I felt compelled to write this article in response to the overwhelming number of emails and queries I receive on a regular basis from aspiring bodybuilders wanting to know how to get big/lean. In truth, regardless of the nature of the request it can usually be boiled down to: What do I need to take to get big? What supplement will get me lean? Although the easy (and profitable!) thing to say would be to buy this supplement or that supplement I will always ask these guys a set of questions about their training, dietary and lifestyle habits. It is rare to find people who tick all three boxes and in all honesty most people who come to me are deficient in all three aspects.
Given the fundamental importance of these issues I always try to impress upon them the need to stop looking for a quick fix, and instead to view supplements as a complement to their training and dietary program, not a replacement, because the truth is that training and diet, alongside lifestyle, are far more important that supplement intake when it comes to determining who succeeds in their goals, and who falls behind. I have met many old time lifters who do little more than train and eat a lot, and although supplements would undoubtedly take their progress to a higher level, it is hard to argue against the fact that they are still capable of building an impressive physique. Set against this, I know of many lifters who will take every supplement under the sun, and even anabolic steroids to look for answers, but have a hopeless diet and training program and usually look little different from one year to the next. Therefore, I thought I would write a guide to teaching people some basics of what is required to achieve success through correct training and diet, before going on to explore the way they can incorporate sports supplements into their regime.
Without a doubt most people in gyms up and down the land are not training in a manner that is conducive to making gains in strength and muscle size. The biggest cause for the poor training habits of the majority of people is undoubtedly the mainstream bodybuilding magazines which even in the age of the Internet represent most peoples’ first port of call when looking for training information. What you will usually find when reading what passes for training information in these magazines is a collection of made-up bodybuilding routines supposedly followed by professional bodybuilders.
Even if we were to assume these were the training methods employed by those in professional bodybuilding, these individuals represent the coming together of superb genetics, copious drug abuse, and a lifestyle where everything in life can be subordinated to their training program. They also are usually the plans these people are following now, when they are already at the peak of their game, rather than the type of training that got them there in the first place. Of course, most insiders in the world of bodybuilding will tell you these articles about how pro bodybuilders train are largely ghost written, and can be discounted on that basis alone. Any normal individual trying to implement a program requiring 20+ sets per bodypart will quickly lose enthusiasm as far from making gains, they are likely to be heading down the path of overtraining in a hurry. This is not to discount everything written in magazines, but the vast majority of it can be discounted as overhyped, lacking in truth, and with no correlation whatsoever for the training of a newcomer to bodybuilding.
An Alternative Approach
Instead of relying on pro bodybuilders, or even natural bodybuilders, we should instead look to first look at where we stand now before making decisions. What is appropriate for someone who has been training for 15+ years is not going to be the same as for someone who has only just begun training with nothing to bring to the table apart from enthusiasm. Anyone who starts training should start by focusing their efforts on a small group of exercises, chosen for their ability to hit a number of body parts at once, and aim to progress their strength levels in these to a point where we can then begin to look at more specialised work. Before we can even begin to do that though, a quality foundation of muscle built upon consistent application and improvements in strength levels is essential. In light of that fact here is an example of a basic bodybuilding routine which beginners should stick with for two months before taking stock of their progress to date.
Sample Program for Beginners
Squats 2-4 sets of 8 reps
Bench Press 2-4 sets of 8 reps
Lat Pulldowns 2-4 sets of 8 reps
Stiff Legged Deadlifts 2 sets of 10-12 reps
Dumbell Shoulder Press 2 sets of 10-12 reps
Seated Rows 2 sets of 10-12 reps
Tricep Pressdowns 2 sets of 13-15 reps
Barbell Curls 2 sets of 13-15 reps
Abdominal Crunches 2 sets of 13-15 reps
This routine should be performed three times a week with the first workout of the week at the lowest number of sets indicated, and adding one set on Wednesday and another set on Friday. This only applies for the first three exercises (squats, bench press, and lat pulldown). In other words perform two sets of each on Monday, three sets of each on Wednesday and four sets of each on Friday. For the remaining exercises, keep the weight the same throughout the week still, but starting at the low end of the rep range provided, aim to add one rep per workout on Wednesday and Friday so that by Friday you are performing the maximum number of reps written in the workout above.
So for example, with seated rows you would perform two sets of 10 on Monday, followed by two sets of eleven on Wednesday and two sets of twelve on Friday. The weight should be kept constant for all sets performed on a given day, and for the week as a whole, but as long as you complete the required number of sets/reps on Friday, increase the weight on the following Monday by 2 to 5 lbs on exercises where the weights handled are smaller, and by 5 to 10 lbs on exercises such as squats where more weight can be lifted.
One more proviso to add is to ensure before you begin the workout you should ensure the body is warm and mobile with 5-10 mins of low intensity cardio being recommended, followed by 2-3 sets warming up for your workout by performing sets at a lesser weight than you would perform in your workout. For instance if you will aim on Monday to squat 60kg for 2 sets of 8 reps then you would perform one warm-up set with around 20kg, for around 5 reps, then a set at 35kg for another 5 reps, and then a set at 50kg for another 5 reps. This should leave the mind and body fully prepared for the task of lifting 60kg for 2 sets of 8.
Take it Easy at the Start
It is important that when beginning the program a manageable weight is selected for all the exercises performed. You should not be struggling to complete the workout. Instead by keeping it easy to begin with your body will adapt far faster, learning the correct technique for the exercises faster and guarding against overtraining and fatigue which occurs easily in beginners. The first couple of months of training will result in steady strength gains so long as you do not try to lift too much weight and progress to your body’s limits too soon. If you can only just about complete 60kg squats for 2 sets of 8, you would be better off running a week at 55kg for 2 sets of 8, followed by 3 sets of 8 on Wednesday and then 4 sets of 8 on Friday. By the time you complete 4 sets of 8 reps on Friday with 55kg you will find that 2 sets of 8 at 60kg are now managed much more easily.
On the other hand if you had started the first workout with 60kg for 2 sets of 8 reps, you would have been very fatigued and struggled mightily to increase the sets on Wednesday, possibly struggling even to get the same 2 sets of 8 you did on Monday with 60kg, let alone add a third set. This is because even though your body may have recovered (debatable) your central nervous system is the main predictor of performance in the gym and a gut busting 2 sets of 8 on Monday will probably wipe you out preventing further strength increases until later.
Following the advice in this article a typical beginner can expect to gain strength and size, subject to a good diet being in place, which we will cover in part two of this series of articles. Above all else, do not start to try to add exercises or to increase the weight too fast or perform advanced techniques such as forced reps which will only lead to stagnation. Instead, give these bodybuilding basics a try and if you are eating and living sensibly progress will come very quickly. See Part 2 here!