I was dying to get bigger and stronger when I first started but had no shortcuts or any idea what to do except read the muscle magazines. And through some trial and error, actually a lot of trial and error, I came up with some ways to help me get there.

Have Patience, Young Man. This is the toughest one of them all. When a teenager or an enthusiastic beginner of any age is first getting after it in the weight room, their motivation is super high. I call it getting bit by the “Iron Bug”, an insatiable desire to get bigger and stronger. But hold your horses, take your time. It takes a while to get there. It's not done overnight, the way so many things are done today. It takes years of pounding the dumbbells and barbells to develop a bodybuilders physique and also to get super strong. Now, that being said, you will get stronger right away, and you will notice some muscle coming on. But you will need to tamp down that enthusiasm some when you first start off, because you will make gains faster with smart training. Training that is planned out. When I first started, I would max out every day, I lifted twice a day and I ate a bunch of tuna and went low on carbs. What happened to me? I got small and weak while my friends who did their 3x a week lifting and ate more calories got big and strong. So be smart. Don't do too much too soon. If you can just talk yourself into having some patience, gains will come to you and they will keep coming for a long while.

To get strong, you have to “grease the groove”. The body learns by doing things over and over again. Take the barbell squat for example. Do you really think that a beginner can only perform the squat once a week for a few sets and have their neuromuscular system learn the movement. Sure, when you are bull strong, you may need to only squat once a week to actually recover from the damage that you have caused yourself, but starting off, three times a week is probably a good squat frequency. Taking a heavy day, a medium day and a light day is a great way to get your body used to the movement. Even with one of my strongest clients (650 deadlift, 425 bench, 615 squat), I still have them do a light squat before the deadlift, just keeping the groove greased!

Rubber bumper plates for increasing size and strength. Rubber bumper plates for increasing size and strength.

 

Spend time doing sets of 5 . Sets of 5 should be the cornerstone of every beginners program. They offer the best of both worlds: their ability to develop strength and hypertrophy. Those heavy sets will induce muscle growth that lower reps won't and will make your one rep max go through the roof.  Even if you are an aspiring Mr. Olympia, I think that laying the foundation with sets of 5 especially on the barbell squat, bench and deadlift will make the lifter bigger and thicker than starting off with sets of pumping reps of 12-15.

Don't get fancy - except just for fun. There is nothing wrong with doing some plate loaded machine, cable machine exercises or dumbbell work after the real work (compound lifts) is done when you are first starting out. Nothing wrong with leaving the gym with the feeling that your arms are busting out of your shirt. Just do all the fancy stuff after the big lifts. You will not, I promise you, reach your strength and muscle growth potential from performing triceps kickbacks as one of your main lifts. Think of them as the dessert and not the main course, as Marty Gallagher always says.

Cardio training matters when getting lean. If your metabolism is one that just flies and you have trouble keeping weight on (we all know the type), you probably want to take it easy on the cardio training, maybe just do some hill sprints or pull the weighted sled or push the prowler some. But if you are a person who gets heavy easily, I recommend  riding an exercise bike or shadow boxing or fast walking for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week. It’ll stave off some of the fat gain that invariably comes when you are trying to get huge. Gaining a bunch of fat is not conducive to big gains. Sure, if you are trying to get massive, you will put on some adipose tissue, but try to keep it at a minimum, and cardio training helps.

Torque TANK M1 for cardio training with a push sled. Torque TANK M1 for cardio training with a push sled.

 

To build arms, don't worry about the weight. I used to marvel at Mike Mentzer's striated triceps and guys in football who had big arms sticking out of their jerseys. But try as I may, my arms don't grow very much. My arms will never rival Big Ramy’s but for a long time, I had some spindly ones. I would do cheat curls with 175 pounds and dumbbell curls with as heavy weights as I could hold. All that did was give me tendonitis and almost zero growth. It wasn't until I started putting my ego in my pocket and using lighter weights, such as 30-40 pound dumbbell curls, cable curls ultra-strict and preacher curls with slow negatives and under control concentrics did my arms start to grow, in fact, I couldn't believe that this light weights did anything at all. Focusing on the contraction and squeeze and controlling the negative worked for me (triceps too). I also took a tip from Arnold and tried to get a better mind /muscle connection with my arms by picturing the muscles while they are working, sometimes closing my eyes during sets. If you are one of those folks who has trouble growing arms, give my techniques a try. My favorite routine consisted of  doing 10 sets each for biceps and triceps done for around 12 reps per set done in the aforementioned manner.

Be real about what the pro bodybuilders are doing. Those guys who are in pro bodybuilding do not look that way by just taking creatine. A bunch of drugs, and not just testosterone, but insulin and growth hormone may also be part of their supplement program. Be wary and have a discerning eye about taking lots of advice from the professionals regarding training and diet. Most natural guys can't eat 8,000 calories a day and not get fat, for instance, or train with crazy intensity for 20 sets a body part. And the same goes for some elite powerlifters, with training frequency and total tonnage used by them. Most natural guys need less frequency and need to take smaller jumps from week to week than enhanced lifters do.

You gotta be different. I always tell folks that I train who are going to embark on a serious diet and training  program to get ready for people to want them to fail. Sounds messed up, doesn't it? People sometimes see the weakness in themselves when someone they know gains discipline in their diet and training and start to make progress. I have never been able to understand that way of thinking, but have seen it time and time again. Stay strong to your commitment no matter the psychic vampires that may want you to not do well. Use their negativity to fuel your dedication.

“You can never make up a missed workout”. I read that quote years ago from Mr. Universe, Danny Padilla and it has always stuck in my head. If you are sick with fever, no problem, take the day off, or even two. But if you just don't “feel like it” and skip a session, you are opening yourself up to skip workouts on a frequent basis. Try this (credit to Jocko Willink) next time you are lacking motivation: When your mind is being weak, tell it that it doesn't get a vote today, that your body is taking over. Then get to the gym and just start. Pretty soon, you will find a groove in the session. If you don't, just finish the workout anyway. It may not be your best one, but it was sure better for you than sitting on the couch. I get pretty paranoid about missing workouts. One time, I was sick, with the flu or something. But I was slated to train biceps that day. So I went and got my dumbbells from the shed and did like 3 sets of curls and said to myself, good, I didn't miss a workout. I'm not recommending that (I have issues), but try to be very consistent with your training.

IRON COMPANY 5150 Olympic Bar for explosive weightlifting. IRON COMPANY 5150 Olympic Bar for explosive weightlifting.

 

Eat enough calories to get big, but not too much. One time, I ate myself from 240 to 280 in three months and by the end of twelve months, I weighed in at 312 pounds. It was stupid. Sure, I was strong, but I felt awful, and I was fat. When I got smart with my diet, and my training, I whittled down to 268 pounds and was stronger at that weight than when I was over 300.

Diet hard when getting ripped. The selling point of most diets is that you can eat what you want and still lose weight. Nobody can do that and succeed. You must be in a caloric deficit to lose fat. When you first start out dieting, it may seem relatively easy, but as it goes along, you will either need to diet harder or up the cardio, or both. And it never is easy. You will be hungry. Try to use some self-talk here to help you get through it. Tell yourself that food is overrated, that you are choosing to do this, that the end will justify the means, and that you are stronger than all of this stuff, that you will persevere. You can make it, and you will make it. Endeavor to persevere!

Be tough on yourself, but not too tough. Everyone will have bad days, both in training and dieting. Everyone misses reps sometimes. Don't let it get you down. I promise you that you will learn more from missing a weight than successfully completing it. Analyze what you did wrong. It could be sleep, poor nutrition, or poor program planning. Whatever it is, know that you will live to fight another day, that it is just a small bump in the road on the way to achieve your goals.

Get in and get out. Most of the time, if you're efficient with your training, you should be done in an hour. Any longer than that, and you are probably fooling around, looking at your phone or having social hour. Do your work, do it intensely, and go start the recovery process. No talking in the gym except about the training that you are doing. Stay focused no matter what is going on. If you lose focus, your training will not be optimal. And another thing: Don’t feel guilty about having short sessions. If you are in and out in a half hour and do the workout as you had planned, celebrate it! You are efficient and your focus is right where it should be.

Keep your gym germ free with heavy-duty sanitizing wipes. Keep your gym germ free with heavy-duty sanitizing wipes.

 

Have Fun With the Process. It's not supposed to be drudgery. Sure, there are times when you have to push through when you aren't “feeling it” that day. But most of the time, you should be happy to be able to exercise and work on self-improvement. Enjoy the process, enjoy the feeling of your muscles getting bigger and stronger. Know that you are setting yourself apart from the masses who will never know what you know: That training with weights and watching your diet and living the Iron Lifestyle is something that will change your life.

RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast

 

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.