More than any other, the most common question asked of top amateur bodybuilders is, “What advice do you have for the average aspiring bodybuilder who just wants to get bigger?” It cuts to the chase and allows a champ to explain the most important lesson or lessons he’s learned through many years of experience.
Here, in a rough ranking from 20 to one, are the top training answers to the (how to get) big question. Some may seem obvious, some may contradict others, some might be new to you or be fresh spins on longestablished ideas. Together they function as a training compendium of the top 20 tips from elite bodybuilders who were once your size and want to help you supersize, too.
20: TAKE TRAINING SERIOUSLY
One of the things that distinguishes champs from chumps is that champs always go to the gym with clear goals. Bodybuilding should be fun but not frivolous. Never let distractions outside or inside the gym slow your workout pace or dampen your intensity.
19: PUSH SETS TO FAILURE OR BEYOND
Not every bodybuilding notable agrees on this, but a sizable percentage contend the key to success is to do working sets until you can’t get another full rep, and then either quit or continue on via techniques like forced reps, descending sets and cheating.
18: ALWAYS STRIVE FOR A PROPORTIONATE PHYSIQUE
This is more than the platitude it first appears to be. In practice, it means doing something most bodybuilders find difficult — focusing on your worst bodyparts more (by training them first in your workouts, typically with more volume and intensity) and your best bodyparts less.
17: YOU MUST SQUAT, BENCH PRESS, AND DEADLIFT
16: YOU DON'T NEED TO SQUAT, BENCH PRESS, AND DEADLIFT
Some champions, including Ronnie Coleman, always do the three power lifts; others believe that one or more of them are overrated and should be skipped. Work them into your routine to see if they’re effective for you. Dorian Yates, for one, learned that his quads responded better to leg presses than to squats, but he only discovered this by doing both exercises. You may indeed find, as number 17 prescribes, that you must do the three power lifts to make your fastest gains, but number 16 is a better general rule. You don’t need to do any specific exercise; choose the exercises that work best for you.
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15: BE SAFE, NOT SORRY
Warming up may seem like a needless chore — until you’re injured. One of the best lessons to learn from those who’ve suffered serious strains, sprains and tears is how to avoid such traumas, which can, in an instant, seriously curtail your training and reverse your gains. Warm up each bodypart with lighter sets, pyramid to your heaviest sets and have at least one experienced spotter behind you when you really pack on the plates.
14: MAKE IT HARDER TO DO A SET, NOT EASIER
By hoisting up quick, incomplete reps you can use more weight, but you work your muscles less and greatly increase your odds of injury. Lift through a full range of motion at a controlled pace.
13: FREE WEIGHTS ARE BEST
Machines should have a place in every bodybuilding routine, but never at the expense of barbells and dumbbells. Even champs wary of injuries, who now perform most of their chest and shoulder workouts on machines, claim they made their best gains doing barbell and dumbbell chest and shoulder presses. Freeweight, compound basics are still the foundations of Jay Cutler’s and Ronnie Coleman’s routines.
12: CHANGE IT UP REGULARLY
A few pros stick to the same routine for months or even years, but most alter their workouts regularly, changing exercises and the order in which they perform them, thus continuously stressing their muscles in fresh ways.
11: LEARN ALL YOU CAN FROM MORE EXPERIENCED BODYBUILDERS
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10: FIND OUT WHAT WORKS FOR YOU, NOT SOMEONE ELSE
These two maxims work together. Never stop learning from FLEX, training videos, Internet sites and your fellow bodybuilders. Apply various training philosophies, techniques and exercises to your routine. Incorporate those that work best for your body and discard those that don’t measure up.
9: FOCUS ON THE MUSCLE(S), NOT THE WEIGHT
When swinging a baseball bat at a pitched ball, do you watch the bat’s motion? If so, you’ll be very lucky to get a hit. The same applies to hammering a nail. Follow the hammer up and down in broad swoops and there’s a good chance it’ll hit your thumb, not the nailhead. Like bats and hammers, weights are merely tools. If you’re following a weight’s path, chances are you’re not fully feeling your targeted muscles working. Forget the weight and concentrate on how your muscles stretch and contract against the resistance.
8: NUTRITION IS PARAMOUNT
The top 20 is supposed to be a training-only guide, but you can’t fully separate nutrition from training. After all, your pre- and postworkout meals (which may be protein shakes) are the most important ones for growth. It’s likely that more people curtail gains because of faulty nutrition than faulty workouts, so make certain you’re consuming enough protein and other essential nutrients throughout each day.
7: TRAIN HEAVY
This advice may seem to be at odds with number six. In fact, it sometimes is, for a few pros do prescribe using low reps for heavy, compound basics to build up a foundation of strength and size. Most of the time, however, “train heavy” is a motto to encourage you to push yourself as hard as safely possible.
6: MODERATE REPS ARE BEST MOST OF THE TIME
Some champs go down to four to seven reps on their heaviest sets, and a few regularly do reps in the 13-20 range, but most advocate sticking to the “sweet spot” of eight to 12 per set. Calves and abs are the most frequent exceptions to this general rule, as many pros advocate higher reps (13-20) for those bodyparts.
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5: TRAIN WITHIN YOUR LIMITS
4: TRY TO PUSH YOURSELF FURTHER THAN BEFORE
These two guidelines may seem contradictory, but, in fact, they complement each other. The former is an admonishment to take appropriate precautions and choose a weight you can safely use with proper form for the desired minimum number of reps. The latter is a rallying cry to try to always get at least one more rep or use a little more weight than previously, for strength gains are the key to growth. Heed the precaution of number five and then drive yourself to greater gains with the fervor of number four.
3: REST TO GROW
It's one of the great truisms of bodybuilding that you grow when you’re not working out. Make sure you allow enough time for a bodypart to recover and grow before hitting it again. For the most part, that equates to 48-72 hours between training the same bodypart.
2: ALWAYS USE PROPER FORM
The most common training mistake made is simply not performing exercises correctly and thus not maximizing the stress on the targeted muscle(s). A lot of experienced bodybuilders have fallen into bad habits or never learned how to do an exercise optimally, thus limiting gains and increasing the odds of injury. Refocus on each exercise to make certain you’re getting all you can from it.
1: PERSISTENCE AND CONSISTENCY WIN OUT IN THE LONG RUN
Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint. Beyond your first two years of training, progress will come more slowly. Those who make the greatest changes are the ones who steadily train for years with passion and intensity, and who maintain an enduring quest for gains in muscle via gains in wisdom.