One morning, while reflecting on my 21 years of bodybuilding, I thought, "If I could go back in time and teach myself what I now know about bodybuilding training, I'd get to where I am now in a fraction of the time!"
How's that for starting your day on an utterly depressing note?
Tears aside, I don't want you to have to wait so long to become a savvier trainee. That's why I'm sharing with you the nine most important things that I wish I could teach my 16 year-old self – so you can learn from my experience.
1 – Train in ALL Rep Ranges
Everyone develops a preference to train in a certain repetition range. Maybe you like the strength and density that comes with heavy, low-rep training? Or perhaps you prefer the pump and muscle fullness that higher-rep training brings? Either way, realize that each repetition range has benefits, especially in terms of muscle growth.
To get larger muscles, train holistically. A good rule-of-thumb is to spend about 1/3 of your training time in the 2-6 rep range, 1/3 in the 7-12 rep range, and the other 1/3 with sets of 13 reps or more.
This will ensure that you're growing in just about every way a muscle can grow, including myofibrillar hypertrophy, which comes from using heavy weight for low reps, AND sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which comes from doing higher reps with a more moderate weight.
2 – Don't Train to Failure All the Time
You've been told all your life that hard work pays off. While that's mostly true, here's my training mantra: It's better to train SMART than to train hard.
Training to failure can certainly be beneficial, but it's also very taxing to the body, especially the nervous system. More specifically, training to failure is beneficial in terms of muscular endurance and even size, but is less beneficial in regard to strength gains.
Therefore, when doing sets of 2-6, stop a rep or two short of failure. But on sets of 7 or more (where the goal is to metabolically tax the muscle), go to failure on the last set or two.
In short, training to failure is a concentrated stimulus that places a lot of stress on the body in a short period of time. It's a beneficial, but unforgiving technique.
3 – Keep Squats in Your Training Routine
Even though you're not a powerlifter, you should do squats pretty much year 'round. The benefits are just too numerous to do otherwise.
Squats have a very high level of strength transference. Generally, if you can squat a lot, you can leg press a lot; but just because you can leg press a lot doesn't necessarily mean you can squat a lot. Due to the specificity of strength regarding squats, you have to do them to be good at them.
Among other reasons, squats should be a part of your leg training on an ongoing basis because they work muscles that may not otherwise receive enough attention.
You've probably been told that, since squats are a compound movement, you should always do them first in your routine, and with a heavy weight/low-rep scheme. While that's certainly true if you're a powerlifter, they don't always need to be first or done heavy for bodybuilding purposes.
You can put squats last in your leg routine and use a lighter weight, yet still reap major benefits!
Whether they're traditional back squats, front squats, or safety-bar squats, keep squats in your routine – you'll benefit both cosmetically and functionally.
4 – Keep Great Records
A chef keeps recipes so they can reproduce something that worked well before. As a bodybuilder, you should do the same thing.
Whether it's something you read or just something you came up with on your own, over the course of your training career you'll come across things that work very well for you; and at some point, you'll likely want to go back and try them again. But you can only do that if you know exactly what it was you did!
Keep track of each and every set and rep you do. This may seem a bit tedious at first, but it literally takes 3-5 seconds to jot it down after each set. Besides, your training log will prove to be worth its weight in gold!
You should also make brief (or detailed if you prefer) notes about other things, such as exercise variations or tweaks you like, injuries you have, or pains you're feeling, etc.
A good rule of thumb is, "Until you have no room for improvement, keep a detailed training log." It will show you, without a shadow of a doubt, what works for you and what doesn't.
5 – At the First Sign of Tendonitis, Take Care of It!
The same goes for any injury. But tendonitis in particular can be a bitch to deal with!
Tendons are essentially specialized "ends" of muscles that attach the muscle firmly to its boney attachment. Therefore, every time you lift weights, you're inevitably stressing the tendons as well as the muscles themselves.
If you were to strain a muscle, I'm sure you wouldn't keep stressing it with hard training – so why do we bodybuilders tend to keep putting major stress on a tendon that's inflamed?
Once inflammation sets in a tendon, it tends to spread like wildfire and will rarely go away on it's own – almost never if you continue to stress it. But if you address tendonitis early, it can be dealt with fairly quickly.
Some of the most common types of tendonitis bodybuilders get include:
- Biceps tendonitis – felt in the anterior deltoid region
- Medial epicondylitis – a.k.a. golfers' elbow, felt on the inside of the elbow
- Lateral epicondylitis – a.k.a. tennis elbow, felt on the outside of the elbow
- Triceps tendonitis – felt at distal triceps (just above the elbow on back of arm)
- Patellar tendonitis – felt at, or just above, the tibial tuberosity (just below kneecap)
The Ben Franklin quote "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies PERFECTLY to tendonitis – remember that ! Instead of trying to be macho (aka stupid) and 'working through the pain,' use a combination of ice, rest, etc., to take care of tendonitis at the very first sign of it.
6 – Get and Maintain a Strength Base
Training for appearance can make it a bit confusing as to what sort of tangible training goals you should have. Since you don't necessarily have to be strong or have great endurance, you're left with nothing but the scale and the mirror to monitor your progress.
Even though strength isn't your end goal per se, being strong in certain key indicator lifts (or movement patterns) will make your size gains come much easier.
Here's what I consider to be a typical bodybuilder's key indicator lifts:
- Horizontal Pressing (i.e. bench press)
- Rowing (i.e. rows)
- Vertical Pressing (i.e. shoulder press)
- Vertical Pulling (i.e. pull-ups)
- Hip Extension (i.e. squats, deadlifts *)
* Although deadlifts and squats are listed as options to develop hip extension strength, they're different enough in terms of muscle recruitment that it would certainly be beneficial to be strong in both the 'squatting' and 'lifting' movement patterns.
As your physique advances, you may also want to make sure you have ample strength in the following ancillary movement patterns as well:
- Elbow flexion (i.e. Biceps curls)
- Elbow extension (i.e. skull crushers, cable pushdowns)
- Knee flexion (i.e. leg curls)
Further, you may want to divide your rowing strength (a.k.a. horizontal pulling) into upper back rowing (shoulders abducted 60-90°) and lat rowing (shoulders abducted 0-30°).
Why so complicated? To use a familiar analogy, it's hard to build a house on sand. Likewise, it's hard to build a big, badass physique on a body that doesn't have good strength in all the basic movement patterns.
Do yourself a favor and get a solid foundation of strength. If your strength on any major movement pattern ever dips too low, train to redevelop that strength base.
In short, trying to get big when you're weak is like trying to drive fast with the emergency break on.
7 – Use a Variety of Techniques & Programs
There are literally hundreds of different training approaches at your disposal, but as soon as you've tried just two types of training, you'll have already developed a preference for one. Granted, that's human nature, but it may also hold you back.
Sticking with one type of training too long will slow or even halt your progress. Instead, you have to consistently provide your body with new and unique stimuli on a fairly regular basis. This is the only way to ensure that all components of the muscles are stimulated, and therefore forced to adapt.
The most obvious way to change stimuli is to change rep ranges, which we've covered in point #1. A less obvious type of training change-up that will benefit bodybuilders is power training.
Power is defined as work done per unit of time, but in a bodybuilding-friendly context, I'd say power is 'the ability to move a resistance quickly.'
Plyometrics are a perfect example of power. Olympic lifts like power cleans are also a great example of a power exercise; moreover an example of a lift we bodybuilders could really benefit from.
If you were to take 4-6 weeks to focus on power or speed/strength training, you'd develop better fast-twitch motor unit recruitment. This improved recruitment will enable you to tax your fast-twitch fibers more readily, thereby resulting in more overall growth.
But for variety, I'm not just talking about power training – even something as different as yoga would benefit your physique. I'm certainly not saying to replace weightlifting with yoga four or five times a week, but doing some yoga fairly regularly will do wonders for improving your range-of-motion and keeping you more 'balanced.'
Your body is a complex and dynamic organism – don't give it the same stimulus over and over at the expense or other stimuli. Instead, implement things like powerlifting, Olympic lifting, yoga, sprinting, etc., to support your bodybuilding efforts.
8 – Don't Have Training ADD
The main reason people don't get results from a program is simply because they don't give it a chance to work. In other words, they have Training ADD, and can't focus on one program long enough for it to produce results.
It's natural after a couple weeks on a new training program that you may find that you want to switch to another one. This may be because you feel the new program is boring, doesn't give you a great pump, is too hard, too easy, or because you read about a great new program on Testosterone.
Don't do this. While it may be "normal" to get bored with a program, it's not normal to give in to these feelings of boredom every week or two; nor is it ideal, either.
Just like it would take you longer to learn Spanish if you were studying Spanish, French, and German all at the same time, it will take you longer to get results from a training program if you're trying to rotate between it and two other training programs.
I did say in point #7 to use a variety of techniques, but that does NOT mean to use one program one week, then another program the next week.
Here's the key – use a variety of programs and techniques, but once you decide to implement one, you should stick with it for at least four weeks, with about eight weeks being the norm. This will give that program time to 'do its thing' and elicit the changes in your body that it's going to.
It's better to stick to a decent training program and milk it for all it's worth than to have training ADD and bounce around between great training programs.
9 – Have Fun Training
At first glance this tip may seem silly, but it's actually the most important tip on this page!
If training isn't at least somewhat fun for you, you'll either find excuses not to do it or you'll give your workouts a half-assed effort.
And that will get you absolutely nowhere. Having fun training could run contradictory to many of the tips above; it's up to you to decide which rule trumps the other.
For example, let's say you're going to do a power-lifting program for 6 weeks to bring up your maximal strength. But after 3 weeks you find that you dread training, because you're really finding low-rep training boring and miss getting killer "skin-shredding, mind-blowing, loin-popping pumpz" from higher reps and more volume.
If you dread training to the point of wanting to skip workouts, then it's probably time to change things up – regardless of how long you were supposed to stay on the program. Just be honest with yourself, your feelings about training, and your goals.
It's fine to like some types of training and to hate others. Just be mature enough to stand accountable for your decisions. If you say that you want more than anything to get bigger, but hate doing the type of training it takes to get there, then you've got a problem.
The reality is – you're probably not going to be a professional bodybuilder. And if bodybuilding is not going to pay your bills, then you are really doing it for fun. So make sure it is fun. And remember...
The BEST training program is the one you'll actually DO!