Earn the Right: Notes for New Bodybuilders

Earn the right bodybuilding

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!

The problem?

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:

  1. Establish this number
  2. 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

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

Before you think about taking any “next level” supplements like SARMs or Pro Hormones, you should be able to make your body weight go up and down on demand.

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

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:

  1. When you're already big and strong, adding volume can be safer than lifting heavier
  2. When you know how to really push through your pain barrier, you can get good results focusing on one muscle
  3. Using lighter weight and more exercises can be easier on joints
  4. When you're super strong, doing squats, deadlifts, and bench in one workout can be too exhausting
  5. It lets you really hone in on weak points
  6. Advanced lifters may be using PEDs and drugs that make the muscles more locally anabolic

But when you're a beginner:

  1. You still have the potential to increase weight lifted from one workout to the next
  2. You aren't fully aware of where your limits are and how to push past them
  3. You're lifting relatively lighter weight so your joints won't get as beat up
  4. Lifting multiple compound movements in one workout is less exhausting
  5. You don't really have weak points yet
  6. 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.

  1. You're an advanced lifter and are doing everything in your power to beat last week's performance.
  2. 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,


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  • Reply
    Jeremiah Miller
    March 10, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    Great article Nate.

    The foundation is the key. I’ve had a base of several years now, but my body has changed a lot. I no longer walk in looking to move the heaviest weight possible, but I train mostly instinctively, with drop sets, super sets, and other methods, and these days I’m only training a 3 day split. After phases of lighter lifting/more running, I have to bite the bullet and get back to basics though, and relearn how my body responds. Good stuff.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      I’m right with you, Jeremiah. I like to use a program like Starting Strength when I need to “reset” my compound lifts.

  • Reply
    Christian bailey
    March 10, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Agree 100% when i first started lifting 2 summers ago i was following body builder workouts and following my friends who were advanced lifters and on “special supplements” and didnt notice any results other than strength gain. Since august i started doing my own thing experiementing with different exercises, and sets, and going heavy vs light and i blew up in size and am now at the point where i am experiementing with diets and supplements to find whats best for me. And now im at the point where i do whatever i feel like in the gym whatever weight whatever body part or parts, sometimes i have a 2 hour workout and sometimes i have a 30 min workout and i get the same pump and same effects from either. Next step if focusing on nutrition thanks nate for the insight love your articles.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2016 at 6:17 pm

      I’m glad you liked it, Christian! Check out some of my articles on flexible dieting. I think tracking what you eat can teach you more about nutrition in the long run than following any other type of “diet.”

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    This is all great advice – I wish I’d found it during my first few months at the gym some years ago. I was expecting to see an ‘Earn the right to use dumbbells’ since I see way too many beginners fooling around with light DBs all day long building little to no strength.

    At what point would you recommend taking a SARM such as Osta-Red or Super Mandro?

    • Reply
      March 14, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      That’s definitely a good one. I would say that you shouldn’t consider SARMs until you’re already good at making changes to your body through diet and exercise. At that point, you’ll be able to get the best possible results with the addition of those supplements.

  • Reply
    March 11, 2016 at 9:31 am

    As a guy with 27 years of lifting behind him, I can attest that this is gospel!
    There comes a point for a life-long lifter where the laws of progressive overload need to be reinterpreted.
    Light weights can work great because what really matters is the strength of the muscle contraction, and experienced lifters have developed the mind/body connection necessary to work a vicious squeeze off a lighter weight.
    I think it was Arnold that said something like the weight is only a catalyst to work the muscle.
    One of the biggest mistakes I see in the gym is guys working with weights that are too heavy for them, necessitating momentum to get their reps. It’s fine to periodize explosive monvements, but that should not be the norm for a guy trying to build muscle.
    The main point is to work the muscle, not move the weight. It’s a slight, but powerful shift in thinking.
    This article really resonated with me!

    • Reply
      March 14, 2016 at 7:23 pm

      Great contributions as always, Chris! I remember reading a long time ago “you’re muscles can’t read the numbers on the plates, they only know how hard they’re working.” That one has always stuck with me.

  • Reply
    March 11, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Sick article! 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.
    Ill stay with that

  • Reply
    March 14, 2016 at 8:55 am

    This is great advice. I wish I had been able to read this when I was just starting out, but it took me a year of not earning the right to figure it out. I wanted to do all of the complicated chemistry first instead of just getting in the gym and picking up the heaviest thing I could as many times as I could. This may be the best article for beginning bodybuilders I’ve read. Great work Nate!

  • Reply
    Shobhit Choudhary
    March 22, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Just curious, what product is that? The one from NOW foods? I used their ZMA once and experienced diarrhea and acne. I was taking the recommended doses. I thought it’s because of the Magnesium(it’s laxative) but then I used a few other brands and no side-effects. Poor chemical compound maybe?
    What’s your experience with NOW foods ?

    • Reply
      March 22, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      That’s beta-alanine from NOW. I use their products all the time and haven’t had any bad reactions. I mostly by from them for single ingredient supplements like amino acids, herbs, and vitamins. That’s weird that you had that reaction. My first thought was that you were sensitive to magnesium but you’ve had success with other brands. Was the dosing and the same?

      • Reply
        Shobhit Choudhary
        March 23, 2016 at 6:27 am

        I was taking the recommended doses which is 30mg Zinc and 450mg Magnesium. With NOW foods I had to reduce the dosage to 20mg Zinc and 300mg Magnesium to avoid Diarrhea.
        The other brand that I have been using is Precision Nutrition. I did a bit research and found that you experience these side-effects with ZMA because of poor quality Magnesium-oxide. If buying Magnesium separately one should prefer taking Magnesium glycinate.

  • Reply
    March 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    That was not a 1rm at all. It looks like you could have done 3 reps with that weight. You didn’t max out on that one.

    ”OK” form’ is fine to find your real max and bust through plateaus.

    If you base your training percentages on that kind of 1rm your training intensity will be much lower than you think.

    • Reply
      March 30, 2016 at 5:16 am

      That was definitely within a few pounds of a true 1RM. I had a couple missed attempts to get over the 225 hurdle during the workouts leading up to that one. I also had quite a few failed attempts during subsequent workouts as I increased the load. I was fired up that day and everything just felt perfect!

  • Reply
    Rohan Arora
    April 9, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Great article mate.
    It is very important to perform light weight with proper form than lifting heavy with bad form. The combination of right workout, right nutrition, right supplements and adequate sleep can lead to great results in very short time. Great information indeed.

  • Reply
    January 27, 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Nate, great article! I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. My only quibble would be with the following statement:

    “Use either a full body, upper/lower, or push/lower/pull type of routine for as long as it’s effective.”

    I’ve been lifting for about 27 years now, and in my experience all three of those types of splits will remain “effective” over a lifetime…as long as one puts in the requisite time and effort. I’ve never made very good progress on a more aggressive split than those, and I’ve probably made my best progress in overall body composition over the past couple of years on a full body routine done twice per week, on Mondays and Thursdays. I change up exercises and rep schemes (usually within the 5-12 rep range) every few months, but I always stick to the same basic format of 4 main compound lifts and 2 or 3 isolation lifts. As long as you push your sets hard and add reps or weight when capable, it works like a charm. My current routine looks like this:

    Workout A (Mondays)

    Incline bench press 5 x 5-10
    Seated cable row 5 x 5-10
    Upright cable row 5 x 5-10
    Standing cable triceps pressdowns 5 x 10-15
    Standing barbell squat 5 x 5-10
    Standing calf raise 5 x 10-15
    Ab work

    Workout B (Thursdays)

    Standing barbell overhead press 5 x 5-10
    Pullups or Seated pulldowns 5 x 5-10
    Parallel bar dips 5 x 5-10
    Standing barbell curls 5 x 10-15
    Trap-bar deadlifts 5 x 5-10
    Leg extension 3 x 10-15
    Leg curl 3 x 10-15
    Ab work

    Now, if you’re a competitive powerlifter, this type of routine won’t work. If you’re a competitive Olympic lifter, this type of routine won’t work. And if you’re a competitive bodybuilder, this type of routine probably won’t work (although I’d argue that it might work quite well with one or two additional light workouts days to hone in any lagging body parts). But if you just want to build an impressive amount of muscle, stay strong and healthy, and look good naked, this type of routine will work great for just about anybody (with minor adjustments made in exercises, sets, and reps for each unique individual). Just my two-cents worth… :-)

    • Reply
      January 28, 2017 at 10:51 am

      That’s a great routine, especially for busy guys looking for the most effective routine with the smallest time commitment. Although, my recommendation to change routines at some point is similar to your recommendation to change exercises and reps. It’s just a way to manipulate a variable. Some guys want to eventually compete in bodybuilding and want to be in the gym every day but can’t recover from hitting heavy compound movements that frequently. So at some point, working one muscle group every day of the week may be ultimately more effective for their goals.

    • Reply
      May 28, 2017 at 2:22 pm

      Really happy to read your experience. I’m only 21 and enjoy learning from the veterans of training. My routine full body is below. Main goal is look good naked, get lean then slowly add muscle while getting stronger on the compound lifts.

      Day A
      Bulgarian split squat – 4×8-12

      Romanian deadlift – 4×8-12


      Inverted bodyweight row – 4xsubmax reps
      Incline dumbbell bench – 4×8-12


      Neutral grip pullups – 4xsubmax reps
      Dips – 4xsubmax reps


      Hammer curls – 4×8-12
      Tricep skullcrushers db – 4×8-12

      Plank -3x 45-60 sec.

      Day B
      Reverse lunge – 4×8-12

      Hip thrusts – feet on bench – 4xsubmax reps


      Dumbbell row single arm – 4×8-12
      Incline dumbbell bench – 4×8-12


      Neutral grip pullup – 4xsubmax
      Dumbbell shoulder press – 4×8-12


      Alternating curls – 3×8-12
      Tricep skullcrushers db – 3×8-12

      side Plank – 3×20 sec

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