Imagine having the incredible size and tenacity of the Hulk.
…Possessing the awesome god-like strength of Thor.
…Powering through life like Captain America, or flying through the air and shooting laser pulses out of your hands like Iron Man.
Wait, scratch that last one.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably seen the Avengers at least once. If you’re anything like me, you walked away from that movie and thought to yourself, “Damn, I want to be a superhero!”
Well, I can’t give you super powers, but I CAN provide you with the blueprint for building a superhero body, drawing lessons from our friends in the Avengers: Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America.
Looking to bulk up and pack on some muscle? This post will resonate strongly with you.
Are you overweight and looking to slim down, or a gal who’s looking to get stronger? Don’t worry, most of the lessons below still apply.
The Incredible Hulk’s Incredible Size
Although the Hulk’s power is a force to be reckoned with, there’s one attribute of this angry green giant that sticks with people long after witnessing him.
His incredible size.
If you are interested in getting big like the Hulk, you’re going to need to eat like the Hulk. When it comes to getting bigger, the “eating big” part is responsible for at LEAST 80% of one’s success or failure. It’s why sites like Lift Big. Eat Big. (which kicks ass, by the way) exist – because you need both to get results!
This might be news to you, but muscle is NOT built in the gym. Muscle is built in the kitchen and in bed (while sleeping, perv!). You go to the gym to break down your muscles, then you eat enough and sleep to rebuild those muscles bigger and stronger than they were before.
In order to build muscle and size, you need to consume more calories than you burn every day.
How many calories is enough? This simple equation from my friend JCD over at JCDFitness gives you a good starting point:
Multiply your body weight by 16-18 to give you how many calories you should consume in order to put on weight:
- If you weigh 150 pounds, you should be consuming at least 2400-2700 calories in order to get bigger.
- If you weigh 175 pounds, you should be consuming at least 2700 – 3200 calories in order to get bigger.
This is a rough estimate. Depending on your age, metabolism, and training, you might need to significantly scale this amount up. Back when I packed on 18 pounds in 30 days, I was consuming somewhere between 3500-4000 calories. You might even need to exceed 4,000 calories per day.
Along with consuming enough calories, aim for 1g of protein per pound of lean body weight (or 2 grams per kg). If you don’t want to do the calculations, consume between .8 – 1g of protein per pound of body weight (2 grams of protein per kg).
The rest of your calories per day should come from a good mix of carbohydrates and fats.
Here are some good sources of calories with either carbs or fats to make sure you get enough in your system:
- whole milk
- almonds and almond butter
- olive oil
- brown rice
If you are a paleo fan – your excess calories should come from nuts, eggs, olive oil, yams, and whole milk (if you’re also consuming dairy).
Make sure you are drinking plenty of water and consuming a LOT of high-fiber vegetables. With all of that food you’re consuming, having a properly function digestive system is crucial.
Under optimal conditions, you can pack on approximately one pound of muscle per week. Any additional weight that you gain is mostly likely going to be fat, so it’s important to find your balance.
How often should you eat? The timing of your meals through the day isn’t terribly important as long as you are getting enough calories and protein by the end of the day. You can split out your calories and protein into two meals, three meals, four meals, or six meals – whatever set up works for you to get enough calories into your system.
Before we get into strength training, I find that a meal with at least 30-50g of protein and 60g of carbs within 30 minutes of your workout is a great way to kickstart the muscle building process.
Here’s my preferred superhero post-workout shake (I’m using it along with a workout below to pack on around 10-15 pounds over the next 8 weeks).
Okay, we’ve covered how to eat like the Hulk.
Now it’s time to learn how to build strength like Thor. Come on, think of the amount of strength required to be the God of Thunder and wield that epically awesome hammer.
When it comes to training, you want to follow a routine that builds super strong AND functional muscle, like a superhero!
Why? Because as we know, “Appearance is a consequence of fitness.” Put your focus on getting REALLY strong, and you will also look good as a result.
We need to set a few rules when it comes to our Superhero Training Program:
- Focus on compound movements. We’re not doing isolation movements like calf raises, leg raises or bicep curl machines. Instead, we’re going to focus on compound movements like squats, deadllifts, overhead presses, pull ups, chin ups, push ups and dips. THAT’S IT.
- NO MACHINES. You think Thor built those broad shoulders and tree trunk legs with restrictive weight machines? Hell no. He picked up heavy stuff and put it down, repeatedly.
- Efficiency is key. Thor is a busy man, with saving the world in multiple dimensions. Therefore, he needs maximum efficiency in his workouts so he has time to do everything else. You need to be the same way: in and out of the gym in 45 minutes or less.
So, what does a super hero workout look like?
A super hero workout designed for size and strength is going to have a just few compound movements per routine, with sets per exercise in the 3-5 range, and reps in the 3-10 range.
So, here’s a sample routine to be completed 3 times a week, alternated every other day (so Superhero A workout on Monday, Superhero B workout on Wednesday, and then Superhero A workout again on Friday).
SUPERHERO A WORKOUT
- Squats: 4 sets of 5 repetitions
- Overhead press: 4 sets of 5 repetitions
- Pull ups: 3 sets of max repetitions
SUPERHERO B WORKOUT
- Deadlifts: 3 sets of 5 repetitions
- Bench press: 4 sets of 5 repetitions
- Bent over rows: 3 sets of 8 repetitions
Wait no more than 60-120 seconds between sets (lower rep ranges and heavier weights = more time between sets).
Adjust the above training based on your schedule. You can do 4 workouts, where Monday is just legs, Tuesday is upper body, Thursday is legs, and Friday is upper body. You can switch to 5 sets of 5 reps each with more time between sets or 3 sets of 8 reps each with less time between sets. Any of these programs will get you results if you STICK with it and eat enough!
The goal with this type of training is to consistently ADD weight to each exercise. For big movements, every time you train, you should aim to add more weight to your lifts. If you squatted 100 pounds last week, this week you should aim to squat 105 pounds. If you’re at the point where adding weight every time is getting harder, even adding one more rep is a step in the right direction.
Here are a few superhero benchmarks to aim for, with more specific guidelines for your weight. If you can’t hit these goals yet, keep lifting and eating big!
- Benchpress 1.5x/1x (men/women) your body weight
- Deadlift 2x your body weight
- Squat 1.5-2x your body weight
- Overhead press 1x/.75x (men/women) your body weight
If you aren’t close to the numbers listed above, and you don’t have any injuries that prevent you from doing the above lifts, don’t waste time on isolation exercises - follow a workout like the one above until you’re superhero strong. No, it doesn’t have any muscle confusion like p90x, or metabolic conditioning like Crossfit, just muscle-building awesomeness.
3-4 exercises per workout, 3-5 sets per exercise, 3-10 reps per set. Done in 30-45 minutes. Go home, eat big, and sleep.
If you are serious about superhero strength training, you NEED to read Starting Strength, easily the most comprehensive book I’ve ever read on strength training. If you want to be a super strong superhero, this book is a requirement.
Iron Man’s love of details and technology
Tony Stark was never shot with Gamma rays, he didn’t come from another universe, nor was he ever injected with a serum to build incredible strength.
Other than the obvious (a glowing chest), Tony was no different than you and me. He did, however, possess something that allowed him to BECOME a superhero despite not being supernatural:
Hahaha just kidding (mostly).
Tony Stark succeeded as a superhero because he loved technology and data. He used his passion and intellect to constantly improve the technology in the Iron Man. In order to be successful, you need to be like Tony and become a data-driven machine!
TRACK YOUR FOOD - Sign up for a free food tracker at Tracker.dailyburn.com or Dailyplate.com, (disregard their recommendations for caloric intake and macronutrient breakdown), find the amount of calories consumed that works best for you, and track everything you eat.
Here’s the thing, I don’t know how many calories will work for you – every person is different. This is why you need to be like Tony – track your results daily and make adjustments based on the data.
Weigh yourself, track your calories EVERY DAY for a week, and then step on the scale again:
- If you see a 1.5-3 pound gain after that week, then you’re on the right path.
- If you don’t see any weight gain, then you are not consuming enough calories: add 250 more calories per day and see if the scale moves the following week.
- If you gain more than three pounds in a week, you are probably consuming too much. Cut your caloric intake back by 250 calories per day and see if the scale slows down the following week.
TRACK YOUR BODY – If you’re eating for muscle size and strength, you will put on SOME fat as you build muscle. If you can strike that fine balance of calories, then you can minimize the fat gain while maximizing muscle gain. In order to do that, you need to track your body’s changes!
- Get a tape measure and take measurements of your neck, chest, biceps, waist, hips, legs, and calfs. Obviously, if you’re doing things right, your arms, legs, and chest should be getting bigger. If you’re developing a gut with your waist increasing disproportionally, then it might be time to scale back the calories.
- Take a picture once a week and compare it to previous pictures to see if your body is adding mass in the right spots.
- Use a body fat caliper to test your body fat weekly to make sure you’re mostly adding muscle. You can pick up a caliper for super cheap online.
TRACK YOUR WORKOUTS - “That which is measured gets improved.” Keep a workout journal, track your workouts online, use an excel sheet or a google doc, or whatever you need to do to keep meticulous notes about every one of your workouts. If you know you did three sets of five reps of 150 pounds on squats last week, then next week you’ll know that you need to do three sets of five reps of 155 pounds to be stronger.
You should even track how much time you spend in between sets. Keep track of every variable so you can tell very easily if you’re getting stronger. Stronger + good diet = bigger!
Captain America’s dedication to the cause
Captain America is the most loyal and dedicated S.O.B. you’ll ever meet.
Whether he’s diving on grenades to protect his platoon mates or parachuting into enemy territory solo to rescue his friends, Captain America is willing to do whatever necessary to guarantee victory.
You need to be 100% dedicated to your cause as well.
If you’re getting started with strength training, stick with a plan similar to the above plan for six months to a year and you’ll see great results.
On top of that, you need to stay dedicated, even when those around you aren’t!
- Drinking alcoholic beverages can be incredibly limiting to your hormones and muscle growth – can you say no when everybody else is out getting hammered? Can you limit your drinking to a glass of wine or the occasional beer while your friends are drinking themselves stupid?
- Sleep is an incredibly important aspect of building muscle, as that’s when a good portion of muscle is built! Can you turn off the video games and TV to make sure you’re getting at least eight hours of sleep per night? Do NOT underestimate the importance of sleep – this is a crucial element in muscle gaining.
- Getting enough calories is crucial, and it’s easy to slack if you’re not used to eating that much. Can you take extra shots of olive oil or eat extra meals even when you’re feeling full to make sure you get enough calories?
- Can you show restraint? Working out more often or throwing in extra exercises because you think it will help you get bigger can often make things worse for you. Can you follow a routine above, day in and day out, for a few months? Yup, it’s repetitive, but it works!
- Can you be patient? You will not turn into a super hero overnight (unless you’re injected with a super-soldier serum), so are you content with small gains, week after week, until you finally reach your goals in 6 months or a year? Are you okay with the same workout plan for months instead of switching to a new routine every few weeks because you got bored?
Frequently Asked Questions
“How can I get bigger? By the way, I run 20 hours a week!”
Want to know the best way to stunt your muscle growth and significantly slow down your progress? Distance running! Sorry, but it’s true.
If you’re a skinny guy that runs three+ miles a day, it will be very difficult for you to build muscle. If you love running, then by all means continue. Just know that it’s a huge part of the reason why you don’t look like a superhero. Put running on the back burner for as long as you need to until you get bigger. Go for walks on your off days, but you should spend your time on three things for maximum efficiency: Lifting 3x a week, eating big, and sleeping. That’s it.
“I want to get bigger, but don’t want to get too bulky.”
You wouldn’t believe how many emails I get about this, and how badly they make me facepalm. Here’s the thing: if you are under your goal weight (here’s a chart for male superhero reference), you’re lacking in the muscle department. It would take you at least two years of consistent training and overeating before you become “too bulky.” And, if for some strange reason you ever get to that point, you can scale back your caloric intake and your weight will even out!
“Sorry Steve, I just can’t gain weight.”
If you’re not getting bigger, then you’re not eating enough. I’m not a big fan of scales, as I’d rather people measure themselves visually and with body fat percentage than a simple number. However, when it comes to building muscle, a scale is a great way to see if you’re on track.
“What if I need to lose weight, but I still want to look like a superhero?”
Follow the same workout plan above, and minimize carbohydrate intake. So, lift big and consistently lift more, and follow the Paleo Diet. You keep the muscle you have, and shred the fat around it. Given enough time (it might be months or years), you’ll get that ripped superhero body you’re after. Just ask Saint – that was his plan. I’d say it worked
I’m skinny-fat. Should I slim down and then bulk up, or bulk up and then slim down? Help!
My friend Anthony just wrote an awesome article on this subject, but I’ll second his feelings: put your focus on cleaning up your diet and strength training. Lose the gut with healthy eating and heavy lifting. Follow a routine similar to the one above, and put your focus on clean eating. Once the gut is gone and you’ve cut your body fat percentage down, you’ll be primed and ready for powerful muscle building! At that point, you can follow the above diet advice.
But I read in [magazine] about [famous actor's] workout plan for [superhero movie] and his workout doesn’t look this.
Actors have very tight schedules and have to work out in a way that builds the most amount of flashy muscle in the least amount of time. They don’t need to worry about actually being strong, they just need to LOOK big and strong. In order to do so, they follow a five days per week muscle-isolation schedule that pumps their muscles up without building a proportional amount of strength, combining this routine with a specially designed diet compliments of personal nutritionist.
This is not a “look like a hollywood actor who’s playing a superhero” guide, but rather a “get big and strong like an actual superhero” guide. I prefer this method of training as it allows me to look strong and BE strong.
I’m a woman. I don’t want to get bulky, but I want to get strong and ripped like Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow in the Avengers, or Jessica Biel in Blade III!
Lift heavy and go paleo, like Staci! Unless you are taking steroids or eating poorly, you will NOT get too bulky. You have my word on that.
What are some other questions you have about building strength and muscle?
How else can I help you get big and strong like a superhero?
The world needs you.
PS – If you want more specific advice on workout plans (for dumbbells, barbells, and body weight routines) along with diet plans (for various types of bulk up options), check out the Rebel Strength Guide where all of this stuff is covered far more in depth.