How to Start Bodybuilding - A Beginner's Guide
By Eddie aka MuscleTalk Pro-Member theiOpener
You may be reading this article because you've been pointed to it by a member and are you are new to the iron game; it's basically an informal information source to help you on your way to achieving your goals, whether it is packing on some lean mass or losing some excess weight. I hope to dispel myths and untruths and also give you a good e-kick up the backside about what it is you really need to get to where you want to be with your training.
Diet Basics 101
'Urgh! I don't want to diet!' I hear you scream! Don't worry a 'diet' is just simply what you eat and not what people normally associate 'diet' with, i.e. losing weight like some fads out there. Diet is one of, if not the most important thing that will either make or break your goals, so in short here are a few pointers to get you started:
- Include fruit and plenty of fibrous veg in your diet; get frozen veg over 'fresh' as it is often actually fresher, see Fruit & Veg in Health & Fitness
- Include a protein source with each meal you eat, regardless
- Eat healthy fats, these are mono- and polyunsaturated fats that are not processed; include oily fish, or if you don't like oily fish then supplement with fish oil capsules
- Ensure adequate PWO (post-workout) calories. Some people will advocate a PWO shake, some will advocate a meal; do what works for you and what you find easiest. If you use a PWO shake with fast acting sugars, eat a meal within an hour with slow carbs and good lean protein
- PWO do not add any additional fat to your shake
- Carbs are not the enemy; use them to suit your needs. Generally best times to hammer carbs are breakfast and before and after training. Use slow carbs for the majority of your intake
- Eat clean and eat big to get big. If you want to be 14 stone and you are currently 13 stone, then eat like a 14 stone man. Want to know what clean eating is, then have a look at this article
- Fat doesn't make you fat, let us get that straight. Your body needs certain essential fats to function, without these you will die!
- If you don't think you can afford to eat all that food though, see Bodybuilders Budget Diet
- Is this going to be boring? No, see the Bodybuilding Recipes forum for ideas on tasty meals for your needs
- A calorie is not a calorie! Remember this and use it well
In our bodybuilding cutting diet article we discuss losing body fat whilst maintaining muscle mass.
In the bulking diet article we illustrate increasing muscle mass as well as other very useful info.
Once you know your goals and want to get your proposed diet and routine checked out, post it in the relevant forum. Get your diet checked out in the Diet & Nutrition forum and your training in the Training sections. When posting your diet please post it in the form advised in Critique my Diet.
If you want to know what is in your food in terms of macronutrients and calories too then see www.calorieking.com or www.nutritiondata.com. These are both good sites for giving a good rough idea on how much is in each food. But remember don't count calories too much as the human body is a very complex thing. If you are not increasing your portion sizes slightly and you are not losing fat, either up your cardio or drop portion sizes slightly, but stick to the diet rules outlined in the articles.
Training basics 101
A wise person once said 'stimulate do not annihilate' which in my opinion, is totally spot on advice. You want to provide enough stimulation to your muscles to enable them to grow but not to annihilate them, reducing your risk of injury.
- Lift with excellent form, I don't care whether you're curling 2kg dumbbells or squatting the bar only, if you can't lift it properly don't lift it at all! Not only will this make sure you run the lowest risk of injury but it will provide proper stimulation for target muscle groups. See this site on how to lift properly
- Compounds, compounds and yes MORE COMPOUNDS! I cannot emphasise on how important compound movements are to the new trainer. They are far superior to isolation movements as they recruit more muscles in one movement so you can get most of your body trained in shorter time and bring it up to a decent standard. Isolation movements will be needed when compounds cannot bring up muscle groups beyond a certain point
- Progressive overload – always have the aim of increasing the weight each week or the number of reps and sets you do. If you can't then don't worry about it but try and work on it as this is key to growth
- More reps and sets does not mean more growth so don't think that by doing 20 sets of bicep curls will give you 18" guns in weeks. Remember stimulate do not annihilate!
- Person X lifts more than I do or looks bigger than me, etc. WHO CARES! They have no relation to you; concentrate on yourself and yourself only, and unless you are an identical twin don't worry about it
- Always warm-up prior to doing weights; this can be a 5 minute job on the treadmill or doing a few lighter sets, a warm muscle is a flexible muscle and one less likely to get injured.
So where do I start?
Below is a routine that should give you good gains in the gym coupled with good rest and good diet. It's a basic routine:
Flat bench press, incline bench press, military press, weighted / unweighted wide grip dips
Cardio (HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) preferably)
Wide grip chins, seated rows, dumbbell single handed rows, curls
Cardio (HIIT preferably)
Squats, hamstring curls or stiff leg deadlifts, calf raises (seated, standing, whatever works for you)
All 5 x 5 (sets x reps). Maximum rest time should be two minutes between sets; it can be shorter if you want to up the intensity. Don't be tempted to add in more volume as this will be adequate for most newbie trainers, the last thing you want to do is to over train which is mainly down to not enough rest and over stressing your nervous system.
Machines, Free Weights, Dumbbells and Barbells; which should I use?
Use them all, I say! Some gyms have machines and no free weights, so use machines as you would any normal free weight. Machines tend to be safer if you don't have a spotter handy and can also enforce correct form too on some. A heavy weight is still a heavy weight and your body will not know the difference.
Dumbbells are better for benching heavy if you don't have a spotter as you can drop them with no fear of getting trapped under a bar if you do fail. If you don't get on with barbell rows or dumbbell rows then try machine rows. Again stimulation is key here so do whatever suits you best. As a side note there is no such thing as 'toning' and 'shaping'! High reps do not give 'shape' and do not 'tone'. This is a fallacy, lift heavy and intensely and results will come. Anyone who tells you certain exercises are for the above words should be shot!
Myth busting time!
- "I have crap genetics"; all this tells me is "I'm lazy and I don't see instant results so I've come to this conclusion". You just have average or normal genetics. Genetics dictate how big you are and what shape you are naturally, what height you are, etc. The mark of a true dedicated trainer is working with both their strong and weak points to bring their body into harmony.
- Brad Pitt, Ryan Reynolds look huge in Fight Club and Blade – again this is the illusion of being cut, the more defined you are the bigger illusion of size you have. They are lucky if they are touching 11 stone. Also remember what you see in magazines, movies, TV, etc is not the condition they have in real life or all year round.
- "What fat burners work the best?" There are no such things as fat burners that you take. Sorry to break it to you. If you want to lose weight then the secret is simply eat good and clean, lift hard and heavy and add in cardio. It took you X amount of time to get into the condition you are not happy with, assume it will take at least half that to get into a condition you are happy with.
- "I'll lose muscle if I do cardio!" Unless you are doing something drastically wrong with your diet or training plan this scenario is highly unlikely. You'll just be smaller and feel fat and flat due to lower carb intakes and it appears you are losing muscle. Think of your muscles as balloons, all you're doing is letting some air out of them. Also remember you are very different to pre-contest bodybuilders and muscle loss is a worry. Most people take as a reason not to do cardio, but this doesn't really become an issue unless you're at 10% bodyfat already trying to get into single digits.
- "I can't eat at work/school/uni." Yes you can, excuses do not get results. All that is needed is fast liquid calories. All sorts of weight gainer shakes can be made for fast easy consumption. Check out the JSS recipe.
- I don't grow, I need steroids – WRONG! After the initial honeymoon period of newbie gains progress does and will slow down. Accepting this is the key to measuring progress in the long term. Progress is not linear at all. If you have made next to no gains in either strength or size and have adjusted your diet and training plan solidly for over two years then I doubt the above. Real results take time; if everyone could get to their goal in next to no time at all then everyone would do it. This is a marathon not a sprint. Also as a footnote, gear does not equal gains at all; if your diet and training are crap so will your results if you decide to use gear years down the line.
- I don't need to train my legs as I play football, etc – if you have no knee problems then load up the Olympic bar, zip your lip and squat, end of discussion.
- I don't have access to a gym – see our build a home gym article.
- Things like ab cradles and doing 1000s of crunches do not give you abs, having a low body fat does. Weight training, cardio and a good diet will give you those abs. Be aware genetics play a big part in abs too you may not have a 6 pack, you may only get a 4 pack despite getting down to 9-10% body fat, so keep this in mind.
What about CV Exercise?
Cardiovascular exercise is important because:
- It is an effective way to burn calories which can aid weight loss and weight maintenance
- It can help reduce the risk of heart attack, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol
- It can help reduce stress levels
- It can strengthen your heart so that it does not have to work as hard
- It can increase your lung capacity
- It can make you feel good and sleep better
A step by step guide for the beginner is:
- Choose an activity that you will enjoy. The best form of cardio is one that you will actually get off the couch and do rather than one that you think you should do.
- Start with two or three sessions per week ideally on non-weights days. If this is not possible then after a weights session is fine, as is splitting your day into am cardio, pm weights or vice versa (providing they are adequately fuelled).
- Begin with 5-10 minutes warm up of light activity to gradually increase your heart rate towards the point where you can still communicate clearly but are slightly breathless.
- Continue for as long as comfortably possible. This may be 5 minutes, it may be longer. Do not be disheartened, this will quickly improve as long as you are consistent and strive to improve over time.
- Aim to add 2 minutes to the sessions on a weekly basis to build up towards the 30 minute mark. Do not bother monitoring distance or pace, just strive to improve the duration that you can comfortably exercise in the target zone (the point where you can still communicate clearly but are slightly breathless)
- Once you are at the level where you can comfortably exercise for 30 minutes or longer you have developed the base required to progress towards a more advanced program. Beginning where you want to be, rather than where you are actually, will usually result in injury and despair. Do not run before you can walk.
Q: Can I still go out with my friends and party?
A: Yes you can! Limit your consumption of alcohol as much as possible but you don't have to cut it out of your life. It's important you have a social life after all, as its all about sustainability. Have that pizza or kebab if you feel like it once a week, just cut out one of your planned meals, one meal does not make or break diet results. Be aware that having a cheat/treat every week is perfectly fine it is not however a license to binge and go nuts, this will be detrimental to progress and I don't advise it to anyone.
Q: Why do I ache after training?
A: This is normal it's simply called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It will happen to some people but not to others. It's not an indication of growth as some people think it is so don't train in the aim of getting DOMS. I get DOMS from running but not from squatting!
Q: When will I see results?
A: If you're bulking then not as quickly as you may think. Body composition changes are often very subtle and slow over time so best thing to measure progress are photos taken three months apart in the same position and pose. Also tape measurements along with fortnightly scale readings. If you're cutting then the results can be more obvious over time.
Q: What happens if I decide to stop training for an extended period?
A: Your muscles will shrink due to atrophy. This is normal and all that is needed to keep fat gain at bay is to changing your diet and if/when you decide to hit the iron again your gains will come back quite quickly as most trainers experience some form of 'muscle memory'.
Q: What happens if I plateau?
A: Either up your portion sizes of food if you're bulking or up your output or reduce portion sizes if you're cutting. If you are plateauing with weights, get a different rep and set range, switch things up a bit if need be.
Q: What is cutting and bulking?
A: Bulking is the term used for adding lean muscle tissue to your existing frame; cutting is stripping fat from your frame which bulking adds to reveal your physique. There are many terms floating around for bulking, one is the dirty bulk which implies you eat masses of junk food to put on as much weight as possible; I do not advocate this personally. The other is the clean bulk which just means you eat clean foods to put on quality weight, this is what I advocate but it's also the same as regular bulking.
Q: Can you cut and bulk at the same time?
A: It is metabolically impossible to do this I'm afraid in the long term, however newbie gains (i.e. when you first start lifting weights) do just this. Body composition changes for the better where you will burn fat and gain muscle. This doesn't last long though so you will need to employ a different strategy if you want to gain noticeable amounts of lean tissue.
The body can indeed build muscle and burn fat at different times of the day but it requires an understanding of your own body when it comes to training and how you react to different intakes and diet manipulation. This is why I don't suggest people look towards doing it as progression is slow and you cannot get beyond a certain level of muscularity with this approach. It also applies to getting lean too, past a certain point, a bulk or cut is required.
Q: Does bulking mean putting on fat?
A: Yes it does, but not hideous amounts of fat at that. To bulk you need a calorie surplus and that means some fat gain is inevitable. Loads of things you can do to control this of which the most powerful weapons are diet and cardio.
Q: How much weight should I aim for when bulking?
A: For the unassisted trainer a good amount of weight to put on each month is around 3-4 lbs, this will guarantee minimal fat gains as long as diet and training are in order. As time goes on progression will slow so bear this in mind; it does not mean you are stalling or plateauing, you just need to measure progress differently.
Q: What supplements do I need?
A: I love this question personally. If I told you don't need any would you believe me? The word 'supplement' is meant to top up an already well based diet; they are not meant to create a diet in themselves. I will break down what the most common supplements are and what they are used for:
Maltodextrin: A tasteless fast carb, used PWO to create an insulin spike and the ingredient in most weight gainers for carb sources
Dextrose: A carb 80% as sweet as sugar used to create a PWO insulin spike
Weight gainer: These are powdered food supplements and different qualities of weight gainers exist out there. They are used to replace solid food in some meals with people that struggle with solid food and need liquid calories. Some people grow well from sugar based weight gainers (maltodextrin-based) others grow better off slow carb based gainers (oats and barley carb sources). Weight gainers have a higher carb to protein ratio usually around 2:1.
Waxy maize starch: A fast carb that has been shown to replenish glycogen faster than dextrose, not neutral tasting either. The original Vitargo was based on WMS.
MRP: These are meal replacements. Like weight gainers, they are powdered and also come in different qualities. One main difference between a MRP and a weight gainer is a MRP has a 2:1 ratio of protein to carbs whereas weight gainers are the other way round.
Creatine: See Creatine FAQs and Creatine Ethyl Ester. Good for every trainer, stick with creatine monohydrate.
Pump products: Good for an ego boost at the gym. They increase the blood flow in the muscles and the feel good factor that the pump provides.
BCAA: Branched chain amino acids, found in all protein sources, no magic wonder supp at all. Not needed for 99% of trainers. Amino acids are what protein is made up of, so vary your diet and there is no need for these at all; they also taste like death.
Protein supplements: The most common are whey, casein (see below), egg and soy. Other protein supplements exist like hemp and rice but from what some users say of them they taste like death and I have little experience of them. Whey, the most common protein used, is neutral tasting if unflavoured and comes in a range of nice tasting flavours too (depends on what supplier too as taste is subjective), good for PWO shakes and adding to other things like homemade weight gainers and smoothies. Three different forms available:
- Concentrate: Around 75% protein, minimal lactose and low fat, great for the majority of trainers out there.
- Isolate: Minimum of 90% protein, virtually no carbs and fat, good for trainers that have a lactose intolerance. It is also absorbed slightly faster than concentrate; real world difference is negligible though.
- Hydrolyzed whey: this is whey isolate that has been partially broken down already and is the fastest absorbing whey there is, it is also very bitter and best mixed with things like waxy maize starch for the advanced trainer who is concerned with best performance and not taste.
Soy protein comes in the form of soy protein isolate which is great for trainers who cannot tolerate dairy products in their diet or for vegans. Egg protein is not neutral tasting and is a very gritty protein. It's good to mix egg with casein and whey to form a good slow release protein blend; it digests slower than whey but faster than casein.
Casein is the other milk protein, and is digested very slowly in the gut. It clots and is digested in 6-8 hours. Use it with whey and egg for a good protein blend.
There is also an article for the Top 10 Bodybuilding Supplements which provides a bit more info.
If you read anything along the lines of 'promises massive increase in muscle, melts pounds off, massive strength increases, blah, blah, blah' then do not even buy the product or entertain its use. Marketing gimmicks like that are there to get you to part with your hard earned cash, to sell you a dream in a pot of magic beans that won't do anything for you. If it sounds too good to be true, it really is!
The only supplements any new trainer needs, in my opinion, are unflavoured whey, maltodextrin or dextrose and creatine. Weight gainers and MRPs maybe, the rest should be good solid food! Trust me you cannot get big from shakes and lotions, potions and magic beans.
I hope you enjoyed reading this and it has answered most of your questions. To summarise: Eat, Rest, Train hard and have patience and you shall see the results you crave for over time. Happy training and welcome to the iron game.