The Justin Bieber Workout
As a celebrity, Justin Bieber is in uncharted territory. Few humans have ever been richer or more famous before their 21st birthday. He can’t walk down the street without trending on Instagram. But as a lifter, he’s just like I was at his age, and like many of you are today: a lean, small-framed guy with a jackrabbit metabolism who’s desperate to pack on solid muscle. His trainer, Patrick Nilsson of Orange Gym Rats in L.A., sent us a snapshot of Bieber’s workout plan, which he later posted at orangegymrats.com. “We work out for aesthetics,” he wrote. “So to get him to look his best, we we...
As a celebrity, Justin Bieber is in uncharted territory. Few humans have ever been richer or more famous before their 21st birthday. He can’t walk down the street without trending on Instagram.
But as a lifter, he’s just like I was at his age, and like many of you are today: a lean, small-framed guy with a jackrabbit metabolism who’s desperate to pack on solid muscle.
His trainer, Patrick Nilsson of Orange Gym Rats in L.A., sent us a snapshot of Bieber’s workout plan, which he later posted at orangegymrats.com. “We work out for aesthetics,” he wrote. “So to get him to look his best, we went with a classic bodybuilding routine to try to develop as much muscle as possible.” (To see the results, check out musclemorphosis.com.)
Bieber lifts five times a week for about 45 minutes per session, using a three-day body-part-split: one workout for back and triceps, one for chest and biceps, and the other for legs and shoulders. They work abs every other day.
Nilsson pairs antagonist muscles—those that don’t work together—in supersets. So on a day they work back and triceps, they might combine wide-grip pullups with lying triceps extensions, wide-grip rows with cable pushdowns, and dumbbell rows with pushups. They typically do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise, which means 9 to 12 sets per muscle group per workout. Nilsson told us they switch up the exercises every two to three weeks.
As I said, this is just a snapshot, and doesn’t tell us anything about Bieber’s training history—what he has or hasn’t tried, what his body has or hasn’t adapted to, or what his trainer plans to do next. We only know this is what he does now, and we can assume this is the way he likes to train.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t curious about whether this is the best system for a young, growth-challenged lifter. That’s why we showed the program to three veteran bodybuilders, and asked for their expert opinions. We told them it’s used by a celebrity without saying which one.
All three led off with the same basic point: There are lots of ways to design a successful training program for Bieber’s goal. The fact they’d use different approaches doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with this one.
Here’s how each of them would make a Belieber out of their superstar client.
THE BRO WHISPERER
Bryan Krahn (bryankrahn.com) has been in and around the bodybuilding industry for more than 20 years, working as a trainer, journalist, and marketing executive to supplement companies. But mostly he considers himself a meathead who helps regular guys achieve the basic goals of getting leaner and more muscular.
The first change Krahn suggests: He’d have him do four workouts a week instead of five, using the classic Ian King split, as shown in The Book of Muscle:
Monday: horizontal push (pushups and bench press variations) and horizontal pull (rows)
Tuesday: knee-dominant (squats and lunges)
Thursday: vertical push (shoulder press variations) and vertical pull (pullups and lat pulldowns)
Friday: hip-dominant (deadlifts, swings, and hip thrusts)
“This would allow for more balanced and more frequent lower-body work,” Krahn says. And with one less workout each week, a hardgainer type like Bieber would be able to work with higher intensity each time in the gym, while giving his muscles more time to recover.
Tyler English (tylerenglishfitness.com) is a human marvel: He’s a pro bodybuilder who runs one of the best independent gyms in the U.S., and is also the author of the Men’s Health Natural Bodybuilding Bible. In his spare time he competes as a natural raw powerlifter—that is, no steroids or special gear like a bench shirt or squat suit.
Like Krahn, English focused immediately on the lack of lower-body work in Bieber’s program—just 3 of 18 exercises over three workouts. Here’s how English might set up a three-day split:
Day 1: Lower body (emphasis on quadriceps or hamstrings)
Day 2: Upper body (chest and shoulders or back and biceps)
Day 3: Total body (muscles not worked on Day 1 or Day 2)
But even when the workout focuses on upper-body training, English often includes work for lower-body muscles. Here, for example, is a workout for back and biceps, with extra work for the trapezius:
1. Hex-bar deadlift, 4 sets of 8 reps
2a. Chinup, 4 x 6
2b. Hex-bar farmer’s walk, 3 x 30 yards
3a. Barbell row, 3 x 12
3b. Dumbbell shrug, 3 x 15
4. Dumbbell hammer curl, 4 x 12
“I’m a big fan of front-loading programs to put the big movements up top,” English says. That way, you work the largest muscles with the heaviest loads when you’re fresh and focused, and work smaller muscles with simpler exercises, using lighter weights and higher reps, when you’re more fatigued.
Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D. (lookgreatnaked.com), is a prolific exercise researcher, an assistant professor at Lehman College in New York, a natural bodybuilding champion, and author, most recently, of The MAX Muscle Plan.
His first reaction upon looking at the program: “Sounds to me like he’d benefit from developing an overall structural foundation at this point.”
But true to his reputation for being tenacious and data-driven, Schoenfeld focused on what we don’t know about the unnamed celebrity lifter or his program, especially the overall, long-term training strategy. “Ultimately you’d want to work through a spectrum of rep ranges, adding some low- and high-rep work to the mix,” he says.
He’d also want to see an overreaching phase—a period where you deliberately push your body as hard as you can—followed by a short deloading phase. That guarantees full recovery along with a mental break from the stress of all-out training.
HOW IT ALL FITS TOGETHER
All three experts made similar points: If they were creating a program for a client meeting the description of Justin Bieber, they’d build the program around these elements:
• He’d do three or four workouts a week, with a balance of upper- and lower-body exercises. Fewer workouts allow for higher intensity and more recovery.
• Each session would begin with heavy, structural lifts: squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, chinups, or pullups.
• The second half of the workout can include single-joint exercises that work smaller muscles—biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises. Those muscles are important for aesthetics, but they won’t grow out of proportion to the bigger muscles in the torso and hips, the ones they work with in multijoint exercises like presses and rows.
• The workouts would employ a variety of rep ranges to allow a mix of heavy, moderate and light weights. This ensures that the entire muscle—from high-threshold type II fibers targeted by heavy lifts to endurance-oriented type I fibers—get a chance to grow to their full potential.
None of this is to imply there’s anything wrong with what Bieber and Nilsson currently do. Only they know what Bieber has or hasn’t tried in the past, and what they’re building toward. The big message for a young lifter is this:
If the goal is to look like a bodybuilder, you probably won’t get there by training like a bodybuilder. Not at first. The closer you are to the starting line, and the farther you are from a bodybuilder’s physique, the more important it is to build a base of strength. You want to get a little stronger each week in the aforementioned squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows.
If you’re somewhere in the middle—you’ve built some strength and added some muscle, but are nowhere near your goal—you’ll do best with a mix of rep ranges and training strategies. You’re still trying to get stronger from month to month, but a lot of your gains will come from the volume of your training, and strategic manipulation of your diet: periods when you add more calories to allow muscle growth, followed by stretches when you tighten things up to revisit your abs.
If your body is closer to your genetic limits, you have to be willing to piss yourself off from time to time. “I still do the classic personal-trainer voodoo trick of making people do the opposite of what they’ve been doing, at least for a while,” Krahn says. “Someone who’s really into low-rep training might get a good bump from bodybuilding stuff, and vice versa.”
That’s what all lifters have in common. Young or old, beginner or advanced, famous or obscure, we’re all limited by what we don’t yet know and haven’t yet done. As for Bieber’s program, unless you’re a fairly advanced bodybuilder, it’s probably best to leave it to Bieber.
Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and the author, with Alan Aragon, of musclemorphosis.com.