Do you want bigger arms and a muscular chest? The secret to getting there starts with time-efficient compound exercises, proper nutrition and a strategic strength-training plan.
No matter how hard you work out, you won't get big muscles instantly. But in numerous clinical studies, researchers were able to see measurable muscular hypertrophy with weight lifting programs as short as eight to 10 weeks.
You Need a Plan
If your ultimate goal is getting bigger muscles (aka muscular hypertrophy) and doing it fast, randomly hitting the gym and cranking out a few sets of the latest "best" exercise isn't going to help. Instead, you need an overall strategic plan — and here it is:
- Train each major muscle group two or three times a week.
- Give each muscle group at least one full day of rest before you strength-train it again.
- Use compound exercises for the most time-efficient workout.
- Work to failure — with proper form — because it matters more than the number of repetitions you do.
Although scientists' understanding of exactly how our bodies respond to exercise continues to evolve, the science behind principles just described is well-established.
How Often to Lift
In a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the November 2016 issue of the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine, researchers analyzed a series of studies on weight training outcomes and determined that hypertrophy from strength-training twice a week was superior to hypertrophy from training once a week.
That study didn't generate enough evidence to conclude that training each muscle group three times a week would be more effective — but more is probably better. As shown in a systematic review published in the July 2016 issue of the_ Journal of Sports Sciences_, there is a dose-response relationship between strength-training sets and muscle size. Or, to put it another way, the more weight lifting sets you squeeze into a week, the bigger your muscles will get.
When Not to Lift
That doesn't mean you should work every muscle group every day. The protein synthesis that helps rebuild your muscles in bigger, better form happens during the rest periods between workouts — not during the workouts themselves. As a general rule, make sure each muscle group gets at least one full rest day between workouts.
How Many Repetitions?
Conventional wisdom is that, if you want big muscles, you have to lift heavy with low reps per set — and that's definitely the most time-efficient approach. But a small, interesting study published in the October 2015 issue of the_ Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research_ suggests that low-load, high-repetition training can be effective for building muscles too.
In the study, researchers recruited 18 volunteers and split them into two groups: One group did 25 to 35 repetitions per set of each exercise while the other group did eight to 12 repetitions per set, with the weights adjusted so that both groups trained to failure. All other variables were held equal, with subjects performing the same exercises three times a week and doing three sets of each exercise in every session.
At the end of the study, the high-load (and lower-repetition) group showed greater gains in muscular strength, while the low-load (and higher-repetition) group showed greater gains in endurance. No surprise there. But both groups showed significant gains in muscular hypertrophy.
This study suggests that, even if you can't or don't want to lift heavy, you can still build muscle by lifting lighter weights to failure; and it meshes well with the dose-response relationship for strength-training sets shown in the systematic review from the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Protein Intake and Hypertrophy
Your muscles can't grow without proper nutrition — but more protein isn't always better. In June 2017, the_ Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition_ included the society's position statement on protein and exercise. They note that, for most exercisers, a daily protein intake of 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is enough for muscle maintenance and growth, with that protein spread evenly throughout the day.
They do note a potential exception: For bodybuilders and other strength-trained individuals who are cutting calories but want to maintain muscle mass, an increased daily protein intake of 2.3 to 3.1 grams per kilogram of body weight may be necessary.
What about post-workout supplements? In their position statement, the International Society of Sports Nutrition indicates that they aren't necessarily needed.
If you're going to take one, however, a review — also published in the_ Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition_, this time in December 2012 — notes that an ideal post-workout supplement would have at least 3 grams of the amino acid leucine per serving, along with a fast-acting carbohydrate source. When taken together, these two components assist with protein synthesis.
When it comes to the other macronutrients, this is a subject of heated controversy among experts, and if you get seriously into bodybuilding, you'll need a custom-tailored nutrition plan. But, in general, you can't go wrong with the overall macronutrient balance laid out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein (which accommodates your 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight)
- 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates
- 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories from fats
Make sure you emphasize healthy, unsaturated fats; less than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake should come from saturated fats.
Your Bigger Muscles Workout
So, once you have your workout and eating plans dialed in, what kind of exercises should you be doing? You'll get the most return on your effort if you do compound pressing exercises that work your chest, shoulders and triceps together. A few examples include:
1. Barbell Bench Press
According to a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, this is the most effective exercise for working your chest. But it also works your triceps and shoulders powerfully.
- Lie face-up on the weight bench and scoot up until your eyes are almost level with the racked barbell.
- Place your feet flat on the floor to either side of the bench.
- Reach up and take the bar in an overhand grip, hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the bar off the rack and swing it forward so that it's over your shoulder joint; this will create the necessary space for it to clear the racking pins.
- Bend your elbows and lower the bar toward your chest. Allow your arms to naturally flare out to the sides as they bend.
The ideal range of motion for a bench press is a subject of some controversy. For a conservative, shoulder-friendly range of motion, follow the American Council on Exercise recommendation to stop when your elbows are just below the level of the bench.
Although push-ups didn't rank as high as the bench press in the ACE study, another study published in the June 2017 issue of the_ Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness_ found that, if you're doing lower-load lifts, push-ups can produce gains in muscle size and strength similar to those produced by the barbell bench press.
- Position yourself on your hands and your knees; then walk your feet back until your legs are straight and you're balanced on your palms and your toes.
- Check your body position: Your body should be a straight line from head to heels. If your hips pike up or sag down below the line of your body, adjust your position.
- Check your hand position too. Your hands should be under the line of your shoulders, but slightly wider apart than your shoulders.
- Squeeze your core muscles to maintain that body position as you bend your arms, lowering your body toward the floor.
- Stop when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows; then straighten your arms to return to the starting position.
3. Dumbbell Chest Press
If you don't have a barbell available to you, you can duplicate the motion using dumbbells instead.
- Take the dumbbells with you to the bench and lie down face-up, taking care to keep the weights close to your body. Place your feet flat on the floor to either side of the bench for balance.
- Press the weights straight up over your chest.
- Bend your arms, letting them naturally spread out to the sides as they come down. Make sure your hands stay over your elbows; this means the weights will naturally spread apart too as you lower them.
- Stop when your elbows break the plane of your shoulders; then press the weights back up to the starting position to complete the repetition.
4. Your Biceps Count Too
It may be tempting to do your presses and call it good — but your triceps are on the back of your upper arm. For a balanced appearance, you also need to work your biceps — the muscle on the front of your upper arm. And according to another ACE study, the No. 1 exercise for the biceps muscle is a dumbbell concentration curl.
- Sit in a chair, upright bench or any other similarly sturdy, stable surface, holding the dumbbell in your right hand.
- Place your left hand on your left thigh or knee, and use it to support your torso as you lean forward from the hips, tucking your right elbow against the inside of your right leg.
- Use that leverage, and your core muscles, to keep your torso stationary as you bend your right arm, curling the dumbbell up toward your shoulder.
- Extend your right arm, lowering the dumbbell back to the starting position.
Keep your right arm snug against your thigh during this exercise, but don't use pressure from your thigh to help lift the weight. That is entirely the job of your biceps.
Work Your Whole Body
It might be tempting to focus on building up your chest and arms, because they're impressive muscles and readily visible in the mirror. But for a balanced look and strength — and to reduce the risk of injury or dysfunction from muscular imbalances — you should be training all of your major muscle groups. Here are some examples of highly effective exercises you can do for each muscle group:
- Back: Pull-ups, lat pull-downs, cable rows
- Shoulders: Overhead press, rear deltoid flyes, lateral raises
- Legs: Lunges, squats, leg press, calf raises
- Core: Crunches, bicycle crunches, Russian twists, planks
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men"
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dose-Response Relationship Between Weekly Resistance Training Volume and Increases in Muscle Mass: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Protein Timing and Its Effects on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength in Individuals Engaged in Weight Training"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 7: "Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "Chest Press"
- Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness: "Low-Load Bench Press and Push-Up Induce Similar Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises"