Newbies in the gym do things that make us want to pound the snot out of them. But instead of doing that, let's help them out.
As a beginner, a big part of development isn't just what you're doing in the gym, but also the habits you create during this time. One of them is the ability to be consistent with a program and not hop around from routine to routine like a clown on a pogo stick when the gains slow down.
Being a beginner is great because it's one of the few times in your lifting life where you can lose fat and gain muscle and strength all at the same time. You don't even have to do things very efficiently either. You could even be one of those idiots that does shoulder presses using the leg press machine and still make some gains.
Of course, that's kind of a problem too, because if a beginner doesn't know any better, he'll blame his program when progress starts to stall a bit. His eventual lack of progress isn't because the routine stopped working, though, it's because his motor skills are improving and his body is adapting to the stimulus. As such, growth slows dramatically.
Newbies, even the ones focused on bodybuilding and pure hypertrophy, still really need to concentrate on developing efficiency in basic exercises and progressive overload (adding more weight). Just doing those things will bring a significant amount of muscular gains. Concentrate on these basic exercises:
- Squat and deadlift
- Two pressing movements: Everyone loves to bench, so go ahead and choose that as one of them. The second one is the press behind the neck. It will help to establish shoulder mobility that will serve you well for the rest of your days, along with building big shoulders.
- Two pulling movements: One vertical (like pull-ups) and one horizontal (like rows), or some variation of those.
- Lunges: They're a lower body unilateral movement that's great for mobility, stability, and hypertrophy. The walking bodyweight lunge is my favorite and lends itself to building mass through repetitive effort when you get good enough and can do them by the hundreds.
- A curl variation: Not just because curls get the girls, but because the biceps stabilize the elbow joint. And said joint tends to take a beating in virtually all pushing and pulling movements for the upper body.
If you're a young guy with an "I ate McDonald's last night until I almost threw up and still woke up with abs" metabolism, and you're trying to gain mass, then power-shoveling calories will probably be in order. If you're not that guy, and you're probably not, then you may want to rethink your strategy.
Your metabolism starts to slow down by about 2% per year, on average, in your mid-20's and continues to slide from there on out. Depending on the age you start lifting, and your current degree of natural conditioning, power shoveling may not be the greatest idea.
Too many guys think they can force feed muscle growth, but it's simply not the case. Ask anyone who's done a very long and serious bulk. And by serious I mean they busted up into two bigger pants sizes. What often happens is that when they decide to diet back down, all this muscle they thought was there was just fat.
Realize that after the first 10-12 months of training, the mass gains will come slower and slower, and no amount of food is going to speed it back up.
Just like being consistent with a program is vital for developing good training habits, learning how to feed your body properly to meet the needs for growth, without excessively overfeeding it, is key.
Fat cells are estrogenic, and the last thing you need when trying to turn yourself from scrawny to brawny is to make yourself a walking ball of estrogen slop. Additionally, the more fat mass you pack on, the worse your nutrient partitioning becomes due to reduced insulin sensitivity. A proper insulin response to carbohydrate intake is vital for continued mass gains.
What we're left with is the understanding that more body fat means:
- More estrogen
- Lowered insulin sensitivity
- More inflammation
- Higher levels of cortisol
Add all that up and it equals the antithesis of an efficient muscle-building environment.
How to Stay Lean and Build Muscle
Now, you don't have to stay ripped year around, but you absolutely can stay lean and pack on quality muscle by doing the following:
- Shoot for 1 to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Don't piss me off by asking if that's "grams per pound of lean body mass." No. It's grams per pound of bodyweight.
- It's unlikely that protein can be turned into fat, and there's never been a single study done that shows that very high protein diets cause any health problems. So, when in doubt, eat more protein.
- Include most of your daily carb intake in your peri and post-workout feedings. This is when your body will be able to use the incoming nutrients most efficiently for replenishing glycogen and uptake of amino acids into the muscle. It's also when it's less likely to store it as body fat.
- Get your fat sources from nut butters, nuts, olive oil, and fish. But don't go crazy here. Watch those calories.
- Eat two pounds of vegetables a day, minimum. I don't need science for this. Just do it and thank me. Veggies will improve your digestion and fulfill your micronutrient needs. Get a lot of different "colors" in there to ensure your bases are covered.
- Do your best to eliminate processed and fast foods, candy, and soda from your diet. Having them in moderation is fine, but try to meet the 90% rule (eat right 90% of the time) in regards to eating quality protein, good fats, tons of vegetables, and pushing your carbs into peri and post-workout meals. This really uncomplicates things.
- If you need to gain more weight, eat more carbs during your post-workout meals. Yes, it really can be that simple.
After a few months of training, a lot of beginners can finally see their biceps and a little bit of back muscle in their over-the-shoulder selfie pics. They then proclaim that it's time to get ripped for summer or vacation.
I know you think because you've been going hard for six months that you're going to do some 12-week diet and fancy routine with a lot of ab work and you're going to hit the beach looking like the Californian version of King Leonidas, but it's not gonna happen.
If you start dieting strictly after a few months of training, or even a year, there's not going to be enough muscle on you to avoid the dreaded skinny-fat look you surely want to avoid.
If, however, you adhere to the nutrition advice above, and are patient and keep clanging and banging in the gym, you'll know when it's time to diet. And it's not when your significant other remarks at "how big you're getting." It'll be when strangers notice your jackedness. And that may take a while.
Remember that when you diet, there's usually some muscle lost. The fatter you are, the longer the diet needs to be in order to get lean, which often results in more lean tissue loss than is desirable.
The early years is the time when training as often as possible is going to pay the most dividends. You're not going to have much of a problem recovering because your strength is going to be the lowest it's ever been. Thus, your ability to significantly tax your nervous system is going to be minimal and systemic fatigue is going to be minimal.
This is the absolute best time to train often because your ability to recover is going to be the highest it'll ever be. Now understand, this doesn't mean marathon training sessions. It means training often.
Training kicks off muscle protein synthesis. The more often you can do this, without putting yourself in recovery debt (for a beginner that simply means avoiding 3-hour workouts), the faster you're going to grow. Training 5-6 days a week is great because if the training plan is even somewhat intelligent, you should see changes happen very fast.
Using the training recommendations I made earlier, a beginner would be well served doing the following:
|A||Press Variation 1||5||10-12|
|A||Leg Press or Squat Variation||5||10|
|B||Deadlift Variation (trap bar, Romanian)||2||10|
|A||Press Variation 2||5||10-12|
- One rep maxes aren't for you. You have no business maxing out in the gym. I don't care how strong you're feeling. Do your reps and grow. Demonstrating strength literally has no training benefit. Are you in the gym to feed your ego or to actually make progress?
- You ain't Arnold, so don't train like him. You know that really jacked guy you see in the gym or on the internet? Don't even think about trying to copy what he's doing. What he's doing right now isn't what he did to get to that level.
- Not only that, and I know this is going to shock you, but you're not him. You're working with an entirely different set of genes than he is and you need to focus on what's best for you rather than trying to emulate what someone else who's been training for more than a decade is doing.
- Stop asking, "What's your training look like right now, brah" to every jacked dude you see. You have no idea how annoying that is, because that training doesn't apply to you.
- Pay some attention to the other things below your waist, too. Whether you realize it or not, having strong legs and hips are important for longevity. They're going to be the muscle groups that carry your torso around for the rest of your life. Visit a nursing home and check out all the people using walkers and it might dawn on you that building strong hips and legs are important for reasons besides aesthetic symmetry. Plus, you also don't want someone snapping a pic of your legs in the gym and making a meme out of you.