I can't help you with the "applying" counterpart of bodybuilding. This all-too-important factor is up to you, and is something that cannot be taught. You must find it within yourself to make this commitment, and to systematically apply your knowledge on your quest for mind blowing muscle mass and strength.
Knowing What You Are Doing
However, the knowledge portion of bodybuilding is something that can be taught, and that's what this article is all about. People often ask me how I was able to make the gains that I did at the age of 15 with only 2 years of training and no real supplement use. It had nothing to do with a top secret workout plan or any magical supplements.
It was the result of sound, sensible training using the basic guidelines of muscle growth and nutrition. I'm going to share with you my philosophy and viewpoints on muscle growth, and why they work. SIMPLICITY is key. LESS is more. Intensity is EVERYTHING. Forget everything you think you know about bodybuilding, and read on…
First off, to understand how to gain muscular size you must first understand what causes muscle growth. Every action that goes on within your body is centered around a single ultimate goal: survival of the species. In other words, keeping you alive and healthy. For example, when the body is hungry and in need of food, your stomach will begin to feel uncomfortable. Why? It's your body's way of telling you, "feed me!"
This uncomfortable sensation will continue until the body is fed. Similarly, the natural responses of blinking, coughing, sneezing, getting a suntan are all there for the same reason - they protect your body and help to fight against potentially harmful outside forces. The action of gaining muscular size and strength, otherwise known as muscle "hypertrophy," can be viewed in the same way.
Each Rep Counts
Each repetition closer to failure creates deeper inroads into the muscle fiber and causes "micro tears." When you lift weights you are damaging your muscles, and through proper nutrition and rest your body will repair this damage. So, just like hunger, sneezing, coughing etc, in response to harmful stress placed upon the musculature, the body responds by increasing the size and strength of that particular muscle in order to protect it from possible future damage. Understand so far? It's really simple. It's all about survival. Meaning that what you accomplish in the weightroom must be perceived by your body as a threat. This brings me to my next point, intensity.
If what we accomplish in the weightroom must be perceived as a threat to our survival, then naturally the more intensity we put forth during our workouts the more heavily our bodies will respond. Intensity is, in my opinion, the most important factor for gaining muscular size and strength. Training with 110% intensity is what separates the champions from the wannabe's. Unless you have a killer set of genetics, submaximal intensity will yield little to no results.
What this means is that every single set you perform in the gym must be taken to the point of muscular failure and beyond. What is meant by the term "failure?" Simply put, it means taking each set to the point where the weight will not budge no matter how much force you apply. To the point where even if you're life depended on it, the bar would not move another inch. This is true intensity, and this is the way you must train if you want serious results. Let me describe a typical set in order to give you a better idea of what I'm talking about. I'll use a simple barbell curl as my example:
The bar is loaded and on the ground. I take time to concentrate, and focus my mind on the task at hand. I block out any potential distractions and find my grip on the bar. I remind myself what it is that I want to accomplish on that set, "5 reps," I tell myself. I pick the weight up and begin the set. I curl the weight up for the first rep. Not too difficult, but I remain focused. Rep number 2 is a little tougher, but I still feel strong as I let the weight the down slowly and accentuate the negative. I'm feeling the fatigue on number 3 as my strength is starting to drain out. Rep 4 is a struggle, and the weight is moving very slowly as I give my all to curl the weight into the top position.
I let it down slowly. My arms are burning, my grip wants to let go, and just about every part of my body is screaming at me to stop. But I dig down deep into my mind, ignore my body's alarm system and pull the weight with every last bit of strength that I have. It's moving slowly and I know that I'm going to get the rep. The last rep feels like an eternity but after a 10 second battle I've gotten the weight into the top position.
Intensity Is Everything
By now my arms feel like they're going to explode. Intensity is everything, and I want to take the set for all its worth. So I let the weight down extra slow this time. I try to hold the bar and fight gravity as long as I can until it collapses. Am I done? Hell no. There's no way I'm getting any other reps, but I want mountains for biceps, so I continue the set. I try to curl the weight as hard as I can for another 15 seconds and battle the weight for all it's worth. I can hardly hold the bar now. The set is over.
This is the type of intensity that must be put forth during every set and every workout. If you aren't used to this level of training then it may take a few weeks to get accustomed to it. I can't stress enough how important it is to train with 110% intensity. Either lift all out, or you may as well go become a ballerina. I have no sympathy for anyone who complains about lack of muscular gains when they are not training themselves to the limit.
Okay, you now understand that:
a) Muscle growth is a product of the body's natural alarm system
b) You must train with 100% intensity. Each set must be taken to complete muscular failure and beyond.
Your New Best Friends
Let me now take the time to introduce you to your 2 new best friends: "Overload" and "Progression." Your entire strength training program should be centered around these two all-important factors. "Overload" refers to providing your muscles with a workload that is beyond their present capacity. By training to failure you are 'overloading' your muscles and effectively stimulating new growth. "Progression" is pretty self-explanatory.
It refers to making steady increases in weight and/or reps in each training session. For example, you squat 200 pounds for 10 reps in one workout. Next week you increase the weight to 210 pounds for 10 reps. This is progression, and must be the center focus of your entire training program. Why is progression important? Well, it all comes back to the whole "adaptation to the environment" spiel I gave earlier. Maybe this will help explain it:
Envision What You Are Doing
Envision a building. An earthquake hits, and the building is destroyed. Workers rush to the scene to repair the damage, only this time they decide to make it bigger and stronger incase another earthquake hits. Surprisingly enough, another earthquake hits! Only this earthquake is slightly larger than the last one.
Sure enough the building is destroyed, and the workers come back to repair it. However this time they make the building even larger and even stronger in the event that another earthquake should hit.
Understand? As your weight/reps increase your body is forced to adapt to the larger workloads. If you never progressed in weight or reps the body would have no reason to grow larger and would have no incentive to adapt. Progression is such an important part of gaining muscular size. This is why I recommend keeping a training log and making records of each workout. Nothing complicated, just some simple notes which will let you know your current weight/rep records.
In each workout you should strive to make improvements in every lift. What kind of improvements? The ability to increase by a single repetition each week would be more than sufficient. Even a half rep would be great, as long as you are improving every week and forcing your body to adapt to greater and greater workloads.
Your Worst Enemy
OK, so I've introduced you to your two best friends. Now it's time for you to meet your worst enemy: Overtraining. This nasty, ugly term refers to training the body beyond it's natural recovery abilities, i.e. training too often, training for too long in each session, or using too-high training volume. I've seen people on the message boards say that overtraining doesn't exist and that it was a term made by the lazy in order to avoid work. This is ridiculous and just plain wrong. Yes, some people are able to get away with more frequent/higher volume training, but for the majority of us, this will bring us farther from our goals rather than closer to them.
You see, usually in life the more we put in, the better results we receive. In bodybuilding however, this is not the case. More is certainly not better. Most people just don't realize how stressful strength training really is to the body and underestimate how much recovery time they really require. Not only in terms of training volume, but also in the way of training frequency. You do NOT need to train 5-and-6 days per week in order to gain muscular size. You would be a fool to do this. Any more than 4 training sessions per week and you're setting yourself up to overtrain. In my opinion, three training sessions per week is ideal, but if you insist on training more often, then 4 sessions should be just fine.
As far as each individual muscle is concerned, it only needs to be directly hit once per week. Any more and you are not allowing adequate recovery time. Ideally, each workout should last no more than 45 minutes. Why 45? It's because of another bodybuilder's enemy, "Cortisol." Cortisol is a powerful catabolic hormone which is released after about 45 minutes of intense exercise. Cortisol stimulates the break down of muscle tissue for energy. I'm not going to get all scientific on you here, so we'll leave it at that. Now I personally require more rest in between my sets, so my workouts usually last about 1 hour. Anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour is the ideal time frame to complete your workout.
That covers training frequency and time, but what about the actual volume of each workout? Keep in mind that this is an opinion article. I'm sharing with you my personal viewpoints on muscle growth. These are, in MY opinion the ideal number of sets for each bodypart:
I've messed around with many different combinations, and these are in my opinion the ideal numbers. Many people will look at that and say the volume is too low. Trust me, if you are training with 100% intensity, that is more than enough! Any more than that and you are simply eating into your recovery time. The idea is to stimulate or "spark" muscle growth, and then get the hell out of the gym and grow. This can be accomplished without the use of endless sets.
Now we must establish a rep range. Remember, the idea is to create muscular overload, not muscular fatigue. For all upper body movements I believe that an ideal rep range is to reach failure anywhere from 4-7 reps. Abs and forearms should be trained using 6-10 reps. The lower body is a bit different and seems to respond well to almost any rep range. Experiment and see what works for you. Some may advocate the use of 4-6 reps, some may say 8-10, others will say 12-15. I personally stick with a rep range of 8-10 for thighs, and 8-12 for calves. So here it is:
Thighs: Anything under 15 reps
This brings us to the all-important factor of exercise selection. If you want the most bang for your buck and are looking to receive the most dramatic results possible from your training, then you must focus your attention on basic compound movements. Stop wasting your time slaving away on dumbbell flyes and tricep kickbacks.
Focus your attention on the big lifts which will allow you to move the most possible weight. I'm talking lifts like squats, deadlifts, dips, chins, rows, overhead presses etc. You'll also find it interesting that the hardest lifts are the ones that yield the greatest results. Well not really, it only makes sense. Isolation lifts have their place, but certainly not ahead of these basic, proven lifts. So without further ado, I give you Sean N.'s list of approved exercises:
Deadlifts, Chins, Barbell/Dumbbell Rows, Lat Pulldowns, V-Bar pulldowns, Seated rows, Barbell/Dumbbell shrugs.
Barbell/Dumbell bench press, Incline Barbell/Dumbell bench press, Decline Barbell/Dumbell bench press, Dips
Weighted crunches, Weighted leg raises, Cable crunches
Military press, Seated Overhead dumbbell press, Lateral raises
Barbell curls, Dumbbell curls
Close grip bench press, Skull Crushers, Cable Pushdowns, Overhead EZ-Bar Extensions
Barbell Wrist Curls, Dumbell Wrist Curls, Reverse Barbell Wrist Curls, Reverse Dumbell Wrist Curls, Static Holds, Farmer's Walks
Squats, Leg Presses, Lunges, Stiff-Legged Deadlifts (Hamstrings), Good Mornings (Hamstrings)
Standing Calf Raises, Seated Calf Raises
It's simple, if it ain't on the list, don't do it! These lifts are the basic, proven exercises which will allow for maximum overload. Anything else is simply a waste of time.
So there you have it, we've covered training frequency, volume and exercises selection. Here is a sample workout to give you a better idea:
Squats - 1 x 8-10
Leg Press - 2 x 8-10
SLDL - 2 x 8-10
Standing Calf Raises - 2 x 8-12
Seated Calf Raises - 1 x 8-12
Cable Crunches - 2 x 6-10
Weighted Situps - 1 x 6-10
Incline Dumbell Press - 2 x 4-7
Dips - 2 x 4-7
Flat Dumbell Press - 1 x 4-7
Military Press - 2 x 4-7
Lateral Raises - 1 x 4-7
Pushdowns - 2 x 4-7
Skull Crushers - 1 x 4-7
Deadlifts - 1 x 8-10
Chins - 2 x 4-7
Barbell Rows - 2 x 4-7
Barbell Shrugs - 2 x 8-10
Barbell Curls - 2 x 4-7
Dumbell Curls - 1 x 4-7
Barbell Wrist Curls - 1 x 6-10
Static Holds - x 1
Believe it or not, that is about all the training information you need in order to make great gains in muscular size and strength. There is so much more you could read, but the fact of the matter is that as long as you have my basic guidelines down, there is little you can do to increase the effectiveness of your program.
So, in a nutshell:
a) Train with 100% intensity at all times
b) Use basic compound movements as your core lifts
c) Do not train more than 4 days per week
d) Do not train for more than 1 hour per session
e) Work each muscle once per week
f) Keep a training log
g) Focus on Overload and Progression
That really is all there is to it. I mean really, if you follow those guidelines to a "T," you will make excellent gains. Leave all the useless debating for the message boards and for people who have nothing better to do. This really is all you need to know as far as training is concerned. This is NOT unique, nor is it some top-secret program. What it is is basic, sensible lifting.
So now we come to the other all-important part of bodybuilding: Nutrition. You can have the greatest training program in the world, but without sound nutrition you will get nowhere. It's like trying to build a fire without wood. You have the spark, but without the wood there will be no flame.
You must realize that nutrition is something that can be debated and debated forever and ever and the amount of information which I could share with you would be endless. However, I don't want you to become a victim of over-analyzing. Rather than share with you everything there is to know, I'll share with you everything you NEED to know, which, you will find is not really that much. Like I said before, bodybuilding is not complex.
Number one on the list is protein. Obviously you know this, because I'm guessing you've read it a hundred times. Well, hear it again. I don't have to get in detail here, but simply put, it builds and repairs bodily tissues. So naturally if you're "breaking down" muscle in the gym then obviously protein would be your most important nutrient. Eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight from sources like milk, eggs, beef, chicken, nuts and whey.
Next up we have carbohydrates. They provide you with energy. I'm basically repeating everything you've already read before, but it's important, so I have to mention it.
Rather than getting into the idea of "complex" and "simple" carbohydrates, we should think more in terms of where they place on glycemic index. Meaning, how rapidly the sugars are broken down and released into the bloodstream. Besides the 3 hours after you train, pick foods which are on the lower end of the index. Apples, strawberries and oatmeal are examples of this.
I mean to be honest with you, you don't have to get into a lot of detail here. If you're an ectomorph like me and your goal is to build as much muscular size as possible, the best advice I can give you is to eat, eat, and eat some more. Eat everything you can, and eat often. Don't stop eating. Here are my nutrition guidelines, and quite frankly the only things you really NEED to know:
a) Eat 5-7 meals a day
b) Eat 1-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight
c) Choose carbs that are on the lower end of the GI Index
d) Do not go more than 2-3 hours with protein in order to prevent catabolism
e) Do not go overboard on fats, but don't be afraid of them either
f) Consume whey protein and fast absorbing carbs within 30 minutes of finishing your workout
g) Choose foods higher on the GI index for the 3 hour period after a workout
h) Drink a gallon of water everyday
There you have it. You see, nutrition can get so scientific that it just becomes ridiculous. Half of the stuff you read about will do nothing to help you. Follow those guidelines; gain muscle, and smile, because that's 99% of what you actually need to know.
Before I conclude, here are a couple more tips I can give you:
a) Get at least 8-10 hours of sleep every night
b) Take measurements to ensure that you are progressing
c) Do not consume your life with bodybuilding. Try to enjoy other things as well.
Well, that concludes my article. If you disagree with something, tough, because I already told you that this is an opinion article. These are my viewpoints on training and nutrition, and these are the guidelines I have used to gain 50 pounds in 2.5 years of training with no real supplement use.
People ask how I did it, and I tell them that it was all from hard work and perseverance. The actual knowledge portion of bodybuilding really is not that large. Like I said before, it is not complex. It's a matter of taking basic, sensible information and then applying it. So until next time, train like a gladiator, eat like a horse, sleep like a baby and grow like a weed!