Are you ready for bodybuilding training but don't know where to begin?
There is so much bodybuilding training information out there that it may get confusing at times. The goal of this article is to provide you with some basic guidelines to help you wade through it all and begin packing on the muscle. I'm going to assume that you have some basic knowledge of exercises and how to perform exercises and that you have lifted weights before. If you are a total beginner, this is still good information for you, but you should probably spend some time learning proper technique and getting your feet wet first in the weight room.
I reckon that I have been bodybuilding for around 40 years, interspersed with some powerlifting and boxing. I remember waiting each month for the new Muscle and Fitness Magazine and reading every word. I loved Arnold, Platz, and Mike Mentzer, and studied everything about them. I was always fascinated by muscle growth, and the melding of training and nutrition to enhance the hypertrophic process. I have competed in four bodybuilding shows over the years and have been studying it forever. I love all of it: the training, the learning about the body, the different diets, seeing progress in the mirror, the whole ball of wax. I don't know everything about it, I learn something new all the time, but I do have a decent knowledge of what I think works best to make gains without wasting time experimenting with techniques and programs that stall your progress.
I believe that I have tried every way to train for bodybuilding that has been invented over the years. I've done HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), lots of volume, Beyond Failure training, M140 and every other training system in the bodybuilding universe. Each program has its merits and each program share some of the basic guidelines. However, I do believe that there are some better ways to bodybuild, some basic tenets and shortcuts that I can share with you that will help your progress immeasurably.
Where to train?
I train people online and I would say that 75% of them train at home , either in their basements or garages. They have a power cage, squat rack, Olympic weight plates and Olympic barbell and some dumbbells. Usually a chin up bar is attached to the power rack and sometimes a dip bar. It's all they need and they get big and strong using minimal equipment. If they belong to a public gym, the difference is that they have more variety of strength equipment available, which means that there are just more options with cables and machines. That stuff is not absolutely necessary but it can be good to have variety at times for some people. If you decide to join a gym, make sure that they have a power cage or squat rack and that they allow you to deadlift if you need to.
What's the difference between powerlifting training, olympic weightlifting training, and bodybuilding training? In powerlifting training, you are trying to lift maximum weight for one rep in the squat, bench and deadlift. You are attempting to move the weight from point A to point B as fast as you can. How the lifter looks body composition wise does not matter, although there are some muscular powerlifters out there, it's just not the main goal of the sport. In powerlifting, most of the rep ranges per set are between 1-5, while in bodybuilding, the rep range usually runs from 6-12 reps per set. A powerlifter usually performs assistance work, but they are usually done to shore up weak links in the three lifts, exercises that work on specific weak links of each the lift, for example, board presses for bench lockout, rack deadlifts for deadlift lockout, Romanian deadlifts to strengthen hamstrings and low back for both the squat and deadlift.
In Olympic weightlifting, the goal is to lift the most amount of weight that you can in the clean and jerk and the snatch. The other lifts, the assistance work exercises, are done to focus on improving those two lifts. Some weightlifters are muscular, but again, the goal here is who can lift the most weight, not body composition.
In bodybuilding, you are more focused on the muscle as it goes through the required range of motion. Muscle size, and how the muscles all fit together aesthetically and a low body fat level are some of the ways that separate bodybuilders from powerlifters. Yes, in bodybuilding, the weight you are lifting does matter to a certain extent, your weights need to progress over time, but your end goal as a bodybuilder is not to see who can lift the most weight, it is about how your muscles look.
Insertion to Origin
To paraphrase IFBB pro, inventor of the MI40 training system and the thinking man’s bodybuilder, Ben Pakulski, one of the main objectives of training each muscle properly is to bring the insertion of the muscle towards the origin of the muscle. And that’s it! By knowing this, it will help you understand the function of the muscle and what exercises affect the working muscle the most. An anatomy book will show you the insertions and origins, or you can simply Google it. In addition, you want to stabilize your body before you execute any movement (you cannot shoot a cannon from a canoe), all the while finding the exercises and angles of an exercise that create the most tension in the muscle being worked. There is a lot more involved there, but those two coaching points will enable you to work the muscle most effectively.
I believe that your work sets should be taken to positive failure, meaning that you cannot complete another rep with good form without assistance.
Avoid thinking that there is a best exercise or an exercise that is imperative to perform for every individual. Case in point: The great Dorian Yates felt like he had to back squat when he first began bodybuilding. After all, the prevailing belief was that you couldn't build big, muscular legs without performing back squats as a regular part of your program. However, Yates never felt comfortable performing back squats and switched to hack squats and leg presses to replace the back squat. His leg development became some of the best that the world has ever seen. Should you , as a beginner, perform squats and benches and deadlifts? Yes, you should squat (hacks, fronts, etc) and you should pull (deadlift, bent rows, rack deads, Romanian deadlifts) and you should bench (dumbbell, incline barbell, incline dumbbell, etc), but it doesn't have to be the back squat, traditional deadlift and the traditional bench. I know that sounds like sacrilege to some, and I used to believe that you had to be traditional in the lifts to make the best progress and to be a real man, but I have come to realize that everybody’s body is different and everybody has exercises that “fit” best for them.
How many sets and reps?
The focus should be on the quality reps and sets instead of a certain number of each. But folks need some guidelines, and so let me give you some. Let's start out with three sets of eight reps for all of the exercises for right now and six sets per bodypart. So, two different exercises for each body part for now. For example, if you are training legs, you may choose to perform three sets of eight of hack squats and three sets of eight of leg curls. That's it for legs. But it's the quality of the sets that matter. It’s slow and controlled on the eccentric portion of the movement (the negative) and attempting to use very little momentum as you change from the eccentric to the concentric phase (raising) of the movement. Controlled ascent is best here, feeling the muscle all the way. If you do it right, the set of eight reps will feel like somebody took a blow torch to your thighs. How do you find the right weight for each exercise? You determine that by doing some light warm up sets, building up in weight each warm up until you decide on a weight that will give you the desired effect at eight reps. Now, if it's seven or ten reps, no big deal, it's a guideline, not set in stone. And the more that you train, the better you'll get about selecting the correct weights to use.
You want to use great form in most of your exercises, most of the time. However, there is nothing wrong with using “Intensifiers” once in awhile, some forced reps at the end of a few sets or performing some partial reps when you can't complete the set with a full range of motion or to perform some cheat reps occasionally to push past failure. Just don’t use this stuff all of the time. I know this from experience. When I was in high school, I read that Arnold did a bunch of cheat curls to get his arms big. All that cheating gave me an awful case of tendonitis and almost no growth. Most of the time, your form should be impeccable.
Let's try a four day split to begin. You will be training each bodypart twice a week and you will perform six sets per bodypart. For right now, you will perform three sets of eight reps per exercise. The split should be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. So four days of lifting and three days of rest during the week.
The exercise selection is up to you, but if you have no idea how to set it up, here is a sample week:
Monday (legs, back and biceps) Tuesday (chest, shoulders, triceps)
Squats Standing press
Deadlifts Lateral raises
Bent rows Dumbbell incline bench press
Chin ups Flat flies
Ez bar curls Pushdowns
Dumbbell curls Dips
Leg curls Dumbbell shrugs
Calves (on any day)
Front squats Bench press
One arm rows Seated Dumbbell Press
Support rows Barbell shrugs
Romanian deadlifts Incline flies
Dumbbell preacher curls Cable side laterals
Hammer curls Lying triceps extensions
Calves Weighted pushups
Abdominals (on any day)
Putting It All Together
All of the tips and suggestions and programming won't do you a bit of good if you do not get your mind right. What this means is that this program has to be a priority for you. Do not be the guy who goes to the gym without a plan, or goes in and looks at their phone over and over, texting and then seeing how many “likes” that they have received on social media. Unless it's for your music, you are not allowed to look at your phone. It can wait, whatever it is. Leave the phone in the car. This is your time, and you are serious about this and you have spent time visualizing yourself performing each exercise and dominating each rep. The gym is not a place to talk for you, it's a place to work and get better. You will be the hardest worker in the gym because you are prepared and this training means a lot to you. Kick ass and hit me up with any questions that you may have about the program.
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.