In the bodybuilding world, nearly everyone has a different approach to the sport. When I scroll down my feeds on social media, I am bombarded with a wide array of posts and links to articles on nearly every fitness topic. Some of these articles and posts may even completely contradict each other. It’s no surprise that many people are confused on what they need to do to build muscle, lose fat, and get onstage looking their best.
As a result, I receive a wide variety of questions on nearly every aspect of this sport. One thing I have noticed is that many of the questions I receive are highly technical questions by individuals who don’t have a full understanding of some of the basics of bodybuilding. I often find myself emphasizing the basics in my responses rather than stressing about a small detail that may or may not be effective.
It is important to cover all of the basics that are proven to work before you worry about small details.
The purpose of this series of articles is to examine the basics of topics related to bodybuilding such as nutrition, training, cardio, and supplementation. This will be done by examining what is known about fundamental areas of these topics based on scientific research, followed by a discussion of how we can apply what is known to our approach to the sport to maximize results. So let’s dive right in and start with one of the most basic steps you need to take in order to succeed.
If you look around the average gym, you will see many individuals who are there going through the motions of lifting, but doing so aimlessly. As a result, their physique and strength levels remain the same from year to year and they really never make progress. When I have the opportunity to train at previous gyms I have trained at, it always amazes me how many people fall into this category. Many of these individuals could benefit from setting goals and having a sense of direction in their training and nutrition.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals:
When setting goals, it is best to have a combination of short-term and long-term goals. For a bodybuilder, a long-term goal may be to look better at the next contest 1-2yrs away; however, visual progress may be slow, especially in a highly trained natural athlete. Therefore, short-term goals, such as adding strength to a particular lift or seeing the scale move may beneficial to keep athletes on track towards their long-term goals. Even the most motivated bodybuilder may lose focus at times between contests. Having short-term goals may be beneficial to reassure the competitor that improvements are being made which can help motivation and progress towards long-term goals.
When selecting goals, it is also important to determine how they will be measured. I often hear bodybuilders measure their goals by placing at a contest or if they won their natural pro card. While these are fine goals to have, placings at a contest are a combination of how good you look on that day, what the judges are looking for, and who else shows up. The only one of these you can control as an athlete is how good you look on that day, everything else is out of your control. That is why I recommend measuring progress through progress pictures rather than getting caught up in contest placings. Pictures are also more accurate than the mirror because when assessing progress in the mirror we can easily allow our emotions to influence our perception of how much progress is actually being made.
When setting goals, one needs to consider what an appropriate goal is in the context of the sport of natural bodybuilding. For example, I often have potential clients inquire with me wanting to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. While this may occur in beginners, individuals on anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, or in athletes coming back after a prolonged layoff, it is unlikely that an individual who is natural and has been training for a significant amount of time will experience significant increases in muscle and decreases in fat simultaneously.
Therefore, it is generally best to focus goals on either growth or fat loss rather than both at the same time.
Later in this series, we will get into appropriate rates of gain and loss.
Along these same lines, it is not uncommon to hear individuals preparing to diet for their first contest discuss goals of wanting to gain muscle and strength while dieting down for their show. Fortunately, 2 recent case studies on bodybuilding in natural athletes have shed light into what is a reasonable goal when prepping for the contest. Rossow et al.  investigated the effects of a 6 month contest prep in a natural pro bodybuilder. During this prep, the bodybuilder lost 24.6 lbs of fat mass, 6.2 lbs of lean mass, and lost 14%, 8%, and 7% on his max squat, bench, and deadlift, respectively. Despite this, the bodybuilder brought a highly competitive physique to the stage and qualified for the IFPA Yorton Cup, one the most competitive professional natural bodybuilding contests in the in the world. Similarly, Kistler et al.  followed an amateur natural bodybuilder 6 month contest prep. The bodybuilder lost 21.6 lbs of fat mass, but also 10.1 lbs of lean mass. Despite this, he also brought a highly competitive physique to the stage and won an open overall and natural pro card at his contest. What we can take from these studies is that some level of muscle and strength loss will likely occur during contest prep, even in highly competitive natural bodybuilders. You should not view it as a failure if you lose some strength going into a contest. This is completely normal.
I also often hear goals along the lines of gaining 10lbs of muscle in 10 weeks or adding 50lbs to a bench press in 1 month; however, these lofty goals are often unrealistic. To my knowledge, the largest increases in muscle size and strength were observed in a scientific study using beginners who were given steroids (both of which individually increase capacity for growth) . In this study, novice lifters on steroids added 13.4 lbs of lean mass and added 48 lbs to their bench and 84 lbs to their squat in 10 weeks. For someone who is not a beginner and not taking steroids, the rate of gain will be significantly lower to the point where adding 2lbs to stage-weight or 20lbs to a max deadlift over a year may be excellent progress for an elite competitor.
My goal for this article was not to bring about a sense of gloom, but rather emphasize what a realistic goal is in a trained drug-free athlete. Often times, competitors look at goals in the short-term and get discouraged when progress is slower than they had hoped rather than remembering that this sport is a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, progress will be slow at times, especially in a trained drug-free athlete; however,
slow progress is still progress.
Below is an example of my progress from contest season to contest season. I hesitate to use myself for this; however, I feel this is a good visual example of a realistic rate of progression in an average natural bodybuilder. Keep in mind, I am a natural pro bodybuilder and rates of muscle gain and loss may be faster or slower depending upon genetic potential; however, I hope this provides an example of continual progress as a result of consistency over a long period of time:
Example of progress in an average natural bodybuilder:
2004 – After 2 yrs of consistency with nutrition and training – 145lbs
2006 – After 4 yrs of consistency with nutrition and training – 158lbs
2008 – After 6 yrs of consistency with nutrition and training – 163lbs
2012 – After 10yrs of consistency with nutrition and training – 161lbs
Take Home Points:
- Goal setting is important prior to determining dietary needs or programming training.
- Create a combination of short-term and long-term goals that are challenging, but realistic.
- Also, consider how goals will be measured and measure them over time to ensure progress.
After reading this article, I hope you are able to develop some specific individual goals. Setting goals is the first step to making progress so you are now on your way to reaching your goals. In the upcoming articles we will discuss basic nutrition and training concepts and also touch on cardio, supplements, and how to fit all of this into your life rather than letting it consume your life.
1. Rossow, L.M., et al., Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2013. 8(5): p. 582-92.
2. Kistler, B.M., et al., Case Study: Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2014.
3. Bhasin, S., et al., The effects of supraphysiologic doses of testosterone on muscle size and strength in normal men. N Engl J Med, 1996. 335(1): p. 1-7.
Bodybuilding 101 Series
Part 1 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #1: Series Intro And Goal Setting
Part 2 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #2: Determining Caloric Intake
Part 3 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #3: Macronutrients and Food Sources