The stupidest thing you can do in the gym—aside from flexing your abs in the mirror between sets—is follow a program that wasn't meant for you.
There are a few classic body types I've had experience training—namely, skinny guys, beefy guys, and very tall guys—and, if you fall into one of those categories, I'd like to show you some important things to consider before selecting a program. (If you're not skinny, fat, or tall, you can still pick up some good training tips.)
If you've had trouble gaining muscle in the past, just one tip could put you on the right track and save you months (or years) of toil.
The Skinny Bastard
If I were to write a book for these guys, the first chapter would just be two words: Don't Isolate.
One reason skinny bastards stay skinny is due to a lack of growth hormone and Testosterone production induced (or in this case, not induced) by training. The best way to exploit those hormones for all they're worth is through heavy compound movements. How you load the spine (axial loading) is going to dictate how much of each of those hormones you're going to release.
If you've got a heavy-ass bar sitting on your back that you've got to squat eight times, your body can either respond by getting its ass kicked, or it can get bigger and stronger to deal with that same load the next time around.
Specifically, I think skinny guys need more "vertical" work. And no, I'm not talking about jumping. I like alternating vertical pushing and vertical pulling movements into groups of three exercises with full rest given only at the end of each tri-set. The weight should be heavy to ensure we hit the high-threshold motor units, but the sets shouldn't be too long—anything under ten reps is a good rule of thumb. Lastly, in order to further promote growth, we'll tack on a few more sets so that the muscles' work capacity is nice and high.
(A note on rest periods for all days: rest 0 to 15 seconds between each exercise and 90 seconds to two minutes between all trisets and supersets.)
Day 1 - Vertical Push/Pull (Monday)
A1) Barbell Deadlift
A2) Barbell Push Press
A3) Pull Ups
Perform six or more sets of eight reps in all three exercises, using approximately 80% of your 1RM in deadlift and push press. If you don't feel spent after this workout, bump up the weight a notch the next workout.
On the next workout, it would fit well to do a horizontal pushing/pulling workout with the same work ethic. The difference would be the rep range. So that the nervous system and its neurotransmitters don't get zapped after just two weeks of following this kind of protocol, my recommendation would be to increase the reps to ten to twelve.
Day 2 - Horizontal Push/Pull (Tuesday)
A1) Seated Row - 12 reps
A2) Barbell Flat / Incline bench press - 12 reps
A3) Leg Press - 20 reps
Perform 5 sets.
B1) Barbell Walking Lunge - 10 steps per leg
B2) Decline Pullovers - 12 reps
Perform 4 sets.
Day 3 - Vertical Push/Pull (Thursday)
A1) Barbell Front Squat / Back Squat (Alternate week to week)
A2) Chin-Up (palms facing body)
A3) Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Follow same parameters as Day 1 above.
B1) High Power Pulls from pins - 8 reps (Set pins at knee level.)
B2) Eccentric Glute-Ham Raises - 6 reps
Perform 3-4 sets.
Day 4 - Horizontal Push/Pull (Friday)
A1) Wide-grip Rows - 12 reps
A2) Dumbbell Flat/Low Incline Bench Press - 10 reps
(Alternate between the two. If you did flat on day 2, do incline today)
A3) Single-leg Leg Press - 10 reps each leg.
Perform 5 sets.
B1) Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat - 10 reps/leg
B2) Face Pulls - 12 reps
Perform 3 sets.
Day 5 (optional) - Isolations/Specifics (Saturday)
I added this workout to increase the volume for certain muscle groups that don't particularly get "zeroed in on" during the program. While a skinny bastard with skinny arms who does a bunch of heavy horizontal pressing and vertical pulling will have larger arms, isolation work is still OK every now and then
Choose three exercises from the following list and perform 4 sets of 12 reps in tri-set fashion.
Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Close-grip Lat Pull-down
Overhead Triceps Extension
Decline Skull Crusher Plus
Decline Dumbbell fly
Dumbbell Reverse Fly
And don't be stupid. If you decide to add this workout, use a little variety and don't keep sticking with the three easiest or favorite selections from this list week after week.
The Beefy Dude
Quick distinction: I'm not talking meatheads here. I'm talking about the guys who carry some body fat along with a ton of lean tissue. You know, the guys who look big but don't have visible abs or a lot of definition.
Since they've already got a lot of muscle on their bodies, I've found that these guys know how to lift heavy. But if more size is their goal, they've gotta be careful. Since most beefy guys are not predisposed to being skinny (the rest of their family is "beefy" as well), the wrong kind of bulking program will make them add a bunch of body fat.
Gaining more size will be a matter of proper amounts of volume and proper rest intervals. I tend to use straight antagonistic supersets or isolation tri-sets as part of an upper body/lower body split, which will provide enough sets of work per muscle group to promote hypertrophy. Plus, the rest interval is forced to be low between exercises and between rounds in order to maintain some form of training effect for fat loss.
Beefcakes are normally a stocky group, so choosing movement patterns is relatively easy. Virtually any single or double joint isolation movement will be their best friend due to the short length of their muscle bellies.
A1) Dumbbell Low Incline Bench Press 4x12
A2) Wide Grip Rows 4x12
B1) Dumbbell Neutral Grip Floor Press 4x12
B2) Close Grip Lat Pull-down 4x12
C1) Dumbbell Bent-over Rows 4x12
C2) Decline Fly 4x12
D) Face Pulls 3x12
A1) Front Squat 5x8-10
A2) Vertical Jumps — 5x10
(this is more commonly known as a "contrast set")
B1) Barbell Walking Lunge 4x10 steps on each leg
B2) Single-leg Leg Press 4x10/leg
C1) Glute-Ham Raise 3x10
C2) Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat with Added ROM 3x10
D) Breathing Squats — 1x20
(Complete 20 back squats performed with your 10-rep max. Take as much time as needed between reps, but don't put the bar down until all 20 reps have been completed.)
Isolation and Specifics
A1) Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4x12
A2) Close Grip Chin Ups 4x12
B1) Barbell High Pull 4x10-12
B2) Dumbbell High Incline Fly 4x10-12
C1) Dumbbell Hammer Curls — 4x10
C2) Decline Skull Crusher "Plus" — 4x10
I'd use this system in a 5-day rotation per week with two days on, one day off, three days on and so forth. You should also stick some intervals in after your weight session (except on leg day!) or on your off days.
One more thing: most beefy guys are tight as ropes. Insufficient mobility at the hip and shoulder capsule lead to very partial ranges of motion. This can actually mean a hell of a lot. Having a bigger ROM will create more time spent under tension for each rep, and subsequently each set, giving the muscle more opportunity to grow, and also giving fat more opportunity to disappear. Focus on the flexibility and mobility of your muscles and joints as a supplement to your training, and you may see a quick jump in results.
The Tall Guy
Putting on size as a taller lifter with a "basketball body" has always seemed to be a difficult thing to do.
First of all, the tall lifter's anthropometry can be a disadvantage and an advantage at the same time. Sure they'll probably never have a powerlifter's max bench press or squat, but with their alien arms and legs comes a tremendous range of motion waiting to be exploited. Since that drastically increases total rep and set time over that of a shorter lifter doing the same exercise, it would be a good idea to lower reps and focus on max efforts.
Cluster sets are great for this because they allow you to repeat more max efforts in one set by partially restoring ATP. (Cluster sets are where you do one rep of a heavy weight, put it down for 5-10 seconds, pick it up and repeat for 4 to 6 reps.) Exercises that start the concentric from zero momentum points work very well for clustering, too. (You'll see examples of these in the program below.)
As for pulling exercises, you'll really have to blast your upper back in a 2:1 ratio in order to improve the quality of your pressing movements and see some solid size gains. Here's another place where you can use your arm length to your advantage: think about using a 40X0 tempo during your back exercises. The negative rep exploits your muscles' strongest fibers, and using a four-second negative phase for your back will ensure you're hitting every muscle fiber.
For tall guys, playing with the tempos for full-range pressing movements and pulling exercises can be the key to size gains. Also, similar to the skinny bastards at the beginning, axial loading and barbell work will do well to secrete much needed hormones into the muscles to help fill out your frame.
Now, you can't lift super heavy all the time without your nervous system crashing and burning. So arranging all this into a program would look something like this: Alternate a high volume week with a heavy, powerlifting style week to optimize gains.
That way, you get to focus more on muscular fatigue and strength endurance with a mildly higher rep range while the CNS is recovering from the heavy box squats and rack lockouts you did (sometimes heavy power lifting can have such an effect on the CNS that up to 10 days' recovery time is needed). You'll get the picture below:
Sample Program Week 1 — CNS Loading
Day 1 — Back (Monday)
A) Barbell Deadlift — 5x5
(Perform doubles in preparatory sets, and work up to 85% of 1RM, at which point you'll perform your first of 5 work sets.)
B) Wide Grip Pull ups — 4x8
(Use a 40X0 tempo and gun for a solid 8 reps. A 4-second negative will become very difficult to maintain as you near the end of the set.)
C) Rear Delt Flyes — 4x12
D) Face Pulls — 4x12
Day 2 - Chest (Tuesday)
A) Pin Press, Flat or incline BB
(Using your 4-rep max, do a single-rep cluster of 6 reps. Rest — 10 seconds between reps. Work your way up to 5 work sets.)
B) Barbell Flat bench Negative Reps using mid grip — 4x5
(Use a spotter and perform negatives only with 100% of 1RM. Let your spotter do the work to pull the weight up to the top so you can focus on the negative rep only. Make it your goal to take as much time possible for the bar to touch your chest.)
C) Decline Chest fly — 4x12
Day 3 — Legs (Thursday)
A) Box Squat — 5x5
(Follow the same protocol as with the deadlifts in the back workout above, but add a "burnout" set following your final work set. Lower the weight to 60% of working weight and perform as many reps as possible. NOT for the fainthearted, but you can enjoy the hormonal release you'll get from it!)
B) Eccentric Glute Ham Raises — 3x6
C) Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat (Dumbbell) — 4x8
Day 4 — Shoulders (Saturday)
A) Standing Barbell Shoulder Press — 5x5
(Follow the same protocol as with the deadlifts and box squats. Include a burnout set following the final work set.)
B) High Power Pull from Pins — 4x6
C) Neutral Grip Dumbbell Seated Press — 4x8
(Focus on a full ROM—where the db's go all the way down to the deltoid—and a slow negative using a 40X0 Tempo.)
Rest 2 — 3 minutes between sets. (I recommend definitely taking all 3 minutes of rest for all the heavy "A" exercises.)
Sample Program Week 2 — High Volume / Muscular Fatigue
Day 1 — Back (Monday)
A1) Wide Grip Rows
A2) Close Grip Lat Pulldown
Perform 4 supersets of 10 reps each
B1) Barbell Bentover Rows OR T Bar Rows
B2) J Rope Pull-Ins
(The "J" rope pull-in combines a stiff-arm pull-down with a modified seated row to make for a solid exercise. While kneeling with arms stretched overhead, set your shoulders down, and start the movement like a stiff-arm pull-down with your arms straight, elbows flared, and hands apart. Smoothly transition with an arcing motion into a row movement and finish with hands at the mid abs.)
Perform 4 supersets of 12 reps each
C) One Arm Dumbbell Row 4x10
Day 2 — Chest (Tuesday)
A) High volume — GVT Flat Dumbbell Bench Press.
(Perform 10 sets of 10 with 60-70% of 1RM with 75 seconds of rest between sets. If sets 6-10 still feel easy, you started out too light!)
B) Incline Chest fly - 4x12
C) Dumbbell Neutral Grip Floor Press — 3x12-15
Day 3 — Legs (Thursday)
A) Front Squats — 5x10
B) Single Leg Press — 4x10/leg
C) Romanian Deadlift — 4x10/leg
D) Walking Lunges with Barbell on shoulders — 2x20 steps
Day 4 — Shoulders (Saturday)
A1) Barbell Push Press — 10 reps
A2) Seated Lateral Raise — 12 reps
Perform 4 supersets.
B1) High Incline Press — 12 reps
(position the seat closer to vertical than a standard incline bench press.)
B2) High Pulls — 10 reps
Perform 4 supersets.
C1) Bentover Rear Delt Fly — 4x10
(Use lighter dumbbells and make sure you pull with elbows flared out, and thumbs down.)
Except for the German Volume Training day, rest as long as needed between all exercises (unless they're supersets, of course).
As you can see, the programming in week 2 is much more simplified than that of week 1, along with the use of a few supersets to tap further into muscular endurance capacities.
Furthermore, it utilizes many supplementary exercises that take huge advantage of tall guys' tremendous range of motion (like the lateral raises, and split stance work). And, if you choose to add a 5th day to this program, don't be afraid to throw in a barbell biceps curl or even a leg extension for the same reasons.
Your body type will respond well to these movements! The perfect balance of max effort work with high volume work will result in some serious gains.
Keeping your body type in mind when designing or picking your program can make or break your progress. You're already putting in the hard work—shouldn't you make sure you're doing the "right" things that will yield the greatest results?