So You Wannabe a Bodybuilder?

Congratulations on your fine choice!

You have decided to become a bodybuilder and live the unique lifestyle it entails. Congratulations! You will look back at it as one of the best and most significant decisions you ever made.

From this day forward, many aspects of your life will improve. You will look better, have improved health and energy, and your self-confidence will soar!

While others may hope and wish they could “…have a better body”, you will be one of the few that actually makes it happen. In a world where most people forever search in vain for quick fixes and effortless success, you will stand out as one who actually achieves your goals through hard work and determination.

Three sides of a pyramid

To the outside observer, it might seem as if bodybuilding is all about training. In actuality, training is only one of three key factors to bodybuilding success.  You can liken these three factors to the three sides of a pyramid.  Training, nutrition, and recovery all share equal billing on the marquee of bodybuilding success. Each plays an integral part in achieving your physical goals.  Without training, you can’t stimulate muscle growth. Without proper nutritional support, you won’t be able to fuel productive workouts and your muscles won’t have the raw materials needed to repair damaged muscle tissue and synthesize new muscle mass. In the absence of ample rest, you will neither have the energy for great workouts, nor the ability to recover from them.

Training – you are not a powerlifter!

There are millions and millions of people that lift weights on a regular basis, but only a small percentage of them are true bodybuilders. What’s the main distinction? Most people go into the gym and move weights from point A to point B. Their exercise form may, or may not be correct. They may have vague goals of being able to lift a certain amount of weight in one or more exercises (the bench press being most popular), but that’s about it. In contrast, bodybuilders go to the gym to train their muscles. A bodybuilder wants to feel the target muscle(s) stretching and contracting as he performs his reps.  He wants the muscle(s) to feel pumped by the time he’s done training, and often prefers to feel some level of soreness the next day as an indication he hit the muscle(s) with enough intensity to stimulate growth. He doesn’t usually waste time trying to see how much weight he can use for a single maximum effort; instead, he does 8-12 reps per set for most upper body exercises, and 10-20 reps for legs.

With a proper understanding of what makes a bodybuilder different, we can now discuss the best training methods for the novice. Your first year or two of training are when you lay the foundation of your physique. If you talk to almost any bodybuilder who has been training more than a few years, he will tell you that he made his best gains when he first started. Our bodies are highly adaptive organisms, so the greatest adaptation to training occurs while that stimulation is still a fairly new phenomenon. As the years go by, the body becomes tougher and tougher to ‘trick’ into new growth, and that’s when workouts become more complicated. But in the beginning, complicated is the last thing you want.The secret to success in your first couple years of bodybuilding training is to keep it simple.Whatever you do, don’t pick up a bodybuilding magazine and copy the routine of your favorite pro. These are hereditarily superior men that have typically been training for at least a decade and have built all the size they will ever need. Though they may still be trying to improve a specific body part, usually their main goal is to refine and add detail to their existing muscle mass.
Author, Ron Harris

They employ many isolation exercises as well as plenty of machines and cables spending entire workouts on just one muscle group. In short, they don’t train like they did, or you should when you are first beginning your bodybuilding journey.

Your success as a beginner depends on getting progressively stronger on just a handful of very basic exercises most of which are done with raw iron (i.e. barbells and dumbbells). Isolation is not what you want at this stage. Instead, you will benefit most from compound movements that work several large muscle groups at once thus giving you the most ‘bang for the buck.’ Deadlifts hit the entire back, but also the legs, biceps, forearms, and abdomen. Bench presses are ostensibly for the chest, yet they heavily recruit the triceps and front delts as well.  There is a reason squats are known as the king of lower body exercises. The quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves all work hard during squats.  Full body routines are often recommended for beginners, but the workload required for such routines is prohibitively high in my opinion.  A program which stops short of a full body routine, but still targets most of the major body parts is optimal (see Beginner Workout at the end of this article).

Techniques such as supersets, drop sets, rest-pause, forced reps, and pre-exhaust are of value, but should be saved for the more advanced trainee.  Beginners should stick with straight sets, good form, and a high intensity of effort.  They should practice progressive resistance (as your strength increases so should the loads).

You will find that muscular size and strength are highly correlated at least for the individual.  In other words, as you get stronger you will also get bigger assuming you maintain good form and consume sufficient calories.  It’s a gradual process, but a powerfully effective one.

Nutrition – quality calories for quality gains

Several analogies have commonly been used to attempt to describe the importance of good nutrition in bodybuilding.  For example, food is often likened to gasoline.  My personal favorite has to do with construction sites.  The workers can show up every day to build, but without the proper raw materials they can’t build a sound structure no matter how hard they work.  As with the construction workers, you simply cannot build a great physique with poor nutrition irrespective of your efforts in the gym.

The old cliché, “You are what you eat” is an immutable truth in bodybuilding.  The higher the quality of the foods you consume, the better your bodybuilding results will be.  Most people don’t really put much thought into what they eat. They eat when they are hungry, and they eat for pleasure. If that’s your way of thinking, it needs to change immediately!

The standard three meals per day will not cut it in bodybuilding.  Muscles need a near constant, steady supply of nutrients which means that you must eat every two to three hours. Going longer between meals takes your body out of an ‘anabolic,’ or building state, and into a ‘catabolic,’ or wasting state. The truth is that there are plenty of guys out there that train hard and often enough to stimulate muscle growth, yet they never grow. The number one reason is insufficient nutrients.  Luckily, with the advent of protein supplements, we have a quick and easy way to provide our bodies the requisite fuel.  Not everyone has time to sit down and eat a solid meal every couple hours, but drinking a shake only takes a minute. Most successful bodybuilders eat about four solid meals and consume two or three protein shakes per day.

Ron Harris – in the gym cranking out some dips

There is a world of difference between the quality of a 99-cent hamburger from a fast-food joint and a grilled New York Strip steak. The burger contains far more saturated fat and less protein. The same can be said for the distinction between a bucket of fried chicken and grilled chicken breasts. Bodybuilders need to take in ‘clean’ calories for best results. The best clean protein sources are chicken or turkey breasts, lean red meats, egg whites, fish, and skim milk. All of these contain the correct ratio of amino acids the human body needs to repair and synthesize new muscle tissue. You also need complex carbohydrates to provide the fuel for your workouts. The best sources are rolled oats (oatmeal, but not the instant flavored type), yams, potatoes, and rice.  As with protein sources, never assume that a fast food order of french fries loaded with sodium and saturated fats is the bodybuilding dietary equivalent of a beaked potato, it isn’t.  Fibrous carbohydrates are raw vegetables and should be eaten for their fiber content as well as the many vitamins and minerals they provide. Good choices include broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and spinach. Finally, fats are an essential ingredient in the anabolic process, but you must be careful to selectively consume ‘good’ fats. Examples of good fats include those found in nuts, egg yolks, the omega acids in cold-water fish like salmon, and flax seed oil.

Just as eating the right foods is important, how you prepare them is also significant. Baking or grilling is better than frying in oil. Another area of concern is condiments. A baked potato is a clean carbohydrate, but not if you slather it with butter! A chicken breast is a clean protein source, but not if you drown it in sugary barbecue or teriyaki sauce. Salads are great, unless you dump a bunch of high-calorie dressing loaded with sugar and fat over them. Get the picture?

How ‘clean’ you need to eat and how many carbohydrates you should consume really depends on your metabolism. If you are a skinny guy who can eat all kinds of junk and never gain an ounce of fat, you can get away with not having to eat so clean all the time. You can have your occasional burger and fries, or few slices of pizza. In fact you may even benefit from it because your metabolism burns so many calories.  You should also consume complex carbohydrates at each meal.  Conversely, if you are overweight and have never been able to lose fat easily, your diet needs to be as clean as possible.  You should strive to have the majority of your daily carbohydrate intake directly before and after training.

Protein requirements are a bit easier to determine. Generally speaking, you should aim to consume a gram and a half per pound of bodyweight every day. For a 180-pound man, that’s 270 grams a day. If you eat six times a day (which includes shakes), that averages out to 45 grams per meal.

Nutrition is a subject you can and should learn a great deal more about, but hopefully this basic introduction has given you a rough idea of what is needed.

(see Perfect Bodybuilder Meals at the end of this article)

Rest and recover if you want to grow

Just as nutrition is often overlooked by would-be bodybuilders, so is recovery.  Intense weight training causes damage to the muscle tissue at the cellular level. It is when this damage is repaired, and with the right circumstances rebuilt slightly larger (known as hypertrophy) that the bodybuilder begins to achieve his goal of increased muscular size and enhanced shape. This process can be sabotaged if intense training is performed again prior to its completion.  Additionally, the process can be thwarted if sleep is inadequate, or the body is subjected to excessive mental or physical stressors which flood the system with catabolic hormones like cortisol.  Many new bodybuilders, in their zeal to build a great physique, overtrain by subjecting the muscles and nervous system to more exercise than they can recover from.

Earlier in this article I referenced the folly of copying the training routines of the pros relative to their choices of exercises and specific goals.  Overtraining is another reason not to train like them.  The volume and frequency of training programs followed by most professional bodybuilders would simply bury the novice.  This is due to a hereditary advantage many of them have in terms of recovery ability and the rarely discussed factor of tissue building drugs.  As a drug free bodybuilder, as I feel all beginners should be, you simply won’t have the recovery advantage the drugs impart as part of your arsenal.

You must have ‘off days’ when you don’t train. You can’t do endless sets and exercises, and you NEED your rest. Don’t stay out all night drinking with your buddies or give up hours of sleep to watch TV or play video games. Don’t run around playing other sports for fun if making gains as a bodybuilder is your primary goal. Always keep in mind that you stimulate growth by training, but actual growth happens outside the gym. Doing too much training, or not providing your body with enough rest will prevent results from materializing. So, unless you don’t mind putting out all that effort in the gym for nothing, you must pay heed to your body’s recovery requirements.

Ron Harris – Shoulder press

A word on patience and consistency

Building a physique is a very gradual process. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is any exceptional body. Most beginners hate to hear this, but it will be several months before you start to see significant improvements, and at least a year or two in most cases before you obtain what most consider the ‘bodybuilder look’.  This should not discourage, on the contrary, things which are too easily achieved impart little satisfaction.  If it were quick and easy there would be nothing special about it.  Every guy would be walking around with bulging muscles and granite-hard definition.

It’s really all about consistency. Every good workout, every good meal, and every good night’s sleep should be considered one step closer to your goal.  Every day of addressing all three sides of that triangle to the best of your abilities keeps you moving in the right direction.  Ignoring any of them will mire your progress, or worse, cause regression. How does that saying go?  The tortoise wins the race?  Progress is never at lightning speed, there will inevitably be some times when you don’t seem to be making any at all despite your best efforts.  It’s useful to take photos of yourself in the exact same lighting conditions at regular intervals (every two or three months).  Your physical progress is akin to the growth of your lawn.  It’s impossible to see grass growing on your lawn if you stare at it every day.  With a regularly taken series of photos you will definitely see and appreciate the progress you are making. This will serve to heighten and sustain your motivation and confirm that your efforts are indeed paying off!

Let the gains begin!

Welcome to what I feel is one of the most positive, life-affirming activities a person can partake in – bodybuilding. It’s a journey you can remain on for the rest of your life. As a bodybuilder, you will be more in control of your health, strength, appearance, and vitality – qualities that most others around you simply surrender to fate and bad habits they feel powerless to act against. The ability to master your own body and recreate it into an image you desire is empowering. Others may envy or jeer you, mocking you for being so ‘obsessed’ with working out and eating right. Just remember, obsessed is just a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated… Dedicate yourself to bodybuilding, and the rewards will be innumerable. Take it from someone who began this journey a quarter-century ago and is still going strong. There is nothing like being a bodybuilder.

Beginner Workout

(Note: always warm up properly before attempting heavy weight)

Day one

  • Barbell bench press  4 x 8-12
  • Deadlift   4 x 8-12
  • Seated military press  4 x 8-12
  • Barbell curl   4 x 8-12
  • Weighted dip   4 x 8-12

Day two: OFF

Day three

  • Squat    6 x 8-20 (pyramid up in weight, down in reps)
  • Stiff-legged deadlift  4 x 10
  • Leg press   3 x 10-15
  • Lying leg curl   4 x 10
  • Standing calf raise  3 x 10

Day four

  • Chin-up   4 x 8-12
  • Incline dumbbell press 4 x 8-12
  • Barbell row   4 x 8-12
  • Seated dumbbell press  4 x 8-12
  • Alternate dumbbell curl 4 x 8-12
  • Skullcrushers   4 x 10-12

Day five: OFF, repeat cycle

Perfect Bodybuilder Meals: A + B

A. Protein (40-60 grams)

  • Chicken breast
  • White tuna
  • Turkey breast
  • Egg whites

B. Carbohydrate (50-200 grams)

  • Rice
  • Potato
  • Yam
  • Oatmeal

Written by Ron Harris