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The Fundamentals of Bodybuilding

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Bodybuilding can be separated into four fundamental components: Planning, Training, Nutrition, Recovery. All four fundamental components are interrelated, and must be considered if you are serious about developing a bodybuilder’s physique.

Plan For Success

Your overarching plan is what ties the fundamental components of bodybuilding together. Proper planning affects how you will approach your training, nutrition and recovery. Here are the fundamental aspects of planning you should understand and apply as a beginner:

  1. Goal setting;
  2. Determining priorities;
  3. Managing expectations;
  4. Trust the fundamentals;
  5. Track your progress;
  6. Goal setting;

The first step when creating your bodybuilding plan is to set clearly defined goals. Without goals, you will have no direction. Having clearly defined goals will dictate how you approach your training and nutrition programs. The 4 primary goals a bodybuilder is concerned with are:

  1. Building muscle;
  2. Increasing strength;
  3. Losing body fat;
  4. Improve metabolic conditioning (metabolic training or work-capacity training).

The primary goal of anyone interested in bodybuilding is to build muscle tissue and have a lean, aesthetic physique. To do so you must incorporate all four goals into your overarching plan. However, this cannot be accomplished by following one plan of action. Due to the competing nature of some goals it is impossible to focus on all of them at once. To build a bodybuilder’s physique, you must work on different goals at different times of the year.

Determining priorities

Having specific goals is an important first step in reaching your ideal physique. However, it is important for a beginner to understand that while you may have a specific goal for your physique, you must consider what your priorities SHOULD be.

Priorities and goals are different. While a goal may be the result you desire right now; a priority is the result that is MOST important right now. Building muscle may be your #1 goal, but if you are overweight your #1 priority needs to be losing that body fat first. If you fail to understand the difference and continue to chase your goals while neglecting what should be prioritized you will hurt your long-term progress.

To maximize your progress follow these steps:

  1. Determine what your #1 priority should be.
  2. Adjust your training to fit that priority.
  3. Adjust your nutrition to fit that priority.
  4. Once the priorities have been handled adjust your plan to reach your goals.
  5. Managing expectations

You need to have reasonable expectations for your results. As a beginner you are in a position to make some of the fastest and most dramatic gains you will ever see. However, your enthusiasm for progress must be tempered by the reality of what is actually possible. The danger of not managing expectations and understanding the reality of what is possible can lead to you making poor decisions in regards to your training and nutrition.

The two biggest mistakes I’ve seen guy make once they reach a sticking point is to either push their nutrition program to the extremes, or switch their training program up too frequently.

In terms of nutrition, the most common thing I’ve seen is for guys to attempt to gain or lose more weight per week than is optimal in an effort to get bigger or leaner. Your body can only build muscle or lose fat at a certain rate. Pushing your calories too far above this rate or dropping them below this rate will only lead to an increase in fat gains or potential loss of muscle tissue.

In terms of training, the most common thing I’ve seen from guys is program hopping. Program hopping is when you bounce around from program to program, following one for a couple weeks, before you find another one that you think will work better.

Realize that once you have the fundamentals down and are following a good training and nutrition program, the biggest factors affecting your results are going to be genetics and time.

Trust the fundamentals

As a beginner, if you only focus on learning and applying the fundamentals of bodybuilding I outline in this article; you could learn nothing else the rest of your life and still build an impressive bodybuilder’s physique.

By learning the fundamentals right now you can be assured that your results will be as good as possible. Often I believe the problem is that beginners get caught up trying to learn something new because they are either frustrated with their results or they assume there must be a better method.

There is so much information available on training and nutrition that if you try to learn and apply it all at once it will paralyze you with uncertainty. You will constantly be wondering if you are following the best possible training program, the best possible diet, or if you even have the right goals.

I recommend beginners AVOID learning much more beyond the fundamentals for the first few years after they start working out. If you are extremely interested in learning about training and nutrition that’s great. Do yourself a favor though and stick with the fundamentals for the first couple years. Keep the rest of the information you’re learning theoretical until you are experienced enough to apply it.

I wish someone had told me this when I first started lifting. There were many times I was frustrated with the results I was getting and this caused me to bounce between more diets and training programs than I can count. If I knew at 18 years old what I know now I could have achieved my current physique in at least 2 years less time. Guaranteed.

Track your progress

Tracking your progress is a key aspect of bodybuilding. If you don’t track your progress you won’t know if you are improving.

There are multiple ways to keep track of your progress. Here are three of the most important ones:

Body weight — Record your body weight in a log once or twice per week. It’s important to record it under the same conditions each time. This means at the same time of day, wearing the same clothes, and using the same scale. I recommend recording your weight first thing in the morning on an empty stomach for the most accurate measurement.

Progress pictures — Progress pictures should be taken at least once per month. While the scale is a good indicator that things are moving in the right direction; nothing provides evidence of progress better than two photos of yourself side by side. Just like recording your weight you want to take progress pictures in the same location at the same time for the most accurate comparisons.

Training log — A training log will allow you to track your daily workouts and your best lifts. When you follow a training program you should be recording your lifts in the log to track progress.

Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to track your progress but understand that results should be evaluated over long periods of time, not how you’ve changed week to week.


Training is usually the easiest fundamental component of bodybuilding for guys to follow. But when it comes to training it’s not just about showing up to the gym. To maximize your results, you need to put serious thought into planning out your training. Here are the fundamental aspects of training you should understand and apply as a beginner:

  1. Familiarize yourself with basic training terminology and methods;
  2. Learn the bodybuilding phases;
  3. Follow a training program;
  4. Practice and reinforce proper form/technique;
  5. Weight progression is king;
  6. The role of cardio;
  7. Familiarize yourself with basic training terminology and methods.

I believe it is vitally important that you understand why you are doing something. You can always pay a good coach to tell you exactly how to train and what to eat and get great results. Most people don’t have that option though, and even if you did, why wouldn’t you want to understand why you’re doing something?

Here is an overview of training terminology and methods to familiarize yourself with.


  1. Exercise selection, intensity, effort, volume, frequency, density, tempo;
  2. Sets, reps, rest periods;
  3. Warm-up sets, work sets;
  4. Intensity techniques: negatives, drop sets, partials;
  5. Anabolic, catabolic, hypertrophy, atrophy.


  1. Optimal amount of sets/reps for size vs. strength
  2. How many work sets per body part
  3. How many exercises per body part
  4. How often to train a body part

Understanding training terminology and methods will allow you to better implement a training program because you will understand the underlying methodology.

Learn the bodybuilding phases

Bodybuilding phases are periods of the year where you focus on a specific goal related to body composition changes (e.g., increasing muscle mass). Bodybuilding phases take into account the training and nutrition considerations necessary to achieve that goal.

Here is a quick overview of the 4 bodybuilding phases related to desired body composition changes:

  1. Bulking Phase — during a bulking phase your primary goal is to increase body weight, muscle mass and strength.
  2. Stabilization Phase — A stabilization phase occurs right after a bulking phase and before a cutting phase. The goal is to maintain the body weight you achieved at the end of your bulking phase. This helps your body retain the new muscle tissue you gained during the bulking phase by reseting your body weight set point.
  3. Cutting Phase — During a cutting phase your primary goal is to reduce body fat while preserve muscle tissue and strength.
  4. Recomposition Phase — A recomposition phase occurs right after a cutting phase and before a bulking phase. The goal during a recomposition phase is to taper up your calorie intake to the amount they will be set at during the start of your bulking phase. This transition prevents excess fat accumulation right after a cut when you are more likely to regain the fat you lost.

Follow a training program

Most guys do not put enough thought into planning their workouts. Much less following (and sticking with) a training program that is based on the specific goals you set for yourself.

Most guys will adopt a training split. A training split is not a training program. A training split is just how you schedule your weekly training sessions. Here is an example of a typically training split:

  1. Monday: Chest
  2. Tuesday: Back
  3. Wednesday: Off
  4. Thursday: Legs
  5. Friday: Shoulders
  6. Saturday: Arms
  7. Sunday: Off

A training program contains a set number of workouts that are performed over a specific period of time. It includes the exercises that you will perform, with a specific set and rep scheme for those exercises, and is designed for a specific purpose. Do you want to know the best way to get really good at learning how your body responds to training? Pick a solid training program and follow it for the entire length of time it was designed for. Imagine a training program like a college course. Quitting a training program half way through is like dropping a class half way through the semester. It doesn’t count.If you buy into a training program and stick with it the entire length of time you can then evaluate it after completion and decide what worked for you and what didn’t.

The most I learned about how my body responds to training came when I hired a friend to train me one fall. He coached me for 4 months providing training and nutrition programs for me to follow. Because I was paying the guy and trusted him I didn’t deviate from any of his programming. At the end of training with him I had made some of the best gains of my life. I also learned a ton about my how my body responds to different exercises and styles of training. There were plenty of times I didn’t like what I was doing but since I was paying him I stuck with it.

Practice and reinforce proper form/technique

The primary movements are compound exercises that emphasize the primary movement patterns, while involving a large number of working muscles. For bodybuilders, I consider the following exercises and their variations to be primary movements due to the level of technique involved in performing them:

  1. Squat
  2. Military Press
  3. Deadlift
  4. Bench Press
  5. Barbell Row

One of the most important things you can do as a beginner is take the time to focus on learning proper form on all exercises. Learning new movement patterns such as the squat take time. If you’ve never done a barbell squat before the first time you attempt it will probably feel somewhat awkward. Understand, perfect form will not come overnight. If you take the time to study the proper technique, watch video demonstrations of the movements, and follow a solid beginner training program, you can develop good form fairly quickly. The accessory movements comprise all other compound and isolation exercises you will utilize as a bodybuilder. You should focus on practicing and reinforcing proper form on the accessory movements just like the primary movements. Some of the best advice I’ve heard was to squat, bench press, and deadlift like a powerlifter and do everything else like a bodybuilder. This refers to how you should approach primary movements vs. accessory movements.

There is a difference between moving a weight through space and making a muscle work.

Primary movements respond best to training them powerlifting style, learning to move the weight through space by optimizing leverages and mastering form/technique. This is because they have the greatest potential for muscle recruitment and strength gains.

Accessory movements should be trained bodybuilding style. These exercises respond best to making the muscle work by building the mind-muscle connection.

The deadlift is a technique intensive movement. No one does a deadlift by focusing on establish a mind-muscle connection with his spinal erectors to maximize their development. You deadlift by learning and reinforcing proper technique and training it in a way to build strength in that lift. At the same time, no one is going to go for a 1 rep max on preacher curls (please don’t do this). With this movement you want to isolate the biceps and maximize that mind-muscle connect to force growth. This does not mean you should only train the primary movements low rep. While primary movements respond the best to strength training protocols; rep work is still a vital part of improving the lifts and building muscle.

Never sacrifice form and technique to lift heavier weights than you are capable of lifting. This might manifest itself by not squatting as deep as you should or by using momentum on a dumbbell curl rather than lifting the weight in a smooth, controlled fashion by focusing on the feeling of your bicep contracting.

Weight progression is king

If you want to get bigger and stronger, focus on lifting heavier weight for more reps on basic compound movements in the right rep range. Accessory movements definitely have their place in training, but never fall into the habit of thinking a new exercise is going to be the solution to getting big. Too often I see guys who think their lack of progress is the result of not choosing the right exercises instead of paying attention to weight progression.

Some considerations should be made on exercise selection for each individual. Individual biomechanics may make some exercises better than others for some people but the core principles of progression will always be the same.

The role of cardio

Cardiovascular training must also be discussed alongside resistance training. Resistance training alone will help you build muscle and keep you lean. Muscle is metabolically active tissue. The more muscle you have the more calories you will burn even at rest. Here are some of the main benefits of cardio:

  1. Serves as a form of active recovery
  2. Improves cholesterol profiles
  3. Lowers resting heart rate
  4. Reduces stress

Types of Cardio:

Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) — LISS cardio is performed for longer duration at a low-moderate intensity. Examples include going for a walk or riding a bicycle while being able to maintain a normal conversation.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) — consists of short sprint intervals coupled with low-moderate intensity work. An example of this would be a 30 second sprint followed by a 4 minute steady pace walk to cool down and bring your heart rate back to normal and then repeating it.

Cardio should be incorporated into your training program year round. The amount and type of cardio you do is going to depend primarily on what bodybuilding phase you are currently following.


Nutrition is arguably the most important component in bodybuilding. In terms of body composition, you nutrition will have the largest impact on your results. You can have the best designed training program in the world that is guaranteed to back on slabs of muscle, but if you are not eating to support that muscle growth it’s not going to happen.

Nutrition is often the most neglected component in bodybuilding. I believe this is due to the fact that nutrition is the most time-consuming component of bodybuilding. I spend maybe 5-6 hours in the gym each week. I spend at least 2-3 hours per day cooking and eating food. That doesn’t count the meal prepping and shopping I do in advance every Sunday which takes me about 4-5 hours total. That adds up to over 20 hours per week spent on nutrition and another 5-6 hours spent on training. When you look at it this way you can see why bodybuilding is referred to as a lifestyle. You are going to have to commit a large portion of your free time to bodybuilding if you want to reach your goals.

Here are the fundamental aspects of nutrition you should understand and apply as a beginner:

  1. Learn to build and follow a proper diet;
  2. Make meal prepping a habit;
  3. Learn how to make adjustments to your nutrition program;
  4. Stay hydrated;
  5. Understand the role of supplements;
  6. Learn to build and follow a proper diet;

I prefer the term nutrition program over diet. A nutrition program is more comprehensive and includes:

  1. Your calorie and macronutrient intake per day;
  2. The number of meals you eat per day;
  3. How your calories and macronutrients are split between meals;
  4. The food sources you choose;
  5. The meals you create for your meal plan;
  6. Make meal prepping a habit.

Unless you have a personal chef, meal prepping is going to be part of your life. Meal prepping simply means cooking bulk portions for your meals in advanced to save yourself time during the week. I’ve already mentioned how much time each week I spend cooking and eating. This is not to discourage your efforts. Rather, I want to be upfront with the amount of work that is required of you if you want to reach your goals. In all reality everyone spends a certain amount of their week shopping, eating and cooking. As a bodybuilder you will have to dedicate more time to the process but it is definitely manageable.

Learn how to make adjustments to your nutrition program

Once you set up a solid nutrition program for yourself you need to learn why, when and how to make adjustments to it. Adjustments need to be made based on your goals, progress and results. If you switch from a bulking phase into a cutting phase you are going to have to adjust your calories and macronutrients for that new goal. If you have been bulking for a two months but haven’t gained any weight in the last two weeks you have to increase calories to continue making progress. If you’re gaining or losing weight too fast, or some of the foods you are eating are giving you stomach trouble, you need to adjust your calories, macronutrients or foods sources to optimize your results.

Stay hydrated

Hydration is an often overlooked part of proper nutrition. Even mild dehydration can have a negative impact on body composition and performance. When your cells are properly hydrated the actual volume (size) of the cell increases. When muscle cells are hydrated they are more anabolic — meaning it is easier to build muscle. When cells are hydrated it is also easier to burn body fat.

Studies have shown decreases in strength, endurance and cognition/mental performance when your body is even mildly dehydrated.A good recommendation is to drink approximately 75% of your body weight in ounces of water each day. So if you weighed 200 pounds you would drink 150 ounces of water, which is a little more than 1 gallon.

Another way to determine hydration levels is by the color of your urine. Your urine should be clear to light yellow at all times. If it is darker than that you need to drink more water. This is an especially helpful test first thing in the morning.

The role of supplements

The foundations of bodybuilding are planning, training, nutrition, and recovery. No supplement can make up the slack if you are lacking in one or more of those areas.

Never develop the bad habit of thinking you need a certain supplement to be able to reach your goals. The truth is that while there are undoubtedly supplements that work the majority of them are simply replacements for whole food items.

There are some supplements, like protein powder, that are useful because of their convenience. Protein powder isn’t magical it’s just a form of protein. You can get the same results eating a chicken breast. However, it does provide a very convenient source of protein on the go. Whey protein isolate is also one of the best protein sources you can consume post workout to enhance replenishment of glycogen reserves and recovery. Other supplements, like fish oil or magnesium, are useful because they legitimately do supplement for a deficiency you most likely have in your diet. I will be covering what supplements are actually worth their price tag and which ones are wastes of money in future articles.


Recovery is probably the most overlooked component in bodybuilding. While proper nutrition is a vital part of the recovery process, you want to be aware of the other aspects of recovery that will impact your results. These include getting enough quality sleep and managing stress.


The amount and quality of your sleep dramatically impacts your ability to recover. Not only does a lack of sleep reduce your ability to train hard, but it also has an independent negative effect on body composition. Chronic lack of sufficient sleep promotes an environment of high levels of stress hormones and low levels of anabolic hormones. Lack of sleep has actually been shown to increase fat stores and risk muscle loss.

The general recommendation for sleep is 7 to 8 hours per night or 55 total hours per week. The reality is every individual’s needs are different. I personally require 8 hours a night to feel productive the next day. However, intense training increases my sleep needs so I usually try to get 8-9 hours a night plus one or two short naps in the afternoon.

Stress Management

There are multiple things that will impact your stress levels such as work, school, relationships, alcohol or drug use. Working out itself is stressful. That is why it is important to balance all of life’s stressors as much as possible.

Imagine all of the stressors in your life are like water in a cup. You only have so much room before the water will fill up the cup and spill out. When this happens it basically means you have overreached. You may start to notice decreased motivation to go to the gym, shittier workouts, a desire to eat junk food and sleep, and general irritability and decrease in cognitive performance. Getting enough sleep and drinking enough water is the first step. Here are a few other tips to minimizing stress:

  1. Minimize alcohol consumption;
  2. Spend time with friends and family who positively affect your life;
  3. Avoid negative people;
  4. Make time every day to relax.

This first article gave you a brief overview of the fundamental components of bodybuilding you must understand and apply as a beginner to maximize your progress. In future articles I will be taking each of the individual aspects discussed here and cover them in greater depth with actionable steps you can follow to incorporate them into your bodybuilding program.

Author: Jon Mahoney

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