If you’re reading this, it’s pretty safe to assume that you want to build muscle. Awesome.
When we’re trying to reach this goal, there are 2 very important areas we need to focus on and get right. One of them is our diet. The other is our workout routine.
Now there are PLENTY of ways people screw up their muscle building diet, but we’re not talking about that here. We’ll save that for another day. What we’re talking about here is the second part of that equation… the workouts.
And more often than not, that focus begins with bodybuilding. It makes perfect sense. After all, bodybuilding is literally ALL about building muscle and achieving a body that looks as amazing as possible. It’s what we’re all trying to do.
Therefore, if we want to build muscle as effectively as possible, bodybuilding workouts are clearly the way to do it. Right?
Well, not exactly. That’s because typical bodybuilding workouts absolutely SUCK for building muscle!
I know, I know. That sounds completely incorrect. It sounds backwards and wrong and is the total opposite of what most of us think or would ever believe. But, it’s 100% true.
Brace yourself… I’m about to show you exactly why.
What Is The “Typical” Bodybuilding Routine?
Let’s begin with a definition of what we’re talking about here.
The typical bodybuilding routine may very well be THE most popular type of weight training program among those training for muscle growth. It’s what most of the people in your gym are probably using. It’s what’s been found for decades inside of every single bodybuilding magazine ever made. It’s seen all the time on thousands (possibly millions) of different websites, forums and blogs.
Even if you don’t know it… you probably still know it. It’s the type of workout most of us either start out using or eventually find and switch to. I know I did.
So, what the hell is it?
Well, it’s not one single workout routine. It’s more of a template of common characteristics that, when combined together, form what I (and most people) would consider to be a typical bodybuilding routine. Specifically, it includes some or all of the following…
The “typical” bodybuilding routine is…
- A workout program that uses a low training frequency. One that trains each muscle group just once per week.
- And to do this, it uses a body part split… a schedule that breaks the body up into one or two different muscle groups and trains them throughout the week so that there’s a “chest day” and a “back day” and maybe an “arm day” too.
- And in each of these workouts, there is a very high amount of volume. A lot of sets of a lot of exercises so you can blast the crap out of your muscles and hit them from every angle using a variety of exercises.
- And most of these sets will be done in higher rep ranges… often between 8-15 reps per set (3×10 being most typical). Lower reps are rarely used.
- Many (if not all) sets will be done with shorter rest periods in between them. Longer rest periods are rarely used.
- Many (if not all) sets will be taken to failure. Sometimes beyond failure.
- A pyramid set structure is often employed.
- There’s a large focus on trying to fatigue and isolate the muscles as much as possible via the use of many isolation exercises, advanced methods (e.g. dropsets, forced reps, partial reps, etc.) and exercise technique adjustments.
- There is a significant amount of attention given to “feel,” as in feeling the “pump” and “burn” during the workouts, and causing/experiencing soreness in the day(s) after.
- Changes are usually made frequently. Sometimes to “shock the body and keep the muscles guessing,” sometimes to include more exercises and more methods, and sometimes to generate even more pump and soreness.
- Progressive overload is often an afterthought (if it’s even a thought at all) compared to everything else on this list. This is the stuff that gets the primary focus of the program.
To get a little more specific, here’s a common example of what a typical “chest day” might look like in this type of routine…
A typical example of “chest day” (every Monday, of course)…
- Flat bench press.
- Incline bench press.
- Decline bench press.
- Machine and/or dumbbell version(s) of those same pressing exercises.
- Dumbbell flyes, pec deck or cable crossovers… or maybe all of them.
All of which will often be done for 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
Now, does all of the above describe what EVERY SINGLE “bodybuilding routine” is? Nope. But, it DOES describe what the largest majority of them are, and that’s the specific type of workout program this article is all about.
I’ve personally spent a lot of time using routines exactly like this, as have most people at some point. And like I said earlier, this is the most common way you’ll see people training in most gyms. I see it daily.
So… What’s Wrong With It?
Are we all clear now on the sort of training approach I’m referring to when I say ”typical” bodybuilding workouts and routines? Good.
Now allow me to show you why it’s all horseshit for building muscle.
1. The Low Frequency Body Part Splits SUCK!
I actually have nothing against the concept of “body part splits” if your goal is to build muscle and you’re past the beginner’s stage. In fact, I like them… as long they are executed intelligently.
What I don’t like are the typical body part splits that 99% of bodybuilding workouts are designed around. The execution there is FAR from “intelligent.”
Here are some common examples…
They all look pretty familiar, don’t they? Maybe even “standard.” So then why is it that these types of splits tend to suck?
Well, it’s not just because they often involve an “arm day” or 5-6 workouts per week or other things most people won’t need or benefit from… but mainly because they all involve using a low frequency where each muscle group is only trained once per week (every 7th day).
For that reason alone, bodybuilding routines suck.
Why? Because all research and real world experience shows that it’s the least effective training frequency for strength or muscle gains among natural trainees.
If you’re the “science” type, you’ll be interested to know that there’s not a single study I’ve ever seen that found training each muscle group once per week to be more effective than other higher frequencies.
More importantly, not a single study has even shown it to be equally effective… even when total training volume is the same. Instead, it’s consistently found to be the LEAST effective frequency, with 2 or 3 times per week ALWAYS proving to be the superior choice.
If you’re the “real world” type, you’ll be interested to know that all real world experience confirms it. Not just my own firsthand experience of switching from this low frequency to a higher frequency and instantly improving my results. Not just the similar experience of countless others either.
If I think of every single one of the most knowledgeable, experienced and highly respected trainers and coaches on the planet — the ones that I personally find the most credible (as opposed to the steroid using genetic freaks whose opinions are virtually meaningless to the rest of us) – literally 100% of them feel the exact same way.
The same goes for the small handful of well respected natural competitive bodybuilders I know of. Not a single one of them uses or recommends this training frequency either.
Now, don’t misunderstand me here. I’m NOT saying it doesn’t work or it can’t work. Training each muscle group once per week CAN and DOES work as long as everything else is done right.
It’s just that it’s the least effective way for the majority of the population to train to build muscle. For some, it actually won’t even be least effective… it will be completely ineffective.
You know who it tends to work best for though? Steroid/drug users and the genetic elite. These are the people who are MUCH more likely to be capable of maintaining the new training adaptations made during that previous workout over this upcoming 7 day period where they’re waiting to train that body part again.
But for us natural, genetically average men and women… not so much.
We’re a lot more likely to de-train during this stretch of time, which means by the time we’re back in the gym to train that muscle group again, we’ll have lost some or even all of the new progress we made, thus putting us in a wheel-spinning cycle where we progress and then regress from one workout to the next and end up getting nowhere.
There are always going to be exceptions of course, but the crucial thing to remember is that these are the exceptions… not the rule. In this case, “the rule” is that this frequency is widely considered (and proven) to be the least effective for the majority of the population.
For these reasons, every single one of the the most popular and highly proven beginner routines out there use a 3 day full body split. For a beginner, this is widely regarded as the most effective way to train for ANY goal, including muscle growth.
And once you pass the beginner’s stage, a twice per week frequency (or something close to it… every 3rd to 5th day) becomes optimal. The 3 or 4 day upper/lower split is one of the most proven and popular workout splits for that frequency.
However, it’s not the only workable option for it. Believe it or not, there actually are some intelligent body part splits that are designed with a more optimal frequency in mind. One such example is the rotating 5 day push/pull/legs split.
But regardless of the specific split you use, one thing is certain: if your goal is building muscle as quickly as possible, and you’re using a typical “once-per-week” bodybuilding split… your results will not be as good as they could be.
2. The Silly, Pointless And/Or Dangerous Body Part Splits SUCK!
In addition to the low frequency problems mentioned above and the fact that VERY few people in the world will actually need or ever benefit from having a “chest day” or “arm day” or other entire days dedicated to training a single small muscle group (e.g. shoulders), typical bodybuilding splits have other problems too.
And these problems are a little more serious than just being ineffective, unnecessary or flat out dumb. These problems are injury-causing.
For example, let’s say your silly once-per-week body part split is something like this:
Now some people might look at this and see a basic 5 day body part split. I look at it and see guaranteed shoulder problems… maybe elbow problems too.
Why? Because even though individual muscles appear to be getting trained just once per week (which in itself is incorrect when you take overlap into account), the joints are getting trained every damn day. Specifically, the shoulder girdle is involved heavily in every chest, shoulder and back exercise, not to mention many arm exercises too (especially heavy bicep curls and compound triceps exercises like dips and close grip bench presses).
Hell, even holding the bar on your back during squats involves your shoulders. Plus, various forearm flexor and extensor tendons connecting at the medial/lateral epicondyle of the elbow are getting a significant amount of stress placed on them during damn near everything.
As someone who has had both shoulder and elbow issues at times over the years… trust me… I know this all too well. And if you’ve been training this way long enough, something tells me you know it too.
So do most of the people in your gym. Just try to find someone whose shoulders (or elbows) don’t currently bother them or haven’t previously bothered them in the past. You might not find a single person fitting that description unless they’ve just started training.
That’s why, with all of this in mind…
- I’d be a little worried about someone weight training 5 (or more) days per week.
- I’d be more worried if 3-4 (or more) of those workouts are upper body specific.
- I’d be even more worried if it all takes place on consecutive days.
- And you know what instantly makes it all 1000 times more worrisome? The fact that it all goes along with everything else typically seen in bodybuilding routines. Meaning, a metric shitload of sets, reps and exercises. (More on that in a second.)
Not only is this a recipe for terrible muscle building results, it’s a sure-fire recipe for injuries. More about that here: 8 Ways To Avoid Common Shoulder Injuries Caused By Weight Lifting
3. The Insanely High Volume SUCKS!
When I say volume, I’m talking about the amount of work being done. How many total sets, reps and exercises per muscle group, per workout and per week.
The amount of volume that is both beneficial and tolerable is a highly individual thing that varies based on factors like age, experience level, genetics, drug use and more.
That’s why someone who’s 18 can do fine with more volume than someone who’s 48, and why someone with great genetics and/or plenty of drugs can handle WAY more volume than someone with average (or worse) genetics and no drugs at all.
Even still, the way I see it, there’s really just 5 categories of volume when it comes to building muscle:
- Too Little: This of course would mean not doing enough volume to actually stimulate muscle growth. I’ll be honest though, this is a pretty rare category to fall into.
- Enough To Work, But Not Well: Then there’s the next level up, which is doing enough volume to create the necessary training stimulus, but not enough for that stimulus to be optimal. Many “low volume” type routines fall into this category.
- Just Right: The “Goldielocks” category. Not too little, not too much… just right. This is the amount of volume that is optimal for muscle growth. The best results happen here.
- More Than Enough: This is when you’re doing more than the optimal amount of volume we just talked about. However, this extra volume neither improves your results nor does it negatively affect your results. It’s essentially just a waste of time that isn’t doing anything for you… good or bad.
- Too Much: And finally, this is when you’re doing more volume than is needed, more volume than is optimal and just more volume to the point where it’s going to become detrimental to the results you want. How so? Everything from recovery issues to overuse injuries. This is the amount of volume that negatively affects your results in some way.
Do you know what category typical bodybuilding routines fall into? Yup, #5… the “too much” category. And honestly, just calling it “too much” might be an understatement based on the workouts I see and the pure insanity taking place in gyms around the world.
And for that reason, typical high volume bodybuilding routines suck for building muscle.
You see, your goal in terms of training volume is to do exactly enough to provide the optimal training stimulus, but not so much that it crosses that line and exceeds your capacity to recover in an ideal period of time. Basically, you want to signal muscle growth and then get back in the gym as soon as possible to signal it again. The more often you can do that, the better/faster your progress is going to be.
However, the more unnecessary volume you do (and bodybuilding routines are filled with TONS of unnecessary volume), the longer it’s going to require you to wait before you can go back into the gym to send that signal again (which brings us back to the low frequency mentioned before).
And, if that extra volume isn’t providing any additional benefits beyond what that “just right” amount will provide (it’s not), and it’s not providing a greater “signal” than the “just right” amount provides (it isn’t), then all it’s truly doing is forcing you to waste time and make less/slower progress.
So instead of doing 12-16 sets (a very conservative example) for some muscle group and than sitting around for a week waiting to do it again, you’ll grow better doing half that amount of volume… but twice as often.
Now I know what you’re thinking… what exactly is this “just right” amount of volume and what is it based on? Is it just something I’m pulling out of my ass?
Not quite. It’s based on the following:
- 12 years of real world experience and observation… just looking at what seems to produce the best results in terms of volume for natural trainees (without cutting into recovery).
- Comparing the most effective workout routines in existence and noticing that they have something in common… they all tend to prescribe a similar amount of volume. No, it’s not 100% exact. However, it does tend to always fall within a similar “range” of volume.
- What I’ve personally found to be optimal after years of experimenting with every amount of volume you can think of. Low volume, high volume, you name it and I’ve probably wasted some amount of time trying it.
- Scientific research. There are a handful of studies that look at training volume and its effects on strength gains and muscle hypertrophy, and they tend to confirm this same “just right” range of volume that the other items on this list fall in line with. This is one of the best studies of them all.
Based on all of the above, this “optimal volume range” tends to be about 30-60 reps per muscle group per workout, with the optimal frequency being about two workouts per week. Although, when you take into account exercise overlap (e.g. triceps get plenty of volume during pressing exercises), those smaller muscle groups tend to only need about half that amount.
More about this here: The Optimal Volume Range
4. The Large Focus On Isolation Exercises SUCKS!
You ready for this? I like isolation exercises. Yes, seriously.
Various biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, dumbbell flyes, leg curls, shrugs. I like them all if you’re training to build muscle and you’re past the beginner’s stage.
BUT, I only like them as a secondary focus of your overall routine. I like when they are accessory exercises to the much-more-important big compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, pull-ups, etc.) that SHOULD be getting the majority of your attention because they’re going to be responsible for the majority of the results you get (or fail to get).
What I don’t like is when it’s the other way around… something often seen in typical bodybuilding routines.
I’m talking about when your workouts are filled with more isolation movements than compound movements (or even an equal amount of each). You know… when a person is doing 5 chest exercises AND 5 triceps exercises. Or 1-2 back exercises, and 4 kinds of bicep curls.
Or, even worse, when isolation movements REPLACE compound movements. You know… when a person is doing dumbbell flyes, leg extensions and leg curls INSTEAD of bench presses, squats and deadlifts.
In these scenarios, your results are going to suck.
So while isolation exercises are definitely beneficial for muscle growth, their role should always be a secondary one with compound exercises taking the primary role. The second those roles start to reverse or even become equal, that’s the second isolation exercises become less beneficial and more detrimental.
More about that here: Compound Exercises vs Isolation Exercises
5. The Silly, Pointless And/Or Dangerous Exercise Myths SUCK!
Since bodybuilding workouts are supposedly all about building and training muscles, you’ll often see plenty of silly crap included in an attempt to better train, fatigue or isolate those muscles.
I’ll admit, the following examples are in no way exclusive to these kinds of routines. They are however where you’ll commonly find them.
- Wide grip pull-ups and wide grip lat pull-downs for better lats. As the theory/myth goes, the wider your grip on these exercises, the wider your lats will become. In reality, the wider the grip, the less range of motion and the more likely you’ll be to screw up your shoulders.
- Bodybuilder style bench press for better chest isolation. This involves flaring your elbows out to the sides and lowering the bar to your upper chest. Does this just slightly put a tiny bit more emphasis on the pecs and a tiny bit less on your triceps? Uh, maybe. Enough to actually matter? Doubtful. But you know what it will do for sure? It will absolutely destroy your shoulders. And guess what? You’ll have a mighty tough time isolating those pecs when you’re unable to actually bench press anymore.
- Higher reps and lighter weights for tone/definition/getting cut and ripped. The myth-based thinking here is that lower reps and heavier weight build muscle mass, but higher reps and lighter weight are for increasing the definition of those muscles. You know, burning fat and cutting those muscles up and getting ripped. Or whatever. It sounds nice, but it’s pure bullshit. Spot reduction is not possible, and getting more defined is strictly a matter of lowering your body fat percentage (something that’s primarily a function of your diet, not weight training).
- Isolation exercises for tone/definition/getting cut and ripped. Exactly the same thing as above, only now the myth-based thinking is that compound exercises build muscle, and isolation exercises burn fat/add definition. Still pure bullshit.
- Machines for tone/definition/getting cut and ripped. See above.
- Constant changes to shock your muscles. Bullshit yet again. More on this later.
- Lower reps for strength only, not muscle. This one explains why most typical bodybuilding routines involve a million sets of 8-12, with 10 reps usually being the most common. Apparently, doing sets of 5-8 reps will only increase strength and not build muscle. Bullshit. More on this later.
That’s just the first bunch that come to mind. There are plenty more. And they often get dumber and more insignificant/pointless as you go.
Case in point, you’ll sometimes hear crazy shit like how straight bar triceps press downs are for building muscle mass on your triceps, but press downs with a rope are somehow magically for “cutting and toning your triceps.” Funny.
6. The Always High Reps SUCK!
Here’s another one of those common bodybuilding characteristics that is mostly based on a silly myth. And that is the belief that only higher reps can build muscle. Meaning, 10 reps per set is ideal, 12 reps are great too, and maybe sometimes going down as low as 8 reps is acceptable as well.
But less than 8 reps per set? That’s something you will rarely see in typical bodybuilding workouts. Why? Because, according the logic/myth, anything less than 8 reps is great for gaining strength but sucks for building muscle.
Sounds good to me, if not for the fact that it’s total bullshit.
The reality of muscle hypertrophy is that literally EVERY rep range is capable of stimulating growth. Be it sets of 3, sets of 4, sets of 5, sets of 6, sets of 7, sets of 8, sets of 10, sets of 12, sets of 15, sets of 20.
The key requirement is progressive tension overload. As long as you’re gradually getting stronger over time, you will build muscle regardless of what rep range you’re getting stronger in.
Sure, some rep ranges are more or less ideal for certain goals (e.g. the 1-6 rep range is more ideal for strength, the 5-12 rep range is more ideal for size), and some rep ranges are more ideal for certain exercises (e.g. 5-8 for more demanding compound exercises, 8-12 for less demanding accessory exercises).
However, there is so much overlap between them that EVERY rep range can still serve a beneficial purpose for your goal… especially when it’s a goal like muscle growth that just so happens to be heavily built around getting stronger.
For these reasons, always staying in the higher rep ranges prevents you from getting the significant benefits that come from training in the lower rep ranges.
Now I’m definitely not saying you should avoid those higher rep ranges and use lower reps exclusively. That’s equally as dumb, and the types of people who recommend this are idiots. (More on them later.)
What I am saying is that for the best possible results, a combination of lower and higher reps is what’s going to be optimal for building muscle.
7. The Always Short Rest Periods SUCK!
Just like higher reps, one thing you’re sure to see in typical bodybuilding routines is shorter rest periods between sets. Not just for some exercises, but for most if not ALL of them.
Why is this? Well, I think it partially has to do with what you’re seeing and feeling at the time. The shorter your rest periods are, the better “pump” you’re gonna get. This of course makes your muscles temporarily look/feel bigger, which many clueless people take as a sign of their workouts already working. How cute.
But it’s also because there is a belief that shorter rest periods are better for building muscle, while longer rest periods are better for increasing strength. While this isn’t entirely wrong, it’s not entirely right either.
Yes, shorter rest periods between sets (e.g. 30-120 seconds) play a positive role in generating metabolic fatigue, and this is something that DOES matter for muscle growth. Thus, shorter rest periods are indeed beneficial for building muscle.
However, shorter rest periods suck balls for making strength gains. That’s why people training solely for strength use longer rest periods (e.g. 3-5 minutes) between sets. It’s what’s ideal.
Now here’s the thing. While metabolic fatigue is a legit factor here, progressive overload is always legit factor #1. Which means, you shouldn’t exclusively use shorter rest periods. Nor should you exclusively use longer rest periods.
For the best possible results, you should use a combination of both and get the different benefits each one provides.
The best way to do that in my opinion is to do your big primary compound lifts — the ones you’re doing for lower reps — with longer rest periods (2-3 minutes). And do your secondary accessory lifts — the ones you’re doing for higher reps — with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).
Now you’ll be doing a nice combination of what’s optimal for generating metabolic fatigue, and what’s optimal for creating progressive overload. Your results will show it.
8. The Pyramid Sets SUCK!
In many typical bodybuilding routines, each exercise is usually done for somewhere between 3-5 sets of usually 8-12 reps (sometimes 6-15 reps). In many of those cases, it’s just straight sets. Meaning, 4 sets of 10 or 3 sets of 8 or something like that.
In the cases when it’s not structured that way, a traditional pyramid is what’s most often used.
This set/rep approach calls for starting with your lightest weight first and lifting it for the highest amount of reps. Then, in each subsequent set, you increase the weight and decrease the reps. Here’s an example…
- 100lbs x 12
- 105lbs x 10
- 110lbs x 8
- 115lbs x 6
That’s a traditional pyramid setup. And like a lot of the stuff being mentioned in this article, it looks like one of those “standard” aspects of weight training that we’ve all seen before and most likely used at some point ourselves.
It’s also another one of those common bodybuilding characteristics that just so happens to suck for building muscle. Here’s why…
As I’ve said a bunch of times already, the primary stimulus of muscle growth is progressive overload, which in this context basically means getting stronger over time.
And the thing about the traditional pyramid is that it’s designed ass-backwards from what basic common sense would tell you is optimal for getting stronger.
Think about it. When you’re at your freshest and strongest, you’re lifting the lightest weights. Then, as you become more and more fatigued (muscular fatigue, cardiovascular fatigue, etc.), that’s when you start lifting the heaviest weights.
So, when you’re at your weakest, the weights are at their heaviest. Genius!
What you should be doing instead is warming up to your heaviest weight and STARTING with it. From there, you should either keep using that same amount of weight and try to maintain a certain amount of reps with it in the next sets, or you should reduce the weight from set to set and either try to maintain a certain amount of reps or possibly go for additional reps as part of a reverse pyramid.
More about all of this here: Pyramid Sets vs Reverse Pyramid vs Straight Sets
So… can pyramid sets work for building muscle? Of course it can if everything else is being done correctly. Is it what’s going to be optimal for building muscle? Rarely, if ever.
This seems to be a bit of trend in this article.
9. The Huge & Redundant Exercise Selection SUCKS!
This clearly goes hand-in-hand with the insanely high volume issue mentioned before, as well as the large focus on isolation exercises (and pump/soreness… more on that later). Still, it deserves its own individual mention.
I have some questions…
- Do you really think your biceps need 5 different types of curling exercises to grow?
- Do you really think your chest must be hit at every possible angle? Do you really think it needs a flat barbell, dumbbell and/or machine version of the same pressing exercise? And then flat dumbbell flyes too?
- And after all of that pressing, do you really think your triceps still need 3 or 4 or 5 (or more) exercises?
- Do you really think you need to do wide grip lat pull-downs, then narrow grip lat pull-downs, then repeat those same lat pull-downs but now using an underhand grip instead of overhand? And then maybe repeat it with pull-ups?
- Do you really think your shoulders need a seated dumbbell press and a seated barbell press? And then maybe a machine press?
- And after the shitload of volume the anterior deltoids got from both shoulder and chest training, do you really think you still need front raises?
The answer to all of these questions and the dozens of others just like them is NO.
It’s going to be unnecessary at best, and counterproductive to your goal of building muscle at worst. More often than not, it’s going to be the latter.
These are all perfect examples of not only doing WAY more exercises than we actually need to build muscle optimally, but just doing a ton of identical, redundant and overlapping exercises that serve no real purpose other than to generate more pump and soreness, destroy your joints, cut into recovery and prevent your progress.
What’s that you say? This isn’t always the case? There are times when a lot of exercises are needed?
Let me guess… you’re referring to the idea that you need a bunch of different exercises to target each individual head of the biceps and triceps. Right?
I’ll admit, when you are a competitive bodybuilder stepping on a stage to be judged, one who has already built more muscle than 99% of the population will ever come close to building and you’re nearing your natural (or even non-natural) genetic potential… this kind of thing can matter.
But for the rest of us? Just normal people trying to build muscle and look great naked? It’s unlikely to ever matter much at all.
In fact, all practical experience shows us that this sort of thing is significantly more likely to interfere with us getting the results we want than it is to actually help us with getting those results.
10. The Frequent Changes SUCK!
Something you’ll often see in typical bodybuilding routines is stuff constantly changing. I’m not talking about some intelligent form of periodization. I’m talking about changing various aspects of your workouts (exercise selection, exercise order, rep ranges, methods, etc.) with little rhyme, reason or logical purpose.
Unless of course you consider unnecessary nonsense and bullshit myths to be logical purposes.
These changes are seemingly made at random, and the frequency of them can vary. Sometimes it’s every month, sometimes every few weeks, or sometimes — my personal favorite of all — something is changed significantly from one workout to the next.
Why? Good question. The answers you’ll most often hear include:
- Gotta shock my body bro!
- Gotta keep my muscles guessing bro!
- Gotta make sure my body doesn’t get used to what I’m doing bro!
- Muscle confusion bro!
- I was barely getting sore anymore bro!
- I saw something new I wanted to try bro!
- I just felt like it bro!
- [insert fitness guru, website or magazine here] just came out with an awesome new workout bro!
Hmmm, let’s see. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, meaningless, stupid, stupid and stupid.
Above all else, the key to muscle growth is progressive overload. That means putting your muscles under a certain amount of tension, and then increasing that tension over time. The most basic example of this is doing some exercise with some amount of weight for some amount of reps, and then gradually increasing that amount of reps and/or weight as often as you can.
Basically, do something and then improve at it.
This isn’t easy, but do you know a sure-fire way to make it extra hard? By constantly making changes to what it is you’re trying to improve at.
Muscle growth requires strength gains, and strength gains require consistency. So by constantly changing your workouts around, you’re doing the complete opposite of what you need to be doing to build muscle optimally.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever change things. You should. But, it shouldn’t be that often, and it certainly shouldn’t be for bullshit reasons like these. More about that here: Changing Your Routine Too Often and here: When And How Often To Change Your Routine
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again. Your muscles don’t need to be shocked or confused. They just need to be consistently challenged. The only change that is required for building muscle is progression.
More about that here: The Ultimate Muscle Confusion Workout
11. The “Advanced” Methods SUCK!
Ah yes, advanced training methods. We all want to use them, and most typical bodybuilding routines are filled with them. For example…
- Drop sets.
- Super sets (not to be confused with alternating sets).
- Forced reps.
- Partial reps.
- Negative reps.
- Various time under tension/rep tempo protocols.
- and on and on…
Wanna hear something funny though? While a few of the many “advanced” methods out there can be worth using, most won’t actually do anything all that useful in any way whatsoever besides making you feel more “hardcore” because you’re using those methods.
And the few advanced methods that may actually serve some beneficial purpose in your program? Most are only likely to serve that purpose for people who ACTUALLY ARE ADVANCED and in need of such training methods.
But for beginners and intermediates, which describes the majority of the population? That shit is much less likely to improve your results, and much more likely to hinder them and distract you from the basic fundamentals.
Just like how an advanced trainee won’t do very well training like a beginner, the opposite is true too. The only difference is, you’ll never see anyone truly advanced seeking out beginner methods.
What you will see are people who are no where near advanced assuming that either A) they are advanced, or B) advanced stuff always works better than non-advanced stuff. They’d be wrong in both cases.
12. The Primary Focus On Pump, Fatigue & Soreness SUCKS!
Like I briefly mentioned earlier, typical bodybuilding routines seem to be based a lot on “feel.”
Feeling the pump, feeling the burn, feeling the fatigue, feeling the soreness the next day. It’s these feelings that many people using these types of routines go by as THE indicator of whether or not what they’re doing is right, or working, or effective, or in need of some kind of unnecessary and often counterproductive change or addition.
Crazy pump in the gym? Awesome! A ton of soreness the next day? Success!
Not enough pump? You must need to do more sets and exercises. Not enough soreness the next day? Things must not be working… better change something.
This is the common mindset people training this way have, and it’s pure bullshit.
Sure, pump and soreness are useful for letting us know that the target muscle was indeed activated (for example, if you do a back exercise and feel nothing in your back but a ton in your biceps, that’s a good sign you’re using too much biceps and little to no back).
However, they tell us virtually nothing about the effectiveness of our workouts. You know what does though? Do you know what is a great indicator of progress? Actual progress! Improvements in strength, improvements to body composition (more muscle, less fat), etc..
More about all of that here: How Important Are Pump And Soreness?
But most people don’t realize this. So instead of training in the way that actually produces the most progress, they’re busy training in the way that creates the most pump so they can leave the gym feeling the most fatigued and like they sufficiently destroyed their muscles so they can feel nice and sore the next day.
Fits pretty well with most of the crap commonly found in typical bodybuilding routines, doesn’t it? That’s not a coincidence.
13. The Lack Of Focus On Progressive Overload SUCKS!
At this point I think I’ve mentioned progressive overload enough times that I can keep this part (somewhat) short and sweet.
In this context, progressive overload basically means increasing the demands being placed on your body by getting stronger and stronger over time. Doing this creates an environment which forces your body to become capable of meeting these ever-increasing demands being placed upon it.
How does it become capable? How does it meet those demands? By building more muscle.
Progressive overload is, above all else, what signals the human body to build muscle. Volume, intensity, frequency, splits, rep ranges, rest periods, exercise selection, pump, fatigue and on and on and on… it’s all important too. However, in the absence of progressive overload, it’s all meaningless if you’re trying to build muscle.
More about that here: Progressive Overload: The Key Requirement
And the fact of the matter is that in typical bodybuilding routines, it’s this other stuff that gets the majority of the attention and focus, with the idea of progression being, at best, an afterthought.
I know this from experience. When I first started training, these were the types of routines I used. I remember being super concerned that I wasn’t doing enough sets, or that I wasn’t doing the best exercises, or that I wasn’t sore enough the next day, or that I didn’t work my muscles hard enough.
Progression came after that. I knew getting stronger was a good idea, and I tried to. But, the actual concept of progression (or training FOR progression) wasn’t ever something I saw much about in the places I was getting these bodybuilding workouts from (shitty magazines, shitty websites, etc.).
It was more just something I viewed as “something I should probably try to do in addition to everything else” rather than “the primary requirement for getting the results I want.”
And in my experience, this is a mindset that consistently comes with using typical bodybuilding routines.
So This NEVER Works… EVER… Under ANY Circumstance?
Nope, that’s NOT what I’m saying.
The truth is, if you do most of this stuff but maybe keep it to at least somewhat sane levels (e.g. 3 chest exercises instead of 6+)… AND you focus on progressive overload AND you eat correctly to support it… this type of training can work. It CAN build muscle.
The same could honestly be said for damn near EVERY method of training, which is why so many types of programs appear to work.
However, what I’m saying is that for a natural drug-free person interested in building muscle, it’s usually the worst possible way to train.
Tons of real world experience shows this. Every bit of research supports this. Every single trainer, coach or legit expert in this field with even half a brain fully agrees with this.
Basically, there’s A) what doesn’t work, B) what does work, and C) what works best. For most of the people, most of the time, these types of routines will be A or B.
But I Swear I’ve Seen People Making These Routines Work!
Yup, you certainly have. I have too. Like I said, this typical form of bodybuilding training CAN definitely work. And yes… it DOES appear to work well for some people.
However… and this is a very big HOWEVER… the main points I’m getting at here are that…
- It tends to work best for steroid users, people with amazing genetics, or both.
- It may work for other people… just not very well or at least not optimally.
- For many people, it’s barely going to work at all and in certain cases, just not work period.
- For the natural, genetically average trainee… it’s an inferior way to train for building muscle.
Steroids & Drugs
So sure, if you want to focus on the tons of people using every drug and steroid known to man (many of which deny it) that happen to be training this way and are successfully building plenty of muscle… go for it.
Just keep in mind that you’re ignoring the fact that steroids can make up for training like a moron. These people aren’t building muscle because of the typical bodybuilding routine they’re using… they’re building muscle because steroids work amazingly well regardless of the type of training being done.
In fact, steroids work well even when NO training is being done whatsoever. More about that here: Steroids vs Natural
Keep that in mind the next time you see some huge guy training this way and doing extremely well. Unless you’re using the same amount of drugs they are (and/or have their same great genetics), they might not be the best person for you to try to emulate.
And if you want to focus on the people with amazing genetics who are training with these types of workout routines and also appear to have built plenty of muscle this way, feel free to do that too.
But again keep in mind that many of these kinds of genetically elite people were probably more muscular before they even started training than the average person will be after years of training (yup, above-average genetics are sometimes that awesome).
These are people who are going to build muscle just fine no matter how they train. It’s not quite the same as comparing steroids vs natural, but above average genetics vs average genetics or great genetics vs horrible genetics isn’t that much different.
In either case, comparing what works for them with what will work for you just isn’t going to be a very smart idea.
And if you want to focus on the people who appear to truly be natural AND genetically average yet seem to be training this way AND look pretty good, you’re welcome to do so.
But you should keep in mind that there’s a really good chance these people didn’t build the majority of their muscle training this way (the same goes for many non-natural bodybuilders). They just happen to be training this way now that they’re super advanced and so close to their genetic limits that they need (or at least think they need) to train this way to make that last drop of progress.
Majority vs Minority
But instead of all of these examples… do you know who you should really be focusing on? Not the small minority of people using this form of bodybuilding routine and getting good results, but rather the majority of them who train this way and look like shit.
Or better yet, if you happen to be training this way, the best person of all to look at is yourself. I’ve been in that position before. It’s not fun to admit to yourself that you’ve been wasting a lot of time doing things wrong or at least sub-optimally.
But, if you don’t, you’ll never be able to break out of that rut and fix it.
Does That Mean We Shouldn’t Train For Muscle Growth?
Nope, I’m definitely not saying that.
This isn’t one of those articles where the author (in this case, me) tries to tell you that when your goal is building muscle, you shouldn’t actually train for it. Instead, they claim, you should supposedly use a routine aimed specifically at strength or “functional” athletic training or something similar.
Why? According to them, it’s because these routines will allow you to build muscle better than typical bodybuilding routines (which is probably right). They’ll say “look at powerlifters… they have plenty of muscle.” Or “look at athletes… they have plenty of muscle.”
While this is technically all true, it’s still completely wrong and I don’t agree with it at all.
If your goal is to build muscle, you should train using a program that is 100% designed for and aimed at doing everything that is optimal for muscle growth.
In fact, this is what you should be doing for whatever your specific goal is. If you want goal A, don’t train for goal B. That’s stupid. Even if training for goal B is still capable of producing goal A, it’s just not going to be optimal.
The results you want should not be a side effect of your training, they should be the sole purpose of it. More about this here: Strength vs Size
The problem of course is that the majority of the population with the goal of building muscle thinks typical bodybuilding routines ARE the best way to make it happen. They’re obviously not.
So the solution isn’t that you need to train for some other related goal. The solution is that you need to reevaluate your perception of what’s truly best for the results you want. Speaking of which…
So What DOESN’T Suck For Building Muscle?
If you’re a beginner, a basic 3 day full body routine built around getting stronger at a handful of big compound exercises is almost always the best way to train. Something like Starting Strength or my own similar Beginner Routine. Simple as that.
If you’re past the beginner’s stage (meaning you’re an intermediate or advanced trainee), then you should:
- Train each body part with a moderate frequency, somewhere between once every 3rd-5th day.
- Use a workout split that allows for this frequency in a balanced and intelligent way.
- Use a moderate volume, somewhere between 30-60 reps per big muscle group per workout, less for smaller muscle groups.
- Use a moderate exercise selection. In most cases, 1-2 exercises per muscle group per workout (bigger muscle groups usually get 2, smaller muscle groups usually get 1).
- Fill the majority of your routine with big compound exercises like presses, rows, pull-ups/pull-downs, squats and deadlifts. Fill in the rest as needed with isolation exercises.
- Avoid redundant exercise selection (e.g. no need to do flat barbell press, then flat dumbbell press, then flat machine press).
- Keep your reps per set in the 5-15 rep range. It’s all beneficial in some way for building muscle, and you’ll often get your best results by using a combination of low and high reps. Specifically, the 5-8 rep range is ideal for your primary compound exercises, and the 8-15 rep range is great for your secondary accessory exercises.
- Give your primary lower rep exercises more rest between sets (2-3 minutes). Give your secondary accessory exercises less rest between sets (1-2 minutes).
- Use straight sets, reverse pyramid or something similar. The traditional pyramid should rarely be used.
- Avoid training to failure… at least not very often.
- Focus less on advanced methods, and more on the basic fundamentals.
- Avoid changing things too frequently. The only thing that needs to be “shocked” is your brain for believing in retarded training myths.
- Don’t obsess over pump and soreness. It’s useful for letting you know that you successfully recruited the target muscle group, but completely useless for letting you know if your workouts are effective.
- Put your primary focus, above all else, on creating progressive overload.
If you like upper/lower, the 3 or 4 day version of The Muscle Building Workout Routine is the program I highly recommend. It already gets all of this just right.
If you prefer a more traditional looking “bodybuilding” style routine, but one that removes all of the bullshit mentioned in this article and adjusts everything in a way that is actually effective and ideal, then my Bodybuilding 2.0 program included in The Best Workout Routines is one I highly recommend.
In fact, that guide contains a handful of different programs fitting this description. If you’re interested, feel free to check it out.
The Big Point
So what’s the big take home message of this never-ending article? It’s pretty simple.
If your primary goal is building muscle, you should most definitely train for it directly rather than train for some other goal that just happens to be capable of producing muscle growth.
However, the typical way most people train for this goal is by using the kinds of typical bodybuilding routines I just spent 8000 words shitting on. And deservedly so.
Yes, these kinds of workouts can and do work. However, all evidence and real world experience shows us that the people who tend to do best with this form of training are steroid users, people with above-average genetics, super advanced people who are nearing their genetic limits, and people who are some combination of all of the above (which coincidentally describes most bodybuilders).
And even in those cases, it’s debatable whether this form of training is optimal.
But for the rest of us? The natural, genetically average (or below average) majority of the population trying to build muscle? There’s no debate whatsoever. Typical bodybuilding routines are one of the least effective ways of training for this goal.
ALL research confirms it. My own firsthand experience training this way confirms it (as does the experience of just about everyone who trained this way and eventually “saw the light”). My own 12 years of real world observation confirms it. Literally every truly knowledgeable and credible (in my personal opinion) trainer/coach/expert/natural bodybuilder agrees.
Typical bodybuilding routines just suck for building muscle.