Elemental Fat Loss: Six Weeks to Grecian Proportions

Summer is right around the corner, just in time to make you feel guilty about your indulgence in one too many late night pizza runs. If there’s some holiday excess still loitering about your waistline, then worry not: today we’re talking fat loss…rapid fat loss.

I wish everyone could take the long, slow, and steady approach to dieting, but the reality is that even the best of us succumb to long days at the office and long nights at the bar.

Some of these recommendations will run counter to popular magazine rack and online bodybuilding protocols, but that’s okay. Just because juice monsters can lose fat on a high volume training protocol doesn’t mean that you can. I also urge you to avoid the ubiquitous online forum recommendation to combine high-intensity interval training, fat loss complexes, and ketogenic dieting into one program, for reasons I will explain later.

If you are someone who needs to reach a target bodyweight in a very short amount of time, but don’t want to turn into a social pariah or neurotic fitness freak at the same time, well, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive in.

On Having a Plan

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met trainees who start their fat loss programs by “cutting carbs,” “eating clean,” or doing some “metabolic training.” Even worse, I’ve seen all three combined together accompanied by a diet of protein shakes, isolated branched-chain amino acids, and sugared post-workout concoctions. The claim that some supplement is critical to the success of the program means the program itself is suspect and probably not a real program in the first place.

To be successful at fat loss, we need to move beyond trite diet and exercise prescriptions and think about the individual person who will be following whatever protocol is outlined. We all bring to the table different quirks and idiosyncrasies, both psychological and physiological, which make it impossible to design a one-size-fits-all fat loss method.

So what can we do? What does a real fat loss program look like? A real fat loss program takes into account all of the strengths and limitations a given trainee may possess, meaning that at some level, the perfect fat loss program is the one designed by the dieter himself. Even if I were to lay out some hypothetical ‘perfect rapid fat loss program,’ the chances are scant that any given trainee would be able to follow it and succeed. This is why good coaches and nutritionists are in such high demand.

I ask that you come to the realization right now that you will break your diet or training program at some point over the next six weeks. It is not the end of the world and you are not a bad person. Aim for 90% adherence to this plan and don’t worry about the remaining 10%. Be flexible, because no plan survives contact with the enemy, no matter how resolute you may be. By remaining cognizant of this reality, you’re more likely to stop after that first or second cookie, before you turn one dietary transgression into an evening long binge.

Follow Ryan’s 6 week rapid fat loss plan and you’ll have babes like this asking you play volleyball from all angles!

Creating a Diet

By designing a meal plan that caters to your taste buds, you’ll establish a certain level of do-ability that will keep you on track come that fourth, or fifth, or sixth week. Some individuals fall back on eating the same foods day in and day out – this phenomenon explains the success of clean eating, at least until a cheat day – in order to keep calories under control. I prefer that folks include a variety of foods in their diet as each food type imparts its own set of benefits.

Bodybuilding nutritionists like Alan Aragon, M.S., break foods into six categories:

  • protein
  • fruit
  • non-starchy vegetables
  • starches
  • fats
  • dairy

Clearly, room exists for additional subdivision – eggs could be classified as both a protein and a fat – but in general, aiming for a variety of foods from each of the aforementioned categories will take care of both your macro-nutritional and micro-nutritional needs.

Before you begin selecting foods to eat, you’ll first need to figure out your calories. Rather than set an arbitrary daily caloric goal and fill in macronutrients with ratios, I prefer to build up from the macronutrients to a caloric total.

Protein: Set this anywhere from 1.5g/lb to 2.0g/lb of total bodyweight. Protein is the most satiating of macronutrients and protects against muscle loss during drastic caloric cuts. I can’t do the topic justice here, but there are innumerable resources available online that discuss the critical importance of protein in a bodybuilding diet.

Carbohydrates: For our purposes, eat as few as you can get away with. You can consume vegetables in unlimited quantities, and you should strive to get in at least two servings of vegetables a day. Ignore their caloric value as the fiber content more than offsets their negligible caloric load.

One of the big problems that low-calorie diets impose on the dieter is the threat of insufficient micronutrition. Abuse of stimulants like caffeine can leach compounds such as calcium from the body, bringing adverse effects on mental health, physical health, and body composition. Vegetables can make up for such abuses.

Fat:  If you don’t already have a stash, pick up a bottle of fish oil capsules. You’ll want to take anywhere from 6g to 12g of total fish oil per day to meet your daily requirement of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Beyond that, I wouldn’t worry much about adding fat into your diet. You’ll get enough fat from your protein sources, and frankly, fats from oils and nuts tend to add up quite quickly. Ditch added fats in the short-term and get your fats in an ancillary fashion from dairy or oils used in cooking.

Let’s take our generic 170-pound lifter at 13% body fat. He’s walking around with roughly 22 pounds of fat on his frame, leaving him with 148 pounds of lean tissue. Most guys need to drop a few notches into the single digit body fat range to sport abs, so let’s set a goal of 10 pounds of fat loss for this six-week period.

If you want to sport a set of abs like Allen Cress, you’ll need to pay close attention to your diet

Crunching the Numbers

Presuming a slight loss in lean tissue – you’ll always lose some lean mass in the form of water, stored muscle glycogen, and connective tissue – our trainee will end up weighing in at a total bodyweight of 158 pounds. That leaves him with 12 pounds of fatty tissue and about 7.5% body fat.

To prioritize lean muscle retention, he’ll begin by eating 1.5g/lb of current bodyweight in protein, giving us 255g of total protein per day.

With carbohydrates, he’ll limit himself to two pieces of fruit per day and whatever comes along with his vegetables, sauces, and dairy sources. On a given day, he won’t exceed more than 0.5g/lb of current bodyweight in carbohydrate intake, leaving us with 85g of total carbohydrate to play with per day.

Fat is a bit tricky. Depending on cuts of meat, means of preparation, and type of dairy, this value can vary quite a bit. Because the intent here is to minimize calories, our hypothetical trainee won’t be adding any fat beyond his daily quaffing of fish oil.

Under normal dieting circumstances, 0.5g/lb of bodyweight is a good number to shoot for, but since we’re attacking this program with the purpose of rapid fat loss, we’ll drop that number down to 0.3g/lb of bodyweight, or about 51g of fat for our 170-lb lifter.

The 255g of protein nets 1020 calories, 85g of carbohydrate nets 340 calories, and 51g of fat nets 459 calories. This leaves us with a total of 1819 calories per day. Our lifter is going to be training hard, adding in as much low-intensity cardio as he can muster. If he’s exercising 8 to 10 hours per week, he’ll be burning anywhere between 3000 and 3500 calories per day. In calculating these numbers, I’m ignoring the negligible amount of calories that vegetables contribute to the diet, and you should too.

This is our lifter’s baseline diet and the one he’ll follow the majority of the time.  You can go through the same process to design your own individualized fat-loss diet plan. Now let’s talk about making adjustments based on training protocol.

Targeted Carbohydrate Spikes

We outlined the baseline diet above, but now we need to tailor things a bit to support high-intensity weight lifting. The best way to go about this is by incorporating intelligent workout nutrition.

Before and after your workout, you’ll want to consume some combination of protein and carbohydrate. This can come in a variety of forms: a protein shake mixed with milk, oatmeal and eggs, steak and rice, or any other combination of a lean protein source and a starch and/or fruit. Food subtypes do not matter. If I were to quibble, I’d suggest you consume some mix of both slow and fast acting proteins– dairy is great for this purpose – and rely more on starches than fruits or vegetables for your carbohydrate sources here.

As far as amounts are concerned, trainees should aim to consume a total of 0.75g/lb of carbohydrate, split up into before and after exercise allotments. Most people prefer to take in more of their dietary carbohydrates after their workout so they can eat a larger meal. This carbohydrate bolus is an addition to the baseline diet above. Eat your usual meal quantity of protein before and after your workout, but rather than an austere lot of meat and vegetables, you get to include some starches. Depending on your bodyweight, this will contribute an additional 400 to 800 calories to your workout days.

Note, these spikes should not be used to support cardiovascular workouts; this extra should be used only around resistance training workouts. And don’t go trying to add in additional workouts so you can eat more food–the point here is fat loss, not muscle gain, and we need to maintain a sufficient caloric deficit to drive as rapid a rate of fat loss as possible without compromising too much of your sanity or muscle mass.

Now it’s time to address what many of you were hoping for–the free meal. Yes, once per week you get to load up on a reasonable plateful of food without worrying about its specific caloric or macronutrient content. Retain some sanity here. I encourage you to eat this meal out at a restaurant because it’s all too easy to find yourself downing an entire carton of ice cream and then some at home, and turning what was a single meal into a multi-hour binge. This free meal will replace one of your normal meals during the day, and if you can time it so it comes after one of your resistance training workouts, all the better.


I’m a no-frills guy when it comes to supplements. Certainly there’s room here for thermogenic aids or other fat loss products if that’s something you want to invest in. Below I’ve outlined what I consider to be the supplements necessary to promote optimal health. If you want to invest in other products, I have no problems with that, just realize it’s not necessary to do so if you’re on a budget.

Multi-vitamin: Helps protect against micro-nutritional deficiencies. Consider taking twice the dose during phases of aggressive fat loss. (Multi-Plus is a great option here.)

Fish oil: Take six to 12 one gram capsules a day.

Calcium: Increases fat excretion and boosts testosterone. Take 500-750 mg a day.

Vitamin D: I go with the standard 5,000 IUs. Boosts strength and athletic performance.

Creatine: One of the few supplements that actually works. Take 3-5g a day, or roughly a teaspoon’s worth. (Creatine 500 is a superb choice)

Whey/Casein Protein Powder: It’s protein, it’s low-fat, it’s cheap. What’s not to like? It’s also a good source of branched chain amino acids. (Nitrean is a perfect choice as it contains a blend of whey, casein, and egg proteins.)

Caffeine: Boosts fat loss, manages fatigue, contains cardio-protective benefits. Take as needed, or just drink coffee.

L-Tyrosine: Improves mood and is a thyroid hormone precursor. Take 1 – 3g daily.

All of this should give you a good idea of how to set up a diet and supplement regimen.

Don’t try and make it too complicated. Put simply, meal frequency and timing doesn’t matter. What does matter is how many calories you consume per day, consumption of proper amounts of macronutrients, and the variety of food types eaten (Daniel Roberts does a nice job of explaining this here – Nutrient Timing – When Science and Marketing Collide). Beyond that, it’s all a wash.

When it comes to training for fat loss, I have some very specific ideas that may rub you as odd. Trust me on this one, and I think you’ll find that the results speak for themselves.



To retain muscle while dieting, you must train heavy. To train heavy, you have to make some serious effort in the gym. There will be no volume training in this program; I’d much rather someone cut calories or amp up cardio than try to do more work in the weight room. It’s a good idea to keep the purpose of each element in our fat loss program in perspective. The purpose of your diet is to lose fat. The purpose of low intensity cardio is to lose fat and promote recovery. Weight training helps you lose fat only indirectly, so don’t get confused and try to add sets and reps to ‘cut up.’

To train heavy, you have to make some serious effort in the gym.

During a diet, I’m a big fan of a three-day-a-week split. This is a nice compromise between a minimalist strength-only approach, and a more traditional four-times-a-week maintenance or bulking routine. There’s no reason to get sexy with training unless you want to trick yourself into feeling like you’ve progressed more than you have.

One of the most elegant programs I’ve developed was inspired by Matt Perryman, owner of Impulse Fitness, a New Zealand-based consulting practice. The purpose of this workout is not to gain muscle, generate fat loss, or contribute to your fat loss progress. Instead, it exists to mitigate the negative side effects of your diet. For those seeking extreme leanness, stress management is crucial, particularly when pushing your body into dangerously lean territory. This simply can’t be accomplished with the high-stress rigors of demanding, high-intensity workouts.

This workout forms the basis of a training program to which we’ll add low-intensity cardio (which will be described later). It is technically a four-day split across two weeks to allow for more recovery. Here’s the basic template:

Week One

Monday:  Day 1 – Upper Body Heavy

 1. Barbell Bench Press (any variant) – 5×3 – 80-85% 1RM
2. Barbell Row (any variant) – 5×3 – 80-85% 1RM
3. Face Pulls – 4×10 – 60s rest between sets
4. Barbell Curl – 2×6

Wednesday: Day 3 – Lower Body Heavy

1. Deadlift – 5×3 – 80-85% 1RM
2. Any Single Leg Exercise – 4×10 – 60s rest between sets
3. Calf Raises – 3×10 – 60s rest between sets
4. Weighted Ab Exercise – 2×8

Friday: Day 5 – Upper Body Medium
1. Overhead Press – 3×5
2. Weighted Chin-up – 3×5
3. Side Delt Raise – 2×10 – 60s rest between sets
4. Triceps Pressdown  – 2×8

Week Two

Monday: Day 1 – Lower Body Medium

1. Back Squat – 3×5
2. Glute-Ham Raise – 4×10 – 60s rest
3. Calf Raises – 3×10 – 60s rest
4. Weighted Ab Exercise – 2×8

Wednesday: Day 3 – Upper Body Heavy

Thursday: Repeat Day 1

Friday: Day 5 – Lower Body Heavy

Saturday: Repeat Day 3

Prioritize Recovery, Utilize Low-Intensity Cardio

Fat loss gurus think ‘fat loss’ and then think ‘high intensity interval training,’ and begin by prescribing things like sprint sessions with relative abandon. I’ve seen a few mainstream fitness books recommend three-day-a-week sprint interval sessions added to a mix of fat loss complexes. Goodbye fat loss, hello binging and overtraining.

In this program, we won’t waste time trying to get an ‘afterburn’ from complexes or high-intensity cardio – they tend to be myopic approaches to fat loss anyhow – and instead we’ll focus on recovery-promoting low-intensity cardio. Sixty minutes of low-intensity cardio will burn more than 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training for the simple reason that one can maintain lower intensity work for a longer period of time. Plus, it’s relaxing and facilitates recovery by clearing lactic acid and improving glycogen uptake.

In isolation, intervals aren’t a problem, but no one bothers to look at the context in which research studies on the effects of high-intensity interval training have been performed. It’s worth noting that all research on interval training has taken place using subjects who relied upon interval training as their sole form of exercise. As most of you can already guess, rarely are intervals the only form of exercise in a given fat loss program.

Interval training often gets combined with full-body fat loss complexes. Suddenly you have folks hitting legs with serious training intensity and volume three, four, five times a week. You can’t, in this case, have your cake and eat it too. Interval training is great for improving performance, but its impact on fat loss beats out low-intensity forms of exercise only by the narrowest of margins per unit of time invested.

Keeping in mind that our goal is to maintain as much muscle as possible while stimulating maximal fat loss, this plan begins with 45 minutes of low-intensity cardiovascular six days per week. Walking on an incline, easy biking, anything that’s going to facilitate extra caloric burn fits the bill. You’re in a massive deficit as it is, and trying to garner extra fat loss through more intensive exercise is plain dumb.

As the diet progresses, if you aren’t losing the expected two pounds per week, you can slowly up the duration of the cardiovascular work. Begin by increasing total cardio up to six 60-minute sessions per week. Again, this does not need to be done on a treadmill. Many people have daily routines that naturally tend toward this sort of aerobic activity. If you’re one of those lucky people, there’s no need to tack on additional low-intensity cardio.

I’d hesitate to prescribe more exercise than this. Your body will be in a huge caloric deficit and won’t be able to tolerate much more activity unless you’re willing to invest in some pharmaceuticals. As such, I’d urge you to be realistic about how much fat loss you can accomplish. Sure, we could cut calories more, but with a deficit approaching 50% of maintenance calories, the fat loss you desire may just take more time.


To help you get started, I’ve created a bulleted list to use for reference as you embark on this program. Refer to this if you need to refresh yourself on the information contained within this article but are short on time.

  • Don’t be haphazard in planning your training or nutrition. Even though you’ll need to exhibit flexibility during the program, if you know where you’re headed, you’ll be able to make adjustments on the fly and stay on the path to progress. Aim for 90% adherence to your given meal plan. This way, if you to break your diet, it won’t turn into an evening-long abusive binge of your body and your psyche.
  • Be realistic about how quickly you’ll be able to lose fat. Moderate deficit diets can net up to 1.5lb of fat loss per week. Given the caloric deficit in our plan, you can expect up to 2lb of fat loss or perhaps more per week. Fatter individuals may lose weight quicker, while those who are already lean may find weight loss comes more slowly.
  • Set protein at 1.5g/lb of starting body weight. Set fat at 0.3g/lb of starting body weight. Set carbohydrate levels as low as you can tolerate. For most folks, this means a ton of vegetables and a few pieces of fruit per day. As long as in you’re in the neighborhood of 0.5g/lb, you’ll be fine. Take six to 12 grams of fish oil per day.
  • Eat a total of 0.75g/lb of starting bodyweight split into before and after your workout. Eat a typical meal’s worth of protein during these meals. Incorporate these carbohydrate spikes only around resistance training workouts. Have one free meal per week. Make this a plateful of your favorite stuff, and don’t worry much about the macronutrient composition. Try to get a variety of foods from all six food groups: protein, fat, dairy, non-starchy vegetables, starches, and fruit.
  • Keep supplements simple. Add a basic allotment of the following: multi-vitamin, fish oil, calcium, vitamin D, creatine, whey/casein protein blend, caffeine, and l-tyrosine. Additional fat loss supplementation is just gravy.
  • Follow a low-volume, high intensity, low to moderate frequency training program. The one listed above may just fit the bill.


It’s my hope this program casts a new light on rapid fat loss for readers both new and old. What works doesn’t always have to be overly complex, nor does it have to be generic and overly simple. There are innumerable approaches to fat loss that work, and searching for the best fat loss program is an exercise in futility.

I prefer to work within the constraints and the preferences of my clients, a process which often involves a realistic assessment of a given person’s psychology and physiology. I’ve tried to address those concerns as broadly as possible while providing the most effective fat loss methodology I can muster, leaving room for individuals to adapt the program to their needs.

Now stop reading, and get started!

Written by Ryan Zielonka

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 – Elemental Fat Loss: Six Weeks to Grecian Proportions discussion thread.

About Ryan Zielonka

Ryan Zielonka is a writer, a researcher, and a public speaker.

Ryan struggled with obesity in his adolescent and teen years and decided in his freshman year of college to exercise with regularity. As a result he lost 16 inches from his waistline and discarded his size 44 jeans for a size 28. Ever since, the world of exercise science and nutritional biochemistry has never ceased to capture his imagination.

Ryan is a regular contributing editor and columnist for Wannabebig and his work has been published in T-Muscle and the Alan Aragon Research Review, and you can find him blogging on anything that strikes his fancy at www.ryanzielonka.com.

BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 3 – Very Low Carb Diets

Sure, you can always pick up unsolicited advice from your local locker room guru, but what are the chances of it actually being good advice? Unfortunately, the odds aren’t in your favor.

That’s why we gave renowned nutritionist and successful bodybuilder Shelby Starnes his own column to answer your training and dieting questions. You see, unlike the big guy at your gym, Shelby has worked with hundreds of athletes who are looking for the same thing as you: a ripped, muscular physique.

In this installment, Shelby shares how to transform yourself from a sugar-burning fatty to a fat-burning champ by using Very Low-Carb dieting.

Read it, learn it, and apply it…and then print out a copy and give it to your locker room guru.

Is It Me or the Diet?

Q: Low carb diets always make me feel lousy. Does that mean they aren’t for me?

Shelby: There are a few possibilities here:

You may have the diet set up incorrectly in terms of macronutrient amounts and ratios. Review your diet and make sure that your amounts of protein, carbs, and fat are where they should be. See my Simple Guide to Very Low Carb Diets Guidebook for specific recommendations.

You may not be giving the diet enough time. Switching over from being a “sugar burner” (who predominantly uses glucose from carbohydrate as a fuel source) to being a “fat burner” (who predominantly used fatty acids as a fuel source) takes a while. For some people this transition period is only a couple of days, while for others it may take a week or even longer. Not only must your diet be set up properly (see the first bullet point), but you must also give it enough time to “do its magic.” Once you make the switch from sugar burner to fat burner you will feel a lot better. Your body will feel more stable all of the time, without the constant ups and downs from blood sugar fluctuations associated with a carbohydrate-based diet.

They may indeed not be for you. If you still feel lousy after following a properly setup, very low carb diet for a couple of weeks, it’s very possible that your metabolism is better suited to a diet with more carbohydrates. I would suggest looking into carbohydrate cycling (see this article – Carb Rotation – An In-depth Guide to Personalizing Your Diet).  This another very effective diet style that implements carbohydrates in varying amounts on different days. See my Troponin Nutrition Macronutrient Guidebook for more details.

Too Much Fat = Too Much Fat

Q: Is there a limit to the fat one should be eating during low-carb periods?

Shelby: Yes, it’s definitely possible to consume too much fat on any diet. Although most of the “magic” of a very low carb diet lies in its hormonal and metabolic effects, calories still play a large role.  If you’re consuming too many, your fat loss will be slow to nonexistent.

I personally like to keep fat at about half a gram per pound of lean bodyweight (in pounds).  So if you’re 200 pounds and 15% body fat, your lean body mass would be 170 pounds. Multiply that by .5 to get 85 grams of fat per day (765 calories).

Good fat sources include fish oil, evening primrose oil, olive oil, macadamia nut oil, tree nuts, and animal fats found in eggs, salmon, and grass-fed beef.

Fat as Fuel

Q: Is it true that if you stay on a low-carb diet for long enough and provide your body with enough fats, your body will eventually begin use fat for fuel on a regular basis?

Shelby: Yes, I touched on this a bit in the first question when I discussed the switch from being a “sugar burner” to being a “fat burner”. On a carbohydrate-based diet, the body is accustomed to using glucose (sugar) for fuel, which it gets from the carbohydrates that we eat.

In fact, if you don’t get enough fat in your diet your body will horde its own stores, making it very difficult to lean out.

If you keep carbs low for long enough and also supply your body with enough dietary fat, it will “learn” to use fat as its preferred fuel source.  This is an ideal state, and typically feels much better (mentally as well as physically) than the constant ups and downs associated with the blood sugar fluctuations of a carbohydrate-based diet.

Many people refer to this state as “ketosis”, but in my opinion and experience you don’t have to reach true ketosis for a low carb diet to work. So don’t get caught up in what color your “ketostix” turn when you pee on them. Just keep carbs low and protein and fat at reasonable levels, and in time your body will change from being a “sugar burner” to being a “fat burner”.

As for how long it will take to get into this state? It depends on a host of factors including diet specifics, genetics, hormonal profile, and training specifics (volume, intensity, frequency, etc).

Just Where the Heck Do I Stick the Carbs?

Q: How should carbohydrates be used in a very low carbohydrate diet? Pre-workout?  Post-workout? What if you’re doing post-workout cardio? Also, what are the best carb sources for a very low carb diet?

Shelby: It depends on what variation of a very low carb diet you’re referring to. For the version I outline in my e-book, there are no carbs in the diet except for the weekly refeed in addition to the incidental carbs you get daily in foods like nuts and vegetables. If you’re not ready to go that hardcore yet, try limiting your carbs to just Meal 1 and pre- and post-workout.  Good carb choices include whole food complex sources like oats, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Low GI fruits like berries, peaches, cherries, and oranges would be all right too, in moderation. If you’re going to include some fruit, I would suggest mixing it with a complex carbohydrate (something like oatmeal and blueberries would be perfect) so you’re not just getting simple sugars.

Regarding post-workout cardio, I always advise waiting until after you finish cardio to have your post-workout meal, regardless of whether it contains carbs or not. You’re in a prime fat-burning state immediately post-workout and want to capitalize on that. Waiting another 30-60 minutes to eat is not going to make you shrivel up and lose all your muscle.

 Good carb choices include whole food complex sources like oats & brown rice

A Very Simple Question for a Very Low-Carb Diet

Q: My question is in regards to fiber. During my refeed I plan to eat one of my favorite carb snacks, which is high-fiber oatmeal. Out of the 36 grams of carbs, 10 are fiber. Do I count these towards my macros for the day?

Shelby: No, only count starches and sugars.

Low Carb in the Off-Season

Q: Do you think low carb diets are effective for lean bulking, or is a more balanced diet more effective

Shelby: You definitely want insulin release in the offseason, so carbs are a must.  How much and when will depend on your individual body type. Too much and you’ll gain fat, too little and you won’t optimize lean gains. The specific numbers can vary greatly from one individual to the next, which is why I never use “cookie cutter” diets with any of my clients – I always start out with a base plan that I think best fits the person’s body type, then monitor and adjust as we go along.

A very simple way to structure offseason carbohydrate intake is to eat more carbs on your training days (especially around your workouts), and less on your rest days.  This type of carb cycling ensures you get carbs when you need them most and minimizes them when you don’t need them, which in turn allows for more fat burning. 

For most people, keeping carbs sky-high day in and day out will only result in massive fat gain.  It might be fun to see the scale moving up every day after a diet, but when you look in the mirror a few months later, don’t be surprised to see all your hard work thrown out the window.

Another option for those that are more carb-sensitive is what is often referred to as a “targeted ketogenic diet”, in which you keep carbs very low during all times except for the pre-, during, and post-workout window. This is another approach that optimizes carb intake at the right times and keeps it very low at others. With this type of approach, you may also need to include a weekly re-feed of some sort, where you eat a high amount of carbohydrate (perhaps two to three grams per pound of bodyweight) for just one day.

As with any diet approach, nothing is set in stone, and you’ll need to experiment, monitor, and adjust as needed to keep things headed in the right direction.

Bottom line: Carbs are not evil, but they are a double-edged sword. They can contribute greatly to anabolism (muscle-building) and anti-catabolism (prevention of muscle breakdown), but they can also inhibit fat burning as well as store fat. Manage them properly to make sure you’re maximizing their benefits and minimizing their detriments.

The Two (Possibly Three) “Must-Have” Supplements

Q: What supplements do you recommend taking on a very low carb diet?

Shelby: Two “must-haves” are essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) and a multivitamin. I also suggest adding a high potency green tea extract for its health benefits and ability to stimulate  metabolism.

Essential Fatty Acids: These are fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own, so they must come from your diet. There are two types of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. The omega-3 acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and these are found in fish oils. Omega-6 acids are very prevalent in most diets, but it’s a good idea to supplement with gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is found in evening primrose oil and also in borage oil.

Suggested dosing: a minimum of 3 grams of fish oil per day, and 2 to 3 grams of evening primrose oil.

Fish Oil is an excellent source of Omega-3 Fatt Acids

Multivitamin: Because fruits and vegetables are minimized on this diet, it’s important to supplement with a daily multivitamin. A fruit and veggie supplement like JuicePlus would be a great addition as well.

Green tea: Known for its numerous health benefits and metabolism-increasing properties,  green tea is an excellent addition to any diet. Green tea is also in a class of natural substances known as adaptogens. Adaptogens are known for their ability to help the body combat stress and fatigue as well as to maintain homeostasis and well-being.

Suggested dosing: The “magic” of green tea is mainly due to its high levels of catechin polyphenols, namely epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Different extracts contain different percentages of EGCG, so read the labels carefully.

For dosing purposes, I recommend getting 200–400 mg of EGCG, 1–3 times per day (pre-cardio and pre-workout especially). Drinking green tea is another way to obtain its benefits and also serves as an excellent appetite suppressant. A cup of hot green tea in between meals is a great way to keep hunger at bay (other calorie-free beverages like black coffee and diet soda will help here too).

Also note that since fiber is pretty scarce on a very low carb diet, it would be advisable to add a couple of servings of a sugar-free fiber supplement per day.  Any psyllium-husk based supplement will do. Take 1 teaspoon mixed in at least 8 ounces of water, twice daily.

Written by Shelby Starnes

Got a question for Shelby? – The next edition will be on Cardio for Fat Loss and Conditioning. You can either post your questions on the forums (Next Q&A: Cardio for Fat Loss and Conditioning) or you can send them via email to Shelby at askshelby@wannabebig.com. Be on the look-out for the next installment of his Q and A!

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 – Bodybuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes – Vol 3 – Very low Carb Diets 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.

Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – Key Principles to Growth

There’s a reason why the book Eat Less and Exercise More never made it to the top of the bestseller lists, yet “Lift Progressively Heavier Weights and Eat Consistently” is the mantra of every successful lifter. People do not like the simple reality about what it takes to improve their bodies.

The depressing truth is that the majority of gym goers and Internet posters have just not achieved the overnight growth they expected.

They agonize over the most intricate details of time under tension, insulin regulation, muscle protein synthesis, carbohydrate source, protein source, nutrient timing, testosterone and growth hormone spikes, cortisol manipulation, being anabolic, rep ranges, exercise selection and so on.

All that this vacillation accomplishes is to prevent them from acknowledging that their own lack of commitment and consistency is the reason they don’t even look like they lift. I blame the Internet as well as our innate desire for a shortcut, there’s too much information at our fingertips. Combine ignorance with wanting to believe and you’ve got a recipe for zero results and 90% of all the posts on bodybuilding websites (the 10% being Wannabebig 8) ).

So here we are, with what we believe is the best muscle building program out there, but we can’t in good conscience just pile on more info. Rather than ram it down your throats with promises of huge gains, we’re going to give you the science behind why it works, so you’re not only armed with a program for getting as big as you possibly can, but you’re also able to critically evaluate what everyone else out there is trying to sell you.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” (Oliver Wendell Holmes), which is a cool way of saying — the more I learn, the more I realize that only a few things truly matter.

We’re not going to stop you jumping straight to the HCT-12 Training Program. After all, if you want to be the biggest you’ve ever been, you’re going to have to put it into practice, but like Oliver Wendell Holmes said, if you bear with us, and push through to the other side, everything in the bodybuilding world will become a lot simpler, and your physique will never be the same again.

Download the HCT-12 Bodybuilding Program (3.29MB)


The human body, your body and mine, are the result of millions of years of evolution. In the 100,000 years or so that we’ve been around, our environments have changed, but the internal mechanisms responsible for growth and the stimuli to which they react have not.

The mechanisms that allowed us to adapt to our surroundings, to the tasks that kept us alive and nourished, have not changed, and will not change in your lifetime. So barring external agents that can manipulate our DNA and/or hormonal status (i.e. drugs), what works for getting people bigger is the same now as it was and always will be.

Muscle growth (hypertrophy if you will, but let’s keep it simple) is an adaptive process that is stimulated by a very specific set of demands, they apply to you, me and every able bodied person on the planet. You’re just not that special!

We’ll get to the mechanisms of growth shortly, but just so we’re clear, the process of adaptation is an evolutionary survival trait. We react to stressors both acute (short term) and chronic (long term), with acute and chronic processes. When cold, we get goose bumps, our hairs stand on end trapping air for insulation, and then we shiver to generate heat if this isn’t helping. When hot we sweat, to cool our skin through evaporation.

When regularly faced with a heavy enough object that makes us struggle to move it, we develop bigger, stronger muscles to make sure we can move it with less effort next time. And that is it, Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand, as it applies to growth.

Muscle growth is an adaptive process that is stimulated by a very specific set of demands


Your muscles are comprised of Motor Units (MU) — the collective term for the motor neuron (a nerve) and all the muscle fibers it innervates/controls.

The motor neuron is connected to the spinal cord which in turn connects to the brain; collectively, the Central Nervous System (CNS). Include muscle in there and we get the Neuromuscular System, in this context we’ll simply refer to this as the Nervous System.

When the Nervous System (in response to a load) sends a signal to the muscle to contract, the motor neurons instruct the attached muscle fibers to shorten and tighten, creating tension. The greater the load, the greater the number of motor units needed, the greater the contraction, and the greater the tension (it is this ‘tension to which the term Time Under Tension refers).

When muscle fibers contract they deplete cellular energy, and if they contract hard enough and long enough cellular energy depletes completely (AKA fatigue). Wernbom et al show that cellular energy expenditure affects growth, possibly because the reduction in cellular energy renders the muscle fiber stiffer (less elastic) increasing the potential for damage.

What that means to us is that not only does the load need to be heavy enough to create the requisite tension, but that the load needs to be lifted repeatedly enough (i.e. fatigued) to fully stimulate growth.

When enough tension is applied to the muscle fibers for enough time, chemical messages are sent to the nucleus of the cells (where your genes are) within the muscle, and instructions (held in your genes) are sent back detailing how to create that particular muscle protein from the amino acids in the blood, this is called muscle protein synthesis. Amino acids from the bloodstream are integrated in to the muscle fibers to increase their cross-sectional area, increasing their strength potential, so that the stress of the next training session won’t be as disruptive.

The size of the muscle is determined by the total size (or cross-sectional area) of all the muscle fibers within it and the cross–sectional area of a muscle fiber is directly proportional to its strength capacity. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. Growth is the result of adding new proteins to the muscle and keeping them there.

Muscle Protein Synthesis increases over a few hours after lifting, peaking at 24 hours and returning to normal over the next 48 hours, so 72 hours after lifting promoted Muscle Protein Synthesis, it reverts back to normal.

The body is in a constant state of flux, and in the muscle this pits Muscle Protein Synthesis (anabolism) against Muscle Protein Breakdown (catabolism). For most non-lifters the effects of this competition are evened out over time with neither overcoming the other. In other words, they neither build nor lose muscle (homeostasis).

Growth depends on Muscle Protein Synthesis outpacing Muscle Protein Breakdown, or if you like, the rate of anabolism has to be greater than the rate of catabolism (Tipton and Ferrando 2008). This small lead accumulates over the weeks, months and years to make your muscles visibly bigger.

Lifting increases Muscle Protein Synthesis, so does eating protein (amino acids). Lifting with amino acids in your bloodstream (after eating protein) increases it further; the effect is synergistic and they do this through the same pathway. This pathway or signal chain is called Akt-mTOR (Goldspink and Yang, 2001, Goldspink 2002, 2003, Ratkevicius, 2008).

Of the two, tension has the largest effect on Muscle Protein Synthesis. This may seem obvious but then some people do believe that just eating protein will give them big muscles. It won’t. They need a reason to grow.

If the stress imposed by lifting is progressively increased the muscle will further adapt (by getting bigger and therefore stronger), but if that stress isn’t repeated, then new muscle isn’t required, so it will be lost to Muscle Protein Breakdown.

Similarly if the stress is repeated but does not progressively increase then the muscle will go through a process of accommodation, and will become more efficient. For the body, efficient means less energy consuming and the muscle will remain capable of performing the task but become smaller.


I detailed above that the higher the load, the greater the tension, the greater the number and size of the Motor Units recruited to lift the load and the greater the potential growth.

In the gym, that load works out to be between 70% and 90% of 1RM (Rhea et al. 2003, Peterson et al. 2004,2005 and Wernbom et al. 2007), which translates to a rep range of roughly between 15RM and 5RM. So getting stronger anywhere between 70% and 90% 1RM (15RM and 5RM) is going to effectively stimulate growth.

We can however narrow it down further by looking into the two factors responsible for strength production:

1) Muscle Fiber Recruitment – We covered this above in Motor Unit Recruitment.

2) Rate Coding – In part this was covered above. Messages sent by the Nervous System control muscle contraction. Rate Coding refers to how fast those messages are sent. The faster they’re sent, the stronger the contraction.

Up to about 80-85% 1RM, you’ll be relying on Motor Unit Recruitment. Above that, Rate Coding Kicks in (i.e. no further Motor Units will be recruited), the fibers will just be made to contract harder. So at around 80-85% 1RM you’ll recruit every Motor Unit you have, which for all intents and purposes means all the muscle fibers. Below 80-85% 1RM, the largest Motor Units are activated only as the muscle fatigues (toward the end of the set). Given the largest MUs have the greatest potential for growth; it makes sense to recruit them from the first rep. So that narrows our rep range even further to between 5RM-8RM.

We’ve defined the minimum tension (weight/load) required for growth, but we also know that this weight needs to be lifted a certain number of times.  Based on decades of training and scientific data to corroborate what we already knew, we get a sliding scale of about 60 total reps per body part at the lighter load of 15RM all the way down to 15 total reps in the 5RM range.

In summary, the effective rep ranges are between approximately 4RM and 15RM for between fifteen and sixty total reps respectively per bodypart.

Because the goal is to maximally stimulate every fiber, our program utilizes the rep range where all muscle fibers are used right from the first rep, which is 5RM to 8RM (anything heavier tends not to introduce fatigue in the way it is required). Being more specific our program focuses on 6RM.

We know that getting stronger anywhere between 1RM and 15RM will make you bigger, and spending time in the lower and higher rep ranges will provide major benefits. For example, a focus on strength in 1RM to 4RM range will carry-over to the higher rep ranges, a focus on the higher rep ranges will improve energy supply and waste removal for the muscles. This means that every program is a compromise. You can’t focus on all the rep ranges all the time and expect to progress, but our program does focus on the rep range that produces the most growth, most of the time.

One interesting and notable exception to the rules above is if you are particularly strong. I don’t have a definition for strong, maybe it’s absolute, maybe it’s relative, but there’s a big difference between repping out 20 reps with something small and pink and a couple hundred pounds or more (depending on the exercise) a la Kroc rows.

This doesn’t violate the principles above however, perhaps the minimum intensity threshold is met with any reasonable rep range if you are as strong or nearly as strong as you can humanly get (i.e. your strength deficit is small), but you have to have spent years of effort and got that strong first. Either way, if when attempting high rep ranges like this, people don’t gasp in awe at the weight you’re using, safe to say, you should stick within the recommended rep continuum.

Growth is stimulated by adequate load and work. Muscular failure doesn’t really come into it. The loads we’ve discussed have been between 5RM and 15RM, which by definition is the maximum amount of weight that could be lifted for either 5 repetitions or 15 repetitions. A true 5RM (or 15RM for that matter) does not reach failure; you succeed in lifting the weight but could do no more. Failure attempts to go beyond this and have you really struggle for that sixth rep but not succeed. Some advocates push you even further than that, with forced reps, etc.

HCT-12 utilizes the rep range where all muscle fibres are used right from the first rep, which is 5-8


You fail for different reasons. At the heavy end of the scale (1-3RM), you fail because you cannot sustain the neural drive (the messages your nervous system sends to the motor neuron in the Motor Unit), not because the muscle is fatigued, there isn’t enough time for that. Up towards the lighter end (15RM or more), metabolic effects (cellular energy depletion and waste product build-up) cause you to terminate the set. In between these two points you get a sliding scale of both.

Is there any point to failure? According to the research, there’s not much difference between getting close and actually failing (Drinkwater et al. 2007,) but failure does negatively affect hormonal and neural status, making inroads into your recovery. Depending on the program you choose, it’s your call.

However, I do think that it is critical to have experienced training to failure as part of your education as a lifter, at the very least as a way of understanding your body and recognizing the difference between when you are giving up and when your body has given up.

Some programs advocate failure. It is the goal. Some push beyond it with rest-pause, forced reps, etc. Some programs avoid failure and some lie in-between.

We recommend stopping when you know another complete rep (or maybe two) isn’t in the cards. Because the load is heavy enough to maximally stimulate the muscle from the first rep and the number of reps high enough to provide the appropriate fatigue, there is no need to eat into your recovery by going to failure.


Based on the research into Muscle Protein Synthesis and Adaptive Remodelling we know that after 72 hours pretty much everything has returned to normal, which gives us a guide as to when a muscle is ready to be trained again. Keep in mind, it is a guide and is not absolute.

Between once every 5 days and twice a week is about right (Wernbom, Rhea et al) if you’re training within the appropriate parameters. Some can tolerate more, some tolerate less, but most of us sit squarely in the middle. As you get very strong, the number of times you can train a bodypart weekly is likely to decrease.

We give you three variants of the program; two where each bodypart is trained on average every 1.5 days and another where you train each bodypart twice a week. Both will get you bigger than you have ever been before, but which you choose is dependent on your time constraints and ability to recover. On the face of it, the more frequent variation is better (because the muscles are being stimulated 25% more often) but if you can’t recover from it, it isn’t better at all.

Spend any time looking into the rep ranges, number of sets and frequency of most popular programs (which I have) and it’ll be pretty obvious that while there are lots of successful and very different looking programs, dig a little deeper and you’ll find they all share the same principles.


Getting really strong (I have no definition, just think record breaking strong) is not a case of simply having big muscles; it’s about thick, strong connective tissue and joints, favorable muscle insertion points and leverage, nervous system efficiency and so on. So not everyone has the capacity to break world records — big deal.

Arguing that getting stronger does not mean getting bigger is forgetting the physiological basis for increasing the cross-sectional area of the muscle (growth) and that is increased strength production. Beyond enhanced nervous system efficiency, strength comes down to structural changes. You are going to need to get bigger to get significantly stronger.

So limit strength isn’t necessarily the goal when trying to get bigger, but getting stronger is. If you don’t get stronger, you won’t get bigger, but opponents of this fact, seem to forget that the 1RM isn’t the only measure of strength. Increasing your reps from six to seven with 200-pounds is getting stronger. Increasing the weight from 200-pounds to 210-pounds for six reps is getting stronger.

If you work to get significantly stronger you will get significantly bigger; it’s the only way the body knows how, but that doesn’t mean strength training. Bottom line — size is a result of long-term strength gains. We understand that, which is why our program emphasizes it.

Get significantly stronger and you will get significantly bigger; it’s the only way the body knows how


Progression is necessary if you want to exceed your current development. Getting bigger means getting stronger and, as we showed earlier, that doesn’t have to mean focussing on increasing your one-rep max.

When you start lifting, strength increases come quickly (or at least they should) and by and large, these increases will occur linearly (i.e. every session you’ll get stronger).

Clearly this isn’t sustainable, five-pound increases on your squat every week would result in a 250-pound increase in a year and within another three years you would be squatting over 1000-pounds. So strength gains become non-linear, you get peaks and troughs, but over time an upward trend is what you’re looking for. Some programs advocate caution, focusing on very small increases on sub-maximal loads allowing for slower more sustainable progress. Bear in mind also that muscular growth, is generally non-linear too. You don’t often see your legs proportionately increasing in size with every addition of ten pounds on the bar.

There are various ways to progress, single, double and triple progression, increasing only the reps, only the weight, only rest between sets and so forth, but I prefer a less formal approach — Autoregulation.

This term may or may not be new to you. It’s meaning is in fact as old as weight training itself. In Mel Siff’s Supertraining he discusses APRE (Autoregulating Progressive Resistance Exercise) a method whereby your next session’s load is determined by an adjustment table based on your current session’s performance. Charles Staley’s EDT is an example of autoregulation, as is Mike Tuscherer’s Reactive Training Manual, but I think ex-Mr. Olympia Frank Zane (in his 1977 Bodybuilding Seminar) explained it best over thirty years ago, when someone asked him, “Do you have a certain poundage you will always try to use each workout?” His response:

“No. It’s all by how I feel. Let’s say I am doing dumbbell presses. Now the first set I’ll start with sixty-pounds for twelve reps, then seventy-pounds for eleven. Maybe to eighty. Now depending on how the eighties feel, I’ll either stay with the eighties and do a couple of sets, or move up to eighty-five or ninety-pounds. IT’S ALL IN HOW I FEEL AT THE TIME. If I am ready for a new weight, then it just happens.”

There are lots of ways to autoregulate, (see the programs referenced above) but for our purposes we’re going to keep it very simple and rely entirely on the cues our bodies give us each time we train. You can either map out progression (i.e. plan to increase the load at a predetermined time), that could be every session, or every fifth week, or you can allow it to happen when your body is ready for it — autoregulation.

An assumption in the predetermined approach is that you can force progression; you can’t. Just because you plan to increase your bench by five-pounds next session doesn’t mean your body will play along. You’ll progress when your body is ready to. All you can do is provide the initial stimulus, eat accordingly and hope your body has adapted in time for the next session.

Planned progression also implies that performance is consistently high, but we all have good, okay and bad days and our performance generally follows suit. With our version of autoregulation we train to the best of our abilities on the day, like Frank Zane explained above, which can sometimes mean performing far worse than the last session but, just as importantly, sometimes means performing far better than expected. Remember it is a trend upwards we’re looking for. You’ll get the full autoregulation protocol, when you get to the HCT-12 Training Program.

Ex-Mr. Olympia Frank Zane – If I am ready for a new weight, then it just happens.


Following on from progression is the subject of periodization. Periodization is planning, planning to train different athletic or strength qualities (strength versus strength endurance versus speed-strength, etc.) at different times without losing (or minimizing the loss of) the training effects of the previously trained quality.

Why? Because the body has a finite capacity for recovery, not every aspect of your sport can be trained with equal focus simultaneously, so you have to plan. Louie Simmons popularized periodization for powerlifters with his Westside Conjugate System.

For our purposes, we don’t need to worry about how our weights work affects our 400-meter sprint time, nor how to plan tapering down to a fight, meet etc. Getting bigger is lifting, which makes things a little simpler. We don’t need to concern ourselves too much with overly complicated periodization.

Our program focuses on 6RM for each exercise. This is the range where the muscle is most exposed to the required stimulus and fatigue. If I had to choose one rep range for the rest of my life, it would be around 6RM. Fortunately we’re not so constrained, and can train above and below this, so we can introduce an element of periodization into the program.

Focusing on the 1-5RM range will get you stronger, making you neurally more efficient and carrying over to the higher rep ranges. As getting progressively stronger is the foundation for growth; this is a good thing. You will, of course, get bigger in that rep range too, so focusing on it for awhile is no bad thing depending on your program. However, we feel that training in the 6RM range that we’ve programmed focuses enough on strength without needing to overlap by going into the lower rep ranges.

Higher reps however, do provide a growth stimulus and improve energy supply to the muscle — also a good thing. They also allow for a break from the heavier weights that 6RM demands, giving the connective tissue (and you in general) a chance to fully adapt before hitting it hard again.

I prefer to refer to this sort of simple periodization in terms of deloads at least in regard to our program. Some programs incorporate deloads but don’t stipulate when you should deload, nor what you should do in that period, leaving it up to the individual. The pitfalls of this approach, are that the very dedicated lifter may by-pass the deload completely, running him or herself into the ground, or that the lazy will look for any excuse to deload. Our program is a little more rigid, enforcing a change in pace.


How long should a training session last?

Well if you’ve followed the guidelines then the length of your session is really dictated by the number of sets and reps you do. Basing it on anything else (i.e. acute and transient hormonal fluctuations) is irrelevant. If you’re not group training, lifting equipped, having to warm-up and load over 600-pounds on the bench/ squat/ deadlift like a powerlifter, and if your focus is on size then anywhere between forty to ninety minutes is about right. Our program can be done in under an hour.

Full Body versus Split

The point is to train the whole body over a given period of time, typically a week. Don’t well-designed Full Body programs do that, and doesn’t a well conceived split?

Both factions of supporters cite imbalances (focus on chest and biceps for splits, and a small arms on Full Body splits), lack of results (most idiots cluttering up the gym are on a split, no really big guys or pros use a FB) but ultimately and as I state in the intro, this is down to user error (lack of consistency and effort). Most people in the gym don’t look like they lift and are by and large going through the motions, irrespective of what approach they SAY they use.

If your goal is size and you are follow a proper program, then a split is the way to go. It allows for the appropriate frequency and spreads the workload across more days, allowing better focus and recovery. Our program is a split.

Exercise Selection

First off there are thousands of exercises to choose from, so there is no way you can use them all, and you could spend every single day for the next few years just trying them out.

Secondly, it should be obvious, that as progression is key, you should be favoring (not completely excluding) exercises that allow you to progress (i.e. shoulder press versus something that for one reason or another you’re simply not going to get a hell of a lot stronger with, such as the lateral raise).

Traditionally, these exercises are barbell or dumbbell based, but the fact is you could do as well with progressively heavier rocks, but they’re a pain to hold and don’t come in small weight increments; so impractical and not versatile. Bars and dumbbells are versatile and adjustable.

Let’s not forget machines either, they allow progression in small increments and the good ones allow a lot of weight and feel really good. And as I said above, tension on the muscle is tension; barbell, rock, tire, machine. If it progresses over time, you’ll grow.

If you’re particularly strong and not concerned anymore with loading 400-pounds on the bench press and just after size then you have paid your dues, a machine might be better. Yes, you are a special little flower after all. This is one of those areas in lifting where you get to say, “I’m different, I prefer Hammer Strength shoulder press to military press, and I feel it more in my shoulders.”

There is no ONE perfect exercise for everyone that will proportionally develop the target muscles, and while any variation of a press (barbell, dumbbell, machine, rock, neighbor), will place tension on the pressing muscles, your special individual body type will determine what pressing muscles are under most tension and which therefore will grow the most.

So after some experience, (and by experience I mean seen significant growth using one approach, not brief passing attempts at lots of approaches), feel free to see which variation of a lift gives you the best effect. Our program is based on compound barbell and dumbbell movements, but you have the option of choosing preferred machine variants.

Isolation Exercises versus Compound Exercises

Again, I’m not fussy. Liberally apply common sense and most of your exercise choices will be compound movements, with some strategically placed isolation exercises. It could not actually be any other way. I doubt you could effectively train the whole body without resorting to compound exercises. If I’m wrong, someone please tell me how?

Should isolation work (or focus work, as you can’t truly isolate a muscle) be excluded? Maybe; if you’re a bewildered novice faced with thousands of exercises, then keeping it very, very simple is best, which is why Full Body approaches are so often advised for beginners.

This leads me on to the asinine argument of functional vs non-functional muscle/strength/exercises. Loosely speaking, the contractile components (myofibrils) make up approximately 80% of the muscle fibre, the other 20% is sarcoplasm; a watery substance comprised of the same sort of stuff required by every cell to function.

You may have come across discussions on myofibrillar versus sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and how bodybuilders tend to be weak and puffy (they are not) and powerlifters dense (sometimes they are, sometimes they are not). Well these two terms are trotted out as a reason for that.

Given that approximately 80% of the muscle fibre is contractile protein, anyone (bodybuilder or powerlifter) whose muscles have grown will have hypertrophied the same tissue. The other 20% is speculative. Aside from one Russian rat model translation, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy does not exist. I’m not saying there isn’t a mechanism for the growth of non-contractile tissue, possibly to keep up with the energy demands of contractile tissue, but as it makes up less than a fifth of muscle fiber and therefore a fifth of your growth potential, I know where I’d focus my time.

If you can point me to a large bodybuilder who is weak relative to his size, then I can point to the same bodybuilder and guarantee he is significantly stronger than when he started — he just didn’t have a great capacity for maximum strength development.

As stated above, it would be the devil’s own job to fully train the body through isolation work only, so beyond that extreme, anyone who is well developed from top to toe, isn’t going to have arrived that way through machine flyes only and is going to be very much stronger than average, very much stronger than when he started and able to express that strength in meaningful/ functional ways such as lifting sofas, shopping, insert spurious “bodybuilders can’t do this activity” here, etc.

If being able to run ten miles, jumping through flaming hoops while bench pressing on the off chance you will one day need to pull kids from a burning building is your goal, or you’re after more non-specific feats of strength then maybe you should be focusing your training on all eventualities. Good luck with that.

In our program we’ll use whatever comes to hand, focusing on compound movements, but not neglecting body parts that respond optimally to a combination of compound and isolation (arms for instance). In the program, we give you clear guidelines about what exercises to use.

HCT-12 focuses on compound movements, whilst not neglecting isolation movements


You made it through!

The lesson you should have learned is that muscle growth boils down to a few simple principles that every program must obey. If you dig deeper and the foundation of a program is not constructed from these principles, you’ll know with certainty that it will not work.

The internal processes of muscle growth are seriously complicated, people devote their lives to it, but the external processes that kick it off, the things in your control can be distilled down to a few principles: Get stronger in the right rep ranges, eat appropriately, commit to the program and consistently work hard at it. This is advice often thrown at the inexperienced or confused but, without context although well meaning, is worthless.

We’ve kept you back long enough. We think you are now ready for our program. If you think you are, then come on through to Hypertrophy Cluster Training – Training Program!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question about this article or would like to discuss or ask anything about Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12), head on over to the Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) Forum.

You may also want to read Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ

Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – Training Program

So you’ve read the Hypertrophy Cluster Training – Key Principles to Growth and you’ve have gotten this far. You understand what makes muscle grow and what makes a program successful. Here is HCT-12 Training Program. We will start at the beginning and leave no detail unexplained.


They can be boring. Mobility drills, treadmill or bike — anything that prolongs the time between walking through the door and the exercises that’ll actually make you bigger can be irritating. That said, you would be an idiot not to get prepared for the session ahead and doubly so if you didn’t ensure good long-term joint and muscle function. This is why we recommend (at the very minimum) the following warm-ups.

Note: If you’re interested in a more comprehensive warm-up then check out Nick Tumminello’s Warm-Up articles (Lower Body Warm-Up – 10 Minutes to Better Performance! & Upper Body Warm-Up – 10 Minutes to Better Performance!)

Upper Body Warm-Up

  • Shoulder Circle Big/Little forward and back. 30 sec each
  • PNF diagonals – 15 reps each orientation
  • Wall slides – 10 reps
  • Tumminello’s LYTP Shoulder circuit 8-12 reps each letter
  • Explosive Press-Up (either on the floor or diagonal against a wall. Clap press-ups without the clap!) – 6 reps
  • Dumbbell/ Kettlebell Snatch – 6 reps (weight is not the aim here, speed is, especially explosion when direction changes, at the bottom of the movement – change from eccentric to concentric. Think Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch!)

Lower Body Warm-Up

  • Leg swings front and back – 15 either side
  • Leg swings side to side – 15 either side
  • Glute Bridge – 10 reps
  • Dumbbell/ kettlebell swing – 6 reps. Again speed is the aim here (10-20kg dumbbell/ kettlebell)
  • Moving from Warm-Up to Lifting

You should be warm and fired up for the session ahead by now. This is where it gets interesting. There is only one exercise per bodypart and each exercise is worked up to a 6RM (which is approximately 80% 1RM) for the day followed by six rest pause reps done in a cluster, so 6 + 2 + 2 + 2.

Each day, imagine that you have only a rough idea of what your 6RM is and you intend to beat it. Lets say your first exercise is the barbell bench press. Start with the bar for a rep or two, just to get a feel for the movement and how you feel doing the movement. Increase the load, do another rep, increase the load again, do another rep until you’re ready to start working in sets of six. These single reps are just to get a feel for the movement and the weight on the bar and also for getting up to a decent weight without tiring yourself out.

Then work your way up (ramping) in sets of six reps to a weight that you just manage to complete for six good reps or if you prefer a weight that you know you couldn’t have gotten seven reps.

Here’s an example:

  • Bar x 6 reps (warm-up)
  • 135lbs x 1 (feel set)
  • 185lbs x 1 (feel set)
  • 225lbs x 1 (feel set)
  • 240lbs x 6 (work set)
  • 270lbs x 6 (work set)
  • 300lbs x 6 (work set)
  • 320lbs x 6 (work set)
  • 340lbs x 6 (work set) This was the previous best but the last rep felt easy, so go for another set
  • 350lbs x 6 (work set) Barely got the sixth rep.

Rack the bar. Rest as long as you need before attempting two more reps, approximately 30-60 seconds. Rack the bar, breathe deeply for another approx thirty-seconds and try for another two reps. Repeat. And that’s it.

That’s the outline; we’ll clear up a few specifics now.

Download the HCT-12 Bodybuilding Program (3.29MB)

How many sets should it take to hit my 6RM for the day?

This is the autoregulation aspect of the training. Some days will be easy while others will feel tougher for the same weights and increments. This is the autoregulation aspect, the bio-feedback, the working to your strengths and hitting a higher 6RM on a good day, or hitting the same as you did last time, or even falling short on a bad day and working with whatever 6RM you hit so as not to grind out a session when your body is obviously not up to the task.

This is how each exercise is performed. It is a case of feeling out and working with your absolute best for that training session, working with your body to give it the greatest possible stimulation for growth when it can take it.

Once past a certain amount of training experience, strength gains are not linear, so all you are looking for is a trend upwards. So, over the course of four weeks, you may experience all of the above, but the cumulative result will still be upwards progress.

With that said, the aim is still to attempt to break your records every session. Autoregulation isn’t an excuse to quit when it gets tough. Autoregulation allows your body to make the decisions, not you. So if your body’s ready to hit a PR that session, make sure you put in the effort so that it can. If it is not ready then there will be no PR, but it won’t be for lack of trying. You can’t force progression, but you have to give it a chance to happen. If you are not willing to push for a record every time you hit the gym, this program is not for you.

Do not work your way up in tiny micro-increments. If you are particularly strong, you’ll be there all day going up in five-pound steps, but by the same token don’t jump up too quickly. Just feel your way up. So some days, you could be more, the same or fewer sets. I know this is open to interpretation, but it is easier in practice than on paper, which is why you’ll need to play around with it, and get a feel for how to train this way, before settling in to the program properly. We are with you every step of the way. Don’t panic!

Rest periods

On this you have to listen to your body, autoregulate, but I put a hard stop of two minutes between ramping sets and thirty-seconds between clusters. If you’re on fire that day, make the rest periods as short as you want to.

Exercise Performance

Legendary lifter Doug Hepburn liked to master the weight. That is about as simple a prescription as I can give. At 6RM the weight is going to be moderately heavy, but you should be attempting to move it as powerfully as possible.

When lowering the weight, keep it under control. If you needed to stop and push the other way you could. Don’t artificially extend the time you’re lowering it.

For the concentric portion, taking the bench press as an example, when the bar is at your chest, imagine trying to push it forcefully, like shoving someone away. It won’t actually move like you’ve pushed someone off you, but as long as the intent is there don’t worry. This will feel quite different if you don’t already lift this way.

These prescriptions apply to all except calf exercises. Here we recommend a slow negative (5-seconds minimum), a pause of a second or so at the bottom (in the stretch position) and a powerful concentric (as described above).

Exercise Selection

I’m sure you all know enough exercises to populate any program for the next hundred years, but here are our suggestions. You don’t need to follow them slavishly but do use common sense. A leg extension is not the equivalent to a squat or leg press.

First, a word of caution… there is going to be some overlap on exercises. That is just what happens when you have a body that never contracts a muscle in complete isolation. Some muscles are going to get worked alongside the target muscles; it cannot be helped.

A very obvious example is squats and deadlifts. In the program I put squats ahead of rack pulls for the very good reason that, whichever way round you put it, one is going to negatively impact on the performance of the other. You could use a deadlift variation from the floor, but only you can tell how that will be impacted by the squat. If I were to choose a full deadlift, I’d put it first and leg press (not squat) afterwards.

The same goes for chest and shoulders. This is where you get to choose your priorities. How you place exercises is up to you. But again, if you’re confused by what you should do, we’re here to advise.

Some people get really precious about bodypart exercises and splits, so we’ve cunningly disguised our bodypart exercises and gone all-functional by naming them movement-based exercises.

Remember, one exercise per bodypart/movement. We advise that you stick to one exercise per cycle for each program. You can change exercises in the deload week and keep them for the next cycle, or if you feel you’re progressing with the same exercises, keep them.

Bodypart/Movement Exercise
Vertical Pulling chin-up, pull-up, rack chin, pulldown
Horizontal Pulling one-arm dumbbell row, barbell row, low pulley row, Hammer Strength version
Horizontal Pressing incline bench press, flat bench press, dumbbell bench press (flat or incline), most Hammer Strength versions
Vertical Pressing standing barbell press, standing dumbbell press, most Hammer Strength versions
Triceps dips, close-grip bench, reverse-grip bench on Smith machine, overhead dumbbell or cable triceps extension
Biceps barbell curl, dumbbell curl, hammer curl, concentration curl, drag curl
Quad dominant back squat, front squat, leg press
Hip dominant deadlift, rack pull, Romanian deadlift
Calf Exercises standing calf raises on machine or Smith machine, calf press on leg press, seated calf raise
Abdominal Exercises cable crunch, ab wheel or barbell rollout, sprinter crunch, woodchops

The Programs

We have three versions for you. Exercise selection, performance, intensity, reps or sets are constant through each, so this isn’t about confusing you. It is about giving you the best opportunity to get as big as you can and fit it into what works best for your schedule. We will lay them about here for you first and discuss them afterwards.

Program One: A-B-A

An A-B-A split, so week one A gets trained twice, B once and vice versa in week two and repeat.

Week 1

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Pressing
Vertical Pressing
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Pressing
Vertical Pressing
Triceps Exercise

Week 2

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Pressing
Vertical Pressing
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise

Program One Summary

  • Intensity – approx 80%
  • Frequency – 1.5 times per week
  • Total number of reps – approx 35

Program Two: A-B-A-B

A-B-A-B, alternated throughout the week, and repeated.

Week 1

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Press
Vertical Press
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Press
Vertical Pressing
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise

Program Two Summary

  • Intensity – approx 80%
  • Frequency – 2 times per week
  • Total number of reps – approx 50

Program Three – 5 Day Cycle

No different to the others except, the days are further split, but follow a five-day cycle, not seven, so you’ll be spending different days in the gym. We have laid it out over four weeks so you can see just how it works.

Week 1

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise

Week 2

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing

Week 3

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise

Week 4

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise

Week 5

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing
Horizontal Press
Triceps Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Vertical Pressing

Program 3 Summary

  • Intensity – approx 80%
  • Frequency – 1.4 times per week
  • Total number of reps – approx 35


In simple terms, they are pretty much identical: one exercise per bodypart, ramping up to 6+2+2+2 for twelve total reps at 6RM for the day. So the last twelve reps are all above 80% 1RM and a few of the preceding ramped sets will be between 70% and 80%.

In summary, that is (give or take) twenty-four reps above 70% 1RM and twelve above 80% 1RM per bodypart. If you recall what was written above, that sits right in the rep totals and intensity requirements for growth. But we gave you three for a reason. Here’s why;

Program 1 – Three days is easy to schedule into anyone’s lifestyle (at least if you’re serious about putting on muscle).

Program 2 – A fourth day, and each bodypart is trained twice per week. If you can handle the additional frequency (and only you can tell that) and fit in the extra day, then this is for you.

Program 3 – This splits the bodyparts down further, giving you less to do each session, but allowing you to focus more on each exercise. The frequency is roughly the same as Program 1. If you can fit this into your schedule and prefer spending less time in the gym per session, then this is for you.

Ultimately you get out what you put in. If you apply yourself to them consistently, all three will get you bigger than you’ve ever been before. Choose one.

The Deload Week

This applies to all the programs but at different times. Program 1 and 2 get one at the end of the fourth week. Program 3 gets one at the end of the fifth week.

The aim of the deload week is to back off a little and work a slightly different aspect of growth that occurs when the load or intensity is lighter and requires fatigue to really kick in, while giving your connective tissue and joints time to adapt to the previous weeks (connective tissue adapts at a far slower rate than muscle tissue).

The deload week looks like this:

Deload Week

Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Press
Vertical Press
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise
Vertical Pulling
Horizontal Pulling
Horizontal Press
Vertical Pressing
Triceps Exercise
Quad dominant
Hip dominant
Calf Exercise
Biceps Exercise

One exercise per bodypart again, except this time the rep range is fifteen reps for two sets. Again, you are not going to failure, just work up to a weight you can hit fifteen reps comfortably for two sets. Do this for a week and then restart your program of choice at week 1.

Other Activities

Like warm-ups (possibly even more so), cardiovascular or energy systems work is at the bottom of the likes list. However, just like a proper warm-up, cardio is important for longevity and doing it, in whatever form you like best (or hate least), also improves your ability to lift. If you get breathless and nauseous doing biceps curls, then you know what we mean.

This is a program for muscle gain, so the recommendations are about thirty minutes two or three times a week. More specifically, for the guys with very little muscle and very little fat, at most one session of thirty minutes a week. For the guys carrying a lot of extra body fat, two or three sessions a week. For the guys in-between, don’t neglect it and don’t go overboard; one or two times per week for you.

Here are two great articles detailing how to implement Kettlebells (Kettlebells for the Uninitiated) and Complexes (Complexes for Fat Loss) for conditioning. Be aware that any loaded exercise will impact on your recovery, so follow the guidelines carefully. Our bodies are awesome machines, but they are not perfect, so while concentrating on building as much muscle as you possibly can, you are going to have to minimize the time and effort you put into other activities or risk compromising your results. Don’t spread yourself too thinly.

If you’re ready to commit to this and work hard, then you’re going to need the other half of the “secret” to getting big; food! – Hypertrophy Cluster Training – Nutritional Program

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question about this article or would like to discuss or ask anything about Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12), head on over to the Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) Forum.

You may also want to read Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ.

Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – Nutritional Program

You should have by now read the Hypertrophy Cluster Training – Key Principles to Growth and the full details of the HCT-12 Training Program and you’re therefore ready for the nutritional program.

The aim of any diet is to provide the necessary calories and macronutrients to support your goals. Determining the amounts is the tricky bit and it is highly individualized.

I wrote two articles (Nutrient Timing – When Science and Marketing Collide & To Bulk or to Cut, That is the Question – or is it?) which better explain the methods outlined below and the science behind them for anyone interested in digging a little deeper.

There are in my experience, three dietary approaches, which I have outlined separately below:

1) The lifter with over 20% body fat. For these guys, simply making better food choices and not getting caught up in the details will take them into the next group.

2) The sub 20% to 10% body fat lifter. The recommendations below are for these guys

3) The sub 10% body fat lifter. The basics still hold true for these guys, and clearly if they’re muscular too, they’ll likely know what they’re doing! They’ll be stricter in their approach (if remaining at that condition is the goal) and more than likely some manipulation of the variables (carb cycling will be required). We have had some great guys write some awesome articles on this very subject, so I’ll refer you them if you are in this group or want to get in it – Wannabebig Diet and Nutrition articles.

Download the HCT-12 Bodybuilding Program (3.29MB)


Establish your daily calorie needs. If you know this, then move on. If not, you have two choices:

1) Use the multipliers below to determine current maintenance and add or subtract by 5-10% depending on whether you plan to lose or gain weight. 

2) Choose a target bodyweight and multiply by the same figures below.

This might look simplistic, but you can either spend the next hour going through various convoluted equations and come to the same answer or just pick one of the following, and multiply your current or target bodyweight by either, depending on your activity level:

  • 14 – Low Activity (1-3 hours a week)
  • 16 – Medium Activity (4-7 hours a week)
  • 19 – High Activity (8-11 hours a week)

So, if you are a 250-pound guy looking to hit 235-pound, training four hours per week, 3760 kcal (235 x 16) is your target intake every day. Or, if you don’t want to eat for your target bodyweight, preferring to utilize your maintenance plus or minus for your intake, you can still use the process above but use your current bodyweight. So, if you are 250-pounds training four hours per week, your maintenance is 4000 kcal (250×16). Add or subtract by 5-10% depending on whether you want to gain or lose weight.

Monitor your progress every couple of weeks (remember that these equations are based on an assumption that you’re average). If you need to put on weight to reach your goal and you are not, increase the calories by 250 kcal and monitor progress for two weeks. Similarly reduce by 250 kcal if you need to lose weight and progress is not being made.


1) My preference is to set protein intake as constant, between one to two grams per pound of lean target or current bodyweight. Your fat intake should cover your requirements for Essential Fatty Acids (approx 20 grams). Beyond that, it is your choice how many carbohydrate calories you displace with fat, based on your individual tolerance for carbohydrates.

As we go through this process, keep in mind the calorific value of each macronutrient. One gram of protein is the equivalent of 4 kcal. One gram of carbohydrate is also 4 kcal and one gram of fat yields 9 kcal.

In this example, our target is 3760 kcal. Protein is a constant and set at 1.5g/lb which is 322grams (1.5 x 215) per day. Fat is set at a minimum 0.5g/lb bodyweight, which is 118 grams (0.5 x 235) per day. After these two values are set, it is simply a case of adding enough carbohydrate and additional fat and/or protein to hit the total.

Carbohydrate is matched to activity and tolerance. In this example we currently have 322 grams of protein and 118 grams of fat, which is 2350 kcal (322x4kcal + 118×9 kcal). This is 1410 kcal short of the total. To hit 1410 kcal you’d need approximately 350 grams (1410/4) of carbohydrate. So our guy’s daily total will be 322 grams of protein, 350 grams of carbohydrate and 118 grams of fat, for a total of 3760 kcal per day.

However, there’s no set rule for carbohydrate intake and you could just as easily split the remaining 1410 kcal between fat and carbohydrate.

2) Load your food intake to coincide with breakfast and the pre and post workout period (i.e. try and eat the majority of your calories around breakfast and training). See below for details.

3) Divide the rest into as many meals as necessary to hit your daily intake target and consume when convenient.


The objective of any workout nutrition protocol is to maximize muscle protein synthesis (kick-started by your training) and minimize protein breakdown. In other words, increase anabolism and curtail catabolism.

Here are my specific recommendations for pre and post-workout meals. You don’t have to follow them; you could just follow the instructions above and eat normally, but if you do follow them, remember, this eating does not occur in a vacuum. It does count towards your daily total, so bear that in mind when you’re eating the rest of the day.

60-90 minutes pre-workout, have a solid, balanced meal:

  • Protein = 0.25g/lb BW (or Target Bodyweight)
  • Carbs = 0.25g/lb BW (or TBW)
  • Amount of fat doesn’t really matter as long as it fits into your total for the day


30-0 minutes pre-workout – (and/or sipped throughout the workout), have a liquid or easily digested meal:

  • Protein = 0.25g/lb BW (or TBW)
  • Carbs = 0.25g/lb BW (or TBW)

Within 1hr minutes post-workout, have either a liquid or solid meal:

  • Protein = 0.25g/lb BW (or TBW)
  • Carbs = 0.25-0.5g/lb BW (or TBW)

The amount of fat doesn’t really matter as long as it fits into your total for the day.

We’ve refrained from going into detail with food sources and meal plans because quite frankly this information is already covered in our existing nutritional articles.

Make nutrition a priority in your life and you will be amazed at the progress that is possible


And there you have it, a straight forward approach to eating appropriately for your goals. We encourage you to make nutrition a priority in your life, not only so that you can achieve your specific fitness goals, but also to keep fit and healthy. If you do, you will be amazed at how great you feel and the progress that is possible.

If you want to maximize your gains, you’ll need to take advantage of proper supplementation and this is covered in Hypertrophy Cluster Training – Supplementation Program.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question about this article or would like to discuss or ask anything about Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12), head on over to the Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) Forum.

You may also want to read Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ.

Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – Supplementation Program

Now that you’re clear on the Hypertrophy Cluster Training Nutritional Program, we would like to take you through the recommended supplementation program.

Following the training and dietary tenets set forth in the HCT-12 program will result in progress that will surprise most, and utterly amaze some. The physical changes that will be realized truly have to be seen or experienced to be believed. Big gains in size and strength, huge decreases in body fat, or both, would normally be enough to satisfy any sane individual. Well, perhaps we are a bit insane!

Our credo at AtLarge Nutrition has always been optimize your body. Optimize: to make as perfect or effective as possible. We don’t want good results, we don’t want great results, we want optimal results and that can only be achieved with the inclusion of proper supplementation.

Download the HCT-12 Bodybuilding Program (3.29MB)

So, if you too are a bit insane and want to optimize your body, read on…


1. Protein Powder

Protein — the name says it all. Literally translated, protein means “of prime importance.” For the resistance trained individual protein takes on an even greater importance than for the sedentary individual. Intense training places a tremendous stress on the body. Muscle fibers are literally torn requiring both repair and potential remodeling in the form of growth so that the body can better withstand the stress of training in the future. Protein plays a key role in this recovery and supercompensation model.

HCT-12 recommends at least 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight be consumed on a daily basis. Due to time limitations, food choices, and or other mitigating factors some trainees may find it difficult to consume the necessary quantity of high quality protein. Protein supplements are a convenient way to bridge the gap and get the high quality protein needed.

Protein supplements come in various forms: stand-alone protein, meal replacements, and lean mass gainers. Each serves a specific purpose and their inclusion in one’s regimen is a function of the particular trainer’s goal(s).

For HCT-12 we recommend four supplements by AtLarge Nutrition: Nitrean, Opticen, MAXIMUS, and NOVUS bars. These award-winning products (the powders) contain blends of whey, casein, and egg proteins that provide for a superior amino acid profile and net retention. They outperform any whey-only powder under any condition.

Note: We cover which protein supplements are appropiate for your specific goals further below

2. Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine is the single most studied and proven ergogenic supplement ever produced. The vast majority of its users experience gains in both size and strength. Creatine is not only effective; it is proven safe and may even promote health via its antioxidant properties.

If you want the most from your HCT-12 experience, whether you are looking to gain muscle or lose body fat, a quality creatine monohydrate is a must. We recommend three products from AtLarge Nutrition: Creatine 500, Creatine Caps, and RESULTS (a unique combination of creatine, ß-Alanine, HMB, and dextrose).

Note: We cover which creatine supplements are appropiate for your specific goals further below.

3. ETS – Extreme Training Support

Unlike the supplement types mentioned above, ETS is a formula unique to AtLarge Nutrition. Its combination of ingredients works synergistically to produce effects that cannot be collectively found in any other supplement. ETS can dramatically reduce D.O.M.S. (Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness), improve generalized recovery, and reduce joint pain. These effects make it a true must have supplement no matter what your goal.

4. Multi-Vitamin

Sound nutrition is one of the cornerstones of HCT-12, but even with the best dietary practices the hard training individual can find themselves lacking in optimal levels of specific vitamins and minerals due to modern food processing methods and intense training’s propensity to deplete nutrients in the body. AtLarge Nutrition’s Multi-Plus is specifically formulated to address this concern.

5. Fish Oil

Optimal results from training require optimum health, and fish oil and its constituent omega-3 fatty acids have proven health benefits. In addition, fish oil may aid with inflammation thus supporting the heavy workload inherent to HCT-12. AtLarge Nutrition’s Fish Oil supplement is tested for purity, potency, and overall quality.

Nitrean Protein Powder – Voted Mens Health Best Protein Powder, 2008 & 2009


For optimized loss of body fat we recommend the following supplements:

Nitor or Thermocin are our thermogenic supplements. Both products will aid you in your quest for a lean, ripped physique via both direct and indirect effects. They both enhance thermogenesis and/ or fat oxidation, and help to blunt appetite. In addition, both products will provide you with extra energy to help offset the reduction often experienced when on a hypo-caloric (below maintenance level) diet.

Nitor is the more potent of the two in all respects, but may not be the best choice for individuals sensitive to the use of stimulants (Thermocin also contains stimulants, but to a lesser degree).

Nitrean provides a high quality, low calorie source of protein. The use of a protein-only supplement like Nitrean can help the trainee consume the necessary amount of protein without exceeding their daily total caloric intake.

NOVUS bars contain only 3 grams of net impact carbohydrates. They also pack a whopping 36 grams of protein as well as various vitamins and minerals. This nutrient profile and their amazing taste make them a supplement of choice for anyone on a fat loss diet.

Opticen is a highly versatile supplement which has multiple uses for those following a low calorie diet. Its macronutrient breakdown of roughly 43% protein, 37% carbohydrates, and 20% fats combined with its inclusion of 26 vitamins and minerals make it a nearly ideal meal replacement for those seeking to optimize their body composition. In addition, Opticen is specifically formulated to be used as a post-workout supplement.

Creatine 500 and/ or Creatine Caps are both Creapure® micronized creatine monohydrate. Creapure® is a German creatine which is one of the purest forms of creatine monohydrate in the world (hence the name). This purity helps to prevent the water retention and poor mixability sometimes experienced by users of lower grade creatine products.

Creatine can serve the vital function of keeping the muscles in an anabolic state during a hypo-caloric diet. This allows the trainee to retain, or even build muscle while dieting which makes the entire process easier and more effective. Do NOT cheat yourself out of the benefits of creatine while dieting.

RESULTS is our aforementioned blend of Creapure® creatine, ß-Alanine, HMB, and dextrose. It takes the benefits of creatine described above and turbo-charges them! RESULTS is the single most effective lean muscle producing and sparing supplement we offer and should be part of any serious trainee’s arsenal (if you are following HCT-12 you are SERIOUS). The only caveat to its use when dieting is that its 200 calories from carbohydrates need to be accounted for.


If you want to get big, REALLY BIG and strong, HCT-12 is the ticket. Add the supplements listed below and people won’t know what to think of the mass monster you have created!

MAXIMUS is our lean mass gainer. What makes it unique is its protein blend of ultra-filtrated whey protein concentrate, isolated casein peptides, total milk protein isolates, whey protein isolates, glutamine peptides, and instantized egg albumin combined with Microlactin® and inulin.

Microlactin® is a special protein that helps to improve recovery, reduce soreness, and reduce minor joint pain. Inulin is a fructan that aids absorption of certain nutrients and promotes a positive nitrogen balance.

MAXIMUS provides growth-promoting calories and nutrients that will help you to progress to new heights in both size and strength.

Opticen, as described above in the fat loss recommendations, can serve as both a meal replacement and an ideal post-workout supplement. For mass gaining purposes we recommend it be used primarily as a post-workout shake.

RESULTS is our premier size and strength supplement. If you want to be as big and strong as possible, you need this product. It is as simple as that.


HCT-12 is a no hype; no BS program and its supplement recommendations are no different. If you include the recommended products you will optimize your results. Don’t short-change yourself, use AtLarge Nutrition Supplements and optimize your body!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question about this article or would like to discuss or ask anything about Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12), head on over to the Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) Forum.

You may also want to read Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ.

Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ

We’ve tried to make Hypertrophy Cluster Training as straight forward and as easy to understand as possible.

However there are bound to be a few questions that crop up, so we have put together answers to some of the questions we anticipate will be asked.

Many of these questions came from our test group who were introduced to Hypertrophy Cluster Training 10 weeks before public release so they should be a good indiciation of the types of questions that will be asked.

We’ll continue to update this FAQ as we receive new questions.

Download the HCT-12 Bodybuilding Program (3.29MB)

What does HCT-12 stand for?

Q. Why did you call the program ‘Hypertrophy Cluster Training’ and whats the HCT-12 about?

A. HCT-12 is an abbreviated name for the program and is stands for Hypertrophy Cluster Training 12. These days, you have to have the word ‘hypertrophy’ in there! The cluster refers to the rest-pause variation involved, ‘training’ is self explanatory and the 12 refers to the total number of reps in the last work set. And there you go – Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12)

Falling short of the 6 reps in your work set

Q. If during a set ramp-up you miss the six reps in your last work set, do you drop down to the previous work set and then begin the 6+2+2+2 scenario? For example, if I didn’t hit six reps in my last work set of 350 pounds, would I drop to say, 340 pounds and start 6+2+2+2?

A. That is absolutely correct, the idea is to complete all the reps as prescribed. Overestimating how heavy you can go will occasionally happen, don’t make it worse by grinding out the clusters. You will get the weight next time and you’ll also have the psychological edge of knowing you aced 340 pounds last time.

Hitting 6+2+2+2 more easily than I thought

Q. What if my 6+2+2+2 was easier than I thought and I felt like I had a couple of reps left in the tank? Should I do another +2 on the end of another set or perhaps just wait till next week?

A. Chalk it up to experience. It isn’t a wasted effort. There will be a training effect. There will also be a psychological effect you can use next time in the gym. You know you had reps in the tank last time.

Making changes to the training splits

Q. I plan on doing the 4-day routine. Can I do Mon/Tues, Thurs/Fri or does that leave too many rest days over the weekend? Also, should ‘A1’ and ‘A2’ have the same exercises or should each one have its own blend?

A. Keeping it to weekdays is fine. A1 and A2 don’t necessarily have to have the same exercises, but I suggest initially seeing how you get on with keeping them the same. The fewer variables you need to keep track of the better.

However, it is your routine. We have given you the outline and the plan to follow. It is up to you to make it work best for you. If you want different variations of the same movement, go for it. I have no issues with using a variation on a theme. A dumbbell bench and a Hammer Strength bench are both going to work the horizontal pressing muscles after all, which is all you’re really after.

This is also worth remembering if you train in a busy gym — sometimes the equipment you plan on using is not available so find a variation of the exercise on a station that is free.

Weaker Lifts

Q. Can I hit my weaker lifts first?

A. As stated in the article, the choice of exercise order is yours based on your preferences and strengths/ weaknesses. If you would rather do vertical pressing before horizontal, then go for it.

What if I don’t have a spotter?

Q. I train alone and it’s not always easy for me to find a spotter and it seems to me that this could cause a problem with the 6+2+2+2 protocol?

A. This should only be a problem on horizontal pressing movements, in particular the bench press. Either use a bench or rack with adjustable pins or ask for a spot. If you train alone without access to help or equipment that allows you to bench safely, then I cannot recommend that you bench with a bar at all. I suggest using dumbbells instead. This can be a nuisance due to the clusters. You will be fatigued so getting the dumbbells up again will be a pain. Look into Dumbbell Power Hooks.

Switching between the 3 programs

Q. Can I switch between the programs 1, 2 and 3 and if so, how often?

A. You can – but I’d have to ask why? Unless you completely misjudged your schedule or simply can’t tolerate the density of work in an upper/lower split, then there’s no reason to switch. There is enough variation available to you within each program – autoregulation, exercise selection, exercise order, a deload week every fifth or sixth week – and so many similarities between them, that the only thing you’d really be changing is the days you are going to the gym. Adjusting too many variables does not keep your body guessing. It just keeps you spinning your wheels.

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question about this article or would like to discuss or ask anything about Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12), head on over to the Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) Forum.

You may also want to read Hypertrophy Cluster Training (HCT-12) – FAQ.

HMB and Creatine: Giving RESULTS Every Time!

Strength, power, muscle, and speed are our specialties at AtLarge Nutrition, LLC.

Every single day we work with and speak with the best athletes in the world. We listen to their needs, hear about the rigors of their sports, and sympathize when they tell us they need just a little something extra to help them reach their full potential. That’s when we head to our lab, lock ourselves inside, and design the highest quality supplements that will help the best of the best get the results that they want.

Recently, we strove to formulate a product that would dramatically enhance performance while simultaneously remaining safe and legal in as many athletic federations as possible. Exhaustive research and in-the-trenches conversations led to the creation of RESULTS™.

Two ingredients in RESULTS™, HMB (b-hydroxy-b-methylbutyrate) and creatine monohydrate, are potent enough to be stand-alone supplements. However, we found something that shocked us: when you combine these two amazing compounds, the effects were far more exciting and powerful.

Simply put, the results were increased lean muscle mass and strength and reduced body fat.

HMB for Muscle Growth and Increased Endurance Performance

HMB is a naturally occurring compound produced in the body during metabolism of the amino acid leucine. Leucine is a branched chain amino acid (BCAA) of great interest.  Taken in comparatively low doses (4-6g), it has been demonstrated to stimulate protein synthesis to the same degree as much larger servings of complete proteins. This effectively means that you can get the same surge of protein synthesis without taking in tons of protein.

Dr. Steven Nissen was the first man to explore the potential health and ergogenic benefits of HMB. He theorized that leucine’s powerful protein synthesis-stimulating effects were correlated to its metabolism of HMB in the body.  Following Dr. Nissen’s pioneering work, HMB has become one of the most studied supplements in the sports nutrition industry. Recent research has elucidated the ways in which HMB both stimulates protein synthesis (2) and blunts catabolism (3), thus assisting in creation of a net anabolic environment.

HMB not only has positive effects on the net protein state of the body (and thus potentially on skeletal muscular hypertrophy), but it has also been recently shown to aid endurance. It does so via two distinct pathways:

Pathway 1 – Enhancement of maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max)

Pathway 2 – Improvement of the respiratory compensation point (RCP) (4)

These improvements allow endurance athletes to exercise at a higher level of intensity for a longer period of time, thus potentially improving performance.

In yet another study, HMB reduced peak creatine kinase (CK) levels after a prolonged run (5).  CK is generally considered to be a marker of muscle damage, and thus a reduction in peak levels indicates reduced muscle damage, more rapid recovery, or both. CK levels are also highly correlated with muscular soreness.  A reduction in peak CK levels may result in reduced muscular soreness from intense training. This means you can train more frequently and feel better!

So far we have discussed proven effects of HMB that should result in improved performance in the gym. But what about real-life results?

Two Studies – Nothing Short of Phenomenal

In one study, HMB users experienced double the strength increase and three times the lean gain in muscle mass as compared to that of those using a placebo. This study’s amazing results prompted a second seven-week study that resulted in HMB users increasing their bench press strength three times that of placebo users! (6)

Safe and Effective!

Supplements or drugs with the proven ergogenic benefits of HMB are often considered unsafe, but HMB is one of the very few exceptions. In fact, it may even be beneficial to overall health via a positive effect on LDL cholesterol and blood pressure.

Bottom line: If HMB isn’t part of your daily supplement regimen, then it very well should be!

Creatine: The Classic Stand-By That Packs a Punch

Creatine, or α-methylguanido-acetic acid, is a naturally-occurring nitrogen compound that contains an acidic component found both in select foods (primarily meats) and in the body. The majority of creatine in the body is found in the skeletal muscle system and plays a very important role in energy metabolism.

Supplementation with creatine allows for increased intramuscular stores and thus enhanced anaerobic training endurance (more reps with the same weight). This enhanced endurance allows for greater training volume and thus greater potential stimulation of muscular hypertrophy.

Creatine supplementation also increases intramuscular stores of fluid, which results in volumization of the muscle cells, and volumization of muscle cells has a stimulating effect on protein synthesis. Therefore, creatine allows the trainee to lift more weight and potentially to respond to the increased training stimulus with greater muscular hypertrophy.

Creatine’s theoretical benefits, as listed above, have been proven in research. Volek et al. studied the effects of a one-week creatine loading phase. The result was that creatine significantly increased the work performed (on the bench press and with jump squats) as compared to placebo (8).  In a separate study, creatine was shown to improve 100-meter sprint times (9).  Finally, another study by Volek et al. involving 12 weeks of creatine supplementation resulted in both increased muscle mass and training volume (10).

As with HMB, there is a literal mountain of studies on creatine proving both its efficacy as an ergogen and its safety. Again, like HMB, creatine may even provide certain health benefits such as acting as a potent antioxidant.

Chuck Vogelpohl Squatting 1,140 pounds (All-Time Record Squat ) – Chuck is a regular user of Results

The Super Supplement: RESULTS™

As addressed above, both creatine and HMB have been proven to increase skeletal muscle mass and strength.  Individually, they are both impressive ergogenic supplements, but when combined, they make for a kind of super supplement.

A 2001 study by Jowko et al. clearly demonstrated that each compound produced its ergogenic benefits via unique pathways, and thus combining them could produced additive effects (greater results than using either supplement individually) (1).

Most companies would stop right there and settle for a product that combined them, but here at AtLarge, we wanted more! We wanted to create a straightforward, no-BS product that would bend the minds of its users with gains such as never before! (We even took the no-BS approach when we named this super supplement. What you see is what you get!)

We combed the research journals and eventually came upon the ultimate ingredient to combine with creatine and HMB for a triangle of power!

That third ingredient is β-alanine.

Research had shown that β-alanine combined with creatine (much like creatine plus HMB) has additive effects on size and strength.

We theorized that throwing creatine, HMB, and β-alanine together (along with some dextrose for an insulin spike) into one product would revolutionize nonhormone-based supplementation.

And guess what? We nailed it!

The biggest and strongest athletes in the world use RESULTS™ for a reason: it flat-out works! (Chuck Vogelpohl, Donnie Thompson, Ryan Celli, Scott Yard, Tom Mutaffis, Travis Bell & Vincent Dizenzo and the Westside Barbell Powerlifting Team to name a few!)

So don’t force yourself through even one more day of lackluster performance. Get RESULTS™ and get results.

Scott Yard – 505 lb RAW Bench – Another regular user of Results

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 – HMB and Creatine: Giving RESULTS Every Time! discussion thread.


1. Jówko, E., Ostaszewski, P., Jank, M., Sacharuk, J., Zieniewicz, A., Wilczak, J. & Nissen, S. (2001) Creatine and beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) additively increase lean body mass and muscle strength during a weight training program. Nutr. 17(7-8): 558-566.

2. Eley, H. L., Russell, S. T. & Tisdale, M. J. (2008) Attenuation of depression of muscle protein synthesis induced by lipopolysaccharide, tumor necrosis factor and angiotensin II by beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate. Am. J. Physiol Endocrinol. Metab. 295(6):1409-1416.

3. Smith, H. J., Wyke, S. M. & Tisdale, M. J. (2004) Mechanism of the attenuation of proteolysis-inducing factor stimulated protein degradation in muscle by beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate. Cancer Res. 64: 8731-8735.

4. Lamboley, C. R., Royer, D. & Dionne, I. J. (2007) Effect of beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate on aerobic-performance components and body composition in college students. Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exer. Metab. 17(1):56-69.

5. Knitter, A. E., Panton, L., Rathmacher, J. A., Petersen, A. & Sharp, R. (2000) Effects of beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate on muscle damage following a prolonged run. J. Appl. Physiol. 89(4):1340-1344.

6. Nissen, S., Sharp, R., Ray, M., Rathmacher, J. A., Rice, D., Fuller, J. C., Jr., Connelly, A. S. & Abumrad, N. N. (1996) Effect of the leucine metabolite beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate on muscle metabolism during resistance-exercise training. J. Appl. Physiol. 81(5): 2095-2104.

7. Nissen, S., Panton, L., Sharp, R. L., Vukovich, M., Trappe, S. W. & Fuller, J. C., Jr. (2000) Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) supplementation in humans is safe and may decrease cardiovascular risk factors. J. Nutr. 130(8): 1937-1945.

8. Volek, J.S., Kraemer, W.J., Bush, J.A., Boetes, M., Incledon, T., Clark, K.L., & Lynch, J.M. (1997) Creatine supplementation enhances muscular performance during high-intensity resistance exercise. J Am Diet Assoc, 97: 765-770.

9. Skare, O.C., Skadberg, & Wisnes, A.R. (2001) Creatine supplementation improves sprint performance in male sprinters. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports, 11: 96-102.

10. Volek, J.S., Duncan, N.D., Mazzetti, S.A., Staron, R.S., Putukian, M., Gomez, A.L., Pearson, D.R., Fink, W.J. &  Kraemer, W.J. (1999) Performance and muscle fiber adaptations to creatine supplementation and heavy resistance training. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 31: 1147-1156.