Do you secretly or not-so-secretly wish people would refer to your physique as “yoked” or “immense?” Or maybe you’re less of a showboat, and just want more broad, well-balanced muscle mass? Well, whichever guy you identify with, we’ve got the training tips you need to reach that goal, thanks to Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, a Medical and Science Advisory Board member for Blueprint for Athletes and the director of Rutgers University’s Institute For Food, Nutrition, and Health Center for Health & Human Performance.
But, prepare to work hard: “People want the easy way out, but it takes hard work, consistency, picking the right lifts, and making your workouts harder,” says Arent. Sure, genetics play a role in terms of where your development occurs, what muscle and strength imbalances you have, and how long it’ll take to see the results you want, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most out of what you have. Plus, Arent adds, most people think they’re working harder than they really are. So, implement these seemingly basic tips, and you’ll grow your body to massive proportions.
Skinny guys can have abs in no time at all—and with minimal effort. But upper body thickness in your back and chest—more specifically, your traps, delts, and pecs—from a development standpoint really translates into strength and advanced fitness. “Guys tend to focus too much on the beach muscles—the things they can see in the mirror,” Arent says. But neglecting exercises that have withstood the test of time won’t help you create that broad, dominant frame. And you don’t have to get overly creative either.
“You need to perform exercises that target the largest mass of muscle,” he explains. “Thickness and width boils down to compound lifts: deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, rows, squats.” Actually, he considers squats to be the one of the best exercises for developing overall size. Accessory lifts—like the bent-over dumbbell raise or lateral raise—are important to this whole conversation, too, but you need to involve multiple joints and big muscle groups to really transform your physique.
Broad shoulders don’t just cap off a well-balanced physique, they arguably make a well-balanced physique. Bulking and bulletproofing this specific body part will make you a better, healthier lifter, and reduce your risk for injury during back and chest exercises. So, when you’re trying to add width and 3-dimensional muscle, you need to remember there are three heads to the deltoids: anterior, medial, and posterior.
“I see a lot of people ignore the posterior and just hope it gets worked enough when they train their back, and specifically train the interior during chest and shoulder press variations; but, honestly, the medial and posterior delts add a tremendous amount of size, shape, and width to your physique,” Arent explains. Putting a good program together still comes down to doing your basic exercises (correctly!): one-arm rows, shoulder press, Arnold press, lateral raises, reverse pec deck, bent-over raises, shrugs.
“And don’t stress about using barbells over dumbbells,” he adds. “You won’t get any bigger using a barbell versus dumbbells [or kettlebells], and your muscles don’t know the difference. It’s all about applied resistance.”
If there’s one piece of advice you should take away from this list and implement forever, it’s this one: Don’t surrender form for the big-number lift. If you’re a beginner in the gym, take the time, effort, and money to meet with a personal trainer and learn the fundamentals of form for each major lift. And if you’ve been lifting for years, it doesn’t hurt to ask a trainer or buddy to watch your form from time to time.
“For exercises like rows, deadlifts, and squats, it’s so important to maintain a neutral spine base to prevent injury when you go heavier,” Arent says. What that means is you want to keep the three natural curves (your cervical or neck region is bent inward, thoracic or upper back region is bent outward, and the lumbar or lower back region is bent inward) in your spine as you complete these movements. (This is where having someone watch you becomes important. If they witness your good form, and you can tell how the movement should feel when executed properly, you’re more apt to replicate that going forward.)
It goes beyond biomechanics, too. You want to make sure you’re going down deep enough on squats, not bouncing the bar off your chest for bench press, and not jerking the bar off the ground during deadlifts. “‘Heavy’ is relative to being able to maintain good form,” Arent says. “Focus on the feel of the lift, not just moving the weight.”
“For hypertrophy and muscle size, there’s something very unique about training volume when you talk about reps and sets,” Arent says. That’s why he suggests completing 6 to 12 reps per set. That range works incredibly well but don’t get too hung up on it. Your end goal is overloading your muscles.
There’s been research that shows higher rep ranges (30 reps for a set, for example) can give you hypertrophy effects, you just need to take it to momentary muscular failure. “The one caveat is that workout will take you three times as long as set where you only do 10 reps—and researchers have never shown larger reps to be better; at best, they’re just as good as heavy weight and lighter reps,” Arent explains. Ideally, it’s best to switch your reps and sets up
Periodization is a fancy term for any plan that allows you to make long-term gains while side-stepping plateaus and injuries along the way. “When I work with athletes who are trying to build size, I tell them you can’t do the same thing all the time,” Arent says. But the same goes for any guy—amateur and professional alike.
“For most non-athletes, you’ll have periods of time where you go a little heavier, maybe seven reps for compound exercises, and other times where you lighten it up a little bit, getting more of a pump in the 10- to 12-rep range,” he says. This isn’t slacking off. It’s strategic. Don’t look for the perfect program. Change your exercises frequently, do more/less reps and sets, and reduce rest between sets so you’re constantly providing an obstacle and room for growth.
Every 7th or 8th week of training, take a week off to rebound and rest. Unloading weeks relieve stress from your joints, promote overall recovery, and when you come back to the gym, you’re even better than before. No days off is an ego thing, not a sign of power or peak fitness.
“If you’re training high-intensity and high-volume constantly, over time it adds up—even just as a mental stress standpoint,” Arent explains. “In athletic literature, we know those rebounding weeks are essential for peak performance, too: Think of lifters and how they prepare for a contest; they taper to get ready for maximal effort,” he says. And you don’t have to take the whole week off. You can unload and use about 50 percent of the weight you were lifting the week before, and keep your reps and sets the same. This will maintain what you’ve built. Arent also suggests mixing in some other activities that aren’t geared toward the weight room as a refresher. Or, cut your workout days in half, or hit the gym 2 days instead of 4-5.
By switching to a classic push-pull split, you’re going to seriously simplify your training and see better, quicker gains—especially when it comes to bulking your upper body. Here’s why it works:
“In between those lifts, you give your antagonist muscle groups recovery time,” Arent says. “When you go from bench press to deadlift, then back to an inclined press or shoulder press, you’ve given those pushing muscles 3-5 sets (in which you were deadlifting) time to recover neuro-muscularly so you can handle heavier weight.” It’s a good fundamental routine that Arent recommends for the majority of lifters.
Most guys look at a program they see a pro bodybuilder using and think it’s their magic bullet to growing bigger and thicker in the shortest amount of time. Here’s the problem (actually, there are multiple problems) with that logic: “Pro bodybuilders split their body up to seven different ways, they train every day, they probably have a genetic advantage over you, as well as a chemical advantage over you,” Arent says. It’s not feasible for the everyday lifter to uphold these conditions.
Simplicity is your best bet here. Hypertrophy is your end-all, be-all goal. Stick to that.
“Slow, chronic progress where you’re building lean mass without feeling the need to bulk and eat until you can’t any more is the way to go,” Arent says. He recommends aiming for at least 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. “There are studies that have shown that even slightly more than that can positively impact lean mass, particularly while trying to lose bodyfat,” he explains. Also, aim to eat 20-40g of protein before bed, and don’t be afraid of carbohydrates. “They’re not as evil as everyone wants you to believe,” Arent says. “In fact, carbs help spare protein. You need to fuel the machine!”
“If you don’t sleep, you don’t grow,” Arent stresses. Nighttime is when all the recovery takes place; it’s when growth hormone is at its peak, and when cortisol starts to get suppressed.”