- By now you should have a fair grasp of what machines and exercises work for you.
- You should be into the habit of tracking your calories and protein intake through the day.
- Supplements continue to grow in importance since you need every edge you can get.
So, you've kept at it for a couple of years and should see a lot of improvement from your salad days of bodybuilding. Good for you! Now, the bad news: the road gets a lot rougher from here on.
Gaining mass was relatively easy during your first year, but now you have to fight hard for each additional pound. This is point where the smart bodybuilders are separated from the rest.
By now you should have mastered the basic exercises and have a fair grasp of what machines and specialty-exercises work for you and which doesn't. That's a great start, but there's also a risk you've established a shortlist of favorites. If you're really good at leg extensions and have a machine that fits you perfectly, odds are you'll keep going back to that machine week after week.
Likewise, it's tempting to skip tough exercises like deadlifts in favor of that neat lower-back machine, followed by the low-rowing machine that hits your lats just right. In short, you're getting comfortable with your routine, and that's a dead-end street.
First off, you must kill your darlings. If you always do a certain exercise it ceases to be effective as the body adjusts to it, even if you increase the weight a notch once in a while. You need to switch things around, routinely try new exercises and purposefully do "inconvenient" stuff to keep the muscles guessing. It is also important to vary your sets and reps.
To establish a framework for this constantly evolving workout routine we need to switch the old cookie-cutter workout for a more dynamic approach. To accomplish this, the sample workout below has a number of blocks into which you pick one exercise from the corresponding "pool."
Each pool, named "Chest pool #1", "Chest pool #2" etc., are tilted towards either basic meat-and-potatoes exercises like dumbbell presses or movements like cable crossovers where the focus is more on mind-muscle connection and "feel". Both types have their place in your workout, and the frame below makes sure you always get some of each.
It may feel a bit unusual at first, but as you get used to this type of mix-and-match workouts you'll appreciate the flexibility. By constantly changing the exercises around, especially in combination with alternating high rep/low weight and low rep/high weight training, you should avoid plateaus and enjoy continuous progress.
At the same time, having a set frame with so-and-so many exercises for a particular body part, of which 2-or-3 are classic mass-builders from different angles and 1-or-2 are "feel" exercises, you can be sure no muscle group is falling between the chairs. All right, let's have a look at a sample schedule to see how we put it together:
Sample Chest And Triceps Schedule
Pick one exercise from each of these pools and insert into your routine.
Chest Pool 1:
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
- Decline Dumbbell Press: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
- Bench Press Machine: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
Chest Pool 2:
- Military Press: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
- Arnold Dumbbell Press: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 2 sets of 6-8 reps
Chest Pool 3:
- Butterfly: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Cable Cross-overs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dumbbell Pull-overs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
Chest/Triceps Pool 4:
- Dips: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Close-Grip Bench Press: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Push-ups: 2 sets to failure
Triceps Pool 1:
- Lying Triceps Press: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Seated Triceps Press: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Triceps Push-downs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
Triceps Pool 2:
- Dumbbell Kick-backs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Overhead Rope Extensions: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Barbell Triceps Press: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
Triceps Pool 3:
- Bench Dips: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Reverse Grip Push-downs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
- Rope Push-downs: 2 sets of 8-10 reps
The 3 exercises in each pool above are just samples - you can expand and adjust your own pools as you see fit with a dozen or more options for each pool. The more exercises you add, the more variety you will enjoy while still keeping your workouts structured.
At this point you should be into the habit of healthy eating, routinely tracking your calories and protein intake through the day. There's really not much to add other than you need make regular reviews to make sure your metabolism hasn't changed.
Muscle mass is active tissue that burns calories 24/7, and the more you put on the more your metabolism will go up, which in turn forces you to adjust your daily caloric intake upwards to meet the demand. If you don't, you could stunt further progress by not feeding your body the extra calories it needs to add more muscle mass.
It's all tuning at this point, and once you've found your new equilibrium, make a note of it and use it as your permanent target intake until you've gained more mass and repeat the process.
Of course, ectomorphs don't have to worry about any of this—just keep eating as much good stuff as you can and you'll be fine! Also, if you're an endomorph or mesomorph and all the fine-tuning above makes your skin crawl, you could go with the classic bulk-and-diet cycle instead.
It gives more leeway during the bulk-phase, allowing you to eat the stuff you want for 6 months or so, but on the other hand you have to suffer a few months of tight dieting and cardio afterwards to burn off the body fat you accumulated. I prefer the fine-tuning approach to wild yo-yo swings, but ultimately it comes down to personal preference.
Supplements continue to grow in importance since you need every edge you can get to coax your body to add another pound or two.
As always, a good multivitamin/mineral supplement remains at the top of your must-have list to ensure you're not running a deficiency in any key vitamin or mineral. After that, you have your protein supplements, creatine, glutamine and vitamin C tablets, in that order. What else is there? Simply put: Tons.
Unfortunately, unless you're Bill Gates, taking ALL available supplements at the same time is not economically feasible and probably not even desirable. For a more realistic approach, pick one or two supplements beyond your staples (vitamins, protein, creatine, vitamin C) at the time and give them a shot.
Not everyone reacts the same way to a specific supplement, so you want to get an idea of what works best for you before you make a habit out of sinking hard-earned money into buying something every month. Let's have a look at some of the products available out there.
These can be a good help for burning body fat, but hardly the kind of magic pill the marketers in the muscle mags would have you believe.
Though many manufacturers are switching to ephedra-free formulas, the classic fat burner is a combination of ephedrine/caffeine/aspirin ("E/C/A") that works synergistically to pump up your metabolism and help you burn more calories.
There are two sides to this story: First off, it's a effective supplement that delivers. Secondly, it's a potent central stimulant and isn't for everyone.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid, or CLA for short, is a free fatty acid that, like creatine, occurs naturally in small amounts in a variety of foods.
To avoid having to eat huge quantities of meat and dairy products every day, bodybuilders can take CLA in capsule-form to enjoy benefits such as building muscle and reducing body fat.
BCAA's position as a staple supplement for millions of bodybuilders is well deserved - it has a proven track record and the scientific data to back it up.
The product itself is pretty simple: 3 essential amino acids, Valine, Leucine and Isoleucine, combined into a potent cocktail focused on enhancing your bodybuilding progress.
In addition to the benefits above, BCAAs also help stimulate protein synthesis, enhance endurance and—perhaps most important of all—is highly anticatabolic, i.e. helps prevent your muscle from getting cannibalized.
Glucosamine is a building block of cartilage and can be very beneficial in healing connective tissue. I have successfully used glucosamine supplementation daily for years, which - knock on wood - has kept the old joint problems with my knees and a previously torn shoulder at bay.
However, glucosamine can also be taken as a precautionary supplement, as it helps "cushion" the joints and ligaments, possibly helping you avoid injuries in the first place.
Beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a metabolite of the essential amino acid leucine that plays a role in muscle synthesis, i.e muscle growth. In addition, studies suggest it can be aiding in fat loss, making it a double-whammy of good news for bodybuilders.
Guggul may have a funny-sounding name, but it sure can crank up the heat! It stimulates the thyroid to release more thyroid hormones, which in turn puts the metabolism in overdrive. Studies have shown that Guggulsterones can even treat certain hypothyroidal conditions.
GABA is a relatively obscure bodybuilding supplement that works by stimulating the production of HGH. This makes it a good aid in fat loss for people whose HGH-levels have begun their inevitable decline due to the aging process.
GABA is classified as a neurotransmitter and has the added bonus of helping you sleep and rest better, which could translate to better workouts.
Chromium picolinate is not a whiz-bang, overnight type of supplement, but long-term use can be helpful in keeping the insulin receptors primed for optimal use. This helps stabilize the blood sugar levels and makes glucose uptake (muscle fuel) run smoothly.
This type of fine-tuned insulin management enables to body to do more with less (remember, insulin also pushes the body to store more fat so it's good if you can reap the positive qualities of insulin with less of it floating around.) This in turn can help you lose fat and build muscle.
Tribulus Terrestis increases the production of Luteinizing Hormone (LH), which in turn increases the natural testosterone levels.
Forskolin stimulates the thyroid gland to increase the release of thyroid hormones, which helps turn up the body's thermostat and get the fat burn going. In addition, forskolin has historically been used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from eczema to respiratory problems.
Chrysin is an isoflavone chemically extracted from plants with the potential to increase testosterone levels in athletes. As opposed to DHEA, andro and other prehormones, chrysin works by preventing the conversion (aromatization) of testosterone into estrogen.
Tips and Tricks
Be on the lookout for signs of overtraining. You have to be dedicated and persistent to become a successful bodybuilder, but there are times when you need to back off. Insomnia, irritability, fatigue, prolonged soreness and lack of enthusiasm for the training can be signs of overtraining. Take a break!
You've been hammering your muscles every week for months or even years on end, so give them a week or two of total rest to recover. You may feel guilty at first, but odds are you'll come back stronger and more energized which translates to better results when you get back on track again. Just remember to keep eating plenty of protein to aid the recovery process.
While not listed as a body part on its own, it doesn't hurt to throw in a couple sets of neck training on back day. Earlier, you got enough stimulation from deadlifts and shrugs, but as you get more serious you may want to complete the "look."
The neck is visible year-round and, whether you like it or not, other people judge you unconsciously as weaker than you really are if your neck is skinny. If you're genetically blessed and was born with a bull neck, hey, no need to sweat it, but the rest of us may find it worth an extra 5-10 minutes per week.
Don't let stretching become an afterthought. By stretching out the muscle you help blood with fresh nutrients flow into the muscle, which speeds up the recovery process. There is also a theory that stretching helps loosen up the fascial encasements around the muscle fibers, which gives them more room to grow.
In addition, animal tests have shown that stretching can trigger hyperplasia (increased number of muscle cells) though this phenomenon has yet to be confirmed in humans.
Once again, take good care of your joints and ligaments. As a beginner you could get away with jerking the weights around, but as the number of plates go up your safety margins shrink. If a joint snaps, you're out of the gym for months.
Oh, and you're in a world of pain too—remember the facial expression of Pierre Fux when he tore both knees during that Flex Magazine photo shoot last year next time you get tempted to compromise safety and good form. The ground rules for joint care are:
- Always control the weight.
- Never bounce the weight.
- Never overstretch a joint.
- Never let the muscle rest while letting a joint or ligament "hold the load" (seated hamstring curls are notorious for this).
In addition, consider supplementing with 1,500 mg glucosamine per day as a precaution. An unfortunate pitfall of experienced bodybuilders is that we sometimes get intolerant toward newcomers who may not have figured out the gym etiquette yet.
Remember, you too were a beginner once upon a time so chill out and keep things in perspective. Don't get mad when a beginner mindlessly stands too close to you while you're doing your bicep curls, just take a step to the side and keep your focus on your workout.
If you always get to the gym at 6 p.m. and always use a specific locker, don't give the glare to the newbie who unknowingly snagged it a minute before you showed up.
Keep your cool when he forgets to wipe his sweat off the bench—politely explain that gym rules dictates everyone must wipe down the equipment after themselves and point to the where the disinfectant spray and paper towels are.
You get the idea—be tolerant and help them get on the right track. Besides, seething and holding grudges steals valuable energy and mental focus away from your workout.
It takes a lot to trigger growth these days, so you need a well-rounded arsenal of intensity boosters to get the job done. That said, using any of the techniques outlined below is demanding on the muscle and should NOT be routinely used for every workout.
Instead, think of these tricks as extra spice you can throw into your workouts once every couple of weeks. Also, proper rest becomes increasingly important the more intensity-boosters you use, so make a point of getting the sleep and rest days you need.
Negative Training and Forced Negatives
The muscle is up to 40% stronger in the negative phase than the positive phase. This is a security mechanism of the body; anything you're strong enough to hoist over your head, you can at least give a controlled descent rather than have it crash down and crack your skull open.
What makes this phenomena interesting is that you can tap into this "bonus" strength by employing training that specifically takes advantage of the difference between positive and negative strength. Please note, however, that you're essentially bypassing your body's built-in safety valves here.
You're walking a thin line between clobbering your muscles and injury, so be sure to employ strict form and limiting your negative training to only once every couple of weeks, at most, for any specific muscle. You should avoid negatives altogether if you've had recent injuries, joint problems or any other reason to believe you are somehow weakened in that area.
The idea is to use more weight than you normally handle and focus only the negative phase. For example, if you normally bench press 300 pounds for 6 reps, you may choose to load on 350 pounds for 6-to-8 reps. Your partner helps you push the weight up (positive phase) while you slowly resist the weight all the way down on your own (negative phase).
Hold statically for a second at the bottom and let your partner help you bring it up again, and so on. Another variation is to use your normal 300 pounds and have your partner actively push down during the negative phase ("forced negatives") of each rep.
The advantage of this is that he can vary the pressure depending on your fatigue, which ironically is also the downside—it's hard to track progress or even guess just how many pounds worth of pressure he added to your set.
You've probably noticed that you have "sticking points" for certain movements—your biceps usually give in at a certain point during a curl, the barbell usually stops at so-and-so many inches off your chest and so on. This is the point where you're biomechanically at your weakest.
Partial reps targets precisely that sticking point and can help you move on to heavier weights. It's hard to scientifically explain exactly why this works, but there are enough real-life anecdotes out there to include this method here.
The execution varies; either do an entire set of partials or use them as a finisher after your regular set. An example of the former would be doing bicep curls where you grab a dumbbell and only bend your elbow 45-60 degrees from start to stop through an entire set.
For the latter, you do your regular set to failure, then immediately grab a 30% or so lighter dumbbell and grind out another 6-8 partial reps to give your sticking point an extra kick in the pants. Expect pain! Partial reps are sometimes referred to as "burns," and once you're doing them you'll know why.
The idea of including cheating in your workouts may seem to fly in the face of all the earlier talk about safety and the benefits of proper form. This is not necessarily true—cheating is a valid intensity booster if it fulfills certain criteria. You can read more details on proper cheating here.
The bottom line is that the cheating should not detract from the regular reps, nor should it involve other muscle groups than those targeted for training. Furthermore, there are a number of safety issues that need to be addressed; again, read my in-depth article on cheating to get the bottom line.
The Mental Game
As mentioned earlier, your biggest enemies are habit and routine. That goes for your mind as well as your muscles. If the workouts are heavy but unimaginative and generally ho-hum, you're running serious risk of hitting a plateau sooner rather than later. A tell-tale sign is if your mind keeps wandering between—or even during—sets.
Adopting a dynamic, ever-changing workout schedule like the one outlined earlier is a good start, but no variety of exercises can help you if your heart isn't in it anymore.
Sometimes a new training partner will do the trick. Or join a new gym. Or ditch your old workout routine and train like a powerlifter for a couple of months. Heck, sometimes even taking a month off can be beneficial for the long-term results—you should be itching for the feel of a barbell in your hands again by the time you get back and your regained enthusiasm will pick up the slack and then some within a few months.
If you're looking for a real challenge for yourself, consider signing up for a local bodybuilding contest. Suddenly you have a deadline on the horizon to whip yourself into shape! In addition, you have a whole slew of new aspects of bodybuilding to learn and master, from pre-contest dieting to posing and choosing the right trunks.
As the stakes go up, so will your dedication and effort—or you'll face public humiliation on C-Day if you don't have your act together. Besides, if there ever was a time to take some pictures, it's the days before a contest. Even if you don't win you'll at least have something to look back on to inspire you for your next diet or contest.