Bodybuilding, both the word and the concept, evokes many different reactions.
- Some think of muscular men and women sweating in a gym.
- Others think of almost unnaturally lean and muscular bodybuilders posing on stage.
- For many, bodybuilding is a lifestyle, a commitment to training, eating, and thinking that strengthens both the mind and body.
Bodybuilding is all that, and more. Bodybuilding is for everyone.
This guide is for anyone interested in bodybuilding, whether you are an outsider to the lifestyle, someone taking the first steps on their fitness journey, or a seasoned bodybuilder with years of experience.
What is Bodybuilding?
Bodybuilding is a popular sport and fitness activity practiced worldwide, ranging from amateur fitness enthusiasts to professional bodybuilders. Encyclopedia Britannica says bodybuilding is “a regimen of exercises designed to enhance the human body’s muscular development and promote general health and fitness.”1
Bodybuilding exercise is any training you perform for that purpose.
Becoming a successful bodybuilder requires more than lifting things and setting them down, though. It requires dedication and hard work, both physically and mentally. In addition, bodybuilding is more dependent on nutritional know-how than many other sports.
Anyone who trains to develop their muscles may call themselves a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding is on your terms; you don’t have to display your physique to be a bodybuilder, although you have plenty of opportunity to do so if you so desire.
Benefits of Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding can provide numerous health benefits.2 These include, but are not limited to:
- Increased strength and muscle endurance.
- Better insulin sensitivity and glucose control.
- A stronger immune system.
- Improved body composition.
- Improved bone health: weight-bearing exercise like bodybuilding can help enhance bone density, which is especially important as we age.
- Better cardiovascular health: bodybuilding helps improve cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, reducing LDL cholesterol levels, and improving overall circulation.
- Increased metabolism: muscle mass burns calories 24/7 whether you use it or not, which helps reduce body fat and improve body composition.
- Improved mental health: bodybuilding can enhance mood and relieve anxiety, stress, and depression.
Bodybuilding can also help improve your body image, self-confidence, and self-esteem by promoting a sense of achievement and accomplishment when you see progress in your physique and strength.
In short: the natural bodybuilding lifestyle is a fountain of health that not only makes you look better but offers numerous health benefits and makes you feel great both physically and mentally.
Bodybuilding for Beginners
If you’re new to bodybuilding – welcome! You’re in for a challenging but rewarding pursuit, providing numerous physical and mental benefits.
However, if you’re new to bodybuilding, it can take time to know where to start. In addition, if you jump straight into a training program for advanced bodybuilders, you’re setting yourself up for overtraining.
Let us provide the tools and knowledge you need to succeed in your bodybuilding journey.
To help you navigate the various techniques and strategies for building the body you want, Bodybuilding for Beginners is designed to provide a comprehensive guide covering the techniques and strategies you need to get started.
Check it out:
>> Bodybuilding for Beginners: The Complete Guide
Should Male and Female Bodybuilders Train and Eat Differently?
No. This guide applies to everyone, regardless of sex.
It’s easy to think that men build muscle easier than women due to having ten times more testosterone, the male sex hormone associated with strength and muscle growth.
However, research shows that men and women respond equally well to bodybuilding training.
For optimal results, we all need to practice progressive overload, lift regularly and with proper form, and eat a high-protein diet with a calorie intake adapted to our goals.
>> Male and Female Strength and Muscle Growth: Do Men and Women Gain the Same?
Your training is the most critical part of the bodybuilding puzzle. All the pieces – training, diet, supplementation, recovery, and mindset – need to be in place for bodybuilding success, but without the training, you’ll never end up with a complete picture.
Where you train doesn’t matter much. Many bodybuilders have started in their basement and garage with a barbell and some weight plates.
You can do many of the best basic exercises for each major muscle group if you have essential equipment like a barbell and weight plates, an adjustable bench, and a rack.
Add a set of dumbbells and a pulley system, and the sky’s the limit.
A quality home gym offers privacy, saves time, and you can train whenever you want. With some planning and the proper selection of equipment, it can take you very far in your bodybuilding career.
Of course, a fully equipped gym offers all you need for bodybuilding: free weights, cable pulleys, and machines. It is the best option for the bodybuilder who prefers variety and for high-level bodybuilders looking to target individual body parts from different angles.
What Is the Best Bodybuilding Split?
A bodybuilding split is a type of workout routine that involves dividing your weekly training sessions into different muscle groups or “splits” to focus on specific areas of the body.
Many different types of bodybuilding splits exist for all experience levels and preferences. Some of the most popular include:
- Full-body splits: a workout routine that, unlike other types of bodybuilding splits, involves training the entire body in a single workout session. It’s the perfect way for a beginner bodybuilder to get started.
- Upper/lower splits: this involves training the upper body on one day and the lower body on another day. It is a popular split for beginners and intermediate lifters.
- Push/Pull/Legs splits: a PPL split involves training pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) on one day, pulling muscles (back, biceps) on another day, and legs on a third day. It is popular among intermediate and advanced bodybuilders.
- Bodybuilding splits (4–6 days): often called a bro-split, this split involves dedicating a separate day for each muscle group, such as chest day, back day, and leg day. It is the most popular split among experienced bodybuilders.
What’s the Best Bodybuilding Split for Beginners?
I recommend our beginner barbell program if you’re new to strength training.
It will prepare your body for more dedicated bodybuilding programs.
Once you have some training experience, a full-body bodybuilding routine like StrengthLog’s Bodybuilding for Beginners is the ideal next step.
Training your entire body three times per week allows you to learn the exercises by performing them frequently while giving you adequate time for rest and recovery to grow.
What’s the Best Bodybuilding Split for Intermediates?
I suggest three or four weekly workouts at the intermediate level for the best results.
A full-body approach is still perfectly viable. StrengthLog’s Full-Body Hypertrophy Workout Program is a prime example.
Another option is the upper/lower split. You train each body part twice weekly but can focus more on each muscle group.
StrengthLog’s 3-Day Bodybuilding Split combines an upper/lower body split and a full body split into a great option for the intermediate bodybuilder looking to gain lean muscle mass and build a balanced physique.
What’s the Best Split for Advanced Bodybuilders?
At this level, the goal is to maximize muscle growth and hypertrophy by targeting specific muscle groups with 4–6 dedicated weekly training sessions.
In our workout tracker, you’ll find many excellent bodybuilding splits, including the following popular options:
StrengthLog’s 4-Day Bodybuilding Split. A training program for intermediate to semi-advanced bodybuilders looking to gain lean muscle mass and build a balanced physique.
StrengthLog’s 6 Day Workout Split. A training program for bodybuilders looking to build muscle like a pro. It is designed for the upper intermediate to the advanced lifter and allows you to focus on one major muscle group per workout.
Bodybuilding Ballet. 4–6x/week. The program for tree-trunk quads, bulging biceps, and a massive back. This is an advanced bodybuilding program and one of the most popular programs in our workout tracker.
Bodybuilding 313. 5–6x/week. A premium training program designed for gaining muscle. It’s a three-day training split, in which you train three days, rest one, train three, and so on. A classic type of training program based on scientific training principles and real-life experiences by many bodybuilders throughout the decades.
Bodybuilding Blitz. 5x/week. If you are short on time but want to build muscle as efficiently as possible, check out this bodybuilding program for maximum gains in minimum time.
Push / Pull / Legs. 6x/week. An advanced push/pull/leg-split for building muscle. An optimal training volume and training frequency for terrific gains!
>> Click here for a complete list of all our bodybuilding programs.
All these bodybuilding splits are available in StrengthLog, which you can download for free using the button for your device below:
Join 80 000+ monthly users!
What are the Best Bodybuilding Exercises?
Unlike powerlifting, there are no must-do exercises in bodybuilding. If you don’t like an exercise or feel discomfort and pain doing it, there is always an alternative.
That being said, not all bodybuilding exercises are created equal.
- As a rule of thumb, stable exercises are better than unstable ones. For example, squatting on a balance board might activate more muscles than regular squats but is inferior for building muscle mass. You want muscle force to be the limiting factor, not your balance.
- Exercises that work your muscle through an extended range of motion are often more effective for promoting muscle growth.
In general, single-joint and multi-joint exercises are equally effective for building muscle.3 Combining both is likely beneficial for long-term muscle growth.
A viable strategy for most bodybuilders is to base their workouts on compound exercises, then use single-joint movements towards the end of the session to isolate the muscle and get a good pump.
These are our suggestions for the best exercises for each muscle group. You can’t go wrong basing your bodybuilding routine on the basics.
You have numerous other excellent bodybuilding exercises to choose from, but you could build a fantastic physique using only the ones above.
>> Top 20 Bodybuilding Exercises for Every Muscle Group
Warming Up for a Bodybuilding Workout
Before you hit the heavy weights, you should warm up. Warming up before a training session offers several benefits:
- It raises your body temperature and elevates your heart rate.
- You increase the blood flow to your muscles.
- It prepares you mentally for the hard work to come.
- It could reduce the risk of injury.
A good warm-up for a bodybuilding training session should include several key elements to help prepare your body for the demands of the workout ahead:
Cardiovascular exercise: begin your warm-up with light cardio for ~5 minutes to raise your heart rate and increase muscle blood flow. Examples of cardio activities include jogging, cycling, or using the elliptical machine. Remember that you’re not doing this for aerobic exercise, so don’t go all out. You don’t want to be exhausted when it’s time to lift.
Dynamic stretching: perform some light dynamic stretching exercises to get your muscles warmed up and ready for the workout. This could include leg swings, arm circles, and lunges, depending on which body parts you’re about to train.
Warm-up sets: perform a few sets of your first exercise using a light weight. This activates the muscles you’ll be using, warms them up further, and prepares them for heavier lifting. You’ll need more ramp-up sets for a heavy compound exercise like the squat than an isolation exercise like the triceps pushdown.
A good warm-up gradually increases in intensity, leaving you ready for action, not tired.
How Many Days a Week Should You Work Out?
The number of days per week you should work out for bodybuilding depends on several factors, including your fitness level, training experience, goals, and schedule.
Training 2–3 days per week using a full-body training split is ideal for beginners. You get to practice the movements by doing them several times per week, and because you don’t need many sets to stimulate growth at this point, it’s better to do a little but do it often rather than cram dozens of sets into one workout.
Experienced bodybuilders often aim to work out 4-6 days per week. These split routines allow you to train different muscle groups on different days, for example working your chest and triceps one day, back and biceps another day, and legs on a separate day.
- You could train three days in a row using a push/pull/legs split, rest a day, then start over.
- You could split your body into four days and train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
- With a five-day split, you could train five days in a row during the week and get the weekend off.
Those are just three examples, and there is no evidence that a certain number of training days are superior, although most bodybuilders prefer to work out at least four times weekly.
How Often Should You Train Each Muscle Group?
A strength training session elevates your muscle protein synthesis (MPS) for around a day for someone with some training experience. After a little more than 24 hours, you’re back at baseline.
Training each muscle group frequently is often considered the best way to keep MPS elevated and stimulate muscle growth.
In practice, training frequency isn’t very important for muscle growth. It’s a tool for manipulating your weekly training volume, but there is no evidence that a high training frequency is superior for bodybuilding purposes.
For strength, however, a high training frequency is the way to go.
Current research suggests that there is little or no difference between training a muscle group one, two, or three times per week if muscle growth is your goal.4 5
Instead, you can choose a weekly training frequency based on personal preference.
That gives you a lot of freedom.
- If you prefer full-body workouts three days per week, go for it.
- An upper/lower split or a rotating push/pull/legs-split where you train each body part twice weekly? Great.
- Do you like the bro-split approach, training each muscle group only once weekly? No problem.
Balance Training Frequency and Volume
Of course, the more often you train a muscle group, the fewer sets you need to do per session. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to recover from the massive total weekly training volume.
If you train a muscle group three times per week, you can’t do 20 sets for that muscle group each workout. It would be too much to recover from, and you’d definitely pass the “optimal training volume” point.
On the other hand, if you follow a bro-split, training each muscle group only once per week, you can blast that muscle with more sets that workout. You have an entire week to recover.
Advanced Bodybuilders Train Less Frequently
High-level bodybuilders, almost without exception, follow 3- to 5-day splits, training each muscle group once or twice weekly. Most prefer training each muscle group only once per week.
The downside of training a muscle group only once weekly is that your training quality might suffer towards the end of the workout.
Try doing a 30-set leg session and maintaining focus and intensity to the end. You’ll likely be too exhausted during the last quarter of the workout to give it your all.
Splitting those 30 sets into two or more training sessions would allow you to go all-out every set.
Don’t Neglect Rest Days
Your muscles don’t grow while you lift but during the 24–48 hours following a workout.
Even if you’re highly motivated and love being in the gym, training every day can lead to burnout and grind your progress to a halt.
Giving your muscles a day or two off from lifting each week allows you to recover, avoid plateaus, and keep growing.
Train each muscle group 1–3 times per week based on your preferences and preferred workout split.
Don’t forget to include rest days in your workout schedule.
How Many Sets Should You Do per Muscle Group?
Training volume is one of the primary drivers of muscle growth, along with progressive overload.
The more sets you do, the more your muscles grow. Up to a point.
Once you pass the “optimal training volume,” adding even more sets leads to diminishing returns.
Do too many, and you might even enter overtraining territory. You’re doing more than your body can handle, and your results begin to suffer.
The more advanced a bodybuilder you are, the more sets you need to maximize your gains.
A bodybuilding beginner can grow from only a few weekly sets per muscle group. As you gain training experience, you must increase your training volume.
A dose-response relationship exists between the number of sets you do and your muscle growth.
Current research suggests you need at least ten weekly sets per muscle to optimize muscle growth.6 7
As a general guideline, most bodybuilding programs, including ours, recommend performing 10-20 weekly sets per muscle group. Advanced bodybuilders likely benefit from the upper end of that interval. Maybe even more in some cases.
That set interval is in accordance with the general recommendations of major sports and exercise science organizations.
- Perform at least ten weekly sets per major muscle group.
- If you’re an experienced lifter, you can benefit from up to 20 sets per muscle group.
- Some advanced bodybuilders thrive on 20-30 sets per muscle group weekly. At that level, you know your body well enough to determine how many sets you respond to best.
>> How Many Sets per Muscle Group per Week?
>> How Many Exercises Should You Do per Muscle Group?
How Many Reps per Set Should You Do?
Traditionally, repetitions for resistance training have been divided into three separate ranges:
- Low reps: 1–5 repetitions per set with 80% to 100% of 1-repetition maximum (1RM) for maximum strength increases.
- Moderate reps: 8–12 repetitions per set with 60% to 80% of 1RM for maximum muscle growth.
- High reps: 15+ repetitions per set with loads below 60% of 1RM for improving muscle endurance.
Current research shows that using heavy weights and low reps is superior for strength development, and light weights and many reps are best for muscle endurance.
However, you can achieve muscle growth at almost any load. Everything from as little as three reps up to 40 reps leads to similar increases in muscle mass.8
So why would you want to train heavy if you’re a bodybuilder? Wouldn’t it be better to rep out with light weights, feel the working muscles, and reduce the risk of injury to practically zero?
High-Rep Bodybuilding Training: Effective But Painful
The problem is that, with light weights, you have to train to failure, the point during a set when you reach complete exhaustion and can no longer continue, no matter what. And that’s painful when you’re doing many reps, not to mention mentally draining.
Try doing a set of barbell curls with a weight which you estimate you can do 30 reps. Now curl that bar to failure. True failure.
Then do it again for a second set.
And again, for a third.
Continue doing high-rep sets to failure the entire workout. You’ll know why high-rep training using light loads is not viable for a bodybuilder. As a finishing set to maximize your muscle pump, sure, but you don’t want to base your workout routine on it.
What About Heavy Weights for Bodybuilding?
On the other hand, only using heavy weights for 3–5 reps also builds similar amounts of muscle, and you’ll maximize your strength gains, too.
Going heavy all the time also has several downsides.
- You must do more sets to reach the training volume required for optimal gains and rest a long time between sets to recover from the heavy loads. Your workouts will be far from time-efficient.
- The combination of heavy loads and a high training volume will strain your muscles and joints, increasing the risk of injury and overuse.
A Moderate Rep Range Is Often Best
This means the classic ~6–15 reps is still bodybuilders’ go-to hypertrophy rep range.
- It’s time-efficient.
- It’s not as painful.
- You don’t have to train to failure every set.
- You don’t put undue stress on joints and tendons.
All the benefits for building muscle but no disadvantages.
- Most of your bodybuilding training should be in the moderate rep range of 6–15 or even 8–12 if you want to narrow it down.
- Do low-rep training with heavy weights and high-rep sets with light loads for variety and to hit all muscle fibers, but somewhere in the middle is where you want to be for the majority of your training.
How Long Should a Bodybuilder Rest Between Sets?
According to a recent review, you must rest at least two minutes between sets to maximize strength gains.9
A bodybuilder primarily interested in muscle growth has more freedom.
The amount of rest you need between sets depends on several factors, including the intensity of the exercise, how heavy weights you’re using, and your fitness level.
As a general rule of thumb, the rest period between sets should be long enough to allow for recovery but not so long that it hinders the workout’s intensity.
Sounds simple enough. So what does that mean?
My best suggestion is to listen to your body and resume training when it tells you it’s ready.
For a beginner, it can be helpful to follow a predetermined rest interval, like two minutes, and stick to it. With experience, you’ll likely know when you can do yourself justice again.
If you’re unsure, a viable strategy is to rest for 1–2 minutes on single-joint exercises and two minutes or longer on compound movements.
Compound exercises like the squat, rows, and presses take a lot out of you. Taking a more extended rest allows you to recover your energy levels and not be forced to reduce the weight or the number of reps too much.
On the other hand, single-joint movements like biceps curls, triceps pushdowns, and the leg extension might give you a massive pump and burn, but you recover more quickly from set to set.
- Rest at least one minute between sets for isolation exercises for small muscle groups.
- Rest for two minutes or more when doing heavy multi-joint exercises.
An effective way to structure your bodybuilding workout is to start with compound exercises, taking a longer rest interval between sets to perform your best. Then, toward the end of the session, perform your isolation exercises and shorten your rest intervals for a great finishing pump.
Should You Train to Muscular Failure?
Failure is the point at which you can no longer complete another repetition of a particular set with proper form and technique.
In bodybuilding, muscular failure is generally considered to be a positive thing. It indicates that you have pushed your muscles to their maximum capacity and stimulated them to adapt and grow.
Indeed, advanced lifters might benefit from training to failure and gain more muscle long-term.
Pushing your muscles to failure on every set or in every workout can be counterproductive, as it can lead to overtraining and psychological burnout.
I suggest you train to failure some of the time but not all of the time. That way, you get the potential benefits but avoid burnout.
Make the final rep of the majority of your sets challenging but not impossible. Then throw in a set where you take it all the way to muscular failure now and then, preferably on isolation exercises.
Beginners and intermediate bodybuilders do not need to train to failure. There is no harm in doing so, but it’s not necessary. If you do it, make sure you don’t overdo it and compromise your recovery.
Advanced Bodybuilding Training Techniques
Experienced bodybuilders use advanced training techniques to break through plateaus and increase their workout intensity.
These techniques are not for everyone. Beginners definitely don’t need them.
Drop sets are an advanced bodybuilding technique where you perform a set of an exercise to failure, then immediately reduce the weight and continue the set without rest. This allows you to continue working the muscle group past the point of failure and adds volume to a set.
Let’s say you perform a set of dumbbell curls.
- You start with a weight you can lift for around ten reps before reaching failure. Once you fail, you put the dumbbells down, pick up a lighter pair, and continue the set without resting.
- You can continue reducing the weight after each failure until you’ve completed several “drops” and the muscle group is entirely exhausted. That’s one drop set.
Reducing the load by about 20-30% per drop is a good approach for compound exercises.
Drop sets save time, but no evidence shows they lead to more significant muscle growth.10 In other words: feel free to incorporate them into your bodybuilding training, but don’t expect any additional gains compared to the same total training volume using straight sets.
Drop sets do give you a tremendous pump, though!
A superset means performing two exercises back-to-back without rest in between. The exercises can target the same muscle group or different muscle groups. In both cases, the goal is to increase the intensity of your workout and reduce the time it takes to complete it.
There are two types of supersets: agonist supersets and antagonist supersets.
- In an agonist superset, you perform two exercises that target the same muscle group. You might perform a set of barbell curls followed immediately by a set of hammer curls, both of which target your biceps.
- An antagonist superset involves performing two exercises that target opposing muscle groups. After a set of leg extensions, you’d jump right into a set of leg curls, as these exercises target your quads and hamstrings, respectively.
Much like drop sets, there is little evidence that supersets promote more significant muscle hypertrophy than straight sets, but again, they save time and give you a massive pump.11
You can go even further with tri-sets and giant sets.
- Performing three or more exercises for a particular muscle group in rapid succession, with little to no rest in between sets, is called a tri-set.
- A giant set is when you perform four or more different exercises back-to-back.
Tri-sets and giant sets are demanding but very effective for cramming a lot of training volume into a shorter workout. There is no evidence that they build more muscle than traditional sets.
>> Are Supersets Good for Muscle Growth and Strength?
>> Bicep and Tricep Superset Workout for Mass
>> Chest and Back Superset Workout for Bodybuilding
Pre-exhaustion training is a bodybuilding technique involving performing an isolation movement before a compound exercise.
The goal is to fatigue a specific muscle group with an isolation exercise, such as leg extensions for the quadriceps, before moving on to a compound exercise, such as squats, that works multiple muscle groups, including the fatigued muscle.
Pre-exhaustion training can effectively increase a workout’s overall intensity and volume, and you could use it during a high-volume training cycle.
However, there is no evidence that pre-exhaustion training leads to more significant long-term gains in muscle mass.11 Feel free to include it in your bodybuilding sessions but don’t expect any dramatic differences in results.
Partial reps in bodybuilding are a technique that involves performing an exercise using a limited range of motion, typically to focus on a specific part of the movement or to increase training intensity.
You can perform partial reps by lifting the weight only partially or by lowering it only partially, essentially working a smaller range of motion than the full exercise.
For example, in a bicep curl, partial reps could involve only lifting the weight halfway up and lowering it back down rather than curling it all the way up.
Partials make an excellent finisher when you can’t do more full reps but want to fully exhaust the muscle.
The pyramid training system is a strength-training and bodybuilding technique where you increase or decrease the weight from set to set.
There are two primary types of pyramids:
Ascending pyramids are the basic form of pyramid training. You gradually increase the weight while simultaneously decreasing the number of repetitions. This approach stimulates muscle growth by progressively challenging your muscles with heavier weights while allowing for sufficient rest between sets.
An example of a four-set squat pyramid workout could look like this:
- Set 1: 12 reps
- Set 2: 10 reps
- Set 3: 8 reps
- Set 4: 6 reps
Reverse or descending pyramids are more advanced and involve starting with the heaviest weight (after a thorough warm-up,) then decreasing the load and doing higher reps as you continue the following sets.
You can also combine ascending and descending pyramids into a full pyramid.
In other words, pyramid training can effectively build muscle and bust through a bodybuilding plateau, and standard ascending pyramids offer a built-in warm-up system.
Regular bodybuilding training and pyramid training are equally effective for gaining strength and increasing muscle size.12
Ascending pyramids are suitable for all bodybuilding lifters, but descening pyramids is a more advanced training technique.
>> Pyramid Training for Building Muscle and Strength
These advanced training techniques should be used only now and then, but when used sensibly, they can help you boost workout intensity and bust through a bodybuilding plateau. It is a useful tool and equally effective as straight-set training.
A good bodybuilding diet is the same as a healthy, balanced diet for anyone else, only emphasizing muscle-building nutrients like protein.
There are two distinct phases of a bodybuilding diet: the off-season bulking phase and the cutting phase.
- During the bulking phase, you’re trying to add as much muscle as possible without gaining too much fat simultaneously.
- The cutting phase is when you reduce your calorie intake to lose excess body fat while eating and training to maintain the muscle mass you gained during the bulking phase.
A bodybuilding diet can look very different depending on your training phase.
Let’s look at how you should eat during the off-season when primarily going for muscle growth first.
Bodybuilding Diet: Eating for Muscle Growth
During the bulking phase, you want to give your muscles the energy and nutrients they need to grow. However, mindlessly pounding the calories (sometimes called the seefood diet: see food = eat food) is one of the biggest mistakes if you want to add quality mass to your frame.
How Many Calories Do You Need to Gain Muscle?
Massive overfeeding does little for muscle growth compared to a moderate caloric surplus. Instead, it’ll only make you fatter and prolong the cutting phase if you want to see the results of your gym sessions.
The classic bodybuilding mantra “eat big to get big” is true, but only to a point. To optimize muscle gain, you must consume more calories than you burn. However, your calorie surplus should not be too high in order to minimize fat gain.
A caloric intake of ~10–20% above maintenance is ideal for most bodybuilders. A good starting point is to consume around 250-500 calories more than you need to maintain your body weight.
If your maintenance calories (the daily calories your body needs to stay at your current weight) are 2,500, increase your intake to 2,750–3,000 calories.
You can use our calculator to help you estimate your maintenance calories:
>> Calorie Calculator: Resting Metabolic Rate and Daily Need
If you’re naturally thin and struggle to gain weight or a beginner who wants to pack on the pounds quickly, aim for the upper end of the 250-500 calorie interval.
Advanced bodybuilders should be more conservative with their caloric surplus. After years of training, you can’t gain lean muscle mass as fast, and a massive surplus will only add body fat. The lower end of the calorie surplus recommendation is likely a better idea.
How Much Protein Do You Need to Gain Muscle?
Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue. Eat too little of it, and you won’t see the gains in muscle mass you’re looking for.
Current research suggests you need 1.6–2.2 grams of protein per kg (0.7–1 gram per pound) daily to maximize muscle mass gains.13
Consuming at least 1.6 g/kg/day is a good starting point.
Some bodybuilders may need more protein depending on their training intensity, age, and body composition.
Going for 2.2 g/kg/day guarantees you get enough to support muscle growth and repair during the bulking season.
Use our nifty calculator to take the hassle out of figuring out how much protein you need:
>> Protein Calculator for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain
Eat sufficient protein at each meal (0.40–0.55 g/kg/meal) and distribute it relatively evenly throughout the day (3–6 meals).
Consuming that amount of protein before and after working out is also a good idea. Eating or drinking protein 1–2 hours pre-exercise and within 1–2 hours post-exercise ensures your muscle cells have the building materials they need.
>> Protein for Strength Training: The Ultimate Guide
>> How Much Protein Do You Need per Day to Gain Muscle?
>> How Much Protein Per Meal Can You Use to Build Muscle Mass?
How Much Fat Should You Eat for Bodybuilding?
Fat is an essential nutrient with a multitude of functions in your body. Fats provide energy for your body, help you absorb nutrients, support cell health, and aid in hormone production.
No one-size-fits-all fat intake for building muscle exists, but most bodybuilders benefit from a moderate intake. Too little fat could lower your testosterone levels, and too much might not leave room for sufficient intakes of dietary protein and carbs.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, fats should account for 20–35% of an athlete’s calories.14
A higher fat intake is not harmful, but you should avoid going lower as doing so could compromise anabolic hormones like testosterone.
A good rule of thumb is to eat 0.5–1.5 grams of fat per kilogram (around 0.2–0.7 grams per pound) of body weight per day. That’s a suitable interval for performance and health and allows you to tailor your bodybuilding diet to your personal preferences.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat for Bodybuilding?
Carbs are not essential nutrients and have no direct muscle-building properties. However, they are your primary fuel during high-intensity exercise like weight training.
Determining your carbohydrate intake is easy.
Once you have assigned calories to protein (1.6–2.2 g/kg/day) and fats (0.5–1.5 g/kg/day), simply eat the rest of your daily calories from carbs.
The higher your calorie needs, the more room you have for carbs. If you have a physically demanding job and require 3,500 calories to maintain your body weight, you’ll be eating plenty more carbs than someone with the same body weight and a desk job.
A very low carb intake like the ketogenic diet works well for maintaining muscle when dieting to get lean but might limit muscle growth during the off-season.
Eating carbohydrates around your workouts improves performance, especially if your training sessions last longer than 45 minutes and consist of at least 8–10 sets.
You don’t need to consume carbohydrates immediately after a workout to build muscle.
Carbs do not affect muscle protein synthesis (MPS), and adding carbs to protein does not increase MPS further.
There is certainly no harm in eating carbs after training, though. It could improve recovery after high-intensity sessions, even though doing so is unlikely to enhance long-term muscle growth.
Focus on your total daily carbohydrate intake and base your post-workout carb intake on personal preference.
What Foods are the Best for Bodybuilding?
For many bodybuilders, the best part of the bulking phase is the food.
You get to eat a lot, but bulking is no reason to pig out on junk food. You should still focus on consuming a variety of whole, nutrient-dense foods to support muscle growth and recovery.
Here are some of the best foods for bodybuilding.
Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese), eggs (egg whites and whole eggs), red meat like beef and pork, white meat like chicken and turkey, fish and seafood, and soy-based foods like tofu and edamame are all sources of high-quality protein.
Nuts, seeds, avocado, whole eggs, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon are all good sources of healthy fats that support hormone production and overall health.
Rice, quinoa, potatoes (regular and sweet), oatmeal, beans, lentils, are all good sources of complex carbohydrates that provide energy for your workouts and aid in muscle recovery. Fruits and berries add sweetness and antioxidants to fight free radicals.
- Focus on consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods like lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- These foods fuel your workouts and provide your muscles with the protein and energy needed to build muscle and recover properly. In addition, a healthy diet gives your body the vitamins and minerals it requires for metabolism and tissue function.
- Limit alcohol, added refined sugars, and ultra-processed, pre-packaged foods like soft drinks, fries, candy, hot dogs, and sweetened breakfast cereals.
These foods provide plenty of calories but are often devoid of nutrients and do little to help you become a better bodybuilder.
That being said, you don’t have to avoid junk food entirely.
On a strict cutting diet, you rarely have the chance to indulge yourself.
But when you’re eating in a caloric surplus to gain muscle, don’t be afraid to treat yourself now and then.
As long as you base your diet on a sensible, balanced eating plan and nutritious foods, a bowl of ice cream occasionally does no harm.
>> Eating for Muscle Growth: When, What, and How Much
Bodybuilding Tips for Hardgainers
A “hardgainer” is someone who struggles to put on muscle.
There are several possible reasons for being a hardgainer, including genetics and training incorrectly, either too much or too little.
The most common reason, however, is simply not eating enough food.
If you find yourself unable to gain weight even though you stuff yourself, try these quick and easy tips:
- Eat more calorie-dense foods. Full-fat dairy, red meat, oily fish like salmon, nuts, seeds, and starchy carbs like rice and pasta give you many calories and nutrients.
- Drink your calories. Liquid calories are less filling than whole foods. Milk, smoothies, fruit juices, and weight gainer shakes help you pack on the pounds. Stay away from sugar-sweetened sodas that provide you with empty calories without nutrients.
- Bring healthy snacks high in calories with you. Protein bars, dried fruit, and nuts help you get your calories in a convenient package on the go.
>> Bodybuilding for Skinny Guys: A Guide for Hardgainers
>> Top 15 Muscle-Building Snacks for Bodybuilding
You’ll also find a training program aptly called Bodybuilding for Hardgainers in our workout log app. This is a workout routine for the hardgainer struggling to build muscle. You train four times weekly, focusing on compound exercises and heavy weights, allowing maximum recovery and growth.
A vegan lifestyle does not affect your bodybuilding training. It doesn’t limit what or how you should train in any way.
However, there are some nutritional factors you need to consider to support your efforts in the gym with a plant-based diet.
You need energy to build muscle and fuel your workouts; many plant-based foods are not very calorie dense. That’s great on a cut, but it can make gaining weight and adding mass challenging.
When trying to gain muscle, it might be a good idea to cut back on greens that take up much space in your stomach but don’t provide many calories and focus on starchy carbs like rice, potatoes, and grains.
Plant-based proteins are not considered complete, with a few exceptions, like soy protein. They provide too little of one or more amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis effectively.
In addition, plant-based foods contain antinutrients that prevent your body from absorbing the protein fully.
Fortunately, you can easily counter these obstacles with two easy tricks:
- Eat more protein. Increase your protein by 25% compared to standard recommendations, and you get all the essential amino acids your muscles need.
- Combine different proteins. Different proteins complement each other, forming a complete protein your muscles can use to grow.
- Legumes, lentils, peas, and vegetables: combine with grains, nuts, and seeds.
- Grains, nuts, and seeds: combine with legumes.
Vitamins and Minerals
As a vegan bodybuilder, you must pay special attention to a few vitamins and minerals because plant-based foods contain low amounts or because antinutrients prevent you from absorbing them fully.
The most notable are vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc. If you struggle to reach your target intake of these micronutrients, consider using a supplement.
Bodybuilding After 50
Use it or lose it: as we age, our muscle mass starts to decline after a peak at around 30.
The good news is that bodybuilding prevents that decline for decades. It’s the fountain of youth.
It is harder to build muscle after 50, but if you’re new to bodybuilding, you can still expect fantastic results and gain lean mass and lose fat simultaneously.
If you’re already an experienced bodybuilder, you have a headstart over all your same-age peers.
With age, our anabolic hormones aren’t what they used to be, and we recover slower. All that means is that you don’t have youth holding your hand anymore. You can still make great gains.
The same principles for building muscle and getting stronger still apply after 50:
- Progressive overload: force your muscles to grow by lifting heavier and doing more work than before.
- Get enough rest and recovery to promote growth.
- Eat a balanced and healthy high-protein diet.
The key things to keep in mind for bodybuilders after 50 are:
- Ensure you recover adequately: as a senior bodybuilder, you recover slower than someone in their twenties or thirties. Listen to your body and take an extra rest day if needed. You may need to adjust your training intensity to avoid overtraining. The training program of a pro bodybuilder might not be ideal for you.
- Prioritize injury prevention: an older bodybuilder is more susceptible to injury. Take the time to warm up properly, always use good form, and limit exercises that may put undue stress on your joints.
- Focus on nutrition: proper nutrition is important for all bodybuilders but becomes even more crucial with age. After 50, you need more protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis fully. Up your protein intake by 25% compared to standard recommendations and eat at least 40 grams per meal.
- Use supplements strategically: whole foods that provide the nutrients your body needs to repair and build muscle make the foundation of your bodybuilding nutrition strategy. However, some dietary supplements, like whey protein and creatine, can give you a muscle-building edge.
It’s never too late to start bodybuilding. And if you’re already a bodybuilder at 50, keep doing what you’re doing. You’re set for healthy aging and remaining young in body and spirit.
>> Building Muscle After 50: The Essential Guide
>> Building Muscle as You Age: Protein Needs for the Older Lifter
>> The 10 Best Bodybuilding Supplements for Men Over 50
How to Cut for Bodybuilding
For a bodybuilder, permabulking is not an option. Sooner or later, you’ll want to go on a cutting diet to make your muscles visible and show the fruits of your labors in the gym.
It’s time for the bulking phase to make way for the cutting phase.
Cutting is the process of reducing body fat while preserving muscle mass. You’re not interested in simply losing body weight – you want to lose all excess body fat while maintaining or gaining lean body mass.
A bodybuilding cut requires careful planning, dedication, and discipline. It can be challenging but well worth the effort when you finally achieve your desired lean physique.
Whether you’re a seasoned bodybuilder or just starting out, these are the best practices for cutting for bodybuilding to help you reach your fitness goals.
Calculate Your Caloric Needs
To lose body fat, you must eat fewer calories than you burn. That’s called a calorie deficit. Without a calorie deficit, it does not matter how you train or what your diet looks like. You will not lose a gram of fat.
The first step when planning a bodybuilding cut is calculating your caloric needs. That involves determining how many calories you need to consume daily to maintain your current weight.
There are many ways you can go about it. You can use one of many formulas to calculate your energy needs, consult with a nutritionist or diet coach to help you, or use trial and error.
The easiest way is to use our calorie calculator:
>> Calorie Calculator: Resting Metabolic Rate and Daily Need
It’ll estimate your resting metabolic rate and your daily caloric expenditure in a few clicks using one of the most accurate formulas.
Losing 0.5 to 1 % of your body weight per week is a good rule of thumb. That rate ensures you’re optimizing fat loss while maintaining lean muscle.
A daily calorie deficit of 500 kcals is effective for sustainable fat loss. You could be more aggressive, especially if you carry a lot of body fat, but that’s a good starting point for most bodybuilders.
Track Your Macros
Tracking your macros is another important aspect of cutting for bodybuilding.
Macros, or macronutrients, include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. They provide energy in the form of calories.
Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, while carbohydrates provide energy for workouts, and fats help with hormone production and overall health.
- Protein and carbs provide four kcals per gram.
- Fats provide nine kcals per gram.
There is no one-size-fits-all macronutrient ratio for cutting for the best results. Some bodybuilders prefer to reduce their fat intake; others prefer a low-carb approach like the ketogenic diet.
The only must-do for a successful cut is to eat a high-protein diet. During a cut, your protein needs increase.
Try to get at least 2 grams of protein per kg (0.91 grams per pound) of lean body mass per day. You’ll prevent muscle loss and avoid feeling overly hungry (protein is the most filling macronutrient.)
If you’re already reasonably lean or go on an aggressive cut, you might need 2.3–3.1 grams per kilogram (1.04–1.4 grams per pound) of lean body mass daily to avoid losing muscle.
To determine your suggested protein intake, use our calculator and let it crunch the numbers for you:
>> Protein Calculator for Weight Loss and Muscle Gain
Once you’ve determined your calorie and protein intake, you can distribute your calories from fat and carbs as you see fit. Bodybuilders have successfully used low-fat and low-carb cutting diets over the decades, and there is no evidence that one is superior.
However, consuming a minimum of 15–30 % of your calorie intake from fat is a good idea. Going lower could have adverse effects on your testosterone levels.
Determining your carb intake is the final and easiest step. Your carb intake is the remaining calories after allocating your protein and fat.
>> Macros for Cutting: Count Your Way to Fat Loss
What Are the Best Bodybuilding Foods When Cutting?
The good news is that the best foods for cutting are the same as during the off-season bulking phase.
The bad news is that you can’t eat as much of them.
During a calorie deficit, you must be strategic about the foods you consume to ensure they still provide your body with the nutrients it needs for optimal health and performance.
Unfortunately, that leaves less opportunity to indulge in junk food that might be delicious but doesn’t benefit your fat loss.
In other words: eat the foods you ate for muscle growth while bulking, but cut down on your calories, mainly from carbs and fats. Limit or cut out junk food and save it for an occasional “cheat day” if needed.
Many bodybuilders switch to much lighter weights and only do high-rep sets when starting their cut.
Don’t make that mistake. Lifting heavy weights is an important component of cutting for bodybuilding.
Heavy lifting helps preserve muscle mass, burn many calories, and stimulates the release of muscle-building hormones. Also, maintaining your current strength level is one of the best indicators that you’re not losing muscle.
Once your body fat is low enough that you’re close to being shredded, you will inevitably lose some strength, but aim to maintain it for as long as possible.
Focus on compound exercises such as squats, barbell rows, and bench presses, which work multiple muscle groups simultaneously and are highly effective for building and maintaining muscle mass.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is an often-overlooked aspect of cutting for bodybuilding.
Getting enough sleep is essential for overall health, muscle recovery, and growth.
Research shows that lack of sleep screws with your cutting diet. In one study, people who slept 5.5 hours lost 55% less body weight as fat and 60% more muscle than those who slept 8.5 hours.15
Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and establish a regular sleep routine to ensure quality sleep.
Use Supplements as Needed
Supplements should not be relied upon as a substitute for a balanced diet during a bodybuilding cut, but they can be helpful when you’re trying to get shredded.
Whey protein, creatine, and caffeine are popular supplements for bodybuilders and can help to support muscle growth, performance, and recovery.
Other supplements like fat burners, BCAAs, and others claiming to “boost” your hormones, are usually a waste of money during a bodybuilding cut.
Your diet is your most powerful tool to control your calories and burn fat during your bodybuilding cut, but when used wisely, cardiovascular exercise can improve your results.
Many bodybuilders go from no cardio during the bulking phase to an hour or more when cutting. That’s a mistake. You want to do as little cardio as possible at the start of your cut, then gradually increase the amount as you go.
Sooner or later, your fat loss will slow down. That’s when it’s time to introduce more cardio to kick-start it again.
If you’re already doing hours of cardio, what will you do when your fat loss stalls? Even more cardio? You’ll eat into your ability to recover and burn muscle before long.
Instead, control your calories with your diet and gradually introduce cardio. Start with 20 minutes a couple of times per week.
Once your weight loss tapers off, add another 20-minute session of cardio.
That way, you don’t have to reduce your calorie intake too drastically, and you don’t get overwhelmed and burnt out by hours and hours of cardio.
>> How to Cut: Lose Fat and Keep Your Muscle Mass
>> How Long to Cut for Bodybuilding
>> How to Cut for Bodybuilding: Top 12 Tips for Success
Supplements are just that: supplements. They cannot replace a nutritious bodybuilding diet, and no dietary supplements build muscle or burn fat on their own. In fact, many of them are not worth your money.
That being said, a select few can help you take your bodybuilding game to the next level.
Some you can’t get in sufficient amounts from a regular diet, some are merely convenient, and a few give you a small but significant edge during a demanding training regimen.
These are the best bodybuilding supplements for supporting muscle growth, improving performance, enhancing fat loss, and aiding recovery.
Creatine is the best supplement you can take when bulking and cutting.
- During your bulking phase, creatine allows you to lift heavier and do more reps. It helps you gain strength and muscle mass and do those few extra reps that make the difference between a good and great training session.
- During a cut, creatine helps you maintain your hard-earned muscle mass and perform your best in the gym even though your energy levels might not be as high as usual. And you don’t get bloated by creatine, as 95% is stored inside your muscles, not under your skin.
Creatine monohydrate is supported by more than 500 studies and has no documented unwanted side effects. Don’t bother with other novel forms of creatine. They are more expensive, and they are no more effective than monohydrate.
Read more: Why
>> Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety
A protein-rich diet is beneficial for all bodybuilders, but it’s not always convenient to get it all from regular foods.
That’s where protein supplements come in. They don’t build more muscle than similar amounts of protein from “real food,” but they are still a valuable supplement for bodybuilders and athletes looking to increase muscle mass and strength.
- Consuming protein powder helps ensure your body has enough building material to support muscle growth.
- Protein shakes are convenient and an easy way to consume high-quality protein, especially if you have a busy lifestyle or struggle to meet your protein needs through food alone.
- Bodybuilders need more protein than most athletes, and protein powders can help increase protein intake without adding excessive calories or fat.
- A post-workout protein shake helps speed up muscle recovery by providing the amino acids needed to repair and rebuild muscle tissue.
Many different types of protein powder are available, such as whey, casein, soy, beef, egg, and pea protein. Whether you’re looking for an animal- or plant-based option, you can choose a protein source that best meets your individual needs and preferences.
- Whey protein is the most versatile protein powder and the best option for bodybuilders in most situations. Research suggests it is superior to others when ingested as the sole protein source.
- Soy protein is an excellent option if you’re looking for a plant-based alternative.
- Casein protein is absorbed slowly and is a popular choice for keeping muscle protein synthesis elevated overnight.
>> Whey Protein: The Complete Guide to the Most Popular Protein Supplement for Strength Athletes
>> Whey Protein Concentrate vs. Isolate: What’s The Difference?
>> Casein: Fast Gains from Slow Protein?
>> Soy – Healthy Alternative to Meat or Toxic Hormonal Disruptor?
>> Whey or Soy Protein for Building Muscle?
Caffeine is the most widely consumed drug and a staple in many people’s daily lives. While it doesn’t help you build muscle directly, it provides several potential benefits as a bodybuilding supplement.
- When caffeinated, you can handle heavier weights in the gym, which might translate into greater gains over time.
- Caffeine improves alertness, focus, and mental acuity, which can be beneficial when you want to maintain concentration during training.
- It delays fatigue by helping your body mobilize fatty acids and use more fat for fuel, which can be helpful during cardio sessions.
- Caffeine helps reduce muscle soreness and improves recovery after exercise. In addition, it enhances muscle glycogen synthesis and helps store carbs as energy in your muscle after a workout.
- Caffeine increases your metabolic rate and promotes fat burning, which may be beneficial during a cut to reduce body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.
Three to six mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight an hour before working out is a safe and effective dose to boost performance.
>> Caffeine: Effects, Benefits, and Safety
Weight gainers are designed to help bodybuilders and athletes pack on the mass to their frame. The primary benefit of weight gainers is that they provide a high amount of calories per serving. This can help you consume the necessary calories needed to gain weight.
Like protein supplements, they contain high amounts of protein essential for growth and repair. Unlike protein supplements, they also provide plentiful amounts of carbohydrates, often complex carbs like maltodextrin.
They are also helpful for bodybuilders who work a physically active job, burn many calories during the day, and need a high-calorie snack on the go.
Weight gainers aren’t for everyone, though. They are great for the hard-gainer, but if you find it easy to gain fat, if you’re on a cut, or already carry more body fat than you’re comfortable with, you’re better off not drinking too many of your calories.
Nitrate is a naturally occurring compound in various foods, including leafy greens, root vegetables, and beets. Your body converts nitrate into nitric oxide (NO), which has several beneficial effects for strength athletes and bodybuilders.16
- Nitric relaxes and widens your blood vessels, allowing for increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles.
- Nitrate supplementation can improve power output during high-intensity exercise, such as weightlifting, by ~5% on average.
- Nitric oxide may also help to reduce muscle damage and inflammation after exercise, leading to faster recovery and less soreness.
- The effect you notice the most in a real-world setting is that a nitrate supplement might allow you to do a few more reps.
The best way to boost your training with nitric oxide is to take L-citrulline (3 grams of L-citrulline or 8 grams of citrulline malate) one hour before working out or a nitrate supplement like concentrated beetroot juice (≥400 mg two hours before training). Both alternatives work well and have no reported side effects.
Other Potentially Useful Supplements for Bodybuilding
In addition to the five supplements above, a few others might be worth your money.
Some are beneficial for general health and might aid your bodybuilding indirectly. Others could directly improve your performance, although most don’t have enough research for an unreserved recommendation.
Examples of potentially useful bodybuilding supplements include vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, multivitamins, and essential amino acids.
Then, you have a multitude of supplements marketed for bodybuilding purposes that either need more scientific support or are downright useless. These include some of the best-selling ones.
Examples include branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), HMB, glutamine, testosterone boosters, fat burners, and ecdysterone. There is little to no evidence that these supplements will aid your bodybuilding efforts.
Want to learn more about dietary supplements? Which ones are worth your money, and which are questionable or useless? Check our StrengthLog’s Supplement Guide, our free guide where I review 26 of the most popular supplements.
>> The 5 Best Supplements to Gain Muscle in 2023
>> The Best Supplements to Get Shredded in 2023
>> The 10 Best Bodybuilding Supplements for Men Over 50
An article about bodybuilding wouldn’t be complete without a section about anabolic steroids. The use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is highly prevalent in bodybuilding.
While I strongly advise against using anabolic steroids or performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription from a doctor, it would not be truthful to claim anabolic steroids aren’t a part of bodybuilding.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances that mimic the effects of testosterone in the body. Bodybuilders use them to increase muscle mass and improve muscle strength and performance.
Bodybuilders often use anabolic steroids in cycles, taking them for several weeks or months at a time, followed by a period of “off” time to allow the body to recover.
For bodybuilding purposes, anabolic steroids are taken in much higher doses than would be prescribed by a doctor. Bodybuilders may also take other substances to enhance their effects, such as human growth hormone and insulin.
>> Bodybuilding Statistics: Training, Diet, Supplements, and Steroids
While anabolic steroids help bodybuilders achieve their desired physique, they also pose serious health risks. Long-term use of anabolic steroids can lead to a range of negative effects, including liver damage and an increased risk of heart disease.17
It is naive to assume that bodybuilders, even inexperienced ones, won’t be tempted to use anabolic steroids.
I am not going to tell you what to do. As an adult, you can make your own choices about your own body and health. But it is essential for anyone considering the use of anabolic steroids to understand the risks and to know that there might be long-term consequences of even one cycle.
If you’re a beginner, I will suggest that you don’t even consider using steroids. Your body will respond to bodybuilding training and proper nutrition without drug use. Also, if you use PEDs early in your bodybuilding career, you won’t know if your training and diet actually work for you or if your gains are just the steroids.
In bodybuilding competitions, athletes are judged on their muscularity, definition, symmetry, and overall physique. These competitions often involve posing routines and a series of mandatory poses to showcase the athlete’s muscular development.
From local contests to top-level pro events like the Arnold Classic and Mr. Olympia, bodybuilding contests are available for athletes of any level and experience. Many successful competitive bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger go on to have careers outside the sport.
Can anyone compete in bodybuilding? Sure! It requires hard work and dedication, but almost anyone can enter a bodybuilding competition and be proud of their results on stage.
Can anyone become a pro bodybuilder or compete successfully at the national level? No. Only a few have the genetics. Like it or not, your genes are a huge part of how much muscle mass you can gain and, more importantly, how that muscle mass is distributed on your frame.
I can train like a pro bodybuilder, eat like a pro bodybuilder, and even take the same performance-enhancing drugs as a pro bodybuilder… but I will still not look like a pro bodybuilder.
I will look like a bigger, more muscular version of myself, but it will not be enough to be a high-level bodybuilder. I think. I haven’t tried the drug part.
Bodybuilding Competition Peak Week
This is a blueprint for the last week before a bodybuilding contest. It is a daily prep guide on how to structure peak week to step on stage looking your best.
Remember that this is just an example of a peak week, not a guaranteed universal contest prep. There are numerous other potential ways to finalize your contest shape, and a prep that leads someone to victory might very well be a disappointment to someone else.
Not even pro bodybuilders with experienced coaches and enough drugs in their bodies to supply a pharmacy peak perfectly all the time.
That being said, this peak week prep guide will work for most natural bodybuilders looking to compete without any potentially harmful strategies like manipulating the body’s water balance with pharmaceutical diuretics.
Let’s assume that you’re stepping up on stage on Sunday. Up until this week, you’ve been on your regular cutting diet. Your body fat levels are where you want them, and now it’s time for the final prep to look your best on stage.
This is your first day of carb depletion. The goal is to deplete your muscles of glycogen. Later in the week, you’re going to carb-load and fill them back up with glycogen and water. Much of that water will come from under the skin, making you look full, tight, and dry.
Limit your carb intake to 50 grams on average. If you’re a big guy, go for ~70 grams; if you’re a lightweight, limit your carbs to ~40 grams.
Continue consuming the same amount of protein and fat you ate during the last week of your regular cut. If you didn’t take the low-fat approach during your cut, you could reduce your fat intake slightly and increase your protein by the same number of calories.
Drink plenty of water, preferably 4–6 liters (1–1.6 gallons), depending on your body size. Add ~5 grams of sodium to the foods you eat during the day. That’s around 12 grams of regular tabletop salt.
Hit the gym for an upper-body workout. Perform one set per muscle group, resting one minute before hitting the next. After one upper-body circuit, rest up, and do it three to four times. By alternating muscle groups, you recover enough between sets to deplete them thoroughly. If you do straight sets of an exercise, you’ll fatigue for other reasons.
Eight to 12 reps per set maximize the glycogen utilization during your depletion circuits.
No leg training today or the rest of your peak week! A leg workout can make you retain fluid under your skin for a number of days. It can take up to a week without direct leg work for the fluid retention from the last leg session to dry up.
Your goal at this point is not to add more muscle mass but to reach peak conditioning. You’ve already built all the muscle you’re going to display on stage, and you won’t lose any leg mass by not training your lower body for a week.
To deplete lower body muscle glycogen, ride a stationary bike for ~30 minutes per day after your weight workouts. You’ll use up your glycogen stores, and that amount of regular exercise won’t cause subcutaneous water retention.
The same protocol as yesterday.
The same protocol as Monday and Tuesday.
Time to carb load! By now, you’ll look your worst: flat, small, and tired. Don’t worry – that’s to be expected at this point. You’ll rectify the situation over the coming days.
Increase your carbs to 7 g/kg of body weight. That gives your body enough for rapid glycogen storage without spilling over and causing fluid retention under the skin. Also, too many carbs can cause an upset stomach at this point after an extended cut when it is used to more moderate amounts.
Spread your carb intake out over 5–6 smaller meals. Doing so improves glycogen storage in the muscles and prevents stomach issues.
You store glycogen regardless of carb source, but keep these things in mind:
- Choose carbs low in fiber. When you’re depleted, consuming large amounts of fiber can cause stomach issues with gas and pain and even make you look bloated.
- Avoid large amounts of fructose. Because many people can’t break down fructose fully, it can make its way into the large intestine, where it’s fermented by bacteria, leading to gas and bloating. Even if you handle fructose with no issues during your regular diet, your body might not be ready for it after carb depletion.
Maintain your high fluid and sodium intake, but add 100 mg of potassium to your breakfast, lunch, and pre-sleep meal. The sodium-potassium pump will help you store maximum amounts of water inside your muscles, pulling it from under the skin and storing it where you want it to be.
No more training! At this point, you want to store carbs in your muscles, not burn them as fuel during your workouts. Peak week isn’t for building muscle or reducing body fat. You should have already done that. Now you’re going for peak conditioning and filling your muscles with glycogen and water. Go for a walk if you want to move your body, but avoid exerting yourself.
Same protocol as yesterday, but reduce your carbs to 5 grams per kilogram of body weight. You’re past the point where you can store the most significant amount of carbs per hour, and you don’t want them to spill over.
Same protocol again, but with even fewer carbs. Go for four grams per kilogram of body weight spread over the day. Your muscles should be feeling and looking full by now. Add a gram of vitamin C, a natural diuretic, if your stomach can handle it.
Start the day with the same breakfast you’ve had for the last few days. Don’t introduce any new meal plans at this point.
Eat a hot meal two hours before the show. It’ll warm you up and help you get a good pump before stepping on stage. Eat until you’re comfortably full but don’t stuff yourself.
The meal should consist of easily digested carbs. Add plenty of salt. With only a couple of hours until showtime, it won’t smooth you out. Instead, it’ll act as a vasodilator and open up your veins to make them pop.
Dress warm and keep moving. You’ll quickly get cold without any excess body fat, and your veins will try to constrict to contain heat loss.
Take 15 grams of citrulline an hour before showtime to widen your blood vessel and increase blood flow to your muscles. Studies show that this doesn’t work, but 1) they use low doses, and 2) your body reacts much more powerfully when you’re this conditioned.
Before stepping on stage, pump up using the weights usually available backstage or bring an elastic band. Light weights and high reps will get your blood moving and pump it into your muscles. Only do a few sets per muscle, or you’ll lose the pump and end up looking worse.
If you’re feeling flat an hour before showtime, eat 3–4 unsalted rice cakes with some jam and half a liter (0.13 gallon) of water when it’s 30 minutes to go. The combination of fast carbs, water, the citrulline supplement, and the upcoming pump-up ensures you’ll look full and ready for the spotlight.
My depleted and flat forearm at day four of this peak week protocol and two days later, after a carb-load and with a good pump:
- Kick peak week off with a three-day depletion phase. Eat 40–70 grams of carbs and perform an upper-body workout each day.
- On day four, start your carb loading with 4–7 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day. Don’t do any weight training.
- Avoid large amounts of fructose and dietary fiber.
- Don’t eat too many carbs to prevent overspill.
- Don’t cut your water and sodium intake.
You’ve reached the end of this guide to bodybuilding! Thank you for reading, and I hope you found it informative and valuable.
The bodybuilding lifestyle is one of dedication, discipline, and perseverance, and it can positively impact both physical and mental health.
The supportive community surrounding bodybuilding can provide motivation, inspiration, and a sense of camaraderie that can enhance your enjoyment of the sport and enrich your life.
Whether you’re a competitive bodybuilder or simply someone who enjoys the bodybuilding lifestyle, the many benefits can lead to a fulfilling and satisfying way of life.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Bodybuilding
- Front Physiol. 2019; 10: 645. Resistance Exercise Training as a Primary Countermeasure to Age-Related Chronic Disease.
- Strength and Conditioning Journal 45(1):p 49-57, February 2023. Hypertrophic Effects of Single- Versus Multi-Joint Exercise of the Limb Muscles: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- J Sports Sci. 2019 Jun;37(11):1286-1295. How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency.
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 22 (3). pp. 361-370. Resistance training frequency and skeletal muscle hypertrophy: a review of available evidence.
- J Hum Kinet. 2022 Feb 10;81:199-210. A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb; 9(2): 32. Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum.
- Sports Medicine Volume 48, Pages 137–151 (2018). Effects of Rest Interval Duration in Resistance Training on Measures of Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review.
- International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, November 2022. Muscular Adaptations in Drop Set vs. Traditional Training: A meta-analysis.
- International Journal of Strength and Conditioning (2021). Resistance Training Recommendations to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy in an Athletic Population: Position Stand of the IUSCA.
- Encyclopedia 2021, 1(2), 423-432. Pyramidal Systems in Resistance Training.
- Br J Sports Med. 2018 Mar;52(6):376-384. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance.
- Ann Intern Med. 2010 Oct 5; 153(7): 435–441. Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity.
- Nutrients 2023, 15(3), 660. Supplementation with Nitric Oxide Precursors for Strength Performance: A Review of the Current Literature.
- Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2022 Dec 1;29(6):560-565. Health effects of androgen abuse: a review of the HAARLEM study.