How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar (5 Alternatives)

How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar (5 Alternatives)


A picture of Kermit hanging with Pink Panther, probably trying a pull-up alternative.

So you want to do a pull-up but don’t have a bar?

Or maybe you just don’t quite have the strength yet to hoist yourself up?

Either way, no problem!

We’ve been teaching people how to do pull-up alternatives in our Online Coaching Program with “no-bar pull-ups.” Today, we’ll show you all these tried and trusted workarounds.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

By the way, all of these pull-up alternatives can be done in our sweet new app. Why not learn how to lift yourself up (even without any equipment) while you build your very own superhero?

You can test drive it for free (no credit card needed) right here:

Alright, let’s do this thang.

How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar (5 Pull-up Alternatives)

The video above comes from our Chin-up Challenge (which you can do in our app). 

Coach Jim walks you through 5 different levels of pull-up alternatives, depending on your experience level and what items you may have lying around the house.

Pull-up Alternative #1: Doorway Rows

Our first alternative is to simply use your doorway for bodyweight rows

A gif of Coach Jim showing you a doorway row, our first pull-up alternative.

To perform a doorway row:

  • Stand in front of your doorway and grab both sides.
  • Place your feet a little closer to the doorway, so you’re leaning back.
  • Sit back so you put weight on your arms.
  • Pull yourself forward.

That’s it. The more you lean back, the tougher this will be.

To start, you can also just hang back to start building some “pull” strength.

Pull-up Alternative #2: Towel Doorway Rows

Our next alternative is to do doorway rows, but this time using a towel.

A towel can help you do a bodyweight row, as shown here.

The towel might help you lean back even further, creating a more challenging exercise.

Take a towel, and fold it twice lengthwise. Then take your long, folded-over towel, and tie it around the door on the handle opposite side of you.

Make sure the door opens AWAY from you. You don’t want the door accidentally opening, which could cause an unexpected tumble.

Once you have your towel secured around the doorknob, perform rows by using each side of the towel.

Pull-up Alternative #3: Inverted Rows with Chairs

For this pull-up alternative, you’re gonna need two sturdy chairs and a broomstick (or dowel).

We’ll be combining them together, Voltron style, to form our own row station:

This gif shows Jim doing a row on chairs

The important thing here is the setup. Give your newly created station a few gentle pushes to check the integrity of the structure. Only when you feel confident should you start performing inverted bodyweight rows

Pull-up Alternative #4: Towel Pull-ups

Now, we’re gonna start doing some actual pull-ups…with towels.

You can either use a couple of sturdy hand towels or washcloths. 

Tie an overhand knot in the corner of both towels, which will be used as your anchor.

Then place these knots over a door and close it. Make sure the knots are secure before you start doing your pull-ups.

Again, you’ll also want to make sure the door opens AWAY from you.

Doing towel pull-ups is going to be a great way to improve your grip strength, although if you find them a little too tough, you can use a stool to support your feet as you lift. This will help as you build strength.

Pull-up Alternative #5: Strap Pull-ups

You may or may not have some Forearm Forklifts hanging around, but if you do, you’ll have the perfect equipment for a pull-up alternative.

Forearm Forklifts are made to help you and a friend lift heavy furniture or equipment, but Coach Jim discovered they’re also pretty useful for doing pull-ups.

This gif shows Coach Jim using Forearm Forklift straps to do this pull-up alternative.

They have loops designed to hold your arms, which makes them easier to grip than a towel.

Tie a knot in them just like you would with a hand towel and use it to anchor them against your door. 

For more ideas on how to train with stuff you may have around the house, check out How to Build a Home Gym (When All Equipment is Sold Out).

The 6 Best Pull-up Alternatives (How to Get Your First Pull-Up)

This is a picture of a mouse hanging, who is trying to get his pull-up alternative.

This section is taken from our guide “Get Your First Pull-up.

If you can’t quite hoist yourself up yet, don’t fret!

We’re going to work on increasing your “pull” muscles through a series of pull-up alternatives.

First up…

Level 1 Pull-up Alternative: Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows

This pull exercise can help you build muscles so you can eventually do pull-ups!

Bent-over dumbbell rows: 

  • 8 reps each arm (or as many as you can do)
  • Rest for a 2-minute break
  • Do another set
  • Repeat until you hit 3 sets

What weight should you start out with initially?

Whatever allows you to get to at least 5 reps a set.

Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm), it’s time to pick up a heavier dumbbell.

This will allow you to get stronger and stronger. 

When you can lift a 25-pound (10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next level.

Level 2 Pull-up Alternative: Inverted Bodyweight Rows

The inverted row is a great way to develop your "pull" and back muscles.

Bodyweight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups – they work the same muscles, and have you lifting your own body weight, just at a different angle.

Our goal here will be to work towards a lower and lower angle, increasing the difficulty of the movement.  

So at first, we’ll do rows with the bar higher up:

Start with inclined inverted rows for your pull-up workout. Then drop lower for more required effort.

Then we’ll progress to getting the bar lower:

Add bodyweight rows to your workouts

As soon as you’re doing bodyweight rows where your body is at a 45-degree angle or lower, you can progress to the next level. 

Level 3 Pull-up Alternative: Assisted Pull-ups

At this point, you are going to start actually doing pull-ups…with a little bit of assistance.

We’ve got a few options for you.

#1) Assisted Pull-ups with Chair

A chair can be a great tool to help you get your first pull-up.

Either one foot or two on the chair, depending on your needs. Your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.

#2) Assisted Pull-ups with an Exercise Band

Staci using a band for an assisted pull-up, a great exercise for a bodyweight circuit.

You can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength, or a variety pack for easy progression.

Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.

#3) Assisted Pull-ups with a Partner

A friend can be a great asset when you're trying to do a pull-up.

Have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep. Have them use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.

Once you’re comfortable doing a form of assisted pull-ups, and can do about 10 repetitions, it’s time to advance to the next level.

This is probably the TOUGHEST level before getting your pull-ups. If you get stuck on “assisted pull-ups” and “assisted chin-ups”, you’re not alone. This is where most people get stuck.

We work hand-in-hand with people like you to get them their first pull-up in our Online Coaching Program. If you don’t know how to fit these movements into your workouts, or you just want somebody to give you the exact workout to follow every day, we got you!




Level 4 Pull-Up Workout: Negative Pull-Ups

Staci jumping up to do a negative pull-up., a great movement until you can bring regular pull-ups into your circuit.

Our next level on our path for a pull-up is what we call “negative pull-ups.”

  1. Grab onto the bar with an overhand grip
  2. Jump so your chest is touching
  3. Slowly lower yourself under control until you’re at the bottom of the movement.

As you continue to lower yourself down, you’ll build strength, eventually creating enough muscle so you can pull yourself up.

If you want more specific instructions on any of these levels or movements, check out our guide “Get Your First Pull-up” for more

What Is the Easiest Type of Pull-Up? (Start With Chin-Ups)

Staci showing a pull-up to the left and a chin-up to the right.

The easiest pull-up variation for you to attempt will likely be the chin-up.

That’s why we have a Chin-up Challenge in our app, because we feel Rebels will have an easier time lifting themselves up with this variation, compared to a traditional pull-up.

For reference:

A CHIN-UP is when your hands are facing toward you:

A chin-up is a pull-up, but with your hands facing towards you.

A PULL-UP is when your hands are facing away from you:

The classic pull-up

Chin-ups are generally easier to perform than pull-ups because the wider grip of a pull-up isolates your lats, which means you get less assistance from your biceps.  

Start with chin-ups. Once you get comfortable doing them, you can then work on more advanced variations. For ideas here, check out our guide How to Do a Pull-up.

When Should I Do My Pull-Up Alternatives? (Next Steps)

There are a lot of versions of Spider-Man out there.

Generally, you want a 48 to 72-hour resting period before returning to train the same muscle group.

So take at least a day off before working on your “pull” muscles again.

This allows the area to heal properly so you can grow stronger.

When we designed a training routine for Nerd Fitness Prime members to get their first chin-up, we aimed for three workouts a week.

If you’re trying to get your first pull-up or chin-up, this would be a good goal. 

So for example, you could do:

  • Monday: Bodyweight Rows
  • Wednesday: Chin-up Negatives
  • Friday: Dumbbell Rows

You could also do Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Even just working out Monday and Thursday – twice a week pull-up training – would allow you to see some great progress.

Feel free to do whatever works best for you.

As this gif explains, you do you when it comes to bulking up.

If you want any more help with designing your workout, we got you.

Check out the option that best fits your goals:

Option #1) If you want a professional coach in your pocket, who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on the equipment you have available, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program

For example, let’s say you find yourself stuck indoors during a pandemic, and you want somebody to custom-build you a workout program based on the equipment and furniture you have. That’s where an online coach is a game-changer! 

Personally, I’ve been working with the same online coach since 2015 and it’s changed my life. You can learn more by clicking on the image below: 

Nerd Fitness Coaching Banner

Option #2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Check out Nerd Fitness Journey!

Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Plus, it’ll teach you how to do pull-ups, even if you have zero experience (or any equipment). 

Try your free trial right here:

Option #3) Become part of the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Enlist below and we’ll send you our free Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know:

Alright, now I want to hear from you!

Can you currently do a chin-up or pull-up?

What’s your favorite pull-up alternative?

Am I missing any tips or tricks for pull-ups without a bar?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

PS: If you want more pull-up goodness, make sure you check out:

###

Photo source: Kermit and Pink Panther, Mouse Hanging, Scarlet Spider-man



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The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Bulking Up (Fast)

The Skinny Guy’s Guide to Bulking Up (Fast)


Hulk knows how many reps and sets to do.

Want to go from a skinny guy to building muscle quickly? I got you.

I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to pack on muscle, and after years and years of trial and error, I finally cracked the code.

Today, I share that code with you!

This is a topic that is near and dear to me, because I’ve spent my life devoted to this stuff:

How fast can it take to grow muscle? It took Steve years of trial and error.

These are the exact tactics I’ve used, and the same strategies we use with our Online Coaching Clients.



This free guide is gonna get you started off on the right foot!

Here are the 4 parts we’ll cover in this ultimate guide:

#1) INTRO:

#2) NUTRITION:

#3) STRENGTH TRAINING:

#4) RECOVERY, TIPS AND TRICKS, NEXT STEP:

How I Bulked up After Years of Struggling as a Skinny Guy

Steve dressed up as Superman.

Growing up, I was always the scrawny, skinny weak kid.

There was a reason I dressed up like superman every other day for the first six years of my life:

Superman was strong, big, and powerful…and I wasn’t.

To this day, it’s still a big challenge for me to gain weight or build muscle.

When people tell me “must be nice to have been skinny growing up,” I explain that a killer flat top, my height (5’2″ until I was 16), four years of braces, and two Acutane treatments made sure I still got the full adolescent experience 🙂

When I was cut from the high school basketball team (which I thought was the end of the world), I signed up for a gym membership to get big and strong.

Within five minutes I had almost killed myself when loading up way too much weight for a set of bench presses.

When you start bulking up, be careful you don't try too much too soon.

Fortunately, I survived, and thus began my love affair with strength training.

I spent the next six years training in a gym, reading every muscle and fitness magazine I could find, drinking protein shakes religiously…and had about 3 pounds of muscle gain to show for it.

I just assumed “I’m one of those people who can’t gain weight.”

It turns out, I was doing it all wrong.

Deadpool needs to be bulky so he can do mercenary work, plus tell witty jokes.

After graduating college I moved to California, signed up for a gym membership, and received a few free personal trainer sessions. 

Although I thought I had known it all (I had been training for 6 years in a gym! I read the muscle mags! I was in good shape already!), I still took the free sessions for the hell of it.

I’m so glad I did!

The trainer drastically simplified my workout and DOUBLED the amount of food I was eating.

I thought he was crazy at first, but I stuck with it.

In 30 days, I had put on 18 pounds (pictured below), increased the strength in ALL of my lifts, and felt more confident than I ever had before in my life. 

That’s when the lightbulb when off in my head: there’s a better way.

A before and after picture of Steve.

And thus began a radical redefinition of how I thought the human body worked, how muscle was built, and where I needed to put my priorities.

Since then, I’ve spent seven years learning everything I can about how muscle is built.

A few years back, I took an epic 35,000-mile trip around the world, and despite not having access to a gym for 6 months, I managed to once again pack on even more muscle and get myself in great shape without once picking up a weight (pictured below):

Another picture comparing a "before" and "after" of Steve.

Again, my world was turned upside down.

I learned that gyms are not a requirement to build muscle and get stronger, though a great gym workout can certainly speed up the process.

And after a few more years of up and down challenges, I had finally – jokingly – changed from Steve Rogers to Captain America (there’s a story behind this):

Steve Kamb turning into Captain America.

I’m still not the biggest guy in the world, nor will I ever be. I’m okay with that!

I’ve learned that anyone can pack on muscle, even skinny nerds like me. 

If you’re skinny and want to get bigger, you’ll be fighting genetics the whole way, but do not let that deter you.

Anything is possible.

Today’s article outlines everything I’ve learned over the past 13 years of mistakes, successes, failures, and adventures.

The Most Important Thing for Putting on Muscle: Eat More Food.

Someone eating a healthy breakfast

As they say, muscle isn’t made in the gym, but in the kitchen:

If you want to bulk up, you’d be better off working out twice a week for 30 minutes and eating right, than working out 6 days a week and not eating properly.

I learned this the hard way.

I spent four years of college working out five days a week for 90 minutes a day trying to get bigger.

I drank protein shakes like I thought I was supposed to. I got a little stronger, but never bigger.

Why?

BECAUSE I DIDN’T EAT ENOUGH CALORIES.

Homer just realized his friend Steve didn't eat enough calories to bulk up.

When I get emails from people who lament the fact that they can’t gain weight, I always first ask about the person’s diet.

More often than not, that person thinks they are eating enough, but are definitely not.

Here’s the truth:

If you are not getting bigger, you are not eating enough.

Your body can burn 2000+ calories every day just existing (and then factor in exercise and, gulp, cardio – I’ll get to that in a minute), and you need to overload your system with calories in order for it to have enough fuel for the muscle building process.

Want to know how many calories you burn every day just existing?

Plug your stats into our TDEE (Total daily energy expenditure) calculator:

Click right here for our Metric calculator.

Note: we have used The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation to create this calculator! [1]

For every person, the number of required calories for bulking up daily is different, especially when you factor in how much you move, fidget, and how much weight you need to gain:

  • For some people, it might be 2,500 calories a day.
  • For others, it might be 3,500 calories a day.
  • For others, it might be 5,000 calories a day.

I don’t love calorie counting (I prefer a “Balanced Plate” approach), but I think for a newbie starting out, tracking calories for a few days is a great place to begin.

So, track your calories using something like MyFitnessPal over a few days and get an average.

I bet you’ll discover you’re eating significantly less than you thought you were.

LEARN HOW MANY CALORIES YOU NEED TO EAT FIRST.

And then eat MORE!

If you're not bulking up, eat more, like Kirby here!

Spend the next two weeks eating an additional 300-500 calories per day above your TDEE (which you calculated above) and see how your weight adjusts (and how you look in progress photos!).

If you are not getting bigger, add an additional 300-500 calories per day and repeat the process.

Depending on your training, genetics, how skinny you are, and how much muscle you need to gain, you can decide how much weight you want to gain each week.

Everybody’s results will vary, and thoughts are mixed on how quickly we can build muscle:

  • Under optimal conditions, some say you can expect to gain 1 pound (.5 kg) of muscle per week,
  • My results have shown that 2 lbs (1kg) per month is more realistic.
  • A 2016 study[2]revealed that strength training produced a 2.2 lb increase (1kg) increase in lean mass in 8 weeks.

Regardless of how fast you bulk up, it might be helpful for you to gain weight by putting on some fat with your muscle!

Here are things to consider if you overeat WHILE strength training: extra glycogen, some fat, and water stored in your body can be a good thing for your confidence and get you headed down the right path.

So, don’t listen to the sites or programs that say “gain 40 pounds of muscle in two months!”

Unless you’re on the juice (‘roids, not Hawaiian Punch), it’s going to be a slow, long process.

Yes, it is possible to have incredible transformations in a short amount of time, like when I gained 18 pounds (8.1kg) in 30 days

This was due to strength training, overeating, protein, and extra water weight (from supplementing with creatine):

I put on 18 pounds of weight in 30 days

My advice: Rather than massive weight gain over a month, you’d be much better off gaining .5-1.5 lbs. (.25-.75 kg) a week, every week, for six months…and keeping the weight on!

Now, I know this stuff isn’t easy.

There’s nothing worse than spending 6+ months in a gym and doing what you think you SHOULD be doing, only to step on the scale and realize that you haven’t made any progress!

If you’re somebody that’s worried about wasting time, or you want to have an expert guide your nutrition based on your current situation, consider checking out our Online Training Program!



What Food Should I Eat to Bulk Up?

various paleo diet products on wooden table, top view

Let’s go through how you should be prioritizing your nutrition, nutrient by nutrient:

  • Protein: rebuilds muscle after you break it down.
  • Carbohydrates: provides your muscle with fuel and body weight with energy
  • Fat: helps your bodily functions and can also be burned as fuel in the absence of carbs.

Let’s look at each of these individually:

PRIORITY #1: PROTEIN

Protein can come from any number of sources, including:

As we cover in our “How much Protein do I need?”, claims for the amount of protein needed vary wildly from source to source (and athlete to athlete).

Here is our recommendation for protein consumption:

If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to build muscle, aim for 1 g/lb (2.2 g/kg).

If you’re an experienced lifter on a bulk, intakes up to 1.50 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) may help you minimize fat gain.

Let me simplify it for you: target at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (2.2 grams per kg). 

If you’re curious, from our healthy eating article, this is what a portion of protein looks like:

A serving of protein should be about the size of your palm, like so.

Also, here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:

  • 4 oz (113 g) of chicken has around 30 g of protein.
  • 4 oz (113 g) of salmon has 23 g of protein
  • 4 oz (113 g) of steak has 28 g of protein.

Want to get more protein? Consider protein shakes, like so:

The Powerbomb Protein Shake Recipe

PRIORITY #2: CARBS

After protein, in order for you to get bigger, you need to eat enough calories, and those calories should come from sources composed of carbs and/or fats.

Here are foods full of carbohydrates you can prioritize for bulking up:

  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Legumes and lentils
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Yams
  • Regular potatoes
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Whole grain bread

To help you get better at eyeballing serving sizes:

Showing you a serving of carbs

1 serving of a starchy carbohydrate is 1 cupped hand (uncooked), or your two hands forming a cup (cooked).

Here are some images to help you learn proper portion sizes (thanks to SafeFood):

This picture will help you determine proper serving sizes for carbs!

In addition to consuming carbohydrates from these sources, it’s okay to consume plenty of fruit while trying to bulk up!

You can read our full “Is fruit healthy” guide to learn more.

PRIORITY #3: FAT! 

Fat is a macronutrient that you can eat that can help you reach your goals in the right quantity, as fat can be higher calorie and you can eat lots of it without feeling full.

Healthy fat can be found in foods like:

  • Avocado
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Almond butter
  • Peanut butter

Science has recently come around on saturated fat too [4]. Once completely vilified, but now considered okay for moderate consumption.

Saturated fats can come from things like:

  • Whole milk
  • Full fat dairy
  • Coconut oil
  • Grass-fed butter
  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Lard

To help you gauge: a serving size of fat is roughly the size of your thumb!

A serving of fat should be about your thumb!

For reference, this is a single serving of almonds (162 calories):

Knowing the correct amount of almonds to eat can help you with your calorie goals.

THIS is a serving of olive oil (119 calories):

This shows the serving size of olive oil, which is very dense calorie wise.

As you can see, you can eat an extra 500 calories of “healthy fats” by eating lots of “heart-healthy” fats like nuts or adding more olive oil to your meals.

PRIORITY #4: VEGETABLES!

Last but not least, you need vegetables in your diet.

If you start to eat a lot more food, your “indoor plumbing” is going to really benefit from eating some high-fiber veggies with each meal:

A serving of veggies is about the size of your fist.

A serving of veggies should be the size of your first (or greater).

Here’s a quick, non-complete list of veggies that can fill your plate:

  • Broccoli
  • Broccolini
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Zucchini
  • Cucumber
  • Carrots
  • Onion
  • Asparagus

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER:

A plate that that contains a portion of protein, healthy carb, veggies/fruit, and unsweetened drink.

This plate and serving size stuff above is just to help you get started thinking about healthy food differently and in proper portion sizes.

To recap:

HERE’S HOW TO EAT TO BULK UP:

  • Calculate your (Total daily energy expenditure) and add +500 cal over your number.
  • Consume 1-1.5g per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of bodyweight in protein every day.
  • Consume the rest of your calories from foods composed of carbs and fats.
  • Always eat vegetables so that your body can actually PROCESS all this extra food.
  • If you are not gaining weight, add more carbs and/or fats to your meal.

It really does come down to the following:

If you are not gaining weight fast enough, you’re not eating enough. Increase your portions of carbs and fats!

Whenever we work with coaching clients who struggle to bulk up, this is the area we target: adding more carbs and fats to each meal.



What are the Best Popular Bulk Up Eating Strategies?

Lego chef with hot dog against blue baseplate backgrounds.

If you read the previous section, you know that we have some pretty specific “best practices” on how to bulk up. 

However, there are multiple strategies that can also work, and I’d like to cover each of those here too.

Depending on your budget, your taste in food, and your goals, these strategies will work better for some than others.

#1) The “Healthy” Bulk

I have followed this method to great success multiple times (including right now).

Ultimately, I follow the “real food” principles whenever possible (good sources of quality meat, tons of vegetables, minimal amounts of gluten and processed carbs), but mixing in some specific items that are calorie/carbohydrate dense to reach my calorie goals for the day.

These image shows some real food, critical if you're trying to lose body fat.

This is the exact strategy we lay out in the previous section of this article.

Speaking of quality calories – how I recommend doing this – receive your Get Bigger Shopping List and Bulk Up Cheat Sheet by putting your email in the box below:

#2) The “See Food” Diet

This is the diet I used to put on 18 pounds in 30 days.

Looking back at how I ate, I’m now grossed out.

This is a scene from Liar Liar, with Jim Carrey being grossed out

But for me at the time, it worked (and got me interested in diet research).

If you are super skinny and on a tight budget, this might be your only option, and that’s okay!

Foods that are high in calories include:

  • Whole milk
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cereal
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Ice cream
  • Juice
  • Peanut butter sandwiches
  • Meatball subs from Subway
  • Pizza
  • Burgers

Etc.

Whatever gets you to your caloric intake goal for the day.

When I put on my 18 lbs, I used to drink 3 CytoGainer shakes a day, because it was the easiest way for me to stay on target.

If you are training properly, a majority of these calories will go towards building muscle instead of putting on a lot of fat.

Steve’s thoughts: I’m not a big fan of this method much, as I’ve come to learn the quality of food is as important (if not more so) than quantity when it comes to your overall health, and we’re aiming for bigger AND healthier.

#3) GOMAD 

Drink a gallon of whole milk every day along with your meals.

GOMAD will for sure help you gain weight, as this kid can attest to.

Sounds crazy, yup, but it works.

A gallon of whole milk is full of enough sugar, carbs, fats, and protein that when all said and done, results in 2400 calories consumed in liquid form.

Mix in vegetables and meat for healthy meals and you got yourself a simple to follow diet.

I’ve attempted this diet back in my younger days, and although my stomach hated me, I certainly had success with it, mostly because it was simple to follow and easy to understand.

#4) Paleo Bulk or Keto Bulk

Bulking up while following the Paleo Diet, or bulking while following a Keto Diet

Yes, it’s possible to bulk while following either of these diets:

If you are eating Paleo, you’ll want to eat LOTS of carbs and fats from calorie dense foods like fruit, sweet potatoes, and nuts.

If you are going Keto, you’ll want to eat LOTS of fat from cheeses, nuts, oils, and so on.

If you have the budget and want to try it, go for it. You’ll be eating truckloads of nuts, avocados, and meat.

“WHICH STRATEGY IS BEST FOR ME?”

In our opinion, we’ve had the most success with Coaching Clients who adapt a “healthy bulk” strategy, #1 above. 

It’s a focus on real food, sustainable increase in calorie intake, and can be adjusted easily by adding or reducing total portions of carbs and fats.

But hey, you do you, boo.

What Supplements Should I take to Bulk up? How to eat more calories.

This smoothie can help you grow big and strong.

If you are struggling to consume enough whole foods every day, then here are some tips to help you reach your caloric goals to bulk up:

“WHAT SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD I TAKE TO BULK UP FAST?”

Most supplements are garbage

Most supplements are garbage and deserve to be tossed out.

Plus, you should ALWAYS prioritize consuming real food over shakes and powders.

HOWEVER, if you are interested in bulking quickly, there are two I would recommend:

  1. Protein Powder. A great solution for getting extra protein and calories in your diet and building muscle.[5] As we point out in our article on protein and protein shakes, mix and match your own ingredients and see how many calories you can get into a smoothie without breaking your blender.
  2. Creatine supplement. It helps your muscles retain more water [6], and has been shown to increase the hormone IGF-1, which is needed for muscle growth[7]. It’s one of the only two supplements (along with protein) that I take regularly.

Outside of these two supplements, you really don’t need to prioritize supplementation, despite what the muscle magazines tell you! Hell, many of these muscle mags are OWNED BY SUPPLEMENT COMPANIES.

Pikachu is not excited that supplement companies own muscle magazines.

I’ll leave you with two more big suggestions on how to bulk up in this section: 

#1) Liquid calories are your friend. Liquid calories can give us lots of calories without ‘filling us up,’ which is an easier way to consume enough calories every day without feeling overly full.

I personally get a huge chunk of my calories every day from making my own ‘Powerbomb Shake – from our Protein Guide

  1. Water: 16 oz.
  2. Quaker Oats: 3 servings (120g)
  3. Frozen spinach: 1.5 servings (120g)
  4. Frozen mixed berries: 1.5 servings (120g)
  5. Protein powder: 2 scoops of Optimum Nutrition Vanilla Whey

And here is the macronutrient breakdown:

  • Calories: 815 cal
  • Protein: 70g
  • Carbs: 107g
  • Fats: 12g

I put all of this into a Vitamix Blender – yep, it was expensive, but worth the investment. This blender has been used twice a day for 8 years without a single issue.

If you need even more calories consider adding whole milk, coconut milk, or almond milk instead of water.

You can also add a shot of olive oil to add calories/fats to a shake in the quest for MOAR MUSCLE!

#2) Train your Body to Eat More: If you are cooking rice, each week try adding in an extra quarter cup when you cook it.

And yeah, you have to FORCE your stomach to accept more food, even when you’re not hungry.

This is not enjoyable, as you often feel like you’re going to explode.

You'll often feel like you ate too much when trying to bulk. Hang in there!

However, just like it’s necessary to force your muscles outside of your comfort zone to get bigger, you need to force your stomach outside of its comfort zone until it adapts to accepting more calories.

So, start by adding a little bit more food each day and soon enough your stomach will expand. 

How to Grow Bigger Muscles: Get Stronger

These LEGOs are working the bench and doing some deadlifts. Nerd Fitness approves.

When you strength train, your muscles are broken down and then get rebuilt stronger to adapt to the stress you have applied to it.

So every time you pick up a slightly heavier weight, you are increasing the challenge and forcing your muscles to adapt and get more resilient.

What I’m trying to say:

If you want to get bigger, focus on getting stronger.

This Muppet knows he needs to eat plenty of protein to meet his goals.

As long as you are continually increasing the weights or increase the sets and reps you are lifting, your muscles will continually adapt to get stronger.

This is called “progressive overload” and it. is. everything.

Coach Jim walks you through the ins and outs of progressive overload in this video:

If you want to dive in more, check out our guide “What is Progressive Overload?

Follow a progressive overload strategy and eat enough calories, and you will get bigger.

You have two approaches to consider while bulking up: 

PATH A: BODYBUILDER BULK. Follow a bodybuilder-type routine that focuses on isolation exercises that chops your body into different segments and works each of them out once a week.

You may have seen something like this:

  • Monday: Chest
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Shoulders
  • Thursday: Back
  • Friday: Arms and Abs

I think these routines are fine, and you might even enjoy them.

However, they do require a fairly large time commitment at the gym, and you’ll be training 5-6 days per week.

PATH B: STRENGTH AND MUSCLE. Focus on full-body routines that contain compound exercises like squats and deadlifts that give us the most bang for our buck.

Every time you train, most of the muscles in your body are getting worked out.

Specifically, this path has you focusing on getting really strong at these movements:

If you can focus on getting really strong with the above exercises, and eat enough calories, you will also get bigger in all of the right places.

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

Path B is something we’re bigger fans of compared to Path A, and it’s what we recommend to our Coaching Clients.

Specially, we find it to be safer and also more time-efficient: you’ll be training just 2-3 days per week on this path (instead of 5-6 days per week with Path A).

Mark Rippetoe (author of Starting Strength, a must-read for anybody interested in the above exercises) lives for old school barbell training (path B):

Why?

Because it works.

Just. Keep. Eating. And. Lifting.

Skinny Guy Workout Plans for Bulking Up

This runner definitely has a strong core!

As we cover in our “How to build muscle” article, here’s a sample routine you can follow NOW to start bulking up.

After you do your dynamic warm-up, do the following workout:

MONDAY BULK UP WORKOUT:

  1. Squats: 4 sets of 5 reps
  2. Bench press 4 sets of 5 reps
  3. Wide Grip Pull Ups: 3 sets of 10 reps
  4. Planks 3 sets of 60 seconds

WEDNESDAY BULK UP WORKOUT:

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Inverted Bodyweight Rows: 3 sets of 10 reps
  4. Hanging Knee Raises: 3 sets of 10 reps

FRIDAY BULK UP WORKOUT

  1. Front Squats: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Weighted Dips: 3 sets of 10 reps
  3. Weighted Chin-Ups: 3 sets of 10 reps
  4. Reverse Crunches: 3 sets of 15 reps

Get stronger and the rest will take care of itself.

Gonzo knows he has to eat protein to match his strength training goals, but he doesn't eat chicken, for obvious reasons.

NERD FITNESS RECOMMENDATION: Feel free to pick WHATEVER workout program you want from wherever. If you don’t want to follow the workout above, consider these sources:

If you’re curious, here are some commonly accepted strategies based on your goals for how many sets and reps you should do:

  • Strength and power: 1-5 reps
  • Strength and some size: 5-8 reps
  • Size and some strength: 8-12 reps
  • Muscular endurance: 12+ reps

Now, don’t worry too much about which path is best.

Nutrition plays the most important role in bulking up, and any strength training plan will help you get bigger.

There are 3 studies I want to point out:

  1. A recent study showed that a higher intensity workout (heavier weight for low reps) created more muscle mass than a higher volume (lower weight for more reps).[8]
  2. Getting more volume (more sets of exercises) per week resulted in more mass compared to less volume (fewer sets of exercises), in this study[9].
  3. Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training,[10] but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial. Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep, and pushing oneself to absolute failure.[11]

What this means: Don’t overthunk it. 

  1. Pick up heavy stuff for 3-4 sets of 5 reps. Pick up a weight that is heavy enough that you can only complete your specified number of reps.
  2. Challenge yourself on bodyweight exercises, either by making them more difficult, adding weight, or doing high reps to failure.
  3. And then do more next time.

What’s important is that you pick a plan and follow through with it while focusing on eating enough.

After a few months, you can reevaluate and then adjust based on how your body has changed.

On any of these days, feel free mix in bicep curls or tricep extensions or calf-raises at the END of your workouts.

Focus on the big lifts first and get stronger with them.

How much weight should you lift? For every one of the barbell movements above, I start with just the bar, and then add weight in 5lb increments each week.

It’s important to get form right and get your body used to the movement for when you start to lift heavy weight.

How long should you wait between sets? Again, don’t overthink it. Waiting 2-3 minutes allows you lift heavier weight, and thus makes you stronger.

Stay consistent like this mouse and you'll bulk up. Maybe eat a little cheese too.

Waiting 60-90 seconds puts more of an emphasis on muscular size and endurance (as you’re resting for a shorter period)…but don’t overthink it. Do the next set when you’re ready.

A piece of advice from 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney: “stimulate, don’t annihilate.”

Don’t destroy yourself for the sake of destroying yourself; stopping one or two reps short of maximum effort can save you from overtraining and potential injury – remember that muscles are built in the kitchen!

If you’re already overwhelmed and just want somebody to tell you what to do, you’re not alone.

I’ve had a coach since 2014 and it’s the best investment I make in myself every month.



Can Bodyweight Training Help Me Bulk Up?

Muscular man doing workout on the street with cityscape of skyscrapers on background in Dubai. Concept of healthy lifestyle and modern

Yes, you can get bigger and stronger doing exclusively bodyweight exercises.

Take a look at any Olympic gymnast: he is jacked, with giant muscles, all built with bodyweight exercises:

Proof that you can get big and bulky with just lifting yourself up.

HOWEVER, it requires a very specific type of training regiment to see those results.

Studies show that weight training creates superior “bulk up” results compared to bodyweight training,[12] but that doesn’t mean bodyweight training isn’t beneficial.

Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep. In other words, you’ll need to push yourself to absolute failure.[13]

So, here’s where the challenges arise:

Like with weight training above, you need to increase the difficulty in order for your muscles to adapt.

Because it’s often more challenging to add a few pounds to a bodyweight exercise to make it tougher – compared to putting a weight on a bar, you need to increase the difficulty of the bodyweight movement itself.

If you are trying to build size, you can also do sets where your rep ranges are in the 25-35 reps per set, and you are pushing your muscles to failure (woof):

  • If you can do 4 sets of 15 push-ups, consider making them harder to progress. Do 4 sets of 15 push-ups with your feet on a bench. 

Decline push-ups like this are a great way to progress your bodyweight exercises.

  • Body weight squats too easy? Work your way up to pistol squats (one legged squats).The one legged "pistol" squat is a great advanced bodyweight movement.
    4 sets of 12 pull-ups not a challenge anymore? Great. Make them tougher. Go for a wider grip, an uneven grip, or weighted pull-ups.

Maintaining a wide grip is a great advanced pull-up.

I highly recommend beginners start to take a serious look at strength training with free weights; it’s much easier to record one’s progress, easy to add more difficulty (just add more weight!), and very structured.

You can ALSO mix in bodyweight training, which is what I prefer to do!

In fact, I personally believe the best routine mixes both weights and bodyweight training. I have been working with my online coach for 4 years, and I’ve packed on size by following a barbell + bodyweight training routine.

Weight training for my lower body, advanced bodyweight movements for my upper body.

Every day starts with either a squat, front squat or deadlift.

Here I am pulling 420 pounds at a bodyweight of 172 pounds:

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

Each workout also contains a lot of Olympic/gymnastic style movements and holds to build upper body strength.

If you own some rings you can use them like so for some advanced pull-ups.

Handstands too (read our guide on handstands):

Rebel Leader Steve showing you how to kick up to a handstand.

And I just try to get stronger.

What it really comes down to is this: no matter what you have access to (a gym, barbell, dumbbells, or just a pull-up bar) you can find a way to build strength and muscle if you follow a plan and eat enough calories.

If you’re trying to bulk with just bodyweight, it might be worth enlisting the help of a coach to help you scale your bodyweight exercises correctly and in the proper sequence!



I am Skinny Fat: Should I gain or lose weight first?

A picture of a scale and tape measure, tools for fast weight loss.

If you are skinny fat (you have skinny arms and legs but have a gut), there are three paths available to you:

  1. Bulk up and build muscle, then lean out.
  2. Lean out, then build muscle.
  3. Build muscle and lean out at the same time.

We all want Door #3, right?

Here how to do accomplish both goals at the same:

If you follow a program with the right calories and strength training, you can both lose weight AND build muscle at the same time.

Keanu is stoked he can lose fat while completing his bulk.

It’s how we helped NF Coaching Client Jimmy (these photos are 5 months apart):

Jimmy lost his gut and built muscle at the same time with NF Coaching

Our advice: Get strong and eat a SLIGHT caloric deficit while consuming enough protein every day.

Get yourself down to roughly 12% body fat (~20% for women), and then start to increase the size.

By slimming down first, while building muscle, you don’t have to worry about buying BIGGER clothes first, only to then need smaller clothes once you start cutting the fat.

Then, once you decide to eat more and get bigger, if you notice your body fat percentage start to creep up, you can simply adjust until your body fat gets back in the acceptable range. Then keep building!

To recap, here’s what to do if you are skinny-fat:

  1. Eat a caloric deficit while heavy strength training to build muscle while leaning out.
  2. Prioritize protein intake: 1.5g per pound (.75g per kg) of bodyweight.
  3. Get strong as hell with big lifts and low reps (this will build muscle even in a deficit).
  4. Once you reach a certain body fat percentage you’re happy with (probably 10-12%), then you can increase your caloric intake to build more muscle without putting on too much fat.



Proper Sleep and Rest for Putting on Muscle

Cat and dog sleeping together. Kitten and puppy taking nap. Home pets. Animal care. Love and friendship. Domestic animals.

Last but not least, the other important piece to this Triforce of muscle building:

Strength training, eating enough, and RECOVERY.

Your body builds and rebuilds its muscles during RECOVERY.

Our muscles generally need 48 hours or so to recover from its previous workout, so I do not recommend you do any serious strength training of the same muscle group on back-to-back days.

Feel free to do dynamic warm-ups or fun exercise if you feel like it doing some active recovery on off days, but I tend to take my off days OFF.

I might go for a walk (to Mordor!), but that’s about it.

A word about cardio: if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, lots of long-distance cardio will work against you.

It’s something Coach Jim brings up in the video “7 things I learned adding on 50 lbs of muscle”:

Your body has to burn so many calories for your runs that it doesn’t get to use any of these calories in the muscle-building process.

If you do long distance cardio, it might be stalling your progress on bulking up.

If you love to run/bike, that’s cool, as long as you know it’s slowing (or halting) your progress.

So, cut back on the running or cut it out completely.

Try mixing in sprints and interval training if you want to keep the cardio up without having to do all of the crazy distance. You can always add it back in once you accomplish your weight gain goals.

A few words on SLEEP: You need more of it when you are building muscle.

It’s that simple.

Make sure you prioritize rest like Jiminy here if you're trying to bulk up and grow muscle.

Don’t be surprised if after a heavy deadlift day you find yourself wanting to sleep for 10 hours.

It might mean less TV or less video games.

Again, if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, don’t neglect sleep.

FAQ for Skinny Guys Trying to Bulk Up

Lifting this will help you grow strong.

QUESTION #1: “But I just want to get toned, I don’t want to get too bulky.” 

That’s not a question, but I hear it all the time. Do NOT worry about getting too bulky. I’ve been trying to get “too bulky” my entire life – it takes years of concerted effort to pull that off.

I’m gonna guess you have 30+ pounds to gain before you’d ever even be considered “bulky.”

That means that if you struggle with weight gain, getting to the point where you are TOO bulky would actually be a good problem to solve.

Kermit understands he won't get bulky easy since he's so skinny.

As you start to put on weight if you ever find yourself getting a tiny bit too chubby, simply eat less at that point!

So, when in doubt, always err on the side of too many calories than not enough. If you’re not sure if you should eat or not, etc.

QUESTION #2: “But I don’t want to do that stuff, so I’m gonna do _____ instead.”

Again not a question. But hey, go for it. Give it a month, and see how your body reacts. If you’re getting bigger, stronger, and healthier, keep doing it.

As this gif explains, you do you when it comes to bulking up.

If not, come back to this article and apply the lessons in here!

QUESTION #3: “I’m a vegetarian/vegan, can I bulk up?”

Absolutely. You just need to make sure you’re getting enough calories and enough protein in your system to promote muscle growth.

Beans and nuts have lots of protein; if you’re vegetarian you can still use dairy to your advantage (whey protein, whole milk, cheese, etc.).

If you’re vegan, then it’s slightly more of a challenge to get enough protein, but it can be done: almond butter is your friend 🙂

Check out our plant based protein suggestions.

QUESTION #4: “Should I do ___ reps and sets or _____ reps and sets?

Either plan will get you there. It’s 90% diet anyways.

What’s important is that you pick a plan, you progress, you keep track of your results, and you consistently progressively increase the load that you are moving (be it your body’s weight or an actual weight).

QUESTION #5: “I want to get bigger and faster and have more endurance and flexibility ALL at the same time, can I do that?” 

I hate to say it, but building endurance and getting bigger simultaneously is brutally difficult.

Hugh is frustrated it's hard to run and go from skinny to bulky. Hang in there Hugh.

As I point out in “How to build any physique,” compare a marathon runner’s body with that of a sprinter or gymnast. Put the running on hold for a while, and focus on getting bigger: you’ll get there faster.

When you decide to mix running back in, keep your calorie consumption high and don’t forget to keep strength training!

You can still go for walks, and still get a good cardio workout by lifting quickly with minimal breaks between sets.

QUESTION #6: “Do I need to eat every three hours?”

Nope, you don’t have to:

  • The TOTAL number of calories you consume over the course of a day is more important than the timing of the meals.[14]
  • The same is true with protein intake: studies show it doesn’t matter WHEN you eat your protein. HOW MUCH you consume in a day is more important.[15]

In fact, there are actually some scientific benefits that can result from not eating all day and instead condensing it into a smaller window.

But eating more frequently might help…

If you struggle to get enough calories in your system, spacing out your meals might help you feel less full, or give you more opportunities to reach your calorie goal for the day.

I eat all of my calories between 12pm and 8pm, and still get bigger despite only eating 2 MASSIVE meals each day.

QUESTION #7: “But what about this other article? And this other thing I read? Which workout is the best workout?

Don’t overwhelm yourself. Keep it simple. Get stronger, eat more food, sleep. Break this down into simple steps and goals that aren’t scary, and get started.

The best advice I can give you is to start and make adjustments along the way.

Track your progress, track your calories, and track your workouts.

If you are getting bigger and stronger, keep it up!

I know this stuff can be overwhelming, as I struggled with this stuff for YEARS before getting results.

It why after I started Nerd Fitness, I eventually launched a coaching program: to help people skip the years of mistakes I made!



More Resources for Skinny Guys Looking to Bulk Up

Yep, clearly this boxer's jump rope skills lead him to victory.

This is a monster of an article, and your head probably hurts at this point.

If I can narrow it down to three main points:

  1. Get stronger by picking up heavy stuff or doing more challenging bodyweight movements.
  2. Get bigger by eating enough.
  3. Recover faster by sleeping enough and giving your muscles days off to rebuild.

Vada is ready to start bulking up!! And torment her Dad's GF.

If you made it this far, and you want more specific instruction and guidance, we have a few options for you:

1) If you are somebody that wants to follow a tailor-made program that’s designed around their life and goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program.

You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.

Nerd Fitness Coaching Banner

2) If you want a roadmap for home workouts, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Try your free trial right here:

3) Download our free Bulk Up Guide, which you can get when you sign up in the box below:

Lastly, I’d love to hear from you!

PLEASE leave your questions, eating or strength or otherwise below so we can answer them and become best friends and practice karate kicks in the garage:

How can I help you get bigger and stronger?

What part of this journey are you still struggling the most with?

What are your favorite bulking up foods!?

Share with your friends in the comments so we can all go buy it in bulk at Costco.

-Steve

PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Bulk Up guides:

###

photo source: Not Happy, Marina Pissarova © 123RF.com, magone © 123RF.com, Ekaterina Minaeva © 123RF.com, Morning run with the Fitbit, Inna Vlasova © 123RF.com, Viktor Hladchenko © 123RF.com; Olga Yastremska © 123RF.com; famveldman © 123RF.com; 167/366, LEGO bench



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How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?

How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?


If this plot asked how many reps and sets should he do, what would you tell him?

If you’ve ever asked yourself “Am I doing too little or too many reps and sets?” then this guide is for you.

This article is part of our Strength 101 series, and we’ll show you exactly how to determine the number of repetitions and sets for specific exercises, so you can build your own workout routine.

It sounds easy, but depending on your goals, the answer to “How many reps and sets should I do?” can vary greatly.

This Muppet knows strength training will help him gain muscle and lose fat.

We work hand-in-hand with our Online Coaching Clients to create the correct workout program that suits their goals, needs, and available equipment



In today’s guide on workout programing, we’ll cover (click each to get right to that answer):

The Correct Number of Reps and Sets for a Workout

As Coach Jim mentions above, “Rep” stands for “repetition” and defines one complete motion of an exercise.

And one “set” is a consecutive number of reps without stopping.

And one “smorgasbord” is a buffet of food.

(This has nothing to do with this article, but it’s a fun word to say.)

As we mentioned throughout our Strength Training 101 series, how many reps and sets you should do is really going to be dependent on your goals.

For example, is your goal to improve:

  • Muscular endurance
  • Muscular hypertrophy
  • Muscular strength
  • Muscular power

Depending on what your goal is, the sets, reps, and rest intervals will change.

Oh, you’re just starting your strength training journey?

Well, make sure you grab our free guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know I’ll send it to you for free when you join the Rebellion (that’s us!). 

Alright, let’s break down reps and sets for you, because I can see you still have questions.

How Many Reps Should I Do?

How many reps should this lego do?

Remember, “Rep” stands for “repetition” and is more or less one complete exercise.

Like a push-up:

Here Rebel Leader Steve shows you the classic push-up.

So “2 sets of 5 reps of push-ups” means, “5 consecutive push-ups, a rest, then another 5 consecutive push-ups.”

Cool?

If you don't know what reps and sets are, the rest of the article is going to be really confusing.

Cool.

When deciding on how many sets and reps to do, it begins by asking What am I trying to get out of this workout?!

We’ll group different rep ranges into different goals, for:

  • Muscular endurance
  • Muscle size
  • Overall strength

I’m going to share with you the commonly accepted answers, but they ALL come with a HUGE caveat that I’ll share at the end of this article.

I’m going to start with the “widely accepted numbers here.”

Let’s chat about the following:

1) MUSCULAR ENDURANCE (long-lasting muscle)

Endurance means encouraging and training your muscles to perform for an extended period of time. This means doing a LOT of repetitions. 

People targeting muscular endurance will aim for a range from 12 to 20+ reps.

Obviously, you won’t be able to lift heavy amounts of weight for 20+ reps, so you’ll be lifting lighter loads.

Also, because you’re targeting endurance improvements, you want to decrease the amount of rest between sets: 30 seconds to a minute.[1]

If you are a runner or cyclist, strength training with higher repetitions can help your muscles develop more endurance as well![2]

I wonder if this kid is biking to go squat?

Reps for increased muscular endurance: 12+

2) MUSCLE SIZE (“sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”) 

This is for folks looking to build larger muscles.

The scientific term here is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy,” as it focuses on increasing the amount of sarcoplasm, the non-contractile fluid found in your muscle.

Up to 30% of your muscle’s size is attributed to the sarcoplasm, so focusing on this type of hypertrophy helps build overall size (i.e., increased cross-sectional area of the muscle).

If you’re looking to get bigger:

  • Target a rep range of 6 – 12 reps per set.
  • Aim for 3-5 sets.
  • Rest time between sets should be short, about 60 to 90 seconds.

Reps for increased muscle size: 6-12[3]

3) STRENGTH AND POWER (“myofibril hypertrophy”)

If you’re training for specific sports and just want to get stronger with more power – but not necessarily get bigger, this is the strategy for you.

This type of training focuses on strengthening the myofibril, the contractile part of the muscle, hence the name “myofibril hypertrophy.”

For this, target reps in the 1-5 range. And yep, that means you’re going to be picking up heavy weights, focusing all that concentrated effort into just one or a few reps.[4]

A scene from the Simpsons, someone throwing bleachers through the roof.

Something to note when lifting for strength and power: not only are you shocking your muscles, but you’re also putting a lot of pressure on your body’s central nervous system (CNS).

So what does this mean?

In a way, it means your body’s ability to communicate with its muscles has grown fatigued, and performance may suffer.

That’s why you may want to rest between 2-5 minutes in this range.

Oh, and your CNS will adapt and become stronger, which will be critical for building strength and power.[5]

This is how powerlifters train:

  • Low reps
  • High weight
  • Long time between sets

Since powerlifting really taxes the central nervous system, you may be waiting 3-5 minutes between sets when training in this fashion.

TO RECAP, these are the rep ranges you should be considering:

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength.
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build equal amounts of muscular power, strength, and size.
  • Reps in the 12+ range primarily build muscular endurance and size and also cardiovascular health.

I realize this is a lot to figure out, so if you are somebody – like me – who just wants to be told what to do and outsource all the worry of “am I doing the right workout for my goals?” I got you covered!

I’d love to learn your story, and then build a custom program that fits your goals. We’ll help you with your nutrition, your workouts, and even check in regularly to keep you accountable!



How Many Sets Should I Do?

How many sets should this lego do?

As explained above, a “set” describes a group of repetitions performed for an exercise without stopping.

For example, if you do 10 squats right now, you just did 1 SET of 10 reps of squats.

So let’s talk about the “correct” number of sets per exercise.

The simple answer: “Do 3-5 work sets of a given exercise.”[6]

Just make sure you’re not compromising your form.

Steve Rogers doing a push-up (with bad form)

At least he’s trying!

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) will break this down, suggesting the following set ranges:[7]

  • 2-3 will help build muscular endurance (12 to 20+ reps)
  • 3-6 build muscular hypertrophy (6 to 12 reps)
  • 3-5 build muscular power (3 to 5 reps)
  • 2-6 build muscular strength (less than 6 reps)

“STEVE, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”

FINE! Pick a weight that feels light to you, and then do 3 sets of 10 reps.

(Learn how much weight should I be lifting”).

And then next time?

Do more than last time:

  • Did 3 sets of 10 reps of a 65 lb bench press? Do 3 sets of 8 at 75 lbs this week!
  • Did 3 sets of 5 pull-ups last week? Go for 3 sets of 6 this week.

That’s the key to progressive overload, as Coach Jim explains in this article:

If you’re not sure if “3 sets of 10” or “5 sets of 5” is right for you, we got you covered.

We’ll build a program that fits your goals, and then adjust it each month based on your progress. Never guess or wonder what you should be doing again.



How to Build a Workout Routine!

Batman knows how many reps and sets to do.

Now that you have “edumacated” yourself on how your specific goals influence the number of reps per set, and what sets actually are, you can build your workout program around this info.

TO RECAP, aim for 3-5 sets in the following rep rangers per exercise based on your goals:

  1. Endurance: 12+ reps per set.
  2. Hypertrophy (bigger muscles): 6-12 reps per set.
  3. Strength (dense, powerful muscle): 1-5 reps per set.

Two points worth mentioning:

  • A recent study showed that heavier weight for low reps created more muscle mass than a higher volume (lower weight for more reps).[8]
  • Studies show that bodyweight training exercises can build muscle, but require a LARGE number of sets per rep, and pushing oneself to absolute failure.[9]

What this means: studies suggest targeting heavier weight with fewer reps for big lifts like squats and deadlifts to build muscle, while targeting high reps to absolute failure with bodyweight exercises for muscle building.

Just remember to rest enough between sets so you don’t fatigue your central nervous system too bad.[10]

One last point: Nutrition is still 90% of the equation!

Your rep range doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think, so don’t overthunk it!

Don't overthink your sets and reps! Just do more than last time.

Here are some examples:

  1. If you’re trying to build muscle and get bigger, doing sets of 3 or sets of 5 or sets of 10 will ALL help you get bigger, if you’re eating enough to get bigger![11]
  2. If you’re trying to lose weight, it doesn’t matter if you do sets of 15 or sets of 5 if you are consistently overeating by 1,000 calories a day. You need to eat the right number of calories.[12]
  3. It doesn’t matter if you train like a bodybuilder, you ALSO need to eat enough food to provide your muscles with enough calories to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger! This is the biggest mistake I see skinny people make when trying to bulk.

This brings me to my final point: because nutrition is 90% of the equation, your sets and reps don’t matter nearly as much as you think they do!

All that matters? Doing MORE this workout than the last workout.

Remember, how you build muscle and strength and burn fat: “progressive overload.”

One more rep than last time.

Even Marshall knows to go for One More each time you try your workout

Doing one more set than last time.

Picking up a weight that’s 5 lbs. heavier than last week.

So get out of your own head, and START TODAY:

1) GET HELP: If you want expert guidance and accountability so you don’t have to figure out all of this stuff on your own, I got you. 

Click the red button below to get the details about our amazing online coaching program:



2) FIGURING IT OUT OUT ON YOUR OWN!

Download our free Strength Training 101 Guide! You get it free when you join our Rebellion (the name of our awesome free online community). Sign up in the box below:

3) WORKOUTS YOU CAN DO NOW:

Remember: the goal should be to get stronger each workout.

Write down what you did last time, and then do MORE this time.

By continually challenging your muscles to do more, they’ll have to adapt by getting bigger, stronger, burning more calories, etc.

There are a lot of different truths and fallacies on plateaus and how your muscles can get “used” to working out and stop growing.

If that’s something you’re battling, here’s a way to continue making progress:

Spend a week in a different rep range with different amounts of weight.

This will introduce a little chaos into the system, which could be a good thing…unless you’re Batman.

Joker knows how to bring chaos into a system.

What we’re talking about is muscle confusion theory, which is a preplanned period of variation.[13] Not, you know, wandering into the gym with no plan and just doing something different every time (whatever you feel like doing at that moment).

That won’t help.

But spend a week deliberating mixing it up. Then go back to your regularly scheduled routine and you’ll be right back on track.

Make sure you know what you want, and then design a plan to get there.

-Steve

PS: If you want a nice shiny app to tell you EXACTLY how many seps and reps to do, our shiny new app will do just that!

You can sign-up for a free 7-day trial to Nerd Fitness Journey, which will build a workout around your experience level!

Jump in right here:

###

All photo citations: Evel Knievel, Me riding a bicycle, Bicylelifter, Project Story 1/3



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Get Your First Pull-up or Chin-up! 30-Day Pull up Progression

Get Your First Pull-up or Chin-up! 30-Day Pull up Progression


After today's guide you'll be able to do a pull-up everywhere, like Steve does.

Pull-ups are my favorite exercise of all time.

But what if you can’t do a pull-up yet?

The answer: read this ultimate guide on getting your first pullup ASAP!

Here's a gif of a pull-up in perfect form.

We have helped hundreds of Online Coaching Clients get their first pull-up, and we’ll cover our exact strategies below! 



As part of our Strength Training 101 series, we give you an exact plan to follow leading you to your very first full pull-up:

If you can already do a pull-up (woot!), you might want to check out our article on proper pull-up form, although we’ll cover a lot of the same material here.

Let’s do this thang.

Tips on How to Start Doing Pull-Ups

In the video above, Coach Jim walks you through the exact progression system we use with our coaching clients who want to get their first pull-up (or chin-up).

Before we get into exercises to progress into a pull-up, let’s chat about some general strategies.

Consider the following three points when attempting to get your first chin-up or pull-up:

#1) This should hopefully be obvious, but the more you weigh, the more you have to lift in order to complete a pull-up.

If you’re truly serious about completing a pull-up, start by getting your diet under control. 

As we say here at Nerd Fitness, 80-90% of weight loss comes down to what you eat (#4 in the Rules of the Rebellion).

Here are some resources to help you with weight loss:

#2) MAKE YOUR “PULL” EXERCISES A PRIORITY. A lot of people do every other exercise before doing any back-related exercises, if they do any at all.

After warming up properly, your first exercise should always be the stuff that you want to work on the most – in this case, it’ll be your back muscles.

Until you get your first pull-up done, focus on the back exercises detailed in the levels and workouts in this guide.

#3) The progression we outline is a path that works for most people, but does NOT need to be followed to a T.

We give sample sets and reps and when to move up, but if you feel like you can progress sooner or want to try doing full pull-ups sooner than we recommend, that’s OKAY.

This is the slower progression method, where some people will want to do fewer reps and progress to the next levels sooner – that’s okay.

We recommend moving up to the next level when you can do 3 sets of 8 reps of a particular exercise. If you want the accelerated path, move on up as faster as you can do 3 sets of 5 reps. You do you boo.

You can follow our path for a pull-up but feel free to make it your own!

Want someone to build you a custom-made progression plan for doing your first pull-up? Our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program will do just that, plus your coach can review your movements through our app so you’ll know your training correctly and safely.




Level 1 Pull-up Workout: Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Do a dumbbell row as a great beginner exercise to get strong enough for a pull-up!

We’re going to start with bent-over dumbbell rows, the most basic of back exercises, in case you’re starting from ABSOLUTELY square one.

Level 1 Pull-up Workout:

  • Bent-over dumbbell rows: 8 reps for each arm (or as many as you can do)
  • Rest for a 2-minute break
  • Do another set
  • Repeat until you hit 3 sets

What weight should you start out with initially?

Whatever allows you to get to at least 5 reps a set.

Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm), it’s time to pick up a heavier dumbbell.

This will allow you to get stronger and stronger. 

Make sure you give yourself at least 48 hours until you do the Level 1 Dumbbell Rows again, so you can include these dumbbell rows for your workouts on:

As soon as you can do 3 sets of 8 reps, it’s time to move up to a heavier dumbbell.

  • Once you can lift a 25-pound (10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next level.
  • If you are a little bit bigger than the average bear, you might want to stick with this step until you lose a little bit more weight and get stronger – maybe go to 35 or 40-pound (18kg) dumbbells.

Want help designing your own workout routine? I’ve got two options for you.

The first is to head over to “Build Your Own Workout Routine” and get your hands dirty. Our guide will walk you through building a full-body exercise program in 10 simple steps.

The second is to have a Nerd Fitness Coach do all the heavy lifting for you (not really, you still have to lift stuff), by having them build you a tailor-made workout routine:




Level 2 Pull-Up Workout: Inverted Bodyweight Rows

Inverted rows are a great exercise to work on doing your first pull-up.

Bodyweight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups – they work the same muscles, and have you lifting your own bodyweight, just at a different angle.

For this level, we’ll provide you with two options: You can also make adjustments.

OPTION A: IF YOU HAVE ACCESS TO A GYM OR WANT TO JOIN A GYM:

You can follow the rest of this workout as part of our 6-Level Gym workout guide, which will help you go from total gym newbie to pull-up progressing badass!

At your gym, find your Smith Machine and set the bar at about chest height. 

A higher bar makes the exercise easier to start:

Start with inclined inverted rows for your pull-up workout. Then drop lower for more required effort.

And as you get stronger, you can set the bar lower:

As you get lower, like this, the row will be harder to do. Great way to progress into a pull-up.

Here’s a whole post I did on inverted bodyweight rows.

Here’s how to do an inverted bodyweight row:

  1. Set the bar at a height where it’s challenging for you to complete 3 sets of 8 reps with two minutes of rest between sets.
  2. Clench your butt and keep your abs tight and body straight throughout the exercise. 
  3. Pull your shoulder blades down and back towards each other (like you’re trying to pinch a pencil between them behind your back).
  4. Focus your mind on PULLING with your arms.
  5. Pull until your chest touches the bar (not your neck).
  6. As soon as you can complete all 3 sets of 8 reps, set the bar heigh lower to make the exercise more difficult.

If it helps, here is a video demonstration with gymnastic rings, but you can start with a bar as displayed in the images below.

If you need to make the exercise less challenging, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the ground:

Bending your knees like so can be helpful to start doing inverted rows.

Level 2 sample workout routine:

  • Monday – 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand bodyweight rows

Alternate between an overheand and underhand bodyweight row.

  • Wednesday – 3 sets of 8 reps of underhand bodyweight rows (hands reversed)

Alternate between underhand and overhand when doing bodyweight rows.

  • Friday – 3 sets of 8 reps of overhand bodyweight rows

(And then go underhand, overhand, underhand the following week)

As soon as you’re doing bodyweight rows where your body is at a 45-degree angle or lower, you can progress to Level 3.

OPTION B: IF YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO A GYM FOR INVERTED ROWS:

You have 4 paths here:

1) Purchase a door frame pull-up bar, hang a pair of gymnastic rings from them. And then follow the same advice as above!

2) Use your kitchen table for rows (BE CAREFUL):

3) Do inverted rows between a couple chairs, as we walk you through in How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar:

This gif shows Jim doing a row on chairs

4) Move up to Level 3 and progress with caution there.

If you are struggling with rows, you’re not sure you’re doing them correctly, or you’re not sure how to progress to the next level, check out our 1-on-1 coaching program

It’s the type of program that helped single mom Leslie lose 100+ pounds and start training with gymnastic rings and handstands! 

How did Leslie transform? Strength training. with pull-ups




Level 3 Pull-Up Workout: Assisted Pull-Ups

Steve doing an assisted pull-up, a perfect precursor to a regular pull-up!

Okay! It’s time to get to ACTUAL pull-ups here! Personally, I don’t like using the assisted pull-up machine in a gym as it doesn’t give you the full feeling of a pull-up, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Instead, I recommend doing one of these alternatives:

#1) Assisted Pull-ups with a chair

A chair can be a great tool to help you get your first pull-up.

Either one foot or two on the chair, depending on your needs. Your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.

You can also use a box or similar-sized object for the same result:

A box can be used instead of a chair for a pull-up.

#2)Assisted Pull-ups with exercise band: 

Staci using a band for an assisted pull-up.

You can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength, or a variety pack for easy progression.

Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.

#3) Assisted pull-ups with a partner:

A friend can be a great asset when you're trying to do a pull-up.

Have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep. Have them use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.

Here’s how to do an assisted pull-up:

For another reference, Coach Jim and Staci show you how to do a variation of assisted chin-up right here:

This is probably the TOUGHEST level before getting your pull-ups. If you get stuck on “assisted pull-ups” and “assisted chin-ups”, you’re not alone. This is where most people get stuck.

We work hand-in-hand with people like you to get them their first pull-up in our Online Coaching Program. If you don’t know how to fit these movements into your workouts, or you just want somebody to give you the exact workout to follow every day, we got you!




Finally, a workout that includes Level 3 pull-up exercises

  • Monday – Assisted Pull-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Wednesday – Inverted Bodyweight Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Friday – Assisted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 8 reps

This will help you ramp up to Level 4.

Level 4 Pull-Up Workout: Top holds and Bar Hangs

Coach Staci showing you the bar hang

Alright, so we’ve started off great! We’re working those pulling muscles and assisted variations – but an actual chin-up might feel miles (or kilometers) away.

Heck, just even holding onto the bar may be a challenge without some assistance.

What should we do now? 

How about we work on holding onto the bar!?!

Before we work on doing full range, unassisted chin-ups or pull-ups, it’s really helpful to be strong and confident in holding unassisted parts of the movement.

This is where Top Holds and Bar Hangs come in!

#1) A Top Hold is exactly what it sounds like – we hold the top position of the chin-up or pull-up for several seconds (5 to 10). You’ll likely find holding the top of the chin-up (palms facing you) easier than the pull-up.

Coach Jim holding at the top of a pull-up

This is definitely something that you want to first do assisted. We’ll then work to transfer more weight – bit by bit over several workouts – off our feet and onto our arms until we’re holding ourselves unassisted at the top.

Using a band is a good option for assisted chin-ups, but using a box, bench, or another sturdy object will be a better option here.

It will allow you to shift that weight onto your arms a little easier.

That said, if all you have is a band for this exercise then that’s ok! Look to use thinner and thinner bands, while lifting the feet and knees up a bit to further reduce assistance (as the band won’t be stretched as far).

#2) On the other side of the movement, we have the Bar Hang…which is pretty much what it sounds like too!

Staci showing you the simple yet effective bar hang.

To perform a bar hang:

  • Grab the bar with palms facing towards you or away from you. You’ll likely find hanging with palms facing away from you to be a bit more comfortable. Either direction will help strengthen up your grip.
  • Just like with the top hold, you’ll want to start assisted then work to shift your weight from your feet onto your arms until you’re hanging unassisted.

This gif shows Coach Jim doing assisted then unassisted hangs.

To further supercharge this exercise: once you are hanging unassisted, work on retracting your shoulders down away from your ears.

Like so:

Coach Jim doing a shoulder retract, shown from the back

And so:

Coach Jim doing shoulder retracts, shown from the front.

This small movement is TOUGH (and you can even practice it assisted) but getting strong here will set your shoulders in an even better position for your first chin-up/pull-up.

We’ll look to hang from the bar (assisted or unassisted) for a total time of 30 seconds to 1 minute. At first this time may be broken up into several sets (e.g., 10 seconds, 10 seconds, 10 seconds), but you should eventually work up to one full set.

So how should we integrate either of these into our training?

#1) For the Top Holds, do this at the start of your workout (after your warm-up) for 3 sets of 5 seconds. Make sure you give it your all! Really squeeze the muscles tight and put as much weight on the arms as possible!

With all that effort, you’ll want to give yourself 30 seconds to a minute rest in-between. I know that sounds like a lot for just 5 seconds of work – but if you were working hard enough, you’ll need it!

#2) For the Bar Hang, do this at the end of your workout for 30 seconds to a minute. Again, look to complete this in as few sets as possible, while making the exercise as challenging as possible. Move from assisted to unassisted, with the shoulders retracted downwards.

You can start your gymnastic ring training by simply hanging from the rings!

If you have to take a break during the bar hang time, then take enough rest so that the next hold is productive.

Here Are the Exercises You Can Include for Your Level 4 Workout Routine:

Monday:

  • Top Hold (Assisted or Unassisted) – 4 sets of 5 seconds
  • Assisted Pull-ups – 3 sets of 8 repetitions
  • Bar Hang (Assisted or Unassisted) – 30 seconds total time

Wednesday:

  • Top hold (Assisted or Unassisted) – 4 sets of 5-10 seconds
  • Bodyweight Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Assisted or Unassisted) – 30 to 60 seconds total time

Friday –

  • Top Hold (Assisted or Unassisted) – 4 sets of 5 seconds
  • Assisted Chin-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Assisted or Unassisted) – 30 seconds total time

When you’re able to perform the Top Holds and Bar Hangs unassisted, then it’s time to move to the next level!!!

LEVEL 4.5 PULL-UP WORKOUT: (THE HIDDEN LEVEL)

Coach Staci showing you the front plant

What’s this??? Secret hidden exercises?

I just wanted to bring your attention to a great addition to any of these workouts – especially as things really ramp up.

Ready for it?

It’s . . . the front plank!

This gif shows Coach Jim doing a front plank

The front plank (or any of your favorite midsection stabilization exercises) is a great exercise to do, should holding a Top Hold or a Bar Hang prove tough.

If you haven’t already felt it during the previous pull-up workouts – your middle needs to be involved too!

During a pull-up or chin-up, if we squeeze through the midsection and glutes, the nearby muscles are able to contract stronger through a phenomenon known as muscle irradiation.

Besides sounding like something the Fantastic Four encountered in space, this cool “trick” can help engaged nearby muscles in the midsection, including those big back muscles that pull us up!

A picture showing the latissimus dorsi muscles

You can see muscle irradiation for yourself if you’ve ever been asked to flex your biceps for someone. You’ll instinctually squeeze your hand tight, because it helps the biceps engage stronger!

If needed, throw in some front planks work near the end of your workout.

You can even start on your knees:

If you can't do a normal plank, start with doing them on your knees until you can advance.

Look to hold 30 seconds to one minute of total time.

Alright, back to our regular scheduled programming!

Level 5 Pull-Up Workout: Negative Pull-Ups

Staci jumping up to do a negative pull-up.

Okay! We are now DANGEROUSLY close to getting our first pull-up!

The big step at this level is doing a negative pull-up:

  1. Grab onto the bar with an overhand grip
  2. Jump so your chest is touching
  3. Slowly lower yourself under control until you’re at the bottom of the movement.

WARNING: This can be very dangerous if you’re very overweight, which is why I’d recommend moving slowly through steps 1-3 first.

However, once you have a decent amount of back strength (which you got from Levels 1, 2, and 3), doing negatives is a great way to build arm and back strength.

You have two options for negative pull-ups:

  1. Hop up on a chair to get above the bar and then lower yourself back down. The name of the game is “in control.”
  2. Jump above the pull-up bar, and then begin to lower yourself back down IN CONTROL.

You don’t need to lower yourself so slowly that one repetition destroys you…lower yourself at a controlled speed – Counting to “three Mississippi” during the movement is a good tempo.

Here are the exercises you can include for your Level 5 Workout Routine:

Monday:

  • Negative Pull-ups – 4 sets of 1 rep
  • Assisted Pull-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 30 seconds total time

Wednesday:

  • Top Hold (Unassisted) – 4 sets of 5-10 seconds
  • Bodyweight Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 60 seconds total time

Friday:

  • Negative Chin-ups – 4 sets of 1 rep
  • Assisted Chin-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 30 seconds total time

Once you’re doing all of the negative repetitions in each exerciseyou’re ready to do a pull-up.

As you’ll see above, we’re giving you the “pull” exercises if you are building your own workout. If you want a good beginner gym workout program, these movements will fit in perfectly.

Alternatively, we can do all of the heavy lifting for you (well, not ALL the heavy lifting) – we’ll create a specific workout so all you have to do is log into your NF Coaching App each morning and do the workout your coach prescribed!




Level 6 – Doing Your First Pull-up or Chin-up

OH BOY! My dear Rebel, it’s time for a…

We made it! Here's Staci doing a pull-up!!!

At this point you have two options:

A chin-up is when you grab the bar with an underhand grip with your palms facing towards you.

A chin-up is a pull-up, but with your hands facing towards you.

Many find chin-ups slightly easier than…

A pull-up is when you grab the bar with your palms facing away from you. Seeing as this is a pull-up guide…

HOW TO DO A PULL-UP, STEP-BY-STEP:

  1. Grab the bar with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width, with your hands facing away from you.
  2. Start from a dead hang.
  3. Engage your shoulders, pull them down and back towards each other (like you are pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades!)
  4. Flex your stomach, pull your body until your chest touches the bar.
  5. Slight pause, yell out “I’m a champion!”
  6. Lower yourself all the way back down to a dead hang.

We cover all of this and more in our post “How to Do a Proper Pull-Up,” but the above will get you started

Depending on your weight, your level of fitness and strength, and how far along you are in these progressions, you might be able to start with even more than one pull-up.

At this point, you can be a full Gym Class Hero by following a Gym Workout with these movements in there for your “pull” exercises:

 Level 6 routine weekly schedule:

Monday:

  • Pull-ups – 4 sets of 1-2 reps (move onto the next exercise if you can’t perform a rep)
  • Assisted Pull-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 60 seconds total time

Wednesday:

  • Negative Chin-ups – 4 sets of 1 rep
  • Bodyweight Rows – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 60 seconds total time

Friday:

  • Chin-ups – 4 sets of 1-2 reps (move onto the next exercise if you can’t perform a rep)
  • Assisted Chin-ups – 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Bar Hang (Unassisted) – 60 seconds total time

Congratulations! You’re now doing pull-ups. Make sure you watch that video above to make sure you’re doing pull-ups with proper form. Nearly everybody does them incorrectly, with bad form.

Want to make sure you have proper form with your pull-ups? Check out our 1-on-1 Coaching program! Our spiffy mobile app lets you send video of your pull-ups directly to your coach, who will provide feedback so you can perfect your technique.

They’ll also build a workout program that’s custom to your situation, which will have you doing sets of 10 pull-ups in NO time!




Level 7 – Advanced Pull-up Moves

Now you can move onto advanced pull-ups like Steve is doing here.

Once you’re able to do 3 sets of 10 pull-ups or chin-ups, you have a few options:

OPTION #A: Continue to get better at doing more reps – 3 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15, 4 sets of 20, etc.

OPTION #B: Start doing other types of pull-ups.

Here are some advanced pull-ups you can try: 

#1) WIDE GRIP PULL-UPS (grab the bar WAY out with both hands):

Maintaining a wide grip is a great advanced pull-up.

#3) SIDE TO SIDE PULL-UPS

Another form of an advanced pull-up for you. Shift your weight from arm to arm.

#4) RING PULL-UPS

If you own some rings you can use them like so for some advanced pull-ups.

#5) TOWEL PULL-UPS (Great for grip strength)

OPTION #C) Add weight with a weight belt and do weighted pull-ups or weighted chin-ups:

A weighted pull-up is great for progressive overload on your muscles.

Personally, my favorite thing to do in a gym is weighted pull-ups; if you’re at this level and interested in doing so, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Get a weight belt. I bought this one on Amazon and it’s worked out incredibly well for me. I’ve tried doing the whole “put weights in a backpack” and it certainly works, but the angle of the weights hanging off your back is weird. With a weight belt, the weight hangs down between your legs (not a euphemism) so it feels more natural.
  2. Add small amounts at a time. Most gyms will have 2.5 lb (roughly 1kg) weights; you might feel stupid putting on a big weight belt and only hanging a tiny weight off it, but you need to start somewhere.
  3. Consistently add more weight. I’ll warm up with two sets of 5 pull-ups with no extra weight, and then do 3 sets of 5 weighted pull-ups. If I can complete all 3 sets of 5 reps (with my chin over the bar for every rep), I’ll make a note to add 2.5 or 5lbs (1 or 2kg) to my weight belt for the next time.

Here’s how to incorporate these Level 6 exercises into your gym workout routine:

  • MondayWeighted Chin Ups – 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Wednesday Elevated Feet Body Weight Rows – 3 sets of max repetitions
  • Friday – Wide Grip Pull-ups – 3 sets of maximum repetition
  • (The following week, I’d alternate by doing the chin-ups without weight, and then doing weighted pull-ups

Where do you go from here? How about working towards one of the most impressive exercises of all time? The MUSCLE UP (warning: uber advanced)!

Our new app, Nerd Fitness Journey, not only has an adventure to get you your first pull-up, but we’ll also show you exactly how to do cool bodyweight tricks like the muscle-up too. No guesswork needed here, just jump into the app and follow the missions and workouts for the day.

You can try your free trial TODAY, right here:

Lift Yourself Up (A Life With Pull-Ups)

The world can be your pull-up bar as Steve is showing here.

No matter your starting point, you CAN do pull-ups.

And you WILL do pull-ups with this guide. 

You don’t need to follow the progression above exactly – it’s merely one path that you can take in order to reach the promised land…where the pull-ups flow like wine and the women instinctively flock like the Salmon of Capistrano.

High Five! You are now doing pull-ups!

Just ask Christina, who can now do multiple sets of pull-ups – her story is incredible:

Christina started rocking pull-ups after Nerd Fitness Coaching

Or Bronwyn, who lost 50+ lbs and now does chin-ups with her daughter on her back!

For people looking for the next step, we’ve built 3 options that might float your boat:

1) If you are somebody that wants to get results like the women above and follow a tailor-made pull-up strength program designed around their life and goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program.

You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.




#2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Check out Nerd Fitness Journey!

Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally). We even have an awesome adventure to help you get your first pull-up!

Try your free trial right here:

3) Join our free community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion, and we’ll send you our free Strength 101 Guide, which you can get when you sign up in the box below:

Follow the path that works for your schedule, your experience, and your level of comfort with this movement – there’s no shame in going slowly and progressing safely.

And if you’re gung ho about pull-ups, ready for negatives and trying to squirm for that first rep, feel free to go for it. Just be safe.

When you DO finally do a pull-up, I want to be the first to know – email me at [email protected] and tell me about it!

For the Rebellion,

-Steve

PS: Check out our other three articles on pull-ups:

PPS: Want to learn more? Read the rest of the Strength Training 101 series:

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Photo Souce: Muscles that Move the Humerus



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5 Best Strength Training Workouts for Beginners

5 Best Strength Training Workouts for Beginners


These LEGOs are working the bench and doing some deadlifts. Nerd Fitness approves.

Want to get strong like these LEGO lifters but don’t how to start?

In this Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training (part of our Strength 101 series), you’ll have both the confidence to start getting strong with resistance training AND a plan to follow.

These are the exact strategies we use with our Online Coaching Clients to help them start strength training, and I’m excited to cover everything you need.



We’ll be digging into the following:

By the way, we’ve combined this article along with the rest of our strength articles into a “Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know” guide.

Grab it free when you join the Rebellion by putting your email in the box below.

How Do I Start Strength Training?

Barbells in a gym bar bells and rope

Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.

You’ll look back years from now and thank “Past You” for starting strength training today.

And I promise, you WILL strength train today.

After all, strength training or resistance training doesn’t need to be scary or overcomplicated!

Strength training really comes down to two things:

#1) Movement of any weight against “resistance”(including your body weight) – Doing ANY exercise that pushes your muscles outside of their comfort zone, forcing them to rebuild stronger to prepare for the next challenge.

#2) Progressive overload: doing slightly more than last time (lift heavier weight or do 1 more rep) consistently. Your muscles will constantly have to adapt and rebuild themselves. These microscopic tears (that don’t hurt) force your muscles to go through hypertrophy, meaning they grow bigger and stronger so they can meet the demands of the exercise.[1]

Coach Jim explains the ins and outs of progressive overload in this video:

That’s all there is to it: do some resistance training and attempt to make it more and more challenging, and you’ll grow stronger.[2]

  • This means if you drop down and do ONE knee push-up right now, technically you’ve done a strength training workout.
  • It also means if you then do TWO knee push-ups tomorrow, then you are officially following a strength training routine.

In other words…

Like this man says, "You can do it" wants you to start strength training!

Now, there are many different “strength training” and “resistance training” paths.

Like a “skill tree” in a video game (with branching paths and progressions), you can progress up one path, and mix and match movements from others depending on the situation.

These paths depend on your goals and what equipment you have available to you.

What Are Some Examples of Strength Training?

Does the Empire mandate this training?

Let’s chat about a few different types of strength training.

#1) BODYWEIGHT TRAINING

Batman does bodyweight training for his strength training!

Bodyweight training is simply doing an exercise in which your own body is the “weight” you are “lifting.”

Duh.

This is the BEST place for anybody – regardless of weight or age – to start their strength training journey.

Why is this the best place to start? Two big reasons:

A) You always have your body with you (unless you are a ghost, in which case, this is awkward). This means you can work out ANYWHERE with bodyweight training:

B) Using your body for resistance training is the most “human” thing ever! By learning to push and pull and hang and squat and lunge, you are doing what your body is literally designed to do.

By getting strong with bodyweight movements, you’re making yourself antifragile and less injury-prone.

Now, it’s SCIENCE TIME!

While learning the movements with bodyweight exercises, you are allowing for proper communication to develop between your neuromuscular systems.

This gif shows an arm bending from a neuromuscular junciton

More efficient communication between your neuromuscular systems will result in something known as “proper motor unit recruitment.”

You may be asking yourself: what is a motor unit?

That’s okay because I was asking myself this same question.

A motor unit is a single motor neuron and the muscle fibers it innervates.

You can think of two different types of motor units:[3]

  • We all have small motor units, meaning that a single motor neuron innervates relatively few muscle fibers, and these smaller motor units are good for precise and detailed movements (e.g., moving your fingers).
  • We all also have large motor units, meaning that a single motor neuron innervates hundreds of muscle fibers, and these larger motor units are good for generating a lot of force (e.g., getting larger muscle groups like the quads to generate a lot of force to help in sprinting).

When you start strength training, you really are helping your muscles communicate better together.[4] This is why we recommend starting with bodyweight exercises, to help start this process.

However, bodyweight training isn’t as easy to ‘scale’ the difficulty as some of the other strength training methods (“put more weight on barbell”), but you can get REALLY strong with just bodyweight training.

For example, you can start with knee push-ups, then go to regular push-ups, then elevated push-ups, then even up to things like handstands and handstand push-ups.

You just have to know HOW and WHEN to scale up (we can help there too).



#2) DUMBBELL TRAINING

This cartoon uses free weights for his strength training.

Dumbbells are a great first step into the world of weight training and strength training:

  1. Most gyms will have dumbbells, even if it’s a basic gym in your apartment complex.
  2. A set of dumbbells doesn’t take up a lot of room, which means you can have a pair at home without a large footprint.
  3. Dumbbells make it easy to add difficulty to a bodyweight movement: holding dumbbells while doing lunges, for example.
  4. Dumbbell exercises can be less intimidating than barbell training for some, and are a step towards barbell training.
  5. Dumbbells have an added stabilization challenge,[4] and will point out muscle imbalances pretty easily (“oh my right arm is stronger than my left arm.”).
  6. Dumbbells allow for single-arm and single-leg exercises to be performed. This can allow you to strengthen any muscle imbalances and can come in handy especially after an injury.
  7. You can scale easily. Once the 10-pound weights become too easy, pick up the 15-pound ones!

#3) KETTLEBELL TRAINING

This cat loves doing a beginner kettlebell workout for strength

A kettlebell is essentially a cannonball with a handle on it. They come in any weight imaginable, don’t take up a lot of room, and can be used in dozens of ways for a great compact workout.

Our 20-minute kettlebell workout has 8 simple exercises you can do with just one weight.

Although there are “adjustable kettlebells,” you’ll most likely be working with a single kettlebell, and then adjusting your movements for “progressive overload” (making the workout slightly more difficult each time).

If you are a member of a gym, they’ll probably have multiple kettlebells that you can use to level up.

#4) BARBELL TRAINING

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

Regardless of sex or gender age, if your goal is to get strong quickly, use 20 seconds of courage and get comfortable training with a barbell (I’ll help you, I promise):

  1. Progressive overload” is easy – you simply add weights to either side of the bar, allowing you to progressively lift more and more weight each week.
  2. It’s much easier to go heavy safely – especially for lower body movements like the squat and the deadlift.

The biggest downside to barbell training is that in order to train at home, you need to have purchased a squat rack, a barbell, a bench, and enough weights for your house or garage (which can be an expensive investment, especially when starting out!).

If not, you definitely will need to join a gym.

WHICH RESISTANCE TRAINING PATH IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

Not sure which path to pick? You’re not alone – this stuff can be overwhelming. Check out our 1-on-1 Coaching Program. We get to know you and your goals, will check your form via video, and make adjustments based on your progress!



Which Strength Training Program is Right for Me?

Do you think he supplements with creatine?

So, what’s the best workout program to start as a beginner?

Realistically, it’s the one that you will ACTUALLY do.

Barbell training might be optimal in terms of building pure strength quickly, but if you don’t see yourself getting to the gym regularly – or you’re too self-conscious to enter the free weight section (for now) – no problem!

Start with bodyweight training.[5]

Conversely, bodyweight training might seem convenient and easy to start now, but if you can’t motivate yourself to work out at home, you might be better off joining a gym.[6]

So let’s get you a workout program!

Everyone, including Carlton here, is happy you want to start strength training.

As we cover in our “How to Find the Perfect Workout Plan (for you)”: MOST beginners will be best served by following a “full-body” or “total body” routine, 2 to 3 times per week, with a day of rest in between each workout.[7]

This full-body workout will have 4-5 big compound movements.

A compound movement is an exercise that recruits LOTS of muscles simultaneously and forces your body to work in unison. These compound exercises are considered multi-joint exercises meaning that they involve more than a single muscle group.[8]

An example would be the barbell squat, which recruits every muscle in your core, butt, and legs to work together to lift the weight.

A squat is a life changing exercise

This is WAY more efficient – and effective at building pure strength – than doing 5 different isolated leg exercises.[9]

Why do 5 exercises when 1 exercise will get you better results in 20% of the time?

To answer your next question, let me tell you about how many sets and reps you should do as a beginner!

As we explain in our “How Many Sets and Reps” guide:

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength.
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build equal amounts of muscular power, strength, and size.
  • Reps in the 12+ range primarily build muscular endurance and size and also cardiovascular health.[10]

If you want more, Coach Jim breaks down different set and rep ranges in this video:

Many beginner strength programs will encourage you to keep things simple, doing just 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise.

Personally, I encourage people to aim for a weight that they can lift for 8-10 reps. This gives you a chance to really work on your form and lift safely!

The max lifts will come later, my friend. You gotta learn to walk before you can run!

Staci, which workout plan is best for me?” 

It depends on your goals!

If your main goal is general fitness and fat loss, doing a circuit training workout will likely help you reach your goals (make sure you see our section below for “strength training for weight loss”).[11]

If your main goal is to get stronger and/or put on muscle, following a more traditional, pure-strength-style gym workout is going to get you there faster.

TRUTH BOMB: ANY strength training workout will help you reach nearly any goal provided you do two things:

  1. Eat correctly for your goals too. How you eat will account for 80-90% of your success or failure when it comes to weight loss or bulking up.[12]
  2. Increase the difficulty of your workouts. This is that “progressive overload” stuff we were talking about earlier. Doing 1 more bodyweight squat, lifting 5 more pounds, or completing your circuit 10 seconds faster than last workout. By forcing your body to constantly adapt, your muscles will never get complacent and have to keep burning extra calories and rebuilding themselves stronger.

Depending on your current situation, and how quickly you’re looking to cut through the “trial and error” and get expert guidance, I might have an interesting solution for you.

We have a pretty killer 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program here at Nerd Fitness. You’ll work with a coach that will build a workout program for your body type and goals, check your form to make sure you’re doing them safety, and even help plan out your nutrition too.



The 5 Best Beginner Strength Training Programs

A gym like this is a great way to strength train, as Darth Vader knows.

“Alright Staci, are there any ‘out of the box’ beginner workout programs I can start following now?”

Yup! Let me share with you some of our suggestions:

Here are 5 resistance training workouts you can follow TODAY. Pick the level that you feel most comfortable with, and then level up when you feel ready:

#1) BEGINNER BODYWEIGHT WORKOUT:

Our Beginner Bodyweight Workout has a variety of rep ranges to promote endurance, strength, and cardiovascular health.

Complete one set of each exercise and then moving directly to the next exercise:

  • 20 bodyweight squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 20 walking lunges
  • 10 dumbbell rows (using a gallon milk jug)
  • 15-second plank
  • 30 Jumping Jacks
  • Repeat for 3 rounds

Want to stick with bodyweight training? When you’re ready to level up, check out our advanced bodyweight training circuit.[13]

Otherwise, you can move onto weight training when you feel comfortable!

#2A) BEGINNER NERD FITNESS DUMBBELL WORKOUT

If you are just getting started with dumbbells and you’re looking for a beginner workout program to follow, this is our Level 3 Gym Workout, “Dumbbell Division”:

  • 10 goblet squats
  • 10 push-ups
  • 10 dumbbell rows per side

I knew you’d ask, so here is a Goblet Squat video explanation (from Nerd Fitness Prime):

And here is our video on how to do dumbbell rows:

#2B) BEGINNER NERD FITNESS KETTLEBELL WORKOUT

Our Beginner Kettlebell Routine is a workout you do anywhere you have room to swing a kettlebell.

So, probably not in a phone booth or a closet or a bathroom stall. But other than that, pretty much anywhere else.

Complete 3 Kettlebell Workout Circuits:

  • 8 Halos (each side)
  • 10 Goblet Squats
  • 8 Overhead Presses (each side)
  • 15 Kettlebell Swings
  • 8 Bent Over Rows (each side)
  • 6 Front Rack Reverse Lunge (per side)

#3) BARBELL TRAINING: 2 DAY WORKOUT SPLIT

As we cover in our “How to Train in a Gym” guide (where we take you from “lost sheep” to “barbell badass”), this routine is a much more focused weight training, strength-building workout that gets your feet wet with barbell training. Click on ANY exercise to learn how to do it properly.

NF BEGINNER BARBELL STRENGTH WORKOUT: DAY A

Do 3 rounds of:

NF BEGINNER BARBELL STRENGTH WORKOUT: DAY B

Do 3 rounds of:

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER POPULAR STRENGTH TRAINING PROGRAMS?

#1) “Starting Strength” is considered the gold standard beginner barbell weight training program by many. We highly recommend you pick up the actual book if you are serious about barbell training – it’s one of the most important training books you can ever read.

#2) Strong Lifts 5X5: A solid workout program that starts you out very slow, with just the barbell, and helps you master form before you get too heavy. It also keeps things VERY easy with “do 5×5.” Strong Lifts has been around for a long time and is a solid program.

#3) Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1: This program allows you a little more freedom to do exercises that you enjoy, or work on personal weaknesses, because you choose some of the assistance work.

Note: You can modify any of the barbell training programs to be done with dumbbells, if that’s what you have at home!

Lastly, you can always write your own workout planI wrote my own workouts for a decade and it taught me a LOT about training and health.

We do have our own 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program where you’ll work with a coach that will build a strength training workout program for your body type and goals, check your form on each exercise via video, and even help you plan out your nutrition too.



How Much Weight Should I lift?

Is this LEGO lifting too much or too little for his strength training?

We have a FULL resource on how to determine your starting weight for lifting, but I’ll give you the gist here.

The simple-to-learn but tough-to-implement answer: lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.

And then, try to lift sliiiightly more than last time.

Here are two common questions on strength training:

#1) How much weight should I start with?

  • If you are using dumbbells or a kettlebell, always err on the side of “too light” versus “too heavy.” You want to learn the movement correctly and build correct form.
  • If you are training with a barbell, ALWAYS start with JUST the bar, no matter the exercise (By the way, a standard barbell weighs 45 pounds).

#2) How fast should I add weight to the bar?

Here’s what we teach all of our coaching clients: add the minimum amount of weight each week you can, even if you THINK you can lift more. It’s better to finish a workout full of momentum and say “I can do more!” than defeated and saying “that was too much, crapola.”

Think of it this way, even if you are adding just 5 pounds per week to the bar, within a year you would be lifting 300+ pounds!

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends a similar approach:[14]

  • For less trained people (i.e., beginners), it is recommended that for upper body exercises you increase the load by 2 – 5 pounds and by 5 – 10 pounds for lower body exercises.
  • For more trained people (i.e., advanced), it is recommended that for upper body exercises you increase the load by 5 – 10 pounds or more and by 10 – 15 pounds or more for lower body exercises.

So go SLOW. Even slower than the NSCA recommends if needed.

Team NF’s Steve even bought little half-pound weights and increases many of his lifts by just 1 pound per week. It’s a big part of how he transformed (jokingly) from Steve Rogers to Captain America.

And if you are looking for this content in easily digestible form, make sure you download our free Strength 101 Guide when you join the Rebellion below:

The 9 Best Strength Training Exercises to Learn

If you’re new to all this “strength training” stuff, hopping into a program and going from zero to sixty might be a recipe for failure.

Instead, be patient, and take the time to learn these movements first.

I’m going to share with you the 9 best strength training exercises that every beginner should master (scroll down for full video and explanations!):

All of the exercises listed above are considered functional (closed-chain) exercises. That means they relate to our everyday movements and can be used to predict our success in sports, recreational and occupational activities, and activities of daily living.[15]

When attempting all of these above-listed exercises, aim to master the movement and perform the exercise through its entire range of motion (ROM).

Why?

Because it will decrease your risk for injury, activate all of the appropriate muscle groups, and result in greater muscle hypertrophy.[16] 

Let’s go over these now.

Click on any of these exercises to get a FULL explanation of the movement, step-by-step:

1) The Push-Up: The best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for push muscles (your chest, shoulders, and triceps):

2) The Bodyweight Squat: This exercise serves a dual purpose: it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first!

3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row: Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, these exercises are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength: your back, biceps, and forearms.

4) The Pull-Up and Chin-Up: Once you can support your bodyweight above the bar, the world becomes your playground. No strength training routine should be without pull-up or chin-up work! (Click here if you can’t do a pull-up or chin-up yet?)

5) The Bodyweight Dip: As you start to get stronger with push-ups and need to find a way to increase the challenge, consider doing dips – warning: these are very advanced, but incredible strength building exercises.

And now we’re into the best weight training exercises:

6) The Barbell Squat: Probably the best exercise when it comes to building strength and muscle throughout your whole body. It also burns crazy calories and makes life better. This is a MUST:

7) The Barbell DeadliftMaybe the best exercise of all time. Actually no, it IS the best exercise of all time. It’s certainly the most primal: “pick the weight up off the ground. Done.”

This is a very technical lift, so make sure you read our article on how to do it with proper form:

8) The Barbell Press: Press a barbell above your head. This recruits all of the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms in order for you to lift the weight over your head.

As a bonus, you need to really flex and brace your core, which gets those muscles working too.

9) The Barbell Bench Press. Lie on a bench, and lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and press it back up towards the sky. Repeat! And get strong.

NOTE: All exercises were explained according to the guidelines that have been established by the NSCA.[17]

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: commit to trying ONE of these movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best.

And if you want somebody to help you put these into a workout program, teach you HOW to do these movements properly, and have the confidence to know you’re training correctly for your goals…



How to Know You’re Doing a Strength Training Movement Properly (Form Checks)

This cameraman knows a form check is valuable when it comes to strength training. And a raincoat in a storm. Both practical.

Always start out with just your body’s weight and make sure your movement is correct!

  • If it’s a barbell movement, use a broomstick (or PVC Pipe).
  • If it’s a dumbbell movement, use two sections of PVC or something else that is light and small to simulate a dumbbell.

When it comes to movements like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, bench press, your form is crucial. Develop good habits with lightweight and you will save yourself months of frustration later and will protect you from injury.[18]

If you’re struggling with certain elements of a movement, don’t get frustrated! Remember, proper communication between your neuromuscular systems needs to develop.

Things will start to improve.[19] 

How do you know if your movement is correct?

Do regular video form checks! Record yourself and watch the video.

Some LEGOs taking a selfie

Alternatively, an expert reviewing your specific movement can be invaluable. 

If you’re looking for someone who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on your progress, you can check out our 1-on-1 Online Personal Training!

I’ve had an online coach for 4 years and it’s changed my life.



You could also get expert guidance in person: Look around at your local strength and conditioning gyms and see if you could hire a coach (here’s how to find a good personal trainer) for one or two sessions just to go over the basic movements.

If you can’t do either of those two options, no big deal! Videotape yourself and compare it to the videos here in the articlesYou can also post your video to the form check section of the Nerd Fitness Forums.

When I started, I really liked practicing all of the movements at home because I could watch a video online at the same time as I was watching myself do it in a mirror. Studies have found this can actually help![20]

Strength Training for Weight Loss

Strength training like with these dumbbells is key for a weight loss program.

So you’re looking to lose weight, and tired of hours of cardio (me too).

And you’re wondering if strength training for weight loss – by following one of the workouts in this guide is a viable solution.

Or, gasp – will strength training make you too bulky? (SPOILER: it won’t)

Yes, Strength training will help you lose weight IF you do two key things for effective weight loss:

  • Calorie restriction: eating fewer calories than you burn every day[21]
  • Strength training with progressive overload (picking up heavier stuff)

As we point out in our “Cardio vs Intervals vs Weight Training” article, strength training is the MOST efficient method for weight loss.

Not only that, but you can find study after study after study that shows you the benefits of strength training for weight management when combined with “calorie restriction.”[22]

As we cover in our “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” article, here’s why eating a caloric deficit and strength training is SO magical when combined:

When you strength train – by picking up something heavy – your muscles are “broken down” during the exercise itself, and then they rebuild themselves stronger over the next 24-48 hours.

Guess what happens during those 24-48 hours?

Your body will divert as many calories consumed as necessary to “Rebuild Muscle!”[23]

Look at me all big and strong!

It also diverts additional calories to “Burn as Fuel” to handle this increased “muscle rebuilding” activity.

This means two amazing things:

  • Your metabolism is revved up for this time period, burning more calories than normal.
  • Rebuilding muscle is a calorie-taxing activity!

Not only that, but when you eat a caloric deficit, your body doesn’t have enough calories to fuel all the day’s activities. In these instances, your body will pull from your stored fat to make sure all the work still gets done.

This is the trifecta of physical transformation victory:

  • You get stronger and keep the muscle you have.
  • You burn through the fat you’re trying to get rid of.
  • You’re decreasing your body fat percent and keeping your muscle = look good naked.

In other words, strength training + eating right is the BEST path for weight loss out there! And yes, in certain situations, you can actually lose weight AND build muscle at the same time.

Coach Matt explains how to gain muscle WHILE losing fat in this video:

So how do you put this into practice? Pick one of the strength workouts in this article. Calculate your daily caloric needs. Learn about healthy eating. And start.

In other words…

Pick up something heavy, and eat a vegetable.

These are the types of things we work on with our 1-on-1 Coaching Clients: helping them lift weights confidently and eat correctly for their goals! Let us help you:



“Just Tell Me What Strength Training Program to Follow!”

Relax, you'll be fine strength training, just like this little trooper is fine with his bear.

Okay! Unless you are collecting underpants, you should now have a workout program you want to try out!

“Staci, this is a lot, can you just TELL me what to do?”

Okay fine.

Here are the steps again for you:

STEP #1: PICK YOUR WORKOUT PATH:

A) If YOU ARE TRAINING AT HOME. Pick one of these 3 based on what equipment you have:

B) IF YOU ARE TRAINING IN A GYM: Amazing! I love gyms.

Read our “How to train in a gym” guide and go from Level 1 to Level 6 over the next month. Gym closed? Here’s how to build a home gym.

STEP #2: TRY A NEW EXERCISE: In addition to following a workout program, I’m gonna push outside of your comfort zone – that’s where real growth happens.

Learn ONE new movement this week.

Pick one of the exercises below and try it out!

Here are 42 bodyweight exercises you can do too.

STEP #3) HIRE A YODA: If you are somebody that just wants to be told exactly what to, how to train for your goals, and are good at following directions, consider hiring a coach.

I’ve been working with an online coach since 2014 and it has changed my life – and I do this stuff for a living!

Nerd Fitness Coaching Banner

STEP #4) JOIN THE REBELLION! If you like how we do things around here at Nerd Fitness, we’d love to have you in our community of misfits, mutants, and rebels!

Sign up in the box below and I’ll send you our free Strength 101 guide:

No matter what you do today:

Don’t be afraid of doing anything wrong – truth be told, the majority of the people in the gym don’t have any idea what they are doing, and are just as nervous as you are!

Muster up your 20 seconds of courage if you need to, and let me know in the comments how it goes!

What questions do you have about getting started?

So, what’s the biggest thing holding you back from starting strength training?

-Staci

PS – Check out the rest of the articles in our Strength Training 101 series:

photo source: LEGO bench pres, tonobalaguer © 123RF.com, Stormtroopers lifting, Chris Christian:Strongman, W_Minshull: Stormtroopers in Gym, Lego Lifting, RainstormKristina Alexanderson: Teddy Love



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How Much Weight Should I Lift? (Pick Your Starting Weight)

How Much Weight Should I Lift? (Pick Your Starting Weight)


Do you think he supplements with creatine?

“Do you even lift?”

After today’s guide, not only will you be able to say “YUP,” but you’ll also know exactly how MUCH you should be lifting!

We’ll help you get big and strong so you can fight back against your older brother when he tackles you in the hallway.

Get strong so you don't end up a victim.

As part of our Strength 101 series, we’re going to tell you exactly what you need to know about lifting weights and strength training:

If you find yourself with a billion other strength training questions as you build your own workout, or you’re overwhelmed at all of this and not sure how to get stronger…you’re in good company!

It can be scary enough to keep MOST people from starting, which is actually why we created our Coaching Program.

Your NF Coach will do an initial assessment to calculate exactly how much weight you should start lifting. They’ll then design a program that they’ll adjust regularly based on your progress and schedule.

Plus, with our app, your coach can do regular video form checks to make sure you safely make consistent progress. 



With that out of the way, let’s jump into the nitty-gritty of “How much weight should I lift?

Step #1: Why You Should Lift Your Own Bodyweight First

This LEGO lifts his own bodyweight no problem.

Stop! (Wait a minute…)

Before trying to figure out how much weight you can lift, let’s make sure you know how to do the movement, as flawlessly as possible, without any weight at all.

Why?

Because if you can’t do a movement correctly without weight, how can you expect to do it right WITH weight?

Think about it – if you can’t walk up a flight of stairs normally, would you expect to be able to walk up the flight of stairs carrying a sack of hammers?

No – you would only hurt yourself.[1]

Also, what are you even doing with a sack of hammers?

STEP ONE: learn each movement without any bars, dumbbells, or added weight.

Which might make you say:

Staci, how on earth do I do a deadlift or an overhead press without any weight? And I know I can do a bodyweight squat, but isn’t it completely different doing a barbell back squat?”

Easy – grab either a broomstick (be careful for splinters!), mop handle, or PVC pipe (I use a 1.25” PVC cut in half) and pretend it’s a barbell.

If you’re trying to mimic a dumbbell movement, either grab a short dowel, PVC, or just hold your hands in a fist as if you were holding on to something.

While it’s not the exact same as holding actual weight, it will allow you to practice getting into the correct positions.

Practice the movements in your own home without other people around you (so you’ll be less nervous).

Also, you can videotape yourself pretty easily. I’ve use my computer’s webcam, or my phone camera and a little tripod, then completed the movement with a broomstick.

Now, I can deadlift 455 pounds and I’m a Senior Coach for our Online Coaching Program:

Staci showing you how to deadlift 455 pouds.



If you want a beginner strength training workout to follow:

If you are interested in nerding out about proper form for each barbell movement, start here:

We also HIGHLY recommend you pick up Starting Strength, widely considered to be the Bible of barbell training.

Once you feel good about your form, you can see if you can “pass the bar.”

(Guaranteed to be the nicest lawyer joke you’ll ever read on Nerd Fitness, by the way).

Now, if want a full Bodyweight Workout Program that you can follow along with at home that will help get you prepped to start strength training?

You can download the worksheet to follow along here when you sign up in the box below:

Step #2: How to Start Barbell Training with Lifting the Bar

Coach Staci doing a barbell lunge, an advanced lunge variation.

Once you’re comfortable with each movement with a broomstick or PVC, then you can move to the bar.

Your first gym workout shouldn’t go any heavier than “just” the bar, which means the bar without any added weight.

How much does a barbell weigh?

  • A standard barbell weighs 45 lbs (20.4 kg).
  • A “women’s barbell” weighs 35 lbs (15.8 kg).

Now, don’t be discouraged if this seems really heavy – especially on upper body movements.

When I started out, I could not bench press or overhead press an empty barbell.

Here Staci is pressing just the bar, a could practice for warming up.

If the bar seems too heavy to start:

  1. See if the gym has a lighter barbell – some have a “women’s bar” or a “training bar” that usually weighs 30-35 lbs and 15 lbs, respectively. These are usually shorter, but that’s okay!
  2. Start out with dumbbells – while the movement is not the exact same, it allows you to build up the strength:In the neutral grip press, shown here, you have your hands together during the movement.
    This will help you handle a barbell down the road.
  3. Focus on bodyweight training (push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, squats) until you build the strength to handle the bar.

Now, on opposite ends of the spectrum, if the bar seems really light, I would STILL encourage you to complete your first workout with just the bar.

Why?

According to Mike Rebold from Hiram College, when you start lifting the barbell or dumbbells for the first time you will notice muscle deficiencies (i.e., one side that is weaker than the other). It can often come down to motor units, or the nuerons that help muscle fibers.[2]

Rebold explains:

When you first start strength training and lifting the barbell or dumbbells, your motor units don’t fire as quickly and smaller motor units that don’t generate a lot of force are recruited. As you continue working out and become more trained, your motor units fire more rapidly and your brain recruits larger motor units that can generate more force allowing you to lift heavier weights. This is why the progressive overload principle is important.

That means focus on getting each rep correct, and worry about adding weight next time.

Check your ego at the door!

I would rather see somebody in the gym lifting the bar with proper form than watch somebody with awful form lift 400 lbs.

That makes me…

Nick Offerman Cringes when people try to lift too much weight with bad form

Note: If you finish your first workout with the bar and still aren’t comfortable with the movements, it’s never a bad thing to do your next workout with just the bar again.

If you’re not comfortable with the movement and you start adding weight, not only will you be more likely to injure yourself because your body isn’t ready, but you’ll be more likely to hurt yourself because you won’t be confident under the bar.

Confidence is something that is very important as you start lifting heavier and heavier.

Mike Rebold supports this idea:

Self-esteem is confidence in one’s own abilities. Research has shown that in order to improve one’s self-esteem, or one’s confidence to exercise and lift heavier weights, you must first incorporate and master simple exercises.[3]

This is why we also recommend starting with the barbell or light dumbbells. Because as you master these simple exercises, that will result in your self-esteem being improved and then you will have more confidence to try new exercises and to lift heavier weights. 

Speaking of, if you’re planning on using dumbbells as your main lift (and not a barbell):

Start with 5-10 lb dumbbells to get a feel for things.

If you don't have a spotter, the dumbbell press can be a great chest alternative.

Whether you’re starting with dumbbells or ready to move onto a barbell, it’s important to do it properly!

We check the form of EVERY online coaching client on their workouts so they have the confidence that they’re doing these moves correctly!



We’ve also created a specific sequence of workout routines you can follow along with for free in our guide Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know.

Grab yours free when you sign up in the box below:

Step #3: How To Start Adding Weight to the Barbell

Man with weighted barbell at gym

If you’re looking to start on a beginner program, such as the workouts in our Beginner Strength Training Workouts or our 6 Beginner Gym Workouts, you need to start light!

A few common rep ranges for beginner programs are:[4]

  • 5 sets of 5 reps
  • 3 sets of 8 reps
  • 3 sets of 10 reps

Let’s do an example: your program has you doing 3 sets of 8 on a particular lift.

1) After a proper warm-up routine, start with the empty bar again, and complete the prescribed number of reps (for this, it would be 8).

“But I thought you said we could add weight this time?” you might be thinking.

You can – but no matter how heavy you are going, always start with just the bar to warm up for EACH exercise.

As Staci shows here, keep your arms vertical (as much as you can).

If you watch the best lifters in your gym, you will notice they all warm up with “just the bar” to start, often for multiple sets!

This helps get your body warm, primes your nervous systems and all of your muscles for that movement, and gets you ready to lift heavier weight.[5]

As a beginner to strength training, this is especially important to ingrain proper technique.

2) Add a small amount of weight to the bar. Depending on how heavy the bar felt, start by adding:

  • 2 – 5 pounds for upper body exercises.
  • 5 – 10 pounds for lower body exercises.

When in doubt, add the lower amount.[6] You can always add more! Do another set of 8-12 reps at this weight.

(Note: If you’re doing dumbbell training, instead of adding weight to the bar, increase the weight of the dumbbell. Start with 5 lb. dumbbells, then 10 lb. dumbbells, for example)

3) If you were able to complete those reps both without losing form and without the speed of the bar slowing, add more weight to the bar.

Base the amount of new weight off how it felt – if the last set felt really light, add 5’s, if it felt heavy, add 2.5’s’s.

Here’s a good guideline from NSCA :[7]

If a person can do two or more reps than the goal in an exercise on two consecutive training sessions, then they should increase the load.

4) Continue to do this until your form starts to break down or the speed of the lift gets slower on any of your reps.[8]

The weight you used right before your form started to break down is your starting weight on which you will base all future workouts!

5) If it is a lower number than you expect, that’s great actually!

Don’t try to be a hero your first workout, it is better to start out too light than too heavy.[9]

Remember – we’re trying to get solid, productive sets in, not find our max, so we want all of the reps to be fast and with as perfect form as our body allows.

Since you’re testing out heavier weights for the first time, never be afraid to have a spotter, or to use pins to ensure your safety!

If you don’t want to figure ANY of this out on your own, and you just want somebody to tell you exactly how much to lift, how many sets, reps, etc., I hear you.

I’ve had a lifting coach for years and it’s the best investment I make each month!



Step #4: How Do I Know When to Add More Weight?

Joni doing squats at Camp Nerd Fitness, a great time for all involved.

Once you’ve found your starting weight, you’ll want to start using something called “progressive overload.”

This sounds a lot fancier than it really is.

As Coach Jim explains above, progressive overload means gradually increasing the stress put on your body during training.[10]

In other words, we need to increase something, regularly. Usually, this means the amount of weight we lift.

And for beginners, that can often happen after every workout.

During every workout, our muscles are torn and broken down. Then after every workout – for the next 24-48+ hours, our body repairs itself. If you’re getting proper sleep[11]  and nutrition,[12] it heals back stronger than it was before.

the "crushed it" gif from Pitch Perfect

Conversely, if you do 5 sets of 5 squats at 100 lbs every single workout for months, are you getting stronger?

Most likely not.

Your body is actually just getting more efficient at lifting 5×5 at 100 lbs, burning fewer calories, and using less energy to make that movement happen.

So, how much weight do you add when you’re ready to increase your workouts?

That depends on how difficult the set was last time.

This is where great note-taking comes in (I’m a huge fan of a simple notebook, or Evernote docs on my phone).

Be sure to document each workout with:

Did you go to failure on your last set?

Did your form break down on any of the reps?

You’ll end up in one of two positions:

PATH A: You failed to complete any of your reps or your form started to break down. Do the same weight again next workout, and focus on boosting your form and technique of each rep.

Remember, if you are doing the same workout as last time, but each rep is more solid and with better form than before, you’re still doing better than you were the last workout.

In other words, you’re still leveling up.

These characters know how much to lift, so they can get strong and defeat their enermies.

You don’t necessarily have to go up in weight every workout to see gains.

You could also focus on:

  • Less rest between sets.
  • More control and better form.
  • More repetitions.

All of which means you are getting stronger.

PATH B: You were able to get through all of your sets with great form, and without the bar slowing down. Congrats! Consider adding more next week. It’s not unheard of for beginners to add 10-20lbs a week to some lifts (especially squats and deadlifts), though don’t get discouraged if you’re only adding 2.5 or 5![13]

The BEST THING YOU CAN DO: slowly add the smallest amount of weight possible, and progress consistently. This is much preferred to progressing quickly and then hitting a plateau.

Each week, as you add a little bit of weight, you are building strength, confidence, and momentum.

Note: For some lifts, especially the overhead press or bench press, adding just 5 lbs may be too much to go up per workout.

I personally have a set of 1.25lb plates that I bring with me to the gym so that I can still progress regularly.

Remember: You’re going to have shitty days at the gym. There will be days when you can’t add any weight, or you feel like you have to take a step backward.

So many things affect how your lifts are going to feel:

  • A baby crying all night – causing sleep deprivation and resulting in systemic inflammation and decreased GH release = poor recovery
  • Lots of stress at the office.
  • To drinking too much at the big game – causing stomach discomfort and bloating.
  • Just not eating enough for your goalsnot consuming enough carbohydrates and fats to support energy demands or not consuming enough protein to facilitate muscle protein synthesis and recovery.[14]

It’s important to listen to your body over listening to some number telling you what you should be lifting.

You want to make progress every time you walk into the gym, and that means having a specific plan to follow.

Don’t have a workout to follow? Tired of not getting results despite all the effort?

This is what we do for a living! Help people like you get out of ruts and finally get them the results they want.

After doing my own workout programming for 5 years, I hired a coach and it changed my life. Let us help you hit your goals too.



Step #5: How Do I Calculate My 1 Rep MAx?

Deadlifts make a great addition when you build your own workout.

It’s really fun to find the maximum amount of weight you can do for one repetition (one rep max) every once in a while.

However, as a beginner who is just starting strength training, it’s better that you start with getting the movement right and adding weight slowly before trying to find a one-rep max.

I would suggest you follow a program for at least six weeks before even attempting “a heavy single”.

Why?

Even if your form is as good as you can get it now, you will get far better, learning how to make tweaks and corrections as you go.

When you first start out, you’re still getting everything down, so your one-rep max won’t be a “true” one-rep max.

Plus, when you train, you’re training everything in your body.

Some things, like muscles and bones, get stronger, while others, like your nervous system, get more efficient.

The more you do something, the better you get at it. And in the beginning you’ll get better very quickly.

It’s unwise to attempt a 1 repetition maximum when you’re learning the movement.

This is one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

Vizzini from Princess Bride knows you shouldn't do 1 rep maxes as a beginner

But only slightly less well-known is this: “Never attempt a 1-rep max as a beginner.”

Even if you can do it with proper form with lighter weights, as soon as the weight gets close to your 1 rep max your form will start to break down, and you are more likely to hurt yourself.

Some words of caution here from Mike Rebold, an expert in exercise physiology:

During 1RM testing, fatigue will happen! One-repetition maximum testing has been found to overload the neuromuscular system resulting in lower motor unit activation, less force production, and ultimately more fatigue. This level of fatigue experienced by the lifter can be enough to result in injury, especially if the lifter is a novice (i.e., beginner).

When your form starts to break down, you need to have the experience behind you to finish (or bail out of) the lift safely.

If you watch any weightlifting or powerlifting competition, sometimes the lifts are not the prettiest lifts you’ve ever seen.

However, the lifters are experienced enough to handle this, and know how to bail if something goes wrong.

As a beginner, you are not.

Team NF’s Steve worked with a coach for 4+ years to finally get his 420 lb. deadlift:

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

If you want to work with a coach that can help you perfect your form and train to hit 1-rep maxes too, we’re here for ya! We’re slightly biased, but having a coach in your corner is an absolute game-changer.



Step #6: what is a respectable amount to be lifting?

Camp was great, for lots of reasons, but mainly because we benched.

The simple answer? The weight that’s right for you.

You are not competing against the guy next to you; you’re competing against the YOU from last week (like racing your ghost in Mario Kart).

Lifting at the gym can be like racing against yourself in Mario Kart.

As far as what you can strive for, there’s no easy calculation or formula.

While some people have put out strength standards, it’s truly up to your body, your body type, your background as an athlete, your genetics, and many other factors.[15]

You should be lifting the amount that’s right for you today. In your next workout, you should be trying to lift more (even if you can’t do more weight, try doing one more rep, or with less rest between sets) than you did last time.

That’s it.

As a part of this journey, I want you to completely forget about strength standards and forget about everyone around you.

I don’t care if the guy (or girl) next to you is squatting 500 lbs for sets of 10.

If you’re squatting 50 lbs, and that’s the weight that is challenging for you, then that’s the weight you should be lifting.

These are the BIG mistakes you need to avoid:

Never EVER try to outlift the person next to you.

Never EVER adjust the weight to impress someone.

No one’s judging you based on the weight on the bar, and if they are, they aren’t worth your time or energy.

To recap “How much should I lift?”:

  1. The strongest lifters do a dynamic warm-up first.
  2. The strongest lifters warm up with “just” the bar.
  3. The strongest lifters focus on getting their reps in, and aren’t ashamed that they’re lifting less than the guy next to them.
  4. The strongest lifters take time to get things right, even if that means lifting less weight than they know they “can” do.
  5. The strongest lifters started off doing a beginners program just like you.

So remember – start slow, add weight slowly, and stay conservative.

It’s amazing how much even adding just 5 lbs (2kg) a week adds up to! It’s far better to play it safe in the beginning than to find yourself injured and frustrated before you have a chance to progress.



Do You Even Lift?

Hopefully, this article EXCITED you about strength training, and you now know exactly how much to lift. 

For people looking for the next step, we’ve got 3 options you want to check out:

1) If you want to follow a strength training program that’s specific to your goals, check out our popular Online Coaching Program.

You’ll work with a certified NF instructor who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and create a workout strategy that will evolve alongside you.



2) If you want a daily prompt for doing workouts at the gym (or at home), check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Try your free trial right here:

3) Join the Rebellion! Join hundreds of thousands of people like you. It’s free to join, and we have a dozen free guides for you when you sign up in the yellow box below.

Let’s get these questions answered so you can get back to getting stronger!

What are your other big questions about lifting weight and how much you should be lifting?

-Staci

PS: Be sure to check out the rest of Strength Training 101 series:

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photo source: Strongman, Four Bricks Tall: Scenes from an empty lot in Brooklyn, vol 1., hxdbzxy © 123RF.com, Lego Lifting.



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