When I started working out I had one goal. I wanted some girl to think I was good looking enough to touch my wiener. I figured the path to that was to build lean muscle.
Unfortunately, a goal without a plan, or a bad plan, is just a dream. I thought I had a good plan from the magazines I read. It turns out I had gotten good information aimed at guys that couldn’t be further from what I was. So for me, it was a bad plan.
I was a poor college kid tipping the scales at 180 after a big meal. I had no history of working out and the upper body strength of a 5 yr old.
I had no money for supplements.
I didn’t have hours to spend in the gym.
I wasn’t taking HGH or steroids.
The only thing I had in common with the magazine’s demographic was that I was a guy. So I did what any red-blooded male would do, chased the pump.
If you’ve done the same you know where this story ends up, chasing the pump for months or years without seeing results.
And now that we’re older, time and money are even more limited. Kids, mortgage, wife, and work are all pulling at you when all you want is to add a little more lean muscle so someone will want to touch your wiener.
Well, it’s time for some man-scaping because for the rest of this article I’ma show you how you can add lean muscle with the time you have so your wife will be all over you like a white girl on a pumpkin spice latte.
How Busy Guys Can Build Lean Muscle
Forget Everything You Think You Know
Odds are you fell into the same trap I did. Chasing the feeling of the pump. When you aim for a feeling you aren’t working towards anything. There’s no difference between you and a drug addict, except for maybe how society looks at you.
A workout program focused on results will incorporate different aspects of weightlifting that build on each other. A workout program focused on a feeling does the same thing over and over.
Muscle building, or hypertrophy, happens in two ways; myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy happens in strength training when the actual muscle fibers increase in number and size which makes you stronger but not too much bigger.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy happens when you aim for the pump, the fluid within the muscle increases but you don’t get stronger.
To explain this visually, think of a bag filled with water. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy would happen by adding more water to the bag. Myofibrillar hypertrophy would be making the bag stronger to hold more water.
To get the most muscle, you’ll need to do both.
Side Note: This article is dedicated to the gym aspect of building lean muscle. To touch on the nutrition aspect, check out the bulking like an asshole article to give you more “Let me touch your wiener” muscles and not an “I swear it’s under there” belly.
Microtrauma and You
When you first started going to the gym, I’m willing to bet you were sore more often than not. Likewise, if you played backyard football and wake up the next day feeling like you were hit by a bus.
The reason, microtrauma.
When you put your body under different actions/stress you create tiny tears in the muscles. Your body overcompensates and builds the tears back bigger and stronger to avoid injury for your next backyard gridiron adventure.
However, like anything, the poison is in the dose. Too much microtrauma leads to longer recovery and sacrificing future workouts. A little microtrauma – good, a lot – not so good.
How to Trigger Muscle Growth
The term “progressive overload” gets passed around all willy-nilly in the fitness community like people are supposed to know what it is and most importantly, how to achieve it.
Progressive overload is the term for when you deliberately add more stress to your muscles to induce microtraumas in the muscles. This results in a bigger, stronger you over time.
If you think of progressive overload like ice cream then Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress, and Muscle Damage are the flavors.
Damn, now I want some ice cream. Anyway…
Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress, and Muscle Damage are all the ways to achieve progressive overload which results in microtrauma then eventually lean muscle and the aforementioned wiener touching. The circle is complete.
Mechanical Tension – To increase tension on the muscle you need to add weight to the bar. More specifically 80- 90% of your 1RM or something you can lift for 2-8 reps.
At this weight, you are at your mechanical sweet spot for muscle tension. This is where the muscular tension is at its highest without your nervous system taking over. Maxing out above 90% is more of a test of nervous system efficiency at stimulating the muscles.
Muscular Stress – This is the pump we all chased. Basically, you’re inflaming your muscles to restrict blood from being able to leave the muscle. Blood pools up and you feel like the Hulk for a few hours.
Getting there requires minimal rest periods (<60 seconds) and hitting it with 12-20+ reps per set. You’re going to want to use a weight you can lift for 15 reps or so.
Muscle Damage – The lowering portion of the movement is where the muscle damage happens. Slowing down that portion is a good quick way to make any exercise better for muscle growth. Muscle damage can also happen when you do something unfamiliar, like backyard football, going to failure or increasing volume.
Everything you’ve read so far is only good if you can make it work in the gym. Otherwise, it’s like learning to swim on carpet. So let’s get to the practical and apply this information.
Reps For Growth
The first thing we all think about when we think about packing on the muscle is 3 sets of 10. It’s a tried and true method and it’s what we all know. Taking a step back, ask yourself “Why does this work?”
If you take the total reps you’ll perform here, 30 (3 sets times 10 reps), it’s right in the middle of the total reps needed per exercise to trigger muscle growth. Turns out there is an effective range for total reps per exercise needed to trigger muscle growth.
For Strength and Size: 24-36 reps
For Size Only: 36-50 reps
This has to do with the weight you can use to achieve these total reps without burning yourself out. Now, the next logical place to go is reps needed per week.
This magical range is 60-180 reps per week. This depends heavily on the weight you’re using. With heavier weights you can aim more towards 60 and lighter weights more towards 180.
If you think about it, using heavier weights allows you to incorporate two triggers (tension and damage) while the higher end is more just one trigger (damage).
It makes sense.
This is a funny section. Not so much HAHA funny, but more ‘getting a free ride when you’ve already paid’ type funny.
Here’s why; a study was done to show which type of weight (heavy or light) is better for hypertrophy. For the heavy weight group, they used 75-90% of their 1RM and the light weight group used 30-50% their 1RM. Both exercises were taken to failure, the light weight obvi needed more reps to get there, but in the end, hypertrophy was the same in both groups.
So does it matter if you use light weights or heavy weights to get bigger? Sadly, no.
But, if you don’t want to wear out your joints from doing 3 million reps with 30% of your 1RM on the bench press, you’ll want to up the weight. Plus, going from strength training to hypertrophy, the weight is going to feel super light and it’s going to be hard for you to have the right amount of muscular tension to grow.
So stick to the 60-80% 1RM for hypertrophy. This will land you around the 8-15 rep range.
Laying the Foundation for the House of Gainz
The simplest and most basic way to ensure progressive overload is to either increase volume or weight. This will bring in Muscular Tension and Muscle Damage. Every time you repeat a workout, add another set or add weight by 5-10%.
Week 1: 3×10
Week 2: 4×10
Week 3: 5×10
Week 4: 3×10 +10% more weight
Week 5: 4×10 with Week 4 weight
In this example, we add more volume from 30 total reps in Week 1 to 50 total reps by Week 3. Then in Week 4 you up the weight and drop the volume back down to 30 total reps and repeat the cycle.
This ensures you are overloading your muscles with enough stimulus to grow but not too much where you break down and get hurt.
This method is good to start off but it’s not the best way as you’re not really working the mechanical tension aspect in its purest form. You’re limiting reps to the hypertrophy range when you should be dabbling in strength range as well. This may or may not be foreshadowing…
OK, it is.
Erect the House of Gainz
Now, let’s bring some order to this muscle building madness.
Periodization is a method of gradually increasing weight and reducing volume. The above example shows you linear periodization. Take one weight and apply more volume to it. If you’re just starting out in the gym, start there.
Linear Periodization is the backbone of programs like Stronglifts 5×5 and 5/3/1. They are as popular as they are effective.
Before we get too deep into the weeds here, let me define a couple of things
Hypertrophy – 6-12 reps per set with 65-85% of 1RM.
Strength – 1-6 reps per set with 85-100% of 1RM
Endurance – 12-20 reps per set with 50-65% 1RM
If you want something a little more advanced, there are a few other periodization models to try; Block Periodization and Non-Linear/Undulated Periodization. For the rest of the article, I’ll just refer to it as Non-Linear because I have a hard time pronouncing undulated in my head.
Block Periodization – Block Periodization is the favorite of people who don’t like their food to touch. I honestly have no idea if that’s true but it’ll make sense in a second.
Block Periodization is when you focus on one type of weightlifting for 3-4 week blocks. For example, a 10-week workout program would look like this: 4 weeks of strength training then 3 weeks of hypertrophy training and capping it off with 3 weeks of high rep endurance lifting.
Every block has a focus and a purpose, none of which touch on the plate that is the gym. I’m actually embarrassed I made that joke. My apologies.
This type of training benefits athletes. A football player can focus on strength and size in the offseason by alternating strength and hypertrophy blocks. Once the season gets closer he can incorporate an endurance block along with the other two.
Non-Linear Periodization – This model is all about daily/ weekly variation during the week rather than having a singular focus for weeks. Instead of doing blocks of strength training or hypertrophy specific workouts you’ll include both, plus endurance training each week.
If someone that worked out 3x a week were to incorporate this method it would look something like this:
Day 1: Strength
Day 2: Hypertrophy
Day 3: Endurance
For myself and my clients, I might incorporate each block into every workout. So I’ll have them focus on strength in the beginning with the big lifts for 3-6 reps, then focus on dumbbell work for sets of 6-12 reps for a few exercises and finish it off with some endurance 12-20 reps per exercise for machines to wrap up the workout.
For the normal Tom, Dick or Harry you’ll be able to hit all the ways to build lean muscle in one workout. So if something comes up and you have to miss a workout you won’t be missing too much and you’ll still be on track with your goals.
Trying to protect the downside and increase your backside.
Wrap it up B
What I discussed here, especially in the Periodization section is very high level so you can get a feel for it. Periodization models could be a series of articles themselves but for the guy that just wants to get jacked focus on the following:
Add some progressive overload each time you repeat a workout. Either through adding 10% more weight, adding another set or increasing reps per set.
Adding one of these will be enough to stimulate lean muscle growth into a stagnant workout.
Before I go, I put together a 12-week workout program for you just because you make me happy in the pants. Just kidding…or am I?
Here’s the link for that 12-Week Muscle Building Workout
Flex on my brother,