How To Build Lean Muscle Mass In Your 30s: Use This Smart Workout Plan

Last year I watched my colleague Jon Lipsey go from clinically overweight to cover model of the July 2018 issue of Men’s Fitness. Towards the end of his eight-week training plan, I joined him in his sessions and started dropping body fat, but I wasn’t lean. Seven years ago I was. After a 12-week plan under the guidance of Ultimate Performance founder Nick Mitchell I was shredded. But then, I’d just turned 30 and age was on my side. Now, staring 40 in the face, I wanted to find out how much of a factor age is in building a bigger, stronger and leaner body – because if I could do it so can you, regardless of your age. The good news for all of us is that it’s never too late to get into the shape of your life, as long as you remember this: it’s not just about training hard. It’s about training smart.

In your 20s you can get away with murder. Too many pints last night? That won’t stop you smashing chest day in the morning. You recover from anything faster, even on less sleep, because your body is just better. At everything.

But as your early 30s give way to your almost-40s, life comes at a greater cost. Work is harder and more stressful but you’ve got less energy to deal with it. Family and friends need more of your time, which is already at a premium. And you can do a tough workout on a Monday and still be feeling the effects at the weekend.

As we get older it’s easy to assume that our best days are behind us, and any dreams of building a bigger, stronger and leaner body are about as realistic as those of scoring the winning goal for England in the World Cup final. Or even just watching England in the World Cup final.

But don’t despair. Because the reality is it’s never too late to make huge changes to how you look, feel and perform. If you, like me, can see 30 receding into the distance in your rearview mirror, my training programme should be just right for you. It’ll help you add lean muscle and strip away fat to transform your body, while also rejuvenating your energy levels, sending your motivation levels soaring and getting back on top of every area of your life.

If you’re under 30 you can do the plan too, but be warned – you’ll need a whole new wardrobe after you bust through all your shirts Hulk-style.

How I Built A Better Body

The eight-week programme I used was formed of four two-week blocks. Each block had a different body-part split and session structure because regular changes to the key training variables – exercise selection and order, sets, reps, tempo, rest and weight – keeps training physically and mentally stimulating to fast-track your results. 

I did four workouts a week. The first three hit all my major muscle groups, while the final workout was dedicated to just one muscle group – the one I most wanted to make bigger. For the first half of the plan I dedicated these specialisation sessions to my arms; for the second half it was my back which, after years of bench pressing, needed bringing up to speed.

Try This Two-Week Training Plan

Try this two-week muscle-building block that allows you to select specific sessions to add size to individual muscle groups.

Split In this two-week training block the workouts follow this pattern: the first session of both weeks is a “push” workout, which hits your chest, shoulders and triceps. The second is a “pull” session, which targets your back and biceps. The third session works your legs, while the fourth and final workout targets the muscle group you most want to make bigger and more defined – your abs, arms or chest. Train on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and then Saturday or Sunday to give yourself maximum recovery time.

Structure Every workout in this two-week block is made up of six different exercises, which you’ll perform as straight sets. This means you do all the sets and reps of exercise 1, sticking to the tempo and rest periods detailed, and then move on to do all the sets and reps of exercise 2, and so on until you finish all the reps of the final set of exercise 6. This approach will fully test your muscles to improve your strength levels, while also creating the ideal stimulus for your body to start adding lean muscle mass.

Progression The second week of this block is similar to the first week in that it follows the same muscle-group split – push, pull, legs, then body-part specific session – in order, for your four weekly sessions. The moves are also the same and in the same order, but with one major difference: to help you add size faster you’ll do a extra two reps in every set of the first two moves of each session, and then do a full extra set for the other four moves. Try to lift slightly heavier weights for each move in the second week.

In week two, add two extra reps to every set of the first two moves, then do a full extra set for the other four moves. 

Tempo Listed alongside the sets, reps and rest period details below the name of each exercise you’ll see a column marked “tempo”, which is a four-digit number. Tempo is the speed at which you perform one rep of an exercise, and the four-digit number is the time in seconds you take to lower and lift the weight, and pause at the top and bottom. For example, a 2010 tempo for the bench press means you lower the bar to your chest in two seconds, with no pause at the bottom, then lift the bar in one second, with no pause at the top.

Specialisation For the fourth sessions of both weeks you choose which muscle group you train. There are three options: abs, arms or chest. Pick just one. These muscle-group goal workouts use straight sets like the other three weekly sessions, so do the exercises in order as instructed to add serious size to your chosen muscle fast. In the second week, as with the other three sessions, do two extra reps per set of the first two moves, then a full extra set of the next four moves to train both harder and smarter.

Workout 1: Push

1 Dumbbell bench press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, triceps, front shoulders

Lie on a flat bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand at chest height. Plant your feet on the floor directly underneath your knees. Brace your core and back muscles and press your feet into the ground. Keeping your whole body tight and your chest up, press the weights directly up until your arms are straight and the weights touch over the middle of your chest. Slowly lower the weights back to the start position under complete control. Don’t “bounce” the weights at the bottom of a rep to help initiate the next one. Instead keep each rep smooth and controlled.

2 Dumbbell overhead hammer press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Shoulders, triceps

Stand tall, holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing each other. Keeping your chest up and abs engaged, press the weights directly overhead until your arms are straight and the weights touch above your head. Slowly lower the weights back to the start position.

3 Dumbbell lateral raise

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Side shoulders

Stand tall with your chest up, abs braced and feet hip-width apart, holding a light dumbbell in each hand by your sides with your palms facing one another. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to the sides, no higher than shoulder height. As the weights approach shoulder height, rotate your wrists slightly so that your little fingers are pointing straight up – this will contract your side delts harder. Pause and hold this top position for a second, then lower the weights under complete control.

4 Low-cable cross-over

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, front shoulders

Stand in the middle of a cable machine with a split stance, holding a handle attached to the low pulleys in each hand with your hands back and behind your body. Keeping your arms straight, your chest up and your abs braced, raise both your hands and cross them in front of your body at chest height. At this top position, squeeze your chest hard by twisting your wrists so your palms and forearms are facing the ceiling, and hold this position for a second. Slowly lower your hands back to the start position under complete control.

5 Cable rope overhead triceps extension

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Triceps

Stand tall with your back to a cable machine with your chest up and core engaged, holding a double rope handle attached to the low pulley in both hands behind your head. Lean forwards slightly from your hips, but keep your chest up and your back straight. Keeping your elbows locked in position either side of your head and pointing straight up, press your hands up and forwards to straighten your arms. When your arms are fully straight, pause and flex your triceps for one second. Slowly return your hands to the start position, then squeeze your biceps hard before starting the next rep.

6 Cable rope triceps press-down

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Biceps

Stand tall in front of a cable machine with your chest up and core engaged, using both hands to hold a double rope handle attached to the high pulley. Keeping your chest up and your elbows tight to your sides, press your hands down until your arms are fully straight. Hold this bottom position and flex your triceps to keep the tension on them. Slowly return to the start position, without letting your elbows move away from your sides at any point. When you return to the top position, squeeze your biceps.

Workout 2: Pull

1 Lat pull-down

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Lats, biceps, forearms

Adjust the machine so you’re sitting with your knees secured, holding the bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip. Keeping your chest up and abs braced, pull the bar down, leading with your elbows. Hold the bottom position for a second, squeezing your biceps and back hard, then reverse the movement back to the start.

2 Wide-grip seated row

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Upper back, biceps

Position yourself on the machine with your feet against the foot rest, holding a bar cable attachment in both hands with a wide grip. Keeping your chest up, back straight and core braced, row your hands in towards your body, leading with your elbows. Once your hands are by your body, pause for a second and squeeze your back and biceps muscles hard, then reverse the move back to the start position.

3 EZ-bar preacher curl

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Biceps, forearms

Sit or stand at a preacher bench, holding an EZ-bar with an underhand grip. Keeping your upper arms and elbows on the bench, curl the bar up towards your chin until your forearms are vertical. Pause in this top position for one second, squeezing your biceps hard. Lower the bar slowly and under complete control, fully straightening your arms at the bottom.

4 EZ-bar upright row

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Upper back, biceps, shoulders

Stand tall, holding an EZ-bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Keeping your chest up, row the bar upwards towards your chin, leading with your elbows. Pause and hold for one second in this top position, then slowly lower the bar until your arms are straight.

5 Cable bar biceps curl

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Biceps, forearms

Stand tall with your chest up and core engaged, holding a bar attached to the low pulley with an underhand grip. Keeping your chest up and your elbows tight to your sides, curl the bar up until your hands are at chin height. Pause and hold this top position and squeeze your biceps to keep the tension on them. Slowly return to the start position, without letting your elbows move away from your sides at any point. At the bottom position, flex your triceps.

6 Cable face pull

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Upper back, rear shoulders

Stand tall in front of a cable machine holding a double-rope handle in both hands, with thumbs closest to you. Keeping your chest up and abs engaged, stand so that there is tension in the cable when your arms are straight. Bring your hands up and to the sides of your head, so your hands end up above your head with your elbows bent at roughly 90°. Pause and hold this top position for one second, squeezing your upper back and rear delts, then reverse the movement to the start position.

Workout 3: Legs

1 Front squat

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Quads, glutes, hamstrings, core

Hold the bar across the front of your shoulders, either holding it in your hands with your elbows forwards and upper arms parallel to the ground, or with your arms bent and crossed and your fingers resting on the opposite shoulder. Stand with your feet at least hip-width apart and your toes pointing slightly outwards. Keeping your elbows and chest up and core engaged, squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. From this bottom position, drive through your heels, pushing your knees out to the sides, to stand back up to the start position.

2 Romanian deadlift

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Hamstrings, glutes, core

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell with an overhand grip just outside your thighs. With a slight bend in your knees, hinge forwards from the hips and lower the bar down the front of your legs until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. Reverse the movement back to the start and push your hips forwards at the top.

3 Leg extension

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Quads

Prepare the machine, following the instructions to make the necessary adjustments so when you sit on it you’re positioned correctly and safely. In the start position you should be sitting upright with your chest up and shins against the padded bar. Lift the bar by raising your feet until both legs are fully straight. Hold this top position for one second, keeping as much tension on your quads as possible, then slowly lower back to the start position.

4 Hamstring curl

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Hamstrings

Prepare the machine, following the instructions to make the necessary adjustments so when you sit on it you’re positioned correctly and safely. In the start position you should be sitting upright with your chest up and straight legs, with the padded bar against the back of your ankles, above your heel. Lower the bar by bending your knees and pulling your feet down underneath your body. Hold this bottom position for one second, keeping as much tension on your hamstrings as possible, then slowly raise your feet back to the start position.

5 Dumbbell lunge

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1010 Rest 2min

Targets Quads, glutes, hamstrings, core

Stand tall with your chest up and your abs engaged, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Take a big step forwards with one foot, then lunge down until both knees are bent at right angles. Push off your front foot to return to the start. That’s one rep. Repeat, leading with your other leg. Continue, alternating your leading leg, until you have done all the reps.

6 Dumbbell step-up

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves

Stand tall with a raised platform or bench in front of you, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your chest up and your core engaged, step up onto the raised surface with one foot, then the other. Step back down, leading with the foot that stepped up first. Repeat, leading with the other foot, and step back down again. That’s one rep. Continue, alternating your leading foot, keeping your torso upright throughout the set.

Workout 4 (Option 1): Arms Specialisation

1 Close-grip bench press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Triceps, chest, front shoulders

Lie on a flat bench with a shoulder-width overhand grip on the bar with straight arms. Brace your core and back muscles, and press your feet into the ground. Keeping your whole body tight and your chest up, lower the bar towards your chest under complete control. Lower the bar until it touches your chest, then press it back up powerfully to the start position. Don’t “bounce” the bar on your chest at the bottom of a rep to help initiate the next one. Instead keep each rep smooth and controlled.

2 Underhand lat pull-down

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Biceps, lats, forearms

Adjust the machine so you’re sitting with your knees secured, holding the bar with a narrow underhand grip. Keeping your chest up and abs braced, pull the bar down, leading with your elbows. Hold the bottom position for a second, squeezing your biceps and back hard, then reverse the movement back to the start.

3 EZ-bar overhead triceps extension

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 90sec

Targets Triceps

Stand tall with your chest up and abs braced, holding an EZ-bar above your head with straight arms. Keeping your elbows locked in position and pointing straight up, slowly lower the bar back and behind your head. Without letting your elbows move, press the bar back up to the start position.

4 EZ-bar biceps curl

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 90sec

Targets Biceps

Stand tall with your chest up, abs braced and elbows by your sides, holding an EZ-bar using an underhand grip with your hands just outside your hips. Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl the bar up, stopping just before your forearms reach vertical. Pause in this top position for one second, squeezing your biceps hard. Slowly lower the bar back to the start position.

5 Cable bar triceps press-down

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 90sec

Targets Triceps

Stand tall with your chest up and core engaged, using both hands to hold a bar handle attached to the high pulley. Keeping your chest up and your elbows tight to your sides, press your hands down until your arms are fully straight. Hold this position and flex your triceps. Return to the start position, without letting your elbows move away from your sides at any point.

6 Cable bar biceps curl

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 90sec

Targets Biceps

Stand tall in front of a cable machine with your chest up and core engaged, holding a bar handle attached to the low pulley with an underhand grip. Keeping your chest up and your elbows tight to your sides, curl the bar up until your hands are at chin height. Pause and hold this top position, squeezing your biceps to keep the tension on them. Slowly return to the start position, without letting your elbows move away from your sides at any point. In the bottom position, flex your triceps.

Workout 4 (Option 2): Abs Specialisation

1 Kettlebell goblet squat

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 60sec

Targets Core, quads, glutes, hamstrings

Stand tall with your chest up and core engaged, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest height with both hands, as you would hold a goblet. Keeping your chest up and back straight, initiate the move by bending your knees and pushing your hips backwards to squat down as low as you can. Keep your weight on your heels and press down through them to straighten your legs and return to the start position.

2 Kettlebell plank drag

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 1111 Rest 60sec

Targets Core

Get into a straight-arm plank position with your body in a straight line from head to heels and a kettlebell positioned to one side of your body. Reach under your body with the hand on the opposite side to the bell, and drag it across to the other side. That’s one rep. Use the other hand to drag it back in the other direction, keeping your hips up and your entire core fully engaged throughout.

3 Gym ball weighted crunch reach

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1111 Rest 60sec

Targets Upper abs

Lie with your upper back on a gym ball, holding a dumbbell or weight plate in both hands with your arms straight. Use your abs to crunch upwards, keeping your arms straight and raising the weight as high as you can. Pause and hold this top position for one second, then slowly lower back to the start position.

4 Gym ball weighted Russian twist

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1111 Rest 60sec

Targets Upper abs, side abs

Lie with your upper back on a gym ball, holding a dumbbell or weight plate in both hands with your arms straight. Keeping your arms straight, rotate your torso to one side as far as you can go. Make sure your head follows the line of your arms. Reverse back to the start, then rotate to the other side. That’s one rep. Keep your abs engaged throughout.

5 Hanging knee raise

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1111 Rest 60sec

Targets Lower abs

Position yourself in the machine or hang from a bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and straight legs. Brace your core and glutes and, with your feet together, draw your knees up towards your chest. Hold this position, then straighten your legs to return to the start position.

6 Hanging knee raise twist

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 1111 Rest 60sec

Targets Lower abs, upper abs

Position yourself in the machine or hang from a bar with a shoulder-width overhand grip and straight legs. Brace your core and glutes and, with your feet together, draw your knees up towards your chest. Then twist your knees to one side, pause, then twist them across to the other side. Twist them back to the middle, then straighten your legs to return to the start position. That’s one rep.

Workout 4 (Option 3): Chest Specialisation

1 Incline dumbbell bench press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, triceps, front shoulders

Lie on an incline bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand at chest height. Plant your feet on the floor directly underneath your knees. Brace your core and back muscles, and press your feet into the ground. Keeping your whole body tight and your chest up, press the weights directly up until your arms are straight and the weights touch over the middle of your chest. Slowly lower the weights back to the start position under complete control. Don’t “bounce” the weights at the bottom of a rep to help initiate the next one. Instead keep each rep smooth and controlled.

2 Incline dumbbell flye

Sets 4 Reps 10 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, front shoulders

Lie on an incline bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand directly above your chest with straight arms and palms facing. Plant your feet on the floor directly underneath your knees. With a slight bend in your elbows, lower the weights out to the sides until you feel a good stretch across your upper chest. Squeeze your chest muscles to raise the weights back to the start position.

3 Dumbbell pull-over

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, lats, front shoulders

Lie on a flat bench, holding a dumbbell in both hands with straight arms above your chest. Keeping your body tight, your arms straight and your upper back on the bench, slowly lower the weight behind your head in a smooth arc until you feel a good stretch in your chest and lats. Raise the weight back to the start position, squeezing your chest and lats at the top.

4 High-cable cross-over

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, front shoulders

Stand tall with a split stance in the middle of a cable machine, holding a D-handle attached to the high pulley in each hand. Keeping your chest up, core braced and a slight bend in your elbows, bring your hands down in a smooth arc to meet in front of your hips. Hold this bottom position for one second, squeezing your chest muscles hard, then reverse the movement back to the start.

5 Cable straight-arm pull-down

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2011 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, lats, front shoulders

Stand tall in front of a cable machine, holding a straight-bar handle attached to the high pulley in both hands with an overhand grip and straight arms. Bend forwards slightly from the hips and, keeping your chest up, your abs braced and your arms straight, pull the bar down in a smooth arc so it hits your thighs. Hold this bottom position for one second, squeezing your chest and lats hard, then reverse the movement back to the start.

6 Incline press-up

Sets 3 Reps 12 Tempo 2010 Rest 2min

Targets Chest, triceps, front shoulders

Get on all fours with your legs and arms straight, your hands under your shoulders on a box or platform, and your body in a straight line from head to heels. Raise your hips and brace your core to keep your entire body stable. Bend your elbows to lower your chest towards the platform, but don’t let them flare out – they should stay tight to your sides. Go as low as you can, then press back up to straighten your arms and return to the start position.

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