A Complete Guide on Bodybuilding

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Have you tried to lose weight? Improve your strength? Redefine your muscle definition? 

Believe it or not, if you have, you are a bodybuilder

In this article I did my best to show you how much you can benefit from bodybuilding. 

Whether you are already on the path or are just above to step on it, I hope I will convince you to keep going.

Longevity and health is all worth it. 

The Main Question

Bodybuilding, whether professional or recreational, is more than just a sport. It is a lifestyle that requires dedication and patience. 

It involves three main components for success: 

  1. Strength: you need that to build more muscle mass.
  1. Nutrition: it’s necessary to improve your body composition.
  1. Recovery: it’s absolutely crucial to progress and speed up your journey.

If you are new to bodybuilding, you have to work from scratch. Think about starting with lighter weights which will help you stay away from injuries. Remember, injuries mean setbacks. We want to avoid that at all costs. 

In bodybuilding the turtles win the race. It’s a long term investment. The progress is gradual so you have to stay focused not only on your workouts but also your everyday diet, the quality of sleep and stress levels. 

Ask yourself these questions: 

  1. Do I want to be a bodybuilder or just get stronger? 
  2. Is my goal longevity and better health for life? 

Based on your answers, set a realistic and achievable plan that suits your needs and preferences. 

Finally, you have probably already come across the term “bulking up”. If not, you will hear it a lot soon. Rightly so… 

If you want to get stronger and bigger, you will need to gain some extra weight. However, you will have to do it the right way, by eating clean food and following a consistent strength training program. 

This may be the slower path, but the results will last longer and will be transformative. 

Workout Days vs Rest Days

I have always had a tendency to overtrain. On rest days I had a feeling that I simply wasted my time. 

Well… Nothing further from the truth. 

Days off are probably the most important part of your training. It’s the exact time when your muscles actually grow.  

In fact, research shows that reducing the number of reps in your training every 10-12 weeks by around 50% can actually improve your results.

How to rest? I like to spend my non-workout days actively. I usually take long walks, stretch, or do my warm-up routines. I also use other recovery tools like saunas, massage, or ice baths. 

How often should you train? If you are a beginner, three workout days per week is a good start. You will have enough space to train different body parts and still rest them. If you work out three days per week, then generally three sets of 7-10 reps per exercise would be sufficient since you will not overtrain yourself.

Once you start seeing results, working out four times per week might be a better option. At least for most people, including myself. With four training sessions per week, you can add some additional exercises and build up intensity. You can add up let’s say four sets of 7-10 reps per exercise.

Generally, aim at hitting all parts of your body, ideally twice per week for each body part. For example, if you train legs on Monday and the upper body on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday and repeat the same cycle on Thursday and Friday.

What if you can’t train six days per week twice a day the way Arnold did in his hayday? Guess what, you don’t have to. Make it your own way. You will still benefit. 

Whatever fits into your life, try to make your workout sessions intense but not longer than 45-60 minutes. Especially if you are over 40. The longer you train, the more cortisol your body will produce.

Remember to stick to the core exercises. You will rarely change them. Add variety or accessory movements around the main ones. You will be much better off tracking results and being consistent but also introducing variety to your routine.

Programming in Bodybuilding

To achieve a balanced physique, you need to work on your legs, upper body (chest, back, abs) and arms

A good rule of thumb is to start with the compound moves and then move to the isolation exercises. The logic behind this is that you need to be fresh to progress safely with the compound lifts. Isolation exercises on the other hand engage less muscle groups at once and are generally safer when practiced to failure. 

Again, never forget about the compound lifts. They train your entire body and are the best for building a solid muscle mass. 

When working on your back, I would recommend incorporating any type of pulldown and pull-in movements. Bent-over rows or deadlifts are good examples. 

For arms, exercises like dumbbells or cable curls are great. You can do them either seated or while standing. Bear in mind that all the upper body movements will also indirectly engage your shoulders, so arm workouts do not have to be extensive.

The list of shoulder workouts might include dumbbell lateral raise or resistance band raise. 

For chest exercises think about including incline press, decline press or flat bench fly.

While training legs, you can focus on deadlifts, squats, leg presses, leg curls or leg extensions. Remember that legs are generally the strongest part of your body, so you can go heavier here compared to other body parts.

Training your abs might be a bit tricky. Some seasoned gym-goers claim that you don’t have to train them separately because compound moves will do the job. Especially unilateral moves where you use core muscles to stabilize your posture. Personally, I like to add exercises like planks or heel taps to make sure that I get the most out of my core workout.

Finally, cardiovascular training… It’s really essential. 

When doing cardio, my personal favorite is kettlebell snatch. I do it for 15-20 minutes for both sides, twice per week. 

However, you can also incorporate a treadmill or a stationary bike. 

Cardio might also be a good way of recovery from your workouts, especially a low-intensity one like hiking or walking. It pushes the blood all over your body and helps circulate it across your muscles. 

I like doing my cardio sessions during my rest days, away from my weight lifting. Actually, science has recently been confirming that separating cardio and weight training might be the best way to get the most out of both. 

Weight Sets

How to program your weight sets? Generally, there are 8 different ways.

Simple Sets

This is probably the simplest way to program your sets and I would actually recommend it if you are a beginner.

You will use the same weight and the same number of reps. 

For example, if you do squats, you would do 7-8 reps with any given load, rest and then repeat until failure. 

Declining Sets

You would start with the highest possible weight and repeat until failure. Let’s say 7-8 reps initially.

Then you would reduce the weight and again repeat until failure. 

You would keep working this way until your muscles say “no more”.

Super Sets

You would train opposing muscles in quick succession. For example, a bench press and then a deadlift without a rest.

You will end up doing more work in less time.

Compounding Sets

You would hit the same muscle group with two different exercises in quick succession.

For example, 7-8 reps of double-kettlebell overhead press followed by 7-8 reps of one-hand kettlebell overhead press.

Pyramid Sets

In pyramid sets you would increase the weight after each set and at the same time decrease the number of reps.

So for example, in a bench press, you would start with 10 reps of 44 lbs. Then move to 8 reps of 66 lbs. and go up in weight until you reach a point where you cannot do even 1 rep.

Don’t rest between sets.

Rest Sets

Essentially it’s similar to the Declings Sets.

Let’s take squats. You would stop the first set around 6-7 reps before failure. Pause and then repeat but this time stop 3-4 reps before failure. Then pause again and continue until you reach 1 rep before failure.

TUT Sets

TUT stands for Time Under Tension.

In this approach you would focus on keeping your muscles under tension for as long as possible.

With bicep curls for example, think about making each phase of the move, both eccentric and concentric, as long as possible. You will force your biceps to work harder and reap better results.    

Great Sets

Great Sets would consist of 3 different exercises hitting the same body parts. There would be no pause between the sets.

For example, 7-8 reps of bench presses followed by 7-8 reps of dumbbell presses followed by 7-8 reps of dumbbell flyers. 

Free Weights or Machines

There is no definitive answer to this question. Both have their pros and cons. 

I have seen people who benefited tremendously from using only machines, but I also have friends who swear by free weights. 

Having my own home gym, I find free weights more convenient and I use them pretty much exclusively.

Remember though that you should include some form of compound moves like deadlifts, bench presses, and squats in your program. For these exercises, free weights are the best option. 

However, this also requires that you study the correct form and train your muscle memory. 

Machines, on the other hand, might be safer especially if you are a beginner. They are also much better at isolating certain muscles. If you have any specific injuries and want to avoid certain moves, machines are probably a better choice.

Contrary to machines, free weights will adjust themselves to your unique muscular pathways so everyone will train a bit differently due to natural body differences. 

I would say try both but including free weights is a must for any serious lifter.

Progressive Overload

Yes, it’s crucial for muscle growth. 

I am aware of at least three different ways to introduce muscle hypertrophy into your training. 

  1. The most obvious way is to increase the weight. When you stay with any given weight for too long your muscles get used to it and you stop making any progress. So when it gets easier, think about lifting heavier. Keep challenging your muscle fibers. This will assure progress and better results.
  1. Another way is to increase the number of reps. This might not necessarily be the most obvious one but it’s definitely a safer option. Also, if you are a home gym owner as I am, increasing the weight each month might not be practical. Remember that working with the same weight towards 2-3 reps before failure will serve the purpose as well. For example, instead of doing 10 reps slowly increase this number to 15 or even 20. 
  1. The third way is to limit the rest periods between sets or exercises. Probably the least obvious option. It’s close in its nature to the previous one though and it also serves the purpose. You will basically end up with a higher number of reps and this will give your muscles more work. Think about this option as well.

Check out all three approaches. Experiment with them and find out which one serves you best. Train smart and be consistent. 


Extremely broad subject. I have seen hundreds of diets and methods. Obviously, every author claims his approach is the holy grail of nutrition. As much as I like experimenting, in my opinion there are only a few things you should pay attention to keep your diet as its best. 

General Tips

Technically speaking your muscles are not made in the gym. They are torn apart there.  

It’s in the kitchen where muscle growth starts. With nutritious food, quality sleep and good rest you start to repair and rebuild your muscle fibres and then hypertrophy happens. 

Now, let’s dive into the subject of food. Whether you are a gym-goer or not, this is probably the most crucial part of any healthy lifestyle. 

The most important nutrient for muscle growth is protein. It’s the building block of muscle tissues. Try to consume enough protein every day, preferably from whole foods like meat, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, and seeds. 

At the same time, avoid sugar, alcohol and generally highly processed foods. Simple, right? At least in theory. 

Many professional athletes follow the 80-20 rule. It means that you should eat as clean as possible 80% of the time with only 20% of cheat meals. For me it works perfectly. When I allow myself to eat unhealthy just a bit I avoid big sugar or fast food cravings. 

In general, you’d be better off eating more meals per day in smaller quantities rather than being focused on fewer huge portions. 

Think about chunking a log on a burning fire. In this way you will keep your metabolism running during the day without the need to ignite it from scratch 3 times per day before major meals. 

Bulking vs Cutting

Generally, there are two main phases in the lifecycle of a bodybuilder, bulking and cutting. Both can last anywhere from 12 to 26 weeks

During the bulking phase you would stay on calorie surplus. You would ideally eat high protein foods and commit to intense strength training.

During the cutting phase you would devote yourself to losing fat while keeping your muscle mass you developed through weight lifting. 

Calories Intake

Ok, so how much should you actually eat for optimal results? 

Obviously, you will have a different calorie intake during the bulking phase and the cutting phase.

First of all, check your maintenance calories intake. This is the amount of food you need to neither gain nor lose any weight. Check it over the span of 2-3 weeks.

From there, add 15-20% of calories. That should be your bulking amount. 

My personal daily maintenance food intake is around 2700 calories. In order to enter the bulking phase I would have to increase this number to around 3105 calories. 

Conversely, to enter a cutting phase I would have to reduce my calorie intake from 2700 to around 2295 calories. 

Generally, to stay strong and healthy during both bulking and cutting periods make sure not to lose or gain more than 1-1.5% of your body weight per week. 

Carbs vs Proteins

In order to have energy at hand to train, you will need to eat a bit more carbs than proteins. Different sources will give you slightly different ratios. However, whatever you eat, make sure it consists of 55 to 60% of carbohydrates, 25 to 30% of proteins and 15 to 20% of fats. 

As long as you eat around 1 gram per lb. of your body weight in proteins, you should keep the optimal nutrients ratio for muscle growth. 

Think about eating healthy, unprocessed carbs (fruits, potatoes, whole-wheat bread or beans) right after your workouts when the storage of glycogen in your body is empty. You will immediately refuel the glycogen to its normal levels. It’s an excellent way of recovery. 

If you are further interested in detailed diet plans, it’s best to consult your dietitian. 

Good Foods

As mentioned above, you can eat the same foods in both cutting and bulking phases. The only difference is the calorie intake. 

Having said that, the best source of protein will be meat such as poultry or fish.

Obviously, meat should always go hand in hand with vegetables such as broccoli or zucchini. It’s a great source of vitamin C and fiber. 

Think about including dairy into your diet as well. Consider drinking milk or eating cheese. 

My favorite start of the day are grains. I like oatmeal with almonds or walnuts. I usually eat it with the whey powder for more protein intake.

Don’t forget about beans and oils such as lentils and olive oil. Being a great taste carrier, fats will increase the pleasure of eating. And it’s important for long term commitment!  

Foods to Avoid

Let’s be honey. We are all human beings. We like small pleasures so nothing should harm us in small amounts. 

However, try to avoid alcohol as much as possible. Studies show that the excess alcohol intake will definitely reduce your potential for building a solid muscle mass. 

Sugar is the next culprit. It contains a lot of calories but carries almost no nutrients. Try to limit the consumption of candies, cookies or ice creams. Eat more bitter chocolate instead but make sure it contains 85% or more of pure cocoa. This is my favorite cheat meal by the way. 

Finally, limit the amount of deep-fried foods such as french fries. If consumed in excess, it may cause inflammation or disease. 


Consider supplementing, especially if you have a busy weekly schedule. Obviously, some supplements will be better than others

Being a dad and a business owner, sometimes I won’t eat as much protein as I should so I use whey powders. I mix them with milk or water. In this way I’m sure my daily protein intake stays on the proper level. If you use shakes the best source of protein would be whey and casein

Also, to boost my recovery and strength I take creatine on a daily basis. It really helps me a lot to stay consistent with my training and keep my energy levels stable. The best form of creatine is monohydrate. There is nothing else you need. It’s proven, tested, it works and it’s probably the most researched supplement on earth. 

Bodybuilding Benefits

If you fight for longevity, a healthy food in itself can be a natural healer! But if you combine it with bodybuilding you get ahead of the entire population.

You will also increase your cardiovascular potential through regular cardio.

Any training that involves increasing your heart rate will lower your risk of dying from heart diseases. This is the most common cause of death in the developed world.

Bigger muscle mass is also associated with a lower risk of dying from cancer or heart attack.

Isn’t it worth the effort? Think about it for a second. 

Since you got that far… 

Check out our latest articles on the dumbbell pullover. Probably the most underrated bodybuilding exercise with potential to take your chest and back muscles to the next level.

If you’re interested in developing your chest further, check out our article on the best incline bench angle. Don’t forget about proper recovery.

Don’t forget to train other parts of your body.


Is Bodybuilding Good for Me?

Yes. It’s an excellent lifestyle leading to better health, strength and body definition.

How Often Should I Train?

Start with 3 days per week, especially when you are a beginner. Then slowly increase to 4 days per week.

If you are over 40 and training recreationally, going for more than 4 workouts per week might have a negative impact on your results.

Should I Use Free Weights or Machines?

Use both. Free weights are best for compound moves and finding your unique muscle pathways.

Machines are great for isolation exercises or when you want avoid certain moves due to previous injuries.

How Many Calories Do I Need During a Day?

If you are an average adult man living in the US, the recommended daily calorie intake should range from 2,100 to 3,200 calories.

In the bulking phase, you should increasing your average calorie intake by 15-20%.

In the cutting phase, you should lower your average calorie intake by 15-20%.

Do I Have to Take Supplements?

No, it’s not necessary.

However, they can help you achieve better results. The two main supplements should whey protein and creatine monohydrate.

Regarding proteins, 1 gram per lb. of your body weight should be enough per day.

Regarding creatine, 4-7 grams per day will be sufficient.

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Robert is a fitness enthusiast who has been passionate about staying strong and healthy for most of his life. He loves writing about fitness topics and also manages a team of expert writers for his site, Home Athlete Zone. He has his own home gym where he works out almost every day.

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