Muscle Building 101

Build Muscle in 10 Weeks

Man doing squats with dumbbells
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An all-around weight training program, such as the Basic Strength and Muscle program, gives you a solid foundation in strength training and muscle building. This basic muscle program targets muscle building more precisely.

Muscle building or bodybuilding requires more detailed attention to exercises that enhance the size and shape of muscles rather than encouraging pure strength. Strength building requires exercises that induce recruitment of muscle fibers and nerves which allow you to lift heavy weights.

Muscle building requires exercises that promote the size of muscle fibers (hypertrophy) -- long elongated muscle cells. Size does not equate perfectly with strength. You can find more information in the Best Weight Training Guide.

Who Can Benefit from the Basic Muscle Program?

While the Basic Strength and Muscle program may be all that many people will ever need, this program is specifically for trainers who wish to pay particular attention to body shape. The classic bodybuilding shape and look is defined by a low body fat level and high muscle definition that emphasizes the size and shape of muscles. The arms, back, shoulders, legs, abdominals, and butt take on a characteristic lean and “shredded” look, the popularity of which has not escaped magazine publishers looking for attractive covers.

You don’t have to reach the level of a competition bodybuilder -– man or woman. Well-developed muscles and low body fat are good for fitness, health, self-esteem, and personal image.

For women, muscle building does not have to mean a big bulky figure. However, it does mean low body fat, a flat stomach and bottom, and good looking arms, shoulders, and legs.

Basic Principles of Muscle Building

To get the sculptured look, you need three things:

  1. A balanced nutrition program that supports low body fat maintenance and sufficient protein to build muscle.
  1. Exercise activity that complements your nutrition program by helping to maintain low body fat and the maintenance and enhancement of muscle. This requires aerobic exercise and weight training.
  2. A muscle building program that targets muscle size and definition for all body parts.

The Muscle Program Outline

Design: The muscle building program is deliberately simple in design in order to accommodate the widest range of possible users. It is suitable for men and women of most ages with an appropriate selection of weight and volume of work. I recommend you work up to this by starting with the Basic Strength and Muscle program of three sets of 12 repetitions maximum (RM).

Health and Safety: Stop training immediately if pain or acute discomfort is experienced during any exercise. If this continues beyond the normal discomfort and muscle soreness that occurs with weight training, seek medical advice. You are not meant to lift very heavy weights in this program.

Training Assistance: Note that this is a generic program designed to provide a template for developing muscle and body shape. You should always consider utilizing the services of a personal trainer or strength coach to individualize a program based on your goals, existing fitness level, access to resources, and time available for training.

Supersets: The program includes "supersets." Supersets are two consecutive exercises that work opposing, or sometimes the same, muscle groups to advantage. Examples: Biceps curl followed by triceps kickback; cable hip abductions followed by cable kickbacks. Supersets are noted in the list below with an “(SS)”. Supersets should be done with little or no break between exercises.

Alternatives: Note that dumbbells and barbells can be interchanged in some exercises. Dumbbells can be more convenient for home gym work or when benches and machines are busy at the gym. If you do not have access to a particular equipment piece, work around it with an alternative with similar function.

Number of Exercise Sessions: 10 exercises x 3 sets x 10 repetitions, 2 to 3 times per week. More than 10 exercises are listed in some workouts. Choose ten only per session.

Sets and Repetitions: In contrast to the basic strength program of five sets of 5RM repetitions, this muscle building program uses three sets of 10RM repetitions, alternating sessions as follows in a split system. Two to three sessions per week, with at least one day of rest between each session, is ideal.

  • Session 1 -- Legs and buttocks
  • Session 2 -- Back, shoulders and arms
  • Session 3 -- Abdominals and chest

Repetitions Maximum: You need to calculate, by trial and error, a weight for each exercise that will allow you to do 10 repetitions maximum. This is the stage at which you can’t do another repetition without resting. You need to be able to continue for three sets with about 30 to 60 seconds break time in between sets. Exercises such as squats and deadlifts are very taxing with heavy weights, so don’t expect too much too early. Try to pick a weight that allows you to complete all three sets of 10 repetitions.

Exercise Intervals: Rest for 30 to 60 seconds between sets.

Recovery and Progression: This applies if you do two or three sessions each week. After 10 sessions, you should take a week of recovery by doing only one weekly session, or do your normal weekly routine with only one set instead of three sets per exercise during each session.

Warm-up and Cardio: Precede each session with at least 20 minutes of mild aerobic work -- treadmill, bike, or step machine.

I’ve attempted to feature exercise equipment that would be available in most reasonably equipped gyms and health clubs.

The exercises below are in the order in which you should do them, pending availability of equipment. You should at least attempt to keep the supersets sequential. You will get sore after the early sessions until your body adjusts. Try two days rest between sessions and only two sessions a week if this is a problem.

Session 1 – Legs and Buttocks


  • Dumbbell or barbell squat Make sure you get through the full three sets of these. Lighten the weight if necessary.
  • Sled hack squat You can substitute these with barbell hack squats, if you wish.
  • Leg press Do these with your feet placed at the top of the plate to preferentially activate the hamstrings and butt muscles. The squats will take care of the quads. Note how your back responds with this exercise. Work hard, but lighten up if the lower back feels too stressed.
  • Leg curls (SS) Do either the standing leg curls or the prone bench curls, whichever you prefer. Or, alternate them.
  • Leg extension (SS) Make this a solid weight, but don’t over stress the knee joints. Back off if this exercise is uncomfortable or painful at the knee joint.
  • Dumbbell or barbell calf raises Hold the weights appropriately, then raise both heels off the ground and lower with a controlled motion. If you have trouble with balance, go to a single dumbbell and hold onto something, then alternate legs.
  • Calf raise machine Sit on the pad, hook your thighs under the bar, and lift the weight.


  • Dumbbell or barbell forward lunges The barbell can be held at the chest or behind the head at the shoulders. Dumbbells are usually held at the sides. Keep the toes behind the line of the knee when lunging. This is a good balance exercise as well.
  • Bridges Lie face up on the floor with your arms by your side. Lift and squeeze your buttocks, hold for four seconds, lower and repeat. No equipment is required unless you place your heels on a bench instead of the floor for variety.
  • Cable hip abductions (SS) Superset these. Lift your leg to side.
  • Cable kickbacks (SS) Lift leg to your rear.

Leg exercises like squats and deadlifts also work the buttock muscles.

Session 2 – Back, Shoulders, and Arms

Back and Shoulders

  • Lat pulldown Pull down in front; don’t pull down behind the neck. Vary the grip from wide to close to challenge different muscle groups.
  • Seated cable row Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you pull back.
  • Romanian deadlift These work the lower back and legs. This can be done with heavy dumbbells as well as barbells.
  • Lateral dumbbell raises Bend the elbows slightly to take pressure off the shoulder joint.
  • Seated dumbbell press Push straight up above the head while sitting upright on a bench.
  • Dumbbell shrugs Hold dumbbells at the sides and shrug the shoulders upward so that you feel the trapezius muscle across the back of the neck contracting.
  • Bent over lateral dumbbell raises (SS) Bend over at the waist with your back straight. Raise dumbbells to shoulder height and return. Don’t curve the back over. This is an advanced exercise that works back and shoulder muscles. Don't lift to failure with this and the next exercise. The shoulder joint can be sensitive to heavy work in this position.
  • Alternate front dumbbell raises (SS) Superset these with the previous exercise. Hold dumbbells by your sides with palms facing the rear. Lift to horizontal and return.


Session 3 – Abdominals and Chest


Crunches Standard, twist, or combination (legs up) crunches can be alternated.

  • Decline bench crunches or situps This is a little more difficult.
  • Kneeling cable crunches More crunch variety.
  • Machine crunches Some gyms will not have this machine.
  • Leg raises Uses the Captain’s chair equipment unit or do these hanging. Support arms in the frame or hanging and raise legs and return. This is an advanced exercise. Aim for three repetitions of 10.
  • Dumbbell side bends These work the obliques at the side of the abdomen. Hold a dumbbell in each arm at the sides and bend over one side then the other. Don't lean forward or back.


  • Incline dumbbell bench press This is for the shoulders and chest pectoral muscles. Raise the bench from flat to leaning back.
  • Bench press Lie flat on the bench. You may require a spotter if done with a barbell. You can use barbell, dumbbells, or a Smith machine.
  • Dumbbell pullover Lie on a flat bench with your feet on the floor. Hold one end of a dumbbell in your palms. Raise it up and, with arms fully extended, lower it behind the head and return.

Summary of Weight Training Programs

This 30-session program is designed to fit into a larger cycle of weight training and should not be done prior to the preparatory Basic Strength and Muscle program, or a similar program. A preparatory program conditions the body to the stresses, strains, and processes of weight training. Once you have completed a preparatory program, you may need to decide what suits your goals best.

This muscle building program includes quite a few more exercises than the Basic Strength and Muscle or Basic Strength programs and requires experience in selecting weights and executing exercises with good form.

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