Alright, time to give away some muscle building SeCReTZ… for free.
I’ve previously covered the basics of putting together a generic upper body workout that can suit a variety of training goals. Today however I want to look at one specific goal and walk you through the template I personally like to use when designing a program for it.
What goal is that, you ask? Muscle hypertrophy… aka muscle growth.
How I Design Upper Body Workouts For Building Muscle
Please note that there are a hundred different ways this can be done effectively, so the following is certainly not the only way to do it. It is however the way I prefer to do it, and the way that I’ve found works best. It’s by far my favorite “upper body day” template.
Here we go…
Step 0: Individualization
Normally, the first step of ANY workout program design is individualization. This of course means taking the individual needs, goals, preferences, training/injury history, etc. of the specific person the routine is being designed for, and going forward with all of that in mind.
Since we don’t have a specific person in this case (it’s you, but um… I don’t actually know anything about you), we’re going to be skipping this step. Instead, we’ll just assume it’s some random generic person whose primary goal is to build muscle as quickly and effectively as possible.
With me so far? Awesome.
Step 1: Exercise Selection, Rep Ranges And Rest Periods
- 2 chest exercises.
One will typically be a flat or decline movement, and the other will typically be an incline movement (15-30 degree incline). The exercises themselves will either both be compound pressing exercises (like barbell bench press and incline dumbbell press), or one compound press (like any barbell, dumbbell or machine press) and one isolation type movement (like dumbbell or cable flyes, pec deck, etc.). Whatever they end up being, the first chest exercise in the workout will be done heavier and in a lower rep range (typically 5-8) with longer rest periods (2-4 minutes), and the other will be a little lighter and in a slightly higher rep range (typically 8-12, though sometimes as high as 15) with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes). Why? Because the two primary training factors influencing muscle growth are tension and fatigue, and this gives us a nice combination of both.
- 2 back exercises.
One will be a horizontal pulling movement (like bent over rows, seated cable rows, chest supported rows, etc.), and the other will be a vertical pulling movement (like pull-ups, chin-ups or lat pull-downs). Just like before with chest, the first back exercise in this upper body workout will be done heavier, lower in reps, longer in rest periods… while the other will be a little lighter, higher in reps, shorter in rest periods.
- 1 shoulder exercise.
The shoulder exercise will almost ALWAYS be either an overhead press (like a seated or standing barbell or dumbbell shoulder press), or some type of lateral raise (dumbbell, cable, whatever). Why not front raises? Because it’s the most unnecessary exercise on the planet for most people. Now, whether I choose an overhead press or lateral raise is mostly dependent on what the chest exercise selection is. If both chest exercises are compound pressing movements (especially if one of them is an incline press), the shoulder exercise will typically be lateral raises. But if one of the two chest exercises was an isolation movement, the shoulder exercise usually becomes an overhead press. And if it’s an overhead press, I’ll usually go with a low-moderate rep range (5-10) and moderate-long rest (1:30-3 minutes). If it’s lateral raises, it will be a higher rep range (10-15) and shorter rest (1-2 minutes).
- 1 biceps exercise.
This will be some kind of isolation curling movement (dumbbell curls, etc.) done in a higher rep range (10-15) with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).
- 1 triceps exercise.
If there are already 2 (or more) compound pressing exercises in this workout (which is usually how it should be), the triceps exercise will be an isolation movement (like cable pushdowns, skull crushers, etc.) in a higher rep range/shorter rest periods (10-15, 1-2 minutes). If however there is only one pressing exercise in this workout and the rest of the chest/shoulder work is isolation stuff (e.g. incline barbell press, flat dumbbell flyes and lateral raises), then this triceps exercise can optionally become a compound movement (like dips or close grip bench press).
Sometimes stuff like shrugs or rear delt work can be included, too. But, that’s mostly just optional accessory stuff that is dependent on the individual needs/preferences of the person, so I tend to leave it off by default. The stuff above this is what matters most in an upper body workout designed for building muscle.
Step 2: Volume
From there it’s time to prescribe how many sets and reps will be done for each exercise. I like to start by first figuring out what the total volume for each muscle group should be in the workout, and then divide that volume up over whatever number of exercises each muscle group will have.
This is one of those areas that is highly dependent on the individualization stuff we skipped over before, because volume tolerance can vary greatly from person to person. But, assuming once again that we’re talking about some average generic person, here’s what I’ve found to be optimal for most people.
- Chest volume: Between 30-60 total reps in this workout. Since there are 2 chest exercises, this amount will be divided up among those two exercises.
- Back volume: Between 30-60 total reps in this workout. Since there are 2 back exercises, this amount will be divided up among those two exercises.
- Shoulder volume: Between 20-40* total reps in this workout. Since there is 1 shoulder exercise, it will all come from this one exercise. (*Note: I actually find shoulder volume to be the trickiest to give generic recommendations for, because it has a lot to do with what was done for chest. For example, if you’ve already done flat and incline pressing, the anterior deltoid doesn’t need much more volume (if any), but the lateral deltoid does. But, 20-40 reps is usually about where it should be.)
- Biceps volume: Between 20-30 total reps in this workout. Since there is 1 biceps exercise, it will all come from this one exercise.
- Triceps volume: Between 20-30 total reps in this workout. Since there is 1 triceps exercise, it will all come from this one exercise.
Yes, I’ve sometimes exceeded some of these volume ranges. Yes, I’ve sometimes gone below some of these volume ranges. Again, it depends.
BUT, for most of the people, most of the time… these ranges are going to be the absolute sweet spot of effectiveness. More or less volume will increase the possibility of impeding progress.
Now as for exactly how this total volume gets divided up when the muscle group has 2 exercises, see the details from step 1.
Step 3: Exercise Order
There’s actually a few different options I like and use in terms of what order these exercise will be in. For example:
- Chest, back, chest, back, shoulders, arms.
- Back, chest, back, chest, shoulders, arms.
- Back, shoulders, back, chest, chest, arms.
- Back, chest, back, shoulders, chest, arms.
- Chest, chest, back, back, shoulders, arms.
- Back, Back, chest, chest, shoulders, arms.
- Chest, shoulders, back, chest, back, arms.
- Chest, back, shoulders, back, chest, arms.
- Shoulders, back, chest, back, chest, arms.
More often than not though, I tend to go with one of the first 4 arrangements on this list. Why? Because by default, I tend to alternate pushing and pulling exercises throughout most (if not all) of the workout so everything gets a bit more of an equal training focus as opposed to doing everything for muscle group A first then everything for muscle group B after.
Although again, I do like doing it other ways too. In fact, if you have The Best Workout Routines, then you’ve seen this in action in the form of a new version of The Muscle Building Workout Routine where other options on this list come into play.
Regarding the arm exercises, they’ll almost always be thrown on at the end of the workout after all of the chest, back and shoulder training. There are occasions where this will change, but it’s pretty rare.
As for the order of these arm exercises (biceps then triceps, or triceps then biceps?), that will depend on what exercise came before them. Again, I usually like to maintain the alternating push/pull (or pull/push) structure.
So if the last exercise before arms was a back movement, it will probably be triceps then biceps. If it was a chest or shoulder pressing exercise, it will be biceps then triceps. However, if it was a chest or shoulder isolation exercise (like lateral raises or flyes), then it really doesn’t matter which goes first.
Step 4: Interaction With The Other Upper Body Workout
Since this upper body workout will be part of an overall program that’s using an upper/lower split, there will usually be two upper body workouts per week.
And while you CAN just repeat the same workout both times, I find most people will do better (not to mention… be much less bored by) having two different upper body workouts instead. Different in what way exactly? Anything from rep ranges and rest times to exercise selection and order.
In that regard, I like to design that other workout using the exact same template we just went through… only with a lot of things flipped around.
What I mean is, if pushing exercises came before pulling exercises, or triceps came before biceps, or movement pattern A came before movement pattern B, I like to reverse it in the other workout.
I’ll often “flip” a lot of other things, too. For example, if the biceps exercise in one workout was a bilateral movement (like barbell curls), I’ll usually make the other a unilateral movement (like dumbbell curls). Same thing for triceps, and sometimes other muscle groups too.
Another similar example would be that if the horizontal pulling exercise for back was done a little lighter, with higher reps and less rest than the vertical pulling exercise was in one workout, I’ll reverse that in the other workout.
This is partly just a balance thing to ensure that everything gets an equal amount of training focus and attention. But it’s also because it allows different exercises and movement patterns to provide a different training stimulus for muscle growth than it did in the other workout.
Not quite muscle confusion… just a slightly different version of the same template.
Step 5: Design The Lower Body Workouts
Step 6: Integrate All Workouts Into Overall Upper/Lower Muscle Building Program
Step 7: Implement Progression Scheme
Step 8: Combine Training With A Diet Designed To Support It
What, you were expecting all of the SeCReTz in a single article? HA!