I was there once – a skinny teenager with dreams of being the next Arnold. Actually, all I wanted was twenty pounds of muscle so I could stand up to high school bullies and gain confidence to talk to girls. If I got better at sports in the process, then that would be icing on the cake.
Now, as a wise old lifter with almost twenty years of weight training experience, I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve gained a ton of knowledge “in the trenches”, I’ve gleaned considerable insight from fellow gym rats, and I’ve learned from all the reading I’ve done.
When you’ve been in the game long enough, you are able to see the big picture as it pertains to strength and conditioning. You realize that the best lifters vary their workouts, but not by much. You discover that consistency might be the most critical component of your results. Finally, you figure out how to spend your time and energy wisely and focus your attention in the right direction.
These are the things that I wish someone had told me many years ago, when I first ventured into the weight room. Here are the five keys to getting and staying big and strong.
1. Do it Naturally
We don’t talk about this particular topic much in the strength and conditioning industry. Although anabolic steroid use is seen as a faux pas in the outside world, I personally don’t judge others if they choose to go down this path. However, I believe that lifters should make educated decisions on the topic, so I’m here to address some practical considerations.
If you decide to take anabolic steroids, there is no doubt that you’ll gain size and strength at a much more rapid pace than if you go the natural route. However, what many lifters fail to realize is that anabolic steroids can interfere with blood pressure, temperament, libido, and self-confidence.
The question that you need to ask yourself up front is, “For how long do I expect to take steroids?” Many people assume they’ll do a couple of cycles, gain some decent levels of size and strength, call it quits, and “fast-forward” their progress by a couple of years. I can assure you that this is rarely the case in practice.
Many individuals find that after experimenting with steroids, they just don’t feel right when they’re not on a cycle. They lose “the edge”, they aren’t as aggressive, their sexual performance drastically diminishes, they aren’t able to recover as quickly from workouts, and they struggle to hold onto their size, strength, and power. The temptation to keep using is just too hard to resist.
Here’s another important thing to consider: Do you really want to be that lifter who reaches his all-time greatest strength levels while using steroids at age 21 and then never returns to those levels? Would you rather get stronger year in and year out for a couple of decades? Would you prefer to always be at or near your best strength levels? Or would you rather be the guy who lives in the past and says, “Ten years ago I could bench press 365 and squat 500”? Many lifters simply can’t stand these feelings of past glory so they keep using or quit lifting altogether — because they never had to work hard and consistently for their gains.
My advice? Do it naturally. Although the training methods are similar between natural and drug-assisted lifters, there are also differences. Basically, you just can’t do quite as much volume, intensity, and/or frequency if you’re a natural trainee. Weigh the potential costs and benefits and make an informed decision.
2. Get Stronger at the “Big Seven” and Gain Weight Steadily
The most important aspect of gaining muscular size is to make sure that your weight gains are always accompanied by strength gains in the big compound lifts.
How you look is largely dependent on your strength in:
3. Bench press
4. Bent-over rows
5. Military press
6. Weighted dips
7. Weighted chin-ups
Of course it’s fine to substitute variations such as front squats, sumo deadlifts, incline presses, t-bar rows, push presses, close grip bench, and wide grip pull-ups. It’s also okay to perform other great exercises such as hip thrusts, glute-ham raises, lunges, one-arm rows, barbell shrugs, and barbell curls.
However, you need to make sure that you’re consistently getting stronger at the big lifts over time to ensure that the weight that you pack on consists of muscle and not fat. Furthermore, you need to gain weight steadily over the years. Beginner lifters can pack on 20 pounds of muscle in a year rather easily, but gains slow down after that, and you’ll need to gradually manipulate caloric intake to make sure your bodyfat levels never get out of control.
You can eat several pizzas each day, get up to 300 lbs, and squat and deadlift the house, but no one will envy your physique, and you won’t be proud to take your shirt off in public. I recommend that you keep your bodyfat levels under 15% and strive for the athletic look.
I have yet to meet a lifter who could squat 405, deadlift 495, bench press 315, bent-over row 275, military press 225, weighted dip 180, and weighted chin 115 and didn’t possess an amazing physique. These are some good goals to shoot for, and if you’re there already, then you can work on repping out with those weights!
How you look is largely dependent on your strength in the big, compound movements
3. Think Long-term Joint Health
A younger lifter rarely thinks about joint health when getting started with lifting. A large percentage of lifters are forced to stop performing certain exercises, work around pain, or quit training altogether because they never paid attention to joint health from the get-go. If they had the foresight to take good care of their joints, they could have trained pain-free for life and gotten much more results.
Joints require mobility, stability, and motor control. In other words, joints need flexible muscles and soft-tissue to surround them, strong and stabilizing musculature to prevent wasted movement, and coordination to move properly. Joints also need balanced levels of strength in the surrounding musculature in order to track properly.
Joint health is highly correlated with good habits and good form. Perform dynamic warm-ups before you start lifting, such as foam rolling/SMR, mobility drills, and activation drills. Conduct a more specific warm-up consisting of several progressively heavier sets prior to your first compound lift of the day. Use a full range of motion when you lift weights, and make sure you use perfect form. For the upper body, perform an equal amount of horizontal pushing and pulling as well as vertical pushing and pulling. For the lower body, perform an equal amount of quad-dominant and hip-dominant exercises. Better yet, skew the ratios in favor of pulling, as you can never go wrong by doing more pulling than pushing for the upper and lower body. Stretch at the end of your workouts.
Safe and unsafe ways to perform movements do exist; therefore, you need to learn ideal exercise mechanics, which means knowing how to optimally distribute stress throughout the body’s joints while lifting.
4. Never Stray Too Far From What Works
Due to variable genetics and training status, every individual responds best to his or her own personal program. Exercise selection, volume, intensity, and frequency are some of the variables that should be tinkered with by all lifters in an attempt to fine-tune their programming.
It is wise to experiment with high frequency training, high volume training, and high intensity training. All lifters should give bodypart splits, lower/upper splits, and total body training a try. Only after 8-12 weeks of strict adherence to each of these can a lifter truly understand how his or her body responds to various types of training stimuli.
However, you should never stray too far from what works. There are tried and true programs and templates that have stood the test of time, and when you get too radical or venture too far off the beaten path, you run the risk of not seeing results and possibly injuring yourself.
A good program always focuses on the big basics, and there are many ways to do them. In a bodypart split routine, big compound lifts should be placed first in each day’s workout.
Most important, it’s critical to find a routine that you enjoy. The best routine for you is the one you love to perform and the one with which you’ll be most consistent. If you hate 20-rep squats to the point where you dread going to the gym, then they’re just not worth performing regularly.
5. Make Strength Training Your Job
The greatest thing about meatheads is that they always have their gym memberships and whey protein powder. They can be in debt, in danger of getting their vehicle repossessed, and in dire straits otherwise, but they will always make time to train.
The single most important factor in getting and staying big and strong is consistency…not consistency for an entire year, but consistency for a couple of decades. It takes years to form those “mind-muscle connections” and to learn how to properly coordinate the activation of your muscles. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters never stop working on their technique. Each year, you get a little bit better, a little bit stronger, and a little bit bigger. Average lifters just don’t get this. They make excuses, they take time off from the gym, and they justify and rationalize missed workouts.
Big and strong lifters see lifting as their job. It doesn’t matter if a holiday comes around, if they start dating someone new, or if they start a new job, you can count on seeing them in the gym regularly performing their scheduled workouts. Big and strong lifters prioritize training and eating, which makes it nearly impossible to fail in their goals. Success is inevitable with this kind of motivation and determination.
Big and strong lifters see lifting as their job
So there you have it: the five keys to getting and staying big and strong. I hope this article has focused your attention on what really matters.
Small lifters who sporadically attend the gym for a quick bicep- and tricep-blasting workout are a dime a dozen. It takes some serious juevos to buckle down and put a couple hundred pounds on your squats, deadlifts, and bench press over a multiyear period. You can do it!
Written by Bret Contreras
Discuss, comment or ask a question
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About Bret Contreras
Bret Contreras received his Master’s degree from ASU and his CSCS certificate from the NSCA.
He trains individuals out of his badass garage gym in Scottsdale, Arizona and maintains a popular blog at www.BretContreras.com.