Q: I’m 35 years old and started training a little less than a year ago. Before that I never really did any sports or exercise. My goal is to get bigger and exercise regularly for my health. For the first seven months or so I did a routine that a personal trainer recommended. It was mostly machines, and I made very small gains because I didn’t really follow it and did my own thing. The last four months I started an “intermediate” program that I found online. I think it’s a good workout, and I have made some gains. On deadlifts I have increased by 10 pounds each week and on leg presses by 20 pounds (squats are on hold temporarily because of lower-back issues). On chest I’m increasing more slowly, and on the smaller muscles like arms, I’m also gaining slowly, like 10 pounds every four to six weeks. Should I continue on this routine, or should I switch to a beginner routine like a 5×5 that is mostly compound exercises? The split I’m using is, Day 1: back, biceps; Day 2: chest, triceps; Day 3: off; Day 4: legs; Day 5: shoulders, traps, forearms; Days 6, 7: off.
Day 1: Back, biceps
Deadlifts 2 x 5
One-arm dumbbell rows 3 x 8-12
Wide-grip pullups or pulldowns 3 x 10-12
Barbell rows 3 x 8-12
Seated cable rows
or machine rows 5-minute burn
EZ-curl-bar preacher curls 3 x 10-12
Concentration curls 3 x 10-12
Seated dumbbell curls 5-minute burn
Day 2: Chest, triceps
Bench presses 3 x 6-10
Incline dumbbell presses 3 x 8-12
Dips 3 x max
Cable crossovers or pec deck flyes 3 x 12-15
Machine presses or
dumbbell bench presses 5-minute burn
EZ-curl-bar skull crushers 3 x 8-12
Two-arm seated dumbbell extensions 3 x 8-12
Cable extensions 5-minute burn
Day 4: Legs
Squats 3 x 6-10
Leg presses 3 x 15-20
Hack squats or dumbbell lunges 3 x 8-12
Leg extensions 5-minute burn
Stiff-legged deadlifts 3 x 8-12
Leg curls 5-minute burn
Standing calf raises 3 x 10-15
Seated calf raises 5-minute burn
Day 5: Shoulders, traps, forearms
Seated presses 3 x 6-10
Seated Arnold presses 3 x 8-12
Lateral raises 3 x 10-15
Hammer Strength presses
or Smith-machine presses 5-minute burn
Upright rows 3 x 8-12
Barbell or dumbbell shrugs 5-minute burn
Wrist curls 3 x 12-15
Barbell static hold 5-minute burn
A: I agree that this routine is probably a little too advanced for your stage. It’s not uncommon for someone who is just starting a weightlifting program to do too much in the beginning. It’s not a huge mistake, but you could probably benefit from doing much less when you’re starting out.
Your goal should be to do the least amount of work for the greatest benefit. If you can get bigger by doing only one exercise per muscle group for only three sets, why would you need to do multiple sets and exercises? As you become more advanced, it is more difficult to get the muscles to grow, but when you’re first starting out, almost any stimulus to the muscles will get them to respond.
I recommend that rank beginners start off by training the whole body in one workout and doing only one exercise for each major muscle group. By performing only three sets per exercise, you will stimulate the muscles to get both bigger and stronger. Beginners could do this basic routine as often as three times a week.
After you have developed some mass and strength, you can ramp up the intensity by adding more exercises and sets to stimulate the muscles even more. That’s when the benefit of a split routine comes into play because it’s necessary to divide up the muscle groups when you’re doing more than one exercise per bodypart.
Too many people jump right into an advanced routine as beginners. They are working out almost every day, training only one or two muscle groups per workout and doing multiple exercises and sets as well as training that muscle to complete failure at every session. It’s too much for the untrained muscles to take, and it often leads to overtraining or becoming mentally and physically burned out.
For intermediate bodybuilders I recommend splitting up the body over two or even three workouts. You still want to keep the workouts basic by doing two to three exercises for each muscle group for moderate sets so the muscles can recuperate and grow. Intermediates should be able to increase their muscle and strength dramatically because their bodies are still new to training.
Try reorganizing the split to train your full body over three workouts instead of four, using the exercises, sets and reps you listed. Training chest with arms is a good fit because the triceps work goes hand in hand with the chest muscles. Also, the triceps and biceps are both small muscles, so it’s not hard to train them both with a bigger bodypart like chest. You can still train your legs by themselves because they require so much energy to work them hard. You can also train your shoulders, traps and back in one training session. The back is a big muscle group and also requires a lot of energy, but you can include it with the shoulders, which are a relatively smaller group and don’t require as much effort as, say, the legs do.
Many of the exercises in your routine are unnecessary and won’t build mass and strength as well as the basic movements. For chest just do one flat-bench-pressing movement (bench presses) and one incline-pressing exercise (incline presses) for three sets each. Add a dumbbell flye (incline or flat bench), and that’s all you need to build a big chest. The “burn” exercises and machine and cable movements are not nearly as effective as the basic barbell and dumbbell exercises for building mass.
For arms just pick two mass-building exercises each for the triceps and biceps. I think the best triceps exercises are close-grip bench presses, dips and some type of extension movement like lying triceps extensions or seated extensions. The biceps are a small muscle group and only require a few sets of barbell curls and dumbbell curls to grow.
The legs are a big and powerful muscle group, so they respond best to exercises on which you can use a lot of resistance. Barbell squats are the best movement for building the legs. I would make them your primary leg movement and then add another basic exercise like leg presses or hack squats to build the quads. The hamstrings grow best from leg curls and stiff-legged deadlifts. One variation of each would be the ideal hamstring workout.
The shoulders consist of three separate muscle heads—front, side and rear. A basic pressing movement like barbell or dumbbell presses should be your first shoulder exercise. Follow that with lateral raises or upright rows for the side deltoids and bent-over lateral raises for the rear delts.
The back is a bigger muscle group, and you will need to do exercises for the width of the lats as well as the thickness of the muscles. Wide-grip chins or pulldowns are the best exercise for developing wide lats. Barbell rows, T-bar rows, one-arm dumbbell rows and seated cable rows are great for adding thickness. Two exercises for three sets each is all you need. Finish off with deadlifts for the lower-back muscles and the spinal erectors along the middle back.
I recommend three sets for each exercise and a set total per workout of 20 to 25. That will give you enough energy to make each exercise a maximum effort. Use a resistance that limits you to six to nine reps on each set. Your goal should be to use more weight on each exercise. The stronger you get and the more resistance you use for the right amount of repetitions, the bigger the muscles will get.
I also suggest that you train three days in a row on this routine, doing chest, arms and calves on day one; abs and legs on day two and shoulders, traps and back on day three. Take the fourth day off as a rest day, and on day five the cycle begins again. If you need more rest, you can take two days after each cycle or add a rest day between the training days to enhance your recuperation. Good Luck!
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