Here's what you need to know...
- If hypertrophy is your main goal, spend time in all rep ranges. It's not all "go heavy or go home."
- To optimally build muscle, you also need some Olympic lifting and powerlifting.
- You're probably not training hard enough. (Yes, you.)
- Twice a year, get your physique professionally evaluated.
- You cannot wing it. Have a plan, keep a training log, and focus on consistency.
- Many bodybuilders look good not because of what they do, but in spite of what they do.
- Don't blindly follow the advice of someone just because they look great. Instead, seek out a good coach.
1. Big lifters use a variety of rep ranges.
Training for size and training for pure strength are different. Sure, there's some correlation between size and strength, but just because someone is big doesn't mean they're all that strong... and vice versa.
The reason for this is largely due to just how different hypertrophy-oriented training and strength training actually are. Getting stronger requires creating maximum tension in the muscle, and you accomplish this via heavy weight and moving that heavy weight as forcefully as possible. This leads to more myofilaments being laid down and improvements in your nervous system, both of which help you become stronger.
On the other hand, training for hypertrophy requires a much more varied approach. In addition to doing some heavy sets using your 1-5RM, you'll also have to spend ample time inducing metabolic fatigue via higher-rep sets. This includes the 6-10, 10-15, and 15-20 rep ranges.
So the realistic question becomes, where do you spend your training time? If building muscle is your main goal, you're going to have to spend time in all rep ranges.
It's not just rep ranges, either. Even the execution is different. With bodybuilding training you need to focus more on feeling the muscle, whereas with strength training more of your focus is on simply moving the weight.
Rest intervals are also different. Strength training requires longer rest intervals while hypertrophy training calls for shorter ones. Again, you're forced to decide if your goal is hypertrophy or strength, and then train accordingly.
2. Big guys use the powerlifts and even some Olympic-style lifts.
If I were starting over again in bodybuilding, one thing I'd certainly do different would be to implement some Olympic-style lifting as well as some powerlifting.
Now, the only two Olympic lifts these days are the snatch and the clean and jerk, but for bodybuilding purposes you should do the now-retired clean and press over the clean and jerk.
When it comes to powerlifting, we're talking about the bench press, squat, and deadlift. Despite the popularity of the bench press, you should focus more on the latter two.
Now let's get specific.
Not many bodybuilders have great backs. That's just a reality. Even if someone has big lats, they tend to be thick in the upper back between the scapulae.
However, by implementing the snatch, you'd not only beef up your upper back, but also the external rotators of the shoulder. The same goes with the clean portion of the clean and jerk, a.k.a. power cleans. They're excellent for building a thick, powerful upper back, traps, rear delts, etc.
If you'd like to hit these upper-back areas as well as work on your shoulders, try the clean and press. It's not as easy as sitting on your butt and pressing the barbell overhead, but it's sure as heck more functional and offers more bang for your training buck. That doesn't mean you shouldn't ever do seated barbell or dumbbell overhead presses. Instead, swap them for the clean and press fairly regularly.
For the record, do these Olympic lifts near the beginning (or first) in your workout, which is where explosive power movements belong.
As for the big three of powerlifting, surely you already do the bench press and squat, but instead of doing them in a higher-rep bodybuilding manner, occasionally do them like a powerlifter would – heavy weight, low reps, and long rest periods. The same goes for deadlifts, which sadly aren't as popular in bodybuilding circles as they should be.
3. They have their physiques honestly evaluated.
You are the worst judge of your physique. When judging ourselves we tend to be overly critical or overly praiseworthy. Either way, if you want to build a really high-quality physique, you need to elicit outside help.
Oftentimes, someone who has experience judging physique competitions will be well suited to assess your physique. Or have an old-school bodybuilder who's been around the block take a look. And don't discount people outside the world of competitive bodybuilding who just so happen to have a really good eye.
Until you have one trusted person to go to, have a few willing people take a look at your physique. You'll likely spot trends in what they say. If so, they're probably on to something, whether you like it or not. As a last resort, take pictures of yourself and evaluate them (as best you can), pretending it's someone else's physique. Perhaps cropping your head out of the photo will help.
Evaluate your physique at least a couple times per year. That's the only way you can construct a personalized training program to help take your physique to the next level.
4. They use a variety of set, rep, and rest schemes.
It's true that if you had to train in one rep range for hypertrophy, it'd be 8-12 reps per set. Three sets per exercise with 60-90 seconds rest between sets are also no-nonsense rules of thumb. However, you really shouldn't spend any more than half of your training time implementing these "ideal" variables.
Time and time again the best results come from spending more time using a variety of set, rep, and rest protocols. For example, try doing 10 x 3 with 2 minutes rest between each of those 10 sets. Doing this for 6-8 weeks will do wonders for your strength and it does a great job of building dense muscle. Then when you return to training in that coveted 8-12 range, you'll be able to use more weight, which has obvious benefits that'll ultimately lead to larger muscles.
On the flip side, implement periods of lighter sets with shorter rest intervals. For example, try 5 x 15-20 with just 20-30 seconds rest. This will create a lot of metabolic stress that does wonders for making muscles fuller and "rounder" looking.
There are different ways to implement training variety. You can use variety within one workout for a particular body part, or you can implement training cycles of roughly four to eight weeks where you emphasize heavy, light, or moderate resistance training with corresponding rest intervals.
5. They train harder than you! (Probably.)
It's mind blowing how many people complain about how they can't seem to make progress despite doing everything just right... or so they think. Of course, when you actually watch them train, you see they're not training anywhere near hard enough!
You're probably thinking that this doesn't apply to you and that it refers to other people, but chances are you don't train hard enough, either. It's just the statistical truth.
The fact is, training hard is... well, it's really hard! It takes tremendous focus and even more effort to keep pushing when every part of your body and brain is telling you to stop. But if you're able to push through and block out the pain, you'll find that you can stimulate progress like never before.
To be clear, we're not talking about training hard on every single set, week in and week out. That'd lead to overtraining in no time. Rather, we're talking about the intelligent application of training all-out.
Once you've determined that a particular set needs to be taken to concentric failure, then do that set like your life depends on it, squeezing out every single rep humanly possible! Doing so is analogous to telling your muscles to grow versus politely asking them to.
And it's not just about doing more reps; it's putting all your "oomph" into the concentric portion of each and every rep. This will ensure maximal stimulation of the muscle by maximizing the number of working muscle fibers.
To do this, you'll need to begin to mentally prepare for an upcoming workout 30-60 minutes ahead of time. Use your drive to the gym as part of this prep time, jamming your favorite get-fired-up music on the way. Once you're at the gym, maintain that focus. Don't text your girlfriend, update your Facebook status, or check to see who's posted what on Instagram. Stay focused on your upcoming set.
It'll be tremendously difficult at first, but it'll get somewhat less difficult over time. But don't expect it to ever be easy. If training hard were easy, lots of people would have badass physiques.
6. Big lifters know when to take a rest.
Not resting enough is often the single biggest mistake people make in bodybuilding. It stems from the desire to always outwork the competition and the erroneous thought process that more is better.
But here's the deal: training week-in week-out takes its toll, particularly on the central nervous system. This is especially the case if you take most of your sets to failure.
We tend to think we've "recovered" when our muscles are no longer sore. Not only is this a bad indicator of the myofibrils actually being repaired, but it also fails to take into account recovery of the CNS. So, to help ensure full and complete recovery over time, you should employ two types of rest: 1) rest from hard training, and 2) complete rest from training altogether.
Regarding rest from intense training, divide your training into eight-week blocks. During those eight weeks, train all-out for five of them. During the other three weeks, don't take your work sets to failure but instead leave two or three reps in the hole.
As for complete rest from training, either take a half-week off every eight weeks, or take a full week off every 16 weeks. This may seem like a lot of time off, but if you're legitimately training hard, then you'll benefit from it.
7. They have a plan.
"If you fail to plan, then you're planning to fail." Good quote, and it definitely applies to bodybuilding success.
Lifters that "wing it" tend to be lifters that are on a never-ending plateau. Guys that make ongoing, steady progress have a plan, both for training and nutrition. Whether your goal is to gain muscle, lose fat, or a combination thereof, I simply cannot overstate the importance of a plan.
It seems that training plans of six to eight weeks and nutrition plans of two weeks in duration tend to be optimal, but you can arguably adjust the duration a bit one way or the other and still succeed.
Whatever you do, don't just vacillate from meal to meal, workout to workout. And don't try to justify it by calling it "instinctive training" or eating. By doing so you'll be at the whim of your current mood, energy status, etc., and that's simply not optimal.
8. They keep a training log.
When it comes to training, your logbook is an extension of your current training program. Without it, you're going to have to wing it in regard to a large portion of your workout.
A training program will tell you what exercises to do, how many sets to do, and what rep range you should be in. But it's your training log that will tell you exactly how much weight you used and how many reps you performed the last time you did that workout or exercise. Only by having that info can you select the right weight and know exactly how many reps to shoot for in your current workout.
Let's say your training program calls for 4 sets of 8-10 barbell squats. You refer to your logbook and see that (not counting warm-ups) you did 275 x 11, 285 x 10, 295 x 8, and 295 x 7 on those four sets.
You then know to shoot for something more like 285 x 10, 290 x 9, 295 x 8, and 295 x 8 this time around. You've finely tuned your weight selection to put you back in the 8-10 range on that first set, and you improved one rep on that last set of 295 by doing 8 instead of 7.
You simply can't train with that level of precision if you don't keep a training log. And you don't have the benefit of seeing where you potentially and realistically could squeeze out another rep without it.
9. They take care of their bodies.
Some lifters don't do a very good job of taking care of their bodies. They think that all is well as long as they look good, a classic example of naiveté. These are also the types of lifters who have very few "glory years."
For starters, pay attention to aches and pains. For some reason it's considered tough to train through injuries, but tough doesn't mean smart. Pain is your body's way of telling you something's wrong.
Let's say you're doing barbell curls and you feel pain on the inside of your elbow. Guess what? It's likely the onset of medial epicondylitis (golfer's elbow). If treated early, it's a pretty simple fix. When it's ignored for weeks, or even worse, months, it's going to be a lot harder to fix and it's going to be a lot longer until you're pain-free again.
For the record, by stretching your wrist flexors you can quite likely avoid getting golfer's elbow to begin with. Now that we're on the topic of stretching, it's something that you should be doing daily. Just consider stretching part of training – because it is!
The same goes for foam rolling, and if you can afford to get soft tissue work done regularly, do that, too!
Lastly, if you're over 35 or use performance-enhancing drugs, get your blood work – and probably urinalysis – done fairly regularly. Much like soft-tissue injuries, if you find something wrong, it'll be far easier to correct sooner rather than later.
Even if you couldn't care less about being healthy and only care about getting jacked, you still need to take care of your body. Otherwise you'll eventually end up having an injury or illness that'll force you to take time off from training and you're definitely not going to make progress then.
10. They keep it all in perspective.
There's more to life than just lifting weights and eating.
Undoubtedly, bodybuilding (competitive and recreational) teaches discipline, patience, goal setting and achievement, and good ol' mental toughness, among other things. Every single person would benefit from at least having a season of life where they trained hard and ate really well in an effort to take their body to the next level.
But make sure bodybuilding enhances your quality of life instead of detracting from it. For example, do you avoid doing social activities with friends or family because you might miss a meal or only get seven hours of sleep instead of eight? Heaven forbid someone invite you on a weeklong vacation or road trip. That'd require you to miss quite a few meals and workouts!
But here's the thing, fast forward a few month or years and it'll be that vacation you'll be reminiscing and talking about, not another week of training and eating six meals per day.
There's a time to forgo certain activities, no doubt, but unless you're within 12 weeks from a really important competition, then you can probably skimp a tad on your training and eating to do fun things with family or friends.
Keep your muscle building goals in perspective, especially if you don't make a living with your physique. After all, you don't want to end up with a great physique and a nonexistent social and/or family life.
11. They don't blindly follow the advice of bigger bodybuilders.
My current training partner is a really good competitive bodybuilder who's a few weeks away from a contest. In other words, he looks great! I, on the other hand, have recently resumed training hard after a long layoff. In other words, I look mortal.
So when people come up to ask a training or nutrition question, whom do you think they ask? Him, of course. He'll quickly and humbly point out that I'm actually the one to answer the question because I'm his coach.
It's natural to want to get advice from someone who looks how we want to look. However, there's a big difference in being a good athlete and a good coach. For example, you'd be better off taking tennis lessons from Venus Williams' coach than from Venus herself.
The reality is many bodybuilders look good not because of what they do, but in spite of what they do.
Before I'd ever coached a pro bodybuilder, I assumed they were virtual encyclopedias for training and nutrition information. Some are, but the reality is, most are not. In fact, you'll hear some of the most absurd things come out of the mouths of high level bodybuilders and figure competitors, especially regarding nutrition.
The point is, don't just blindly follow the advice of someone because they look great. They may look great because of genetics, drugs, or some combination thereof. Instead, seek out a good coach or strive to become one yourself.
12. Successful lifters are consistent.
Even if you have the best genetics you're still not going to get anywhere in bodybuilding without consistency. At the same time, even with subpar genetics, you can build an impressive physique if you're willing to be consistent over a long enough period of time.
To be clear, I'm talking consistency with both your training and your nutrition, not one or the other. The two go together like a car's engine and transmission – one without the other doesn't work.
Too many people train hard and eat right for a few weeks, or perhaps even months, but then get discouraged and stop. Then at some point they'll get back on the wagon and go at it again for a period of time, only to soon stop again.
Building muscle ain't stamp collecting! After quitting you don't pick up where you left off. Instead, you start over. That's why consistency is critical.
To really maximize your physique, you need to eat 5 or 6 meals per day and train 4 or 5 days per week for years on end. Sorry to burst your bubble if you expected something easier. If you want an easier hobby, try the aforementioned stamp collecting, restoring old cars, or something that doesn't require the insane amount of consistent discipline that building muscle does.