It could be argued that bodybuilding is one of the most complex and subjective sports to take up. It could be likened to a ‘science’ almost, as there are many, many variables to master if you are to truly reach your full potential. For the beginner the key to success comes in the form of knowledge and the education of certain fundamental issues, all of which need to be working in harmony alongside each other. This includes training, diet, and rest/recuperation. These contributory factors represent the focus of this article, and can serve as an excellent foundation of knowledge for the beginner. Of course, there are many other factors to consider, but these are of more importance to the intermediate and advanced bodybuilders, who have previously mastered the aforementioned concepts. The beginner should liken bodybuilding to a journey through a complicated maze, one which takes years to complete, where continual, slow, steady gains are the ultimate goal. Along the way you will arguably find out a lot about yourself and how best your body works under various training and dietary strategies. Hopefully this article will clear up any ambiguities that may exist in the back of your mind and steer you on to the long, narrow road to continual, slow, steady gains.
The starting point for everyone begins in the gym/home garage. This is the first port of call after making the decision to commit to the ‘iron game’ and provides the body with the initial stimulus. This is also a very confusing time as there are many obscure movements to learn for muscles you didn’t even knew existed. This undermines the significance of acquiring knowledge, as none of this information is innate, inasmuch as no-one is born with the ability to perform a perfect ‘bench press.’ In my opinion this knowledge can be obtained from two key sources. These are primary sources, such as your peers, gym owners, fitness instructors; and secondary sources, such as contempory magazines/videos, books, web sites etc. Ideally you need a balance of both, which gives you the ability to question and criticise each individual training theory and discover which best suits you. The smarter you are the faster you will grow, remember ignorance will eventually grind your progress to a halt and that’s the last thing we want.
When considering training routines, it is best to keep things simple. Your body will require only a limited amount of stimuli to begin with. Firstly only train each individual muscle group directly once per week. This will give you time to rest and get the quality nutrients to the muscle in order for them to grow. Secondly concentrate on compound (multi-muscle/multi-joint) movements such as the bench press, dead-lift and squat, let these form the backbone of your workouts. Thirdly, concentrate on predominantly ‘free weight’ movements, remembering to inhale on the negative phase of the movement, i.e. the lowering of the bar on a bench press; and exhale on the positive phase of the exercise, i.e. the pressing of the weight on the bench press. These movements will help you develop your technique under the watchful eye of an instructor/training partner. Fourthly, only hit each large muscle group (Quadriceps, chest, back and the muscles of the shoulder girdle) with no more than 10 working sets. Whereas for smaller muscle groups (calves, hamstrings, biceps, triceps) reduce this to 6-8 working sets. Finally concern yourself with training intensity (see article) and slowly increase this as your muscles adapt to the stresses placed upon them. It is also important to make every rep of every set of the highest quality, where weight is always sacrificed for good form and technique.
It is only a matter of time until the beginner turns their attention to nutrition and diet. Look at it as a sort of natural progression. This is probably the most complex aspect of bodybuilding and has a huge effect on the rate at which we grow and the rate in which we lose/gain fat. However for the beginner, it is best to keep things simple and in perspective. By this I am referring to the prioritising of macro-nutrients, such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats over micro-nutrients, particularly the more advanced supplements such as pro-hormones, HMB, creatine etc. Macro-nutrients make up your daily caloric intake, which largely determines the ‘physiological environment’ (anabolic/catabolic) in which you create. A predominantly anabolic environment will help ensure steady gains over a lengthy period of time, whereas an environment that is primarily catabolic will do nothing but frustrate you and leave you in despair. So, before we continue it is necessary to elaborate a little more on proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Proteins are arguably the most overlooked aspect of most beginners diets yet remain possibly the most important. To summarise proteins are responsible for the growth and repair of skeletal muscle tissue. Without sufficient levels our bodies are fighting a loosing battle to gain lean muscle mass. This is a serious issue and one that needs addressing sooner rather than later. So, how much do we need in order to grow? Which sources are the best to obtain my protein from? These are a couple of questions that should immediately spring to mind when discussing protein in a bodybuilding context. Firstly, the amount in which we ‘need’ is a topic that attracts considerable debate. In my opinion it stands to reason that the hard training individual requires significantly more protein than the ‘average’ sedentary person. It is worth pointing out here that the amount we need is all relative to our own individual bodyweights. I typically aim for 1.5g per pound of bodyweight, this would mean that an individual of 200lb would need to consume 300g of protein. This when spread evenly in portions of 50g, would mean 6 servings daily of 50g, using the above example.
On the surface these are relatively simple calculations to make, but to take things a step further we need to identify superior sources of proteins. Initially proteins can be separated into two main types, these being complete sources and incomplete sources. Complete sources refer to the foods we eat that contain the full spectrum of essential amino acids, in other words all the nutrients we need for the immediate reparation of muscle tissue. Incomplete sources are lacking certain essential amino acids, the body cannot produce these therefore we must eat complete sources regularly on a day to day basis. If all the essential amino acids are not present at any one time then the production of proteins grinds to a halt. This should be of considerable concern to the bodybuilder. Complete sources come in the form of meats, fish, eggs and high quality protein supplements. Lean white/red meats, oily fish, egg whites and whey protein powders are an excellent range of complete proteins that should be consumed regularly in the bodybuilders diet. If you are a vegetarian, do not worry, concentrate on eating a variety of fish, eggs, protein powders as well as a variety of incomplete sources such as vegetables and grains, which when mixed together help form complete sources.
As previously mentioned carbohydrates also play a key role in the beginner’s quest for gaining lean muscle. The advantages of regularly consuming carbohydrates are threefold. Firstly, they are the bodies preferred source of energy to fuel us through our demanding workouts. This is because they convert to glucose much easier and faster than proteins and fats. Needless to say that your progress in the gym will be compromised to a certain extent on a low carbohydrate diet. Secondly carbohydrates are also essential for optimum recovery as they help replenish our own natural glycogen stores in the liver and muscle tissue, which can be severely depleted during intensive exercise, over lengthy periods. There is also a strong relationship between carbohydrate consumption and insulin release. Insulin is the body’s own storage hormone and has potent anabolic properties. For example, the absorption of proteins and other nutrients essential for recovery and growth is increased when consumed at the same time as a serving of carbohydrates (approx. 50g). This significantly reduces the onset of physical and mental fatigue. Finally, they are of great importance for the functioning of your brain, which incidentally has proven to be the bodies biggest user of carbohydrates. If you drop your intake to low for too long you risk suffering from impaired memory, concentration and assertiveness. You only have to talk to a bodybuilder two weeks prior to a contest to see the effect of low carbohydrates on the brain.
There are many types of carbohydrates, enough to confuse and frustrate any beginner and most intermediates. So in order to simplify things lets discuss the two main varieties, which are the slow burning complex carbohydrates and the fast burning simple sugars. Firstly it is important to recognise that both are essential as part of a balanced diet, a diet that will serve the beginner well. Slow burning complex carbohydrates, provide you with sustained energy over a lengthy period of time, several hours or so depending on serving size etc. This slow release helps control insulin secretion, which helps prevent against any unwanted fat storage. It is for these reasons that complex slow burning variety should make up the bulk of your carbohydrate consumption, up to 80%. There are many foods that fit into this category, the most popular with bodybuilders tend to be rice (brown/white), rice cakes, potatoes (including the sweet variety), wholegrain bread, crisp breads, porridge oats and pasta. In general, seek out the starchy and high fibre varieties which are generally superior.
As previously mentioned, simple, fast burning carbohydrates are also important for the bodybuilder. It could be argued that the need for carbohydrates is highest first thing in the morning, to boost blood sugar levels and immediately after exercise, to replenish glycogen stores. These are the times to get in your servings of simple sugars, as they are particularly effective at boosting blood sugar levels and replenishing your glycogen stores quickly. They are many different types of sugars, most of which are bad or detrimental to the bodybuilder. So in order to keep things from getting too complicated and long-winded lets discuss the types that have proven to be beneficial to the bodybuilder. High quality variations are fruit (fresh and dry), the better varieties being bananas, grapefruit, prunes and oranges; and high quality performance energy drinks, which have now become widely available. This pretty much concludes what types are most beneficial, it is now time to discuss how much we need to aid our growth.
As with proteins it stands to reason that the bodybuilder in general requires significantly more carbohydrate than the ‘average’ sedentary person. It is worth pointing out here that the amount we need is all relative to our own individual bodyweights. Again as with protein I typically aim for 1.5g per pound of bodyweight, this would mean that an individual of 200lb would need to consume 300g of carbohydrate. I find that this works for me. If this regime leaves you feeling a little lethargic then slightly increase your consumption until you no longer feel at a disadvantage. Most people over-estimate the need for carbohydrates, which is eventually stored as fat and leaves that bloated appearance, that we want to get away from. This amount when spread evenly in portions of 60g, would mean 5 servings daily, using the above example.
Last but by no means least, it is necessary to very briefly summarise the different types of fats. I say very briefly, as I have previously written an article devoted to this topic which is well worth a ‘skim’ read. Basically there is much more to fats than you may initially assume. There are two main types, saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats (solid at room temperature), mainly found on red meats are best kept to a minimum, as you should ideally emphasise the importance of unsaturated fats (liquid at room temperature). Fats yield 9cal per gram as opposed to the 4 cal yielded by proteins and carbohydrates, so intake should be restricted to roughly 20% of your entire caloric consumption. For example if you are regularly eating 3000 cal per day 600 cal (20%) should ideally be derived from fat, which when divided by 9 cal (1gm fat) is equal to 67g daily, spread evenly over 6-7 meals. Foods that are of preferential choice to the bodybuilder are oily fish, linseed oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil.
Finally it is essential for the beginner to turn their attention toward rest and recuperation. This is where many beginners appear to slip up and compromise their progress. With out adequate rest we are all destined to throw away all the hard work done in the gym. It is of absolute paramount importance to realise that we do not grow in the gym. An intense ‘muscle pump’ offers us the illusion of rapid growth, but these is merely a result of forcing de-oxygenated blood to the working muscles in order for them to function. Real growth is done outside the gym, where the muscles are given time rest and recover. Failure to do so will eventually lead to physical and mental fatigue which will destroy your workouts and eventually grind you down. This is homeostasis at work and is sure to catch up with us all in the long-term. So how much sleep and rest do we need? It has been proven that everybody is different when it comes down to optimum sleep. Too much can be as detrimental as too little, as a rough rule of thumb I consider 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep to be adequate enough for anybody. If you struggle with this amount try to make up the rest in the afternoon or whenever possible. Also attaining enough quality ‘rest’ is another subjective issue with some people leading more active lives than others. This is why I recommend taking at least three days a week entirely away from the gym. This gives the body and mind ample opportunity to recover from the stresses and strains of high quality intensive training sessions.
In conclusion, this article has argued the importance of attaining knowledge of the key fundamental issues that have an enormous influence on the rate in which we progress. These concepts are training, diet and rest/recuperation, all of which are of significant important. A balance needs to be struck between the three in order for you to develop to the best of your ability and to fulfil your potential. Failure to address these factors will only lead to anger, frustration and all the other feelings one associates with impaired growth. I realise this is not easy and on a day to day basis is hard and demanding. But this is what sets us apart from the rest of society and explains why we are treated as being more important and given more respect. We are not normal people, we do not lead normal lives, we do not look normal either. Hopefully this article has served to put things into some sort of perspective. If you address the aforementioned concepts with a powerful mindset (see article) you will realise why this is such a wonderful sport to take up. Whatever your goals in this sport I wish you all the best.