Alan Stephan's Classic Bulk Gaining Routine - Gymtalk

Alan Stephan’s Classic Bulk Gaining Routine

One of the biggest problems I have with modern bodybuilding – and the fitness industry in general – is that everything is overcomplicated.

Let’s take the classic example: teenage boy is sick of being weedy and bullied and wants to build muscle mass to acquire respect/lose virginity.

They type “bulk up fast” into Google or YouTube and they’ll be met with a smorgasbord of “essential” supplements (mass gainers, creatine, BCAAs, CLA), complicated dietary advice regarding macro counting and metabolic rates, and chemically-enhanced clowns advising six-day-per-week bro splits with endless exercise variations.

Sure, all this sounds cutting-edge and impressive, but, in truth, building mass is much simpler.

To cut through the noise we’re once again going to return to the simplicity of the 1940s, where advice didn’t hinge on what was marketable or backed up by the latest scientific study, but by what was found to work through years of trial and error.

Alan Stephan

Alan Stephan

Alan Stephan was an American bodybuilder who was crowned Mr America in 1946 and 1949.

By appearing on Bob Wright’s show ‘Human Interest in the News’ (the first time posing and lifting had appeared on American television), Stephan helped bring bodybuilding and weight lifting to a wider audience.

He was a regular contributor to the muscle magazines of the 40s and 50s where he disclosed many of training methodologies and routines, one of which we are going to look at in this blog post.

The routine

This is a straightforward mass building routine for beginners which is built around the principles of training big, eating big and getting as much rest and recovery as you can to maximise muscle growth.

Like all old-school bodybuilding routines, this is an abbreviated, full-body workout comprising predominately compound movements.

The routine originally appeared in the September 1950 issue of Your Physique magazine, and is reproduced below in its entirety:

Exercise Reps
Bench press 8-12
Barbell curls 8-12
Breathing squats 20 (first set), 10 (all remaining sets)
Bent arm pullovers 20 (superset with breathing squats)
Bent over row 8-12


Workout frequency

Perform this routine two to three times per week leaving plenty of room for recovery between each workout.

For example: Tuesday and Saturday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday.


Perform one set of each exercise for the first month, two sets for the second month, and three sets for the third, and so on and so forth.

Keep adding sets every month until you’re hitting six sets per movement.


Take two to three minutes rest between sets.

Weight selection

Alan Stephan advises, for the first workout, using a light weight which you can easily lift for each exercise, allowing you to get used to the exercises.

For the second workout, choose a weight with which you can complete the minimum amount of reps with excellent form.

Then, for each successive workout, increase the rep range until you reach the maximum amount of recommended reps.

At this point, add 2.5kg/5lbs to the bar and repeat the process again.

Alan Stephan

Breathing squats and pullovers

The high-rep breathing squat/pullover combination was a staple of muscle building routines in the 40s and 50s (see the Steve Reeves Classic Physique routine and Squats and Milk).

These breathing exercises were employed by bodybuilders such as Reeves, Reg Park, George Eiferman, Peary Rader and Ed Yarick to expand the ribcage and add more size to the chest.

Just compare the thick upper bodies of these golden age physiques to the shallower chests displayed by today’s natural bodybuilders, and you’ll notice the effect these breathing exercises had.

In this case, as per Stephan’s recommendations, for the breathing squats take one deep breath between each of the first five reps, then take two to three deep breaths between reps until you reach 20 reps (or 10 in the proceeding sets).

Once you have completed your breathing squats, immediately grab a bar and start performing your breathing pullovers.

It is important to use a light weight for the pullovers as the idea here is to really stretch the ribcage and not to use your muscles to move the weight.

Use a weight (including the bar) of no more than 10kg/20lbs, breathe deeply, and really try to stretch your ribcage out.


Alan Stephan’s dietary advice is once again simplistic, calling for plenty of whole milk and good nutritious food such as meat, eggs, cheese, butter, and fresh fruit and veg.


The full-body routines of the ‘Golden Era’ placed just as much emphasis on rest and recovery as training.

In much the same way, Alan Stephan advocates getting as much rest as you can on non-training days, avoiding all sport and exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep (8-10 hours) every day to maximise progress.

Signing off

This is an effective and unglamorous beginner’s routine from the 1940s which simply has you performing the right exercises, eating plenty of nutritious food, and getting as much rest on non-training days as possible.

No unnecessary supplements, no longwinded routines, no convoluted diet plans, just the minimum effective dosage required to bulk up.

Put all these pieces together and, to quote Stephan, “Work hard on your schedule, be persistent and determined and you are going to have little or no trouble in gaining bulk!”

If you are using this routine or are thinking of giving it a go, I’d love to hear from you.

Hit me up on social media or leave me a comment below!

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  1. Thanks for digging this old school routine up.

    I think it is cool to try some of these types of no-frill routines.

    Just lift, rest, repeat.

    1. I love writing about these old-school routines, have a few more in the pipeline too.

  2. Interesting article, this program is effectively a 6 month program isn’t that a little long?

    Also in the first month it would seem workouts would be short if only doing the 1 set?

    Final question what would you do on non-training days if you are doing this Mon/Wed/Fri nothing?

    1. Hi Richard.

      To answer your questions:

      1) If it’s still yielding results during that period, no reason to change it up, unless you’re finding the same exercises/rep range a little stale and your enthusiasm is flagging.

      2) The routine is clearly designed for absolute beginners, so for anyone beyond that stage, I would suggest starting with a set range you feel comfortable with (3 would be a safe bet) and progressing from there.

      3) Take it easy – eat, recover, grow! I’m a big advocate of some low-impact light cardio on rest days, such as swimming, as this helps me alleviate joint aches and niggles.

  3. Love the old school routines

    1. You’re not alone!

  4. I love trying out new workout routines and this old one is awesome!

    1. Sure is, simple but effective!

  5. The information overload that aspiring bodybuilders are subjected to is just unnecessary, I would therefore agree with this classic routine but we can all agree that for individuals who expect to gain a superb physique and large amounts of lean muscle mass need to nutritionally supplement their routine.

    1. Rubbish, most supplements are nothing more than a money-spinner.

      You can get all the nutrients you need from real food, and be all the healthier for it.

  6. I’m a 70 year-old guy with a chronic right rotator cuff injury and chronic golfer’s left elbow.

    Every time I hit the weights they both flare up and I have to rest for 2 weeks or longer til the inflammation goes away.

    This morning I was posing in front of the mirror (my body’s pretty lean and would look good except my upper body is kinda skinny, especially my posterior delts) and could see I could get a good flex where I needed it, without aggravating the injuries, by slowly stretching like a big cat.

    I’m wondering if it would be possible to gain a little muscle mass without weights or elastic bands or push-ups or pull-ups, just flexing, doing tai-chi like movements while resisting with my own opposing muscles.

    Has anyone ever tried doing this?

    Had any success?

    1. Hi Tony.

      My first reaction would be to say that there is simply not enough resistance involved with flexing movements to build muscle in a meaningful way.

      However, I welcome any comments from anyone who would beg to differ?

    2. Hi Tony, it’s more than 2 years later as I read your post.

      If still true on joint pain, take Osteo Bi-Flex WITH Hyaluronic Acid.

      There are many products from them, but only one has Hyaluronic Acid in their ingredients.

      You can find it at any retail store or drug store.

      Osteo Bi-Flex is the only brand name that works for me.

      I do not work for the company or anything like that.

  7. Hi there Henry Croft, great article but I had a few questions on it.

    1. Were are the sets at? Should just be like 3-4 sets of those exercises?

    2. How long can you go with this workout? And will it wield good results for say a ectomorph?

    Thanks again

    1. Hi Keith, thanks for stopping by.

      The original article suggests starting with just 1 set and increasing this every month, but this is stipulated with complete beginners in mind.

      I would suggest starting with 3 sets in the first month and working up to 6 sets by month 4.

      Do this for 4 months, as I suggest, and consume a healthy, high protein diet (1-1.5g protein per pound of bodyweight per day) full of wholesome food, and you will see results.

      Hope that helps, let me know if you have any more questions!


      1. Hi there Henry again, thanks for the quick reply but I just had one more question.

        When it says 8-12 reps, what does that mean?

        Should I pick a rep number from 8-12 and use that or do I try and go for 12 and if I get higher then that add more weight (5 lbs)?

        1. Aim to reach failure between 8-12 reps on every set.

          Once you can complete 12 reps on every set, increase the weight!

  8. Thanks it is very good routine.

    But it will be very difficult?

    1. All depends on your level of experience/aptitude to be honest.

      Should be achievable at first, if you follow the instructions, and get more difficult when you increase the volume/weight (progressive overload).

      Let me know how you get on!

  9. I always had a problem with the breathing squats (or any squats) that held me back, bad legs.

    I don’t mean the muscles in the legs, but the joints, even when I was young.

    If it is virtually impossible to do any heavy or even medium squats (or even much in the way of light ones) what is the alternative?

    1. You can do anything that works your leg muscles without pain – split squats, lunges, leg press, etc etc.

      Try them out and stick with the one that doesn’t cause you any joint pain.

    2. Out of interest, does it hurt to bodyweight squat?

  10. That routine seems more like a professional bodybuilder’s routine of today.

    At six sets per exercise that is 30 sets per day or 90 per week.

    If this is for an absolute beginner, then I can see injury or burnout happening rapidly when the trainee reaches that amount… unless most of those sets are warm-up sets.

    And that routine seems somewhat backwards.

    Bench and curls BEFORE squats and rows?

    The rule of thumb is (unless specializing) work the exercises that involve the most effort first (larger muscles, then smaller muscles).

    1. Your math is correct.

      That’s why the early superstars (Alan Stephan is definitely one of them) trained only three times per week.

      The 30 sets is on the 6th month, not before.

      With adaptation and consistency, the volume will not be an issue.

      Note that the max sets (6) workout routine should be finished in 1-1.5 hrs 🙂

      1. This is NOTHING like a modern bodybuilding routine – you’re working out three days per week and resting four days per week.

        The emphasis is on tough full body workouts and recovering well, not blasting each body part every day with needless variety.

        As Kevin says, there is no reason that a novice can’t build up to this amount of volume over a 6 month period, provided they are hitting 3 workouts a week and eating and sleeping as prescribed.

        With regard to exercise order, while I don’t necessarily agree, the older bodybuilders like Steve Reeves believed that the legs should be worked on at the end of the workout, after the major muscles of the upper body.

        To quote Reeves: “I believe it is better for your body to warm up and increase the circulation gradually by doing exercises that don’t put too much demand on your system too quickly.

        “By working the smaller muscles first, then working the legs near the end of your training, you will achieve this.”