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.

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.


Who knew there was controversy over pullovers?

I’ve been following the Super Squats program.  20 reps of squats followed by pullovers.  If you do a Google search on pullovers you find articles talking about the shoulder problems that can result.

Super Squats uses light pullovers, so no problem there.

The other thing you find when you read the articles are differing opinions about the effectiveness.  Some say its primarily a back exercise, some say primarily chest, some say serratus.

Some say it does nothing.

The old-timers said that it stretched your rib cage.  A bigger rib cage = bigger chest.  It just creates more surface area for your muscle to cover.

I am not a scientist so I wouldn’t know how to prove it one way or another.  However, I do believe in the old-time methods.  Those guys built muscle in the days before steroids.

This is what I do:

  • Finish the last squat.
  • Immediately lie perpendicular on a bench with your head off one side, your shoulder blades on the bench and your butt lower than your torso.
  • Take a 25 lb plate and extend your arms out from your chest (bench press style).
  • Take two or three deep breaths, holding the last one.
  • While keeping your elbows as straight as possible (I am not a stickler on this point), lower the weight back over the top of your head.
  • Take one gulp of air just prior to, and another at the point where the weight is fully extended behind your head.  I am trying to fill my lungs with air.
  • Exhale and bring it back to the starting position.
  • Repeat 19 times.

Why a plate instead of a dumbbell?  I don’t like my hands so close together when doing pullovers.  A 25 lb plate is the right distance for me.

Some people prefer a barbell or EZ curl bar, but I find these can sometimes be a bit difficult to control if it tips to one side or another.  You can control a plate.

I might feel differently if I were doing this as a strength movement with heavy weights.  For that type of movement a plate would be impractical.  It only really works for light pullovers.

There is an alternative version of the breathing pullover.  Stand up and grab something sturdy with both hands.  It has to be something at or just above your eye level.  Stand far enough away so that you have to bend forward slightly at the waist and extend your arms in order to grab it.  The breathing is the same as above, but you are pulling down instead of moving a weight back and forth.

Do the pullovers work?  Anecdotally, I say yes.

Squats and Milk and Pullovers.

It works.