You are my bodybuilding consultant
December 23, 2017 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I have been lifting weights for about 5 months now and I want to know if what I am doing is the optimal towards my goals. Below is the upper body part of my workout.

It took me a couple months to arrive this routine. My main goal is gain muscle mass, particularly in my chest and shoulders. These are all done with dumbbells. Each exercise listed is followed by 3 numbers, one for each set, which is the weight in pounds of the dumbbell. The first and second sets are 10 reps, the third set is usually 6-8 reps.

Is this the optimal workout for me? If you think not, what would you change?

Chest Press (30° bench) 22.5/22.5/27.5
Pec Fly (30° bench) 22.5/22.5/27.25
Standing Biceps Curl 25/25/30
Standing Front Raise 25/25/27.5
Tricep Extension 25/25/27.5
Midrow Deltoid Raise 45/55/65
Shoulder Shrugs 70/70/70
posted by falsedmitri to Health & Fitness (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Are the dumbbells all that's available or just a preference? My suggestion would be to incorporate heavy barbell bench press and deadlift with a basic 5x5 and linear progression. It's simple and effective at adding muscle mass.

This is partly a case of "surprise, powerlifter recommends powerlifting!" but after 12 months of powerlifting I had to replace all my dress shirts because they didn't fit my neck and shoulders - even with a lot less of the bodybuilding type accessories than you are already doing.
posted by allegedly at 10:59 AM on December 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Question: are the weights listed some specific percentage of your max lift?

Like, is 25 lbs 25% of a max lift of 100%?

That's how I've tracked routines - establish a max, lift some percentage of it for a specific time frame (e.g. 8 weeks), re-establish a max, then reset the percentages.

A question I've heard asked: are you a little sore after this, but not debilitatingly so? You should feel it next day, but you should also be able to lift a coffee cup without pain at breakfast.
posted by Caxton1476 at 11:04 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I’ve found I prefer dumbbells. I don’t like “machines” because I’m kinda tall and I don’t fit well into them. And as for the barbell bench press I would need a spotter, towards the end. So it looks like 5x5 means 5 sets of 5 reps, likely at a higher weight, yes? I’m less successful trying to define linear progression with an internet search. Is it periodization?

The weights listed were not calculated but empirically determined. I approached these weights over time so as not to injure myself. I am never sore the next day, but rather, fatigued, though not debilitatingly so.
posted by falsedmitri at 12:44 PM on December 23, 2017

A couple of very popular beginner strength training programs are "Starting Strength" and "Strong Lifts", both of which are based around the 5x5 (5 sets of 5 reps) for the major exercises. This is considered a balanced middle ground between low reps and high reps.

The basic principle of linear progression is that when you're just starting out you can forget all of the complicated training schemes, focus only on a few major exercises, and increase the weight by a small amount every week. If you're healthy and eating right, it's possible to make really startling progress before the simple approach stops working.

This applies to the heavy compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press) with barbells, where it's possible to make gradual progress. If you're bicep curling 25lbs it's a big jump to curl 30lbs, but if you're deadlifting 150lbs it's a much smaller jump to deadlift 155lbs. These lifts also work a lot of muscle groups all at once.

One obstacle is that it is very important to learn to execute heavy lifts with proper technique - Youtube has a lot of resources (some great, some not) but learning from a qualified instructor in person is a good idea.
posted by allegedly at 2:32 PM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I’m also a powerlifter, not a bodybuilder, so weight my opinion accordingly.

I would strongly recommend adding barbell movements and doing more compound movements. You can move more weight that way, and more weight = more stimulus = more muscle growth.

I’d also strongly recommend adding back exercises (if you’re not already - I can’t tell if the workout you’ve listed is chest/shoulder/arm day and you also do a back day). Lats are one of the bigger muscles in the upper body and building them will enhance the overall appearance of muscularity. See for example the double biceps pose, which includes lat flare. Working your back also enables you to hit your shoulder muscles from different angles.

Additionally, I don’t really know if it’s established fact or broscience that balancing antagonist muscles reduces injury risk, but anecdotally I feel better when my training doesn’t over-emphasise one side of my body over the other.

So, specific exercises. I’d add bench press, overhead press (military press or push press, doesn’t really matter which), pull up (or lat pull down if you can’t do pull ups) and some kind of horizontal row - bent over, Pendlay, seated, dumbbell, whichever you like best.

The general rule is to do compound movements before isolation movements. So you might do something like this:
Day 1
Bench 5x5 (the rep scheme doesn’t matter too much, you could also do 4x8 or 3x10)
Row 5x5
DB incline chest press 3x10
DB pec fly 3x10
DB rear delt fly

Day 2
Overhead press 5x5
Pull up 3x5 / lat pull down 3x10 (I’d recommend more reps if you’re doing lat pull down)
Front raise
Midrow deltoid raise

The sets I’ve listed don’t include warm up sets, which you should do for the compound movements. You probably don’t need to warm up for the isolation movements since you should already be warm. You don’t need to increase the weight on the last set; in fact, the weight should be challenging enough that you can’t.

I usually bench without a spotter. You don’t need to go to failure to progress, and you can start with conservative weights as you develop your sense of how many reps you have left in the tank.

You could work out your 1RMs for your lifts and work off percentages or continue to go by feel, as you’re doing now. I work off 1RM for my competition lifts and go by feel for my accessories. It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re training reasonably hard and training regularly. To quote Greg Nuckols, 'Calorie intake, protein intake, and training volume are by far the most important factors determining your body composition and degree of swole-ness.’ (
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 4:57 PM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

2nd'ing SS/SL. Building muscle is partially local and partially systemic. When you stress a specific muscle enough to trigger the processes that make it stronger/larger that specific muscle grows but so do all your other muscle. Most of the effect is centered on that muscle but not all of your muscles get a little bigger and stronger. The more muscles you stress, the more that growth affects the whole system.

Squats are great because they'll work all the muscles in your legs and butt and that will make your waist seem a little narrower which will make your shoulders seem wider. They'll help your mid and upper back too.

Dead lifts are also great for your shoulders and whole back and it'll help your posture.

Those two lifts involve the largest muscle groups in the body and will do a lot to stimulate the system.

On preview: As Aussie says, more weight=more stimulus=more muscle everywhere.

Stay off lifting machines. Gyms like them because they seem user friendly and safe. But they don't stress the little stabilizer muscles which eventually leads to an imbalance that put weird stresses on weird muscles and causes an injury. At least, that's how my physical therapist explained it when I had to see her for just such an injury. I tore a muscle in my upper-back/neck area on a seated bench press machine. It hurt something awful. Free weights are safer so long as you're using the proper form.

I bought weights, a 45Lbs Olympic bar, and bench with squat rack used on craigslist. The nice thing about exercise equipment is that lots of people don't stick with it so there tends to be a lot used stuff around in great condition.

I have a couple of stands I use to spot my squats, I've never needed a spotter for the bench press but I started slow and generally make sure the leave one rep "in the tank".

In my personal experience, if my muscles aren't sore the next day, it's a sure sign that I didn't work hard enough and won't be able to add weight on my next workout. The solution is typically to add volume. I started out doing 3x5s and that worked well for a while. Once my upper body stopped getting sore I thought I was just training my recovery period but then progress stopped and I just couldn't lift more weight on the bench or overhead press. I switched to 5x5s, my muscles started getting sore again and I was able to continue adding weight.

I might also suggest pull-ups rather than barbel curls. It's a much more useful movement and will work your lats in addition to your biceps.
posted by VTX at 5:59 PM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've gotten some good advice so far (though it's simply not true for most people that you can use muscle soreness as a measure of how effective your workout is - it says more about whether you're new to a particular movement than whether or not you're building muscle). There are lots of problems with your routine, principally that if you aren't increasing weight or volume then you're not going to see muscle growth, period. It's also hugely imbalanced across muscle groups (no pulling), and it's wasting a lot of time with inefficient isolation exercises and only a single compound exercise.

There's plenty of information here and on the rest of the internet about why those things are undesirable and will not result in great progress. If you want to design your own (effective) routine you're going to need to do a lot of reading and research to understand those concepts. Alternatively, you could find an established, proven program that fits in with your current lifting experience and your goals. Starting Strength and Strong Lifts have already been recommended and are generally decent plans for beginners who need to build a base of strength, though you really do need to learn to stop worrying and love the barbell. If you decide to go in that direction you might like something more like Ice Cream Fitness, which is pretty much Starting Strength plus some accessory exercises to emphasize upper body hypertrophy (obligatory note that the guy who wrote the plan is a nutjob, but it's a fine routine to do for a few months). But even though the full-body, traditional compound movements, barbells-4-lyfe orthodoxy is probably optimal, if you want to stick with dumbbells you can still see much better results than your current plan with a well-designed dumbbell split. Here's one, for example, that's a dumbbell routine aimed at muscle mass. Here's another that's more of a full body dumbbell plan.
posted by exutima at 12:53 AM on December 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

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