The application of consistent, logical effort, over a prolonged period is the key to reaching your physical muscular potential.
Updated March 9th, 2022.
When I realised I was transgender in 2018, I started bodybuilding because I wanted to sculpt a more gender-affirming physique. For nearly three years, I’ve been honoured to help dozens of clients achieve the same goal.
With this article, I want to help you do the same.
This piece is therefore going to cover:
Before we start, I want to make a clarification: this guide can help you at any stage of your fitness journey, whether you’re on testosterone replacement therapy or not.
Anyone can build muscle with resistance training, including those who are pre-testosterone or will never take any.
Furthermore, the benefits of exercise go above and beyond your appearance and include improved mood, higher energy levels, and increased self-confidence, among others. What better way to grow into the person you were always meant to be?
For this reason, I encourage you to begin training as soon as you can. Even if you chose to never start hormones, you’d still be able to put on an euphoria-inducing amount of muscle that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t train.
I speak from experience, as I was determined to take my physique as far as I could before beginning my medical transition. I first started lifting in June 2018, but didn’t have access to TRT until March 2020.
In addition to the physical results – which I believe have been greater than if I had waited almost two years until I could start testosterone – training and nutrition have helped my mental health, relieved my dysphoria, and benefited my relationship with food.
But enough about me. If you want to learn more about my story, you can read this article.
If you’re here for the gains, let’s get started.
What do you need to build a masculine physique?
A bigger back, wider shoulders, and muscular legs are going to offset your waist and hips, shaping your body into the so-called “X frame” that most bodybuilders covet.
However, some people may find that developing their thigh and glute musculature causes dysphoria, in which case you can keep lower body training to a minimum. I wouldn’t recommend avoiding it altogether for two reasons:
Moreover, bigger pecs can help you get better results from top surgery if you ever decide to get it. If you’ve already had it, you probably don’t need me to convince you that building muscle in this area is a good idea.
Lastly, if you don’t plan on getting top surgery, having strong pecs will help you complement a stronger back, so that you don’t develop any postural imbalances from training your back too much and your pecs too little.
Back, shoulders, legs, and pecs are all major body parts, so compound and isolation exercises targeting them will form the foundation of your training program.
To complement these, it may not come as a surprise to you that I recommend training your biceps and triceps in order to add some meat to the front (biceps) and back (triceps) of your guns. In particular, the triceps is the only muscle on the back of your arm, so you don’t want to miss it!
However, if you’re a beginner or you have limited time to train, you may want to prioritise back and pecs over arm exercises. Most compound lifts for back and pecs train biceps and triceps respectively in an indirect way, so, in many cases, they’re a more efficient use of your time than including a lot of isolated arm work at the expense of compound exercises.
For example, beginners don’t need as much volume (the amount of sets you do for each muscle over a period of time) to grow as more advanced lifters, so they can experience visible biceps and triceps growth with minimal direct arm training if they perform a lot of compound lifts.
Finally, if you have time left, you can include some direct abdominal exercises. Given that the core has to work as a stabiliser in the majority of compound lifts targeting any upper or lower body muscle, you don’t need an entire “ab day”. Instead, including a few hard sets at the end of some workouts is likely a more time-efficient way to grow your six-pack if you learn how to perform them with the form required to engage the abdominals effectively.
To be clear, this article will focus mainly on how to train the foundational muscle groups (back, shoulders, pecs, quads, and hamstrings). Future articles may explore training biceps, triceps, and abs, so stay tuned! You can keep up with my content by signing up for my free newsletter.
Other than building muscle, if you’re carrying excess body fat, losing some will help you minimise the appearance of certain areas, such as your abdomen and waist, hips, thighs, and glutes.
Furthermore, body fat lies on top of muscle, so, if you lose some of this fat, you’ll be able to see more definition in the muscles that you’re working hard to build.
The most effective way to lose body fat is to make some changes to the way you eat in combination with a moderate increase in activity levels. You can read more about this here.
However, a fat loss diet may not be appropriate for everyone.
Then you don’t need a fat loss diet.
In the nutrition section of this article, you’ll find tips for both those who do want to lose some fat, and for those who simply want to improve their current way of eating in order to benefit their training and resulting muscle growth.
How to work on your own X frame
Since we all have a different build, you’ll need a personalised program in order to achieve your physique goals, even if they may seem similar to someone else’s.
Nevertheless, having worked with dozens of transgender men and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) over the years, I’ve identified some general principles that you can use as a starting point to design an effective program to masculinise your physique.
First of all, most of the clients I’ve had the pleasure to work with, have had three characteristics in common:
Therefore, instead of training all the muscle groups mentioned so far equally, you can follow these guidelines:
1. Train your upper body with more volume
Weekly volume is usually defined as the number of challenging sets per body part you perform in a week of training, and it seems to play an important role in the achievement of muscle growth. To learn more about the relationship between volume and muscle growth, you can read this article.
In general, 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week seems to be an appropriate range to maximise growth. Within this range, performing more volume tends to yield more muscle growth (if you can recover from it), so you could do more sets for your upper body than the lower body.
For example, if you’re training three days per week doing six sets for quads and hamstrings, you may do eight to 10 sets for back, shoulders, and pecs.
2. Train your upper body with a higher frequency
As a result of choosing to do more sets for the upper body, you may find that training it more often than the lower body, is a useful approach to ensure you don’t do so many sets in a single session that you can’t recover.
For instance, when training three days per week, these are some of the most effective splits I’ve used to masculinise a client’s physique:
3. Perform upper body exercises for lagging body parts (such as lateral delts if you have small, narrow shoulders) first in a session.
Research seems to show that muscles trained first in a session may get better growth than those trained last, as Dr. Brad Schoenfeld discusses in his book The Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy (2nd Edition), so you want your first lifts to target the areas you need to improve the most.
For example, if you wanted to prioritise your back and quads, you could start every upper body session with a back exercise and every lower body session with a quad exercise. However, this isn’t usually my preferred approach, as most of my clients need to develop their overall physique rather than specialising in training a few select body parts more than all the others.
If you also want or need more balanced development across the board, start by reviewing your progress pictures in order to identify:
Then you can program the first priority muscles to be trained first in a session in the first half of the week, and the secondary priority muscles to be trained first in the second half of the week.
An example schedule, based on a three-day upper/lower/upper split, could look like this:
With this approach, you can still devote a greater focus to your lagging body parts, but you’re also balancing all other muscle groups in order to sculpt a well-rounded physique.
4. Perform your highest-priority sessions first in the week
At the beginning of each week, you’ve usually had a weekend to rest both from work and training, so you’re likely to have the greatest amount of energy and the least amount of fatigue.
Therefore, it makes sense to place your highest-priority sessions – which focus on your first priority muscles – at the start of the week in order to get the most out of them.
Now that you understand these general principles of program design, let’s dig into how to train each of these muscle groups effectively, so you can reap all the benefits of a well-structured program.
How to train your back
The back includes multiple muscles. In this section, I’m going to focus on two areas:
As a whole, the back complex performs the following actions:
Without nerding out on anatomy too much, given that each of these actions is performed by different muscles of the back complex, incorporating at least one exercise per action is going to help you hit all of your back musculature to a certain degree.
In your first year or two of training, you may be better off focusing on each muscle action evenly in order to develop a foundation of muscle for the entire back.
As you become more advanced, you may find that some of your back muscles are more developed than others. In this case, you may choose to focus more on exercises involving those actions that primarily recruit your lagging muscles.
The only action you might not need to include in your program at all in many cases is scapular elevation (shrugging), which is primarily performed by the upper traps and the levator scapulae (click).
It’s common to see gym-goers performing variations of shrugs in order to grow the traps. However, it seems that all three divisions of the traps (upper, medial, and lower) may be targeted more effectively with scapular retraction than scapular elevation, which seems to involve primarily the upper division of this muscle (click, click).
Therefore, you may not need to add any shrug variation to your training – especially if you only have limited time to work out – unless your traps are a seriously lagging body part, or you’re keen on bigger levator scapulae muscles.
This is a list of exercises to include in your program to hit all of the different back muscles:
Pull-ups, lat pull-downs, and rows are valuable staples of back-building programs. They can entail both shoulder extension and scapular retraction if you draw your shoulder blades together, so they cover multiple actions and therefore multiple muscles, such as the lats, the rhomboids, and the traps, which make up the biggest portion of the back musculature.
Face pulls and rear delt rows focus on shoulder horizontal extension, so they’re a good complement to the above-mentioned exercise for the development of the posterior deltoid and the three rotator cuff muscles (the teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus).
How to train your shoulders
As already hinted at, the deltoids have three separate heads:
If you’re training your back, then you’re likely already hitting your posterior deltoid to a sufficient degree.
If you’re training your pecs with any pressing variations – barbell press, dumbbell press, push-ups, chest press machines, etc. – then you’re also training the front delts. If you want to work on your front delts with more targeted exercises, you can also perform a type of overhead press, which would place more emphasis on the front delts than on the pecs.
To make your shoulders appear wider from the front, you’ll also want to train your lateral deltoid head with any lateral delt raise variation you have access to. You can use dumbbells, cables, machines, one arm at a time and both arms together.
The lateral deltoid is a relatively small body part, so it tends to recover pretty quickly for many people. Therefore, you may be able to recover from and make progress with two to four sets, or more, of a lateral delt variation performed in almost every training session.
How to train your pecs
The pecs are primary movers in flexion, adduction, and internal rotation of the humerus:
Pressing compound movements, which also train the deltoids and triceps indirectly, are staple exercises for this muscle.
In addition to these pressing variations, you can perform a type of pec fly, which trains the pecs in isolation, if you want to dedicate more workload to this muscle without the indirect contribution of others.
How to train your legs
Two commonly trained muscle groups in the upper leg for the purpose of aesthetics include the quadriceps (quads), which make up the front of your thigh, and the hamstrings, which are their opposing muscle group in the back of the thigh.
The quads perform hip flexion and knee extension, whereas the hamstrings perform hip extension and knee flexion.
To develop all of the quadriceps muscles, perform:
To train all of the muscles comprising the hamstrings, perform:
Building these muscles will make your thighs look larger than your hips and waist. Along with a wider back and boulder shoulders, this will create the illusion of the X frame.
If you have the time, desire or need to develop them, you can also complement quad and hamstring training with specific glute and calf training. Nonetheless, your glutes can be targeted to a certain extent with squat and deadlift variations, so you may be able to elicit some growth even if you don’t have time to train them directly.
How to eat to support muscle growth
Food quantity and quality are both important for physique improvements for different reasons.
Manipulating food quantity, or how much food you eat, is going to change your bodyweight. For example, if you’re eating more food than you need to maintain your weight, you’ll gain more; vice versa, you’ll lose weight.
Manipulating food quality, or the nutrient composition of what you eat, can affect whether the weight you lose or gain comes primarily from body fat or from muscle mass.
For instance, if you’re carrying extra body fat, changing your food quantity will help you lose weight. On the other hand, eating certain types of nutrients in the appropriate quantity, will help you ensure that most of the weight loss comes from body fat, not muscle. As an example, protein plays a very important role in the maintenance of your muscle mass during a fat loss diet.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to lose body fat without losing muscle mass, check out these articles:
In the rest of this piece, I’m going to focus on food quality, namely the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) and how they can help you achieve muscle growth.
The most important macronutrient for muscle growth is likely protein.
To build muscle, you need 1.6-2.2 gr of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (0.8 to 1.2 gr per pound).
However, if you carry excess body fat because of overweight or obesity, these guidelines would likely result in an unnecessarily high protein intake.
Instead, I like to use a workaround suggested by a registered dietician, which I read about in The Muscle & Strength Pyramid books by Dr. Eric Helms: instead of your weight, you can use your height in centimetres. For instance, if you’re 170 cm tall, you can aim for 170 gr of protein per day.
However, this approach may not work very well if you’re shorter or taller than average, for example if you’re shorter than 155 cm or taller than 193 cm.
The second most important macronutrient is carbohydrates (carbs), which is the primary source of fuel for resistance training.
When you’re eating close to a workout session, you may benefit from faster-digesting carbs that don’t compromise digestion, such as fruit, white bread and pasta, cereal, honey, jam, etc.. Faster-digesting carb sources are higher in sugar because sugar is the fastest-digesting form of carbs.
If you’re eating two or more hours before or after training, prioritise slower-digesting carbs that are high in fibre, such as wholemeal products.
Finally, dietary fats are fundamental for general health. You need to consume at least 20% of your total calories from fats, or 0.5 gr of dietary fat per kilogram of body fat per day (0.3 gr per pound).
In a nutshell (pun intended), current nutritional guidelines in many countries suggest to avoid trans fats as much as possible, consume saturated fats in moderation, and focus primarily on unsaturated fat sources, such as olives and olive oil, avocado, nuts and nut butters, and fatty fish (click).
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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