Building a Set of Monster Legs

In this world, there are some things that certain people would rather not discuss, but for others, avoidance just isn’t an option. Sadly, there are millions of people facing this same problem. You are not alone.

This problem is serious. Let me ask you a few questions…

Do you bench more than you squat?

Are you sporting 17-inch arms but only 14-inch quads?

Do you just have a hard time getting your legs to grow?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be suffering from “SLS”, otherwise known as “Small Leg Syndrome”. This is a very serious problem that affects millions across the world, but don’t be scared…I am here to help.

Okay, so maybe I made some of that up. Maybe there is no such syndrome, but I can guarantee you one thing: I have seen plenty of people over the years who seem to suffer from small legs that don’t respond to training. If that sounds like you or if you just want a change of pace for your leg training, then this is the article for you.

Small legs will be a thing of the past! If you want big legs, here is the program. The rest is up to you and your dinner plate.

Before we get started, I have a list of pre-requisites:

  1. You must have at least one year of consistent training under your belt. This program isn’t for beginners. If you are a beginner, save this article and I’ll see you next year.
  2. You must have healthy, fully functioning knees. If you don’t, then check out this great article by Nick Tumminello that specifically addresses training legs with bad knees – Get Big Legs with Bad Knees
  3. You must have a healthy, fully functioning lower back. No need to explain why.
  4. You must have a healthy appetite. In other words, you are going to have to eat big!
  5. You must practice abstinence for the entire duration of this training program. Ok, not really…just made that last one up!

I know you’re reading this article and ready to learn how to get some huge legs, and that is great. However, there are a couple points I want to touch on before we get to the good stuff.

First of all, I highly recommend proper footwear for squatting.  Not all athletic shoes offer the correct support for the squat, and Nike Shox may be close to the worst. The extra cushioning designed to absorb impact while running can destabilize your feet and lower body mechanics when it sinks under the weight of your body and the bar while squatting. Do me a favor and squat in flat shoes of some sort: Chuck Taylors, Nike Frees, or even in your socks, if your gym allows. I know you’re not a powerlifter, and I won’t get into specifics, but just wear the flattest shoes that you can find.

The next requirement is a proper warm up…and squatting the bar for ten reps doesn’t count. I won’t be picky on what you do, just get some blood flowing, make sure you are fully warmed up and mobile enough to get to proper squat depth, and mentally prepare to go to battle with the weights.  Additionally, most everyone could also benefit from adding some glute activation exercises to their warm up, whether some dumbbell or kettlebell swings or glute bridges.

Not your typical “To Do” list

As with any program, just doing the program alone isn’t enough. Getting big legs requires both commitment and gritted determination…and trust me when I say it isn’t going to be easy. If it were, we’d all be walking around with Tom Platz legs!

There are many factors to consider, but I have compiled the top four into a neat “To Do” list.

1. Intensity is Key 

No sugar coating it here…it’s time to get to the point. Training like a sissy will get you nowhere. Training like a sissy will leave your legs small and weak forever. Your goal is to get big legs? Then you have to accept the fact that when you hit the gym, you have to mentally prepare for all-out effort. You have to prepare yourself and have the right mindset to go out and win the battle.

If you were stepping into the octagon with Matt Hughes, would you walk into it with some half-ass intensity? If you were hanging from a ledge with your life in your hands, would you pull yourself up with some half-ass intensity?  I don’t think so…hell, I know you wouldn’t!

So when you’re going into the gym, it is no different: find that intensity. Building a jacked pair of legs is no easy task, but if you approach each session like a battle and strive for personal records, you will be on the path to success.

Take a lesson from Arnold himself – go all out!

2. Calories

I have heard that nutrition is responsible for anywhere from 50%-90% of muscle gains. I don’t know if that is correct, but I do know that it is very important if you want big legs. Simply put, you have to create a caloric surplus to gain any muscular weight. I won’t go into specifics here because this is a training article, but just to give you some ballpark numbers, take your current body weight and multiply it by 18-22. That is how many calories you should aim to take in. Your job is to eat like a horse…I don’t care if you are full, not hungry, etc.. You are going to have to eat when you’re hungry and when you’re not hungry.

A lot of guys think that they are eating big, but when it comes down to it, they really aren’t. Record your food and calories for a couple days. If you aren’t hitting the calorie recommendations from the calculation above, then start eating more. I am a big fan of pre-, during, and post-workout nutrition. Start sipping on a high calorie protein/carb shake (such as Opticen or Maximus) about 15 minutes before your training session, and continue sipping throughout and after your workout. Follow this up with a whole food meal containing protein, carbs, and healthy fats about 30 minutes later.

3. Recovery

The workouts in this program are no joke and they will take a toll on your body. It is very important that you put as much effort into your recovery as you put into the other aspects. Training is only part of the equation. You don’t grow while you’re training, you grow while you are recovering.

  • Sleep – Make sure you get a minimum of 8 hours of sleep each night. Aim for 8-10 hours every night of the week. If you want to maximize your gains, you may have to sacrifice a few things to get the sleep. Staying out in the bars until 3 am doesn’t do anything for your recovery or journey to bigger legs. Turn off the TV or computer an hour earlier and make yourself get to bed.
  • Utilize naps – If you can, take a nap every day. While for some this isn’t a possible, try to take a nap when you can. Maybe you can only take naps on the weekends…if so, do it!
  • Stretch – Schedule in a stretching session a few days a week to increase blood flow and to help to get nutrients to your muscles.
  • Get a massage – If your finances allow, find a local massage therapist and get a massage once a week. If this isn’t an option, get one bi-weekly or even just monthly.
  • Foam roll – Pick up a foam roller if you or your gym doesn’t have one. Foam rolling can work wonders for recovery. It’s kind of like having your own massage therapist at home.
  • Grab yourself some ETS, it’ll work wonders for reducing your soreness and will allow you to recover more quickly between workouts.

Training and nutrition are only half the battle. You have to focus on recovery, and using these methods will minimize your recovery time while maximizing your results.

4. Technique

I’ve made this mistake myself in the past: trying to use too much weight at the expense of poor technique. It happens, but it doesn’t need to. When you use too much weight and alter your technique, you run into a lot of problems. First of all, you are going to get injured…it’s going to happen and it is just a matter of when. The second problem with using too much weight is that it causes you to alter your movement patterns, which in turn changes your muscle recruitment patterns. The bottom line is you should use a weight with which you can perform your target number of reps using proper form.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty – The Program

Get this: you will be doing two leg workouts a week! Yes, I know even one sucks, but your goal is to build some big ass legs and this is how you will get it done. It really isn’t bad as it may seem at first. You will train the lower body by focusing on quads on one leg day with a second lower body day focusing on hamstrings. With two workouts specifically targeting the legs, the other two days will be devoted completely to upper body training for a total of four workouts per week. However, your goal for upper body training is purely maintenance. If you want to make those legs grow, then all of your focus needs to be on them.

On the first training day of the week (usually a Monday for most people), you will hit the legs with a quad focus. While everyone else at the gym is observing international bench press day, the squat rack should be nice and lonely and ready for you to abuse…I mean USE. You’ll follow this up with an upper body-only day on Tuesday. Wednesday will be a complete rest day but you are more than welcome to use some recovery techniques (foam rolling, massage, etc.) on this day.

On Thursday, you’ll get back to business with your second leg workout hamstring focus of the week, but this time with a hamstring focus. Friday will be your second upper body day and your last training day for the week. Saturday and Sunday are rest days again, limited to recovery techniques and possibly some light walking.

So, the overall split look like this:

Monday: Lower body (A) (quad focus)
Tuesday: Upper body (A)
Wednesday: Off/Recovery
Thursday: Lower body (B) (hamstring focus)
Friday: Upper body (B)
Saturday/Sunday: Off/Recovery 

Concept of the program

This concept of this program is based on a few different ideas. First of all, you will focus on getting stronger. You will train in the functional strength/hypertrophy rep range (6-10) with relatively heavy weights using traditional strength movements (or variations thereof). Rest intervals are set at 2-3 minutes to help recovery between sets while using maximal weights. Rest intervals of 2-3 minutes have been shown to increase growth hormone as well as free testosterone. With the increased strength and a calorie surplus, your legs will get bigger….there is no other way around it.

The second method uses the traditional total hypertrophy (muscle building) rep range of 8-12, with rest intervals of 90 seconds. These rest intervals have been shown to increase growth hormone production and stimulate hypertrophy. The third method for increased size involves working at the top end of the total hypertrophy rep range (15 reps) using short rest intervals (60 seconds).

Rest intervals of 60 seconds have been shown to increase growth hormone levels, stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and increase nutrient uptake by the muscles. Lifters have been using high reps on leg presses and squats for years and getting great results. By using the leg press for these higher rep sets, you will still be able to still move a significant load for a long period of time with your legs doing all of the work. With this method, your legs have no other choice but to grow!

Here is the program in detail:

Weeks 1-4

Workout A

Exercises Sets Reps Rest
 * Front squat (shoulder width) 3 6-10 2-3 min
Barbell lunges (short step) 3 8-10 90 sec
** Leg press (feet low, narrow) 4 15 60 sec
Seated calf raises 4 20 60 sec

* You may use a crossed arm grip, clean grip, or modified clean grip with straps and a shoulder-width stance. .

** Feet low on the platform, narrow stance.

Workout B

Exercises Sets Reps Rest
 * Romanian Deadlifts 3 6-10 2-3 min
** Glute ham raises (natural) 3 8-12 90 sec
*** Leg press (feet high, med.) 4 15 60 sec
Standing calf raises 4 20 60 sec

* Be sure to go only as low as you can without rounding your lower back. The depth varies from person to person.

** You will have to use slight “push” off the bottom, but be sure to minimize it and keep the focus on your hamstrings.

*** Feet high on the platform, medium stance.

Weeks 5-8

Workout A

Exercises Sets Reps Rest
 * Back squat (narrow) 3 6-10 2-3 min
Barbell split squat 3 8-10 90 sec
** Leg press (feet low, wide) 4 15 60 sec
Seated calf raises 4 20 60 sec

* High bar placement, narrow stance. 

** Feet low on the platform, wide stance.

Workout B

Exercises Sets Reps Rest
 * Goodmornings  3 8-10 2-3 min
Barbell lunges (long step) 3 8-12 90 sec
** Leg press (feet high, narrow) 4 15 60 sec
Standing calf raises 4 20 60 sec

* Be sure to go only as low as you can without rounding your lower back. This depth varies from person to person.

** Feet high on the platform, narrow stance.

Upper body stuff

I’m not going to go into much detail as to what exercises you should do on upper body days. After all, this program is about getting BIG tree trunks. However, here are some guidelines for your upper body days:

Tuesday: (Upper Body Maintenance) (A)

A. Horizontal press  
B. Horizontal pull 
C. Single joint shoulder
D. Single joint bicep
E. Single joint tricep
F. Ab/core exercise

Friday: (Upper Body Maintenance) (B)

A. Vertical press  
B. Vertical pull 
C. Single joint chest
D. Single joint bicep
E. Single joint tricep
F. Ab/core exercise
G. Upper back accessory

Notes: Pick the exercises and set/rep schemes you want to use. Keep in mind that this is purely for upper body maintenance.

Tempo and progression


You may notice that I didn’t mention tempo. This is simply because I have tried to count tempos myself in the past and it just doesn’t work. I can’t focus on moving a heavy load with correct form while counting the tempo. Instead, this is what I want you to do: focus on controlling the negative portion of the lift. Pause very slightly, then explode into the concentric portion as fast as possible, yet IN CONTROL! This is your tempo guideline.


Exercises with rep ranges

The first week of an exercise, simply start with a weight that you know you can handle for the middle rep range and stop at the lower end of the rep counts. Then, the next week, increase the number of reps from the week before, with the same weight while avoiding failure. Repeat for the next week: keep the weight the same and shoot for more reps from the week before without hitting failure (while staying in the rep range). For the fourth week, keep the weight the same and try to beat the numbers from the week before, but this time it’s ok to go to failure.

Let’s use the front squat as an example over the first four-week period using a 3×6-10 rep scheme. 

  • Week 1: 225/7 – 225/6 – 225/6 
  • Week 2: 225/8 – 225/7 – 225/7
  • Week 3: 225/8 – 225/8 – 225/7
  • Week 4: 225/9 – 225/9 – 225/8

Exercises without rep ranges

For these exercises (such as the leg press), for the first set of Week 1, pick a weight that you know you can do at least 10 more reps with than the prescribed number, without hitting failure. Add more weight on each subsequent set. Then, for the first set of the next week, start with the weight that you used on your second set in your first week. Continue to add weight on each set. The third week, start with the weight that you used for your second set on the second week and progress as before. Proceed similarly for the fourth week.

Let’s use leg press as an example over the first four weeks using a 4×15 rep scheme.

  • Week 1: 585/15 – 595/15 – 605/15 – 615/15
  • Week 2: 595/15 – 605/15 – 615/15 – 625/15
  • Week 3: 605/15 – 615-15 – 625/15 – 635/15
  • Week 4: 615/15 – 625/15 – 635/15 – 645/15

Keep in mind, these numbers are just examples. You may or may not progress this fast; there are too many factors to consider. At the end of the day, the take home message is that you should be pushing to progress and get stronger over time.

Some final words on the program

This program is strictly for those who want to put some serious size on their legs, mainly for aesthetic purposes. This isn’t how I would train a competitive or strength athlete’s lower body. This IS how I would put some serious size on a bodybuilder’s legs in the shortest amount of time possible. So if you’re ready to start looking for new jeans to fit your newly enlarged legs, then this is for you!

This program should be performed for eight weeks as laid out. Once you have completed the program, take one week off from any leg training. Do not use this program for more than eight weeks and do not repeat for at least another 16 weeks.

You may wonder why this program doesn’t have supersets or dropsets, forced reps, or Eastern European upside-down triangle reps. That’s because it doesn’t take all that fancy stuff to build a jacked pair of legs. The principles that this program rests on have been used not only by me and my clients, but by trainees all over the world with great results!

If you can handle the challenge, then get to work, get to eating, and get to growing!

Written by Chase Karnes

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Building Monster Legs discussion thread

About Chase Karnes

Chase Karnes graduated from Murray State University with a degree in Exercise Science. He is a NSCA certified personal trainer and strength coach located in Western Kentucky. He is currently studying for his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (CSCS).

Through Argonauts Fitness, Chase has worked in the exercise and nutrition arena for half a decade. He has hands-on experience working with strength and physique athletes along with athletic and general populations. Chase is also a competitive athlete himself competing in NPC Bodybuilding, Powerlifting (1330 Raw Total), and NAS Strongman competitions. He has worked or consulted with clients from over 6 states.

Chase can be contacted for personal and group training, program design, nutrition consultation and speaking engagements through his website or Argonauts Fitness


Physique Transformation Strategies with Scott Abel

When people mention Scott Abel, the first word that comes to mind is success.

Known as ‘The Maker of Champions’, for the last quarter century or so he has been involved at the highest levels of the Fitness, Diet, Training and Bodybuilding Industry.

Not only has he personally participated at the highest levels in bodybuilding (in order to prove he could put into practice all his theories as the best out there) he has trained over 300 bodybuilding and figure champions and coached professional hockey players, football players and wrestlers.

He has also had enormous success with individuals wanting to lose weight, get into shape and get healthy – from teens to seniors, and anywhere in between.

Scott’s methods are both innovative and unique and he will be sharing them with us in 2010 as he becomes a regular contributor to Wannabebig. If you have a training or nutrition question for Scott, please email them to Scott will be selecting questions to answer in his future articles.

Chris Mason: Scott, let’s start with you introducing yourself to our readers.

Scott Albel: As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in athletics.  When I discovered bodybuilding, the individual aspect of the sport appealed to me tremendously.  From the get-go, my fascination with the human body differentiated me from most bodybuilders.  For me, it wasn’t just about the training, it was about researching human physiology to discover ways to go beyond the norm.

This coming January marks the beginning of my 4th decade in the iron game.  During the past three decades, I have pretty much done it all when it comes to physique transformation.  I’ve trained everyone from professional athletes to stay-at-home moms.  I have taken bodybuilders from rote beginners to National Champions and beyond.

My research and personal experience has led to the creation of my highly unique training system.  Different, as they say, is good!  My results, and the results of those I have worked with, far exceed the industry norm.

My training system is unique in that it focuses on the nervous system and its adaptation to resistance training.  I see skeletal muscular adaptation as dependent on the nervous system as opposed to the other way around.  This puts me at odds with most of the “experts”, especially those focused on strength training.

Training for physique transformation must be very different than training merely for power.  My program targets angles of contraction, the anatomical leverages unique to every individual, and work capacity.  I focus on intensity of effort as opposed to brute strength.  My own physique exploded when I finally came to the realization that how I was lifting a weight was infinitely more important than how much I was lifting.  This line of thinking led me to coin the term innervation training to describe my methods.

If you follow my articles on this site, I’ll explain these concepts in more detail over time.

CM: Who are the top five bodybuilders/athletes you have worked with?

SA: Over the years, I have worked with virtually every top name in bodybuilding (you can see a non-comprehensive list on my site in the Success Leaves Clues section).  I have also consulted with professional sports teams.  I worked directly with several NHL teams, and also did pre-season assessment training for the league.  I’ve had numerous opportunities to do one-on-one training with big Hollywood stars, or top level sports athletes, but I have most often refused to do so simply because I have no interest in being a glorified babysitter.

Really, I hate the whole idea of name-dropping as I feel it is most often used as a means of masking one’s deficiencies or lack of talent.  Suffice it to say that I have worked with the best of the best and have helped them to get even better.

I would, however, like to mention one name that really means a lot to me. Bill Pearl, multiple Mr. Universe winner, and considered by many to be one of the greatest bodybuilders ever, made a lasting impression on me early in my career by publicly recognizing me.  At Joe Weider’s Musclecamp, Bill announced to the hundreds of people attending that I was someone that would change the bodybuilding industry.  He went on to explain that he had not spoken about someone in such glowing terms since he predicted Chris Dickerson would be the first black Mr. America.  I can’t tell you how amazing this made me feel and what an incredible impact it had on my career.

CM: You mention work capacity being a cornerstone of your system.  I take this to mean you advocate a high volume of training?

SA: Yes I do, and research backs my thoughts on the matter.  Research clearly shows that it is the duration of time during which the muscles are loaded, and not the absolute amount of the load, that stimulates the adaptive response of hypertrophy.

To illustrate my point, one needs to look no further than gymnasts.  The strength and development of these athletes simply cannot be accounted for with standard training theories.  The volume or duration of time under tension that their muscles experience is what accounts for their impressive development, not training with high percentages of their one repetition maximum as the “load theorists” (as I call them) advocate.

I have never seen high volume training not work with respect to long term adaptive response.  Keep in mind that high volume can come in many forms of application and design…it’s not limited to simply longer workouts.

Scott Abel prefers empirical data gained from real life application vs. research – it’s clear to see why!

CM: Can you tell us a bit more about how you define intensity?

SA: My book, The Abel Approach, goes into this in great detail, but in short, intensity (as I define it) is a measure of effort.  Those following my system train as close to their maximum work capacity as possible as frequently as possible.  We design programs which coax the body to adapt to increasing workloads.

Muscular tissue stress is defined as intensity, and the common paradigm states that increased loads, due to their increased mechanical stress on the musculature, are therefore of higher intensity.  This is only partially true, and totally misleading relative to application.  It leads to a focus on quantitative (numeric) cues.  Trainees are taught to focus on increasing their strength as a signal of muscular progress.   This is simply not valid.  It is a known fact that the higher one’s relative level of development, the less actual weight is required to induce overload.

Training focus should be on qualitative cues such as energy expenditure, oxygen debt, and fatigue.  Using qualitative measures, a 10 rep set can be significantly more intense than a 5 rep set.  Training hard is more productive from a hypertrophy perspective than training heavy, but they need not be mutually exclusive.  In addition, how heavy one can train does not necessarily dictate how heavy one should train.

Another key to optimized training intensity involves muscular inhibition.  The body has many inhibitory mechanisms which are neural in nature.  Retarding or blunting them is an adaptive response, much like the process of a baby learning to walk, and one that must be realized in order to maximize training intensity.

CM: You certainly have a unique approach to resistance training. Does the same hold true for your recommended dietary practices?

SA: Yes, I believe it does.  I have been researching the nervous system relative to training for 20 years, but I must admit that I prefer empirical data gained from real life application vs. research.  To that end, I use the research that I do to come up with new things to try and then validate or invalidate them in the real world with myself and my clients.

As I am sure your readers are aware, the current rage is low or no carb dieting.  This is a mistake much like its predecessor, the low to no fat diet.  The problem with all of these fads is that they claim to be backed by hard science when, in reality, the science is “soft” at best.

Much as with politics, the majority of research put out today is highly subject to interpretation.  Two groups with opposing agendas can come to vastly different conclusions from the same data.

In a nutshell, we have way too many wannabe experts running around with the latest “science”.  These same diet experts have never talked the talk, or walked the walk.  In essence, they are magicians brandishing their wands of science to trick their audiences into believing their point of view.

I’m different, because I have been there and done ALL of that.  I was a hardgainer when I first started, and got nowhere following the common wisdom.  It was not until I realized the rules were subject to question that I was able to make any significant progress.  This brings to mind a quote from Warren Buffet, “Those who follow the herd spend a lot of time scraping their shoes.”  I don’t follow the herd; I observe it and come to my own conclusions.

I create what I call “individually appropriate” diets.  Everyone is unique, and has unique needs when it comes to diet.  Even individually, these needs are constantly in flux.  My system recognizes these facts and is thus customized to the individual.  My clients eat carbs more often than not, and don’t adhere to silly timing schedules and so on.  I will get into more specifics over time with my Q&A column here on  In the interim, your readers can go to my site ( and check out my books and CDs if they want more immediate details.

Funnily enough, even though it was past swimming hours, no one asked Scott to get out of the pool.

CM: What is the one thing you feel every reader of this article can benefit from in terms of training for hypertrophy?

SA: With the advent of the internet, the overabundance of information available has led to the dissemination of misinformation, disinformation, and marketing as information.  Don’t be fooled and follow the beaten path.

There are the rare few genetic freaks for which muscular development comes easy.  For the rest of us, training for a big max is not the key.  You must learn to think differently in the gym, to focus on internal training cues, not the external ones.  You must know that the angles of contraction and planes and ranges of motion are more important than how much you can lift.  Training for development is not training for strength.  Train for development and strength will come, not the other way around.

Natural Bodybuilder Allen Cress – One of Scott’s many trainees

CM: Thanks so much for your thoughts, Scott.  Do you have any parting words for our readers?

SA: I want them to know that coaching is essential to optimal results.  Information does not equal expertise.  There is an incredible amount of information about training and diet available online these days, yet there are more trainers and coaches than ever.

If optimizing physical results was as easy as reading about it online, coaches and trainers would be out of jobs.  Coaching is oversight; it is knowing what an individual needs when they need it.  Like I always say in my seminars, I can have the most fuel efficient and best maintained car on the road, but if my destination is Florida and I head North then it doesn’t matter what the vehicle’s potential is, I will never reach my destination (goal).

Too many trainees think they are heading in the right direction, but aren’t.  If they only understood the value of applied expertise, they could save themselves a lot of time and money with respect to reaching their physical goals.

CM: Great finishing points Scott. I am sure the Wannabebig readers will be looking forward to your next article! Remember, if you have a training or nutrition question for Scott, please email them to Scott will be selecting questions to answer in his future articles.

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Physique Transformation Strategies discussion thread

About Scott Abel

Scott Abel is founder of Abel Bodies Fitness and for the last quarter century, Scott Abel has been involved at the highest levels of the Fitness, Diet, Training and Bodybuilding Industry.

Not only has he personally participated at the highest levels in bodybuilding (in order to prove he could put into practice all his theories as the best out there) he has trained over 300 bodybuilding and figure champions.

He has also had enormous success with individuals wanting to lose weight, get into shape and get healthy – from teens to seniors, and anywhere in between.

He’s the author of The Abel Approach and his DVDs include Whole Body Hypertrophy and Five Day Ultimate Figure Program. His latest product is The Truth Audio Series.

Complexes for Fat Loss

Note: Win AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners Nitor & Thermocin – (see bottom of article)

Let’s cut the BS and get down to business: traditional cardio – running on the treadmill, sitting on a bike, riding on one of those stupid-looking elliptical machines – just doesn’t work that well if your main goal is to lose fat (now if your main goal is to watch TV or read a book and portray the illusion of hard training, then traditional cardio has you covered).

Traditional cardio bites the big one for one main reason:

It Doesn’t Burn That Many Calories

We all know that fat-loss is pretty simple: burn more calories than you consume. So riding on a bike seems logical since it burns calories while you do it: the longer you pedal, the more you burn. But how many calories do you burn once you step off the bike? The answer is not that many.

What if there was a way to burn calories not only while training but also after training? My friends, let me introduce you to the EPOC effect. It stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, which is just a fancy way of saying you burn more calories after training since you’re taking in more oxygen and expending more energy than normal.

Interval training like HIIT accomplishes this simply because it’s harder on your body and throws off your body’s natural homeostasis. More calories burned = more fat loss.

So Why Not Just Do Intervals?

Intervals are still great, but most people are already excessively tight in their hip flexors and anterior delts (front part of the shoulder) due to too much sitting and poor posture.  Do we really need to make it worse by riding an exercise bike? And what about running sprints? Truth be told, many of you (and probably me) have horrible, horrible running form. And it doesn’t just look ugly – it’s bad for our bodies, too.

Think about it: if you had poor bench-press form but decided to bench press anyway, you’d be setting yourself up for injury. Well, look at running the same way, except with hundreds (and possibly thousands) of reps. Every time your foot strikes the ground, it could be putting harmful stress on your joints. Kind of defeats the purpose of doing a “healthy” activity, huh?

Weight-lifters Rejoice! There Is a Better Way.

Fortunately for us, weight training is much more fun and challenging than intervals and, when done properly with “complexes”, will lead to the same EPOC effect. Also, if you set up your complexes properly, you’ll get more than just a lung-burning, feel-like-you’re-going-to-die feeling. You can hit all the main muscle groups and even have specific work for your abs, all while burning a ton of calories (and setting yourself up to burn a ton of calories after your workout).

Just What the Hell is a Complex, Anyway?

Good question. A complex is a series of exercises (usually compound movements) that flow into each other with no rest in between. You usually have to use lighter weights than you normally would, but a good complex will be challenging. Remember: we’re going for fat-loss here, not pure strength.

The Equipment

  • You.
  • A pair of dumbbells.
  • A barbell and some plates.

Three Complex Challenges

1. The Barbell Complex

3 sets of 8 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform two more times.

Romanian Deadlift

Bent-over Row

Front squat

Push Press

Barbell Rollout

2. The Dumbbell Complex

4 sets of 6 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform three more times.

Reverse Lunge

Alternating DB Row



Alternating DB Military Press

3. The Anywhere Bodyweight Complex

3 sets of 12 reps with no rest between exercises.
Rest for 90 seconds after you complete the full circuit, then perform two more times.


Spiderman pushup

Jumping lunges*


Mountain Climbers*

* 6 reps each leg for a total of 12

When Should I Do Complexes?

Complexes are best performed directly after your regular weight training session or on an “off” day.

If you need to lose 15 pounds or more of fat, I’d recommend doing all three complexes, one for each day per week, on the days when you’re not doing your regular program.

If you want to use complexes to “tighten up” or just to become more athletic, I recommend you pick two or three complexes and perform them after your regular weight training session.

The Death of Traditional Cardio

Despite what hardcore bodybuilding magazines or traditional media try to tell you, training should be hard and rewarding. Traditional cardio doesn’t burn as many calories as complexes and can even lead to injury and overuse syndrome.

So wave goodbye to the soccer moms and skinny-fat guys on the treadmill, grab a barbell (or use just your bodyweight), and get one hell of a workout that actually strips the fat off.

Written by Riley Bestwick * All photos of Mike Scialabba were taken at MUST (Missoula Underground Strength Training Center)

Win AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners Nitor & Thermocin – We’d love to see some videos of Wannabebig members performing the complexes either in this article or your own complexes.

Submit your video on the forums and we’ll pick a few random winners and hook you up with some AtLarge Nutrition Fat Burners, Thermocin or Nitor to help you with your fat loss!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Complexes for Fat Loss discussion thread.

Shelby Starnes – Recreational Bodybuilder to Competitive Bodybuilder

There inevitably comes a time in every lifter’s life when he decides to buy posing trunks, start tanning, shave all his body hair, and get shredded. Ok, maybe most lifters won’t enter the world of competitive bodybuilding, but everyone reading this site still wants the best information on how to get leaner and more muscular. I’m here to provide you with better ways to avoid some of the most common mistakes that recreational or newly competitive bodybuilders make when trying to look their best.

Messing up in these critical areas will limit progress. They can set you backwards, and leave your body in a state that is less than what you deserve for the work that you put in.

Here to help you make the most of your time is competitive bodybuilder and nutritionist Shelby Starnes.  Shelby is quickly becoming known as one of the top diet and bodybuilding prep coaches and he’s here to lay down the law.

Get Your Questions answered by Shelby – Shelby will be a regular contributor in 2010, answering questions from the Wannabebig readers in his new Q & A column (new fancy name coming soon). If you have a training or nutrition question for Shelby, please ask it here. Shelby will be selecting questions to answer in his future Q & A issues.

Matt McGorry: Shelby, let’s just right into it. Many of the Wannabebig readers are regular people, doing their best to maximize their physiques.  Without a bodybuilding competition on the horizon, many lifters find themselves in a perpetual off-season, never really dieting down to see the muscle that they’ve build over years of training.  For the average guy looking to get shredded for the first time, or for the recreational bodybuilder looking to step onto the stage, what is the number one thing you recommend to these people?

Shelby Starnes: This will probably come off as pretty self-promotional, but the number one thing I suggest for anyone when they decide to compete is to hire a nutritionist to handle their prep: someone that has been there and done that, has had success with others, and knows what to do (and NOT do) to ensure success (i.e., maximum fat loss with minimal muscle loss, and possibly even muscle gain).

MM: That makes a good deal of sense.  What do you think the apprehension is about?

SS: I think a lot of the time, the ego gets in the way. Most trainers like to think that they “know everything already” when it comes to dieting, but go to any amateur bodybuilding show and you’ll quickly realize this is not the case at all.

I hired someone to help me prep for my first show, and I ended up winning the overall in the novice division as well as taking 2nd in the men’s open middleweight division, thereby qualifying myself for national-level competition. This would NOT have happened if I had tried to get ready for the competition on my own.

MM: So, it’s like when I refuse to call the repairman to fix the sink and my girlfriend gets pissed at me for causing it to leak all over the kitchen floor!

Say our lifter has picked a contest or decided to get ripped for summer and he’s started a diet.  After dropping a little bit of body fat, he comes to the realization that he has a muscle group that is greatly underdeveloped.  At what point in the dieting process do you think it becomes fruitless to try and bring up that lagging body part?  Is it worth to add in more specialized work once the diet has begun?

SS: It wouldn’t hurt, and it might produce some results depending on how “negligent” your training of those body parts was up to that point, but honestly when you’re dieting and in a caloric deficit, you’re not going to be adding much if any new muscle. Use the offseason to bring up lagging body parts…pre-contest is a time to retain muscle and shed fat.

MM: An enormous part of the fitness and bodybuilding industry includes making objective physiological changes into subjective catch phrases to entice the readers.  That being said, do you believe in “detail” training to “etch out” certain body parts?

SS: No.  Definition comes from diet and cardio, not from training.  Next question.

MM: Some lifters are a proponent of “dirty” bulking or consuming mass quantities of junk foods to put on size.  Is this ever a good idea, and do how do you think it affects the lifter if he has to diet down afterwards?

SS: I have yet to see how crap calories add quality to any physique in the long run. On the contrary, they can cause health issues, wreak havoc on hormones, and cause unnecessary fat gain.  Though there are definitely individuals who need a higher caloric intake (relative to others) to gain muscle, it should be done with proper foods and proper macronutrients, not a “shotgun” approach.  Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint.  Too many guys get too focused on what the scale will read tomorrow, instead of focusing on how they will look (and feel) next year and further down the road.

MM: What role do the power lifts play in bodybuilding?  Can a great competitive physique be built without them and do you think that they have a place in every bodybuilder’s arsenal?

SS: Basic compound free weight movements work wonders for building large amounts of muscle mass in a short amount of time.  They should definitely be part of every beginner and intermediate lifter’s arsenal.
There are definitely advanced trainers that no longer deadlift, squat, or bench due to injuries or personal preference, but all of these guys built their physiques with the basics.

MM: Powerlifters turned bodybuilders are described as having dense muscle. What exactly does this mean, and what significance might it have to a bodybuilder or someone just trying to look good naked?

SS: Powerlifters train with one focus: more weight on the bar!  This emphasis on progressive resistance is something all trainers could benefit from, but many bodybuilders get caught up in things like “getting a good pump”, “etching in detail”, and whatever else they read in the latest Muscle and Fiction magazine.

Progressive resistance for a bodybuilder is different than it is for a powerlifter though, as a bodybuilder’s goal is muscle hypertrophy and not merely moving a weight from point A to point B.

Therefore, we want to make the target muscles stronger, not make the lift more efficient by manipulating leverages (i.e., a wide stance squat vs. a close stance squat, or a sumo deadlift vs. a conventional deadlift).  We want to make our muscles do the work of getting stronger, and not to use momentum or rebound or any of the other methods powerlifters often take advantage of to move more weight.

The bottom line is that when you go from close stance squatting 315 for 10 reps, to close stance squatting 405 for 10 reps, you will have much much bigger thighs to show for it!

Additionally, the lower rep (<8) training that is common among powerlifters develops more myofibrillar hypetrophy as opposed to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the size of the myofibrils, the actual muscle fibers. This is the contractile tissue that does the actual work when weight training. When you think of myofibrillar hypertrophy, think stronger, more forceful muscles. This is the type of hypertrophy that powerlifters and weight lifters typically display, and is commonly associated with lower rep ranges, i.e., < 8 reps.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in size of the sarcoplasm (also called cytoplasm) and noncontractile proteins that are more or less the “fluid” in the muscle. It includes the glycogen, nutrients, mitochondria, capillaries, and other non-contractile elements.

When you think of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, think “bigger and fuller” muscles, but not necessarily “stronger” muscles.

This is the type of hypertrophy that advanced bodybuilders typically display, and is commonly associated with higher rep ranges, i.e., 10-20 reps.

MM: Moving back to the “cutting phase”, what place do intervals have in a bodybuilders’ pre-competition preparation?  How does interval training compare to low or moderate intensity steady-state cardio in terms of effectiveness?

SS: It depends on what type of diet the person is utilizing. If carbs are present in the diet, then high intensity cardio can be utilized. But if someone is utilizing a zero carb approach, lower intensity cardio should be their only method, because high intensity cardio will quickly burn muscle if glycogen levels are low.

Even when carbs are present though, I still like to use a mix of both high intensity interval cardio and more moderate intensity cardio, as both are beneficial to fat loss. Too much HIIT can be a drain on the CNS and can possibly interfere with weight training and recuperation.

MM: How should one’s lifting training change when transitioning from off-season to in-season?  It seems to be a common notion that lifters should transition from heavier lifting in the off-season to higher reps as they approach a competition dates.

SS: The most common mistake is to change your training at all. What built the muscle is what will keep the muscle while dieting. Suddenly changing from heavy progressive lifting to light high rep training is a great recipe for muscle loss. At the very end of a prep (when you’re under four weeks out from a contest), you might want to start lowering the volume a bit, and also the intensity, since you’re more susceptible to injuries and overtraining when body fat levels are very low and calories have been restricted for a while.

Don’t worry, you won’t magically lose muscle mass overnight.  The goal at this point is to simply maintain what you have and to AVOID INJURY.

MM: How about advanced methods of training (drop sets, forced reps, etc.) in the dieting phase?  It’s pretty common to see lifters get excited as their bodyfat levels drop, so they sometimes kick things up a notch.

SS: High intensity methods like this can be hard to recover from in a hypocaloric environment, so I would only use them sparingly, if at all. The goal during a diet is muscle retention, and not getting hurt.  Too many guys try to be too macho when getting ready for a show and often end up with torn muscles. Train smart to win.

MM: What are some major considerations when preparing  natural competitor versus a drug-using competitor both in terms of diet and training in the in-season and off-season phases?

SS: There aren’t any huge differences.  Everyone is still human, with a human physiology.  Natural trainers generally need to be a bit more careful to avoid muscle loss from low calories and excessive cardio (and they generally need to diet longer and slower to ensure maximum muscle retention), but the same physiological principles apply to both types of competitors.

MM: What is the main cause of a bodybuilder peaking too early for a competition?

SS: “Peaking too early” is usually an excuse for not coming in shape, rather than being an actual phenomenon. You can always be ready for a show early, and taper things back (ease up on cardio, add in calories, etc.), but you obviously never want be ready for a show later.

I always try to have my clients close to “stage ready” at about two weeks out so we can play around with things and see where they look their best in terms of fullness, dryness, etc.

With that said, sometimes people DO diet too hard too soon… and end up losing muscle in the process. They get too caught up in seeing the scale change, and being “hardcore” about dieting when the truth is that it’s not about who can diet the hardest, but who can diet the smartest.

This is more common with novices, and is another reason I recommend working with a nutritionist during the pre-contest journey.

Definition like this comes from diet and cardio, not from training

MM: Ok, we’ve been talking a lot about competitive approaches, but let’s not forget that we have tons of members on Wannabebig who don’t want to get below 5% and don the posing trunks. They want to be in great shape (let’s say 10-12% body fat), look great, and more importantly, stay looking great year round as they add lean muscle. What is your advice for them?

SS: The same principles apply – the lifter would just need to back off and maintain when they hit 10% rather than pushing for further fat loss.

The requirements for “maintenance” will vary widely from individual to individual, but generally speaking, cardio would be reduced to a few sessions weekly and carbs could gradually be added back into the diet to keep weight from dropping further and also to support heavy lifting

Also, whilst it’s a lovely idea being able to maintain 10% and add lean muscle, unless you are genetically predisposed to a leaner body, this is going to be unfeasible. The non-competitive bodybuilder looking to add 15lbs of pure muscle will most likely have to venture above 10% bodyfat to do this.

Now let’s be clear, I am not saying you have to excessively bulk and get fat to gain muscle. But, if you’re someone that has to do a great deal of cardio and be very strict about diet in order to stay under 10% bodyfat, then you’re going to be limiting muscle and strength gains by doing this year round.  On the contrary, the building and cutting phases don’t have to be taken to the same extreme as a competitive bodybuilder, but some fluctuations in bodyfat percentage is mandatory for those seeking big physique changes.

For those who are very close to being satisfied with their body, then they can really take their time in making adjustments.  But I think it’s safe to say that you wouldn’t be reading this interview unless you had big plans for building your body.

MM: Well, that’s all the questions I’ve got for now, Shelby.  Thanks for helping me beat down, bully, and steal the milk money from some of the biggest misconceptions and myths in our industry.  Hopefully the readers will heed your advice and let it guide them on the way to their best body.

SS: No worries and remember if you want me to answer your questions in my future Wannabebig Q & A columns, just ask it here.

Written by Matt McGorry

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – An Interview with Shelby Starnes discussion thread.

About Shelby Starnes

Shelby is a successful National-level Bodybuilder & Powerlifter and has helped hundreds of athletes get into the greatest shape of their lifes.

  • 2009 NPC Central States Championships – 1st place Middleweight and Overall
  • B.A. in Psychology with Departmental Honors – estimated completion May, 2008
  • 2nd place 198-lb class – 2004 APF Michigan State Powerlifting Championships
  • Overall Novice Champion – Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005
  • 2nd place open middleweight- Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005 (nationally qualified)
  • 5th place middleweight – NPC Junior Nationals, 2006

Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder looking for pre contest/off season assistance or simply just striving to achieve a specific physique, Shelby is available to set up custom diet and training programs to suit your goals.

For more information on his diet and training programs and prices, see here.