A “Sensible” Way to Build Muscle Mass

July 10, 2008

An article on how to build muscle mass? Have I gone mad? Well, not really. I think many people believe I’m against building muscle, which isn’t the case. I’m against “excessive” muscle mass. You know, getting so big that you can’t wear normal clothes. To be honest, many people need some size, especially when they are starting out. I have a basic routine that works really well. Even if you don’t want to gain a lot of muscle, this is a way to create a slightly fuller look without looking like a “bloated and puffy” gym rat.

Hugh Jackman with long hair

[Hugh Jackman is a muscular guy who looks great. If you want to add a bit more size, he is a great role model…NOT the bodybuilders in the mainstream fitness magazines. He can still look “GQ”, even though he is big. One more thing…women love this guy!]

There Are Many Approaches to Building Muscle That Work

I am not saying that my approach to building muscle mass is the only approach that works. You can do the typical bodybuilder 3 day split routine with pyramids, etc. There are dozens of other approaches that work as well. It isn’t rocket science, but many of these routines fail in some ways. The biggest problem with a lot of the common routines is that they take a lot of time. Another problem is you have to be careful or you will end up with the “overly pumped” look…instead of the lean and angular look.

Full Muscles are Great as Long As This Isn’t Overdone

The last thing you want to become is a rounded mass of soft muscle. It is fine to get bigger, as long as you still have compact functional muscles. Hugh Jackman & Duane Johnson (The Rock) are great examples of a bigger guys who maintains the angular look. There is a fine line between “full muscles” and simply overdoing it. These guys have the right idea.

Rep Ranges Are a Big Factor in Muscle Size and Density

The 2-5 rep range is geared towards strength and muscle density without significantly increasing the size of the muscle. This is especially true if calories are kept under control and lifting is done a rep short of failure. Gaining strength without increasing the size of a muscle is a great way to get the hard angular look. The 6-12 rep range is very effective at building muscle mass. This is why most “mainstream” magazines recommend this range. The 15+ rep range is more of a way of doing cardio with weights. This is the main idea behind circuit training.

The Problem With the Typical 6-12 Rep Range

This rep range does work in building muscle, I just don’t think it creates the best look. What happens is that the muscles wind up getting ultra-pumped during the lifting. When I used to lift this way, my skin would get tight and I’d look like a different person while lifting. The problem with this is that the size is temporary. Another problem was that when my muscles weren’t pumped up…they looked decent, but soft. The fluctuation in muscle size was unpredictable as well. Some days I looked huge, some days I looked much smaller. Anyone who has lifted this way for a number of years knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The Problem With the 2-5 Rep Range

This is the rep range I recommend the most, since it is great in creating “permanent” muscle tone. Technically semi-permanent…but muscles look defined 24 hours a day as long as body fat levels are low enough. The issue behind this rep range is that it isn’t good for building mass. Well, that isn’t exactly true…since the routine I’m going to describe uses 5 reps…but done in a much different way than the typical routine I’ve outlined on this site.

Why 6-12 Reps Build Soft Muscles (technical explanation)

I rarely like to get technical here, but some people crave detailed explanations. If you are NOT one of those people, please skip this paragraph as well as the next one. High rep, pump training creates sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy. This is an increase in muscle size due to an increase in the volume of the muscle cell fluid. This fluid can account for up to 30% of the size of a muscle on a pumped up bodybuilder who trains with 6-12 reps. It is also why the size of the muscles can increase and decrease dramatically with this type of training. It is “fake” muscle growth to a certain extent.

“Real” Muscle Growth (technical explanation)

Again, I like to explain things in basic ways…but some people enjoy the scientific explanations. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is an enlargement of the muscle fibers…muscle size gains from the actual growth of fibers in the muscle not the fluid within the muscles. This is real and permanent muscle growth and this creates the dense and angular look. This type of muscle growth leads to stronger and harder muscles. The way this is accomplished is by lifting lower reps, but in a different way than I typically recommend on this site.

Low Rep + High Volume = Larger Dense Muscles

Most of the time I recommend low rep and low volume which is a way to build muscle definition without increasing the size of the muscle. Since this is a mass building routine, the volume needs to be increased substantially. The strategy is to lift many many low rep sets, so you can still lift heavy to a certain extent, but have enough volume of lifting for a size increase.

The “Soviet Special Forces” Mass Building Routine

Former Soviet special forces trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline, came up with an ideal mass building routine. I have to give credit where credit is due. This was the routine he used for guys he trained that wanted a bit more mass. It is quite simply the best mass building routine in my opinion. It builds a bit more mass, but this is quality muscle that looks great!

The “Evil Russian’s” Mass Building Routine

1) Do one set of 5 reps with a heavy weight that you can do 6 times to failure
2) Reduce the weight to 80% of what you used for the first set and do it for 5 reps
3) Do as many sets as possible using the same weight with only 30-60 seconds rest in between
4) Stop when you can’t do 5 reps in good form. This may be 5 sets or it could be 20…every person is different.

Note: The “Evil Russian” is the nickname that Pavel gave himself. It is all in good fun!

I Would Recommend a Slight Change to His Routine

This routine was designed for just one exercise per body part. I like to do 2-3 exercises per body part. If that is the case with you, then you can’t do 20 total sets per exercise. I stop at 7-8 sets per exercise and do 3 exercises per body part when I do this routine. It works very well. If you are only doing two exercises then you can do more sets per exercise, etc.

A Great Routine to Use Every Once in A While!

I actually use this routine 2-3 months each year…normally in the summer months. I really don’t want to gain excessive mass, but this is a way to make my muscles look full without looking soft. If you are slim and have great muscle definition, but your muscles look slightly flat then you will love this routine. Another reason to do this during summer is that is takes a little longer to recover in between each workout. You can’t workout as often with this type of training. This is great because it means less days in the gym and more days in the sunshine!

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Thanks for reading all these years!


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill July 24, 2009 at 9:21 am

Hey Rusty,

Great idea, instead of bloated muscle that looks like it comes and goes with the wind, have lean hard muscle that feels great and looks great too.

Agree with you usually do 3 exercises for the large muscles and 2 for the smaller ones.

Another trick been trying is do 5 reps with exercise 1, then in superset fashion do exercise 2. Then rotate each one for 5 to 7 sets then finish with the 3rd exercise that stretches the muscle for a finish.

Thanks for your straight up real deal articles.

Have a Great One!!


Nove August 23, 2009 at 6:36 am

Hi Rusty,
i just wanna says thanks
your articles are really-really cool


Sandeep November 17, 2009 at 6:32 am

Hey Rusty.

First off, I love your blog. No offence to anyone but I don’t have access to supplements so I got sick of reading articles over at http://www.bodybuilding.com. I’m trying a lot of your stuff and feel great.

My question is, I’m 6′ 1” and about 170 lbs, so I’m trying to put on some mass to look.. normal. However, I’ve got my problem fatty areas. How can I include a cardio workout with the workout described in this post?

Thanks so much,

Kevin Kenney December 21, 2009 at 2:46 pm


For years, i have lifted like a bodybuilder, using continuous tension, low rest, and high volume. I weigh 205 and 12 percent bodyfat. I have good size but i noticed that my density is lacking. This article is great because to become a complete package you have to train for strength as well. Now, for example i’ll do 12 sets of 5, with 3 minutes rest. Then i’ll finish off with my typical bb routine. My muscles are still full but are getting harder. Thanks for the article.

kevin k.

Morgan Polotan March 11, 2010 at 2:48 pm

The best way to lose body fat is to create a weekly caloric deficit. This can be done through eating less everyday, or eating normally most of the week and creating the entire deficit in 1-2 days by fasting. To lose a pound of fat per week eating at your maintenance level one must burn roughly 500 calories per day, which is 60 minutes of hard jogging everyday. This is unsustainable and will make your body more catabolic through the release of cortisol. This hampers muscle gains and may even cause muscle breakdown when done in excess (marathon runners, anyone?). Not only this, but your body will quickly adapt to steady state cardio done 7 days a week which will decrease the calories burned per session each time.

To sum it up: use your diet to lose bodyfat and stop doing chronic cardio. Cardio sessions should be intense, infrequent, and follow the same Law of Progressive Overload that you use with your weight training.

Ethan November 6, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Doing the “Evil Russians” routine, how many times per week should I hit a single muscle group? Do you recommend the traditional body building split (one per day)? Or what?

Wes Mc - Muscle Gain Tips February 3, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Hi Rusty,

This post is rather old but hey ho.

I think that what a few people elaborated on in the comments on slow reps to increase tension is the best way to go. To add to that I like to increase the length of the lift on the negative portion, ie. when I’m bringing the weight back down and explosive when lifting up, it promotes both explosive strength and works those muscles harder. What are your thoughts?

James February 7, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Hi rusty. I’ve been using the training program you discussed here (for more than 2 years, in fact), and its been highly succesfull for me. But recently, I’ve started loosing alot of muscle, and I can’t seem to put it back on. I don’t like how scrawny I look! The only reason I think something like this could have happened is because I started doing a program like this:

Week 1: 4 circuits x 6 reps 90s rest
Week 2: 4 circuits x 6 reps 75s rest
Week 3: 4 circuits x 6 reps 60s rest
Week 4: 4 circuits x 6 reps 45s rest
Week 5: 5 circuits x 6 reps 90s rest
Week 6: 5 circuits x 6 reps 75s rest

After each complex I rested for 90 seconds and repeated for four complexes.
Anyway, once I stopped doing this (which was just to develop stamina for boxing), thats when I started having the muscle loss problems. Even lots of high protein meals and more frequent excercise hasn’t helped. I like your program, but I just want a way for it to get it back working like it used to. Any insights you have would be much appreciated.

James February 7, 2011 at 10:54 pm

So, to restate, my old program consisted of 8 excercises, each with 6 reps = a total of 48 reps. That was 1 circuit. Then I rested for 90+ seconds and did another circuit. Brutal stuff!

Could it have been responsible for interfering with my normal mass building routine? Or perhaps it was my diet (I seem to be eating a bit more sugary foods lately, but still within safe limits).

Chris February 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Hey Rustry, excellent content here. I love the Evil Russian workout and have used that in the past, however I am definitely going to try out your improvement of it. It’s about 3 months until summer time so I hope it’ll get me in the good summer time shape that I’m looking for!

Thanks man.

Josh -- @ How To Play Chess For Beginners June 3, 2011 at 1:34 am

Hey Rusty,
It’s been over a year since I’ve hit any kind of weights and I’m looking for ways to really turn it up again. I’ve lost a lot of mass in the year I’ve been out..almost 15 pounds mostly muscle weight. This routine seems WICKED!

Bodybuilder June 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I find the biggest problem is that people just don’t eat enough. I eat quite often during the day and keep it high in good fats and protein.

Bodybuilding June 21, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Are 6 – 12 reps a fair amount to group into one range? I think 6 is still close to that “low reps, heavy weight” mentality. One of the hardest things for me, is that if I’m aiming for 6, in my head I’ll probably make the weight heavier than I should and only get 4-5 reps at the most. If I’m mentally preparing for 8-10 reps, I adjust the weight and sometimes even get up to 12 reps.

Steve September 26, 2011 at 12:37 am

Great information here. I like the individual breakdowns as to how to achieve certain results. Excellent read for people looking to transform things.

My site: does creatine help?

Exercise On Abs November 2, 2011 at 5:55 am

Great post! But i would like to add something. I’m not doing the classical sets reps, because what does matter is muscle under tension. So I watch for how long do I work my sets. I try to do it 40-60 seconds for 4 weeks, then I do a switch to 20-30 sec under tension for 2 weeks. I do that for the maximum hypertrophy.

Greg C. Bieg November 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I just wanted to add that I’ve made absolutely the best gains in real muscle using very high reps 20-30 with medium, not light weight. I use good form and get the muscle to really burn. Now, once again everyone is different, this has served me very well.

Scott November 6, 2011 at 8:47 pm


Thanks so much for the V.I.T. Been on it for two months now, and I love it.

A little history- I am 39 years old, 6’4, 205lbs at 12% body fat. 1 year ago, i was 6’4, 238 and 29% body fat. I have made HUGE changes, and all is going well….except for one area. My Biceps. I simply can not seem to gain here. I know Triceps are the way to gain overall arm size, but I simply have not been able to “Gain” in this area. My arms are 14.5″, not flexed.

I want the Visual Impact body, and am well on my way, but man I need some bicep help. I don’t want Huge, soft muscles here, but i need some size before I start phase 2. I took a week off from VIT, and did 5 days of very high cumulative fatigue bicep work, and I am about to start two days off before switching to the same for triceps…… here’s hoping….

What is your suggestion here? I take BCAA’s, and a little protein, and I eat sensibly. I am a Fire Fighter, and have a strange workout schedule, but 10 days a month, I have almost unlimited time to train, with a gym here in the firehouse.

Thanks for all you do.


Lou December 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Hey Rusty,

I have a qeusetion on split training from visual impact muscle building. If I were to do back and biceps can I switch between muscles such as: 4 sets curls then 5 sets chinups then incline curls then lat pulldonws? Im on phase 1

Supplement Maniac March 26, 2012 at 8:29 am

Yeah, I have a few friends that love to do high reps because of the pump. What they don’t understand is that it only last a few hours and then it’s gone!

www.bioinformatics.org November 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Inessa Kravets, of the Ukraine, won the woman’s first ever gold medal with a distance of 15. This isn’t easy if you are leading
a very busy life, but you must give yourself at least 7-8 hours of sleep at night to give your body the rest it needs for your next vertical jump training.

Therefore, the muscle is attempting to contract, but it is still lengthening.

rob link January 27, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I want to try this for mass. My question is regarding frequency. With this program can you train each muscle group twice a week?

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