This article will take you 14 minutes to read. Feel free to leave your questions in the comment section, they will be answered!
Welcome to our natural bodybuilding beginner’s guide!
Whether you’re brand new to the gym or you’re looking to start taking your training seriously, we’ve put ourselves back in your shoes. We’re going to look at 30 of the most important pieces of advice you’re going to need to get the most out of your natural bodybuilding journey.
Remember: this is for starting out. You’re not going to learn everything you need to know about exercise, nutrition, and bodybuilding today – but you will learn what you should prioritise and all the basics you need to understand the journey!
By the end of this article, you will be able to put this advice into action.
In many ways, it sums up a lot of our beginner-level messages on this blog. Natural flex exists to offer good advice – and this article is nothing but constant good advice!
Whether you are a hard-gainer, overweight, “skinny fat”, or anything else, the goal is to skip all the fluff and get you straight to fast results as a natural bodybuilder. If you’re advanced, then it’s a good reminder, and you might find one or two things to reflect on!
This guide also applies for anyone who just wants to get fitter in general. Bodybuilding is a great hobby, but everyone who wants to build muscle and look better can benefit from learning how bodybuilders work – they’re the best at getting big and lean!
This article which was made by me and Abuga, owner of downhill254 (a great skateboarding website) is a good example of how these bodybuilding tips can help you perform better at your main sport!
So…Ready? Let’s go!
1- Stay a natural bodybuilder!
Why the hell would Natural Flex be called Natural Flex if there wasn’t the advice to stay natural in your journey?
We stand for natural bodybuilding – without steroids – because it’s a great experience and the healthy way to improve. There are a lot of reasons to remain natural:
- no health complications
- no visible side effects
- no post-treatment therapy reliance
- developing great habits
- knowing that all of your results are from hard work and good habits
Let’s think long term and remember that natural gains can be incredible! Too many natural bodybuilders are putting barriers in their mind on what’s actually achievable. They end up rushing into performance enhancing drugs because their expectations are wrong or they’re not getting the right results. These are problems with the people – not with the natural bodybuilding process.
Many natural bodybuilders spend 1-2 hours a day in the gym and push these stereotypical limits. Some of the best natural bodybuilders make people wonder if they’re natural – because their results push the boundaries of what is humanly possible!
You don’t even need to do that much to get a solid physique. You won’t look like Ronnie Coleman or Dorian yates without steroids, but you can be impressive to everyone you know, completely natural.
The word overtraining is overrated! People under-train! Stay natural and see how you get on with your first steps in bodybuilding!
2- Set goals
Knowing where you are going will make it easier to reach your goals and will make you feel better when you get there. It sets up a good feedback loop of building confidence in your control over your own body.
And, if you don’t have goals, you’re going to spin your wheels and make very little progress. It’s like telling the captain of a boat to go forward while being blindfolded. He might just end up going in circles.
Setting goals lets you focus on doing, rather than overthinking or distracting yourself. It also helps from a motivation standpoint to know where you’re going and picture the changes that you’re working on.
Writing your program accordingly is exciting because you’re writing the pieces which will let you achieve the body of your dreams.
Here are a few questions you should answer before you start:
- Why do I want to get started in the gym?
- What do I want to get out of it?
- Will this help me the way I think it will?
- How long should I give myself? (it’s better to give yourself too long than not enough)
- What is the purpose of each exercise?
From the get-go, you are aligning your past and present motivation to your actions with a clear mind!
You can use the SMART method to set up your goals, as explained in this article from the corporate finance institute.
We’re going to give you the stereotypical “don’t compare yourself to others” talk. Cliche yes, but it’s also very true: you are not going to look like anyone else. You can only change how you look compared to right now – since you’re the only one with your body!
Some people just have different morphologies and genetics which makes it hard to compare.
It does not mean you should not work hard if your genetics aren’t great. If someone has short arms and a big ribcage, then they are made to bench. If you don’t, then it’s okay. You might not be as talented at bench press as this person, but that is the morphology coming into play, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t still get great results.
There will be some unfair times where people just have better genetics for certain things. But there are always trade-offs: long arms make you worse at bench but better at deadlift. They take longer to grow but look great when they’re big. Compare yourself to yourself!
4- Don’t think you’re a hard-gainer
Don’t get intimidated at the start of your bodybuilding journey and don’t think that it will be harder for you than anyone else.
I’ve heard so many people call themselves hard gainers, but the reality is gaining muscle is slow. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re gaining slowly and it’s tough – because that’s how it works. Your body changes slowly.
It might actually be, and you might not have the right genetics, but you’re most likely to succeed better than anyone else.
Because no one can steal your motivation and smart training! Genetics can only take you so far – no matter how quickly you respond to exercise. We have a full guide on hard gainers and how to fight this myth.
A quick sum-up:
- You need to eat more: make sure you are at a calorie surplus!
- Train enough – focus on 3-4 heavy sessions where you’re putting in big effort
- Don’t be intimidated by people stronger than you, they’ll help you!
- Work on muscles which will make you look big straight away
- Use compound exercises to stimulate as much muscle as possible – get strong, get big
Go read it and smash it! We’d love to hear stories of people who were skinny but surprised their family and friends by improving and putting together a hardgainer transformation!
5- Stick to the same routine
You won’t hear this too often, but once you’ve built your program, it’s better to keep it the same way. You don’t need to worry about changing things up – if it’s working, it’s worth sticking with.
You will have heard of the saying “practise makes perfect”, and it’s true here – practicing movements and being patient can allow you to progress week on week, month on month, year on year.
A lot of people claim you should switch it up. Switching it up means there are no landmarks to work from, and your muscles do not have time to become stronger in the movements you’re using. You don’t get good at things quickly – they require time and repeated effort.
Only vary things up in very special cases: a badly optimised routine, an injury, a better selection of exercises… And always look at your recovery first, before you change your program: so many beginners are struggling to progress because they don’t eat and sleep enough. If that’s you, solve those problems before changing anything! 8 hours a night, lots of protein!
A well optimised routine should not be changed, plateaus are normal and you should stick to your routine and push through when encountering them.
You can read more about this here. But what should be in your workout routine?
6- Start with the basics
Before you can adapt your program, you have to start with the basics. In the gym, it’s always about the basics even at an advanced level.
That means your basic movements and exercises: squats, lunges, presses, flyes, raises, rows, deadlifts and hip hinges, pull ups, chin ups, and core exercises. You don’t need to make it complicated to get great results – people have been getting big, strong, and aesthetic with these simple tools since bodybuilding began.
Once you’ve built strong foundations, you’re able to adapt your routine. You can tell if your muscles are short or long and you can choose the best exercises adapted to your body morphology!
7- Build your routine in a smart way
Building an appropriate routine is essential.
As mentioned in the previous part, try and see what kind of body morphology you have. Then try to make a routine where each piece of your workout is well thought through, and there’s a reason for each movement.
For example, doing triceps day before chest day might not be your best option, since you’ll struggle with your bench press. You have to prioritise what really matters to you according to your goals. If you’re planning on getting bigger legs, it makes sense to adapt your program to fit this goal: squatting 3+ times a week, with additional lunges, leg presses, leg extensions, etc.
If you’re cutting, it might be harder to keep up a routine which was as intense as when you were bulking. Everything has to be adaptable. A smart program is a perfect place to start.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you must have seen this tip way too many times! That is because it is absolute essential. You need to train for your goals, which means using exercises and techniques that are specific – squats build big legs, bench builds big triceps, and eating lots makes you bigger.
It sounds like common sense, but a lot of people completely miss it, so let’s try to quickly summarise it.
It’s also about what we mentioned above – choosing the right exercises for your body morphology and not using exercises which disrupt each other. You want to get the best from each session, and that means being prepared to put in good effort each time.
It’s like filling your car with a specific type of fuel, you don’t fill it with something which is not suitable for it.
9- Strength! Build strength.
This is very important as a natural bodybuilder. Your main focus should be on eating plenty, getting tons of protein, and building strength.
One of the first problems amongst beginners is only focusing on more reps and more sets, but not pushing the weight. Volume is great and needed for hypertrophy, but if the weights you lift stay the same, you’re not going to grow with it.
Start implementing techniques such as 5×5 and eat accordingly! We explain this in the article “how many reps to build muscle”!
Volume of course! If you only do strength then you are a powerlifter, not a bodybuilder. Muscle gains come when you mix both of these together. Strength lays the foundation for the high-volume, muscle-burning workouts bodybuilders are known for.
Don’t do too much volume if you’re just starting. The plan is simple: progress volume patiently over time. You keep getting better as long as you’re progressing volume through reps, sets, or weight.
As a beginner, don’t make drastic changes to any of these all at once. Creep them up, build a wide foundation of heavy weight in the 3-5 rep range and then use the 5-12 range for your “smaller” exercises. You want a balance of both in your program.
Focus on inching volume up session by session, and you’ll be able to keep making gains for longer. The bigger a jump is, in weight or reps, the less times you can make it before you plateau and stop improving!
Be reasonable and try to build strength first. Focus on the quality first and always try to push hard without overdoing. Don’t train to failure if you are starting. Just go to 90-95% effort in most cases so you’re not burning yourself out.
Your recovery matters!
11- Build an appropriate diet routine
When you’re starting, it’s always a pain to know whether you should bulk/cut or maintain. Here is what we recommend:
The goal is to take it slowly and build an excellent base.
If you were eating at a maintenance level without going to the gym, you’d stay the same. But if you eat at maintenance and start exercising, you’ll start burning calories which wasn’t part of your daily habits. Over time you’ll build muscle and lose weight.
Being a beginner is one of the only times in your bodybuilding journey where you will be able to lose fat and build muscle at the same time! Take advantage of it.
Let’s think long term and put yourself in the right mindset!
12- Don’t listen to everyone
This one is important. Of course, don’t be a bear. But you need to learn to filter out BS on the internet.
Everyone is different, and a lot of people will train hard and get results despite not having the best methods or advice. There are also a lot of people using performance-enhancing drugs which helps them a lot. Therefore, their advice isn’t always relatable for you as a natural bodybuilder.
What you should do is think about yourself and your own traits, your personal lifestyle and morphology. There is no magic trick to it, and intensification training techniques giving you a good pump or things which sound fancy are often not very useful.
Research most of the things for yourself and reflect on what others say, but don’t apply the advice from every single person. You want to judge people by their credentials but also through the quality of their trainees – not their own physique.
13- Practice good form but don’t be Mr perfection
Practising proper form is key.
So many of us don’t follow this rule, and that’s normal, you just want to get a new PB. To be honest with you, you should practice good form, but you don’t have to be Mr Perfect. Sometimes you have to force it!
Let us give you an example:
If you are doing a rowing set and the weight is heavy, but you keep going for another few reps, you might use some sort of balance from the legs and hips. It’s definitely cheating yourself out of the rep – but the point is you’re doing it when you know your arms and back can’t do it alone.
You should use strict form until you can’t anymore. Same with curls, where you can use a little momentum to get the weight moving. It’s better to do 12 reps where 8 of them are strict and 4 of them are “cheated” than just doing 8 strict ones. What matters is keeping things safe and deliberate: don’t ever round your back or let your knees cave, never lose control of the weight, and never start with cheating!
14- Don’t focus on the pump!
This one is too important as a natural bodybuilder: the pump is not the whole point of your workout!
Associating a good exercise to how it makes you feel is reasonable and we’ve all been there. The issue is that anything can give you a pump. Carrying your luggage, curling 30x1kg, lateral raises with your cat. Is it going to build muscle though? Not really!
Of course, very high reps can be beneficial for those who wish to work on their weaknesses or very small muscles. But the pump should come at the end of your workout after you’ve been using the mechanical loading of heavier weight to get your muscles bigger and stronger.
We have a full article explaining this method and also another one explaining why the pump isn’t a reliable source! Check it out.
Warm up. That’s a threat.
You need to build up to your top sets with lighter weights so that you can get the joints moving, reduce injury risk, and practice the form. You should be using warm-ups as a chance to practice before you get to your heavier work.
One of the things I hate seeing in the gym is guys using 40kg jumps when they have weak lifts. You shouldn’t be jumping from 20kg (empty bar) to 60kg to 100kg if you’re working up to a 105kg bench press!
Each jump should be smaller than the last. So, if you’re working up to 105kg bench for 5 reps, here’s a better series:
20kg x 5-8 reps
60kg x 5 reps
80kg x 3 reps
90kg x 2-3 reps
100kg x 1-3 reps
105kg x 5 reps (working sets)
Rushing your warm-up is dumb because your muscles work better when they’ve been used recently. They’re potentiated – meaning they do better work after some use. If you’re using lower weights, take more sets with these early warm-up sets to really get a feel for the movement and practice your form.
Even if it takes you a bit longer, you won’t regret it in the long run, when you are able to make more consistent gains and avoid injury!
Check out how to warm-up in an efficient and safe way.
What would a warm-up be without stretching?
Stretching helps reduce movement limitations before a workout so that you can get into better positions while you exercise. In return, moving through these new pain-free ranges while you’re lifting helps build long-term mobility.
This means that stretching indirectly improves your mobility, and directly improves your performance. Right now, you might not feel your body is aching, so you don’t have to think about it. Give it 20 years though, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t listen to your old self!
Focus on stretching more regularly – not harder or longer. 5 minutes a few times a day is the best way to go. Spend 5-15 minutes stretching the areas you know are a problem – usually the hip flexors, chest, upper back, and hamstrings, in most people.
And you don’t need to be a contortionist! Very lightly stretch the muscle groups you’ve trained that day before going to bed, just to keep them moving and prevent limitation tomorrow!
17- Learn how to train alone
It can be tempting to train with a partner and honestly, why not?
But if you always rely on being with someone for motivation, then this might be an issue the day your friends give up, or for whatever reason, can’t train with you anymore.
Being independent in the long run can turn out to be more productive! A mix of the two is probably the best – do your sessions with your buddies when you really feel that low or when they’re available.
But don’t stop training because you don’t have a partner. They’re different kinds of sessions: solo training is key for really focusing in on the fine details like form. On those days, your training partners are your music and your goals.
If you’re not disciplined enough to train alone, bodybuilding is going to be hard for you. You need to train – and train hard – no matter what the circumstances. No training partner? Too bad. Girlfriend just left you for a jacked dude? Go train. Your pants fell down at work? Maybe you should have a bigger ass – go train.
Spend time with your friends – but don’t rely on them for your workouts. Be the one in your friend group that sets the bar and be the good example for your friends.
18- Embrace the suck
Training is going to suck sometimes. Even if you do everything right, you’re going to have days where training is a total bitch – your warm-ups feel heavy, your lifts suck, and you feel flat.
You’ve got to keep going back in on those days and putting in best effort. You might not hit PBs, you might not feel amazing, and you might actively really struggle.
But your body doesn’t get stronger when you feel good – it gets stronger when you do the work. Your body doesn’t care what the number on the bar is as long as you’re doing the best you can on that day – your muscles are still going to grow bigger and stronger.
Drag your ass to the gym every day your program says you should. Stop waiting on motivation – get disciplined. Do it even when you don’t feel like it – because then you’ll never quit.
Put your best tunes on and go!
19- Have a sick playlist
Okay, let’s breathe a bit. All this advice and hard work can get overwhelming.
You know what’s simple and fun? Putting together a banging playlist full of songs that make you feel like a badass.
Building a playlist which will get you pumped in your sessions can have a massive impact. You can use music to control the “gears” of your mind and shift up or down depending on what you need to do.
There is a correlation between your performance and what you listen to. Bangers always give you an extra pump, that’s just the way it is.
Of course, it’s not like your bench is going up by 10kg just because you change the song. But if your last PB was 142.5kg and you are trying to make it to 145kg – the right song at the right time can definitely help you get it done!
It’s about the commitment to the lift and the mentality of grinding it out and not giving up when you reach the difficult bit.
Save songs and build a playlist in your phone for your sessions to come. When you discover a new song with an unbelievable drop, it really can get you that new PB and new highs.
Don’t forget your weaknesses. They should be your new best friends.Don’t forget your weaknesses.
As you grow bigger and stronger, you should focus on your weaknesses – they’re the best thing to focus on for faster gains. Stay aware and work on them as soon as you see them.
Your weaknesses can hold your physique back and they only become more obvious over time. They also show up in the risk of injury on your joints and muscles, where imbalances can misplace strain and cause long-term pain and restriction.
As a natural bodybuilder, you might, for example, be lacking rear delts or upper chest, you can do very high rep sessions regularly to target these weaknesses.
Get these muscles responsive, and if one day you decide to compete and still lack at these, you know that it won’t be as hard as starting from scratch!
Read this article to learn more “Natural steroid like results? sets of 100 repetitions!”
21- Do cardio ONLY if you want to
Cardio to cut down!
…We hear it too often.
Truth is, you lose weight because you are burning calories. Cardio helps you burn calories, but it isn’t essential.
Obviously, if you’re involved in a sport or you are just trying to be healthier, cardio can be good for you.
Cardio can be used selectively when you’re trying to cut down in order to help keep food intake high while still eating less calories than you use. If you want to bulk, moderate your cardio or adjust your diet routine, so you’re still in a calorie surplus.
You can read more on that in this article.
22- Don’t forget your core
Who wants to do abs when you’ve already worked out for 1h30? It’s usually the last thing you want to get into after a tough session.
Well, too bad. You need to train your core – especially since it’s such an important part of how your overall physique looks, not to mention how important it is to exercising safely and effectively – and for longer!
You don’t have to do 30 minutes of abs every day. You can work in 10-20 minutes of core training – abs and obliques specifically – at the end of a workout 2-4 times a week and see great results.
Imagine cutting down and not being able to see your abs! That can be frustrating, and honestly, it’s probably worth it to train your abs every session, even if only for a short few sets. Train your abs like any other muscle: add extra weight and/or reps to build thick abs.
No fluff, just big abs muscles here!
23- Visualise before PBs or sets
Focusing before you do a PB is similar to warming up for a whole session but just for a set. You can get your head into the movement before you even get to the gym: visualising is a technique elite athletes use to get prepared for their performances.
You’re really trying to focus on getting that lift you’ve set yourself the goal of. No one jumps onto a PB without taking some time to close their eyes and take a deep breath.
Here is an actionable tip:
Try and do this technique not only for your PB but for every set, even if it is just for 10 to 15 seconds.
You will notice your overall session will get more productive and that this tiny window of focus before you perform a set will significantly help you be more productive in the long run.
24- Take pictures regularly
This one can be important if you want to encourage yourself in low moments. It’s easy to lose track of your progress when you see your body every single day in the mirror.
We’re not saying you should post it on Instagram and wait for the likes but having pictures for yourself to see how much you’ve improved can definitely give you a boost when you feel low!
Bigorexia is common in bodybuilding and if you are affected by it, just take pictures once every 2-4 weeks and see that you’re making improvements over time!
25- Pictures aren’t enough? Measure yourself
If pictures aren’t helping you – or you’re not seeing the changes week to week – then get more specific. Use measurements and numbers to track your progress.
You might also have bigorexia/body-dysmorphia issues and you want to feel some relief!
Indeed, it is hard to really see how much you’ve done and how much you are improving. It’s hard to notice the small changes when you see yourself 24/7.
Here’s the thing: numbers never lie. You will know if you’re getting bigger, stronger, and more proportional if you take the time to measure these changes. You can measure all kinds of body parts like your biceps, chest, back, waist, whatever.
If you’re struggling to be objective with your progress, measuring yourself can be very helpful!
But you have to measure the right way! We’re not talking about the neighbour next door using some loose measuring tape to then claim 18-inch shredded arms. Make sure your tape is reliable and that it’s TIGHT every time you measure. You can find guides on this, if you’re really not sure how to measure for body changes.
Meditation is a bit new-age for those old school bodybuilders, but it’s something I really believe in.
Sometimes, just going in the stretching area in your gym and laying down with your eyes closed can help. There’s nothing better than relaxing after a gym session and visualising what’s to come.
This active relaxation is super useful for combatting the “hype” around exercise and stressful daily life. The balance of stress to relaxation in your life affects your hormones and is a serious factor in how well you can recover and thus progress!
Just don’t fall asleep for 5 hours!
27- Make great friends – Join your university gym if you’re a student
The gym is about muscles, yes!
Let’s be honest though, that’s also where you will meet some of your best friends. They won’t only be your spotters on the bench but also your wingman at the bar, your support system, and the people who make you feel better when you’re down!
If you are a student, you should join your uni gym and treat the gym as a place to be friendly, personable, and open to making new friends.
You won’t regret it.
28- All these positive factors at once will make skyrocket your results!
In the gym when you’re doing everything well, it’s like fooling your body.
It just can’t catch up with how well you’re doing it! Eating enough, training well, recovering well.
It’s an amazing momentum that you get when everything is locked in together. Your training and diet and sleep all feed back into each other and you’re building an upward spiral.
So try not to neglect any of these tips! You don’t have to be perfect straight away but work on adding more and more layers of good habits and smart training/recovery over time!
As a natural bodybuilder, you really want to put all the odds in your favour in order to excel.
29 – Become a beast
One of the last steps – becoming a beast – paying it forward!
There’s always that one guy or girl freak in the corner of the gym that you spot once you start going to the gym. That one person who knows everyone and everyone asks them for advice.
They’re beasts, and you should aim for the same type of level. Of continuing to educate yourself on how to better handle your training, nutrition, and sleep.
You’re going beast mode.
30- Read Natural flex
We had to promote ourselves a little bit – and that’s because good information helps you get better faster!
Why should you read our advice?
Because we have been there, and we know what it’s like to feel uncertain on who you can trust for information, what to do next, or how to approach bodybuilding. As a beginner, there’s a lot going on and you don’t have the experience or know-how to figure out who to listen to.
But if you’ve read this far, you should know we’re going to lead you in the right direction. We also only talk about real-life experiences and bodybuilding journeys – no steroid innuendo or shilling for garbage companies you don’t care about.
Not everyone will say things that will work for you and not all articles will hold the solution to your problem but reflecting and hearing similar stories to yours could unlock your potential as a natural bodybuilder!