Bodybuilding Guidelines

2nd of February 2022

I've been working out for the last 5 or 6 years, and one thing I've learnt is that there's a lot of misinformation going around. For instance, the idea that you need to do lots of different exercises per body part and regularly mix up which exercises you're doing is wrong.

The fact that such misinformation causes increased risk of injury at worst and reduced muscle gain at best means it's important to try and stay educated on the subject to make your time in the gym worthwhile, and that's why I've decided to dedicate some time to writing up a list of exercises I would and wouldn't recommend alongside some general advice.

Disclaimer

I'm not studying a fitness related degree, I'm not a researcher in the field of bodybuilding/weightlifting, and I haven't coached anybody. The following information is based on what reputable people in the fitness industry have said and personal experience/opinion.

You will almost definitely disagree with some exercise classifications. There will always be individual differences. With the exception of stupid exercises, you should experiment to find what works for you in terms of enjoyment, results, and preventing injury.

If you find anything that's factually inaccurate, then please email me so it gets fixed. My opinion also does change from time to time after trying and hearing new things, so maybe check back here every so often.

Bodybuilding 101

Realistic Expectations

Picture the person you want to look like. Chris Hemsworth? Zac Efron? Jeff Cavaliere? The Rock? Arnold? Now scrunch up that thought and throw it in the bin. I can say with high confidence that you will probably never look like any of them or completely reach your goal appearance.

Why? Because genetics are a limiting factor. If you don't have a wide frame, then you're not going to look just like Superman. Famous people and fitness 'influencers' often have above average genetics whilst taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) that assist with building size and strength.

Luckily for you, genetics aren't a big issue. If you train well and consistently, then you will eventually look considerably better than the vast majority of people, regardless of your genetics. So, get over it. 'Bad' or 'average' genetics are not an excuse to avoid working out.

Social Media

Get off social media, especially Instagram. The psychological literature suggests social media use is associated with worse mental health, and this is anecdotally the case too. You end up wasting time and constantly comparing yourself to other, often enhanced people, which becomes depressing and disheartening rather than motivational. There are better ways to spend your time.

When it comes to YouTube, there are a few great channels to learn about lifting. My main recommendation would be Jeff Nippard. He knows what he's talking about, his workouts consist of reputable exercises, and his videos are very well made. Geoffrey Verity Schofield, Sean Nalewanyj, John Meadows, and Eugene Teo also provide loads of excellent information. There are others, but these are all you need.

Unfortunately, there are also lots of channels pumping out lower or inconsistent quality information. Examples include more recent Greg Doucette content, various (especially old) ATHLEAN-X content, Ryan Humiston, Jeremy Ethier, V Shred, and the list goes on. As a rule of thumb, question everything you hear and try to listen to what other YouTubers have to say on the topic.

Number of Exercises

As a rough guide, pick 3-6 of the recommended exercises for each body part. I strongly recommend always having the compound lifts, in some form or another, in your workout programme. The different lifts you choose should also target different muscles for each body part (e.g. you should train hamstrings as well as quads for legs). Training the calves, abs, and forearms directly is optional.

If a) you've sustained an injury that makes it unwise to perform the exercise, b) the exercise causes you pain (even after tweaks that may help some people), or c) you absolutely hate the exercise, then you shouldn't do that exercise. If it's a compound lift, I would recommend ideally doing another variation (e.g. dumbbell instead of barbell bench press) rather than avoiding the movement altogether.

Every so often (e.g. every 10-12 weeks), it can sometimes make sense to change one or two exercises to try something new and get more variety. This could be as simple as switching from dumbbells to a barbell or vice versa. Some lifts, like side lateral raises, should stay in your programme, but you can try them standing, seated, with cables, etc. Experimentation is the key to finding exercises and exercise variations that work for you.

Changing exercises too frequently or infrequently will ultimately limit your progress. In the case of the former, you won't nail the form or progress well strength wise. In the latter case, you'll probably lose motivation and plateau.

Workout Split

For the average person, I would recommend a 3-day full body or 4-day upper/lower or push/pull split. You probably don't want to be spending less or more time in the gym than that.

For exercise junkies and more advanced lifters, a 5-day full body or push/pull/legs split works too. 6 days a week is more like athlete level training and therefore excessive. Daily lifting would mean no rest day, which would be bad for recovery. Exercise and staying healthy should not take over your life.

I would not recommend the body part split, also known as the 'bro split', as there's consensus that it makes more sense to train each muscle group at least twice a week. Technically, this may be possible through proper programming of a body part split, but the other splits are still more optimal.

Sets/Reps

Aim for 10-20 sets per muscle group a week. Use lower rep ranges for very heavy lifts (e.g 1-5 reps) and higher rep ranges for lighter lifts (e.g. 5-20 reps). In most cases (e.g. calves may be an exception), you shouldn't be exceeding 20 or so reps for an exercise; if you are, then you should probably up the intensity.

The 8-12 rep range is a thing for a reason. It's the optimal range for building muscle with many exercises, and it prevents sets dragging on. Also, for exercises like the deadlift, your form will likely break down doing any more. Therefore, you should find a weight to use that results in you falling in this general range when it's appropriate to end the set.

Intensity

People don't like to hear this because it makes working out more challenging and effortful, but the most important thing for growth is that you either train to failure or within 1-3 reps of failure. If you're stopping an exercise with 10 reps in the tank, then you're largely wasting your time. To maximise muscle growth, you should be really pushing yourself to or near the limit on each set for every exercise.

With compound lifts (e.g. the bench press), it's often not safe to go to complete failure, so you should go until you're confident that you're about to fail, unless you're on a smith machine or something where you could go to failure. By contrast, with isolation exercises (e.g. bicep curls), you can go to failure if you can stomach it. Nobody manages to go to failure all the time, and it's arguably unnecessary if you're going close to failure (1-3 reps in reserve), but it provides some challenge to your workouts and helps track progress in terms of additional reps completed. Whatever you do, don't restrict yourself to a specific number of reps each set when you can do more.

Another important and related concept is that of progressive overload, which involves increasing the stress placed upon the musculoskeletal and nervous system. Adding weight to the bar isn't the only way to progressive overload; you can increase the number of reps/sets, slow down each rep, do half reps, do drop sets, do pauses/holds, and so on. A lot of these techniques are really for intermediate to advanced lifters, but even as a beginner, you should be overloading in some way, typically by gradually adding weight to the bar to build up strength.

Finally, you should be resting in-between sets, but you shouldn't be resting for 10 minutes or 30 seconds; you should stick to 1-5 minutes. The optimal range is typically said to be 2-3 minutes unless you're doing heavy lifting. However, you can get away with 1 or 1.5 minutes because by the time you're in position, it will be longer than that time anyway. You should feel somewhat rested when you come to the next set, although the extent depends on the exercise (e.g. deadlifts are very tiring). You don't need to time your rests, but it can be helpful to keep your workouts shorter and more focused. You should probably be at the gym for somewhere between 1-2 hours, with rests taking up most of that time. Unless exercise is your profession, it shouldn't be taking over your life, but you should remain consistent if you want results, meaning going to the gym at roughly the same time every workout and only taking time off when you're too ill or injured to train, on holiday, or when you need a break after about 10-12 weeks of training.

Form

Generally, use a full range of motion, control the weight, and avoid excessively explosive movements because it won't be great for your joints. Ensure that you learn and practise the proper form for each exercise you're doing, especially for the compound lifts, which may require recording yourself and assessing the footage every so often. You don't need to be ridiculously strict on some exercises (e.g. bicep cheat curls), but you shouldn't let momentum take over either.

Nutrition

If you want to gain weight, then you should aim for 200-400 calories above maintenance, which you must figure out. This will lead to putting on less body fat than 'dirty' bulking whilst ensuring you make more progress than staying at maintenance.

If you want to lose weight, then you should aim for 300-500 calories below maintenance. Avoid unsustainable dieting and crash dieting because you will just put the weight back on and increase your chances of developing an eating disorder. Instead, you need to find lower calorie foods that you enjoy and can eat a lot of without gaining weight. The best way of doing this is by eating more fruit and veg and having less processed foods, takeaways, unhealthy or high calorie snacks, etc.

In terms of general advice, try to eat lots of protein every meal (1.6+ g/kg bodyweight per day) and get in your 5 a day (e.g. a portion per main meal and with/as snacks or puddings). A portion is more than you expect for certain fruit/veg (e.g. tomatoes), so look up the amount for what you eat. Have a balanced diet that doesn't consist of too much processed food rather than restricting yourself to specific food groups unless you have a medical or moral reason for avoiding certain foods. Eating should be enjoyable rather than sickening or a chore, so don't stuff or starve yourself. Having a snack in the morning and afternoon is a great way to increase your calories and protein whilst decreasing hunger. Try not to skip meals; it's not just physically bad but has a psychological impact as well.

Lastly, drink at least 2 litres of water a day, but don't try to drink insane amounts because people do die (e.g. in marathons). I'd personally recommend avoiding everything else, particularly alcohol, which has a long list of cons, with many of them interfering with improving your physique and wellbeing. Obviously, for the same reason, don't do things like smoking and drugs either.

Best and Worst Exercises

Chest

Best:

  1. Flat bench press: a fundamental compound lift for strength and size. Both the barbell and dumbbell variations are effective, with a barbell allowing you to move more weight. You should do whichever you have access to and find more comfortable. Use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip with a barbell, and make sure you arch your back a bit, with your shoulders back. Use a shoulder width grip if you get shoulder pain.
  2. Incline dumbbell bench press: use an incline of 15-30 degrees to target the upper chest. Larger inclines make this more of a front delt (shoulder) exercise.
  3. Machine chest presses: the bench press but without the stabilisation or risk of being crushed. This is a good substitute to the bench press if you can't perform it due to injury.
  4. Smith machine flat bench press: this is useful if you want to go to failure or if there are no spotter arms on the rack at the gym.
  5. Floor press: potentially awkward to set up but can be performed almost anywhere with dumbbells. It's easier on the shoulders than the regular bench press, helps with the lock out, and can allow you to lift more weight.
  6. Pushups: don't bother with all the fancy variations, just stick to regular, shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width pushups. If you find pushups to be on the easier side, then do them weighted. Make sure you go as low as possible, fully extend your arms at the top, and squeeze your chest.
  7. Dips: typically regarded as a tricep exercise, but if you lean forwards, then it targets the chest, particularly the lower chest. Lower yourself until you reach about a 90-degree bend in your arm. If they're too easy, do them weighted. Some people find this movement uncomfortable on the shoulders, sternum, and/or collarbone.
  8. Landmine press: this works the shoulders and triceps considerably but also targets the upper chest.
  9. Cable crossovers: instead of having your hands meet in the middle, cross your arms over so they make an X to get an extra stretch. This can be done with bands, but I've never found it to be as good.

Worst:

Biceps

Best:

  1. Standing bicep curls: this can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, or an EZ bar to reduce the strain on your wrists. An EZ bar is best if you want to go heavier (e.g. cheat curls) or avoid wrist pain. Keep your elbows against your sides, don't lean back or swing the weight up, and use a full range of motion, squeezing at the top. If you're doing this with dumbbells, supinated or pronated to supinated works, and lift both dumbbells at the same time so the exercise doesn't take twice as long.
  2. Incline dumbbell curls: use a 45-degree angle on an incline bench to get an extra stretch at the bottom. This is great for the long head.
  3. Spider curls: a massively underrated exercise to build the short head of the biceps. Keep your elbows locked against the bench and squeeze at the top.
  4. Waiter curls: this is a good dumbbell alternative to the EZ bar/barbell bicep curl. Keep your palms facing upwards and flat.
  5. Hammer curls: this targets the brachialis, which is undertrained and can help make your arms look bigger.
  6. Cable curls: this results in greater tension throughout the lift as the cables pull your arms backward, meaning a good contraction at the bottom.
  7. Preacher curls: this prevents you from swinging the weight and provides a good contraction at the top.
  8. Chin ups: this is a good bodyweight exercise, and you can wear a weighted vest or belt to make it harder. Use a shoulder width grip.

Worst:

Triceps

Best:

  1. Cable pushdowns: using a rope helps you bring your arms behind the body, which is what you want. Lean forward, keep your elbows at your sides, lock out your arms at the back, and then bring your arms back to chest level. You can also add a twist at the bottom of each rep.
  2. Dumbbell tricep extensions: the dumbbell version of skull crushers. This is easier on your elbows. Don't raise the dumbbells straight above your head; your arms should be leaning back so the top position is above forehead level to keep the triceps engaged. Then bring the dumbbells down behind/to the side of your head.
  3. Close-grip bench press: use a shoulder width grip and make sure you lock out. Using a smith machine is a good way of increasing the weight safely. I'm personally not a fan of this as a separate exercise to the bench press for chest since it's a bit repetitive and will also heavily work the chest and shoulders still.
  4. Close-grip floor press: close-grip bench press but on the floor, meaning you can lift more weight due to the decreased range of motion.
  5. Overhead cable extensions: lean forward with a staggered stance, keep your elbows close to your sides, and go from slightly behind the head to straight arms.
  6. Shoulder width pushups: if you can only do a bodyweight exercise, then this isn't bad. Keep your arms close to your side and go as close to the floor as possible before fully extending your arms.
  7. Dips: keep your body more upright than when doing dips for chest. This can be uncomfortable on the shoulders for some people but using a dip machine can help.

Worst:

Legs

Best:

  1. Barbell squats: the go-to quad exercise that builds strength. Generally, use a high bar position (you can lift more with a low bar position, but it's more similar to the deadlift), use a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width stance (this increases glute activation), keep your feet pointing slightly outwards, breathe in and brace your core before going down and breathe out at the top, don't let your knees cave in, and go to parallel if possible but not lower because there will probably be butt wink. The bar should remain directly above the centre of your feet throughout the lift.
  2. Barbell box squats: if you get knee pain or want to make squatting feel safer, then box squats are a great idea. Instead of tapping the box, sit on it without relaxing before pushing yourself back up.
  3. Squat machines: if you have bad knees or a bad back, then it's probably safer to use a machine variation.
  4. Leg press: this can be loaded more than the squat, focuses on the legs rather than also training the lower back like squats, and it allows you to do forced and partial reps more safely. Use a wider stance to get more glute activation and put your feet lower on the platform to target the quads more.
  5. Sumo deadlifts: this provides a great stretch in the hamstrings, less strain on the lower back compared to other deadlifts, and allows many people to lift more weight. It's just a safer exercise that targets muscles you want to target.
  6. Leg extensions: another quad exercise if you can access the machine. Pause at the top and slowly go down. This is an exercise to warm up with or leave until last.
  7. Lying hamstring curls: a great exercise for the hamstrings. Go slower when lowering.
  8. Glute ham raises: requires the machine, awkward to get in position for, and very difficult; therefore, lying hamstring curls are preferable. However, if you can perform enough reps correctly, then it's effective. Hinge forward at the hips, control your body the whole time, don't go completely to the bottom, and go slower on the way up.
  9. Goblet squats: good for learning the form for barbell squats but can't be loaded as heavily.
  10. Leg press calf raises: keep your legs relatively straight, toes at the bottom, and go to full extension before going slower on the way back. This requires a high rep range, but you can reach failure more easily with a machine.
  11. Donkey calf raises: this is a bodyweight version of calf raises which involves leaning forwards onto something like a barbell in a rack. Stand relatively far away, keep your feet close together, go to full extension, and then go slower on the way down.

Worst:

Shoulders

Best:

  1. Military/overhead press: standing with a barbell will allow you to lift more weight but standing or seated with dumbbells provides a more natural movement and greater middle delt involvement. Don't lean against the back of a bench, don't arch your back, use a neutral grip for a nicer lifting position, and lower the dumbbells to shoulder level.
  2. Side lateral raises: use lighter weights, lean forward a bit with a slight bend in the knees, keep your shoulders down and back, make sure your elbows are slightly bent, keep your core tight, and focus on pulling the weight up with your elbow. The thumb end of the dumbbells should be level or marginally pointing up to avoid internally rotating the shoulder. Stop lifting at shoulder level because going any higher will use the traps.
  3. Reverse pec deck: if this machine is available, then it's probably the most effective way of targeting the rear delts.
  4. Landmine press: perform it stood up using both hands.
  5. Wide-grip seated rows: a more effective alternative to the rear delt fly because it allows your arm to move behind your body and enables you to move more weight. Keep your arms out wide so your elbows are high rather than against your sides, back straight, chest up, and drive your elbows backwards as far as possible, squeezing at the end.
  6. Wide-grip inverted rows: a bodyweight exercise for rear delts. Pause and squeeze at the top.

Worst:

Back

Best:

  1. Pull ups or lat pulldowns: pull ups require engaging the core, leading with the chest, and driving your elbows back. Pull up until at least your chin goes over the bar and control the descent. If you really struggle or dislike pull ups, then you may be better off doing pulldowns. In which case, the knee pad should be tight to your leg, keep your feet planted on the floor, use an overhand, 1.5 times shoulder width grip, keep your chest up, pull the bar to your upper chest, don't use excessive momentum or be overly strict, and control the negative. Avoid doing anything behind the neck because it's riskier for your shoulders and provides no benefit.
  2. Sumo, trap bar, or conventional deadlifts: the sumo deadlift is easier on the spine and lower back but will still train the back, whereas conventional deadlifts will very much be felt in your lower back. The trap bar deadlift is a compromise between the two. Try all of them over time to find out which you prefer.
  3. Seated rows: use an overhand grip to reduce bicep involvement, keep your chest up, ensure your elbows are close to your body, and focus on pulling your elbows behind the body. Avoid too much momentum, and don't jerk the weight when getting into position/pulling.
  4. Chest supported T-bar rows: using a support helps reduce the likelihood of hurting your lower back and helps you control the weight rather than jerking it around.
  5. Shrugs: using a barbell or dumbbells works. Don't jerk the weight around or ego lift; move the weight in a controlled manner. Use at least a shoulder width grip, and squeeze at the top.
  6. Chest supported neutral grip rows: use an incline bench and dumbbells to have a more comfortable and stable version of the bent over row.
  7. Standing cable pullovers: a better version of dumbbell pullovers. Use a straight bar or EZ bar with a shoulder width overhand grip, keep a bend in your elbows, arch your lower back slightly, lean forwards but keep the chest up, focus on driving the bar down using your elbows, and then raise the bar overhead more slowly.
  8. Inverted rows: an easier version of the pull up that can be made more difficult by adjusting the height of the bar. Use an overhand, shoulder width grip.

Worst:

Forearms

You don't necessarily need to train forearms directly since they're trained in other lifts, but it might be worth it if you're lacking in that area. Unfortunately, they're not going to be massive if there's a genetic limitation.

Best:

  1. Reverse curls: perform the bicep curl with an overhand thumbless grip. This is best done with an EZ bar for less wrist strain. Keep your elbows pinned to your sides.
  2. Hammer curls: whilst this is often called a bicep exercise, you can really feel it working the forearms.
  3. Fat grip reverse curls: this makes it harder to grip the bar/dumbbells, which should result in more forearm activation. Don't do this for bicep curls because it'll turn bicep exercises into more of a forearm exercise.
  4. Towel pull ups or bar holds: this carries over to exercises like the deadlift. Increase the weight and/or time gradually.
  5. Wrist rolling: stand on something, keep your elbows close by your sides to avoid front delt fatigue, and rotate the handles towards you to raise the plate before rotating them away from you to go back down. Repeat this until you can't keep going. This requires light weight and can be boring but is effective if you can hold out.

Worst:

Abs

Best:

  1. Nothing: having abs is more about being lower in body fat percentage than training abs. Abs are also trained in lots of lifts, from squats to pull ups, and this is enough for most people. Tense them during exercises and when picking up and moving weights/plates around. The amount of misinformation about ab training is off the charts. You can have excellent abs without training them directly at all, you shouldn't be training any muscle group every day, and you shouldn't be doing 5-10 minute workouts for abs with no rest in-between exercises as if they're a unique type of muscle.

Worst: