A Big Mistake When it Comes to Gaining Muscle Mass

December 15, 2009

Two guys gain the same amount of muscle over a 6 month period of time. Both guys are exactly 6’3″, 190 pounds and both are at the exact same body fat level.

They both put on 6 pounds of muscle in 6 months, yet one guy looks outstanding and the other looks almost visibly the same as he did 6 months earlier. How can this be?

How can two guys be at the same low body fat level and put on the same amount of muscle and look drastically different?


[Here is an outstanding example of muscle density. Notice how this athlete has compact, dense and an angular look to his muscles? This is much different that the typical rounded puffy bodybuilding look. This angular compact look is much more impressive than big and bulky.]

Gaining Muscle “Where You Want it” Matters Most

If someone came up to me and offered me $1 million dollars to put on 20 pounds of muscle in 12 months, here is what I would do. I would concentrate on the “big” lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses.

I have no doubt that I could put on 20 pounds of pure muscle in 12 months. The problem would be that at least 15 of those 20 pounds of muscle would be added to my legs, butt, and hips. The rest of that weight would be spread evenly over the rest of my body.

Here is the weird thing…visually, I wouldn’t look drastically different.

Gains Spread Over Your Entire Body Make a Small Impact

The irony about gaining muscle evenly over your entire body is that it creates a slightly bigger version of what you already look like now.

Each muscle will look a little better individually, but as a whole package you won’t look much different. In fact if you gain muscle in your dominant muscle groups at a quicker rate than your weak muscle groups, you will take a step backward visually.

I Think the Idea of Just Sticking to the Basics is a Mistake

The common advice of just sticking to the big lifts like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses is great if you just want to add mass and don’t care what you wind up looking like. In fact, this is your quickest route to putting on a lot of weight.

The problem lies in the fact that you are hoping that everything will look right after all the weight is added. I have seen beginners use this approach time and time again and wind up having the “professional wrestler” look…big butt, upper legs, hips, big around the mid section, massive traps…you get the idea.

“Want a Bigger Chest, Then Get Bigger Legs!”…I Disagree!

I have read this statement dozens of times when it comes to increasing the size of a muscle. Many experts claim that the fastest way to put muscle on your chest and arms is to put a bunch of mass on your legs, hips, and butt.

The problem is that your legs hips and butt will typically grow at a much faster rate than your chest and arms. So compared to the rest of you body, your chest and arms are proportionally smaller.

Muscle Specialization: A Smart Way to Create a Desired Look

As discussed before, adding 6 pounds to your shoulders, arms and chest can transform the way you look. Spreading that same amount of muscle over your entire body, not as visually impressive.

The only way to insure that this is accomplished is through muscle specialization…focusing the majority of your efforts on 1-2 muscle groups, while just maintaining everything else.

Higher Volume on Muscles That You Want to Grow

I like the approach of increasing the volume of muscles that you need to grow and backing WAY down on everything else.

If you want a bigger chest with a special focus on increasing your upper chest, then dramatically increase the volume on various incline presses, incline flyes, hammer strength machines, etc. To compensate for that increase in volume, back off a bit when it comes to some of your other body parts.

How Much Volume for Targeted Muscle Groups?

You can go as high as 15-20 sets per workout for muscle groups you are trying to add size to. You can even setup your workouts so that the targeted muscle group gets worked more often than the other muscle groups.

I also suggest using a combination of free weights, cables, and machines when aiming for muscle growth.

How Much Volume for Everything Else?

This is tougher to answer, because it depends upon your genetics. I have some friends that never have to work their calves because they are naturally huge.

I never do sets for traps or lower chest. For the most part you want to work each muscle group at least a little each week. My suggestion would be to pick 1-2 exercises for 3-5 sets of 5 reps…and do maybe 12-20 total sets per body part each week to maintain. You could probably get away with less than this.

I Recommend Doing This in 2-3 Month Bursts

What I think works best is to specialize for 2-3 months on a body part, then have a more balanced routine for a 1-2 months (as a precaution to insure that you don’t neglect the other muscles).

What you will find is that you can systematically build an ideal physique by giving selective attention to body parts that need extra work.


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{ 78 comments… read them below or add one }

Julio December 15, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I like this aproach you are talking about, thats why I’m using John Barban’s Adonis Effect workout, I like to focus on my upper body since I have big legs due to genetics.

by the way this is my first comment but not my first visit, love your website and also loved the Treadmill Ninja report now I’m applying the concepts you talk about

Thans for keeping us informed and helping us to reach our best look

Greetings from Mexico!!


Joshua December 15, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Wow! Rusty thank you for share with us all these information! This entry in special is really good for my next routine

Happy Holidays

David - Fat Loss Tips December 15, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Interesting as always Rusty.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard “stick to the big exercises” then I’d be a very rich fellow.

I think the “work your” legs creed is a little more fuzzy. I think leg training is essential to having a balanced physique whereas I see too many guys going chest and arms every time out and have tooth pics for legs. Kinda of catch 22…

I’m looking forward to the report for some more details.


Andrew December 15, 2009 at 11:12 pm

First off, kudos on the Robert Miles track. Such a classic. Didn’t realize you were a trance fan. I’m a DJ with a few trance sets on my website (free to download). Love to listen to it during a workout. Children really gets my blood moving, even though it’s a relatively mellow track. Just so moving.

Second, you often talk about adding muscle density without adding size and how that is accomplished via high weight and low (5) reps. So, just to be clear, you’re also advocating this same approach to making specific muscle groups bigger? How does that work? Is it strictly because of the total increase in volume, or because they are “underdeveloped” when compared to other muscle groups?

Keith December 16, 2009 at 12:32 am

Hey Rusty,

Great post as usual, but when trying to add muscle with your techniques, how many calories should we eat. I know u are not an advocate of eating a caloric surplus to gain muscle, but how mcuh should we eat in order to do so. Also, arent u worried about “over training” if you do 15-20 sets. Thanks


Brian December 16, 2009 at 1:01 am

Nice post.. Don’t you think that runner in the first picture is probably very strong to get that density? Isn’t that where “hardness” in a muscle comes from.. Doing heavy lifts builds the density, & strength, coupled with low carb dieting, you get that shredded, hard look.. Sound close?

Alex December 16, 2009 at 2:11 am


What would a typical routine for building muscle mass for the entire upper body look like? Would this be possible using your method or only if you concentrate on two body parts? I’m content with my legs size, I am just mainly looking to increase arms, (upper) chest and shoulders (in that particular order) size, but as you say I wouldn’t want to neglect my back or any other muscles.

Would you want to choose compound movements as well? Or go for some isolation?

Sorry for all the questions, but I appreciate your help. Love the blog!


Tyler December 16, 2009 at 2:28 am

I am quite intrigue with what you have written here so I have downloaded and subscribed to your newsletter. I can’t wait for that report that covers building muscle while staying lean.

slim jim December 16, 2009 at 5:31 am

this is getting too much like gym rat process, too complicated! i will stick to bodyweight circuits, sprints, and chilling!! i think aspiring to look like that athlete is not functional, thats what he does for a living!

Brian December 16, 2009 at 5:40 am

Hi Rusty,

Another great article thanks! How much reps/set would you recommend for building mass say to shoulders and upper chest?


FitJerks Fitness Blog December 16, 2009 at 6:03 am

Hmm… partially agreed but also disagreed.

1. I’m not sure where you get this idea of the “rounded look” but I’ll tell you that from personal experience… it’s mostly related to the way you EAT. I’ve helped PLENTY go guys get big with full body sh*t and they never looked “rounded”. They were ripped and lean. I also work with gymnasts, and isolation movements or any type of specialization is pretty much non existent… it’s all full body and you’d be hard pressed to find a “rounded” gymnast where I coach. I will say these guys are a slightly different breed but still it applies since the next thing you talk about is volume.

2. I agree here… volume is important but don’t forget intensity yo! Since competitive gymnasts train 15-20 hours a week, they will grow, their body has no choice BUT to adapt. But for those that have lives to live, Ive found that (usually) 75% of your 1RM is a good place to be.

Magnus December 16, 2009 at 7:03 am


Great post, I really enjoyed it. I discovered this by accident because, for some reason my shoulders, and triceps seems to gain mass at a much faster rate then biceps, chest, and back. So I would reduce the amount of triceps and shoulder work, to focus on the other muscle groups more. It worked very well, I look more proportional with this sort of regiment. I was wondering is it a genic reason that some parts of the body grow faster, or is it just intesity in the work I choose to do in a muscle group? ( I guess I am asking is it the excercises I did for shoulder, and triceps that where more effective then the rest others?)

Thanks for the site, always great posts, been reading for a while. Greetings From Salvador Bahia, Brazil!

Ramon December 16, 2009 at 9:14 am

Great post Rusty and very timely! I’ve been trying to add some mass mostly to my shoulders and triceps and I thought I had to do at least a bit of squatting to stimulate growth. I don’t like to squat often because I have naturally muscular legs and don’t want them to get bigger. I will try just keeping to bodyweight type squats now and focus on lifting heavy on the upper body stuff. Thanks!

Christiano December 16, 2009 at 9:46 am

Agree with what you’re saying, the important thing is to maintain a balanced look, and as everyone is different you have to adapt accordingly, to your own individual requirements.

I lose muscle all over very fast, and takes me ages to gain any anywhere, so I cant afford to concentrate on one part too long because somewhere else suffers. It sucks, and feels like Im constantly wasting my time as Im just training for aesthetics, which is pretty narcissistic really, but on the flip side I can lose fat very quickly through interval training.

Helder December 16, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Hey Rusty, you’re right on the spot with this one, building your body just with the basics or evenly all over is wrong, and won’t build a good athletic look.

The trick is building some specific parts more than others, like upper chest, lateral heads of shoulders, lats, lower quads and so on.

We’re like a sculpture, we should build it on the right spots to achieve the look we desire

Steven December 16, 2009 at 2:07 pm

You old school raver You! Very freaky, I was thinking about Robert Miles (Children theme) the other day and here you are posting the Vid.

Good post, but I have to disagree with some of it. I have used the main lifts with free weights (deads, bench press, full ATG squat, hang clean and press, Pendlay Rows, dips, Chin Ups, all 5×5) just twice a week, along with speed rope, and weighted HIIT sprints twice a week. I am anything but rounded looking, and have had excellent results, much better than doing years of isolation exercises. This along with doing the Warrior diet makes me look nothing like a wrestler, but just athletic looking in normal clothes. No big butt, stomach or anything else you mentioned.

Its the diet that is used in conjunction with the big main lifts that will dictate your appearance.

I strongly agree with FitJerks comments – good post nonetheless and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Maria December 16, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Hey Rusty! I have one question that’s been bothering me lately: is it physically possible to get a bigger, more rounded butt without adding unwanted muscle to my thighs and quads? I’ve already eliminated squats. For the lower part of my body I do step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, straight leg deadlifts, glute-ham raises, dumbbell swings. Would you recommend leaving out / adding something?

Thank you!

Monica December 16, 2009 at 3:32 pm

“My suggestion would be to pick 1-2 exercises for 3-5 sets of 5 reps…and do maybe 12-20 total sets per body part each week to maintain.”

Is this a typo?? Sounds like too much for just maintenance??

The Spaniard December 16, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Well Rusty, I think I am going into my third month without working out (basically touching my b…) and I must say I am doing great…I will explain why. I have realized that if I try to lose weight by exercising (and eating well) I have a hard time because exercise makes me very hungry. So I decided to concentrate on my meals for now and reduce my stomach by eating less. I think I have lost some weight (at least people keep telling me that) and I feel less bloated. Also, I wanted to stay away from exercising while my body starts reacting to the pills I am taking for my arthritis. Someone mentioned “Animal…something” but I found something better: ‘Move Free Advanced’ from Schiff. It contains Glucosamine, Chondroitin, Hyaluronic Acid and MSM. I am also taking Flaxeed Oil. Just in case someone is going through the same thing. Now, pretty soon I will start working out, slowly, and I am going to do something like this: Mondays – bench press 4-6 sets x 3-5 reps (max weight) plus incline fast walking (still can’t run); Wednesday – lat pulldown (same as bench press); Friday – shoulder press (same as bench press). I am not going to do biceps nor triceps. Later I will introduce bodyweight exercises and pilates. My goal is to lose 14 kilos (31 pounds) and weight around 76k (167p), which I think is a good weight for a 5-11 soon to be 44 year old. I will let you know how it goes.
Also, very good song, but my two favorites are Insomnia (Faithless) and Ecuador (Sash).

Jason G December 16, 2009 at 6:36 pm


While the term “bodybuilding” is usually associated with the large unhuman look that is not advocated on this site I must say that I have always associated it with the possible creativity that exists when shaping the body. Each person has their own concept of the ideal body.

Many people try to emphasis their biceps, triceps, and chest. I put emphasis on my deltoids and chest(trap work is thrown in seasonally). I only do dips for my triceps, because they are already defined and I believe that large triceps can make you look like a muscle head. I think shoulders sticking out like little rocks make you look like a super hero. Danial Craig’s famous ocean picture is an example of this. My biceps and triceps are more defined than his, but his arms look better than mine because his shoulders stick out more. Large triceps take emphasis off the chest/upper body as well. The V shape looses emphasis as the triceps square you out. Moreover after a certain point additional work on the biceps are just for flexing purposes. Since I think it is much cooler to carry yourself like your body is godgiven I have decided to take flexing out of my tool box. Pullups will maintain my biceps nicely.

I do realize that many people need to build their small arms, but I will conclude that in MY OPINION they can potentially make a persons body less impressive/desirable.

Donkey Lips December 16, 2009 at 8:28 pm

@ Maria…

You want to do RDL’s to make your butt bigger, more rounded without adding size to quads. You’ll want to do a lot of RDL’s and lower the volume you’re doing of all other leg work outs. RDL’s are similar to but not the same as straight leg deadlifts. Look them up on youtube.com if you haven’t seen them before.

Jack December 16, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Like your site Rusty, but I dont really agree with this, heavy deadlifts have added much strength and size to my chest, biceps, and upper back and have strengthened my stomach amazingly. i dont bicep curl because i find it the most boring exercise ever and i hardly bench at all, yet i have good biceps and chest, a lot of this is from heavy deadlifts once a week. I am not disproportioned at all. I do heavy dips though, which are a great builder of your chest all round and dont give you a droopy look like decline benches, as well as weighted chins – which has contributed to my biceps as well. But i never isolate or specialise, i train full body 3 times a week and i will always deadlift, i don’t feel at all that it only works your hips and butt etc. Try changing grip, grab the bar as you would if your were going to curl it and try deadlifts with this grip, really helps to focus on body parts you didnt think were worked on the deadlift.eg biceps, chest, stomach, lats. snatch grip is great too.

Monica December 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Maria, I started doing hip thrusts a few weeks ago and it really rounded my butt!! It keeps the legs pretty much out of it. I do them with a BB and one 45lb plate on each side now. Amazing how quickly I got stronger and build my butt.

Anthony December 16, 2009 at 11:10 pm

This is a great post with a lot of helpful info. I would like to try this myself once the summer comes around.

Kevin December 17, 2009 at 3:37 am

This article was great. I like your website a lot but I would like it if wrote more articles about building muscles like this one. I´m naturally a skinny person so I don´t have to worry about my body fat levels that much. I´m worried more about my muscles but it seems that all the websites just think that everybody just wants to get as big as they can like a wrestler or a bodybuilder. That look is just to blue collar or like you say”cheesy” for me. I just want to look better with a little bit more muscle so quality is more imortant than quanitty to me.

slimjim December 17, 2009 at 5:57 am

Hi Rusty, noticed that this is one of your only posts were alot of people have disagreed with you, thats probably because you have previously advocated these same BIG lifts! i have stopped all isolation exercises due to your previous posts, anyway i think the post is really directed at people who have areas of their bodies that need to be developed more, not that that Rusty has changed direction!!

Semp December 17, 2009 at 6:03 am

Hey! I dont know how to workout..Im what you call a skinny-fat guy. If I bulk up ..I’ll get fatter, if I slim down then I’ll get too skinny? What to do?..I have skinny legs and arms..but kind of a chubby belly and face(and manboobs)..it looks weird? I used to be slim and have a slim face..but after I stopped playing b-ball things started to change..
I need to gain muscle and lose fat..at the same time, but how?

Thiru December 17, 2009 at 9:57 am

Hi Rusty,
I’m a rugby player who has been led to believe that the core lifts such as deadlift,benchpress etc are the way to increase mass and to increase strength. So how do I avoid gaining too much of mass at the wrong places? Thanks!

Rez December 17, 2009 at 11:50 am

To gain mass, do a search on the “Russian Bear” program. Rusty has a past post on this. You can essentially pick any exercises you want, but be careful, the program is a true bear. I am on it now, and do snatch grip DLs and standing military presses. Just those two exercises take me a full hour because you are doing many sets of each. I mix in some weighted pullups/dips occasionally as well.

Don’t forget that quality rest/calories are necessary to gain on this or any other program.

Sup December 17, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Hey russ bro
my lower pecs are a bit too loose.so i am a bit confused whether to do incline presses or concentrate on decline presses for a while to firm up my lower pecs?im also a big fan of push-ups.so what type of pushups do u recommend for my current state?
Thanks a lot bro..:)

Patrick December 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Hey Rusty can you do a post on maintenance mode and your spin on it.

admin December 17, 2009 at 4:18 pm


John has a great course. Very cool that you are from Mexico! I plan on taking my girlfriend to Acapulco sometime in Spring of this year. I love the nice beaches and great weather…and the overall fun atmosphere in Mexico. Thanks for the compliment.


Yeah…people certainly don’t want tooth pick legs. My thoughts about legs are that if they are too skinny to focus on them a bit until they are the right size. Where my advice differs from most is that once they are big enough, that size can be maintained with almost zero direct leg lifts. People can either do just a few sets to maintain or hit intervals hard. I find that once you build leg mass, cardio does a pretty decent job to maintain that.


Yeah…I turned 19 right when the rave scene hit North America in 1989. Spent a lot of really late nights surrounded by psychedelic lights, glow sticks, and crazy bass. At first, there were thrown illegally in huge warehouses and the location would be announced last minute…after a few years they were commercialized and it wasn’t quite as exciting…plus at some point the bug DJ’s would play at the 21 and older clubs instead. Good times! Okay, to get specific muscles bigger…I am advocating a lot of volume on those muscles and much less on the muscles you just want to maintain. As much as 50-60 total sets per week for weak muscle groups (so hit them 3 times per week for a total of 15-20 sets per workout)…maintaining for the other muscles MUCH less…maybe just work these muscle groups 1-2 times per week 10-12 total sets (or less) each week.


I wouldn’t worry about over training, since you are going to dial the sets on your other muscle groups back quite a bit. Also…this won’t be done year round. It will be done in 6-8 week bursts…followed by a more balanced program. As far as calories go, I am a big believer in eating just a tiny bit over maintenance. I believe growth is more activity based and not as closely tied to diet as some would have you believe.


Yeah…his muscle density is due to generating a lot of strength for the size of the muscle. Gaining muscle efficiency (getting stronger without adding much size) is what causes an increase in muscle density. Low body fat levels is what allows these dense muscles to be seen. Some people just focus on the low body fat side of the equation (which is just part of the story).


Chest, Shoulders, and Arms are closely tied together…so this could easily be accomplished by specializing. So here is a sample outline for your particular circumstances.
Monday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Tuesday: Back, Biceps, Abs HIIT
Wednesday: Chest Shoulders, Triceps
Thursday: Back, Biceps, Abs HIIT
Friday: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
You would make those Tues & Thursday workouts pretty brief…in fact you could actually skip either Tuesday or Thursday if you were too busy to hit the gym 4 days in the same week. If you want a little extra work for biceps, then just do some curls at home for 10-15 sets on Sat or Sun. I will go into much more detail in my course…but this will get you started.


You bet. It will be a very valuable report and I believe you will get a lot out of it.

slim jim,

I get what you are saying. I like a mix of part of the year training the way you described and part of the year bringing up lagging muscle groups to even out the body. I guess I just like to take the best of both approaches.


The amount of sets you do is based upon how much you back off on the rest of your body. If you just reduce the rest of your workload a little, then you can only add a few more sets. If you reduce the rest of your workload a lot…then you can get pretty extreme for short periods of time…15-20 sets each workout for each of those muscle groups. You have to give your body no choice but to grow.


Yeah…I get what you are saying. Muscle efficiency is what hardens the muscles…which is why gymnasts have that firm muscle look (their strength increases at a faster rate than their size). Certainly people can get hard and dense muscles from the big lifts…my point was that the muscle growth isn’t as targeted as when people specialize a bit. As far as muscle density goes, I really follow the Pavel Tsatsouline school of thought.


A reader from Brazil…very cool! I am excited to see the Summer Olympics down there (on TV). As far as ease of muscle growth goes, it is purely genetic.


I always prefer to take a direct approach. Want big arms, work your arms? Want big shoulders, work your shoulders. People try to make the process more complex than it needs to be.


Having the ability to lose body fat quickly is great. I would rather have that, then the ability to put on muscle quickly.


It is so funny because I do slam the sport of bodybuilding hard on my site…and this essentially is using a bodybuilding technique. Of course I have my own unique approach which makes it more effective if people are aiming for the Abercrombie type of build.


I love Youtube. It is cool to be able to put this stuff up on the blog. Again…it certainly is possible to get the lean athletic look while doing the basics…but it won’t work for everyone. Unfortunately, most of us have a lagging body part or two. I am writing a report for people who want to gain muscle and make a strong visual impact in a short period of time. A 3-6 month blitz to transform before summer..the best way to do that in my opinion is to add size to the muscles that need it and maintain the rest…it will make those muscles look bigger in proportion to the rest of the body. To be honest, once someone has the proportions they are after…they can easily get by on the type of workout you outlined…and look outstanding.


DonkeyLips gave you great advice…Romanian Deadlifts work very well.


I pointed out that people could get away with less than this. You really could get away with very few sets if you have an exceptionally developed muscle group that doesn’t require much to maintain. What I recommended isn’t really much if you break it down. 12 sets per muscle group over the course of a week would be 6 sets in a workout for a muscle group…and only 3 sets per exercise if someone did two exercises in that workout. 20 sets is probably pushing it…only would work in certain circumstances.


Good strategy. You sound like you are going to be in outstanding shape soon. Keep it up. Yeah…Insomnia is a good tune!

Jason G,

Shoulders are a weak point with me and I am going to focus on increasing the size of my delts this Spring. Same with calves. The cool thing is that it only take 2-3 pounds of muscle gain if it is targeted, to make a HUGE impact on your physique. This is exactly what my report is going to cover. You are right about triceps…especially guys who have shorter arms.


I always like counterpoints and yours is very well put. In my opinion…veteran lifters who have experience and strong mind-to-muscle skills do very well with the routine you outlined. I think that younger guys or people who have lagging muscle groups do extremely well with specializing. Once everything is in good proportion, then the routine you outlined will maintain that well.


I am glad people like you have been asking more muscle building questions. I was forced to write a solid report. I just couldn’t find one that falls in line with the goals of this site.


As far as building muscle goes (which is something I don’t address very often on my site)…I am more inclined to recommend isolation exercises. I just believe it is important to gain mass in areas where it is going to improve the look of your physique.


Skinny fat is the easiest thing to fix and you can make dramatic visual changes to your physique compared to any other body type. I don’t have time to outline a full routine in this post, but I will have a premier report done in a few weeks that addresses this.


Sport specific training is a different animal altogether. You probably will want to stick with the basics until you build a strong baseline of strength and then specialize.


Some mass gaining the “Evil Russian” way. Pavel is the man!


I wouldn’t do decline to firm up the lower pecs…I would recommend a lot of incline and a bit of fat loss. For push ups…do regular and ones where your feet are elevated.


Good idea for a post…I wrote it down and will address in in a future post.


Maria December 17, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Donkey Lips and Monica, thank you for the tips!

The Spaniard December 17, 2009 at 4:51 pm

when I used to play rugby, 20 years ago, there were two things we used to do: 1. train like soccer players plus lift weights for upper body strength, 2. find out the All Blacks training methods.
Now, your training is going to depend on what position you play. There is a difference in training if you play as a forward (1 to 8), scrum-half and fly-half (9 and 10), or back (11 to 15).

NickTEA December 17, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Hey interesting stuff here.

I have a couple of questions though.

Wouldn’t training like this A) cause the muscles worked more to be over-trained with risk of injury or B) cause muscle imbalances? The reason people recommend the big lifts are because they work in conjunction with other muscles, so wouldn’t avoiding them cause some trouble down the road?

One person mentioned the adonis effect, and from what I’ve seen from the workout shoulders are worked 4 days a week. Is this something that could lead to a disaster?


great blog btw

Greg December 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm


I’m a huge fan of your site and advocate most of what you teach on here, but I couldn’t disagree more on this post. Compound exercises (bench, squat, deadlift, overhead press, rows) are the absolute best for putting on muscle spread out across the body. Olympic weightlifters have fantastic-looking, natural, symmetrical bodies. They just look…right. They have strong spinal erectors and an even-looking physique. Just look at this guy, he looks phenomonal: http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1106/1410872951_27bc2c3002.jpg

Yes, his legs look monstrous. But most typical gym-goers don’t have a hope in hell of reaching that level. Some people put on leg and glute muscle mass more easily than others (I am not one of these people) and if they want to back off in favor of a more distributed physique, that’s fine. I think most people should start off with compound lifts, and then work on specializing their routine later to accommodate their desired physique. Besides, they’ll have a stronger muscle base to work with when they’re trying to specialize (they’ll actually be able to contract their lat muscles and other tricky ones) whereas someone new to weight lifting would not.

Thiru December 17, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Thanks rusty and spaniard. Well, I am a winger in rugby so I guess gaining too much mass might reduce my speed which wouldnt help me anyway.

confuse of info December 18, 2009 at 2:37 am

i also agree with NickTEA…
i read many articles on your site and on other site, many sites says that smaller muscle groups such as tri, bis, abs, shoulder etc should be only train total 4 sets per workout per week on a 5-7 rep scheme(truth about muscle gain by sean Nalewanyj) or 6 sets of diff rep range(15, 10 then 5)[vince del monte], or 6-9 sets of 8-12reps(musclehack.com)..
so 15-20 sets per workout is kinda weird, plus you cant break it up to many workout as muscle need a full 7 days to recover after a ‘real workout'(push to failure in order to get that mirco-trauma, def of failure: keep trying until you cant execute another upward motion of the rep)[muscle nerd’s optimum anabolics].
so i wonder how it would work and please lay out a sample workout here…

Andrew December 18, 2009 at 4:54 am

So, what’s the advantage of incline over decline? I dislocated my shoulder a couple of years ago playing football and switched to doing decline from incline. I found it much easier on the shoulder while I was doing my rehab and never went back to incline. Am I doing myself a disservice?

Yavor December 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm

I agree with you Rust. I’ll give an example with one of my recent personal training clients. The guy has been at the same weight since he started training with me.

We only do isolation (this is done for medical reason which is beyond the scope of this comment; we use chins, dips and presses though) exercises for the upper body. And he looks better and better.

If you are to get a great body from deadlifts – well baby, as Bruce Lee liked to say, you better get ridiculously strong. The picture of the Bulgarian weightlifter that gets thrown around is NOT a good example. Weightlifters and powerlifters

Recreational lifters just don’t tend to reach these strength levels.
I will say it again – if you want a great body from olympic weightlifting or the powerlifts, you need to get freaky strong. This takes YEARS. A better faster way is to train for looks with some beginner/basic strength backing you up.

Also – 99% of the role models – celebs, actors, etc. that people aspire to reach as far as physical development goes, use standard body part splits and bodybuilding training (coupled with getting really lean. And this means REALLY LIGHT). If you are after the same result, why go there via a different route???

This makes no sense.

Back to the example with my pupil. We’ve been focusing aggressively on shoulder development – nothing fancy – just lateral raises (which he can’t help but do with atrocious form, but which seem to work wonders for the look of his delts. As a side note check out Mark Manus’ posts over at musclehack.com regarding the term BIOMECHANICALLY OPTIMIZED FORM, inspired by Max-OT training) This is the way to make isolation exercises work for you.

So anyway, at the same bodyweigth, just having buff shoulders, he looks dramatically different.


Which goes of course all the way back to the late and great Vince Gironda who recommended exactly this type of training – staying light, developing wide, slab-like pecs, focusing on the shoulders, etc)

So to recap – I just want to note that many… almost all of the training gurus have a ‘marketing angle’ to their message. So read their info with this in mind.

This means that if somebody is “anti-something,” he may very well be like that cause he wants to get noticed and hence needs ‘a hook’ or ‘an angle.’

For proof check the tons of diet books. You cannot publish a successful diet book without an angle – even though weight loss is calories in and calories out in the end.



The Spaniard December 18, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Thiru, I used to be a fly-half but three of my favorite players were wingers: John Kirwan (All-Blacks), David Campese (Wallabies) and Jonah Lomu (All-Blacks). The three were pretty big, specially the two All Blacks, but they had speed. Campese was more of a finese guy while the other two, eventhough they could run like Campese, were very powerful. I think their success was due to their legs. Pretty big legs, difficult to tackle. I am sure you have seen videos of them playing, but if you haven’t I really recomend you do it.

Jeff December 18, 2009 at 6:35 pm

This is getting way too complicated. Keep it simple – keep it fun (when possible) and stop worrying so much about “body image”. Workout to be healthy the rest will look after itself.

Alex December 19, 2009 at 3:23 am


You have a course coming out? Is it going to be another PDF file like the “Vacation Body Blueprint” but more on muscle building? That would be awesome!


Bobby December 19, 2009 at 7:23 am

Hi Rusty
I left a comment on your post about Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen
Could You please answer it for me?
Thank You

Gain Muscle Mass With Nick December 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I agree that the boring old advice of sticking with the big lifts and training hard and heavy all of the time while completely neglecting your smaller body parts is effective for packing on muscle mass spread out over your body, but at some point we all need to move past that stage. After you’ve built a solid base of muscle mass and strength then it’s time to identify weaker (or smaller) body parts and move on to specialization routines to focus on making a big difference on one specific area of the body.

But to be completely honest here, as long as you’ve got your diet in order and are performing a moderate amount of cardio through out the week, you can achieve an amazing physique with an impressive amount of densely packed muscle by focusing exclusively on heavy compound exercises.

Learn how to do it like the top level natural bodybuilders do –

1. Build a solid base of muscular strength and size by training almost exclusively with heavy compound exercises. This can take awhile to achieve (anywhere from 6 month to 2 years).

2. Identify your weaker body parts or areas where you would like to improve and implement specialization routines to target the lagging body parts.

3. Continue on with your training by incorporating both styles working in a new body part to focus on every few weeks to few months.

Just please what ever you do – don’t only use “specialization routines” on your upper body and completely neglect your legs, as with everything in life, there is a balance that will work well and allow you to have the best of both wolds.

Bruno December 19, 2009 at 5:28 pm


I was wondering what exercise should i do to increase my abdominal muscles…I have a very low body fat,but the problem is that i do not have enough muscle there.I thought to do sit ups but I heard that they are bad for the back…Do you have any advice for me?
I’m sorry if I have any grammatical errors..im from Croatia by the way.

vacoder December 19, 2009 at 9:35 pm

I have been following the blog for past year and happy to report
have been able to achieve excellent results however
I am really confused on to how to go about the achieving my next goal.

I am down to 140(from 161) with 10% BF. I am about 5’7
I have been working on muscle definition, pretty much following
what you lay out in option #1 in the vacation blue print.
However, moving forward,
my goal = angular look but in combination with increase in muscle size (bulk up just a little)

So, here is my confusion,
Should I continue following option #1 or
should I be following pretty much what you posted Nov 4 2007
“How to Quickly Gain the Ideal Amount of Muscle Mass for Your Body Type” and may be go to failure as well?

On a separate note, what exercise would you recommend to create mind-to-muscle link for shoulders?

Thank you!!!!

Mike December 19, 2009 at 9:53 pm

I totally agree with this approach, as I’ve been a culprit of maintaining my entire body, even when I want to add a bit in certain, specific areas. Great post!

Rahim December 21, 2009 at 7:28 pm

So is Muscle “Specialization” the same as Muscle “Isolation”?

Studio Element Personal Training December 21, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Hydration could be a big part of the look. When bodybuilders go to a show, aren’t they somewhat dehydrated?

Dave December 22, 2009 at 2:41 am

I was wondering what you recommend in terms of diet/exercise for someone who is 6?0 in the low 160s but does not have fully visible abs (prob. 12-14% bf). Would you recommend to try to lose fat through caloric restriction, gain muscle through lifting? Do both simultaneously? Lift for a few months before losing the fat? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

Primalfit December 22, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I like and agree with a lot of what you write on the blog but this post is not good imo. The reasoning behind heavy squats and the recommendation for them is because they release growth hormones much more then any other exercise, even deadlifts. They work heavily 50% of your muscle mass. Ignore them at your own peril. I’ve seen some really big upper body dudes with skinny legs and they look terrible and women do NOT like them. Most of the guys reading this probably have small legs anyways and your advice just gives them another reason not to squat. If you don’t squat heavy, you are a looking for an easy workout. People need a muscular foundation before they start isolating and making weaker parts stronger. This is why Rippetoe has so much success. Most people claim to have genetically big legs or they don’t need to work their legs when they are really just lying to themselves.

Workout for power, and have the body sculpting come as a bonus. There is nothing more unattractive to a woman then a guy who cares about his body image so much that he has to do curls all day to get bigger arms while neglecting the rest. The guy who gained all over is functionally more fit and won’t have imbalances. That guy can keep building and building and then later work on what he needs to. Build a foundation first and then this advice is spot on.

Zlaja December 23, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Hey Rusty

I just wanted to tell you that your site helped me more than celebrity personal trainers. When I started following your site I got a lean ripped body for last summer (I am 18years old). Then I went to college and laid back a bit, but nothing dramatic. I still maintained muscle. But after I saw Twilight New Moon, I contacted Taylor Lautner’s personal trainer , and he gave me tips. After following these tips I gained weight (I did increase muscle mass), but it was like a body builders body…My stomach began having that bloated look. And he said not to do a lot of cardio or HIIT. I used to be a competitive swimmer and soccer player, so i am still in shape and like to run, swim, and workout in my free time, but i am beginning to lose my athletic body and am beginning to get a body builer body.

I was wondering if you could help me personally like you did with Craig and Matt in your Vacation-Body Blueprint?


JespBT December 26, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Another great post with some good points to note.

I have a small question.
I training 3 days a week all with a day in between.
Would it be of any benefit for me to split my workout up so I’m doing Back, Chest, abs one day and Shoulders, Triceps, and Biceps the other day and then just change between them?

Hope anyone can help.

Thanks in advance.

Sway December 27, 2009 at 7:37 pm

I like your idea of having dense muscles – I am a female and I have been trying to increase my upper body muscle definition and was wondering if you could suggest a routine, post, or reference a book or type of training.

I like the was the fitness models upper body looks – nice dense muscle that don’t look so outrageous like a female bodybuilder.

I only use weights for my upper body – any lifting or sprinting incrases my leg size to an undesirable look.


Extreme Muscle Building December 30, 2009 at 9:11 pm

I like the what you have to say. Good job.

Bree January 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Love your site…. Problem i have is that i have don tons of weighted squqats and deadlifts for my rear end…i love the results But i now have over developed Traps and Shoulders my arms are naturally Musculer but i still like to work my chest and Triceps for a nice Neck and jawline….HELP…..hate my shoulders and Traps love my Butt what can i do??

dr. pepper January 3, 2010 at 10:41 am

wow… very interesting, I might have to rethink my program. Great Post!

Karsten88 January 5, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Wow good stuff Rusty!

How big does a guy need to be if he wants to get really lean?
I mean how much muscle mass?

I do NOT have a lot of muscle. To be honest my body looks a lot like a womans, with a little more muscle. Building more muscle is ONE of my goals but i dont want to start there.
Im tired of my flabs, and want to get rid of them and get lean, before i start building. In my opinion there no reason to start a muscle building phase when you’re not happy about your current bodyfat level.

Im 176cm Heigh
I weigh 65kg
Bodyfat is around 10-11%

I wanted to ask what you think. Is there any health risks for me if i get ripped? Do you think i should?

Karsten88 January 5, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Guess I am asking if you think i should put on more muscle before i start cutting fat.

Just to give you an idea of how my body looks, my arms are very similar to the guys arms in this video:

juan January 5, 2010 at 11:56 pm

What type of workout can you do to get larger arms?

Paul O'Brien January 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I think bumping up the volume on excercise i.e 15-20 sets for one body part to build density etc is the single most ridiculous approach to training i have ever heard. Being ripped shredded is a function of body fat lean body mass ratio, body builders sometimes have a puffy look due to excess water retention caused by supplements or anabolic hormones they use. The idea of focusing on simple lifts is because with compound lifts like squats, deads etc u can go HEAVY, which stimulates the release of your bodies own hormones. Just try 15 sets for your biceps at high intensity (clean- no juice) and u will see absolutely no results and more importantly will hold u back for important excercises like rows, pulls etc, look at modern day powerlifters from japan they train with no isolation of the biceps, shoulders etc and are absolute animals, ripped to shreds

Joe January 18, 2010 at 11:50 am

I’ve tried to gain muscle for years, sometimes with success, sometimes without success. Whenever I do proper gym work, deadlifts, bench presses etc… I do get stronger and weigh more with a slight improvement to my look. The best success I’ve had with looking better is a combination of press-ups, sit-ups and light jogging to lower body fat and make the muscle more visible.

Ryan February 26, 2010 at 12:39 pm

This is an interesting approach. Everytime I begin a muscle building phase I always put on A LOT of mass in my legs, to the point where my pants dont fit in the thighs and butt, but my upper body looks virutally the same. I am skeptical, however, because doing big lifts like squat have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. How can muscle mass be added in relatively small muscle groups without being augmented significantly by an increase in test. and HGH? Thoughts?

Chris February 26, 2010 at 1:46 pm

This is great info for me, since I have been back in my workout routine for the past few weeks. I have always been pretty small so I will still stick to my all round approach so I can gain some mass first. But thanks for the article, because I would have just continued my same routine every day for months. Now I’ll be sure to target my upper body in a few weeks, thanks again!

Dan April 12, 2010 at 6:57 am

Great post. I see some guys at the gym with huge muscles, but they don’t look so good. They do a lot of dead lifts and such exercises. I also see guys with great shoulders, arms and chest, and spindley legs.

Wade May 2, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Hey Rusty.
I have been sticking to the “big lifts” since i starting working out about ehh 2 years ago. I’m now 17 and my numbers are pretty big, but like your article, i am basically exactly what you are talking about. I am really interested in getting my body image up. If you could recomend workouts that I could do at my house with a Powertec Rack with a incline bench of a ton of different postions, i also have some dumbells. I am looking into hitting my triceps, shoulders, upper/inner chest, and biceps. If you could put together a basic routine that i could work with weekly, I could GREATLY appreciate it, and help spread the word of the AWESOME website.


Wade May 2, 2010 at 8:28 pm

I had to post again, so i could get a follow up email, Sorry!

zyzz July 30, 2010 at 12:54 am

I think even with identical stats when comparing two people it’s purely genetics when it comes to visuals.

Leonid October 16, 2010 at 5:28 am

I always wonder how something seems so simple when you know about it and you think “hey, how come I couldn’t figure it out by myself?”.

It is the problem after I had gained a lot of mass my proportions remained the same – thin arms in comparison with torso (38 inches chest and 13 inches biceps) and it is really difficult to get clear info on how to specialize.

I know a lot of guys who are generally thin (150-160 pounds) but they look just stunning shirtless, like the man in the photo above – definition, angular look, and they are strong also!

Thanks a lot, this blog is one of the best in terms of delivery of “doable” information.

jkg November 19, 2010 at 2:02 am

Hey Rusty,

I understand the benefits of specialization, which is great aesthetically, but I must disagree as well. This is in large part because the studies in the journal of exercise physiology have demonstrated a considerable increase in growth hormone release using multi-joint exercises. That is not to say specialization is not good because you can apply other methods like short rest periods to increase intensity (something I think you extol on your site). I just consider it as a supplemental aspect of training.

I have a few questions to ask as I am trying to reconcile your other posts and their ideas with this one.

I know your general philosophy is gaining strength and muscles tone without developing ‘soft’ muscles from high rep to failure bodybuilding schemes.

You mention a lot about the low-rep high volume matrix supported by Pavel. If you are developing strength, you still do high volume but avoid failure which is also known as greasing the groove (“How to get Stronger at Push ups”), or if you are developing muscle mass, you sill do high rep low volume but you do go until exhaustion e.g. when you cannot maintain perfect form as in the article “A ‘Sensible’ Way to Build Muscle.” The exception to the Pavel’s strength program is your “Lift Light Weights For Low Reps” article in which to develop strength, you should go with low reps and low volume (i.e. sets). This makes sense to me because in Pavel’s model, you are not focusing on your muscles contracting specifically, so you would reduce the volume. This is analagous to Dynamic Effort training but you are coupling the explosiveness with tension.

Okay, so my questions are this:

Are you still advocating a low rep scheme in conjunction with high volume here?
Does this mean that total sets of 15-20 are used per workout on the body part on interest while the maintaining body parts are done only 15-20 sets per week ?
Are you still avoiding failure while still maintaining low rep high volume?

I just want to make sense and synthesize all the information you provided so I can allocate as per my fitness goals.

(Btw, I should mention as well that Gymnasts experience a lot of negative movements for long periods of time as well as isometric or static holds, so we cannot ignore that completely 🙂 )

Great stuff on this site Rusty. Thanks again.

Brandon July 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Hey Rusty,

Are there any studies that prove that this method works, have you, or anybody you know, such as clients, had success with this?

nick April 7, 2012 at 2:51 am

is it really bad to work legs if you work in the 1-3 rep sets? Do you recommend that a 16 year old follow these workout principles?

Oreh April 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Heyy im a skinny fat. I do the vacational blue print. And im down to 120lbs now. Im 135lbs before. Its just 2 weeks and i have lost that 15lbs. Some says I look so thin, Some says i look sexy. But still i dont have visible abs. Im 5ft 6inch and 120lbs now. I also dont have that mass in the chest. Thats why i think I look thin. But for me im pretty much lean. I gain strength while losing that 15lbs. I just want to add mass on my chest. So what should i do? One of your article says that higher the volume of a part of a body you wanted to put mass. My routine goes like this

Back and chest
Incline dumbells 5sets for 5 reps
Incluine bench press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight increases
Pulups 5sets for 5 reps
Dumbel row 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
Hanging leg raise 5sets 15-20reps

Shoulder tris and bis
Seated Dumbel press 5sets of 5reps
Standing military press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
Dips 5 sets for 5 reps
Close grip bench press 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight
Barbel curls 5sets for 5 reps
Dumbel alternating curls 5 sets for 5/4/3/2/1 reps as the weight

I do it for 4-6times a week. I do fast twice a week. So what should i do if i want to put mass to my chest. Because my chest dont have size and dont even have definition at all.
Please help Rusty. I cant buy your program because I dont have creditcards and stuff. Im just a student. So please reply to this question. Thanks1

Joe Carbup June 29, 2012 at 10:49 am


“I am skeptical, however, because doing big lifts like squat have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. How can muscle mass be added in relatively small muscle groups without being augmented significantly by an increase in test. and HGH? Thoughts?”

The answer is found by parsing your explanation. You note that big lifts “have been shown to have the largest increase in serum testosterone and HGH levels. Muscle growth is next to impossible without an increase in these hormones. ”

I’ve seen a lot of people reach this same erroneous conclusion, that because big lifts release the MOST of these hormones, then ONLY big lifts cause release of these hormones. They will naturally cause more increase because you’re working the largest muscle groups. If you’re working on smaller muscle groups, you presumably don’t need as much and a lesser amount of hormone is released. Note that my interpretation is entirely that of a layman newbie.

“There is nothing more unattractive to a woman then a guy who cares about his body image so much that he has to do curls all day to get bigger arms while neglecting the rest.”

LOL. Thanks for letting us know what EVERY WOMAN ON THE PLANET feels. That simplifies everything!

P.S. For those who have this bizarre idea that comment threads should be left as-is for all posterity, I disagree. Internet posts can be alive or dead. Keeping them alive is a beautiful thing :^).

Joe Carbup June 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

Actually, the discussion of hormone release due to workouts may be moot anyway:
“Another ‘Bro-Science’ Myth Busted
“While certain training strategies can spike post workout release of GH (and testosterone and IGF-1), there is no evidence to show that these spikes in any way enhance muscle growth or strength gains.”

Jason April 10, 2013 at 10:17 am

Great article going to give this a try, just to be clear 15 to 20 sets for chest would be 3 to 5 sets of incline dumbell press, 3 to 5 sets of incline dumbell fly, 3 to 5sets of bench and 3 to 5 sets of dumbell fly?

j August 24, 2013 at 1:02 am

Who Is The Athlete In The Picture?

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