This article is targeted at novices. It details some of the thought process behind the design of a workout for bodybuilders. If you want a one size fits all workout with no thinking required, this isn’t for you. But if you want to take charge of your own exercises regimen, begin the learning process right here.
This article talks about working out in a certain way. I don’t work out this way. I got the ideas explained here by talking to several successful pro bodybuilders and pro wrestlers. They are all on anabolic drugs (under the supervision of physicians) and have been on their drug cycles for years. This is how real world pro bodybuilders train. This is not how I train, or what I recommend for novices. This article is merely intended to show the thought process behind exercise selection and program design for a very specialized sort of strength sport
How to train like a bodybuilder
Bodybuilding is different than strength training or weight lifting. An understanding of the fundamental differences between bodybuilding and these other strength activities is essential to anyone who wants to design a bodybuilding routine.
The stronger a muscle is, the larger it is
Beginning bodybuilders want maximum size as soon as possible. To bulk up a muscle to its maximum size, you must develop maximum strength in that muscle. To wit: if you can concentration curl 50 pounds, your bicep is bigger than it was when you could only curl 40 pounds.
However, as a bodybuilder, it’s not enough to get huge like a sumo wrestler. Instead, you want maximum size in all the right places. Bodybuilders want large arms and shoulders, a broad upper back, a narrow waist, and large quads and calves. Nobody wants an oversized rear end or midsection.
Consequently, bodybuilding routines contain exercises which allow you to move the maximum amount of weight possible without worrying about core strength or balance. You can train like a bodybuilder or you can train like an athlete, but unless you are very special, you can’t simultaneously succeed at both.
Exercise Selection for bodybuilding
Bodybuilders often favor exercises which are held in disdain by athletes or weight lifters. But they have very good reasons for choosing certain exercise variations.
Take a moment to picture the barbell squat. Obviously it’s an important exercise, and everyone should know how to squat safely. Combined with a few other compound movements, squats develop full-body strength. However, squats are less than ideal from the perspective of a bodybuilder who is doing a bulking routine. Squats not only work the quads and glutes, but the lower back and the “balance” muscles too. As far as bodybuilders are concerned, energy that could be used to build maximum strength in the quadriceps is squandered during the squat. Squats build the glutes and thicken the waist: just what bodybuilders don’t want.
Let’s continue with this line of reasoning. Barbell rows are a good power exercise, and everyone should know how to do them. But they are the wrong exercise for a bodybuilder, even though every bodybuilder must include a rowing movement in his routine. The reason is simple: barbell rows require your lower back to support not only the weight of the barbell, but also of your upper torso. You will never move as much weight with a barbell row as you can with either a one-handed dumbbell row (during which your torso is supported), or a seated cable row.
Likewise, overhead work for the shoulders is important for everyone: bodybuilders and others alike. However, the classic overhead dumbbell press that so many athletes use is wrong for bodybuilding. You will never move as much weight with dumbbells as you will with a barbell or a shoulder machine. Dumbbells place demands on your body; they require you to maintain your balance and develop strength in your core and lower-back. Shoulder press machines or the Smith machine will give you more shoulder strength in a shorter amount of time than you’d ever hope to achieve using dumbbells.
Exercise selection: Push, Pull, Squat
At its most basic, every bodybuilding routine consists of a pushing exercise, a pulling exercise, and a squatting exercise. These three movements are all that is required to bulk up your body.
Every bodybuilding routine consists of a squatting exercise, a pulling exercise, and a pushing exercise
Beginners should pick two exercises from each of these categories, for a total of six exercises. You can do this sort of full body workout two or three times a week during your beginner phase.
Eventually, you will develop a good base of muscle, but the weights you are lifting will be sufficiently heavy that you are no longer able to fully recover from three workouts per week. This usually occurs when you are shoulder-pressing more than 100 pounds for reps and squatting more than your body weight for reps.
At this point, you can move to an intermediate workout done twice weekly. The extra recovery time allows you to add some additional exercises for the calves and abdominals.
Reps and sets for bodybuilding exercises
It is a myth that bodybuilders must use high reps. The only time bodybuilders need high reps is during contest preparation when losing fat is more important than sparing muscle tissue. Instead, you should work out in the low rep ranges that develop maximum strength at the expense of strength endurance.
Everywhere you go on the web, you’ll find advice stating unequivocally that high reps develop maximum size and low reps develop max strength. Reams of anectotal evidence supports the idea that high reps stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy — the holy grail of bodybuilding. However, this idea comes from observation of world-class bodybuilders during their contest-prep phases, rather than the other 10 months of the year. In fact, successful bodybuilders bulk up with low reps: just like everyone else.
Stick to low reps and use a full range of motion
It is also a myth that bodybuilders need to use supersets, partial range of motion, and related schemes. Most of the unusual rep/set schemes that bodybuilding magazines have hyped over the years – drop sets, strip sets, partials, pyramids, negatives, etc. – are only useful during contest prep when workouts serve as calorie-burning cardio as much as strength training (and even then, their usefulness is debatable). Stick to relatively low reps – six to eight – and use a full range of motion with good form. Some cheating is OK, but use it only to break through plateaus; don’t make a habit of it.
Although it is not necessary to go to failure, especially during early sets, you should approach failure while maintaining good form and a full range of motion. A good guideline is to go to one rep short of failure.
Proper amount of rest between sets and exercises
You are after maximum strength. Anything that tires you out unnecessarily is to be avoided.
- Rest 2 to 3 minutes between work sets. If your breathing rate and/or heart rate is excessive, rest longer between sets.
- Rest 3 to 5 minutes between exercises.
Remember: you can bulk up or you can burn fat, but unless you are super-human, you can’t do both at the same time. Sufficient rest between sets is crucial for maximum strength gains.
Beginner Bodybuilding Routine
Beginners will use a full-body routine three times per week. This routine should consist of two pressing movements, two pulling moves (always including rowing), and two squatting moves.
Here is a sample beginner’s bodybuilding routine:
- Leg press machine
- Overhead press (Shoulder machine or Smith machine)
- Pullups (weighted if necessary, assisted pullup machine if necessary)
- Hack squat sled
- Dips (weighted if necessary, or assisted if you are still weak)
- Rows on the seated cable machine
Reps should remain in the 4 to 8 range, with 6 being ideal. Work up to your heaviest weight with a few warm-up sets with lighter weight. Once you reach your working weight, you should do as many sets as possible until you are unable to maintain the rep range.
Rest between sets is crucial: keep your breathing and heart-rate down and concentrate on absolute strength, not cardiopulmonary fitness. The liberal use of machines forces you to concentrate on strength; there is no reason to worry about developing your athleticism, your balance, your “core” strength, or any sports-specific skills.
When you can do eight reps with good form, increase the weight
When you can do eight reps with good form, increase the weight. If your bulking diet is adequate, you should be able to add five pounds to your squat every time you work out, or perhaps every other time if you are particularly unsuited for gaining muscle mass. It is imperative to avoid adaptation to the exercise, you must challenge yourself and give maximum effort during each workout.
Keep accurate and detailed records of your diet, your weight lifted, sets performed, and reps completed with good form, and make note of anything else that comes to mind during your bulking phase. Information is power. Without good notes, you won’t realize when you are overreaching or overtraining, failing to meet your dietary requirements, or any of the other things that prevent you from gaining quality muscle mass.
When you no longer have the recovery capacity to perform this workout three times per week, you should move on to an intermediate routine.
Alternative beginner bodybuilding routine
If you do not have access to a fully-equipped bodybuilding gym, you can use barbells instead of bodybuilding machines, but your size will develop more slowly:
- Barbell front squats (or back squats)
- Barbell overhead presses
- Weighted pullups
- Dumbbell step-ups
- Dips or bench presses
- Dumbbell bench rows
Intermediate Bodybuilding Routine
As an intermediate bodybuilder, you should use a split routine. Work your lower body and upper body on separate days.
Here is a sample two-day intermediate bodybuilding routine:
- Leg press machine
- Leg curl machine
- Hack squat sled
- Calf raise machine
- Leg extension machine
- Abdominal isolation exercise(s), concentrating on the rectus abdominus
- Low incline bench press machine
- Weighted wide-grip pullups
- Triceps pushdowns on the cable machine
- Seated rows on the cable machine
- Overhead press machine or smith machine
- Curl machine
On this routine, you will work out two times per week. One day is devoted to the lower body, and the other is devoted to the upper body. You will have at least 2 days’ rest between workouts.
If you find that, despite giving your maximum effort, you are not challenged by this workout and your recovery is perfect, you can work out three times per week using an ABA-BAB pattern. That is, you work lower body twice during the first week, but upper body only once, then, during the second week, you work upper body twice and lower body once. Obviously, over time, this will increase the intensity of the workout(s).
As with the beginner’s routine, your focus is on absolute strength, not athleticism. Use the exercises that allow you to move the most weight possible while sticking to your preferred rep range. Stick to the 6 to 8 rep range; rest three minutes between sets. When you can no longer get an adequate number of reps, rest five minutes then move to the next exercise.
Advanced Bodybuilding Routine
When you no longer need to “bulk up” but want to perfect the shape of your physique, you are ready for this advanced bodybuilding routine.
- Perform the intermediate bodybuilding routine as detailed above, but keep the sets to a minimum. Three sets per exercise might suffice. Eat at a maintenance level, or eat below maintenance if you are trying to cut fat. You are trying to maintain your size and strength while leaving yourself enough energy to do some isolation work.
- Use isolation exercises to work on your weak parts. For instance, do forearm curls to work on your lower arms or front raises for your anterior deltoids. When your target muscle feels completely exhausted, do more sets.
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