The Beginner’s Guide To Bodybuilding: Part 1

“Bodybuilding” is misunderstood.  Every workout routine is a bodybuilding routine.  Most people don’t like to think of it that way but its true.  Every physical activity that we undertake with the expectation of improving our physique is bodybuilding.

So get over the terms.  That goes for men and women, young and old.  We are all bodybuilders.  That doesn’t mean that we have to diet down to 5% bodyfat, buy a Speedo and quit our jobs in order to spend more time in the gym.

I don’t have time for that and I’m guessing that you don’t either.  Time is the limiting factor for most of us.  Fortunately, effective bodybuilding has more to do with quality than quantity.  If you can spare thirty minutes twice a week that should be plenty.  Forty-five minutes is better, but thirty will do it.

It sounds like a joke.  How could you make progress on that little amount of training?  “My trainer recommends three days a week of hour long workouts consisting of 12 – 15 sets plus cardio.”  Sound familiar?  That approach can be effective, there are problems:

  1. You will lose motivation after a few weeks of marathon sessions.  Even if you could keep the motivation, we all have other things to do.
  2. Cumulative fatigue will stop you from training hard or lead to an injury.


Anything else won’t do the trick and won’t keep the cycle going.  That’s why 2/3 of Americans who hold a gym membership never use it.  They tried, it took too much time away from things they’d rather be doing and they did not see the results they wanted.  They lost motivation and they quit.

Don’t train too often. Don’t train too long.  Just train hard.  That’s all the beginning bodybuilding needs to know.  By the way, almost everyone is a beginner.

So what should you do with that thirty minutes?

First you should warm up.  That doesn’t mean stretch and it doesn’t mean ride the bike for a half an hour.  It means do a reasonably quick routine to get yourself ready for action.  Save the stretching for the end of your workout.  After the warm up train three or four of the basic movements for one or two warm up sets plus one or two work sets.

What are the basic movements?

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press or Dips
  • Military Press
  • Bent Row
  • Chin Up or Pulldowns
  • Calf Raises

“Why no arm exercises?  What about barbell curls and triceps press downs?”  They aren’t necessary.  If you train hard enough on the upper body movements you do not need direct arm work.  In my experience, the indirect work you get from bench presses and bent rows is far superior in building both muscle and definition.

“OK, but what about other exercises like leg extensions, leg curls and lateral raises?”  Those are isolation movements.  They isolate one muscle as opposed to compound movements which train a group of muscles.  For example, the lateral raise hits only the deltoids while the military press trains delts, triceps and pectorals.  We want to get the maximum benefit for our training time.  Compound movements give us that efficiency.

Let’s face it, the list of possible movements is endless.  I’ll admit that there are benefits to almost all of them.  However, a beginner is not about complexity.  A simple routine that you can do it with minimal equipment is all that is necessary.  Give it a try for a month and see.

Let’s get to the details.  What about sets and reps?

I’ll save that discussion for part 2.

Embrace The Constraints

55 – 30 – 15.

That’s the ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fat that works.  I worked for me in the past.  My most successful diet was 2011 and that was the breakdown.

I can’t do that now for two reasons.

The first is that today I prefer to go supplement-free.  What do supplements have to do with it?  Its not easy to get to 55% protein without using powders and meal replacements.  I try hard to watch what I put into my body.  Unprocessed food is my goal.  Is there is anything more processed than supplements?

There’s a constraint.  Personal choice.

“So why not just eat more animal proteins?  Its possible to get to 55% with real food.”

True, but that brings me to the second reason.  My gut won’t let me do that ratio with real food.  It would take a whole lot of animal protein to get over the hump and it would just not go well.  Conventional wisdom says that the body can comfortably digest approximately 40 grams of protein per meal.  In my experience, this figure is accurate.

Could I eat more frequently.  Not without getting up in the middle of the night to eat.  I’ve done it, I don’t recommend it.

There’s two more constraints.  A physical limitation that I can’t do much about and the number of hours in a day.

Let’s summarize what we have so far.  The identified constraints are:

  1. Choices
  2. Physical
  3. Time

These three are common.  Some bodybuilders are vegetarian, some are allergic, some work two or three jobs.  Everyone has an excuse to explain their lack of success.  Stop seeing them as excuses and start seeing them as constraints.

Embrace your constraints.  Don’t look at them as limits but parameters.

Diet is a problem for lots of people.  How much should you eat?  Here’s how I use the constraints to figure it out.

By avoiding the unprocessed foods, many options available to the average person are off the menu.  Even pasta is something I prefer to avoid.  Instead, my list is pretty simple:

  • vegetables – lots of them
  • steak, chicken and fish
  • milk, cottage cheese and eggs
  • beans
  • nuts and nut butters
  • oatmeal and rice
  • fruit

The constraint sets the menu.

If you buy the idea that the body can only use 40 or so grams of protein at a sitting, that will dictate your portion size.  Another constraint working in our favor.  Its an advantage because it removes the guesswork.  You’re limited by what you can handle.

Next step, the ratio of protein / carbs / fat.

40 grams of protein * 4 calories per gram – 160 calories.

Let’s say that we aim for 40 – 40 – 20.

I need 160 calories of carbs (40 grams) and 80 calories of fats (approx 9 grams) per meal to round out my ratio.

Total calories per meal = 400.

I have time to eat six meals per day.  I can max out at 2,400 calories per day if I do everything else right.

Let the constraints work in you favor.  They are there to set the guidlines, not to prevent you from succeeding.

How To Make The Most Of Bent Rows

Hypothesis – most trainees stay away from barbell bent rows.  They prefer chins, pulldowns, seated rows, dumbell rows or even T-bar rows to the conventional barbell bent row.


The problem with bent rows is the decline in the strength curve.

What I mean by the strength curve is the loss of power from one part of the range of motion to another.

The movement from full extension to approximately half way up is disproportionately strong when compared to the second half.  Partial reps can keep going long after the full reps are done.  But if you want full reps you have to be prepared to leave the big plates on the sideline.

I am not opposed to partial reps on bent rows and don’t consider it training beyond failure if :

  • reps are done at a controlled pace bordering on superslow, and
  • reps are done with slow, continuous tension.  No pausing at the bottom or “heaving” the weight up by moving your entire torso.

But maybe we don’t have to bother with the partial reps.  Maybe we can solve the  problem by doing two things:

  1. Underhand grip. By taking an underhand grip, similar to what you would do for barbell curls, you put your biceps in a stronger position. Most people know that the weak link in a compound movement is the smaller muscle groups.  In the case of bent rows, the biceps is that muscle group.  By putting them in a stronger position you can keep the focus on the lats for a longer period of time.
  2. < 90°.  I’m talking about the angle of your torso during the movement.  Gravity is not your friend when you are at a 90° angle to the floor.  By reducing the angle even slightly you can reduce the path that the bar has to travel while still preserving the peak contraction potential of the movement.  Think about bringing the bar across your things to your belly instead of through the air to your nipples.

Putting the biceps in a better position and shortening the bar path might sound like a bit of a cop-out.  Are we trying to make the exercise easier?  No.  Bent rows are a special case.  The leverage sucks to begin with by implementing these two changes you can compensate and get a bigger bang for your training buck!

One more point.  With all back movements, retract the shoulder blades after taking your grip and before you start the set.  Keep your back in this position for he entire set, don’t let up.  Full range of motion in a lat movement has nothing to do with releasing the shoulders.

Bodybuilding Meal Preparation

I’m not one for the mainstream or the popular approach to bodybuilding.  That goes for the majority of material available on the internet in general and YouTube in particular.  However, nutrition is one subject where it pays to see what other people do.

This week I’m interested in meal planning.  One of the major reasons for diet failure is poor planning.  Without a supply of readily available, healthy food that tastes good you are screwed.

Here are a few videos that I found helpful:

  • How to Prepare Meals for Bodybuilding by Hahnchampion

  • Bodybuilding Food Preparation by Matty Fusaro
  • Bodybuilding Lunch For The Whole Week by Brosisfitness Emma and James

  •  Weekly Meal Prep Example by Barthelfitness

    The approaches might differ slightly but the basic ideas are the same:

    Batch the task.  By doing all of the prep for the week at one time you will save time later.  In other words, cooking every day for four days takes a lot longer than cooking one day for the next four.

    Planning your meals avoids decision fatigue.  Humans can only make so many decisions in a day.  Decide today what you want to eat this week and set up your food groups.  It goes protein, vegetable, starch.  Not complicated and all decided in advance.

    Use spices, not condiments.  Condiments add calories.

    A few of these videos show food scales, poultry shears, etc.  If you have this stuff, great.  Those tools are helpful, not essential.  Do the best you can with the tools you have.

    For example, let’s say I buy a 4 lb package of chicken cutlets.  I know how many ounces I want to eat in one meal (4 oz) and one day (12 oz).  Armed with that knowledge, I know how to divide the chicken after its cooked.  Since I figure it loses at least 25% of its weight in the cooking, 4 lbs is 4 days of meals for me.  Split it into four equal portions.  Eyeball it.  Minor fluctuations are not a big deal.

    The same goes for rice.  I want 1/4 cup per day.  If I cook a full cup I have 4 days worth of rice.

    By the way, I do not own a rice cooker.  I’m sure it works better than the old “pot on the stove” method but the later works fine.

    As far as shears go, I don’t own those either.  I use a knife.  It might take a bit longer but who cares.  The end result is what matters.

    Follow up:

    This meal tastes very good and keeps well in the fridge and freezes well.  I am very happy with the early returns.

    Mid week cooking will prove a bit more challenging.  I may have to cut corners and roast the cutlets without cutting them up first.

How To Gain Muscle

Train hard and eat slightly more than you need to maintain your current body weight.  That’s the Mike Mentzer approach and though he did not spend a lot of time discussing nutrition with his readers, he did break it down to a simple approach.

Simple answers are always a bit of a let down but this one is correct.  The hard part is figuring out how much you need to “maintain”.

First, weigh yourself as soon as you wake up tomorrow morning.  Then, track your diet for the next five days.  You need the following information for each day:

  • How many calories?
  • How many grams of protein?
  • How many grams of carbs?
  • How many grams of fat?
  • How many meals per day?

Write everything down.  Don’t leave anything out.  While that might sound like a terrible inconvenience, there are things you can do to make it easier.  One is consistency.  Eating the same things for the next five days will make it easy.    Most people have no problem doing that for breakfast and lunch at the very least.

On the morning of the sixth day, weigh yourself again.  Then take the daily average of the above numbers.  Did you gain, lose or stay the same?  If you stayed the same, you now have a pretty good estimate of what maintenance is.  Eat slightly more than that and you will gain.  (NOTE:  “Slightly” means 300 calories).

If your weight fluctuated you can either estimate what maintenance is or adjust your calories and try again.

Continue to watch the scale, track your diet, watch the mirror and watch your progress in the gym.  The last factor is most important.  If you are not getting stronger you are not gaining muscle.