Some key errors one can make when starting a weight training program and gain muscle is believing that there is anything new under the sun. That there is some new program or magical supplement that can make the whole process of gaining 2-30 pounds of muscle “easier”. It is a mistake to believe that by using a training program found in the vast majority of today’s muscle magazines can turn you into the next Mr. Olympia. To gain muscle and get bigger and stronger, all you need is a basic training program like any one of those found on this site and to follow the core ideas and principles below. There is nothing magical – or new under the sun when dealing with basics. Case in point: the exact routine that Arnold Schwarzenegger used as a skinny teen to build a national level physique.
1) Do compound exercises for growth and size. The big six basic exercises are: squats, bench press, deadlifts, bent over rows, overhead barbell press and cleans. These are your bread and butter. From there all you need is a touch of auxiliary exercises for arms, calves, rotator cuff, forearms/grip, core, and neck. It is a good practice to include neck work; this is imperative if you practice combat sports or are ever unfortunate enough to get into an accident, a strong neck will come in handy.
2) Do full body routines until you are an intermediate. Until you can squat 150% of your own weight, and deadlift close to twice it, stay with a full body routine 2-3x a week. By then you will have a “base”. Technically, a “full body” routine must have three components to justly be called “full body”: a lower body exercise, an uppper body pushing and and upper body pulling movement. So, Squat/bench/row is one example. Another is deadlift, clean, military press. (*one thing that might break this rule is the clean and jerk: it is all three, and the hardest exercise one can do – both in terms of overall fatigue and form)
3) Workouts should be relatively brief and intense. I don’t mean that they have to be super abbreviated or one of these “one set per bodypart” types of routines you often read, but stay far far away from those high volume routines you read in the magazines. They are by and for pro bodybuilders and most of them are not “natural”. (not that I am personally against taking hormones for those who need it, ie., older men with declining testosterone levels, but you do not need drugs to build slabs of lasting muscle – provided you train and feed your body sensibly and rest and recover properly. Not to mention that using PEDs/anabolics in the long run is an unsustainable strategy, or one that you could well regret later on in life) Generally, there is no workout that should be lasting more than 45-60 minutes.
4) Limit the amount of weekly training sessions. Again, spending too much time in the weight room is unnecessary. For the vast majority 2-4 times a week of intense training is plenty. More if you are younger with better recovery and less if you are older. Think of your body as a reservoir of energy; the same energy stores that you dip into to drive you through those gut-wrenching workouts, is the exact same source that you need to recover properly from the workouts. It makes no sense to train 5, 6 or 7 days a week for most people, unless you have really exceptional recovery. People who do this wonder why they never progress as they should – the reason? its likely that their adrenal cortex is chronically oversaturated. Remember, your rest days are not just for the recovery of the soft tissue damage of resistance training, but also for the recovery of the nervous system as well.
5) Add 1-2 workouts a week that focus solely on energy systems training and general physical preparedness. “GPP” or general physical preparedness isn’t just the buzz-word of the day – it is imperative that you add some sort of regular physical activities to your weight training as our lifestyle is getting more and more sedentary. The way we live and work is getting more and more sedentary. Even the way that physical education for children today is approached has changed drastically since when I was a boy in the 1970s. We have 10,000+ years of evolutionary biology behind us, during which our ancestors were constantly on the go. We didn’t evolve to sit on the couch and watch television, play “MMORPG” games on the computer, etc. You and I need to do some light, enjoyable physical activity, whether its canoing, rope climbing, yoga, whatever it be; learning new movements is good for the brain too!
6) Stay away from machines until you have started to maximize your full growth potential. There is no point in a beginner working out with machines until the “framework” has been properly built. And the framework has to do with the development of all the major muscles of the body symmetrically and also the strengthening of the all the muscles which act to stabilize the core- something that machines do not do as well as free weights in general. However, that being said, machines do have their place in strength training, regardless of the current backlash against them in some circles. Once you have built up a solid base after a few years of heavy training, machines are an excellent way to continue to pack on some insane size. They also have their place when you are injured. Many times when I have recurring low back issues and have to lay off deadlifting and squatting for a while, chest-supported rows and various leg press machines have been a godsend for me. Plus, add to the fact that some of the most knowledgeable people out there make sound arguments that squatting is not for everyone!
7) Do as much pulling as pushing. Struggling with your bench? One of the key things that can and will help, guaranteed, is to work your lats. It amazes me the amount of people I see that cannot row even near half of what they can bench.
8) Train legs/lower body as much as your upper body. Avoid this major error. It is not easy learning to squat correctly, which is all the more reason to do it right and not waste your time doing something that is really a whole lot less fun than doing biceps. But you need a strong lower body for your upper body to reach its full growth potential – especially if you play sports! For every inch you want to gain on your arms, you will need to add about 10lbs of bodyweight, and the best way to do that is with serious squatting and more squatting. Strive for balance when designing your routine; is there an equal ratio of upper to lower? Pushing to pulling?
9) Strive to add resistance while in good form on all exercises. This is self-explanatory. Muscles only grow bigger (supercompensate) if there is sufficient growth stimulation to do so.
10) Avoid overtraining. The myth that muscle starts to atrophy has caused for a lot of needless overtraining and injury. Some bodyparts (ie. the lower lumbar area and spinal erectors) need more than 96 hours on average to recover. All bodyparts do not need the same recovery time, therefore learn how your own body responds to recovery and super-compensation. Everyone is different and YMMV substantially.
11) Stay away from fads. There are countless new fads popping up every day, promising all sorts of things. Some of them are downright dangerous and counter productive. Best to stay with tried and true methods of building muscle as opposed to cult-like flavor of the month nonsense. Also, avoid any program that makes false and too-good-to-be-true promises – Rome wasn’t built in day. Remember “Cybergenics” anyone? That program from the early 90s was a great marketing ploy for the company to sell you loads of unnecessary supplements. Be critical of anything backed by the latest “research”, in many but not all cases, there is a marketing angle and someone after your hard-earned money.
12) Never neglect unilateral movements. Make no mistake about it, training one side of your body is necessary to “fix” any imbalances you might have where one stronger side is compensating for a weakness on the other side. For example, lots of people with low back issues from squatting get this because of pelvic misalignment, due to this problem. For people with this issue, adding “Bulgarian Squats” (aka single leg dumbbell squats) to the routine will work wonders, and this sort of exercise isn’t just good for the muscles, its the type of thing that is good for the brain as well, as these sorts of movements enhance proprioception.
13) For big biceps, train back with basic movements. Chins (preferably weighted) and rows are more important than curls for big biceps. Why? Quoting trainer Alwyn Cosgrove:
“Every biceps training article in the last ten years has included a workout based on curls. Do you really think a lack of doing curls is the reason why most guys have less than impressive arms? Sometimes the problem is with the ability of the upper back to stabilize a load out in front of you (i.e. the midpoint of a curl). If the back can’t stabilize that load, it’s not going to risk a spine injury to curl the weight up ? it just “shuts down” your biceps.”
14) Experiment. We learn through empiricism, through experience. Though not always easy, that’s the way it is, so make the most of it. If you find that leg press causes the least amount of low back issues and also leads to better gains in thigh mass for you, or, if you find you are not “built” for squats – there is no crime in choosing leg press over squats. Its not about carved-in-stone dogma, but about you doing what is best for your objectives and best suited for your limitations: diet, lifestyle, genetics, bodytype, etc. The best philosophy in the end is, “whatever works”.
1) Eat whole, nutrient dense foods. Most of the diseases today like “syndrome x”, diabetes, etc are caused by eating processed foods and grains. Take the “food pyramid” and turn it upside down and then remove grains from it, or drastically limit them.
2) Eat small(er) meals every three hours. “Positive nitrogen balance” is the key to muscle growth; eat lots of protein. 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Eating smaller meals spread throughout the day helps maintain stable blood glucose levels as well. Do not allow yourself to get hungry is the old maxim.
3) Eat a high protein, moderate fat, low carb diet to initially kickstart fat loss. For the vast majority of people with extra bodyfat to lose, the Paleo Diet, Atkins Diet, or Mauro DiPasquale’s Anabolic/Metabolic Diet are good examples of what you need to get the fat loss going. You will notice a tremendous improvement in energy levels, add to that that high protein diets boost your basal metabolic rate. Typically however, the weight loss from these types of diets will at some point start. to slow due to some downregulation of your metabolism. When that happens, learn to cycle carbs properly.
A very simplistic approach is to take your bodyweight x2 – that generally is the upper limit of carbohydrates you can eat without getting fat. Take 2 days a week with a low (100 grams) carb intake, 3 days medium (your bodyweight, so 180 lbs = 180 grams), and 2 days high (bodyweight x2, so 180 lbs = 360 grams). Try to get most of your carbs from low-medium glycemic sources – oatmeal, basmati rice, cream of wheat, lentils, yams, etc. A diet which is one of the best suited for long-term healthy eating, check out the classic “Zone Diet” by Barry Sears. If you are interested in delving deeper into single digit bodyfat, check out anything written by bodybuilding author Chris Aceto or Lyle McDonald.
For what its worth, I’ve moved towards a Mediterranean Diet (lots of fish, olive oil, leafy greens, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, eggs and nuts) with very good results. Paul Jaminet’s The Perfect Health Diet and a typical Mediterranean Diet are pretty good ways to go about eating for the rest of your life, actually.
4) Use supplements wisely!. Protein powder (whey, brown rice, hemp and pea protein), creatine, BCAAs and some good basic vitamin, mineral, amino and anti-oxidants are pretty much all you need (MusclePharm’s Armor-V is a cocktail with everything but the kitchen sink; that along with creatine and some good protein and you’re all set). For fat burning on the cheap, green tea extract will do the job!
For the past year, I’ve been taking Hemp Pro 70 by Manitoba Harvest and another vegetarian protein, Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Protein, which has a blend of hemp, cranberry and pea protein. I’ve noticed no difference in terms of gains from whey, but what I have noticed are a lot less digestion issues since dropping whey (in fact the only whey which didn’t upset my stomach and cause all sorts of nastiness is Optimum Nutrition 100% Gold Standard Whey, which is why you see it in the site’s header. It has a proprietary blend of digestive enzymes “Aminogen” made from two strains of deactivated Aspergillus, which make a world of difference in terms of digestibility)
If you are one of those people with whom whey doesn’t agree, give one of these two a try! Another supplement which is well worth taking digestive enzymes. (Jason Ferruggia explains “Why You Should Take Systemic Enzymes“!)
However there are no shortage of supplements out there that can have adverse effects – for eg, the now-banned 6-OXO (an OTC SERM) was found to cause irreversible damage to the estrogen receptor sites. There is that example and also too many new supplements which have stimulants which could be contraindicated in some people (here is one example of a supplement causing psychosis). Many of the supplements that are being most aggressively have little to no benefit for many and I would you read the following review from the highly reputable JISSN Journal: ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review: research & recommendations.
5) Learn to cook and plan your meals. If you find cooking a chore and hate it, learn to cook your meals in bulk. Cook for the week on a Sunday afternoon with while watching football on the tv in your kitchen!
6) Stay hydrated. Best $20 dollars I ever spent was on a Brita water pitcher (there are also good alternative water filter pitchers out there too!). Stuart McRobert, in his fabulous book “Beyond Brawn”, states that a practical way to tell if you are properly hydrated is to ensure that most of the urine you pass is clear. McRobert claims that you should have at least four clear urinations a day.
7) Get enough sleep. Use the bedroom only for sleeping. Keep it dark and cool. Try napping or “polyphasic sleep” if need be, but do whatever it takes to get 8+ hours a night. There are supplements which can help with this, such as 5-HTP and melatonin, valerian, passionflower, L-theanine etc.
8) Get regular checkups and blood work done. You might have low levels of key minerals in your blood, or you might be an older trainer with low testosterone levels and might be well served with TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) or have thyroid issues (I know, I’ve struggled with both of these issues!). Especially if you are in the US, you can get blood work done in a private lab like LabCorp etc. (here in Canada, with our paternalistic healthcare system, it is actually illegal for a lab to give your results to anyone other than a doctor!)
It just makes good sense to keep up on whats going on in your body. Going to the gym and putting so much effort on how the outside looks, while ignoring whats going on within is like the guy across my street who is always polishing his beater of a car every day, while letting the engine go to shite.
9) Muscle is built in the kitchen. For the most part, this is true:
- Eat a little, don’t lift weights – you’ll likely be skinny
- Eat a lot, don’t lift weights – you’ll likely be fat
- Eat a little, lift weights – you’ll likely be lean and toned
- Eat a lot, lift weights – you’ll likely be big and strong