Bodybuilding Series, Part 2
NOTE: The following article is the first in a series on bodybuilding basics for beginners and intermediate lifters. Please stay tuned for more to come…
What are the core essentials needed for a good bodybuilding routine? Are longer workouts better? Should you train to failure? Are isolation exercises recommended? Is it good to take a week off every now and then?
The list of questions that could be asked when designing a routine is near endless. So, instead of sorting through questions, here are the core essentials needed for any routine.
HEAVY COMPOUND MOVEMENTS
Heavy compound movements are weight lifting exercises that utilize multiple large muscle groups to perform repetitions. These exercises are generally performed with barbells and dumbbells, but in the case of pullups and dips, can be used with bodyweight alone.
The following is a list of 14 important heavy compound movements that should form the core of any bodybuilding routine. The first seven exercises are the powerhouses, and the second group of seven exercises are solid backups.
BENCH PRESS. The bench press is the favorite exercise of gym rats everywhere. Show me a bench at any local gym, and I will show you several lifters waiting in line to use it. The bench press is the king of upper body compound movements. Not only does it hammer your chest into massive growth, but the bench press also works your triceps and delts.
OVERHEAD PRESS. The overhead (or military) press rules the land of shoulder growth, blasting your side and front deltoids into submission. There are many effective variations of this movement…seated dumbbell presses, seated barbell presses, standing barbell presses, behind the neck barbell presses. The overhead press also works your triceps and traps.
DIPS. Dips are a potent, but little used tricep blasting exercise. Dips also work the chest and shoulders. Despite being a bodyweight exercise, additional weight can be added to this exercise by the use of a weight belt.
DEADLIFT. Another often avoided or ignored exercise is the deadlift. The deadlift is an amazingly anabolic compound lift that will bomb your back, traps, hamstrings, forearms, biceps, shoulders, and just about every other muscle in your body. No workout routine is complete without the deadlift.
ROWS. While most gym rats prefer to work their backs with lat pulldowns, the barbell or dumbbell row is a much more effective exercise. Rowing exercises allow you to lift heavy weights while still maintaining good form and encouraging thick, powerful back growth. Certain variations of t-bar rows are also effective as well.
PULLUPS. Pullups are one of the least favorite bodyweight exercises on the planet. The pullup is generally hated because it is difficult to perform. Like the dip, additional weight can be added while performing pullups via a weight belt. There are several variations of the pullups movement, all much more effective than machine lat pulldown movements.
SQUATS. Squats are hands down the king of all weightlifting exercises. If your routine does not include squats, you might as well be ice skating. Squats put your body into an anabolic state, and not only make your legs and lower body stronger, but also encourage upper body strength increases. You haven’t lifted until you’ve squatted.
CLOSEGRIP BENCH PRESS. A heavy compound exercise that stresses your triceps, chest and shoulders.
INCLINE BENCH PRESS. Another great variation of the bench press. Incline presses can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells.
UPRIGHT ROWS. Upright rows blast your shoulders and trap.
SHRUGS. Barbell or dumbbell shrugs are great for trap development, and work well hand in hand with deadlifts and shoulder work.
POWER CLEANS. The power clean is yet another under-used exercise. The power clean works your shoulders, traps, back, legs and more.
ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS. The Romanian deadlift is an effective way to blast your hamstrings, and an awesome alternative to lying machine hamstring curls.
LUNGES. Another quality leg-hammering exercise.
At minimum, a quality bodybuilding routine should feature the squat, deadlift, and bench press. If a routine has more isolation exercises than heavy compound exercises, it is a wise decision to re-think the routine and build it over from scratch.
Now that we now which exercises are best for lifting routines, the question then becomes how do we best utilize these exercises to achieve maximum muscle growth and strength?
But before we answer this question, let’s consider a typical gym scenario. We all know a group of lifters who have been at the gym for a while. They seem to be working out hard, but never appear to get results. Why is this?
The answer is generally lack of progression.
Progression: improving your number of repetitions for a specific exercise, or amount of weight lifted from a previous workout.
If you never attempt to push your body for more reps or more weight, can you honestly expect to get bigger? Of course not. The body is very efficient at adapting to current workloads. What seems heavy to you today may easily become routine within several months.
Lack of progression is the main reason why most lifters stop growing. They continue to bench press the same weight for the same reps year after year.
Here’s how progression works…let’s say that last week you bench pressed 225 pounds for 6 reps. next time you hit the gym for a chest workout, it should be your goal to bench 225 pounds for 7 or 8 reps. And once you can hit 10 reps (or 12 reps, depending upon the rep scheme that is most effective for you), you increase the weight to 230 or 235 pounds and repeat the cycle.
The progression cycle is simple. Increase your reps with a given weight until you hit your rep ceiling, and then go up in weight. With the new weight, increase your reps from workout to workout until you hit your rep ceiling, and add more weight during your next workout.
Progression should be the cornerstone of any solid routine. But what happens when your progress stops?
Sooner or later your progress will stop. When you hit two workouts in a row where you have hit a dead end, it is time for a de-load period.
De-load: a working rest, in which you use the same weight but cut your reps by approximately 40%. A de-load workout can also use the same reps, but with 20-30% less weight.
De-load periods are essential to any good routine. No one can get stronger forever. When your strength falters, take a week or two to de-load.
It is also a good idea to de-load if you are feeling burned out, over-trained, or you have aches, pains and sore joints. De-loading allows you to retain your current strength and fitness level, while simultaneously reducing your fatigue level.
Now understand, de-loading periods to not automatically insure that you will come back stronger or fresh, though generally this is the case. If, after a week or two of backing off with a de-load, you resume your workouts and the progress still isn’t there, continue to push yourself for another 3-4 weeks, and then de-load again.
If, however, after a de-load period you still feel over-trained, consider another week of de-loading.
De-loading periods can we worked into any style of training routine. One thing to consider…if you are continuing to gain strength/reps regularly, and do not feel over-trained, a de-load period is not needed. To add in arbitrary de-load periods when your training is rocketing forward is a immense waste of time.
For a beginning to intermediate lifter, it is generally enough to rely on progression as the sole training technique. Rest-pause sets, giant sets, negative reps, slow reps, and every other high intensity trick under the sun are not needed.
One thing I will mention is this…try not to waste too much time in between sets. The point in working out is to work your body, not socialize with others at the gym. Generally, anything more than 5 minutes between sets is excessive. It is preferable to rest 1-4 minutes between sets, depending on your energy level and drive.
TRAIN TO NEAR FAILURE
One of the aspects critical to any training routine is learning when to stop a set. It is not necessary to train to failure. Learn your body. When you feel like it may not be possible to get through another rep, stop the set. This is training to near failure. You can come back on your next workout and attempt to increase your reps.
Training to failure can be a big ego boost, but it also involves wasted energy and increased risk of joint/tendon strain or injury. Save the wear and tear on your joints but not going to failure. This way, you will be able to train into your 40’s and 50’s without brutal tendinitis and joint aches.
Despite what lifters like Arnold Schwarzenegger say, it is not preferable that natural lifters spend 2-3 hours in the gym at a time, hammering out 30 sets per bodypart. After warming up, your workout should not run over an hour. A 45 minute workout is preferable.
After 45-60 minutes in the gym, your body can enter into a catabolic state. This big word simply means that excessive time in the gym becomes counter-productive to growth and strength. Get in the gym, stretch, workout, and get out.
A 45-60 minutes workout is plenty of time to perform 12-20 total sets.
You should be performing 12-20 sets per workout, depending on your workout split, but no more. For younger lifters, a larger volume of sets is ok. But for older lifters, 12-16 sets is perfect. We will explore this later when we look at specific workout routines.
It is natural for beginning to intermediate lifters to want to do progress as fast as possible. But progression is not safe if you do not know your body. As a beginner, focus on learning proper form and exercises pacing first and foremost. Progressing in weight before you understand the mechanics of any given exercises can lead to bad habits and training injuries.
Another good habit is to avoid ego-related pressures. You may feel insecure and worthless benching 135 pounds while other studs in the gym are benching 200 plus, but resist the urge to push yourself beyond your limits. Any time you bring your ego into the gym, you also increase the risk of injury. With a practical and well planned out routine, you will progress relatively fast, and will be one of the strongest lifters in the gym with a year’s time. Be patient.
And finally, resist the urge to throw aside your current training program, and adapt a program you found on the Internet or in a magazine. The routine’s found in bodybuilding magazines are generally followed by steroid-gorged lifters. And the sheer amount of lifting routines found on the Internet is staggering.
Follow the above rules, and keep your weightlifting routine simple. Fancy is not better…a fancy routine only makes you feel like you are doing more.