Muscular, Strong, Lean…Why NONE of These Words Describe YOU

Everyone’s definition of the perfect body is different.  Some say the perfect body is Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club, some say Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and others may choose an athlete such as Terrell Owens.  Regardless of what YOUR idea of a “PERFECT” body is, one thing is certain…if you want that body, you need to know how to achieve it.  I know that sounds simple, but walk into any gym and you will see a whole host of idiotic programs that people do.  I covered this topic in a more generic fashion in my earlier post (Achieve the Body you Desire) where I focused on Diet, Exercise and Lifestyle, but here I am going to drill down to more specific goals. 

The most common mistake which I see is people who do Bodybuilding routines though their goal is fat loss.  Not only that, but they will do Bodybuilding routines with a set / rep scheme that is more indicative of a Strength routine.  At the gym, I often see skinny guys trying to lift as much weight as they possibly can while doing a single joint exercise such as bicep curls or triceps kickbacks.  My goal is Hypertrophy so, these same skinny morons will look over me and the weight that I am lifting and they will smile thinking, “Ha, I am stronger than that guy; look at that weight he is using!!!”  While there is merit to lifting heavy weights in order to gain muscle, that only follows if you are ensuring progressive resistance, increasing the weight each workout and doing enough repetitions to induce sufficient stress to the muscle that it responds to the stress by repairing and growing in order to handle greater stress.  So, what is the SECRET to getting the PERFECT body???  First you must define your goal (i.e. what is “perfect” to you) and then, you must map out a plan to achieve that goal.  I am going to assume that the vast majority of people reading this have one of three goals: 1) Gain Muscle 2) Get Stronger 3) Lose Fat.

Who do you want to look like?

The variables that we are going to work with are reps, weight and rest.  

Goal Sets Reps Weight Rest
Gain Muscle 3-6 Moderate (6-12) Moderate (67-85% of 1RM) 30-90 secs
Get Stronger 2-6 Low (1-6) Heavy (>85% of 1RM) 2-5 mins
Lose Fat 3-5 Moderate to High (8-15) Moderate (50-75% of 1RM) 30-45 secs

Gain Muscle

This happens to be my goal and it can be achieved with varying rep ranges, but the ideal rep range for hypertrophy is 6-12 reps using a weight which is 67-85% of your One-Rep Max (1RM)(1).  When I first started training, I had the good fortune of having a family member who was a Bodybuilder back in the 80’s and he gave me a super simple routine which was very successful for me.  3 sets of 8-12 reps, 3 exercises per session, Monday through Friday (Chest, Back, Legs, Shoulders, Arms).  I did that routine for 12 months and went from 178LBS to 228LBS!!!  Truth be told, some of that was adipose tissue, but I gained a great deal of muscle and saw tremendous gains in strength and size.  His recommendation was simple: “Go to failure every set and once you fail at 12 reps, increase the weight and start again at 8 reps and continue the process.”  For someone starting out, I would focus on Multi-joint exercises (i.e. Deadlift, Bench Press, Back Squat, etc.) and then work in single-joint exercises (e.g. Biceps curls, Triceps kickbacks, Seated Leg Raises, etc.) to increase work performed later on.  Multi-joint exercises induce a greater hormonal response and allow you to perform greater work capacity in less time.  As a quick example, a Deadlift set of 225LBS for 10 reps is 2,250 LBS of total work whereas Biceps Concentration Curls with a 40LB Dumbbell for 10 reps for each arm is 800 LBS of total work.  The Deadlift results in nearly 3 times more work performed and has an impact on many different muscle groups, not just the arms.  Here is the routine and some examples of exercises which I did as a beginner with the goal of gaining muscle:

Day Body part Examples of Exercises
Monday Chest Flat Bench, Incline Bench, Flyes, Pec Deck, Dips (lean forward), Push Ups
Tuesday Back Deadlift, Bent over Rows, Seated Cable Rows, Lat Pull Down, Chin Ups
Wednesday Legs Back Squat, Front Squat, Leg Press, Bulgarian Split Squat, Romanian Deadlift
Thursday Shoulders Barbell Shoulder Press, Upright Rows, Bent Over Lateral Raises
Friday Arms Skull Crushers, Cable Push Downs, Hammer Curls, Preacher Curl
Saturday REST REST

Get Stronger

A lot of times people confuse gaining muscle and getting stronger.  While a Strength-focused routine will also get you more muscular and a Hypertrophy-focused routine will also get you stronger, to optimize each goal individually requires a different set/rep scheme.  The ideal rep range for Strength is less than 6 reps using a weight which is >85% of your One-Rep Max (1RM)(1).  The prime example of someone focused exclusively on getting stronger is a Powerlifter.  In competition, a Powerlifter will perform the Bench Press, Barbell Back Squat and Deadlift and the sum total of the 3 highest weights lifted is their total for the competition.  The goal of a Powerlifter is to continually increase their PR (personal record) in each of the 3 lifts (Bench, Squat and Deadlift).  As I mentioned earlier, you will gain muscle with a Strength routine, but there are many examples of incredibly strong people who are not all that big and in many cases, guys want to be the Strongest in a particular weight class so they will want to become stronger without getting bigger.  Personally, I find Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Routine to be incredibly effective if your goal is to Get Stronger.  I used the 5/3/1 Routine and it is very simple and effective.  I increased my PR’s in the Bench, Squat and Deadlift and don’t know of anyone who has not had success with this routine. 

The premise of 5/3/1 is this:

1) Basic multi-joint lifts – The routine is built around 4 core lifts, the bench press, back squat, deadlift, and standing barbell press.

2) Start light – starting light allows for more room to progress going forward.

3) Progress slowly – it takes time to make significant progress and by starting light and progressing slowly you will make greater gains in the long run. 

4) Break personal records – the program allows you to break PR’s throughout the course of a year.  This is more geared towards rep records and not one rep max.  If you go from lifting 300LBS for 6 reps to 300LBS for 10 reps, you are stronger.

In 5/3/1, you train three or four days a week with each workout centered around one of the 4 core lifts (bench, squat, deadlift or press).  The percentages below are multiplied by 90% of your 1RM, each training cycle lasts four weeks, the fourth week is a de-load week and the following are the set-rep goals for each major lift:

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set 1 65% x 5 70% x 3 75% x 5 40% x 5
Set 2 75% x 5 80% x 3 85% x 3 50% x 5
Set 3 85% x 5+ 90% x 3+ 95% x 1+ 60% x 5

Then you start the next cycle, using slightly heavier weights on the core lifts and you continue to get Stronger and progress forward, simple yet effective.  Let’s use a simple example with the Shoulder Press.  If your 1RM is 110LBS then 90% of that is about 100LBS.  That is the number which the percentages will be multiplied by throughout:


  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set 1 65lb x 5 70lb x 3 75lb x 5 40lb x 5
Set 2 75lb x 5 80lb x 3 85lb x 3 50lb x 5
Set 3 85lb x 5+ 90lb x 3+ 95lb x 1+ 60lb x 5

At the end of Week 4, you increase each of the weights in the table and continue to progress forward.  Follow this process with each of the 4 lifts (e.g.  Monday = Deadlift, Tuesday = Bench, Thursday = Squat, Friday = Shoulder Press)

Lose Fat

In order to lose fat, you need to maximize the amount of work done in a small amount of time.  The surest way to accomplish that is to decrease the rest periods between sets.  In order to burn fat, you need to cause your body to require so much energy that ATP and glycogen are completely used up and then fat stores are targeted.  Incomplete recovery, as a result of little rest, will ensure that you utilize fat stores for energy because you generate EPOC.  EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) is an increased rate of oxygen intake after performing very demanding or strenuous activity (e.g. tabata protocol, interval training or complexes) to erase the oxygen debt and return the body back to where it was at rest before the exercise was performed.  EPOC increases the body’s demand for fuel so, fat stores are broken down and released into the blood, hence, EPOC = fat loss.

My current routine is geared towards fat loss; it is a metabolic routine which focuses on compound movements with only 45 seconds of rest between sets.  The weights that you use will come down, but by the end of the workout, you WILL be CRUSHED!!!


2A-CHIN UPS 4 6 30X 45 SEC.
2B-DB SQUATS 4 10 10X 45 SEC.
3A-PUSHUPS 4 10 30X 45 SEC.
3B-KB SWINGS 4 12 X 45 SEC.
1B-BOX SQUAT 4 12 30X 45 SEC.
2A-INVERSE ROWS 4 10 30X 45 SEC.
1B-SUMO SQUATS 4 12 30X 45 SEC.
2A-THRUSTERS 4 12 10X 45 SEC.
2B-STEP UPS 4 12 10X 45 SEC.
3B-FRONT SQUATS 4 12 402 45 SEC.
DAY 4  WK1 WK2 WK3 WK4
200 YARD SPRINTS 2 3 4 5
REST-2 MIN.        
To review, utilizing the 3 variables of weight, reps and rest:
Goal Weight Reps Rest
Gain Muscle Moderate to Heavy Moderate to High Short to Moderate
Get Stronger Heavy Low Long
Lose Fat Light to Moderate High Short

To optimize the achievement of any one of these three goals, you need to make sure that you get enough sleep.  My best results, regardless of my goal, have occurred when I have gotten plenty of sound restful sleep (7-9 hours).  Follow my advice and Muscular, Strong or Lean will one day describe YOU!!!





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1)      Baechle, Thomas R and Earle, Roger W. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning” 3rd Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. 2008. Pgs. 401-408.

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