Welcome to another article from Universal Aesthetics (now Physique Transformation)
I strongly recommend to have a skim through “Introduction To Dieting” in case you’d like a refresh on up-to-date basics of sports nutrition.
The purpose of this article is to introduce you to core mechanics behind attaining an inspiring physique and to put you on a path to become the most visually impressive version of yourself. No matter what point in life you’re in right now, man or woman, young or old, you can make drastic improvements to the way you look in matter of months. And I am here to help you get there ASAP!
Your long term goal
First, think of how you would like to look one year from now: would you rather be bigger and stronger even if it means not being very lean? Or would you rather have a slimmer, more aesthetic physique, eventually with visible abdominal muscles? Or maybe you’re shooting for somewhere in the middle?
It might surprise you (or not) but initial training approach is quite similar for most physique goals and relies on producing an effect within the muscle called hypertrophy (or simply growth). Though the word itself means just about any type of growth, most of the time when you see it mentioned it will be in the context of building muscle tissue.
But wait! I can almost hear a number of female voices crying out in terror: “But I don’t want to get bulky!“. Fair point! What might surprise most ladies: naturally developed muscle doesn’t make you bulky or big. High body fat however – does.
“Then what about all those muscular women in the bodybuilding contest pictures posted on the internet? I wouldn’t want to look like that…“
We can’t deny female bodybuilding exists, right? There are several scenarios which explain how such physique was attained:
- the first one involves using synthetic male hormones to achieve supernatural levels of muscle growth. This is the most common way a woman bodybuilder would develop large, impressive musculature… Sometimes accompanied by masculine characteristics (jaw muscle growth, deepened voice etc.) depending on type and amount of compounds used.
- in the second scenario, natural female athlete has achieved very low levels of body fat which makes her physique appear muscular by exposing muscle striations and veins. Also known as “shredded” or “ripped” look, such low levels of fat are quite hard to obtain and pretty much impossible to maintain for any longer than a few days. In that time photo shoots take place and pictures get posted to instagram of facebook over a period of time creating an illusion of the physique competition-level conditioning being maintained continuously.
- third scenario: one in a zillion genetic specimen. You can imagine how very unlikely that last option is compared to the first two.
Dear ladies, you want as much hypertrophy as you can get – because you can only get little compared to most men.Every little bit of muscle will help in making your physique look more “toned”, fit and – what I would imagine is quite important – attractive.
And what about men? We also want all the hypertrophy we can get – there is no such thing as “too much muscle” when talking about natural physique progression.
Now that we’ve got this sorted let’s go back to finding out how to make those muscular improvements happen!
Principles behind muscle hypertrophy
There is a ton of advanced resources out there which go deep into the subject of muscular development, this being a beginner resource I’ll stick to the basics and real life applications.
Some of the intricacies of muscle hypertrophy are still unknown to us, but what we do know is the fundamental action -> reaction mechanism propelling it. In this case, action is resistance – or weight training – of sufficient volume(repetitions and sets), intensity(subjectively how heavy the weight feels during exercise) and effort per set, alongside ingestion of amino acids. Reaction – a cascade of physiological processes resulting in increase of the size of muscle fibers.
You can see from the picture that increase in the thickness of muscle fibers will lead to increase in fascicle size, and increase in fascicle size means an increase in muscle size.
If you’ve already read my article “Calories, Macronutrients And Body Composition” then you know how essential protein is in the process of building tissues – and muscle tissue is no exception. Combined stimuli from weight training and sufficient protein intake with positive, anabolic environment to maximize growth (caloric surplus) and ample recovery time for the physical remodelling in the muscle tissue to happen is responsible for the great majority of hypertrophy effect size.
Good news – we have direct control over these factors. By training hard (and smart), providing adequate nourishment and – most importantly – being consistent in your efforts, you can make positive changes happen and eventually maximize your natural potential.
Talking about natural potential, there are things you can’t affect. How quickly you build muscle and how much of it you can get, your skeletal structure and biomechanical leverages – those have been ultimately decided for you. Don’t concern yourself with potential drawbacks of your physique if there is nothing you can do about them right now. Everyone has a substantial potential to change and improve. Anyone with enough consistency and drive can achieve low body fat and an aesthetic looking physique for life. There are no exceptions, no matter how bad you think your starting point is.
Bulking, cutting, maintaining and body recomposition
If you had a chance to browse around fitness boards and websites, you must have seen the terms “bulk”, “cut” and “weight maintenance” or “recomp” thrown around.
Bulking up means staying in caloric surplus and therefore gaining both fat and muscle mass while consistently training with weights, ideally as little fat and as much muscle as possible. After sufficient time has been spent bulking (typically based on the amount of fat mass gained) a lifter usually goes into either “maintenance” which is exactly what it says – caloric maintenance – and eats around their TDEE, or starts “cutting” – goes into caloric deficit with the purpose of losing fat and preserving as much freshly gained muscle as they can.
Quickest way of attaining your ideal physique is to apply these cycles in your diet and training. However, there is a also a potential albeit slower option called body recomposition (or in short “recomp”) – this means eating at caloric maintenance while weight training – and allowing for the energy necessary for muscle remodelling to be provided from fat stores and stored glycogen.
This strategy is more common in lifters who are close to capping their genetic potential – at which point bulking up causes mostly unnecessary fat gain with little muscle gain – or with beginners who have “skinny fat” physiques – with little muscle but a tad too high levels of body fat, with bulking or cutting being equally unappealing strategies. As opposed to genetically capped individuals, beginners make very fast progress for the first few months – often called “beginner gains” – and are in a unique situation where gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously is actually a viable alternative to a more traditional approach.
So what exactly should you do as someone new to training? Here’s some ideas for novices of both sexes:
- plenty of fat to lose = cut at reasonable deficit (one that doesn’t make you feel like death)
- some fat to lose but looking skinny in clothes = recomp or cut at small deficit (which will still allow for building muscle). Once body fat is at acceptable level, bulk.
- little fat to lose = bulk at small to moderate surplus depending on rate of muscle to fat gain
Choose whatever option brings you closer to your ideal body type. Asking yourself “will doing this make me feel better about how I look?” is I believe a great way of making decisions regarding physique development.
How to choose your training plan
You know how you want to look and you know how much you need to eat – now let’s narrow down how you need to train in order to beat your muscles into submission and make them grow.
There are a number of popular training programs for beginners, some are more suited for one purpose, while being only moderately good for another.
There are also a lot of divided opinions, even between professionals, on how the beginners should train – so here is mine with attached explanation.
Your beginner physique training program should achieve the following:
1. Be simple, straightforward and easy to follow with limited number of general compound exercises and their variations like squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press, pull up/chin up and rowing movements. Nevertheless number of exercises should still allow for full body development.
– why –
Initial training adaptations are both physiological and neurological in nature – weight lifting is a skill, and the best way to learn a new skill is to start with the basics, in this case “the basics” are the popular multi-joint exercises one can find in pretty much any training program out there in some variation. These also have the advantage of being efficient – utilizing greatest number of muscles and allowing to move biggest amount of weight.
2. Last between two to four months, after which a switch to a more advanced routine should be made designed with greater specificity in mind.
– why –
You will not be a beginner forever, and a fairly quick transition to a training plan which focuses more on your goal (like physique development) than developing basic skill is desirable. You will make most of your neurological adaptations to training within the first two to four months. Usually after the first month a beginner becomes visibly more proficient with the compound exercises and in my opinion once that proficiency is on reasonable level and decent strength progress has been made, it’s time to move on to more specific physique development training routine.
3. Train the full body three times per week.
– why –
Beginners train with low intensity due to low neural efficiency, so the risk of overtraining assuming reasonable volume is next to none. Recent [meta-analysis] recommends training full body at least twice per week. Still it’s a good idea to create some variation like days A and B repeated in undulated fashion (A-B-A, next week B-A-B) to make adequate room for recovery and skill learning. Some of the most popular newbie routines take this approach.
4. Train the body in 8-12 Repetition Maximum (RM) range, where a combination of mechanical tension and metabolite accumulation appears to be optimal for growth while still providing substantial strength development. 4-10 sets per week per muscle group will provide good results.
– why –
Any number of repetition ranges will work with novices, though eventually the one most beneficial to their future goal should be prioritized – in this case if the overall goal is hypertrophy, then training in the above range is going to be highly supportive of growth [review]. This does not mean you should completely exclude other rep ranges by the way – you can make fantastic gains with very low training intensities and high rep schemes. Still, including too much training variation initially is just not necessary and may be counterproductive. The weight should be light enough to allow complete control and technique learning while being heavy enough to develop strength adaptations.
Number of effective weekly work sets per muscle group was recently established in another recent [meta-analysis] to be 4-10+, with 10+ sets providing biggest increase in effect size. Bearing that in mind, another goal for beginner program is development of work capacity, which initially is low. With novices to weight training it’s best to start at the lowest end of the recommended work set range and increase the number of sets over the first few weeks as adaptations to training volume occur.
5. Promote proper exercise execution and never take the novice lifter to muscular failure or into overtraining. Repetition Maximum based on number of repetitions with good (not perfect!) form.
– why –
Lifting weights should never be taken to muscular failure by an inexperienced lifter – it’s dangerous and won’t yield any additional benefits compared to linear progress within desired rep range, on top of defeating the purpose of novice training – which is learning how to properly execute an exercise. If the goal is to hit 10 to 12 reps, it means 10 to 12 reps with good form, not 10 reps with good form, 1 so-so and 1 bad. Purpose of overreaching is to promote additional adaptations in strength and muscle size through a period of recovery and supercompensation after a period of fatigue accumulation, purpose of beginner training is to train the skill and develop neural efficiency, which when overtrained (prolonged period of overreaching not followed by sufficient recovery) is much harder to do as central nervous system, muscular and connective tissue are overloaded with stimuli and unable to recover fully between workouts.
6. Utilize linear progressive overload – weight increases from workout to workout until lowest repetition threshold is achieved in the last set in given exercise.
– why –
While an important goal of beginner training is to teach proper exercise technique, the ultimate goal is to promote full body hypertrophy. Mechanical tension is an integral part of hypertrophy, and if the effort per set is very low – this condition may not be met sufficiently. Adding the weight to the bar in small increments allows the effort per set to “keep up” with constantly improving strength.
Example of a beginner training plan
Taking all the information from the previous section into consideration, I present you with:
UNIVERSAL HYPERTROPHY FOR BEGINNERS
Popular routines these days have their own names, so why not mine? I think it sounds awesome, but I may be a bit biased.
Back Squat 4 x 12-8
Barbell Bench Press 4 x 12-8
Dumbbell Row 4 x 12-8
Classic Deadlift 3 x 12-8
Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 x 12-8
Assisted Pull-Ups 4 x 12-8
Week 1: B x A x B x x , perform only 1 set in every exercise
Week 2: A x B x A x x , perform 2 sets in every exercise
Week 3: B x A x B x x , perform 3 sets in every exercise
Week 4: A x B x A x x , perform the prescribed number of sets in all exercises
Week 5 and onward: perform the prescribed number of sets in all exercises rotating your training sessions as above
x = rest day (or abdominal training, stretching and/or some light cardio)
4 x 12 – 8 = 4 sets of 12 to 8 repetitions each
How it works: After picking low starting weight(for example: empty barbell, light dumbbells), perform up to 12 repetitions per set with good form, rest until you’re ready for the next set or exercise (2-3 minutes). After successfully completing at least 8 repetitions in your last set(though initially you are likely to be hitting 10-12 easily), for your next workout with that exercise increase the weight by a small amount(typically 2.5kg -5kg / 5-10lbs or 1-2kg / 2-4 lbs on the dumbbels). The harder it is to complete reps in last set, the smaller those weight jumps should be. Assisted pull-ups – either use progressively thinner rubber bands, or use lat pull-down cable machine if bands are not available. And don’t forget about proper warm-up!
Is it going to be the ideal routine for you? Possibly not, because it might not line up with your physique goals. For example, if you wanted to stress glute development, you could swap the standard back squat for sumo squat and classic deadlift for stiff-legged deadlift. Or if there was a very quad dominant beginner (thick ankle/knee joints with accompanying muscle mass, good leverages, relatively underdeveloped upper body) they might want to reduce the amount of squatting they do and increase amount of upper body work instead (again, this is on case by case basis – most people won’t have that problem). Or you could get rid of unilateral work (though mixing in some unilateral work helps with more even development between dominant and non dominant sides) and replace exercises with barbell versions and so on.
The real question should be: is this routine good enough to get you started? Absolutely. Now go and make some awesome gains!
Thanks for reading!
A lot of information in this article is based on current research by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, please check out his Research Gate profile if you’re interested in science of muscle hypertrophy.