Recently, while reading Bold & Determined's 37 Bad Guy Bodybuilding Tips, one tip in particular stood out to me. The gist of it was:
#20: Light weights work great, but only for advanced lifters.
And it got me thinking about all the things in bodybuilding that can be confusing to new lifters.
All of the big guys are training everyday, using bizarre exercises and crazy rep schemes, but that's not what they recommend others do.
Everything seems contradictory at first.
It's a “do as I say, not as I do” system that can be frustrating to new lifters.
Really, it isn't that one type of training is inherently good, and another bad – it's all just dependent on a lifter's experience level.
It's like racing cars
Remember the first drag race scene in the original The Fast and The Furious?
Brian O'Conner had the souped up car, a positive mindset, and more NOS than he knew what to do with.
And he still lost!
Brian was an amateur racer using advanced equipment.
NOS is great for experienced drivers who know what they're doing, but it doesn't guarantee a damn thing if you're new to the game.
Rather than adding more power, he would've been better off spending some time on the drag strip perfecting his shifts and learning how the car handles under hard acceleration.
And lifting weights is no different.
Just because a technique or method is great for experienced lifters doesn't mean it'll bring you up to that same level.
If you're new to lifting and can be persuaded to put some of the advanced techniques on the back burner for at least the first year, you're going to extract the greatest value possible out of the honeymoon period that will yield your “newbie gains”.
And while no one will police your workouts or threaten to revoke your gym membership if you get out of line, some “rights” of bodybuilding are simply better when “earned.”
Below, I've laid out my Best Bets for new lifters to help guide you in the early weeks and months of your bodybuilding journey.
Earn the right to max out
Sorry for the vertical video (gym buddies aren't always professional cameramen), but this old footage was a perfect fit.
Even though this is a 1RM, my form stays solid due to more than a decade of experience.
Without a doubt, the most common gym-related question besides, “spot me, bro?” is “how much you bench?”
With such an emphasis on strength, particularly on the bench press, it's only natural for guys to want to:
- Establish this number
- Improve upon it
But for beginners, frequently working up to max lifts will likely do more harm than good.
Since you don't have the movement pattern down perfectly, your form will go to shit when things get hectic.
Meaning backs round during the deadlift, knees cave while squatting, and elbows flare on the bench.
Your joints and connective tissue aren't accustomed to handling frequent, heavy training (and the less-than-optimal joint angles) and you'll end up with more aches and pains than strength gains.
Aside from that, you likely don't have the ability to intuitively know how much weight you should be lifting on your next set.
But with experience, your joints become conditioned, your nervous system becomes so efficient that you maintain rock solid form throughout the set, and you'll know exactly how much weight to slap on the bar based on how the previous set felt.
The only way to accomplish this is with more sets, more reps, and more time.
BEST BET: Don't worry about your 1RM for 6 months to 1 year. Focus on improving your strength for multiple reps and you'll improve your max in the process.
Earn the right to lift little weights
In the first few months, most of your strength gains come not from actually building muscle tissue, but becoming more neurologically efficient.
This simply means that your nervous system becomes better at using more muscle fibers at a given time.
When you lack the neurological efficiency to fire all available muscle fibers with lighter weights, many will remain under stimulated and no growth response will follow.
You need to first improve this efficiency. That means getting stronger, which implies using heavier weights.
For beginners, any weight that can be lifted for more than about 12-15 reps simply isn't going to do you much good.
But the guy who's built up impressive strength and muscle control can completely exhaust his delts with high rep lateral raises using only a pair of 20 lb dumbbells.
BEST BET: Spend most of your time lifting 5-12 reps for overall mass and strength development.
Earn the right to use bad form
Again, bad angle but this is a perfect illustration of the “loose but still safe” form that comes with experience.
When you're a beginner, the most important thing is building a foundation of strength and learning how your body responds to training.
But you can't do either of those if you get hurt. And how do you know you're getting stronger if you used extra momentum to get that last rep?
So curling heavy weights and swaying your lower back isn't going to help you one bit in the beginning.
But experienced lifters can use cheat reps to their advantage.
They can use strict form for as many reps as possible, then swing the weight to get an extra one or two.
This is particularly useful after the first few years of lifting when gains in muscle mass and strength become much harder to come by.
You'll have to find creative ways to make progress.
While you won't always be able to add weight or extra reps, you can swing the weight, bounce the bar off your chest, and capitalize on the stretch reflex to eek out one more.
BEST BET: Keep your form 90% perfect for the first year to avoid injury and to know that you're actually getting stronger and not just better at swinging weights.
Earn the right to use supplements
Supplements can be great…in addition to heavy weight training, a well-considered diet, cardio, intelligent progression, and most importantly, consistency.
I love supplements, and sometimes I'm astounded by how many I take, but I know their role and I have an accurate assessment of their value.
When you're just starting out, switching from cheese fries to chicken and rice for lunch is going to have a bigger impact on your physique than taking creatine.
For new lifters, eating a few vegetables is better than adding a multi-vitamin, and just being plain ol' excited to go to the gym is better than a fancy pre-workout.
But once you have those bases covered and you can identify areas where you need support, supplements can really help to maximize the return on your investment.
You want to make sure you beat your previous performance so you take a pre workout before attacking the weights.
To ensure your cardio sessions are as effective as possible, you pop a fat burner before spending 30 minutes of your life moving like hell without actually going anywhere.
And eventually, you realize that even though you may have an outstanding diet, you could improve your health even further by adding certain vitamins, amino acids, and herbal supplements.
BEST BET: I'm not going to tell you not to take supplements, just make sure you're treating them as an addition to your efforts, not a substitution.
Earn the right to use anabolics
Of course, I can't stop you, but don't be surprised if you see lackluster results by pulling the trigger too soon.
Learn from Brian O'Conner. Don't hit the NOS until you know how to race!
How successful your bulk or cut is will be largely dependent on how well you eat for your goals.
Anabolics can help you gain some extra mass on a bulking cycle, but the food has to be there to support the weight gain.
SARMs are excellent at preserving muscle mass while losing body fat, but if you don't eat at a deficit, your bodyweight will stay exactly the same regardless of what you take.
Really, the basics of this diet stuff isn't that hard. It might be confusing, but it isn't difficult.
Achieving and maintaining a super lean physique is tricky and requires diligence, but regular old weight loss simply takes some vigilance and consistency.
BEST BET: Learn the basics of diet and training first before considering advanced supplements meant to take you to the next level.
Earn the right to eat like shit
Sure, some guys can eat junk and maintain a great physique at the same time.
We all know that dude who looks like olympic athlete and eats nothing but fast food, doesn't really lift, and hasn't even considered steroids.
Good for him.
But not everyone can get away with that, especially skinny/fat guys.
More specifically, those guys typically aren't making changes to their bodies, they're just maintaining naturally athletic physiques.
But if you're actively making dramatic changes to your body, don't be swayed by what the other guys do.
Educate yourself and eat the good food you know you should be eating.
As you probably already know, I eat like crap sometimes. But the key word is sometimes.
I've already made the significant changes to my body and now it's all about maintenance and refinement.
I'm in this for the long haul so I sneak in a few slices of pizza here and there to keep my sanity intact.
But when I first dropped 40 lbs of excess body fat in about 6 months, I didn't eat a single french fry, potato chip, or piece of candy the entire time.
I'm actually surprised the staff at my local Burger King didn't file a Missing Persons report.
But I knew that if I cut out all of the foods I'd enjoyed over the years, I was going all in to get the best possible results.
BEST BET: Eat as perfectly as you can until you're where you want to be. Then experiment to find out how much crap you can sneak in.
Earn the right to work one muscle per day
Spending an entire training session annihilating a single muscle group is a technique best reserved for experienced lifters for a number of reasons:
- When you're already big and strong, adding volume can be safer than lifting heavier
- When you know how to really push through your pain barrier, you can get good results focusing on one muscle
- Using lighter weight and more exercises can be easier on joints
- When you're super strong, doing squats, deadlifts, and bench in one workout can be too exhausting
- It lets you really hone in on weak points
- Advanced lifters may be using PEDs and drugs that make the muscles more locally anabolic
But when you're a beginner:
- You still have the potential to increase weight lifted from one workout to the next
- You aren't fully aware of where your limits are and how to push past them
- You're lifting relatively lighter weight so your joints won't get as beat up
- Lifting multiple compound movements in one workout is less exhausting
- You don't really have weak points yet
- You likely aren't on PEDs (as you shouldn't be) so total body growth is a better approach
Working a number of body parts per day, fewer days per week allows you to build total body strength, limits the number of isolation exercises you can do, and allows you time to recover between workouts.
BEST BET: Use either a full body, upper/lower, or push/lower/pull type of routine for as long as it's effective.
Earn the right to do quick workouts
With enough experience, advanced lifters can get in and get shit done in a very short period of time.
They've built their foundation of strength and mass and thus can cause maximal muscle stress with just a few exercises and sets.
They know which exercises are most effective and can put total effort into them.
They've streamlined their warmups so they don't waste time.
And they know just what to do in terms of pushing themselves and utilizing shocking techniques to make a set as brutal as possible.
Without this knowledge and experience, beginners are much better off taking a hand grenade approach by letting exercise volume take care of the finer details.
With this approach, it doesn't matter as much if you don't pick the best exercises, stop a rep or two short of failure, or do things out of order.
BEST BET: To accumulate sufficient training volume, pump that iron for 45-60 minutes per session.
Earn the right to super short or very long rest periods
Sure, it burns like hell to jump from one exercise to another without so much as a breath in between, but this type of training doesn't do a whole lot for increasing strength.
But advanced lifters can use this technique to fully tax every muscle fiber, get a nasty pump, and improve their body's ability to eliminate metabolic byproducts.
At the other extreme, resting 5 minutes between sets usually means one of two things.
- You're an advanced lifter and are doing everything in your power to beat last week's performance.
- You're a beginner playing on your phone, wasting time on pressdowns, or talking to the girl on the treadmill.
When you get near your genetic limit, you have to fight tooth and nail to beat your previous PRs, so sometimes a really long rest is what it takes to get the job done.
For beginners, you want to rest long enough that you have a shot at lifting something relatively heavy.
But you also want your rest periods to be short enough that your muscle fibers don't fully recover between sets and you accumulate enough fatigue to elicit a growth response.
BEST BET: Keep rest periods between sets to about 60-90 seconds.
What should you do?
Don't take any of my advice as unnecessary restrictions.
Nothing here is “off limits” to new bodybuilders…they just won't get you any closer to your goals.
If you're a beginner, you have a terrific advantage right now.
By working out consistently with compound movements in a moderate rep range you'll build muscle and strength faster than the advanced guys could ever dream of.
If your diet is complete garbage right now, turning that around will start to transform your physique almost immediately.
But if you try to get too fancy right out of the gate, you'll spin your wheels for a year, have to reevaluate, and end up starting as a beginner all over again.
I want to see you lay a solid foundation while you're actually a beginner and primed to take advantage of it.
It may not seem like it now, but the world is yours to conquer, my friends.
All the best,