This series of articles is written for the beginning bodybuilder, someone who either has been training a very short time with some initial knowledge of weight training, but who is unsure of what they're doing, or someone just starting out.
In my business, (I work in a retail vitamin store), I get customers all the time who come in looking for the magic supplement that will pack on pounds of muscle overnight. When I begin to question their training, eating, etc., I discover they've been training maybe 3-4 weeks; they train every day (sometimes I get a guy who says twice a day), they have no clue about protein intake, calorie intake, recovery, and on top of all that, the routine they use is anything but logical for their experience level. This extremely common!
What happens then is we lose these trainees because they have no guidance, they're grossly overtraining and they burn out. There's no reason for this! With this series of articles, I hope to give people a logical guide to their first year of training. By getting them off to a good start, maybe they'll stick around for awhile.
Walking into a gym to work-out for the first time can be intimidating, especially if you don't have proper guidance. Many new lifters either find themselves in that situation or are just training at home on some flimsy bench with a bar and a few plates. So, mistakes are common. Mistakes in terms of the exercises you're doing, how long you work out each day, how many days per week, the exercise form you're using, not to mention your eating habits.
The first order of business should be to set some goals. What do you want to do? Why are you working out in the first place? Most people want to build some size, maybe to compete or maybe just to impress some girl.
Many people want to lose fat and tighten up, adding some but not a lot of muscle. Regardless of the goal, however, you have to go into it with some kind of plan.
With all the tons of information sources out there today, there is really no reason not to have a good, basic idea of what to do. Not like in my day, when info was limited and hard to come by. None the less, we'll cover some of these basic concepts and things now.
What to expect—most new bodybuilders, regardless of age, get into it after seeing a picture of some current/past bodybuilder. Of course, you want to look like the person in the picture. Be realistic, and strive to be the best you that you can be.
The top guys have strong genetics and, yes, drugs on their side. That doesn't mean you can't build good size, maybe even compete. Just be realistic about your goals. So, just what can you expect in terms of gains?
Everyone is different, with different lifestyles, and age plays a big role, so exact numbers are impossible to quote, but most new lifters see impressive strength and size gains in their first six months or so of training.
In terms of actual gains, depending on the factors listed above, maybe 12-15 lbs. of muscle, 15 lbs. being on the high end. This assumes you are natural, by the way. Drugs are a personal choice, but my experience is as a natural bodybuilder, so I'm not going to pretend to know a lot about how steroids affect your gains. Having said that, it makes sense to at least be aware of what they are and what they do, purely from a knowledge standpoint. There are enough knowledge resources available on line that you can learn about them if you choose to pursue that option.
Your First Routine
The classic 3-days a week, full-body routine, training Monday-Wednesday-Friday, is of little use beyond getting a feel for the exercises and working on form. Why? Because this type of routine allows for next to no recovery, once you start training hard.
Right now, right at the beginning, is when you want to understand how critical proper recovery is. Growth cannot occur if you are not recovering from your workouts, regardless of your level of experience. Recovery does not happen from hitting the gym 6 days a week for hours on end, something I'll talk about when I discuss common mistakes.
The above routine is useful as discussed, and should be used for the first month, to allow the development of good form, rep performance and getting a feel for what exercise works what muscles. By the start of the second month, you should use a split routine, this will allow you to train harder and to use more exercises, and this type of routine enhances recovery significantly.
Sets And Reps
The first month, after warm-ups, 2-3 sets per body part is good. Reps at this stage are 10-12 per set.
Your first month is more about learning how to perform the exercises correctly, so you should be using a weight that easily allows you to hit the prescribed 10-12 reps, with maybe 1-2 tough reps at the end.
Trial and error with weights really is an easy and somewhat fast way to get started—expect your first session to be one of trying different weight to determine comfortable working poundages. There are, of course, more accurate but more complicated ways to determine starting weights but this method works well enough.
Pyramiding refers to starting with an easy warm-up set with light weight, hitting 15 easy reps. Add weight and decrease the reps over 1-2 more sets ( I like to use 3 warm-up sets) until you arrive at your first "working set," the first set where you are training with your required reps, in the example, 8 reps.
This set, seeing as how you are a beginner, should still be easy, but the last 1-2 reps should be a little tough to complete.
- Set #1 = 15 reps
- Set #2 = 12 reps
- Set #3 = 10 reps
- Set #'s 4-5 = 8 reps
Pyramiding will be introduced along with split routines in the second month.
One of the basic tenets of weight lifting: you must either add weight, add sets, increase intensity or decrease rest time to encourage continued progress. At this stage, adding weight makes the most sense and will be recommended throughout the first 6 months or so. But by the very nature of acquiring experience, you'll also be adding sets. Decreasing rest time and the use of intensity techniques is used as you reach strength plateaus, when you are more advanced.
Rest Between Sets
At first, you may find you need 2-3 minutes between sets, working down to 1 minute is ideal. As you get in better shape, you may find you need even less. A good rule of thumb is to rest just long enough to catch your breath.
You want to take a few seconds (2-3) to raise the weight, and a few seconds to lower it, slow and controlled, not just heaving it up there any way you can and then letting the bar drop back to the start position.
You can pause at the top for 1 second and squeeze the muscle being worked, this may help develop a sense of what muscles are doing what during each exercise. There is more than one way to perform a rep, and there are numerous tempos you can use, but for now, follow the above.
This refers to the idea of being able to feel the muscle being worked. This requires being in touch with your body and the functions of your muscles. Take the time to look at anatomy, you should know what each muscle is called and what it does, and you should try to flex these muscles to get a feel for each one.
As you work out, think about that muscle and it's function. Try to focus on the muscle as your going through your sets. In time, you will have no problem "connecting" with the muscle you are working.
Proper performance of every exercise is critical. Doing an exercise with poor form can easily lead to injuries, and can limit your progress. The point is to make the target muscles work hard, not just heave the weight around however you happen to do it.
Bodybuilding.com has complete descriptions and video demonstrations of every exercise I'll list in the upcoming "routines" sections, so take the time to watch them and take the time to work on proper execution with a light weight.
If you have a training partner, they can help you get your form down. The time spent now will lead to much better long term results with a much smaller chance of injury.
From day 1, you should keep a log of your exercises, weight used, reps and sets performed, time the workout started and ended, and how it felt: was this set or that set hard, too easy, how did the exercise seem to feel. This is your guidebook that allows you to chart progress from workout to workout.
Don't hold your breath! To start, breathe in on the downward part of an exercise and breathe out on the upward part. As time goes on and you gain experience, breathing will take care of itself.
Most of the exercises that should make up your initial training are called compound, or basic, exercises. These are exercises that involve more than one muscle group, such as the squat, deadlift and bench press. This is in contrast to isolation exercises which only work one muscle at a time, such as dumbbell flyes (chest), concentration curls (biceps) and side laterals (side deltoid head).
It makes sense to stretch both before your workout and in between sets. This helps improve flexibility, helps keep your muscles warm and pliable, and can aid in recovery after your workouts.
Bodybuilding.com has useful stretching guides you can refer to for ideas for each muscle. One thing I always do is simply hang from the chin bar for a moment or two, then go on to other, muscle specific stretches.
Variety In Training
The idea of changing your routine after a certain time to prevent staleness. A good rule of thumb is that after 4 weeks, it's time to do something new, as you will have gotten all you can from your current routine. However, certain key exercises should always be there—squats, deadlifts, to name two.
Muscle soreness is a common side effect to working out. It subsides as part of the recovery process. Delayed-onset muscle soreness is the most common type of soreness and occurs 24-72 hours after training. This is why rest days are important, to allow soreness to disappear before training again. In fact, if you are scheduled to train and are still sore, take an extra day off.
Routine 1: Month 1
Perform on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Time of day doesn't matter. If those days do not work, adjust to your schedule, as long as you work out every other day or no more than 2 days in between.
- Squats: 2 warm-up sets, 15-20 reps, 2 working sets, 12 reps. The squat is considered by many to be the best over-all exercise out there—it hits, either directly or indirectly, most of the muscles of the body. Primarily, it will work the legs, but your lower back will also come into play as well.
- Deadlifts: 2 warm-up sets, 15 reps, 2 working sets, 10 reps. This is like the squat, working many muscles of the body at once, but primarily a back exercise.
- Chin-ups (or Lat Pull-downs): As many chin-ups as you can do, or 2 sets of pull-downs for 12 reps The key here is to begin the pull with your lats, not your arms. This is an important part of back training and you want to think about it from Day 1.
- Barbell Curls: 1 set, 12-15 reps. Don't swing the weight up, let your biceps pull it up.
- Bench Press: 2 warm-up sets, 15 reps, 2 working sets, 10-12 reps. This can be a hard exercise to feel for some people, as this hits the front delts and triceps pretty hard as well as the chest. You have to think about the muscle being worked, in time you will feel the exercise there.
- Seated Overhead Press: 2 sets, 12 reps this works mostly front and side deltoids.
- Triceps Extensions: 1 set, 10 reps. Let your triceps push the weight, if you feel this in the elbows, adjust where your elbows are—bring them a little closer to your head, or move them out a little.
- Crunch: 2 sets, 15 reps.
If you need to see how an exercise is performed, you can watch the exercise videos on Bodybuilding.com, I highly recommend this. Now is the time to take the time to learn good habits—do the exercises the right way, learn to feel the muscles each movement is supposed to be working.
Don't learn sloppy habits. Use this routine for one month. As you feel comfortable with the exercise performance and the sets seem easy, begin adding weight in small increments, such as 5 lbs. If you can add more, do so.
If fat loss is your primary goal, you'll need to add some cardio to your program. To start, I would use a simple program of 20 minutes 3 times a week and gradually build up to longer sessions and perhaps one extra session a week.
Use whatever cardio equipment you like, a treadmill is a great choice. You can help the time pass by listening to music or watching TV. Try to do cardio either after weights or first thing in the morning.
If you do it in the morning, have a small protein source prior to doing cardio but don't have any carbs. This will help the body burn fat for fuel. Refer to my Beginner's Guide To Losing Body Fat article for more detailed information on this subject.
One of the most misunderstood areas for new bodybuilders is nutrition. I talk to guys all the time that have no idea of their daily calorie intake, their daily protein intake, their carbohydrate intake. They have no idea of what types of foods they should be eating, or when they should be eating them. They don't know what supplements do what and what they should using. Let me refer readers to some of my other articles that detail these areas.
In this article, I will highlight the important points. First, refer to the following two articles: Beginning Nutrition and Supplement Stacks for Size. Now, you must be sure your calorie intake is adequate and your protein intake is high enough.
Your protein intake should be 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Take this total and divide by 6, this is the number of meals you need to eat every day. By meals, I don't mean 6 five-course feasts. I mean smaller meals. You should be eating every 3 hours, 2-3 meals can be a protein shake and a low fat, low sugar sports or granola bar. A meal like this works great if you're in a hurry.
Sample Food Lists
- Lean beef
- Low-fat dairy (such as skim milk, or eggs using 2-3 whites to 1 yolk)
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Multi- or whole-grain breads (in moderation)
Pre- and post-work out, you want simple carbs, such as fruit or yogurt, these are usually combined with protein powder as part of a shake.
- Cold water fish
- Sunflower seeds
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil
These lists do not include every single food choice but represent a well rounded group of food items.
Sample Meal Plan
Here's a sample meal plan for one day:
- Omelet: 1 yolk to 2 egg whites
- 1 scoop protein shake
Mid Morning Snack:
- 2 scoops protein shake
- 1 granola bar
- Lean beef on whole-grain bread
- 2 scoops protein shake
- 1 granola bar
- Lean meat
- Sweet potato
- 2 scoops protein shake
- 1 granola bar
- Or protein pudding
Serving sizes should be based on your appetite, you should never be over full when done eating but should be satisfied. Daily calorie intake should be based on the following formula: which takes into account your metabolism and activity level. Here's what you do:
Body weight x 10 (men) or 9 (women) x activity factor x metabolism level.
Activity factor is determined like this:
- Sedentary lifestyle (sitting a lot, no real exercise) = 1.1
- Mildly active - standing at work, 2-3 workouts a week = 1.2
- Very active = 1.3
Metabolism level is determined like this:
- Fast metabolism = 1.1
- Average = 1.0
- Slow = .9
Here's an example for a 170lb man:
- 170x10 = 1700 x 1.2 (mildly active) = 2040 x .9 (slow metabolism) = 1836 calories per day.
For this same man, let's assume he has a faster metabolism and is more active:
- 170 x 10 = 1700 x 1.3 = 2210 x 1.1 = 2431 calories per day.
This formula determines what you need to maintain your current weight. If you want to add muscle, take your base calorie intake and add 500 quality calories a day, divided over your 6 meals. When adding calories, monitor how the extra calories effect your physique. Pay attention to your midsection, you want to gain muscle, not fat.
If fat loss is your goal, decrease calories by about 500 per day. Be careful to reduce carb intake after dinner, and keep an eye on your sugar intake, really the only time you should have any type of sugary or fast carb is in the morning and around your workout. Read my article A Beginner's Guide To Losing Body Fat for more detail on this.
On training days, you should make two additions to your eating plan: a pre/during workout drink and a post workout shake. One of the newer concepts in supplementation is the idea of a carb/protein drink that you can have leading up to and during the workout.
An example of this might be Gatorade with a packet of Amino Vital. Probably the most common example is a carb drink like Vitargo mixed with protein and maybe creatine. This keeps you in an anabolic state while training, which speeds up recovery and can promote faster gains.
Since I work out late, I don't want the caffeine but I do want the "volumizing" effects of this drink plus the anabolic effects of the other drink, so I mix Gatorade with a creatine/nitric oxide/glutamine/BCAA powder. This works well and powers me through my workout. After training, within about 20-30 minutes, have a protein shake with fruit mixed in as discussed in the "supplements" section. This further helps recovery and growth.
Protein powder is important as a convenient and easy source of protein, if you can't make it to a meal or are unable to eat a sit down meal, say at work or school, a quick shake can be a life saver.
It's important to have a post-workout shake—30-40 grams of simple carbs with the same in protein, within 20-30 minutes of training. This jump starts the whole recovery/growth process. There are various types of protein out there, as well as several " formula" powders.
As far as protein, whey protein is the highest quality available and it's also digested quickly. Currently, milk, or casein protein is popular because it's slow digesting, this is good if you can't have a shake as often as you'd like or before going to bed.
There are also protein blends out there that combine whey, milk, soy for the same reason—to be slow digesting. "Formula" powders include products like Muscle Milk—a blend of milk protein and mct's, and a little more carbs than usual. Syntha-6 is another of this type of product.
A multivitamin is taken for insurance purposes, you will not make as much progress if you're lacking in key nutrients. Look for a natural vitamin product, nothing synthetic or artificial. I prefer higher potencies, especially in the B's and C. Look for at least 50mg. Of the B vitamins and at least 300 mg. of vitamin C.
Creatine is a time tested product important for energy and volumizing—this means it can cause the muscles to swell in size. Many current products revolve around this concept. There are many different types of creatine out there, they all, of course, claim to be the best. I like the original creatine monohydrate by itself, this needs to be mixed with a sugary drink, I use Gatorade.
A basic stack like this is a good starting point in the use of supplements. As time goes on, you can add to this as your goals and budget dictates. For fat loss, I would use a Thermogenic product such as Lipo 6 or Hydroxycut. The concept of these types of products goes way back and are time tested and proven.
In the next section, we'll move into new routines as well as information on setting up a home gym. The series will end with an in depth glossary of terms.