NF Mailbag: July 16, 2009 – Office Worker Wants to Add 15 Lbs. of Muscle


Post length: 1800 words NF Difficulty: Advanced

NF Reader Ryan asks: I wonder if you can help me design a workout/diet routine, since I have a feeling I’m in a relatively similar situation to you when you started your bulk up quest.

For starters, I’m working your typical 8-4 desk job.  I use the gym in my building at work, which is nice because it costs me nada, but sucky because it’s got limited equipment.  It’s got some treadmills; machines for chest press, bicep, triceps, ab crunch, pull downs, shoulder press, leg press; free weights; and some benches.  There’s also a squat station, but I have never really done squats in my life.  I’ve always stuck to leg presses since my knees/ankles are shit and I’d rather be in a sitting position if my knee gives out than standing with XXX pounds on my shoulders.  With respect to time, if I work out, I like to do it during lunch, because at the end of the day I just want to get the F out of here.  So, if I do that, I have an hour.

I’d say the main problem for me is admittedly my diet, and that’s because I’ve never really smartly combined diet and exercise before.  Food was always one thing and working out was completely separate, and never the two did meet.  I never eat breakfast, because I’m one of those ‘get up-shower-gtfo the door’ kind of people.  Ok, I eat a weak ass cereal bar when I get to work — but that’s basically nothing.  And I don’t eat “right” for dinner, because I despise the time and effort it takes to cook a decent meal haha.  So, tell me what I need to go get for groceries and I’ll begrudgingly follow suit.  Right now I probably weigh about 165, which is decent considering my height, but I want to add maybe 10-15 lbs-ish of muscle and tone up a bit to be more cut.  My metabolism (like yours) has always kept me in decent shape and not overweight, so that’s a bonus; but I’d like to get into a more solid routine and figured you could weigh in (no pun intended…. seriously).

Steve writes: Hey Ryan, thanks for the email; let’s break this down into two parts, diet and exercise.  We’ll start with diet, because that’s by far the most important thing:


As I tell most people, the most success I’ve found with tracking my weight has been by using the free account at, so I’d recommend you sign up there, input your height, weight, and goal weight, and it will tell you how many calories you need to eat per day.  Then you divide that number by 5 or 6 (depending on how many meals you can eat per day), and you have how many calories, carbs, and grams of protein you need to eat with each meal.  First of all, you need to start with a great healthy breakfast.  Eggs and wheat toast, oatmeal and a protein shake, etc.  I don’t have much time in the morning either, so my mornings usually start with a giant shake that has 40 grams of protein and 60-70 grams of carbs in it to get my morning started.  Get that metabolism started and the muscle building as soon as you wake up!

I try to get 25-30 g of protein with each meal.  Here are the best sources of protein: eggs, milk, chicken, fish, lean ground beef, almonds, peanuts, and most legumes too.

veggietales1Throw in some good carbs: vegetables are your best bet, wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and sweet potatoes.  The more vegetables you can eat and the less refined carbs you can eat, the more ‘cut’ you’ll end up looking.  The most important meals are breakfast (read why here), the meal right after your workout (generally a shake with equal parts protein and carbs), and then the last one right an hour before bed (just protein, no carbs…don’t want them to turn to fat while you sleep).

If you can’t stuff your face with good food right after your gym workout, it’s a waste of time.  So either eat a good meal, or bring in a blend and some whey protein powder.  I do it in my office, and you get the occasional joke from a co-worker, but it’s usually coming from somebody who has a donut in their hand.  You win, trust me.

The reason you need to eat as often as possible (every 2-3 hours) is because after you work out, your body is constantly rebuilding the muscles you just broke down, so you want to supply your muscles with a constant supply of building material (protein).  Because you’re looking to bulk up, you’re going to want to eat carbs too, so that your body doesn’t run out of energy and use the protein for that instead of building muscle.  Vegetables are low on calories, high on fiber, really good for you, and can count for your carbohydrate intake.

You’ll probably put on a few pounds of fat as you put on 15 lbs of muscle.  I’d recommend bulking up (by eating like crazy in the manner listed above), and then we can make a few changes to your diet and exercise routine to burn off the fat and leave behind the muscle afterward (more sprints, more vegetables, less refined carbs).


Okay, so you have a free gym at work, and you have an hour for lunch.  This sounds perfect, because I don’t like workouts to go more than 45 minutes AT THE MOST.  I’d start off with a quick 3-5 minute warm up (treadmill, jumping jacks, jumping rope) just to get the heart pumping and your muscles warmed up.

457mI’d try to stay away from the machines if possible (read why here), only because they don’t allow your muscles to have free range of motion, which is crucial. When you use free weights, you have to recruit extra muscle fibers to keep the weight steady, so you’re building extra muscle on top of muscle while you’re working out, sort of like a two for one.  I know you say you have knee problems, so I think sticking with the leg press is okay.  However, I would recommend trying out squats (read my article on squats) with just the bar on your back, practice good form (watch the video), and go down til your thighs are parallel to the floor, and you’ll be amazed how much you work practically every muscle in your body.

If you’re not ready for squats, try some lunges with just your body weight (or with dumbbells in your hand) to build up strength in your legs and knee ligaments.  After initially being scared of both exercises for years, I’ve finally come around on the squat and deadlift and now I can’t get away from them.  As long as you do them right, by starting with low low low weight and just work on getting the motion down, you can do them safely and still see gains.

For the rest of your exercise, you want to keep your exercises intense, with minimal rest between sets, and keep your number of reps in your sets in the 6-12 range for maximum size.

The weight bench and the free weights are going to be your friend.  If there’s a pull up bar there, even better.

To start I would recommend full body routines that will work every single muscle in your body, and then to eat like crazy.  Here is a sample full body workout routine that I do on Mondays:

Exercise Routine

For each exercises, aim for 4-5 sets, waiting 1 minute between reps (example: 12 reps at x weight, 1 minute rest, 10 reps at x + 5 weight, 1 minute rest, 8 reps at x+ 10 weight, 1 minute rest, 6 reps at x+15 weight, 1 minute rest, 12 reps at x weight).

Picture 1Incline Dumbbell Chest Press (set bench at 35-45 degree angle, press dumbbells up and together) – 5 sets, 1 minute rest between sets.

Keep the rest between sets to just a minute, and obviously pick weights that work for you.  If you’re used to waiting 3 minutes between sets, you’re going to need to drop your weight BIG time.  After this your chest will burn, your shoulders will burn, and your triceps will burn.

Wide Grip Pull Ups (5 sets)

Do however many reps you can on the first set (stop at 12 if you can do more), then wait a minute and do the next set, etc.  By the 5th set you should be exhausted and probably only be able to do 1 or 2.  If you don’t have a pull up bar, I’d recommend a single arm dumbbell row (just alternate hands, increasing weight just like above for the Incline Dumbbell press, and don’t take any breaks.  By the time you finish the right side, the left side will have already waited 1 minute, so just rapid fire this one).

Squats, Lunges, or Leg Presses – 5 sets, 1 minute rest between sets

If you’re up for squats, try em out.  Even just the bar or 10 lb weights on each side is enough for you to feel it if you squat properly.  If you keep your butt back so that your knees don’t extend out over your toes, the pressure should be off your knees.  Squats really build up the strength of your core and abs, which will help with your quest to look shredded with six pack abs.

Romanian Deadlift

5 Sets, 1 minute rest between sets

This exercise is a little weird to explain, so here is a good instructional video.  Head over to the squat rack, grab the bar, put a slight bend in your legs, and then just bend over from your waist like a drinking bird, pushing your butt backwards and lowering the bar down to the middle of your shins.  This will work your butt, lower back, and hamstrings.

In 4 Exercises, you’ve worked every single muscle in your body, and you’re done in 35-40 minutes. Stretch for 5 minutes AFTER you workout to prevent injury, get the blood pumping into the muscles that are all tightened up, and then get the heck out of there.

You always want to keep your muscles guessing, so never do the same exercise two days in a row.  You can work that body part again after a few days, but hit it from a different angle with a different exercise to promote stronger growth.

Example: For chest, do dips between parallel bars (if your gym has them) or close grip bench press, chin ups instead of pull ups (palms facing you instead of away from you), regular deadlifts, and lunges.  The guys from 300 never did the same workout twice, and I think they turned out okay.

If you want to REALLY get dedicated, add 20 minutes of interval training/sprints on Tuesday and Thursday.  You’ll be surprised how crazy you can get in 20 minutes.  Read all about interval training here; you can burn fat and boost your metabolism in these 20 minutes, perfect for building lean muscle and shredding fat.  And if you’re dead set on looking shredded, cut back on soda and drinking and those pounds of fat will fly right off.


Have a question for Steve? Email him at and you might be featured in next week’s Mailbag.

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