4 Rules For Bodybuilding Success


Speed up your muscle gains by understanding these four key bodybuilding concepts

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning

You may think of bodybuilding as a sport or activity, but in reality it’s a science, and the field of study is called exercise science. As such, there are a number of “truths,” just as you see in other scientific fields like physics and chemistry. Understanding these concepts means the difference between lifting weights in which you expend a great deal of energy with no discernible changes and big-muscle gains that come fast. If you want to belong to the latter group, here are four ideas you’ll want to remember each and every time you hit the gym.

1. The Overload Principle

We start with probably the most important constant in bodybuilding: the principle of progression and overload. Overload is simply making your muscles work with a resistance they’re unaccustomed to. The progressive part kicks in when, over time, they grow stronger and you need to keep upping the ante, so to speak, continually increasing the weight (or number of reps). Progressive overload, then, is the practice of continually increasing the intensity (amount of weight or reps) of your workout as you become stronger over time. Anything and everything you do once you walk into the gym is governed by that axiom. One of the best ways to begin ensuring proper and effective overload is to start keeping a journal, logging in every exercise, set and rep. That way, next week when you attack a bodypart, you’ll know exactly what you have to minimally achieve (and surpass) in order to abide by the first law of bodybuilding.

2. When To Be A Failure

“Failure” is one of those words that guys throw around as easy as they do 15-pound dumbbells. But make no mistake, muscle failure is the time during a set where the muscle or muscle group being trained is completely fatigued, and you can no longer do another repetition of that exercise (at least with good form or without help). Knowing that, when you think back to your last set of 10 reps, if you could’ve squeaked out an 11th or 12th, you did not reach failure.

That said, there are some quick facts about failure you should know. If building size or mass is your primary goal, you should choose a weight that allows you to fail at the rep range most important for size (8–12). If you’re trying to maximally increase strength on the other hand, the rep range most critical to elicit those gains falls between 3–6. Hence, a bodybuilder and powerlifter may be doing the same exercise but the bodybuilder would be doing it with a slightly lighter weight for slightly more reps. And while the bodybuilder takes multiple sets to muscle failure, the strength athlete should take — at most — only his last set of a particular exercise to failure. Research shows that failing on multiple sets is good for size gains but will hinder gains in strength.

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