tear leftover muscle fiber, forcing your body to repair it and make you stronger. Complete 12-15 repetitions for 3-4 rounds with a short rest period between sets, alternating between the push and pull. Superset A, for example, might include glute ham raises (10-12) and stability ball hamstring curls while Superset B includes walking lunges with dumbbells (12-15 per side) and step ups. Finish off with a supplementary medicine ball based core work.
4. Sleep And Recover: Go on, hit snooze. The only time your body can resynthesize muscle is while you sleep. Make sure to rest for a minimum of seven hours a night (with nine being ideal). Lose the idea of two-a-days. While your goal is to get lean, you don’t want to hit the gym twice and burn so many calories that you can’t build muscle.
5. Power Up With Protein: Achieving lean body fat below 10% is almost fully nutrition-based. To walk the fine line between putting on muscle and dropping body fat, determine your daily caloric intake by multiplying you body weight by 16. Don’t make the common mistake of calorie restricting—you’ll risk your body going into ketosis, or starvation-induced fat burning. Instead, make protein 40% of your caloric intake. The increased protein will aid the building of muscle fiber. Keep fats and carbs to 30% each, with 85% of your daily carbohydrates coming from fruits and vegetables and the rest from complex carbs.