Q: Every professional bodybuilder seems to have a different formula for gaining mass. Sometimes they’re so contradictory I don’t know what or who to believe. What’s your take on this dilemma?
DORIAN: Your problem is not unique. It’s often easy to be blinded by the blizzard of advice from professional bodybuilders on sets, reps, weight, diet and other tactics. What you’re not seeing, and what they may not be explaining, is the road they took to get from beginner to pro level — the gritty straightforward basics of training and nutrition.
Even as Mr. Olympia, my focus was on simplicity: the body grows from protein and gets its energy from calories (mainly from carbohydrates and fats), and a muscle grows from being stressed by hard work. Those principles were always foremost in my mind as the bedrock of my bodybuilding philosophy, even during the fine-tuning modifications I made later in my professional career. Here’s how I kept my perspective.
First and foremost, wait until you have three to four years of hard-training experience before you try a pro’s routine verbatim; you’ll need five years of experience before you try my “all out” method of one max set per exercise. Years of maximum intensity experience will teach you a lot about your body.
As a beginner or intermediate, I suggest you use a two-day training split and follow a two-on, one-off, two-on, two-off routine. That means train half your body one day (for example, chest, back, shoulders and abs), the other half (legs and arms) the next, take one day off, repeat the first two days, and take two days off.
Do three or four exercises, three or four sets each, six to 10 reps per set, for large bodyparts, such as chest, shoulders, back and legs. Perform two or three exercises, three or four sets each for six to 10 reps for smaller muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps. Pyramid up in weight every set, but go to failure — or a couple of reps beyond if you have a spotter — for the last one or two sets. Once every two to three months, try for your max on benches, squats and deadlifts.
Finally, for the most rapid overall muscle gains, focus on compound exercises, using a lot of barbell and dumbbell exercises. Whenever possible, lift the weight off the floor, not off a rack — this will help you build core strength.
When it comes to your diet, always eat to grow. Don’t be obsessed with what you shouldn’t eat; that’s the greatest impediment to growth. Keep in mind that most diets described by pros are their precontest regimens, which they use for only a few weeks during the year, and not to gain muscle but to lose bodyfat.
Defensive eating — avoiding a food for fear it will do more harm than good — inevitably does more harm than good. If you reduce calories to prevent excess buildup of bodyfat, you may also reduce energy levels and nutrients — including protein. Don’t steer clear of food out of fear it will somehow “ruin” all your hard work and derail your physique improvement efforts. Instead, start over with a fresh frame of mind, following these three rules of thumb.
- 1. Maintain the proper nutrient ratio for muscle growth. I normally recommend 30-35% of your calories come from protein, 50-55% from carbohydrates and 10-20% from fat.
- 2. If you find you’re adding too much bodyfat, decrease your carbs and increase your protein. If you’re losing too much bodyfat, increase your carbs.
- 3. Let yourself grow; don’t make yourself grow by stuffing yourself to the extreme.
In the end, many an aspiring bodybuilder has thrown up his hands in frustration, wondering why results are slow to come and wondering what direction to take. It doesn’t have to be complicated — when in doubt, keep your training and nutrition simple. After all, the fastest route from point A to point B is usually a straight line.