And I know that this might come as a surprise, because they are what most people at the gym do all the time, but it’s true nonetheless.
I’m not saying they don’t work at all, because they do – at least for some people. But they are certainly not ideal for the genetically typical natural trainee.
So what is a typical bodybuilding workout routine? What’s wrong with it? And how can it be improved on, to make it work much better? In this article I’ll answer those questions.
What is the Typical Bodybuilding Routine?
Bodybuilding style workout routines are the most popular type of weight training program there is. And although they come in many different variations, they all tend to have certain characteristics in common. Specifically these include the following:
- They are body part split routines – that is just one or two muscle groups are trained at each workout.
- Each body part is trained at a low frequency, i.e. just once per week.
- But overall training frequency tends to be high – often five or six days per week.
- They are very high volume routines – lots of sets of lots of different exercises, to work the muscles from every possible angle.
- They nearly always use the higher rep ranges (usually 8–12), with lower reps rarely being employed.
- Most sets are taken to failure – and often beyond.
- Short rest periods between sets are used virtually all the time.
- Most of the focus tends to be on the smaller isolation exercises.
- Changes are made very frequently to “shock the body” or “keep the muscles guessing”.
Not all bodybuilding routines will incorporate all of these characteristics, of course, but this is basically the type of training I am referring to when I use the term “bodybuilding workout routines”.
So, what’s wrong with this? Well, let’s take a look at each of the above characteristics to see why this type of training sucks for building muscle.
Low Frequency Body Part Splits Suck
A sensible body part split can actually be very effective if you are past the beginner stage, and you structure it properly – like the push/pull/legs split. But the typical bodybuilding style workout split will usually look something like this:
There are several problems with a setup of this sort. First, each muscle group is only being trained once per week, which is far from ideal. In fact, as I’ve said before, it only takes a muscle 72–96 hours to fully recover from an intense effort, so training each body part every three to five days is ideal. By training them only once per week, your progress will be at best slow, and for some people it will be non-existent, due to the fact that the muscles will have become de-trained to some extent by the time you work them again.
Also, weight training five days per week will be too much for most people. Muscles grow when you rest, not when you train, so it’s best to train just three or four days per week, and allow yourself to recover on the other days. Apart from this, you will over stress your joints too, as you are working upper body movements four times per week. These all heavily involve the shoulder and elbow joints, so it’s no wonder so many trainees suffer from pain and injuries to those particular joints.
And finally, most people will neither need nor benefit from an “arm day” or a “shoulder day”, and it’s much more efficient and effective to train more muscle groups in the same workout.
The Excessively High Volume Sucks
Volume refers to the total amount of work being done; that is the number of sets, reps and exercises per muscle group, per workout and per week. And, although you do need a certain amount of volume to optimally stimulate muscle growth, if you do too much it can be detrimental, due to recovery issues (as well as overuse injuries). And most typical bodybuilding routines have way too much volume.
You just don’t need five sets of five different exercises per muscle group per workout. In fact, even half that amount is too much. Of course, the reasoning behind it is that you do this high level of volume so that it takes a week to recover from it. But it just doesn’t work that way. Your body can only recover from so much, and it’s far more effective to do less volume more often.
To be specific, about 30–60 total reps per workout for the large muscle groups, and about half that for the smaller muscle groups (due to the fact that they get worked indirectly when training the larger muscle groups), with a frequency of around twice per week, seems to be just the right amount for virtually everyone past the beginner stage.
The Always Higher Reps Suck
Although it is true that training in the 8–12 rep range is great for building muscle, it only really works well when you are strong. So you need to do some heavier weight, lower rep training, to increase your strength, so you’ll then be able to use heavier weights for your higher rep sets.
If you always train with higher reps, you’ll simply never develop that degree of strength. Besides which, lower rep training can build size as well – just not quite as effectively as higher rep training. So you need to train at all rep ranges to get the maximum benefits.
Progressive overload, that is gradually increasing the weight you are using over time, especially on the big compound exercises, is the most important factor in developing a really impressive physique. And that should be the main focus for all but the most advanced of trainees.
Look at it this way – the guy who can bench press 225 for three sets of 10 will be bigger than the guy benching 135 for three sets of 10. And someone who can bench 315 for three sets of 10 will be bigger still. Get strong so you can get big.
Always Training to Failure Sucks
Training to failure on occasion may well help you build muscle faster. But if you do it too often, you will only hinder your progress, as it’s simply too much to recover from on a regular basis. Constantly training to failure will overtax your central nervous system, your endocrine system and your immune system. You do need to train hard, of course, but if you stop the majority of your sets a rep or two short of failure, and only reach failure occasionally, and even then only on your last set of an exercise, you’ll make much better long-term progress.
Also, you should only ever reach failure on your medium to high rep sets, and never on your lower rep (strength specific) sets.
The Always Short Rest Periods Suck
Again, taking short rest periods (i.e. anything under two minutes) between sets can help you build muscle more effectively, because it creates more metabolic fatigue. But it’s useless for building strength, so you don’t want to be doing it all the time, and on every exercise.
You can do phases of taking short rest periods, and phases of taking longer rest periods. Or you can simply have longer rest periods when doing your big compound exercises, to facilitate optimum progressive overload, and shorter rest periods when doing your isolation/assistance work.
Either way, you need to incorporate both short and longer rest periods between sets into your overall training regimen in order to get maximum benefits.
The Big Focus on Isolation Exercises Sucks
Many bodybuilding routines have a big focus on isolation exercises, and some consist entirely of them. And a routine of that sort is going to suck for building muscle.
Don’t get me wrong, isolation exercises are great – but they should always be the secondary focus of your overall routine, not the primary focus.
Exercises like curls, triceps pressdowns, lateral raises, leg curls etc. are all very useful if you are training to build muscle, and you are past the beginner stage. But the main focus of your training should always be on the big compound exercises – the squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, rows, pull-ups etc. These are far more important, as it’s these that are going to be responsible for the majority of the gains you’ll get.
The Frequent Changes Suck
This is something else you’ll often see in bodybuilding programs – constant change. And again, this is not an effective approach to muscle building. You don’t need to shock your muscles, and you can’t “confuse” them either.
Muscle growth requires strength gains, and strength gains require consistency to achieve, not change. So if you are constantly making changes to what you are doing, you’ll never get anywhere.
You will, of course, need to make some changes occasionally, either as part of a logical periodized progression and/or when you have stopped making progress with a particular exercise or routine. But the changes should normally be quite small and properly planned. Change for the sake of change is of no use whatsoever.
So What Doesn’t Suck for Building Muscle?
As I’ve said, the type of workout routine I’ve been discussing in this article can work for some. But it’s mostly the steroid users, or those with amazing genetics – or both. For the vast majority of the population it’s not going to work very well, and for some it just won’t work at all.
And even if you know people (natural or otherwise) who look incredible, and are following a routine of this sort, there’s a very good chance that they did not build the majority of their muscle by training in this way. They just happen to be training this way now, because they are so advanced they believe this is the only way they can make any further progress (which is probably false even for them).
But if you are genetically typical, drug free and not super advanced, the best way for you to train to build muscle optimally is as follows:
If you are a beginner, or have yet to make any appreciable progress from your efforts, do a full body workout routine three times per week, focusing on getting stronger on just a few big compound lifts.
Or, if you have been training for a while and made some decent gains, you have two main options. You could do an upper/lower body split routine, training three or four times per week. Or, if you prefer something closer to the traditional bodybuilding style workout routine, but structured in a way that actually works well, you could do the push/pull/legs split, training either four days per week or on a rotating five day cycle (i.e. 2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 1 off).
But whatever you do, be sure to stay away from the typical bodybuilding workout routines because they just suck for building muscle.