Many friends and colleagues over the years have asked me for some kind of fitness advice. Most common are people who have some experience in the gym, but want to take that next step, to go from doing a few lifts every once in a while to a structured program that can produce perceivable change. So I wrote this up.
This program won’t be perfect for everyone, so I encourage you to get in touch with me so I can help you customize it to your specific needs, as well as monitor your progress and adjust it accordingly. This program is designed for people who are interested in overall strength and fitness, with a goal toward gaining lean muscle mass, improved strength and performance in a variety of athletic applications. What you will see outlined below is only phase one. If you’d like phase two, get in touch with me.
I’ve created a highly structured program that still affords you a great deal of choice in order to cater it to your own needs. Again, this won’t be right for everyone, but if you’ve tried getting into weight lifting before, but couldn’t make it work for your schedule, or found it too controlling, the agency I give you in this program, without sacrificing rigor, may be exactly what you’re looking for.
Here we go.
This program begins with an extended bulking phase which includes the foundations of strength that will be necessary for the more advanced lifting that will come later. This will be a clean bulk, aiming to add muscle mass with possible, though limited, coincident fat. More on clean bulk when we get to diet. The program will ramp up in intensity, volume, and frequency, beginning with what I expect to take around five hours per week. This first regimen will last somewhere around 10-12 weeks, and will be followed by continued bulk. Our goal during the bulk will be to put on a total of 15 lbs of muscle, which will likely come with some body fat, so you can expect to gain 20-25 pounds during the whole phase. The slower you bulk, the less coincident body fat there will be. Also, given this is a radical shift in exertion for your body, ramping into it slowly will give your muscles, tendons, joints, etc, a better chance to adjust, and you will be less likely to get hurt.
We will begin by needing to know your One Rep Max for the three core compound lifts. There are several ways to determine this, and I recommend an in person meeting to do so. Also, I’ll want to get some more baseline info, probably from an in person meeting, like body fat percentage, weight, estimated caloric intake, history of exercise, etc.
What you’ll do:
First Phase Lifts:
Core Compound Lifts:
Bench (Push) (4 sets, 5 reps, 80% ORM)
Deadlift (Pull) (3 sets, 4 reps, 70% ORM)
Squat (Legs) (4 sets, 4 reps, 75% ORM)
Additional Compound Lifts:
Military Press (Push) (4 sets, 4 reps, 45 lbs (bar weight))
Pull Up (w/ possible modifications) (Pull) (variable)
Other Squat (there’s so many great ones, we’ll add them progressively) (Legs) (variable)
Dumbbell press (4 sets, 6 reps, 25% Bench ORM)
Dumbbell fly (4 sets, 8 reps, 10%)
Cable fly (5 sets, 8 reps, 15%/hand)
Dumbbell shoulder press (3 sets, 4 reps, 15%)
Lateral raise (4 sets, 8 reps, 10%)
Deltoid fly (4 sets, 8 reps, 10%)
Triceps: (take 30-60 second rests between sets)
Bar dip (3 sets, to failure, bodyweight)
Skullcrusher (4 sets, 5 reps, 20%)
Cable pushdown (5 sets, 8 reps, 25%(these weights can be variable depending on machine type))
Lateral pull down (4 sets, 6 reps, 35% Deadlift ORM)
High horizontal row (3 sets, 8 reps, 10%)
Upright row (3 sets, 4 reps, 15%)
Bent over row (3 sets, 4 reps, 45%)
Dumbbell row (4 sets, 6 reps, 20%)
Cable row (4 sets, 6 reps, 45%)
Barbell curl (4 sets, 4 reps, 20%)
Dumbbell curl (5 sets, 4 reps, 10%)
Incline dumbbell curl (4 sets, 6 reps, 7%)
Leg press (4 sets, 4 reps, 100% Squat ORM)
Quadricep extension (4 sets, 8 reps, 50%)
Hamstring curl (4 sets, 8 reps, 30%)
Jump squat (3 sets, 12 reps, bodyweight (begin holding dumbbells on second rotation))
Pelvic thrust (3 sets, 12 reps, bodyweight (begin using dumbbell on top of pelvis on second rotation))
Dumbbell lunge (3 sets, 4 reps (each side), 20%)
Calves: (take 30 second rests between sets)
Dumbbell calf raise (3 sets, 12 reps, 20% as with all dumbbell weight notation, this is the weight of each of the two dumbbells you will hold)
Smith machine calf raise (3 sets, 16 reps, 25% (this refers to the total weight you will ADD TO the smith machine)
Leg press calf raise (3 sets, 6 reps, 60%)
This is a non-linear program, so there will not be prescribed days of the week or exercises or rest days. It will be up to you to decide if you have enough energy and available time to give your all in a workout.
Each workout day you will choose two compound lifts. Any of the six. Go through all six compound lifts in this way before repeating any of them, but feel free to recombine them in different combinations each time you cycle through.
Roughly every other workout, add in auxiliary exercises after your compound lifts. Always choose auxiliary exercises that correspond with one of your compound lifts. So if you’re doing Bench and Squat, choose either Legs or Pushing. Then choose three exercises from that list. For Pushing and Pulling, make sure you are selecting one exercise from each muscle group, and for Legs choose two for the larger muscle group and one for calves. Rotate through all three energy systems before starting over. It’s OK if you don’t know all of these exercises; choose the ones you know, and as you progress, I’ll teach you more of them. It’s OK if you repeat auxiliary exercises for more than one cycle, and by extension don’t get to some others, even through the whole first phase. This is simply the introduction. Find what’s fun, and if it’s fun, keep doing it. You’ll get to the others eventually. Trust me, we’ll add volume, so you’ll be doing more exercises per session.
Shoot to get into the gym 3-4 days per week, but again, do it as your schedule allows, and as you have energy to throw into the workout. If you need a rule of thumb, don’t take more than two rest days–if you take three, that’s OK, not the end of the world at all, rest is healthy! But keep the three day spans of rest to a minimum. Feel free to work out two days in a row and then take two rest days. Do what your body and schedule allows. This program is written with the suspicion (not expectation) that you will average 3 workouts per week.
Similarly, add the auxiliary lifts at will and listening to your body. Shoot for every other workout, but the program is written to be very flexible according to your body and your schedule. If you discover you’re always energized enough to add auxiliaries, great. If two work outs in a row you don’t have energy for auxiliaries, that’s fine too. But shoot for every other.
This program is constructed to give you a consistent foundation in several compound lifts, which you will be repeating quite frequently. This will give you a way to track your progress and begin full body hypertrophy. The auxiliary lifts can change at will, in order to appeal to your own personal desires, and also build a wide range of skills, strengths, and neural pathways. This will keep you in charge of your own workout, so if you want to do the same auxiliary lifts each time you hit the gym, that’s fine, or if you want to learn as many as possible to prepare for a more targeted use of those exercises in the following phases of the program, you can do that too. Do whatever’s fun.
We will shoot to do at least six full rotations of this cycle before changing it, meaning you’ll get at least 12 times through each compound lift, probably over the course of two to three months.
Start with a standard intensity for all exercises, resting 60-120 seconds between each set (with a few exceptions).
The weights, reps and sets that I’ve chosen should all feel doable. I’m not trying to send you to failure in this first phase. If you are unable to complete any of the exercises, get in touch with me and we will adjust.
That said, we will be using a basic progressive overload. Each time you return to an exercise, add 5 pounds. This will require the use of 2.5 lbs weights for barbell exercises, which are standard in most gyms. If you do not have access to those, barbell clips are generally about 0.5 lbs each, so you can use a few of them. People will look at you like you’re crazy, but fuck’em. If you reach a point with any exercise that you can no longer complete every rep, maintain that weight the next time you do the exercise until you are able to do every rep. Then increase by 5 lbs the next time, as usual.
A word about warming up. If you’re coming into the gym super cold, then get the blood flowing. Run for a 2 or 3 minutes, hop on a stationary bike for 5 minutes, or jump rope a bit. Roll around on the ground if you want. Honestly, though, I rarely come into the gym cold. Even if it’s just walking quickly, I usually come into the gym with my body a little warm.
Warm up into each lift. As a part of learning proper technique, you will need to learn appropriate ways to warm up the joints and muscles for the compound lifts. Those will be where you are at greatest risk of injury, and you’ll be doing them at the beginning of each workout. For this reason, you will need to warm up a lot into each compound lift, but barely at all into most auxiliary lifts, since they will use muscles already exercised with the compound lift.
Shoulder, hip, and knee mobility will be the primary focus of warming up into the compound lifts. Before beginning and between warm up sets, use shoulder circles, active lunging, and other non-lifting mobility exercises for the joints involved in a particular lift. Then begin to perform the lift with 20% of the weight you’ll be working with that day (not ORM, just to clarify. Lots of % floating around. You may want a calculator nearby). Do a set or two at that weight for 3-8 reps. Then increase to 40% of the weight you’ll be working. Do one set for 4 reps. You’re not trying to get tired out, but to warm up the muscles and prepare the joints. This is the perfect time to think about good form. Practice perfect form here and it will pay off when you have real weight on. Do another set with 60% for 3 reps. 80% for 3 reps, and you should be just about ready to begin your working sets. Take a good long rest before you begin, though–at least two full minutes, and three or four is better.
I think that’s all the pertinent information on the lifts. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.
There are two more elements we will throw into the mix from the beginning, which will change a lot through the overall program.
Core and Cardio:
For cardio, I am going to begin by recommending light running at the end of some of the workouts. 1-2 miles roughly every other work out. Do this after your lifting. And not at hardcore intensity. Intersperse it so you are getting about three runs in for every six workouts. At this point doesn’t matter if this coincides with auxiliary days or not. If you miss a run on a workout day because of schedule or being exhausted, that’s fine. Do it on the next rest day. You can also substitute stationary biking, elliptical, rowing machine, or something else for the running if you want.
For core I want you to choose one exercise to do each time you are at the gym. If you get particularly tired one day, that’s fine. Try to do the exercise the next rest day. Core strength can be highly variable, so if you have trouble completing any of these exercises, do your best, fight through, and get in touch with me for a modification. If any are too easy, let me know that too.
Lying leg lifts (4 sets of 20 reps)
Plank (3 sets of 1 minute)
Reverse crunches (4 sets of 20 reps)
Palm-to-palm crunches (4 sets of 20 reps)
C sit twists (2 sets of 50 reps)
Russian twists (3 sets of 3 reps (each side), 10 lbs plate)
Turkish getups (3 sets of 2 reps (each side), 10 lbs dumbell or kettlebell)
Hollow body hangs (4 sets to failure)
Hollow body rocks (4 sets of 10 reps)
That’s enough to start with.
I also recommend some recovery work on your rest days (or even directly after the workouts). This could be a sauna, stretching, a foam roller, a massage stick. Move your body on rest days, just not with the goal of building muscle. You want to give the muscles time to recover and repair (the real growth period–don’t fuck with it), and getting blood to flow to those areas, even just with light rotation of sore joints and self massage of worked muscles, can help greatly.
So, to sum up, it will take you roughly six work outs to hit every muscle group. During a single rotation of this cycle you will do each compound lift twice, and each auxiliary group once. Here’s an example of how one cycle might play out:
Hollow body hang
Other Squat, say a Front Squat
Dumbbell calf raise
Hollow body rock
Lateral pull down
Bent over row
This is just an example. Create your own. And each of the subsequent cycles does not need to be identical to the first–change it all up at will.
Write down everything you do.
No one puts on muscle while losing fat. Any bodybuilder will tell you that to gain muscle mass you need to eat more calories than you are burning, to get those “gains”. In the meantime, your body will likely add some body fat. That’s OK. We’ll deal with it later. In fact, the more muscle mass you put on, the more calories your body will start consuming on a day to day basis, anyway.
Also we are working toward sustainability. So instead of training your body that it needs to have a low metabolism to deal with tons of cardio and super low calories, we are going to train it to have a high metabolism, with light cardio and reasonable calorie intake.
In short, I don’t want you starving yourself. The goal of this program is to put on muscle, so you’ll need to eat when you’re hungry.
No radical changes. Continue to move in the direction of common-sense good foods. Whole things. Vegetables, fruits, grilled, baked, and sauteed meats, unsweetened dairy products. Don’t buy grains. That’s not to say don’t eat them, but just don’t buy them. If you’re out with friends and someone orders nachos, have some nachos. Or if you’re in the city and forgot to pack lunch, buy a sandwich. But don’t keep grains in the house. That means bread, cookies, cereal, tortilla chips. Prepare as many meals in your kitchen as you can. Trust me, even avoiding grains, they show up all over the place in our contemporary diet, so you’ll still be consuming them regularly, which is just fine.
The biggest shift will be protein intake. Try to take in between 150 and 200 grams of protein per day. Track protein intake for a few days to see what this actually means. It means a lot of thinking about where your next protein is going to come from. Try to consume it in chunks of 30-40 grams every 2-3 hours. I wake up to 6 eggs. Then I have a protein bar and yogurt midmorning. Lunch is a half pound of grilled chicken, maybe with cheese and maybe on a salad. A couple hours later another protein bar and some nuts. Then I work out and have a protein shake after. Dinner is more chicken, this time with some veggies. Before bed I might get super hungry and have another protein shake. This is how I come close to 200 grams of protein per day. Find what works for you…but it will probably look something like this. Later on we might track fats and carbs, but for now focus on this.
You don’t need to track calories yet, but as I said earlier, we are aiming for a clean bulk, and a slow bulk. You’ll be gaining weight over the course of the next 2-3 months, which means you’ll need to be consuming more calories than you burn. But to keep it clean, I want you to eat good, whole foods, not the quick and dirty bulking foods that a bodybuilder might eat to gain huge amounts of weight. Let your carbohydrates come from vegetables and fruits as much as possible, your fats be un-fried, and avoid refined sugar completely. This first 2-3 month phase will be our chance to see how your body responds to this style of program, so we will continue to refine the diet design as we learn.