So you're looking to begin training as a bodybuilder. Congratulations! You are about to embark on a journey of self discovery the likes of which no other sport can offer.
Bodybuilding is more 24-hours-a-day than any other sport or hobby, as it encompasses not just your workouts, but everything you eat, how long you sleep, and how you look at any given time. Not only that, but bodybuilding requires you to push your physical limits in the gym on a regular basis, and exert strict discipline over yourself virtually all day every day to realize your goals. It sounds daunting, but the rewards are huge! Not only will you look and feel great, but you will have learned a lot about your body and yourself—how disciplined you are, how you react to different kinds of exercise and different diets, and much more. And you will have put into practice the habit of setting and achieving goals on a regular basis—an invaluable skill that translates to everything!
Before you head to the gym, you need to know what you'll be doing. If you've ever observed a bodybuilder's exercise schedule, you're probably already familiar with a split routine—a program where you split up your training of the whole body by training different muscle groups on different days (Monday-arms, Tuesday-shoulders, etc). This is an extremely valuable tactic for developing an advanced physique, but for a beginner just getting started in weight training it is unnecessarily complicated and could actually slow your initial progress. Most bodybuilders train this way because they are already at a level of development where they need an entire workout devoted to training one or two muscles in order to force those muscles to grow. As a beginner, anything you do will be more than your body is accustomed to and will produce results, so this would be overkill! If you tried to train a single muscle group for up to an hour, you would more than likely overtrain it and slow your progress before even getting started.
So what program is better suited to a beginner than the standard split-routine? In my experience, a total body program is most effective. As I mentioned, anything you do will produce results, but this has worked the best for my clients who are new to weight training. This style of training for beginners is also recommended by authors Rippetoe and Kilgore in the weight lifting text Practical Programming, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Encyclopedia on Modern Bodybuilding. With a total body routine you perform one or two exercises per muscle group and work your entire body each time you come to the gym. This allows you to hit all your muscles more often, but since you are only doing a little bit for each muscle, nothing will be overtaxed. Training this way will maximize your initial progress by making sure you don't overtrain, but also by stimulating all your muscles more often than you would on a split routine. You will perform just enough work each workout to push your body to adapt, but it will be a small enough overload that you will be able to recover and train everything again in as little as 48 hours. Plus, since you are just starting out, you will get stronger almost every single workout, and training again just one or two days later will really allow you to see just how fast you are progressing! Enjoy this while it lasts!
To set up a total body routine, you want to first divide your body into the Four Pillars: upper body pushing muscles, upper body pulling muscles, lower body pushing muscles, and lower body pulling muscles. In order to train your entire body effectively and with balance, you need to devote attention to each of these muscle groups.
Next, you'll need to select actual exercises to work each of these areas. I like to select two exercises for each of the upper body motions because there are many more muscles coming into play when you use your upper body than when you use your legs, and your upper body has a much greater range of motion so it will benefit more from variety. Ideal exercises to start out with are those that will give you the most bang for your buck - compound exercises. Compound exercises like squats and bench presses call many muscles into play and will give you the greatest results in the least amount of time. Also, since these exercises use several muscles in unison to lift a weight, you will be able to train much heavier with them than you would with isolation exercises, allowing you to increase your strength and build a solid foundation with a strong core and strong joints rapidly.
An example of a beginner program is:
- Bench Press
- Pull Ups
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Row
- Abdominal Plank
A great way to introduce yourself to a program such as this is to start off performing each exercise for 2 sets of 15 repetitions, resting about 1 minute between sets and using as much weight as you are able to get 15 reps of with perfect form. Continue with this protocol for 3-4 weeks, increasing the weight whenever possible, and you will increase both strength and muscle endurance, and have an opportunity to perfect your technique on each exercise.
After 3 or 4 weeks, move to 3 sets of 10 repetitions with the same amount of rest and more weight, preferably increasing the weight for each progressive set. This will push your body harder by doing both more volume (sets) and more intensity (weight), thereby accelerating your progress. A program such as this should produce rapid progress and last you a good 3 months, at which point you should take a step back to overview your progress and decide if you are ready for a new routine.
In following a program like this a few things are essential to your success. The first is exercise form. It is absolutely essential to your success in bodybuilding that you master proper technique with all exercises right from the get-go. Doing this will ensure that the muscles you are trying to develop are indeed doing all the work you want them too, and will greatly reduce your risk of injury. Talk to experienced weightlifters in your gym, or check out exercise instruction websites such as ExRx.net for exercise technique videos and descriptions.
Another extremely important aspect of your training will be recovery. Recovery is the time between your workouts when you give your body the opportunity to rest and improve, and recovery also results from the nutrients you take in throughout the day, specifically calories and protein from whole plant foods and minimally processed raw vegan protein supplements. In the routine I've listed above, you would be training 3 days per week and have 4 days to recover. This is perfect for a beginner because your body will just be introduced to the process of sustaining damage during training, then healing prior to the next session, so it will have plenty of time to be nourished, rest, and grow. More advanced lifters are able to train 5 or 6 days per week, but keep in mind they are usually on split routines and not training the same muscles each time, and their body has had ample time to adapt to the rigors of training. For a beginner, it is best to err on the side of too much recovery from each work out, because, after all, it is during this time that your body will improve, not while you are at the gym.
So, now you have the tools you need to get a start in the sport of bodybuilding, and (hopefully) you're excited to put them into practice! Remember, to succeed in anything requires effort and consistency, and this is doubly true of bodybuilding. To set yourself up for success, try as hard as you can every workout, and make sure you're consistent with your training, your diet, and your recovery. By applying a smart program with consistency and effort, you will achieve your goals in this sport and elsewhere. Good luck!
ACE Certified Personal Trainer
Certified Plant-Based Nutritionist
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