Back in 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow proposed a sweeping theory on human motivation. It's now known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In a nutshell, it says that in order for you to fulfill your potential, you must meet a series of needs. The needs start off very basic (hunger, thirst, shelter) and progress to higher needs such as love, esteem, knowledge and order. If your lower needs aren't met, then you'll probably have trouble with the higher needs and therefore never reach your full potential.
It's an interesting idea and it's had a profound effect on the field of human behavior. I think it's time bodybuilding has its own hierarchy of needs. After all, people who aren't meeting their full physical potential are usually missing some very basic steps along the way. They're like an architect who spends all his time fretting about window placement and column design but forgets about the really important part – the foundation. His building, like your body, may fall down, if it's ever built to begin with.
In the last few years I've spent countless hours helping people design workout programs, fine tune their diets, and choose supplements. In most cases, whether the person was a newbie or an experienced lifter who'd just hit a wall, it was pretty easy to spot what was holding him back. Usually, he'd gotten a few of his "needs" mixed up along the way. Once we got them back in order, his progress took off.
The Bodybuilder's Hierarchy of Needs
There are four basic tiers in our hierarchy. Each is debatable to an extent, but I think the basic premise holds true. Here's what it looks like:
Supplements – This being the top of the pyramid.
Diet – This being the foundation of the pyramid.
Let's break it down.
Tier #1 – The Foundation: Diet
Sure, this seems like a basic concept, but out in the real world few people take this step seriously. Think about it. How many people do you know who say they "can't" gain any muscle? How many people do you know that just "can't" lose fat? The next time they say that, ask them how many calories they consume per day. Ask them about macronutrient ratios (protein, carbs, and fats). I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts they haven't a clue.
These misguided souls usually ignore their diets and focus instead on training. For me this is forever epitomized by a woman who trained the same time I did at my old gym. When I arrived she'd be pounding away on the treadmill, soaked in sweat. She never stopped during my hour long workout. Now, this lady was still pretty pudgy despite all the cardio. I wondered how she could spend over an hour on the treadmill every day, yet still be chunky.
I found out one day when we left the gym at the same time. It turns out that every day, after she finished her marathon cardio session, she would go up to the snack counter and buy a 20-ounce Coke. Nope, not Diet Coke either! (The fact that the gym even had a candy and soft drink section is one of the reasons I don't belong to it anymore.) Let's do the math since chubby cheeks obviously wasn't doing it for herself.
A 20-ounce soft drink has 200 metabolically worthless calories. A half hour of jogging burns roughly 100 calories. She runs on the treadmill for at least an hour a day. That's 200 calories burned, followed immediately by consuming 200 useless calories from her Coke. I don't know about you, but I wanted to adopt a Jersey accent, smack her up beside the head, and say, "Wassa matta wit you, ya moron!"
Men who want to gain muscle aren't much better. They'll train their asses off but won't give their bodies enough fuel to build muscle. When nothing is happening, they figure their Bulgarian super-set pre-exhaust program sucks and they better switch to that East German descending set convergent wave program. In reality, the specifics of the training program aren't the problem. Their problem is they eat like ten year old girls and expect to look like T-men.
It's for the above reasons I put diet before training in the hierarchy. Now, obviously, you aren't going to build muscle through diet alone. Eating big without training big will get you huge all right, but not the kind of huge that makes the ladies swoon. Still, your training program is worthless without a diet that supports it.
You can lose fat with diet alone, but I think we can all agree that dieting without weight training leaves you puny and weak looking. Being puny isn't much better than being fat. Besides, the lack of muscle will leave you with that "skinny fat" look and your metabolism will be shot to hell after your diet.
The solution to all of this is to start keeping a food log and keep up with your daily calories as well as grams of protein, fat, and carbs.
Summary: Don't kick your own butt by putting training before diet. Your foundation is built by the food you eat.
Tier #2 – Training
Ah, now we get to training! When you think of bodybuilding, you no doubt think of pushing the iron. But truthfully, most people train hard enough to reach their goals. I mean, as long as you're hitting the free weights, changing your program up occasionally, using good compound movements, and watching your tempo, then you've pretty much got the basics covered. That's why training isn't number one on the list. Sure, you've gotta do it, but it doesn't have to be complicated.
When on a fat loss diet, you don't want to adopt a training program that focuses on strength. The two just don't go good together. That said, I think people worry too much about the exact type of training they do if their prime motivation is to lose fat. If their diets are adjusted correctly, then the type of training you do isn't that important. For example, I once went on a "bulking" diet while using the Great Guns arm specialization program. I decided to cut up a bit during the last three weeks of the program. I didn't change a thing about how I trained, just how I ate, and easily dropped six pounds.
The point is, while training is important, you shouldn't try to use it alone to reach your goals. If you do, then you'll end up frustrated and disappointed in your progress. Hard training is just part of the good body equation.
The fallacy of putting training first on your list of priorities can also lead to injury and overtraining. You may remember picking up a copy of Arnold's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and trying to follow the Oak's routines. If you're like me, you quickly realized that two-hour long, 40-set workouts full of drop sets and forced reps only work for genetic mutants with a little "vitamin S" running through their bodies. The rest of us end up making poor progress and suffer from constant nagging injuries. More is not always better.
When confronted with a new training philosophy, always ask yourself, "Is what I'm doing right now getting me the body I want?" If not, then why not try something new, even if you don't agree with the concept. You're in this for life, right? So what's the big deal about taking six weeks to try a new program?
For example, it's been very difficult for me not to train to failure all the time. I used to hit failure every set of every workout. I didn't want to accept what guys like Ian King and Tim Patterson were saying about not training to failure all the time. But since I wasn't all that pleased with my progress, I decided to give it a shot. And you know what? It works. Without going to failure, you still get sore and you still grow, plus you recover faster and avoid most injuries. Whoda' thunk?
I'll still use failure occasionally, but I'm glad I set aside my preconceived ideas for a while and tried something new. Maybe you should, too.
Summary: Training is vital, but training by itself isn't going to get you to where you want to be.
Tier #3 – Lifestyle
This tier is perhaps the most debatable of the bunch, and rightly so. But before we get into that, let's talk about what I mean by "lifestyle."
Lifestyle incorporates a variety of factors such as sleep, stress levels, alcohol and drug use, environment, and normal activity levels. The placement of lifestyle in this hierarchy is tricky because much depends on how fast and loose you play with these factors. A beer or two on the weekend probably isn't going to affect your progress much, but if you get tossed off your ass three times a week, then you're not going to do well in the gym. (Hear that you college guys who are majoring in intoxication? You can get away with it for a while, but it will come back and bite you in the ass.)
The situation is the same with sleep. You could have the perfect diet and the ideal training program, but if your sleep patterns are erratic or worse, if you only get a few hours a night, your road to Buffville will come to a dead end.
Stress is the real killer here, sometimes literally. If your heart survives, your muscles often suffer. Emotional stress affects the processes of the body in an alarming number of ways, including throwing a monkey wrench into your recovery ability and immune system. Ian King even has a theory that too much stress will slow down fat burning, and this is supported by studies that show an excess of the stress hormone cortisol causes the body to preferentially store fat in the abdominal area! Ask him about fat loss and he'll often speak of stress and lifestyle before he talks about diet and training.
If pro-bodybuilding has taught us anything, it's that looking good (or getting really huge) doesn't necessarily coincide with being healthy. This has lead to some interesting ironies like runners who smoke and bodybuilders who poison themselves with "recreational" drugs and cigarettes. Weird, huh? This irony also stems from the fact that most people get involved in fitness and bodybuilding not to get healthy, but to look purdy. That's understandable, but we need to get our priorities in order if we want to be looking good at age 50.
Summary: If your progress has slowed or stopped, look past your diet and training program and see if your lifestyle is affecting your bodybuilding efforts. If it is, change it.
Tier #4 – Supplements
Straight up, the sale of supplements is what pays the bills around my house and what keeps this site free. But we'll also be the first to tell you that you need to take care of the first three tiers before you use supplements.
It's easy to understand why people are confused about this issue. With all the sleazy supplement companies telling you that their products work without exercise or dieting, it's easy to overestimate the power of pills and powders. One of these companies even named a product "Exercise in a Bottle." There's a special place in hell reserved for these wankers. (I can hear the Devil now, "Yes, you Exercise in a Bottle people, go sit over there next to the fat personal trainers who take calls during a training session!")
There are some truly effective supplements on the market these days. Some can help you build muscle and others can make fat loss a whole lot easier, but none of them are going to help you reach your goal if you ignore your diet and train like a wussy. As powerful as products like MD6 are, they won't make up for the fact the you stop at Krispy Kreme every day at lunch. Products like Methoxy-7, Tribex-500 and MAG-10 will help you build muscle, but not if you don't get enough protein and spend some quality time in the squat rack.
Within this tier, there's another hierarchy. As with everything else, take care of the basics first when it comes to supplementation. That means using a multivitamin, healthy oils (fish, flax, Udo's, etc.), protein powders and post-workout drinks. Build the foundation of your supplement program with these items and then, if needed, experiment with prohormones, pro-steroids, thermogenics, 7-Hydroxy-EC (found in Methoxy-7), anti-estrogens and other goodies.
Summary: For any supplement to work for you, you must work for it.
I didn't include this section in my hiearchy. Instead, it's a little guest house that I built in back, out of sight behind the magnolia trees.
I honestly hate to include this section, though. That's because I spend a lot of time talking people out of using steroids. I'm not against the "safe and sane" usage of these drugs at all. Heck, I even wrote a couple of articles on how to get them. The problem is that most people who want to use steroids are 1) too young 2) too dumb or 3) too undereducated about proper usage.
The biggest problem, though, is that most of these guys are nowhere near their genetic limits. They train in a half-assed manner for a year, eat crappy food, and then decide they've "peaked out" at 165 pounds. I hate to see people turn to steroids when the fix to their problem lies in simple, legal means such as altering their diets, adopting a better training program, or trying a new supplement.
Plus, you have do a lot of research to use steroids safely. Is a person who's too lazy to learn about diet and training going to change his work ethic when it comes to educating himself about performance enhancing drugs? I have my doubts.
I also wonder about those guys turning to illegal drugs when their goal is to only put on ten pounds of muscle. Ninety-nine percent of those who do this could add ten easy pounds with a change in training programs, an improved diet and, if necessary, the addition of a supplement like MAG-10 to their programs. No need for illegal steroids when you haven't yet exhausted all other means.
All that said, let's face reality. If your goal is to look like a pro-bodybuilder you just ain't gonna do it without steroids and a host of other drugs. And while most people are no where near their genetic ceilings, those limitations do exist. If you've been eating and training correctly for ten years and now have to bust your butt just to maintain, then I see nothing wrong with using an intelligent, well planned cycle to bump yourself up a few pounds.
My personal "rules" for steroid use are as follows:
You must have at least five years of real, consistent training under your belt. And no, that two years you spent farting around with those cement-filled weights in high school doesn't count. And if after five years you're still making progress, why bother with 'roids? Which leads us to....
You must be truly peaked out genetically. This is probably less than one percent of all gym goers and athletes.
You must be over the age of 25. I'm not thinking of physical considerations here, but rather emotional ones. It takes a certain level of psychological maturity to use steroids. I would've hated for someone to have handed me a bottle of D-bol when I was 18. Would I have researched it properly? Nope. Cycled it? Probably not. Learned how to eat right to support muscle growth? Uh, does Taco Bell count?
I also think that to use steroids in an intelligent manner you need to have something to lose. In other words, a person with a career and a family wouldn't take too many unnecessary risks. He'd be more likely to keep safety in mind, cycle appropriately, and use anti-estrogens. On the other hand, a kid with no responsibilities, a part time job at Burger Barn, no family of his own, and a host of self-esteem issues... well, I think you get the point.
If you do choose to use steroids, then at least make sure you've taken care of the first four tiers of the hierarchy. I've never seen a person remain big and muscular for long if they take steroids too early in their development. That's because they don't learn how to diet and train properly. The drugs become a crutch and without them they can't make any headway. Since they can't stay "on" forever, they eventually become lazy, disenchanted, and quit training altogether.
Long story short, don't even think about using steroids until you've spent a number of years perfecting and tweaking the first four tiers of the hierarchy.
There's nothing as rewarding as fulfilling your potential. Achieving this with bodybuilding is a multifaceted endeavor involving diet, training, lifestyle and supplementation. Leave out one of these or get them out of order and you'll never build the body you want.
But if you do take care of each tier, you'll not only reach your physical potential, you'll get there in half the time. Maslow would be proud.