When you’re just getting started, it’s better to make sure you’re getting it right to avoid wasting time.
It’s hard to get it right from the start – you’re new, you don’t know what is best, and you’re still trying to get familiar with things. When we come to natural bodybuilding – we need to find the mid-ground between working hard and working smart.
That’s the issue I want to tackle today: how to make bodybuilding easy? How do you get the most results and the best process for natural bodybuilding – especially as a beginner or intermediate?
The idea is simple, you want to get as much result for every bit of effort you put in. We need to work hard, but working smart ensures you get the most on your time-investment and the sweat you put in.
More work doesn’t mean more results if you’re not putting that work into the right things. We make bodybuilding easier when we are smarter about it and take the right approach – especially in natural bodybuilding, where the quality of your training matters and there’s no cheating!
We’re going to take a look at how to make bodybuilding easier today without getting too bogged down with details. We’re only going to cover the most important factors.
I will provide landmarks, processes, and priorities for you so that you can be a better natural bodybuilder sooner!
I wish someone had given me this guide when I got started, to save me wasted time. I’d be bigger and leaner and stronger by now – but I get to help you make the best gains from the start, so stick with me!
(Disclaimer: Remember, this article is about the basics, and the basics are the most important. They can take you very far. Advanced techniques and “sophisticated” methods are usually not necessary, you might only need them once you’re at an advanced level.
We’re covering 80% of what matters and – when you’ve locked those basics down – you can worry about the fancy techniques.)
Don’t overcomplicate bodybuilding
The fastest way to ruin bodybuilding for yourself is to get too stressed out with the minute details. We all want to get it right – and that’s a good mindset – but in the real world that means nailing down the basics.
We want to get started with the simple things that make the most results – simply training effectively and dieting within a few basic guidelines can take you far. You’ll also never be any good without them – so it’s an important place to start to build great habits for the long-run.
It’s the same as when choosing your first pot of protein powder: the highly marketed protein products always attract our attention better.
When it’s labelled « extra results », « extreme gains », these are very tempting. The same goes when looking for training techniques which sound revolutionary: « pyramidal », « training to failure for each set », « dropsets ». This is what attracts us first and websites online or training books are great at making articles making it seem like they’re the solution for great and fast results.
It’s easier to market the glamorous stuff with hardcore music and cool videos. However, if you ask any top-level natural bodybuilder how they got big, they’ll say good training and good diet. It’s simply building up more heavy lifting over more time and recovering with lots of food and sleep!
I remember when starting gymming reading things about pyramidal work. The word pyramidal really stood out to me – it just sounded different. I’d think, “finally something different which might offer me greater gains”. It was presented as this revolutionary concept and explained with percentages « 6 sets in total: starting at 77,5% of your 1RM, then 82,5%, 87,5%, back to 82,5%, 77,5% and maximum repetitions at 60% » and a variety of other sounding sales-speak.
The reality is that beginners don’t need to worry so much. Pyramids are for example a fun way to do training, but there’s nothing that special about them. It’s just an example of my point: people want to sell you things, they want you to be wow’d by their “revolutionary” methods, but it’s not a huge deal.
What matters is simply progression – and progression doesn’t have to be complicated. Most of bodybuilding is quite mundane and un-sexy because it’s about following a routine, week after week, and watching your body change in response to your habits. One brutal pyramid session isn’t enough to replace a week of good, simple, effective training.
This boring and simple routine makes bodybuilding exciting because they actually get you results. And because you get results, you start enjoying this « boring » routine as opposed to following an « exciting routine » made out of training concepts which sound very cool, but don’t get you results.
Remember: bodybuilding is about increasing how much work you do in the gym, patiently, and making sure you’re eating and sleeping enough to turn that effort into muscle.
Sticking to the very basics is your new top priority
The fitness industry wants to sell you over-complicated methods because they’re more exciting than the basics that work. If you can swallow your pride and work on the basics, however, you can achieve all the results in the world.
Bodybuilding is built on the back of 3 simple principles that I’m going to explain to you – they’re not going to sound sexy, but they promise results every single time:
It doesn’t get any simpler. Stop chasing some (fancy bullshit) and start being good at the simple stuff. Let’s take a look at how it all works so you can start getting results.
Training: Progression Is King
You can’t be a bodybuilder if you don’t train. It’s the difference between putting on muscle mass and putting on fat. When we train, we force the body to develop more muscle mass in preparation for future activity.
Our body senses the hard work and signals for more muscle to be made. The result? Bigger, stronger muscles.
“Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift this heavy-ass weight”
- Ronnie Coleman, 7x Mr Olympia
You need to go to the gym and lift weights, and optionally use machines, perform bodyweight exercise. This is the stress that tells your body to improve – if you’re not challenging the muscles of your body, you will not develop, and you’ll be stuck wondering why nothing is changing when you go to the gym week-in, week-out.
Challenge yourself: weights should be difficult enough that your last few reps feel quite challenging. There’s no point performing with superlight weights, never putting in enough reps, and thinking you’re going to progress.
Progression is fundamental to making your exercise effective. You should always be challenging yourself one way or another – and while weight is the most obvious, it’s not the only or even the best measure of progress for natural bodybuilding.
You need to get stronger of course and increase your training volume overtime. This refers to the amount of weight you’ve lifted, in total, across all your exercises and sets and reps throughout a day, week, or month.
People love to focus on a single gym session but it’s bigger than that. The goal is to lift more kilos next week than you did this week – either by adding weight, sets, or reps – and continue that process over time.
This is why I say that bodybuilding is simple, but it’s not easy. It requires patience, consistency, and persistence. You’re going to have to keep turning up and putting in the work.
Each time you go to the gym, what you want is to think about progression.
Improve something, this week, and be willing to push yourself. If you only ever use the same weights, sets, and reps every week you’re not improving.
It’s as simple as that. That’s the thing with pyramid training and other glamorous techniques. They can distract you from the simple, effective progression that helps beginners get bigger, stronger, and more muscular.
This might work for advanced bodybuilders who want to do tons of volume every session. For most of us, the important thing is to work on a few effective exercises and make sure we’re getting stronger and doing more work with them.
Don’t let anything distract you from the basics. You want to do a pyramid set? Do it after you’ve hit the important stuff – getting a sick pump is fun but it shouldn’t replace the basic exercises and training that drive your results!
What are the basics? What should you be doing instead?
Keeping it simple is simple!
Pick out your most important personal goals, pick out the most important and effective exercises, and then do them. Once you’ve done them, add more weight or more reps next time, along with the right diet, and keep doing that. Your muscles will respond well and grow if you’re recovering properly (which we’ll discuss a little later).
You don’t need to perform 50 exercises for each muscle. You need a few super-effective ones – usually compound exercises that use multiple muscles – and to lift heavy and often in them. For example, squatting 2 times a week in the 4-8 rep range will build stronger legs, hips, and back muscles.
When we keep things simple like this, we can focus on improving the things that matter. In this example, we squat regularly and we improve that movement regularly, which means the muscles are getting bigger and stronger. It’s not complicated – it just works.
Programming your week
When structuring your week you should think about one thing first: where do I stand at my current level? To keep things simple, we’ll generally want to increase the number of sessions we perform each week and build up over months/years (another example of how progression looks like!).
Here are some guidelines:
Beginner: Training 2-4 times a week, 3-4 hours a week
Intermediate: Training 3-4 times a week, 5-6 hours a week
Advanced: Training 4+ times a week for 6+ hours
If you’re a complete beginner, training 3 times a week is a good start (most people use Monday, Wednesday, and Friday sessions). The point here is to learn the movements and practice them, building muscle through regular training and building basic movement skills.
Once you become more advanced, you will naturally be inclined to train more. For the beginner, we want to be close to an every-other-day (EoD) training schedule. 3 times a week is a good alternative because it gives the weekends over to recovery and allows you more free time.
It’s also much easier to make progress on that Monday session after 2 rest days in a row!
Your body doesn’t only get bigger and stronger as you train – it is both able to handle more training per week, and requires more training to progress. This is why advanced lifters do things that don’t suit the beginner and train more.
That is when programming smart becomes important when becoming a more advanced bodybuilder.
Once you become more advanced and have to train more, you have to rest in a different way.
Resting well at a more intermediate to advanced level does not mean resting 3-4 days a week, it means programming smartly so you can train almost everyday.
When you’re an intermediate, you’re going to need to be smarter about what you’re training and when. It means not training triceps the day before chest or not training biceps the day before back, so you can have ‘fresh’ muscles to make the most of that session.
Don’t have your muscles competing with each other during the week. Learn about the
agonists/antagonists muscle and piece your routine together. Focus on giving each muscle group some time to recover and making sure that you’re giving the most important sessions the best recovery.
The second thing you should think about for training smart is sticking to simplicity for how many sets, how many exercises you should perform. Choose simple yet efficient exercises and learn the movement. Don’t overcomplicate it: three to four exercises per muscle.
Building chest muscle and strength: an example of exercises for programming
Upper chest Flies
These are simple, powerful exercises that work the different motions of the chest. This helps prevent injury and strengthen joints in their weakest ranges. You will build great amount of strength with a compound exercise like benchpress and the stretch of isolated chest flies, for example, contribute to great hypertrophy work and muscle gains.
An example with shoulders?
Rear delts raises
Overhead press is a great exercise to build strength and solid front delts while lateral raises are incredible for your side delts development. Then you keep the balance by implementing rear delts raises in the end.
I’m a huge fan of specificity and specialising: picking the things that are most important and being very specific with them. Using exercises that are effective for your goals and not getting too complicated – why use 6 exercises when 3 are just as good, target all areas, and can be progressed more effectively?
Mixing strength and hypertrophy training
One of the most important thing you’d like to know, or that most beginners want to know… How many reps and how many sets? What type of training builds muscle?
The fact is that you can build muscle with any rep-range as long as you’re working hard enough and progressing on these rep ranges. Building muscle is a mix of factors and you’re not limited to a single method of training.
Generally, you want to mix both hypertrophy training and strength training.
Why strength training you’re asking if your goal is hypertrophy, building muscle? First let’s remind what’s hypertrophy and strength training.
The simplest and most effective/formal way to get the best out of your training is this:
- Use some heavy sets that will make you fall in the 3-6 rep range
- Use some lighter sets (but relatively heavy still) with higher reps that wil make you fall in the 6-12 range
And it’s that simple. For most beginners, this means squatting heavy first and then lunging with more reps, for example. The more you can load up a movement, the fewer reps you’re usually doing – and then add more volume with more reps on isolation friendly exercises.
Building strength will help you improve on your hypertrophy quicker, which means building more muscle. The strength you gain on your compound movements transfers to your isolation movements and your hypertrophy training.
It also helps protect your joints from injury, improves tendon strength, and is a key factor in long-term, sustainable progress.
You could probably just improve sticking to high reps training and hypertrophy training as long as you’re eating well, programming well – and progression is what matters. However, combining the two ensures you’re building muscle and strength, getting the whole range of benefits from your training.
So if you’re a beginner and don’t know what to do, include strength work at the start of your sessions, on compound movements for example, and go for hypertrophy training, higher reps, towards the end of your session on isolation movements.
If you are a complete beginner, please start first to learn the movements with pretty light weight. Don’t do strength work day 1. As a beginner, the most important thing is to develop familiarity with the key exercises.
For the first month, focus on moving well and developing better technique. You’re a new trainee so you’ll make results no matter what – but good technique will keep you safe and help you improve for years to come.
Basics of Eating
For most beginners, eating is very simple – especially when gaining weight.
Eat enough food to fuel your exercise – enough protein food with and high-quality carbs, fats, and vitamins and minerals. It’s as simple as committing to these two principles for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time. A lot of guys aren’t pulling the trigger on enough calories and end up plateauing.
In the beginner phase, it’s always quite easy to add on some muscles. Which means you don’t particularly need to worry about gaining or losing weight. Focus on calorie maintenance intake and food quality, to start with – eat around your personal maintenance calories and keep working on your exercise habits and food choice.
Once your beginner phase is over and you’ve made the most out of it, you will be able to start a slow bulk and progress even more. Alternatively, if you’re trying to lose weight, you can cut down – though this will likely mean getting smaller and you may not have the muscle necessary to justify a cut.
Improving and having an extra small layer of fat is better than never eating enough and wasting 2 years stagnating. You can always cut down later and re-adjust.
Weight loss and weight gain are very simple:
Gaining weight – eating more than your maintenance calories
Losing weight – eating less than your maintenance calories
Understand the idea of calorie intake. It’s very basic and very important, yet a lot of beginners won’t understand what it is.
Calories are a measure of energy and that energy is used to build muscle, to maintain your body’s functions (e.g. organ fuel), or to be stored for later (as bodyfat).
For building muscle, being at a calorie surplus (eating more than you use) is important. For most people that’s the main factor which drives change while they’re training. This sentence is important: better eat enough and get a little chubby than never get bigger or stronger.
People always want to make no mistake and do things the right way straight away with a very slow bulk. That’s good, but sometimes getting that click in your head and actually pulling the trigger by being at a good enough surplus doesn’t hurt. It drives change and offers understanding of the process.
Committing to bulking is part of the challenge that late beginners face in bodybuilding, but it’s essential to build more muscle. It improves your physique even if you gain a little fat, too, and it allows you to control your bodyweight better in future by improving your metabolism.
Having a decent diet is actually very simple:
-1.5gr protein per kg of bodyweight
-0.5/1gr of fat per kg of bodyweight
-the rest goes into carbs (ideally high-fiber, high-quality ones!)
This tends to look something like this (by calories):
These numbers are a great rough guide to follow if you don’t know what to do.
If your maintenance level is 2500 calories, that means you will be eating 1250 calories of carbs (50%), 750 calories of proteins (30%) and 500 calories of fat (20%).
Good source of food is always better
Eating healthy ingredients is always better, it does not mean that you can’t progress well with bad food, that is a stereotype. Some people eating unhealthy food usually do very well in bodybuilding, because one of the most important factor they get right is eating enough and training hard.
You don’t need to eat healthy foods to lose weight or build muscle. However, you should still try and make your food sources as healthy as possible – try and choose whole foods, and plenty of plant sources, for your diet – because they’ll have many more benefits and help you better than with unhealthy foods.
Lean proteins are great and the more vitamins and minerals you get into your diet, the healthier and better you’re going to feel. It’s not always necessary to eat salads and plain chicken breast – but you shouldn’t binge on pop tarts and McDonalds all the time.
Remember to eat your veg. More energy, better biological response and organ function. That’s why in the long term you will do better with good food. You don’t have to be perfect right away – just work on improving your food choices over time.
Being patient and consistent
Once you have in mind progressing, training well, eating well…being patient and consistent is one of your biggest allies. You just need to keep in mind “progression” and then focus on the basics of training and eating as described above and do these in the long run, results will follow.
Now what does being consistent mean? You’ll see some folks taking a week off once in a while, others who will only take 2-3 days off… what’s good what’s bad?
Better take 3 days off every 3 weeks than a week off every month. Three days off really never is enough to break momentum (losing neurological adaptation to the movements, starting to lose strength) but enough to give you a well deserved rest.
One week off usually is enough to start damaging your progress. You will feel rested but not in the best way, you’re losing frequency, your regularity to training. That’s why my advice is that you give yourself 2-3 days off more regularly rather than a big jump of 1-2 weeks off as we see it so much.
1. Sleep quantity
It’s simple: the first place to start with your sleep is the amount of hours you’re getting per night.
Most people aren’t getting enough sleep. We’re chronically sleep-deprived and many of us are operating on as little as 6 hours a night – not nearly enough to make the most of your bodybuilding journey! Think of all the time you spend in the gym, wasted because you stayed up late watching “just one more episode”.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, at least 7-8 hours per night, you’re not making the most of your training. You’ll be under-recovering and under-performing. When you combine these two, you’re sabotaging your own results.
Whether you’re trying to gain or lose weight, sleep is your best friend. Losing even one hour of sleep per night in the long run adds up to a significant change in your hormone levels like testosterone and human growth hormone. These drive the development of muscles and tendons, for example, so missing out on sleep adds up quickly.
You’ll be weaker in training, you’ll be more susceptible to injury, and you’re obviously going to have less energy when you’re not resting enough. Get your 8 hours – put on a “sleep alarm” for the night-time, if you have to !
2. Sleep quality
How you sleep is also important. The better quality your sleep, the more results you get per hour spent asleep.
This is more difficult for most people to understand because they think sleep is sleep. However, just like training, there is better and worse quality of sleep – and that means better or worse results for every hour you spend in bed.
Good sleep happens when we are completely relaxed, with as little stress as possible, in the right environment. This means you should try to spend your evenings winding down – you should be exhausted, well-fed, and very calm when the time comes to get to sleep.
The right sleep environment means a few things:
- Dark: your room should be as dark as possible to avoid sleep-disruption and improve quality.
- Quiet: less noise means better sleep – make sure you consider this in setting up your room.
- Cool: overheating causes sleep-disruption which reduces quality and thus results.
These are simple factors that can improve the results you get from each hour of your sleep. Not to mention that better sleep supports better hormonal health, mental performance, and mood/anxiety levels throughout the day.
It also changes how stress affects you both physically and mentally. Staying well-rested and getting good sleep is an upward spiral: the more you do it, the better it gets – and if you’ve not been well rested, you don’t know just how revolutionary it can be for your training quality and results!
A few hints, tips, and pearls of wisdom
Understand your body-morphology and your weak/strong parts
By understanding your body-morphology and strong and weak parts, you can improve your exercise selection. For example, once you gain more experience and understand your own body, you might realise that you have long legs and pretty short arms, deadlift is probably not the best exercise for you!
You realise you have weak traps, maybe you’ll want to adjust your back session to exercises more orientated to working on your traps.
Good training means being smart and tailoring your program to your needs – not just finding some generic template on bodybuilding.com and following it religiously!
Use your own experience to know yourself better and what works for you
Training does not have to be a chore either, train the way you prefer as long as this still reflects on progression. If there are exercises you like and are good exercises, you incorporate them in your training or replace previous exercises by them.
It’s important to develop a review process. It doesn’t have to be super formal – but you should ask yourself what went well, and why, and then what went badly and why. This is a simple way of making sure that your training is serving your goals.
Training and bodybuilding aren’t just about getting jacked and shredded. They also involve getting to know your body better – and you should use that process to improve your training.
Follow the results – use what works well for you and don’t just follow fads or trends.
Train harder if you really like bodybuilding
Sometimes you also just have to pull the trigger and train harder, as explained in an other article, it’s also a reality that at some point you have to train harder to get better results.
Once you’ve already optimised your training as smartly as possible, you sometimes just have to up the quantity.
It’s important to remember that sometimes you’re going to have different needs. As you progress, things may need to change. Be ready to make those changes – if you’re serious about the results then you can try to do more.
Don’t rush yourself – give yourself a week of low-pressure training when you start turning up the heat and training more often or heavier. Your body needs some time to adapt, and then you will start seeing better results. Rushing only increases your risk of injury.
To conclude, don’t overcomplicate bodybuilding.
Stick to the basics and simple methods, as you go, work on that progression mindset and be patient. If you’re really determined to reach your goals, just keep putting in the time and working on your habits a little at a time. You’re going to look, feel, and perform completely different in a year’s time.
As you improve you will learn more about yourself and you will be able to make slight adjustments to your training to perfect it. What matters right now is putting your time into the basics of good training, good food habits, and great sleep.
If you get these simple things right, you’re 80-90% of the way towards being an excellent natural bodybuilder. The only other factor is time and – when you learn to enjoy the progress and process – that’s not a problem!
Let yourself find joy in the hard work and the good choices, and you’ll do great things!