Above: September 2017, after 8 years of strength training.

If you’re reading this right now, I am assuming that you’re either curious or you’ve decided to try to make some muscle. Or maybe you’re pretending to want to make muscle by reading this. Getting into bodybuilding can be a frightening idea, sort of like entering a classroom on the first day of school as a kindergarten student where you don’t know a soul, don’t know what to do, and feel like everyone’s staring at you with judgmental eyes. Once upon a time, I was in such a position. Nevertheless, after a few workouts as a scrawny high school without a tremendous amount of confidence, I knew “going to the gym” and “making myself really strong” were things that were going to change my life for the better.

So you want to try your hand at bodybuilding.

Don’t panic. This article gives you the information you need to begin your bodybuilding journey with confidence. It aims to help in calming your doubts by giving you the basics on what to do. Maybe you’ve always been one of the lanky kids (like me) and can’t gain pounds to make your fragile arms fit those loose sleeves. I was that kid for the first 17 years of my life. Or maybe you’ve always had trouble losing weight and ditching the ever-expanding waistline, and now you want to turn into a buff demigod. Maybe you’re a girl who wants to get toned and not just skinny, or maybe you want to start lifting weights so that you can ditch your bad habits and enjoy a longer, healthier life. I am well acquainted with what you are going through. No matter where your starting point is or how old you are, it is always possible to fill your body with serious muscle mass and chiseled abs. Though it is easier said than done, there is always hope – when I was 15 years old, I couldn’t even do three straight push-ups; since then, I’ve packed on more than 50 pounds of muscle, learned how to do more than a hundred push-ups in one go, and added what feels like a thousand pounds to my bench press. With enough patience, willpower, and enthusiasm to learn, you will simultaneously be able to maximize your muscle gains and lean out and, in the grueling yet fulfilling process of it, get in great shape and become the healthiest version of yourself.

1. Know your goal

Goals are the oxygen to your aspirations. When you enter a gym for the first time, one of the first things you are usually asked before the health-history questions is your ultimate body goal. You can either want to be ripped like Bruce Lee, shredded to bits like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, buff and bulky like Mark Wahlberg, or legendarily built like household names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne Johnson. Upon making the decision to build a body, the most important thing is to have a goal, for it is only then that you will be able to devise a plan that will help you work towards it. Cliche aside, you have to set your mind to a vision of what you want to look like. Do not be daunted by the long, seemingly insurmountable path that you need to walk through in order to achieve the body that you seek. For me, building muscle is something I’ve been obsessed with ever since watching shows such as Dragon Ball Z, Batman, and WWE as a kid. From then on, I made a vow to myself to look like Batista one day.

2. Identify your body type

Your body type will ultimately dictate how you respond to diet and weightlifting. It’s the reason why your body looks the way it does after a long, lazy holiday, or why you can go on sinful Japanese buffets without gaining a single pound. Identifying it will allow you to optimize your meal plan and your training routine. Your workouts and your food are all supposed to cater to your specific body type. The more you know about how your body and your metabolism works, the faster your gains will be.

Ectomorphs: This is me. Typical skinny guy. We find it very hard to gain weight and our unbelievably fast metabolism burns calories faster than the average person. This is why we can get away with cheat meals here and there, yet it is also the reason why we are called “hardgainers” when it comes to muscle-building. We have to eat a lot of protein in order to ward away muscle catabolism.

Mesomorphs: They have large bone structures. These are people with rectangular shaped bodies. Gaining weight and losing weight for them is effortless. They gain muscle easily, but they also gain fat easily. While muscle gains come quickly for them especially at the start, they still have to closely observe their calorie intake and infuse cardio into their training regimen.

Endomorphs: Soft and round bodies that gain muscle easily. The downside, however, is that they naturally gain fat easily as well. Since they usually find it harder to lose fat, they have to stick to a solid diet and ensure that fat intake is kept to a bare minimum.

3. Make strength your foundation

Maybe you’ve never lifted anything heavier than the luggage you bring around the airport. Maybe you did some regular weightlifting once upon a time, but you never really got the hang of it. Bodybuilding does not need to be as complicated as some advanced algorithm. The bottom line is: if you want to be bigger, stronger, and better, then you will need to lift heavy stuff. Lifting heavy stuff is the only way to increase your body’s capacity for muscular growth. This means a lot of free weights and ditching all the body weight exercises that you’ve grown accustomed to. It is the only way for you to vastly improve your physique. Everything matters – the kind of exercises you perform, the number of sets you execute per exercise, the amount of weight you carry, the way you divide the muscle groups that you train. There are many ways to skin a cat. However, I believe that what matters most is to master the small line-up of the fundamental exercises that have been proven to create muscle mass:

Chest: Push-ups, bench press and dumbbell press variations, incline flyes

Shoulders: Military press, shoulder press, dumbbell lateral raise

Legs: Barbell squats, stiff-leg deadlifts, leg curls and extensions

Back: Pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, single-arm dumbbell rows

Arms: Barbell curl and dumbbell curl variations, triceps pushdown and overhead press variations

Core: Swiss ball variations, planks, crunches, leg raises, and my personal favorite: the Hanging Windshield Wiper

I usually do six exercises per muscle, with about 4 or 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, 4. That is a total of about 30 sets of varying rep ranges per muscle. To be clear about sets and reps: 4 sets of 10 means doing four sets of ten repetitions with the same weight. 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 means do one set of twelve reps, put on more weight for a set of ten reps, put on more weight and do a set of eight reps, more weight for a set with six reps, and finishing up with a heavy set of 4 reps. If you’re serious about making muscle, forget about high reps and tolerating “easy” or “off” days in the gym. Enough with all that madness! Never complain of fatigue or soreness. Every day has to filled with massive loads and intensity, and the rest between sets should only last for about 20 or 30 seconds. I’m talking heavy, intense weights that you can only perform 4 to 6 repetitions. This is called hypertrophy training and it has worked for me ever since I touched my first barbell. When the routine gets monotonous, I incorporate advanced intensity building techniques into my training regimen:

Forced reps: A spotter is used to provide enough assistance for the weightlifter to be able to complete the rep.

Supersets: entails the execution of two exercises with no rest in between.

Pre-exhaustion training: Doing an isolation exercise for a muscle group, then, with no rest, following up with a compound movement for it right after, e.g. dumbbell lateral raises then military press.

Drop sets: Doing a set to failure with a weight then immediately doing another set to failure with a lighter weight. I like triple-drops (reducing the weight twice) and quadruple drops (reducing the weight thrice). Depending on how I feel on that particular day, I usually reduce the weight by 5% or 10% with each drop.

Rest-pause training: doing a set to failure, resting for 5 to 10 seconds, then doing a few more reps with the same weight.

Why make strength your top priority?

Strong muscles don’t just pop into existence; they have to be worked, over and over again. Lifting heavy stuff increases muscle mass. More muscle mass means having an increased metabolism. The more muscle you’re carrying, the more energy the body requires even at rest. It’s as simple as that, and this is why a bodybuilder like me can eat Tonkatsu with ten cups of rice and not gain an ounce of fat. Muscle (and working out like an indomitable horse) allows me to do all these amazing this: it improves my 10k time and the number of pull-ups that I can do in one go. More than anything, it allows me to indulge in fatty rib-eye steaks, heavenly pans of Paella, and all the other good things in life – all while increasing natural testosterone levels and lessening the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and all the other bad things that all of us would rather not have. You do not have to get married to supplements and particular weightlifting principles. Strength, more than diet and cardio, is the best place for everybody to start. It is also the fastest way to weight loss. This is why I will not even write about diet. If you want to learn the ropes of the bodybuilding world, then strength has to be your one and only foundation, the universal core of your bodybuilding journey. As the nature of our civilization changed, our relationship with physical strength also changed along with it. But we are still primitive beings – our physical bodies are, in the final analysis and in the grander scheme of things, the only ones that actually matter. Even in today’s safe, modern times, strength is still an important thing to possess, even if it is less critical to our daily existence. I want to know that I’m strong enough to get down in the dirt and carry people when the situation calls for it; I want the strength to lift heavy luggage when I’m walking around an airport; I want to be able to strangle an attacker if I have to. My mentality says this: without strength, I will never be able to develop my mind and my soul to their highest potential. I’ve always believed that intellectual achievements and moral principles have to be backed by physical strength, the kind that can surmount obstacles and battle the elements. It’s the stuff of which gladiators and history’s greatest philosophers are made. It is the stimulus that returns our genetic capabilities to the conditions for which they were designed. However ambitious or well-informed you may be beforehand, like it or not, strength is and will always be the main component of your life as a bodybuilder.

Written by: Sandro Roman

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