For most of us, the urge to pump up starts with the oh-so-simplistic sentiment, “Dang, I want to get jacked like [insert role model].” In my case, that role model was an enormous half-brother, the strongest person in his high school and most likely one of the strongest teenagers in North Carolina circa 1990-1991. But that person could’ve been Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or Bob Paris or Bev Francis or Bo Jackson or Hulk Hogan or… anybody, really. Anybody impressive, anybody whose body looked and worked the way I wished mine did. Although I was just a fat kid, epically fat for my grade level, I had discovered a project that would occupy me for the next two decades.

Along the way, I made a lot of mistakes. My training was haphazard; my programming and the form on most of my lifts were crappy. Important areas were neglected: lats, hamstrings, hip flexibility.  Others were overdeveloped: triceps, quadriceps, pectorals. “When starting out, don’t be a knucklehead and don’t be delusional,” advises Chris Bell, former competitive powerlifter and director of the acclaimed documentary Bigger Stronger Faster (quick plug: check out Bell’s extraordinary interview with powerlifter Ed Coan, available for free on YouTube, for a quick jolt of inspiration before proceeding any further).

Alas, I was a knucklehead; I was delusional. What follows, then, is the bodybuilding guide I wish I had been given 20 years ago.

Weight gloves are worthless, and protective calluses must be earned, not bought. You can’t lift without chalk, and as legendary strength training coach Mark Rippetoe often says, if your gym forbids chalk, find a different gym.

Before you ever pick up a weight, pick up a book. There are some incredibly helpful volumes on this subject. I started with former Mr. Universe Bill Pearl’s Getting Stronger, which contains hundreds of simple illustrations of weightlifting exercises and a number of sport-specific exercise plans. I also purchased Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, which offers up much of the same thing, along with a brief history of the sport and plenty of vintage illustrations (seeing 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney in full-on 1980s gear demonstrating a racked position before a jerk while being too muscle-bound to actually rack the weight is truly astonishing).

In my late twenties, I stumbled upon two masterpieces of the genre: Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, which offers detailed, opinionated breakdowns of the core slow lifts—bench, shoulder press, deadlift, squat—as well as the power clean, and Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1, perhaps the best programming system for intermediate lifters looking to improve their performance. Both Rippetoe and Wendler were powerlifters, but as former Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer argues in his Ayn Rand-infused High-Intensity Training, lifting the heaviest possible weights is the best way to build strong, useful muscles.

Baby steps
All the experts tell you that it starts with the back squat. Rippetoe’s Starting Strength is essentially a love letter to the squat, and Mentzer ranks it alongside the deadlift as “the only two lifts you needed.” Like most meatheads, I didn’t start with the back squat—I started with the bench, which meant I wound up with dreadful hip flexibility in my mid-20s. “A healthy squat can fix everything,” explains Dan Hutchins, a former All Big East placekicker who now works as a personal trainer at Equinox. “Back problems? Hips tight? Weak torso (I hate using the word ‘core’)? OK, squat with full range of motion, below parallel—it’s the biggest challenge in terms of fight or flight, working against gravity to move a load.” If you’ve never lifted a weight before, I’d urge you to begin perfecting the squat. My numbers on that lift are good now, but I’d be much further ahead of the game if I had devoted my teen years to squatting.

Nowadays, my training focuses on the slow lifts, with one or two assistance exercises added per workout: dips and Kroc rows with bench press, strict pull-ups with shoulder press, back extensions with deadlift, and overhead plate lunges with squat. If I’ve got time, once or twice a week I’ll incorporate a few Atlas stone lifts, prowler pushes, and 1,000 pound tire flips. The Metroflex in Arlington is a fantastic value as far as gyms with this sort of functional equipment go; I’d urge you to find a similar place in your area.

The author completes week 3 of Wendler’s 5-3-1 (400) with an unspotted 380-lb. rep.

Don’t waste too much money on useless peripherals, especially when you’re just starting out. A foam roller to loosen knots and increase blood flow to the muscles is nice, and The Stick is a great accompaniment for those hard-to-reach spots. A good, sturdy weight belt is essential, but you want something that’s thick and durable all around, able to support your torso on the heaviest squats and deadlifts, and not one of those weird vanity numbers with the high back support and the thin side straps. Weight gloves are worthless, and protective calluses must be earned, not bought. You can’t lift without chalk, and as Mark Rippetoe often says, if your gym forbids the use of chalk, find a different gym.

Wrist supports and knee wraps (the latter without velcro, preferably) are important later-in-time purchases, particularly as your lifts reach intermediate levels; I highly recommend Inzer products. Geared lifting paraphernalia—bench shirts, squat suits, and the like—are for specialists, and the use of those products is a discipline unto itself. Don’t bother with them until you’ve become a good raw lifter. I can’t stand lifting straps, particularly on the deadlift, and hate to see them used (in the interest of total disclosure, Rippetoe is with me on this, advocating a double overhand deadlift until your highest training set, although Mentzer is contra, arguing that “overloading” more than you can hold is critically important for training to failure). At any rate, grip is both the key to almost everything—it can even save your life—and it’s one area you’ll never need to train if you’re doing everything else right.

If you need to improve your grip, I strongly recommend the amazingly durable and effective Captains of Crush grippers. I began training on these with a full close on the 2 and can now seal the 2.5 for a single rep, but I’d highly recommend testing these items before using them; a mere handful of people have ever successfully closed the 3, and only one or two bear-pawed strongmen have ever shut the 4.

Training fads
Don’t explore training fads until you understand the basics. For example, what good are CrossFit cleans or power snatches, usually performed as “reverse curls,” until you’ve worked with a skilled Olympic weightlifting coach to perfect your technique? “When I hear someone say they’ve done CrossFit, his form is usually terrible,” says trainer Hutchins. “You’ll see pulls off the ground that barely come a few inches above the knee and jerks that are half-assed push presses.” And why would anyone new to a program of activity engage in high-volume training of exercises that he or she can’t perform correctly?

The same goes for any other exercise methodology sold to unwary consumers by inexperienced trainers. “Balance ball training, all this weird equipment that gyms buy… trainers use this stuff, always selling themselves instead of the exercise, and don’t have any idea what they’re trying to accomplish,” Hutchins continues. “Anybody, especially a novice, can wing it for a while and see results, which might make him think it’s working, but this circus stuff is ultimately counterproductive.” A simple program for building strength in the core four slow lifts—again, the bench, shoulder press, deadlift, squat—such as five sets of five reps supplemented by one or two assistance exercises, is enough to get any trainee well on the way to building his body.

Realistic goals

This is a really important question. On one hand, bodybuilding is a professional sport followed by hundreds of thousands of fans—and arguably the sport where drug use is not only the most prevalent but the most essential. On the other, bodybuilding is a modern outgrowth of late 19th and early 20th century physical culture movements that sought to enhance the functionality and form of the body. A healthy debate has raged for decades about whether one should “train for strength and form follows” or “train for form and strength follows,” but I stand firmly with those who favor the former view. Mentzer, Rippetoe, Wendler and even the aesthetically oriented bodybuilder Bob Paris all said that major gains in muscularity were impossible unless you lifted heavy weights. Mentzer and Wendler, in particular, argued that modern workouts had become much too long, believing that a decent strength training routine could be completed in 30- to 45-minute sessions performed three to four times a week.

As I’ve aged and become much stronger, my ability to handle volume-based workouts has declined. Once upon a time, I could perform three hours of mostly assistance exercises (curls, chins, dips, extensions, leg curls, etc.), but nowadays I’m spent after one set of benching 315 to failure with powerlifting pauses (usually around 10 to 11 reps) or completing 20 repetitions of heavy back squats. And as for the deadlift, anything more than a few reps at my training weights is beyond the ability of my system to process. In other words, as you get stronger, your workouts can get simultaneously shorter and more draining.


I incorporate a couple minutes of stretching at the beginning and end of workouts, focusing on opening the hips and back, but I don’t hold these stretches for very long. I’ve done yoga from time to time, and while it’s quite good as a relaxation technique, unless you’re looking to specialize in that activity, I can’t see paying yoga class prices to keep doing it. The downward-facing dog is a splendid all-purpose stretch, but generally I just warm up my muscles using an empty bar motion of whatever lift I’m about to perform.


Fad diets are worse than fad exercise routines. Mike Mentzer hated specific eating plans; he favored consuming a lot of milk alongside a balanced diet that gave the trainees a reasonable amount of carbs, fat and protein. Both he and Mark Rippetoe saw value in having a trainee consume a gallon of milk a day in the (increasingly rare) case that a trainee arrived severely underweight and needed to add muscle. Chris Bell believes in “training hard and doing your cardio; you can’t lose weight without feeding the beast, or the beast will retaliate and you’ll get fat without eating.” Some supplements, such as fish oil (which has an anti-inflammatory effect, among other benefits) and creatine, have proven themselves across multiple scientific studies, but most of what’s on the market—as Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster documentary humorously notes—is a whole lot of useless white powder.

Mentzer, perhaps the greatest bodybuilder of the pre-Lee Haney generation, saw value in using cardio to achieve desired cuts (unlike Ronnie Coleman or today’s mass monsters, he could actually run reasonably well) but didn’t think long slow cardio could add much in the way of baseline strength and muscle; he believed in separating the activities into two discrete stages, running only when preparing for a competition. I’ve long accepted the argument that the best time to do cardio is after lifting weights and for a duration of around 10 to 20 minutes. I own a Concept2 ERG and usually row a 2k or 5k, depending on my post-workout exhaustion level, about twice a week. I’ve run half-marathons and done these ridiculous marathon-length woodland runs, always at ungodly slow paces in the scheme of things. However, I can see little use for those activities as part of a bodybuilding program unless you were building your body specifically to compete in those events. And if that were the case, your training would need to be very different and your mass/weight gains would need to be kept to a minimum.

The author performs a 585-lb. deadlift—and awes at least one fellow gym-goer.

Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs

Ah, the elephant in the room. Let’s let Chris Bell, who made such a tremendous documentary about why people might decide to use steroids, address it: “Don’t even think about steroids until you’ve explored your own body’s natural limitations and if you’re a teen, forget it,” he says. “You’re a testosterone machine already.” Bell is right on the money, given the effects androgenic drugs can have on the testosterone-estrogen ratios in maturing teenage bodies as well as how the most successful instances of prolonged PED usage have occurred long after an athlete had tapped his considerable genetic potential (think Barry Bonds).

For the rest of us, who are just looking to build our bodies in that late 19th/early 20th century sense of the term, it makes little sense to compare yourself to a chemical marvel such as Dorian Yates or Bill Kazmaier. I mean, when I consider my raw numbers—250-pound strict shoulder press, 390-pound bench, 605-pound deadlift—it’s always in the context of early Mr. Americas such as John Grimek and Steve Stanko, weightlifters and fitness athletes who took their bodies as far as they could prior to the introduction of the oral steroid Dianabol in 1959. The Georgia powerlifter Paul Anderson’s record numbers, achieved during the mid-1950s, seem to represent the upper limits of pure human ability, although these have perhaps edged up slightly due to superior diet and training. And there’s certainly no shame in resembling these early icons.

What it’s all about

In the final analysis, most of the stuff gym rats and meatheads prattle on about is meaningless: that mythical 500-pound bench either didn’t happen or was bounced off a chest, nobody can properly digest 750 grams of protein a day, and almost anything said about college football and knee injuries is utterly untrue. I’ve competed in one bodybuilding event and a handful of powerlifting and strongman competitions, but my real competition remains with myself. How good do I feel in my body today? Do I feel strong and capable when I’m walking down the street, relieved of most of the aches and pains that come with being 33 years old?

At its best, bodybuilding isn’t about posing, shaving, tanning, winning trophies, or burying insecurities inspired by abusive or distant father figures. No, it’s about sculpting your best self, one day at a time, and seeing how far this great and important work takes you.

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