11 Principles of Bodybuilding Training
"Obey the principles without being bound by them."
- Bruce Lee
The goal of the following principles isn't to give you a set of training rules that you must follow, but to provide you with guidelines that I've found to produce consistent and predictable results.
It's important that these principles be used as one cohesive unit, so don't implement some while ignoring others – they go together.
However, you may decide that you need to adjust some (or all) of them to suit you, your situation, and your preferred training style. And that's okay – they're all malleable, and all can be tweaked somewhat.
Speaking of training style, note that these are my principles for bodybuilding training – not athletic training, not fitness training, not functional training – bodybuilding training.
So those who could expect to benefit most are those looking to compete in a physique competition (bodybuilding, figure, etc.), as well as those who want to look like they could compete.
However, any trainee can benefit from understanding the logic behind these principles. So even if you're not a physique competitor, I encourage you to read on and then adjust accordingly.
Without further ado, here are the first 5 Bodybuilding Training Principles that I've found to be of tremendous benefit to me, and I hope they are to you as well. (The next 6 principles will follow in part 2.)
1. Train Each Body Part Once per Week
Depending upon which circles you run in, this principle may sound obvious, or it may sound silly, even lazy.
In competitive bodybuilding circles, training each body part once per week is far more common than not. Even those who don't train each body part once every seven days tend to train each about every five days.
If you're like me, you're willing to train as often as needed to get the best results. When you combine that willing to do work attitude with the human tendency to think more is better, it's easy to see how we could easily evolve into training each body part twice, or even three times per week, or more.
The problem with an increased training frequency is that it may very well lead to inadequate recovery. Let's not forget that the entire point to training is to reap the benefits that come from recovering from it. Training is essentially the process of stimulate-recover-stimulate-recover, ad infinitum.
But when you're hungry for progress, it's tempting to eat from the stimulate table too often.
A commonly asked question regarding training is, "When should you train a body part again?" The vague, yet honest answer is when you've recovered from your last training session.
So how long does it take to recover from a training session?
Recuperation time depends upon a number of variables including, but not limited to, the volume and intensity of the workout as a whole.
Here's how I look at it – the more damage you do to a muscle in a given workout, the longer it'll need to recover.
It's much like tanning in the sun – if you get quite pink after lying out, then you'll need to stay out of the sun for a while to allow your skin to rebuild and repair.
On the other hand, if you only laid out for a few minutes in the afternoon and didn't get pink, then you could very well lie out again the following day, with no fear of over-stressing your skin or your body's recuperative abilities.
Trial and Error
For the better part of two decades I've kept detailed training logs. I began doing so simply to figure out definitively, what worked for me and what didn't.
One of the variables I've tinkered with often is training frequency. I wanted to find the balance between training frequency and recuperation that allowed for maximum adaptation, a.k.a. results.
To best summarize what I found, I can train each body part as often as once every five days and make progress, but that progress seems to stop after a couple months or so. But by training each body part once every seven days, I can make progress almost indefinitely.
One thing we tend to forget is that although recovery takes just a few days, it takes a significant amount of time to see a de-training effect. So at roughly day 5 a muscle has adapted and super-compensated from its last training session, but that doesn't mean that it starts atrophying the next day. It takes a while for this to occur, certainly longer than I initially thought.
And that's precisely what makes seven days the sweet spot – it's just about always enough time for recovery, yet not long enough to allow for atrophy.
Although I regularly and often revisit the idea of training each body part about every fifth day, it inevitably seems to backfire, resulting in inadequate recovery. On the other hand, weekly body part training seems to be practically foolproof.
After seeing this pan out time and time again, I've finally accepted that I should simply build my programs based off a weekly body part training frequency, and it works like a charm!
Note: The fact that once/weekly body part training is optimal is based upon implementing the remainder of these training principles. You may train quite differently than this and that's fine. If that's the case, these principles will still apply; you'll simply finely tune them to suit your situation.
Just keep in mind, it's better to undertrain a bit than to overtrain at all!
Possible exceptions to this rule include calves, abs, and back.
For whatever reason, calves and abs recuperate quicker than other body parts. Given that's the case, it's safe to say that you can – and ideally should – train both calves and abs about twice per week.
The neat thing is, however, if you want to keep things simple and still hit them once per week, you should still see progress – just not quite as quickly as with the twice-weekly approach.
As for back being an exception, I doubt this is because the back recuperates quicker, but because the back can tolerate a higher overall volume of work.
My explanation for this is because "back" is really a collection of muscle groups, across which the training stimulus is spread. As I've said before, saying we're training "back" is as silly as saying we're training "front."
To that end, given how most traditionally approach back training, it could be considered standard to train back twice per week – divide back into upper (i.e., traps, rhomboids) and lower (i.e., lats, erectors) sections to minimize stimulus overlap.
The other possible exception is bringing up lagging body parts. Training a body part multiple times per week can be a good strategy for bringing up a lagging area. Use caution, however, as this can backfire rather quickly.
When in doubt, keep it simple and don't over-think things. Hit each body part once a week and you'll make good, steady progress. It's practically a no-brainer.
2. Do 3-4 Exercises per Body Part
As discussed, it's critical to find a balance between training volume, training intensity, and training frequency. This principle, along with the next, helps to control the volume component of the recuperation equation.
While there are certainly valid times to only do one or two exercises per body part – and there are occasionally times to do five or more – you can't go wrong applying the KISS principle (as in Keep It Super Simple) to the number of exercises per body part by simply doing 3-4 of them.
Doing 3-4 exercises allows enough variety each workout to ensure that the given muscle is stimulated in a variety of different ways, both with different exercises and with different rep schemes and rest intervals.
I'd definitely recommend leaning toward 3 exercises each for biceps and triceps, yet err toward 4 exercises for back, especially if you're training it in one training session.
It's worth noting that "legs" is not a muscle group, it's a group of muscles. The quads are a muscle group, as are hams and calves. So don't cheat yourself by doing just 3-4 exercises for your entire lower body or you'll end up looking like a big, muscular dude riding an ostrich.
To look like a competitive bodybuilder, you'll generally need to do 3-4 exercises for quads, and about 3 each for hams and calves. It may seem like a lot, especially about the halfway mark of a great "leg day" training session, but that's the kind of work you should expect to do on a regular basis to climb up the competitive bodybuilding ranks.
3. Do 3 Work Sets per Exercise
Many people quantify the volume of their training session by the total number of sets. This doesn't make much sense to me, and here's why.
Let's revisit our sun tanning analogy. Say we aim to quantify the "volume" of a tanning session. An obvious way to do this, and arguably the simplest, is to go by the total number of minutes spent outside.
The problem with this quantification is that time spent in the shade really shouldn't count – the imposed stress to the skin when in the shade is minimal. And so is time spent in the sun early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the intensity of the UV rays is much lower than the more intense mid-day rays.
Follow me? If so, then we'd probably agree that it'd be best to quantify the volume of sun exposure by only noting the number of minutes spent in the direct sun between 9 AM and 3 PM, assuming the sun is brightest and most intense around noon.
Sure, we could dial this in even more, but this is a good balance between simple and accurate; far more accurate than just going by total minutes spent outside.
The same goes for tracking training volume. Let's not count warm-up sets as part of our training volume, as they don't significantly tax our recuperative abilities. Instead, let's only count "work sets."
For the record, I define a work set as a set taken very close to the point where you can't do another rep on your own with good form. Essentially, this means taking the set to concentric failure, or within 1-2 reps of concentric failure.
Any set less intense than that is a preparatory set, one preparing you for upcoming work sets.
4. Do a Power and/or Strength Move for Each Body Part
Since we're talking bodybuilding training, I'm going to refer to training "body parts" as opposed to training "movement patterns." But know that the terms are typically interchangeable.
The goal of a bodybuilding training program is to enhance your physique, not necessarily to be stronger or more powerful. However, training for power and strength should be a cornerstone of your bodybuilding training.
When you train for power, which is essentially being able to do more work in less time, your muscles develop an improved ability to recruit or activate more muscle fibers at one time (a.k.a. neuromuscular efficiency).
Of course this makes you more powerful, but it also does something unique that's of greater interest to us bodybuilders.
The improved neuromuscular efficiency makes it such that when you do a given exercise, you'll recruit more muscle fibers. This equates to more hypertrophy, because only muscle fibers that are stimulated and taxed are going to adapt (by growing larger).
It's feasible to increase the percentage of muscle fibers recruited by 10% over a reasonable period of time, and you can imagine the huge benefit that would be!
Therefore, implementing 3 sets of 5 reps (3 x 5) on barbell push-press into your routine, for example, will make the 3 x 8-12 reps of dumbbell shoulder presses more effective.
Note: Sets done with the intent to increase power are an exception to the previous rule regarding work sets. Power training sets are not taken to failure. To be considered a work set when power training, the set should be taken to the point where maximum repetition speed is significantly reduced.
As opposed to power, which is about moving quickly, strength is about moving as much weight as possible, regardless of speed. Strength training has benefits similar to power training, which include the recruitment of more muscle fibers. The effects are also similar, thus making other exercises more effective.
But let's not forget that strength training itself promotes hypertrophy, in particular, the enlargement of muscle fibers via building new actin and myosin filaments.
Although the overall hypertrophy effect with heavy, low-rep (~1-5 reps) sets may not be as great as that achieved by sets with a longer Time Under Tension (TUT), the hypertrophy achieved from strength-training results in a visually dense-looking muscle.
Even if you couldn't care less about athletic performance, doing one strength or power movement per body part will do wonders for the appearance of your physique.
5. Do a Strength/Hypertrophy Exercise for Each Body Part
When I say strength/hypertrophy exercise, I'm talking about an exercise and set/rep scheme that has a hybrid goal in mind – an increase in strength as well as hypertrophy.
As discussed, doing low-rep sets (~ 1-5 reps) is great to increase strength, and if done with less resistance and a faster speed, low-rep sets are great for increasing power.
The problem is, low-rep sets don't maximally stimulate hypertrophy. That's best achieved with a prolonged Time Under Tension (TUT) to induce a bit more metabolic stress to the muscle.
Thus, when the goal of a set is to stimulate some improvement in both strength and hypertrophy, it's best to use sets of about 8-10 reps. This allows you to still use a relatively heavy weight to address the strength half of the hybrid goal, yet light enough so that you can bang out enough reps to increase the TUT.
For the record, sets as low as 6 and up to 12 reps arguably fit the bill too, but keep in mind that if you end up doing most sets down around 6 reps you'll likely compromise hypertrophy. On the other hand, too much time up around the 12-rep range will compromise the strength component.
No doubt about it, you'll benefit tremendously from spending ample time training in this 8-10 repetition range! I'd venture to say that it's the most crucial in terms of gaining a combination of size, strength, and even endurance.
Fact is, I've seen many pro body builders train almost exclusively in this rep range! Although we should certainly not blindly copy what pros do (as many of them have great physiques not because of how they train, but in spite of how they train), it illustrates how elegantly simple effective training can be. It need not be complicated.
Variety in training is critical, but if you ever had to choose one best repetition range in which to train, opt for the 8-10 range.
In closing for now
Begin to think about how these 5 principles apply to your own training.
Then in part 2, we'll come back and cover the last six Bodybuilding Training Principles, including what I feel is far and away the single most important principle – one that applies to everyone, regardless of your training style or goals.
See ya then!
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Clay Hyght, DC, CSCS, CISSN has been a competitive bodybuilder for 17 years, and an NPC judge for many of those. Residing in Danville, CA, Dr. Clay works with some of the top competitors in bodybuilding and Figure. Visit DrClay.com for more info.