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Back to Basics Training- All You Need to Build Lean Muscle

From the 1970’s and onwards, Bodybuilding training became synonymous with split body part training routines.

Arnold trained chest for 24 sets so every other mere mortal set off on the same path and usually failed miserably to add one-tenth of the muscle mass the great man did.

There are many reasons why this happened and most of them require too much detail for this article, which is primarily here to help you (the more genetically typical man or women, of which we are many) add lean muscle and strength in the fastest time you can.

Some of the more obvious reasons why a split body part approach didn’t work for the genetically typical, is down to workload, frequency (hitting a body part too infrequently) and not focussing enough on the exercises that typically allow greater overload (Bench, Deads, squats), also known as “the hard stuff”.

In the beginning.

Before I founded PhD Nutrition in 2005, I competed for 7 years as a lifetime drug-free natural bodybuilder. Like many other natural bodybuilders around that time, I was genetically pretty average. I had the ability to get lean very quickly but adding muscle for me required a lot of time, effort, and discipline. In my early days as an 18 year old, I messed around following split body parts, working chest on a Monday, Legs on a Tuesday, Back on a Wednesday etc, training 5-6 days a week and spending 90 minutes in the gym each day. Unsurprisingly my gains were minimal. As I developed my knowledge and education, hung around fellow natural bodybuilders and started reading some of the better authors of the time, I realised that this type of training just wasn’t going to cut it, I needed to keep it simple, basic yet increase my body part frequency.

The Upper/Lower split years.

Between the ages of 21-28, I made my best gains in the gym. I added probably 10 kg of quality muscle, competed a few times, won a few competitions and wrote a few books on how I did it and why. The premise was simple and much of the sensible training advice from coaches today, backs up what I did back then. It was really simple, yet really effective and I think you’d benefit from the advice, so I am sharing it with you guys.

Muscle soreness and body part frequency.

hree of the reasons I began making gains at about aged 21 were probably:

1- Frequency, I began training each body part (more often)

2- The amount of work I was doing per body part (I was training them with fewer sets)

3- The weight I was able to work up to shifting (much more due to exercise selection).

When I realised that “being sore” in a muscle group wasn’t really an indication that I was building muscle and that I didn’t have to “rest” the body part a week for it to grow, I began making solid gains. My training plan was simple, it was based around an Upper/Lower split that is still really popular today (I did use Push/Pull through this stage of my life also). To put it bluntly, I just tried to get as strong as I could with great form and forgot about isolation work. I figured I didn’t have enough muscle yet to worry about the detail, so let’s build some timber first.

I hope you enjoy the workout, below is an example from my workout diary (From 1999) of a workout routine I followed for 12 weeks in the winter leading up to prepping for my first ever drug-free Bodybuilding competition. During this phase, I focussed on getting progressively stronger each week. If you are like me then you find some lifts easier to build strength quicker on than others. For example, my back squat became pretty impressive at 28 years old (for a naturally skinny, athletic 6 footer), I was routinely squatting 180kg for sets of 8 reps. But my bench press (long arms, shallow chest) took me years to reach 100kg for sets of 5. But always keep trying, keep persevering and train hard. Enjoy….

Here’s how it looked:

Session notes:

1) 3-0-1 is key for Tempo (3 seconds to lower the weight, no pause and then an explosive lift)

2) Rest between sets: I’d nearly always partner push/pull exercises together and label them A1 and A2, B1 and B2 etc. I’d usually rest 60-90 seconds between each set of A1 and A2, B1 and B2 e.g. I’d complete all sets of A1 and A2 before moving onto B1 and B2 and so on.


For the exercises I used 5 x 5 on, Sets 1 and 2 would be easy enough and then 3 hard sets to finish- this is how I always worked 5 sets of 5 for every exercise.

That was it for day 1- These days, many would say this isn’t enough work for shoulders or chest, but bear in mind I was hitting them again in 72 hours, it worked for me.

Session notes:

I did many periods of heavier squatting, 5 x 5 for example, but I’ll be damned if anything added mass to my legs better than 10 rep squats. They also built some serious character because by set 4 I was on my knees.

Session notes:

Lots of people don’t perform the clean and press all that well, myself included- so I stuck with simplicity and worked on a stronger press.

Session notes:

I found it hard to squat and dead lift heavy in one week, so I make sure that If I’m hitting 5 reps on the dead lift, I move to 10 on the squat and vice versa. I also find the trap bar makes the body position very upright, so if anything, I felt this movement more on the quads than a traditional back squat- or equally as much- hence dead lifts for me always sat nicely in Lower Body day.

There it is guys, If you are looking for a change, want to get stronger and add some lean mass to your body, keep your weekends free yet still hit all body parts with good frequency, give it a try.

Josh Beet

Josh is an Online Fitness Trainer & qualified Sports & Exercise Therapist Bsc (Hons)