For those of you who want to build more muscle, we can learn a lot about the effective habits of successful bodybuilders. You now have an opportunity to check out your fitness plans as compared to our top bodybuilding habits.
Push for More Plates on the Bar
In order to build muscle, we need to impose an increasingly greater demand on our existing muscle tissue. This can be accomplished by increasing the overall workload, increasing our pace (less rest between sets), changing to more difficult exercises (or just exercises we are less accustomed to) or increasing the amount of resistance we use. All of these options should be a part of your yearly training cycle. Of these options, lifting heavier weights is both the simplest and most rewarding way to enhance your workouts.
It is possible to increase strength without getting bigger. This can be accomplished by improving the neurological efficiency or biomechanics of particular movements. This is often a goal for elite wrestlers, boxers, weightlifters or other weight-class differentiated athletes for which bodyweight increase would be a detriment. These cases exempted, it is an undeniable truth that progressively increasing the resistance applied to your muscles in basic, multi-joint movements lies at the very core of bodybuilding success. If you were to question any top level bodybuilder about the period in which they made the greatest mass gains of their training career, you will also find that this was also the period in which they simultaneously had their greatest surge in strength.
This being said, the prime directive of your ongoing mission in the gym should be to increase the amount of weight used in all of your exercises – particularly your basic power movements. (Habits Four and Six will be crucial to helping you to achieve this.)
Avoid Schizoid Goal-setting
We’re all familiar with that ambitious teenager that comes into the gym with his Xeroxed workout of the week. The sweat-soaked mass-building program he has clutched in his bony hands will most likely be replaced by Chris Cormier’s pre-contest routine next week. After that he will apply Mentzer’s Heavy-Duty principles before graduating to German Volume Training. Obviously this kid will spend a lot of time spinning his wheels with counter-productive goals and approaches.
Unfortunately, this can also be seen in the more seasoned lifter. Take the example of the lifter pursuing maximum strength that begins to get nervous when his bulk-up plan starts to cause the glazing over of his once-shredded abdominals. Sometimes the specificity demanded of certain goals requires the loosening up of other priorities, even if only for a temporary period of time.
In order to make the type of dramatic changes most people crave; a consistent long-term game plan should be designed and followed. What the previously-mentioned teenager should do is firmly identify their goals, and then read a variety of books and magazine articles, soaking in the knowledge they contain, but being ever conscious of the rationale behind each of these training and nutrition strategies. Those that apply to his goals and current status can be applied, while other concepts can be mentally shelved for possible later use.
By setting, and writing down, a twelve-month goal, one can design a consistent strategy for reaching it and arrange for the necessary time and resources to make it a reality.
Eat to Support Growth
Fueling the body for muscle growth is not like being the chief engineer of a corny sci-fi starship. You cannot “divert all power to primary thrusters” when necessary. The needs of evolution have mandated exactly how the human body prioritizes its energy usage. Unfortunately, huge muscle size is NOT high on the list of what the body has been programmed for.
Evolution has dictated that “lean and fast” is more important for survival than “huge and powerful.” Primitive man has set the genetic platform for us. Screaming and popping a gnarly most-muscular pose might scare off a hungry Bengal tiger but the odds are that the local Mr. Cave-Dweller winner will be dinner while his considerably faster friend lives to be chased another day. Building the unusually large muscle size bodybuilders demand requires us to outsmart these previously firm genetic setpoints.
The chief way to accomplish this is by eating large quantities of nutritious food. There is not a top bodybuilder on the planet that does not amaze his non-training friends with his huge appetite. This being the case, three square meals following the basic food pyramid falls painfully short when your goal is building scary levels of muscle. The profound demands of an intense training program require large protein consumption (approximately two to three grams per pound of bodyweight) as well as a large calorie intake (15-22 grams per pound of bodyweight) just to maintain their muscle mass. Making sure that all of your nutritional bases are covered, is the surest way to take your physique to a new level.
Eliminate Weak Links
Do you see that rugged and unrefined group of powerlifters that seems to linger in the corner near the squat racks? You may have been warned never to feed them or establish eye contact. However, there is one area in which bodybuilders can learn a crucial lesson from these power-hungry Cro-mags. Accomplished powerlifters are typically masters of proper exercise form, particular in their three competitive lifts. Not only do good powerlifters analyze the arc of movement for the specific lift; they dissect each segment of the lift, determining their unique leverage and weaknesses. After this is done, they design an approach to improve these weaknesses.
For example, quite a few lifters find that their bench press tends to stall two-thirds of the way up, making lockout impossible. This is often indicative of a weakness in the triceps. If the lifter’s chest and front deltoid muscles are strong enough to bench press 365 pounds, but the triceps muscles are only strong enough to press 225, the lifter will be limited by this “weak link.” Understanding this point, the intelligent lifter will adjust their training program in order to emphasize triceps strength, therefore improving the overall performance in the lift.
They also take this a step further, analyzing their level of explosiveness, starting strength and ability to handle workload in order to become the best lifters possible.
Common weak links include lower back in squatting movements, grip strength in deadlifts and rowing movements, triceps in pressing movements and the entire hip, lower back and abdominal groups which stabilize the upper body in a number of standing movements, (such as front squats or standing barbell presses). By constantly analyzing your key lifts and implementing movements to strengthen the weak areas, your overall strength and development will be dramatically improved.
Vary Your Training
An amazing number of lifters, at all levels of competition, have their personal “perfect” routine; a framework of fundamental exercises and set / rep schemes that they feel is ideal for them. Once found, this routine is religiously adhered to for most of their lifting career. Unfortunately, no such “perfect routine” exists. The body, with its amazing adaptive ability, derives limited stimulation from that which it has grown accustomed to. For maximum progress, the muscles need to be forced to constantly adapt to new exercises and techniques.
Areas which should be regularly modified include the exercises you use, reps per set, weight (percentage of one-rep max), rep tempo (speed of lifting and lowering the weight), workout pace (time between sets) and volume (number of sets). With this many factors to manipulate, repetitions never need become repetitious.
This is not to say that workouts should randomly be drawn out of a hat. If exercises are changed EACH workout, there is no opportunity to develop strength or mastery in their performance. These adjustments should be designed in a logical manner. How this is done will depend on your specific goals.
Multi-Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane follows a periodization program based on the seasons. In the winter months his workouts involve the use of shorter, less frequent workouts incorporating heavy weight for low reps. As the year progresses, he gradually trains more times a week, at a faster pace and with a slower rep tempo. As he does this he also increases the number of both sets and reps. This approach allowed Zane to focus on strength in the winter and early spring months and muscle hypertrophy / conditioning in the summer and fall.
Bodybuilding progress is contingent on our ability to constantly increasing stress, either in the form of heavier resistance or greater workload. In order for this to take place, we need to train and eat in a consistent manner.
A two to three week break from the gym causes a significant level of deconditioning. This is displayed by a loss in strength, which in turn, is brought on by a loss in neurological efficiency. Basically, you find yourself in a “two steps forward, three steps back” scenario. In order to push the envelope in size and strength haphazard half-assed commitment will not even provide half-assed results; you are more likely to receive NO positive improvements.
Make a commitment to yourself to stick you your training and nutrition program. If you cannot honestly do that, then resolve yourself to considering your training as a mere healthy habit. Leave the serious stuff for the dedicated lifters.
While building an impressive physique can be a Herculean task, involving hours of strenuous training, stringent dietary practices, and numerous personal and social sacrifices, it is also supposed to be fun. In order to maintain the high level of discipline necessary to achieve your goals, it is important to make the process enjoyable.
Allow me to share a few of my favorite ways of doing this. Prior to workouts, my training partner and I would meet for coffee, either at one of our homes or a nearby (and cheap) restaurant. We would use this as an opportunity to “get our heads in gear” and discuss some of our goals for that day’s training session.
A few times a month, we would also plan “weekend workout safaris.” This involved traveling to hardcore gyms within a ninety-minute radius in order to soak in some diverse equipment and atmosphere. We would also sometimes arrange to meet with competitive lifters or bodybuilders that trained there in order to trade training tips and techniques.
Another useful ritual for those who train with a partner, is the impromptu wager. If I know my training partner has hit a sticking point on his squats, I might mention before a set that if he is able to complete six deep reps with a particular weight that that weekend’s post-workout steak and eggs is on me. This seems to be effective since his squat total is increasing right along with my tab at the local diner. These techniques make striving for our training goals seem more like play and less like work.