This post works under the assumption that you are working a professional job that will have sporadic hours and you are young enough to put in the work. If you’re closer to the high end of the expected age range of 18-29, we would recommend taking out a single day from the lifting schedule. With that said, our assumptions imply that that you’re not working 40 hours per week. You are likely working closer to 60 hours a week. This means your workouts need to be impactful, efficient and intense.
The best way to work out can be broken into two parts. Your typical work week and a hectic work week. Positively, you can stick to the basics of body building while maintaining a schedule that will make you want to jump off a bridge once every few months (slight joke).
Ideally you already know how to lift with proper form, if not you should certainly find an experienced lifting partner for 1-2 weeks of training.
We’ll begin by working under the belief that you have never touched a barbell or a dumbbell. We are also going to assume you’re lifting to get muscular and do not have an interest in anabolic steroids or becoming the next Arnold Schwarzenwgger. Instead we are going to build 1) an aesthetically pleasing body, 2) spur on hypertropy and 3) give you endurance to last in a real life fight.
To help you understand the goals, here are the ideal metrics from an aesthetic standpoint to build the “golden ratio” around your entire body. Looks are about proportions. Simply measure your wrist, assuming you are not significantly overweight, and make the following calculations.
Wrist measured at connection point to arm.
Feel free to make minor adjustments to the ratios outlines above if you notice proportional issues upon further examination, however if you can meet the metrics above, from an aesthetic perspective you will be in the top 5% (more likely 1% in the adult world). With that lets jump into proper form and a solid workout routine.
Lifting in Stages
The first course of action is to avoid injury. If you begin lifting heavy weights with low reps you are likely on the road to injury…. While we are fans of strong lifts or the 5×5 program, if you want to play on the safe side it is better to have higher reps (to get your form down correctly) and increase the weight from there.
Even more so if you’re working an office job where you are seated all day. Instead we would recommend a three stage lifting cycle. Each stage will last six weeks. Once you go through two full cycles (36 weeks) you can safely stick with stage two then stage three (ignoring stage 1) if you’re simply looking to pack on some more muscle.
Stage One Endurance: High reps low weight, 15+ reps of each exercise, 3 sets
Stage Two Transition: 10 reps 3 sets
Stage Three Mass: 6 reps 4 sets
Plan on having 45 seconds of rest between each set and you should be sweating after your first exercise. If you are not sweating, decrease the rest time or increase the weight. Generally speaking, lower rest time is the solution.
To wrap up our basic recommendations, you should superset with two exercises. When you are doing chest and back exercises you want to super set: an example being incline bench press with pull downs. After finishing your incline set immediately run over to the pull down exercise. We believe in this structure because you are a working professional and have minimal time to commit to the gym. Get the most out of every single minute you are in the gym.
Hitting the Gym
Welcome to your first workout.
The gym is a metaphor for life. You will do more reps, more sets more more more until you find out what your body is capable of. Every time you break a plateau it was the previous 1,000 reps that got you there and all that does is inspire you to do… 1,000 more reps.
At this stage we assume that you are lost in the gym and it is time to build the appropriate building blocks. For those that lift you already know the most important word in lifting. Form. No form? The rep doesn’t count. No form? No noticeable gains. No form? Injuries. No form? You shouldn’t even show up to the gym.
Now that we have annoyed you with the importance of form at the gym, we’re going to provide you with a 7 day routine with an emphasis on proper form. From our experience the goal is to work out 7 days a week if possible when you’re young (18-22) and adjust to 4-6 days when you’re older (late 20s). So we will go ahead and go through a full week of exercises starting with legs.
Find the day that is slowest for you from a work-life perspective during the week. If you are working long hours it is usually Monday morning. If you are partying you are generally hung over on a Sunday so Monday is a good day to go ahead and get the heavy stuff out of the way (Saturday afternoon is a close second).
Warm up: We suggest a quick 2-5 minute bike spin just to get the blood flowing. After that to help avoid injury spend 5 minutes getting loose with the following exercises. 1) lunges, 2) side lunges and 3) leg kicks. Keep it basic. By the end you should feel loosened up and ready to go.
Super Set 1:
Straight Legged Dead Lift: This is your bread and butter starting workout. While you may be able to do a much higher load, begin with a weight that can be done 15 times. Remember the original rules (15+ reps, 3 sets). We suggest a double overhand grip to increase grip strength for the future stages. Classic deadlifts have one hand over and one hand under, since the weight is lower with straight legs, begin with the overhand grip and work on a grip that would emulate the movie Jaws.
Notes on form: Your hamstrings should feel stretched, a similar feeling to doing a regular stretch. If your hamstrings do not feel guitar string tight you are doing them wrong. Feet flat, no knee movement and mentally focus on your hamstrings. As always keep your stomach sucked in to keep your core stable and flex your glutes if you feel any instability issues. Proper form as always.
Before we jump to the next exercise you are wondering. Why not a regular dead lift? The answer is two fold 1) perfect form, 2) no injuries and 3) additional upside from regular deadlifts for mass building. We want endurance and strength to prevent injury in 6 weeks.
One Legged Squats: The best thing about this exercise is it can help prevent injury as you have a hard time going high up the weight stack. You also improve your balance and on top of all this we continue to work on your grip since the weight is in your hand rather than on your back.
Notes on form: During the load phase, coming down, you should mentally focus on the glutes and hamstrings. Your quadriceps will naturally work. Keep the weight in the same hand as the leg that performs the squat. Your resting leg should be doing exactly that. Resting. If your toes hurt it means you are pushing up on the reloading phase. Mentally lower on the load phase and remember to isolate one leg on the reloading phase.
Super Set 2:
One Legged Dead Lift: With your legs already firing from proper form from the first super set, it is time to continue stretching the muscles and working specific sections to create the mind muscle connection that you will need in stage 2 and stage 3. Here, many beginners will struggle as the motion is difficult to perform. Place the weight on the floor, step to the weight, leg straight and bend over to lift the dumbbell off the ground.
Notes on form: Remember that form is everything. To help stabilize you need to visualize properly, pretend your toes are claws gripping the ground, squeeze your glutes to avoid falling over and keep your leg straight throughout the exercise. If this exercise is difficult, don’t be surprised, you’ll have it down by the 3rd or 4th day.
Lunges: As you can guess we are super setting with a squat like motion that requires stability. Right leg, right hand holds the weight. During the load phase remember to mentally focus on your glutes and hamstrings.
Notes on Form: The exercise is fairly easy if you did your one legged squats correctly. The bigger form issues we see here are 1) over extending your leg putting pressure on the knee cap and 2) doing the motion too quickly. Try to count to three on the way up and on the way down for each repetition. Keep your core tight through the entire exercise
Super Set 3:
Hamstring Extensions: For the serious lifters, you are laughing out loud at reading those two words. However when it is your first day in the gym, it is much smarter to build endurance and muscle while preventing injury. Six weeks of lighter low impact leg workouts can help prevent injury so we continue to suggest this route for beginners.
Notes on Form: Luckily there is very little that you can do wrong with regard to form. Simply make sure the equipment is appropriately set up. Back straight and do not away your body when working the machine. Your lower back should remain resting against the back at all times.
Quadricep Extensions: Similar to the above exercise, serious gym fanatics will not use this machine. Squats are the norm, but we will get to these later.
Notes on Form: Again, similar to hamstring extensions, the biggest issues are 1) lower back movement, 2) appropriate settings on the machine and 3) full range of motion. The one issue with machines is it is very easy to cheat by using your core to help you through the motion. Do not succumb to the ease of the motion. If it feels easy, you’re doing it wrong.
Calf raises: This is another simple exercise to add to your routine. You should be tired at this point, so you can push out a few sets of weighted calf raises.
Notes on Form: Calf raises are quite easy to perform, the biggest mistake made is full range of motion. When you decline your heels should be pointing downward (not flat) and the top of the calf raise should be feel as if you’re trying to become a ballerina. Always choose lighter weight over cheating on your form. All the way to the top, all the way to the bottom. Also, do not use your shoulders to help push the weight up.
After going through a heavy leg day, you will notice that you are significantly more hungry and energetic the next day. This is because legs are highly anabolic. What this means is you’re going to feel stronger in general throughout the next day. Arms are a weak point in general for most men, from our experience the added energy helps get through a few extra reps and add a little bit more muscle by going from legs straight into arms the next day. Finally, the bicep is a smaller muscle group so we suggest adding a burnout phase to increase endurance for this muscle group.
Warm Up: Since we will be working out arms instead of legs, we recommend doing a light 5 minute jog followed by weighted stretching. There is no need to jog for over 5-10 minutes since we don’t want to waste your energy on the treadmill instead of lifting heavy weights. Break into a quick sweat, get off the machine and stretch out your triceps and biceps and simply get ready to hit the weights.
Preacher Curls: Grab a bench and place it at a 60 degree angle. Pick up a lighter weight since we will be performing 15 reps and rest your upper arm on the bench. You should feel as if your arm is dislocated (ie: not helping you perform the exercise). Raise the weight up and if you want to increase the burn act as if you are flexing your bicep. When you relax the motion, slowly count to three on the way down and remember that it should feel as if the muscle is being stretched. Contraction, followed by a stretch.
Notes on Form: The biggest way to ruin this exercise is by engaging your deltoid. Any upper arm or shoulder movement will ruin the exercise as the wrong muscle group is being fired at this point. The same incorrect muscle group will likely ruin your subsequent exercises as well. Remember to mentally focus on the bicep, raise the weight as if you are flexing and stretch the muscle on the way down. If you feel your deltoid or shoulder engage, stop the exercise shake your arm and get back to the bench.
Kickbacks: Grab a flat bench, put your knee on the bench with your thigh perpendicular to the bench. Right knee, right arm holds the weight and vice versa. Keep your head down and keep your elbow locked. Move the weight backwards until it is parallel with your flat back and squeeze the tricep. Slowly lower the weight down back to its original position.
Notes on Form: There are several difficulties when doing this exercise for beginners. 1) keeping your head down, 2) full extension of the tricep, 3) maintaining a flat back and 4) remembering to slowly lower the weight. We suggest you go to the gym with a lifting partner on your first day to get the form down. Raising your head to look at the mirror will limit your range of motion on the kick back so a spotter/form checker will be of great value for you. Once the form is tight, mentally remember to extend and slowly lower the weight as many people attempt to lower the weight in a second or less.
Seated Curls: Find a place to sit down, either on a bench or a step up box should work fine. Pick up the weight and place your elbow against your inner thigh. This will help prevent engagement of the deltoid muscle. Luckily after the first exercise your bicep should be engaged limiting negative form issues.
Notes on Form: As mentioned, form issues are limited however the two main concerns are 1) using your deltoid and 2) twisting your upper body to ease the contraction. Keep your core tight throughout the routine, limit elbow movement and mentally remember to keep the shoulder/deltoid disengaged. Similar to the preacher curls, if the deltoid begins to work, stand up and shake out your arm.
Overhead Tricep Extension: This exercise is being mimicked during the warm up part of the routine. You are placing a heavy weight behind your head and raising it up from shoulder level to above your head. Depending on how flexible you are this will be harder or easier for you, if it is difficult you’ll increase your flexibility quickly and if it is easy, you’ll see gains due to wide range of motion. Keep your elbows in place, lower the weight behind your head to a ~90% angle and slowly raise the weight back up above your head.
Notes on Form: This is a great exercise to really stretch out the tricep and allows you to increase your ability to stabilize a weight. If you’re having trouble performing the exercise at first, pick up a heavier weight to stretch your triceps (increasing range of motion) and get back to the exercise. The main issues with form here are 1) arching the lower back and 2) allowing the elbow to move. If you can prevent elbow movement with your back straight and go through the full range of motion, you’ll quickly feel a burn through your entire tricep.
Cable Bicep Curls: Find a dual adjustable pulley machine and set the cables to the ground. This exercise will require high concentration and an engaged core to prevent deltoid engagement and proper form. The best part of this exercise is the range of motion, unlike some of the exercises we will walk through later on, this exercise gets the full 150-180 degrees of motion. Lift the pulleys and take a couple of steps back, with the weights engaged fully extend your arm and tighten your core with a slight lean if you’d like. Raise the weights up to full contraction and slowly lower the weight.
Notes on Form: At this point you’re likely a bit tired from the previous exercises, however you should have an intense burning feeling when performing the exercise which will let you know if you are doing them correctly. When you are fatigued, you are much more likely to break form (core destabilization or deltoid engagement). To prevent a break in form, before you perform the first rep double check your alignment and core in the mirror. After you’ve confirmed your posture mentally check into your bicep and remember not to cheat towards the end of the contraction (many will try to use the shoulders at the end of the exercise).
Twenty Ones: This is a classic burnout routine for the end of your lifting session. You perform 7 extended bicep pumps, 7 mid range pumps and 7 near contracted pumps. The idea is to fully engorge the bicep with blood. By the end of this routine your arms should feel useless and tired, unable to lift heavy weight. To perform this correctly pick up a relatively light bar, stand feet shoulders width apart, back straight and go through the three sections of the workout. If you find that the upper piece of the workout is harder than the lower piece, you can start from the top and move down. Repeat this exercise for two reps and you should be fully burned out.
Notes on Form: The form issue is rather clear here, fatigue causing you to rock your core. The best way to prevent this is to stand sideways to a mirror, this will keep you mentally in check as you go through each repetition. You can double check your form halfway through and confirm that you are not moving your hips to make the exercise easier or engaging your delts.
Chest and Back
Now that your arms and legs are slightly sore, it is time to work on your V-taper. The V-taper is a function of low body fat (small waist) and a wide chest/back. Generally, most men do not workout to widen their back and will see immediate results with wide grip exercises and a dumbbell chest press or cable fly. Your back is a larger muscle group compared to your chest so we recommended an extra chest exercise at the end of your workout in stage one.
Warm Up: For a chest and back day we’ve found that a simple 5 minute jog will do the trick and you do not need to do much stretching if you begin your first routine with a lighter weight and perfect form. By the time you are done with your first set you should feel loose and ready to go. To be extra cautious, feel free to do a warm up set with the bar only to prevent any injuries.
Bent Over Row: Pick up a relatively heavy weight, heavier than a tricep kick back and place your knee on a flat bench (right knee, right arm holds the weight). With your back flat and second arm supporting yourself on the bench allow your arm to fully extend. Slowly raise the weight until your arm is parallel with your back. If you wish to make the exercises more difficult, on the way down allow the weight to come in front of your chest a bit (beneath the bench) and slowly raise the weight back up (this helps engage the lats).
Notes on Form: Once your body is properly positioned the number one mistake is twisting your back to make the exercise easier. This is also why engaging the lats, by moving the weight closer to center on the way down, is actually quite difficult to perform. The best way to prevent this is to start with the simple raise and lowering of the weight and mentally remembering to keep your back flat. In addition, do not cheat the set by quickly lowering the weight, instead pause at the top of the movement and slowly lower the weight down.
Dumbbell Bench Press: Find a flat bench and pick up two dumbbells placing them on your knees. As you roll back use your knees to kick the weights up into your hands and lay perfectly flat on the bench. When you begin lowering the weights mentally tell yourself to flare your arms elbows out to achieve full range of motion (you should make a semi-circle type motion). Do not allow your lower back to raise off of the bench, this will prevent injury and it will also keep you honest in the amount of weight you can handle. When raising the weights back up, do not allow your arms to come in, maintain the same circular path for maximum resistance and range of motion.
Notes on Form: We like this exercise to start as it prevents a beginning lifter from going too heavy. Unlike a regular bench press it is difficult to move a heavy weight and you are less likely to arch your back to help you complete the exercises. With that said, the main issues to look out for are 1) full range of motion both on the decline and return, 2) maintaining a flat core and 3) squeezing at the top of each repetition to engage the chest. Once you have completed the first set there should be a noticeable pump in your upper body from the exercise.
Incline Bench: Luckily chest exercises are difficult to do improperly. Simply take a seat and count to 3 on the way down and on the way up throughout the workout. Do not allow yourself to engage the shoulder or else you may end up with a “pinch” feeling during the workout.
Notes on Form: In general as noted above, it is quite difficult to ruin your form unless the weight is too high. Keep your lower back pressed against the bench, keep your chest working and avoid lifting the bar backward which will engage the shoulder.
Wide Grip Pullups: You’ll see a large amount of gains in terms of the V-taper here. Take a wide grip on the pullup bar, maybe even use some fat gripz and get to work.
Notes on Form: No cheating allowed here. Full range of motion down and full chin clearance of the bar at the top. Do not do “kipping” pullups or any action that will give you momentum as you’ll develop tennis elbow or golfers elbow due to higher repetitions in a short period of time. If you’re into cross fit that’s fine, we can agree to disagree and would stick with slower motions to build muscle since we’re looking for aesthetics here.
Flat Bench: Not much needs to be said here, take a shoulder width grip and remember to count to three on the way down and on the way up
Notes on Form: No momentum. No lifting off the bench. If your lower back raises off the bench the rep does not count and if you rush through each rep you’re not going to build muscle.
Rack Pulls or Wide Grip Row: If you’re feeling confident you can jump right into a rack pull if your core is stable but generally would recommend a wide grip row. Either with your palms facing inward or your palms facing down, the goal is to simply take a wide grip on the machine. Focus mentally on the outer edges of your back, remember the goal is aesthetics!
Notes on Form: If you’re going to stick to a row, the main goal is to keep your back straight and chest up against the pad. Alternatively, in a seated position your body should remain vertical. For rack pulls, you’ll want a spotter your first time around to make sure your form is pristine. No shoulder jerk movements and raise the bar with your back entirely flat. When coming back down do not arch your back, this will prevent injury.
Cable Fly: Since you’re more mentally focused on your back throughout the workout, it is usually better to end with an extra chest exercise. We would use a cable fly and focus on keeping your arms out as far as possible increasing the range of motion. Focus on the outer edges of your pecs and you should feel a solid burn throughout.
Notes on Form: Similar to back exercises, do not lean or adjust your posture. Remain stable against the padding and prevent the use of your biceps by having your arm as straight as possible (full range of motion).
Are people going to disagree with this set up? Yes. Can this set up be improved? Yes. If you do not want to follow any of the workouts it is actually perfectly fine. The one thing we can all agree on however is this: 4-5 days at minimum at the gym and compound movements for a beginner. Below is a list of the three stage cycle, decreasing rep count to build mass. Feel free to follow it, feel free to cut it down but at the end of the day, you’re only going to get better with a minimum commitment of 4-5 days of real lifting.
Finally, if you absolutely hate the workout routine then the verbal notes on form should at least be helpful along with the metrics to an aesthetically pleasing look. Find someone with the look you want to emulate, ask them for their routine and get to work.
Some side notes: 1) Cardio is not needed to build a solid physique, 2)If you must add some cardio simply take up swimming, 3) Diet has been covered in a previous post and without a strong diet you will not see any meaningful gains, 4) a lifting partner will help tremendously, unfortunately most people can’t even lift 5 days a week, 5) If you workout 3-4 days a week, you’re no where near your physical potential, 6) when a week is hectic again, go with legs first since hotels will unlikely have a solid squat machine, 7) pullups can be replaced with pull downs.
***As a commenter noted, if you are busy the clear days to skip are arms. The key to weightlifting is all in legs, back and chest since your arms will be hit in the process. We are simply setting the bar high to create good habits***