A common goal of those new to bodybuilding is physical impressiveness in the form of huge slabs of muscle mass. As one continues training progressively, this goal tends to change. Aesthetics, shape, and condition become increasingly important as our physiques become larger and more muscular.
But while pure bodybuilding has always, it is thought, been about: proportion, shape, and adequate muscle size. What first draws most to the gym is the prospect of becoming as large as humanly possible.
If you suddenly require a new wardrobe, you sit in a regular-sized seat and it becomes less comfortable, and you regularly receive confirmation that you are "looking big, dude," then you know that pounding down excessive amounts of food and training all out is beginning to pay off big time.
But is this a worthy initial goal for the bodybuilding aspirant?
A long-running debate in bodybuilding circles has been; is bodybuilding about building the physique as large as possible or shaping it in line with the aesthetic ideals based upon proportionality and overall shape that were often adhered to during bodybuilding's earlier days (the '40s through to the late '70s)?
While "bulking up" and "cutting down" were standard bodybuilding practices in the years leading up to comparatively sophisticated and increasingly cutting edge training methodologies beginning around the late '80s, the criteria for bodybuilding competition during this period and going even further back to the '40s was all about beauty and symmetry over extreme size.
From the '90s to today, bodybuilding has more or less been a race to become huge. Those training purely for shape are as rare as those wanting to be mass monsters were back in '70s.
Of course, it could also be argued that drugs, better training methods, and superior quality nutrition (including supplementation) have made getting larger easier. However, the end result is often the same regardless of what degree of the above is implemented; size over aesthetics.
And this has encouraged more bodybuilders—from the beginning trainer to the advanced competitor—to train for mass, not shape.
The result is often witnessed in those sporting muscle groups randomly slapped together into a shapeless mass. You have seen these guys. In clothing they look like football players, and during summer they struggle to hide their burgeoning waistlines.
Bodybuilders with shape to accompany their size present a different look entirely; small waisted with the kind of proportionate development that creates an illusion of even greater size. Granted, bodybuilding is fundamentally about developing muscle size, but true bodybuilding requires combining this mass with proportionality, symmetry and conditioning.
So how can we achieve the best of both worlds? For those new to bodybuilding, the goal should be to develop as much balanced muscle size as possible. For those already over-sized bodybuilders? Consider a switch to power lifting or strongman—or redesign your program and pay attention to detail on the finer points of muscle building.
Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights
To get large you must first get strong. But to become a well-proportioned bodybuilder this maxim comes with two important caveats.
First, the exercises you use must fully target all muscle groups.
Second, form and muscle stimulation must not be sacrificed for impressive poundages.
Pro bodybuilding legend and the best ever to compete, Ronnie Coleman, said it best when he coined the ever so eloquent expression, "Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights".
What Ronnie might be implying here is that bodybuilders often want it all but are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices, and that their quest for huge muscles is often fruitless in light of the inadequately light weights they choose to lift.
They are pumpers rather than lifters. Bottom line: men like Ronnie are huge primarily because of the huge weights they lift; their training intensity and brute strength is matched only by the impressiveness of their physical development.
When a muscle is subjected to an unaccustomed overload—assuming proper form is followed - it has no choice but to grow. Genetic limitations aside, we are only restricted in our growth by the amount of weight we lift using good technique.
While some people are naturally stronger than others, our muscular systems all respond in the same manner: through adaptation to stress. Once a muscle has adapted to a particular stressor (say 250 pounds on the bench press) it has no need to continue its fight to survive this imposed overload. It adapts and stops growing.
However, by increasing the weight, changing the angle of resistance or some other training variable this muscle then has to change its physiological structure to overcome this new stressor. It has no choice but to get stronger and grow.
Caveat 1: Choose Your Weapons Wisely
To gain strength throughout the physique it is imperative that all muscle groups are trained to the fullest extent with a wide selection of exercises. As we are only as strong as our weakest link, it is the so-called smaller exercises that can help to strengthen us for the multi-joint compound movements that ultimately create real power and size gains.
However, given the importance of exercise selection and training the individual muscles from all angles, many still encounter problems in choosing the right exercises to use. The key here is to pick several exercises for each body part that target the muscles as a whole and from different angles, but not to waste time and energy on those that are least effective toward both of these aims.
Including exercises that are low on effectiveness and/or those that are potentially dangerous will not only waste time but also could compromise recovery abilities and interrupt progress. Below is a list of the most effective exercises and their corresponding muscle groupings.
The so-called mass-builders are listed first given their primary role in building the bulk of a particular muscle. The best of the isolation movements are also included; these can be best used to target a specific part of each muscle and should not be underestimated in their ability to assist strength gains through building areas of a muscle that are responsible for supporting the execution of compound movements.
For best results in size, strength, and balanced development, choose two mass builders and two isolation movements per body part for each training session (the exceptions being arms where given the smaller size of these muscles—and, as a result, the greater their need for recovery—two mass builders and one isolation movement are usually best).
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Leg Presses
- Front Squats
- Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
- Standing Calf Raises
- Dumbbell Lunges
- Hack Squats
- Leg Extensions
- Leg Curls
- Calf Press on Leg Press Machine
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Barbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Incline Dumbbell Press
- Dips With Feet Forward
- Cable Cross-overs
- Flat Bench Flyes
- Incline Flyes
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Bent-Over Barbell Rows
- One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
- Close-Grip Pull-downs
- Straight-Arm Pull-downs
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Front Barbell (Military) Press
- Dumbbell Press
- Arnold Curls
- Lateral Raises
- Bent Lateral Raises
- Front Raises
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Lying Triceps Extensions
- Straight Bar Push-downs
- Bench Dips
- Dumbbell Kick-backs
- One-Arm/Behind Head Dumbbell Extensions
Biceps And Forearms
Mass Building Compound Movements
- Standing Barbell Curl
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Reverse Barbell Curl
- Hammer Curls
- One-Arm Preacher Curls
- Concentration Curls
Caveat 2: Train With Perfect Form And Intensity
Though good for the ego and impressive to witness, hoisting massive weights can only really be of benefit to muscle building when this is done with strict form and high intensity. Using sloppy technique will do as much for the muscle building process as simply lifting a heavy weight from extension to contraction and expecting to generate the appropriate level of intensity needed to stimulate results.
You wouldn't think this by witnessing the way many people train: with egos bent on impressing onlookers rather than an intelligently conceived manner tailored to work their muscles to exhaustion. Generating momentum by swinging the weights into a full contraction does not equate to muscular strength.
The real way to get big and strong is not to target the heaviest weights possible; the best strategy involves choosing a weight with which you can feel the muscle working through its full range of motion.This way the actual muscle itself will become stronger and sufficiently stimulated so as to become larger and eventually more defined.
There is no replacement for perfect form when seeking bodybuilding progress. Learn how to execute a movement properly and slowly and steadily increase your training weight while not sacrificing form as you progress.
How many times have you seen misguided bodybuilding hopefuls bouncing the bar on their chests as they attempt to work their pecs on the bench press? Sure, they might hoist 300 pounds this way.
The only real results they can expect to produce are sore joints, potential muscle tears, and little in the way of pectoral development. By choosing a weight that is 30 percent lighter and slowly controlling the bar up and down—achieving a full stretch and contraction—true strength and muscle gains will be realized.
Applied to all movements, this principal of form over maximal weights will pay big dividends when it comes to fully discovering your genetic muscle-building potential. It has been said that it is not what you can lift, but an appearance suggestive of being ultra-powerful (regardless of your actually strength) that really counts.
And this is true, as it is indicative of people who know how to squeeze every ounce of effort from their muscles with weights that are not necessarily ego-boosting but, rather, sufficient for the task at hand. When you can combine the ability to properly work each muscle group with massive weights then it will be time to invest in a new wardrobe.
The key to this will be keeping the tension on each muscle through a full range of motion throughout the entirety of each set, and finishing each set with a pumped feeling indicative of maximal blood flow to the tissues and a lingering soreness suggestive of the muscle micro-trauma needed to create the opportunity for extended growth.
In relation to training intensity, there is another relevant bodybuilding expression, this one attributed to the massive Nasser El Sonbaty, "To gain massive muscles you cannot train hard and long."
Applying maximal intensity over the long term is an oxymoron in so far as muscles can only generate sufficient intensity for a few sets before they can no longer work hard enough for size gaining purposes (the underlying precept of the HIT system). This is casting aside the obvious fact that intensity is relative depending on how severely the muscles are taxed at any given time during a workout.
So, to adequately work the muscles and to force new growth, short and intense is the best strategy. Though, this is not to imply that we should restrict exercise selection and maximal muscular overload.
Two to three sets of three (for smaller groupings such as biceps) to five (for larger groupings such as legs) exercises per muscle group are an effective way to ensure that muscle overload, high intensity, and balanced muscle development is achieved.
This Is The End
When we discover a ceiling on the amount of weight we can lift this usually signals an end to further size gains. Unless we can find new ways to impose greater stress to more thoroughly stimulate our muscles, bodybuilding usually becomes a permanent process of maintaining what we have built while making subtle refinements in quality and detail.
Unless we up the dosage and engage in chemical warfare (which in itself presents its own plateau issues) there is little we can do to continue pursuing our size-building objectives. To get strong, you must be consciously aware of the amount of weight lifted from one workout to the next. Keeping a training diary in which workout weights, sets and reps are religiously noted is an excellent way to gauge progress.
This old-school method that is still popular today requires continually aiming to improve from workout to workout through rigorous notation where all relevant training details are fully documented. Whether it is 500 grams on the barbell curl or an additional rep, the end result is always greater strength and concomitant muscle growth.
When we have finally reached the peak of our strength efforts, various intensity techniques can be employed to perpetuate the growth cycle.
3 Of The Best
The three best intensity techniques to encourage strength gains are rest/pause, strip (or descending) sets, and supersets.
The objective with each of these is to compound the amount of stress a muscle encounters in the course of regular training by combining and intensifying common training methods to create muscular failure at its most extreme and effective.
Upon completing a set and reaching perceived muscular failure (the point at which the lifter feels another rep cannot be safely completed in good form), rest for several seconds before completing another rep, then rest a further few seconds before powering up a final repetition.
This technique forces the extension of a set to allow a muscle to overtake its normal strength parameters. As a direct consequence, it thus becomes larger and stronger.
An extension of rest/pause training, descending sets allow the continuation of a set through lowering that set's weight (usually twice) by a certain percentage to complete three sets of the same exercise back to back while trying to maintain the same number of repetitions for each set.
For example, with bent over barbell rows, complete a set at a maximal weight that allows for 12 reps. Upon completion, lower the weight, strip 30 percent of this weight from the bar, and immediately complete another 12 reps. Again lower the weight, strip another 30 percent and complete a final 12 reps.
A further extension to this method is "down the rack" training using dumbbells (a popular technique when training shoulders and biceps). Begin with the heaviest weight possible, complete a set of 12-to-15, then simply grab the next lightest pair of dumbbells and complete another.
Continue in this fashion until you have either gone one end of the rack to the other, or have woken up in intensive care. Needless to say this method is not for the beginner.
One of oldest intensity techniques traditionally involves completing two consecutive sets to target both protagonist and antagonist muscle groups: biceps and triceps for example. To illustrate, complete a set of 12 reps of standing biceps curls before immediately churning out another 12 of triceps pushdowns. Both sets are classed as one supersets.
To make the most of intensity techniques it is best that they be used to shock the muscles into growing in an almost random fashion so the muscles do not become accustomed to their inclusion. When a particular body part receives a signal that all combined stress—including maximal training weights, intensity sets and overall workload—is no longer a challenge to its adaptation abilities—that it is both familiar and predictable—it will stop growing.
So the idea is to continue strengthening it through various shock techniques to force a continued state of adaptation. For example, for every fourth, sixth or eighth back workout we might complete 20 sets of deadlifts followed by 20 sets of bent over barbell rows (provided, of course, we have the physical capabilities to do so at that point).
Another workout might feature 10 sets of barbell curls, each for three reps of our maximal training weight. 15 sets of partner-assisted bench presses (assisting with the lowering phase, while strict form is adhered to) for three to four reps of our one repetition maximum might be included in another training session.
Mixing Up Your Training
The key here is once we have exhausted our strength capabilities it is time to mix up our training to re-energize the muscular system. After a period of training in this fashion (periodic shock sets and intensity techniques) one will often find that overall strength has increased. Then the cycle can be repeated.
The take home message here is that doing the same thing over and over will garner predictable results and training stagnation. Adopting new approaches to size building (and there are literally hundreds out there) will keep training intensity fresh and muscle adaptation occurring.
Note: As a general rule focus your regular training emphasis on trying to get stronger from session to session by purely increasing the amount of weight lifted or number of repetitions completed and use intensity techniques and shock training sporadically to negate a training plateau (or the training stagnation that naturally occurs when the muscles begin to adapt).
Too great an emphasis on these latter techniques and methods might lead to over training or, at the very least, create an environment where training stress supersedes the ability to recovery sufficiently.
The most effective way to get strong and huge: do nothing
To become stronger and larger, muscles need plenty of rest. In fact, stimulating them to grow in the gym with massive poundages and ferocious intensity—although clearly needed for bodybuilding progression—comes secondary to rest and recovery as far as building them larger is concerned.
Those who train long and hard with little rest will remain small and lean, and few, if any, really pack on the mass. Then there are those who over train to the point where they actually regress and become ill. Their systems simply cannot handle this ongoing trauma (and weight training is traumatic).
The only way their bodies can achieve adequate rest is through compromised immune function. Recovery—often long and frustrating—is then enforced as we battle an illness.
To offset this scenario, it has been standard practice since bodybuilding first became popular to limit outside activities when aiming for the greatest possible gains in muscle mass. Eight hours or more of quality, uninterrupted sleep a night is also essential and probably the single most important aspect of bodybuilding progression.
Sleep is when most of our protein synthesis occurs (where new proteins are made and muscles become larger and stronger), and when Growth Hormone secretion is at its highest (where all tissues of the body, including muscle, are encouraged to grow).
For both mental and physical well being it is also good practice to sit and completely "switch off" 3-or-4 times per day. Rather than "power napping" where planned excursions to dreamland are taken throughout the day, "switching off" simply means placing your body into a state of relaxation for 5-to-10 minutes.
During the "switch off" time, practice deep breathing and try to envisage your muscles growing (imagine the proteins you have eaten forcing the expansion of your muscle cells). This practice really works because of the suggestive power of the mind and its influence on healing the body.
Inaction, it seems, is one of the best ways to activate muscle growth. So, if someone tells you to do absolutely nothing in response to your seeking ways to grow, view this as good advice to be well heeded.
Probably the finest balancing act a bodybuilder will have to negotiate is the inclusion of cardio in their training regime. While excessive cardiovascular activity can seriously negate many hours of diligent bodybuilding training through the degrading of muscle tissue (all cardio can potentially negatively impact muscle gains, however negligible this impact may be), adequate aerobic work can produce beneficial results in recovery and lean muscle gains if structured properly.
That cardio holds many major benefits for people who wish to build a lean physique is widely known and very few are those bodybuilders who avoid it completely. Cardio is immensely important for increasing the rate at which blood is pumped throughout the body to aid recovery and supply valuable nutrients for energy and building purposes.
To burn body fat so as to avoid the obscuring of muscle tissue, a degree of sustained aerobic training (30 minutes or longer) is needed for most of us.
To improve overall health and establish the conditions to support the anabolic environment needed for muscle to grow faster, cardio plays an important role. Determining exactly how much cardio you should include in your program is largely an individual concern, and the only true way of precisely knowing how much is too much is through trial and error.
For most, cardio can consist of three 45 minutes sessions per week first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. After several weeks on this plan, assess your progress to determine whether your lean muscle has increased and body fat has declined.
If so, continue with this scheduling or increase cardio by one 45-minute session per week for further gains. Those with ectomorphic tendencies—the so-called hard gainers who have to fight for every ounce of muscle—can probably get by on as little as one to two cardio sessions per week.
But, again, these people must monitor their progress to see if more or less is needed over the long term. The endomorphic among us—those with a greater predisposition for being overweight and displaying a rounder body shape—will probably need to complete three 45-minute sessions per week minimum.
This article has emphasized that to get big, you must first get strong. But this is not as simple a proposition as it first sounds. Size will not automatically follow strength if training is not geared toward maximizing intensity and technique and does not allow for the right sequencing of exercises and sufficient recovery.
To extract the most from every workout, to fully engage the muscles while constantly working to get stronger, to attack your physique from multiple angles with an assortment of effective training strategies: these are factors that will help force muscle gains.
Under normal conditions and even after an extended period of training a certain way, the body remains or becomes resistant to growth. The specialized metabolic requirements needed to ensure that your body functions day to day, that the physiological processes of breathing, digestion, excretion, and cellular repair continue are its primary concern.
The growth of muscle tissue at a consistent, abnormal rate is irrelevant as to the survival of the species. Huge biceps and ripped quads are no more important to general daily human survival than the intellectual capacity of a genius is to a three-toed South American sloth whose primary function is to eat, sleep and fornicate. The body simply has no need for huge, cut and striated muscles.
Massive muscles are as much a drain on energy reserves as they are impractical for almost all daily activities and requirements. So to build them, you must trick the body into changing in line with a perceived ongoing need for adaptation. Using the strategies outlined in this article will show you how to do just that.