An effective training program is part science and part art.
The science is in knowing which variables: sets, reps, tempo, exercises, rest periods, etc, are most appropriate for a given goal.
The art is knowing how to tailor these to each unique individual.
What works for a 20-year-old kid with an excess of time and energy isn’t going to be what works for a 40-year-old time-crunched dad.
But both must adhere to the fundamental principles to get the most out of their training.
The demographic I have the most experience working with are working men over the age of 40 who want to pack on muscle, get functionally fit and/or lose fat.
And with these fellas, in addition to the usual requests (burn fat, get jacked, give me arms like Brad Pitt in Troy), we also have to consider things like making sure that their training program supports optimal hormone levels and doesn’t crash their testosterone because we’re doing too much volume and not recovering between sessions.
And almost without exception, these guys are trying to squeeze their workouts into an already busy life, so we must make sure there’s no fluff in their program.
We’ll call our fictional test case Jason. He’s a busy dad who works 40 hours a week and wants to look jacked, be strong, and stay healthy.
I give you the most effective evidence and experience-proven principles for training for muscle.
And I’ll show you they could be applied to Jason or someone like him.
Principle #1: For best results, do 10 – 20 hard sets per body part per week.
The longer you’ve been training, the more you would want to be towards the higher end of that spectrum.
However, there are also diminishing returns as you do more sets. Doing 20 sets isn’t going to give you twice the progress of doing 10.
Past a certain point, the gains become marginal, and the more essential it becomes that you nail things like sleep, nutrition, and recovery.
Jason doesn’t always get a perfect night’s sleep, and his diet, while good, is still a tad bit loosey-goosey.
So, in this case, 12 sets per body part per week is this sweet spot.
It’ll provide enough stimulus to create new muscle without requiring Jason to turn his life upside down to optimize all his recovery variables.
Principle 2: Hit each muscle group 2 – 3 X week for best results.
For the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll split the body into five main muscle groups,
Back and Biceps
In addition to these, there are also specific muscles that, when developed, really help you look a lot more impressive.
It’s well-known among Hollywood trainers that developing the middle delts, upper traps, and the biceps is the fastest way to get an actor from scrawny to savage.
Jason very much likes the idea of looking a little more beastly, so he’ll add a little bit of that stuff into his program as well.
In my experience, beginners and intermediates do better hitting each muscle group 3 X week. Whereas for advanced lifters, who can handle much more challenging workouts, two times is better.
Jason has stayed somewhat in shape, but he’s far from an advanced lifter, so we’ll go with three full-body workouts a week.
Principle 3: Train primarily using compound lifts.
A compound lift is one that hits multiple muscles at the same time.
Some classic examples include dips, rows, presses, chin-ups, lunges, deadlifts, and squats. These types of lifts build a very balanced-looking physique and real-world functional strength.
80% of your training should comprise these types of exercises, with the remaining 20% focused on isolation exercises to bring up specific areas you want to develop for aesthetic purposes ((bis, tris, traps, etc.) or to bring weak areas up to speed.
There are multiple compound lifts for each of the major muscle groups.
For example, just off the top of my head, for chest/shoulders/triceps, you could do a barbell bench press, a dumbbell bench press, incline presses, any type of push-ups, dips, ring dips, seated machine press, etcetera, etcetera.
What’s important in Jason’s case is that he finds 1 – 3 lifts for each body part that he can perform without discomfort and which allow him to feel a good mind/muscle connection.
And that he sticks with them for at least six weeks before switching them out.
Principle 4: Take each set to within 1 – 2 reps of failure.
The evidence tells us that anywhere from 5 – 30 reps per set can be effective for Hypertrophy (adding muscle).
So long as you take your sets close to failure, you will grow.
However, not all new muscle is created equal.
Higher reps promote Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, where the muscle grows because it can now hold more fluid in its cells. So, although the muscles get bigger, they won’t get any stronger. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy also leads to a puffier-looking muscle.
Whereas Myofibrillar Hypertrophy, caused by lifting heavier weights for fewer reps (5 – 8), leads not only to very significant strength increases but also firmer, more dense-looking muscles because it actually builds new muscle fibers.
Jason chooses to do his compound lifts in the 5 – 8 rep range to promote Myofibrial Hypertrophy and give his bis, middle delts and traps a little more polish in the 10 – 15 reps per set for a mix of both types of Hypertrophy.
The key is that he pushes to within a rep or two of failure while keeping his form pristine.
I don’t advise going to actual muscular failure because the burden it places on your nervous system can lead to feeling wiped out for days afterward.You’ll get 95% of the benefits of lifting without ever hitting failure, and your joints and your overall health will thank you for it.
Principle 5: Progressive Overload
If it does not challenge you, it will not change you. For every workout, you have to have the intention of improving over the last one.
If you keep doing the same amount of sets and reps with the same weight for weeks on end, you will not get stronger or gain any muscle.
Even if you can’t lift a heavier weight, there are still a myriad of others ways you can seek to improve over your last session.
Perhaps you grind out out an extra rep, or maybe it’s something more subjective like having a greater range of motion, better technique, or more pronounced mind/muscle connection.
But no matter what, you should look to level up in some way, every time you set foot in the gym.
In Jason’s case, this means adding 5 lbs to an upper-body compound lift or 10 lbs to a lower-body one once he can hit eight reps while still maintaining pristine technique.
Putting it all together (Sample Workout)
So, to recap, Jason has decided to train three days per week and accumulate 12 sets per body part per week.
His Monday workout might look something like this.
MAIN LIFTS (90 seconds rest between sets)
75 Degree Incline Dumbbell Bench: 4 X 6 – 8 (Chest/Shoulders/Tris)
Chest Supported Row: 4 X 6 – 8 (Back and Bis)
Kettlebell Front Squat: 4 X 6 – 8 (Quads)
Romanian Deadlift: 4 X 6 – 8 (Hamstrings/Glutes)
(Total sets per body part – 4)
ISOLATION (45 – 60 seconds rest between sets)
Bicep Curl: 3 X 10 – 15 (Biceps…duh)
Lateral Raise: 3 X 10 – 15 (Middle Delts)
V Ups: 3 X 10 – 15 (Abdominals)
(Both the middle delts and the biceps would already have been hit during the compound lifts, so Jason doesn’t have to do 12 sets of isolation work a week to encourage them to grow.
Just a few extra sets per week are all that’s needed, so long as he adheres to principle #4.)
Jason could finish this workout in 45 – 60 minutes, and that’s with plenty of time for a warm-up and cooldown.
Then, on Wednesday and Friday, he could do a different set of compound lifts and hit some other isolation spots (triceps or neck, for example.
Hopefully, this contrast between the overarching principles of building muscle and how they might be used in a real-world case will help you better dial in your own training program.
The principles are the same for everyone, but the application will depend greatly on your specific situation.
And this goes for everything from building kick-ass cardio to getting more flexible.
I’ve spent the last 15 years developing a deep understanding of how to transform someone “OK” shape into a gosh darn savage, and it’s almost all been based on a deep understanding of these principles and how to apply them on an individual basis.
If you’d like me to remove all the guesswork and make this an easy-to-follow process, you can learn more about the Ready To Rock coaching program here.
Although this article has been focused primarily on muscle and strength, in the program, we also give equal attention to cardio, mobility, and all the other aspects that keep you youthful and athletic.
Because at the end of the day, you don’t just want to look like a badass; you want to be one as well.