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A Step by Step Guide to Getting Big

  • 26 min read


by Mike Arnold

To the typical American, the pursuit of bodybuilding is often perceived as a simplistic affair requiring little intelligence or insight. To them, success is determined by little more than grunting in the gym and eating an abundance of protein. While this has caused many to label its adherents with less than flattering stereotypes, those who have seen the sport from the inside know differently.

Now, it is true that no single aspect of bodybuilding is overly complicated, but the foundational sciences of which the sport is comprised can be enormously complex, requiring doctorates and beyond before one is officially recognized as possessing an advanced level of learning in any single branch. Even then, it only scratches the surface of the total amount of knowledge contained therein.

Areas of study, such as nutrition, physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, endocrinology, and even psychology are all at work in the accomplishment of our goals. The more thorough our understanding of these subjects, the more likely we are to make decisions leading to accelerated progress.

With such a large amount of information tied into the application of the sport and a nearly unlimited number of sources to draw from, knowing how to prioritize for success can be confusing, especially with many of these sources offering up conflicting ideas. Evidence of this can be found in gyms all over the country. How many people, despite toiling away for months or even years at a time, make little to no progress? In my estimation, it is the majority.

However, by establishing a program based on time-proven principles, you can avoid the pitfalls most commonly responsible for a lack of progress. Getting on the right track is simply a matter of understanding what is and isn’t essential, then implementing those essentials in the correct manner. In the following paragraphs, we will go over how to do just that.
There are 3 main areas of focus which form the hub of any successful bodybuilding program. They are training, nutrition, and sleep. For the chemically assisted athlete, performance enhancing drugs is the 4th and final category on the list.

While this may seem like the most rudimentary of information, the fact that so many BB’rs profess to have an adequate understanding in these areas, yet have been unable to build any meaningful degree of size, is proof positive that they don’t. Truth be told, consistently applying the information you will learn here is the most difficult aspect of bodybuilding. Quite frankly, it is hard work and requires a level of consistency and dedication that most people simply aren’t willing to put in. Whether your desire is to compete onstage or just to get big & strong, the principles for success remain the same.


It should be stated right up front that there is no single best way to train, as there are many styles of training out there which provide impressive results. However, as a beginner or struggling intermediate, program construction should be based on the principles which have proven to provide the best gains in the largest number of people at your stage of development, until which time you have amassed enough experience to be able to accurately listen to your own body. It takes years of regular training to reach this point and when you do, you will no longer need anyone to tell you how to train, as you will already know what does and doesn’t work for you. This is not to say that those who reach this point are no longer able to learn from others, as the journey of bodybuilding is a life-time learning experience, but we will have reached a level of proficiency where we no longer need anyone to hold our hand.

In the meantime, the first couple years of training should consist of a basic, abbreviated routine centered around the core mass-builders, with a strong emphasis on progressive resistance. For many, after looking at some of the suggested routine to follow, the first impression is one if inadequacy. They believe they need to do more exercise, more sets, and train more days per week. They also tend to want to include more fancy machines, do more isolation exercises, and often think they should be using intensity techniques like forced reps and drop-sets on a regular basis. These are just some of the reasons why so many beginners never build a solid base of muscular size.

Their inability to understand what drives muscle growth and the balancing act between training and recovery taints their perspective and leads them to make decisions which undermine their progress. Many also fall into the trap of thinking that the physical reactions associated with training, such as the pump, fatigue, and/or burning in the muscles are indicators of muscle growth and therefore, they gauge the effectiveness of their workouts by the intensity of these feelings. This often leads to poor program construction and subsequent overtraining.

Their confusion is compounded when they see the routines of the IFBB pros. It is easy for a novice to be influenced by the habits of a pro BB’r, especially when he/she has a desire to emulate them in terms of development. So, when they watch a video of a champion BB’r training a single bodypart with 5-6 exercises of 4-5 sets each and then explaining to the fans that they train mostly for “the pump”, they frequently believe they should do the same. However, what many beginners do not realize is that these routines are rarely the same ones the pros used to build their mass in the first place.

In addition, by the time a BB’r has earned professional status, he is concerned with more than just mass acquisition. Bringing up weak points, improving muscle maturity, and avoiding injury are just a few of the things on a pros mind and his training reflects this. Blindly copying the routine a professional BB’r, although perhaps inspiring, is rarely advocated by those in the know, and if you ask most pro BB’rs, they will tell you the exact same thing.

Fortunately, building a solid foundation of muscle tissue is a rather simplistic process, in terms of training. In general, one’s routine should not include more than 3-4 total training sessions per week, with each bodypart being trained once every 5-7 days. The basic, compound movements should form the crux of your routine, with isolation exercises included only when necessary (for example, the side delts cannot be properly trained without side laterals, making this isolation exercise a necessity). Rep ranges should generally fall within the traditional hypertrophy rep rage of 6-12 for upper-body and 8-15 for legs.

Total volume should be moderate, depending on the exercise performed and the individual’s proficiency in performing the lift. Low-set or H.I.T. is insufficient at this stage of development, not because the system is flawed, but because a beginner is not able to take maximum advantage of this style of training. A beginner must perform at least a few sets per exercise in order to maximize neural development, which is essential to learning proper lifting technique, developing a mind-muscle connection, and being able to engage the greatest number of muscle fibers during a lift. Until a BB’r has at least a decent level of development in this area and has learned to feel the target muscle working during all of his lifts, he will not be able to place enough stress on the target muscle to justify doing only one set. Even the great Dorian Yates himself stated that it took him several years of very intense and dedicated training to be able to extract maximum benefit from a single working-set.

High volume training isn’t much better. While there are certainly BB’rs who have thrived on this type of training from day one, just as some proponents of H.I.T have also done, the vast majority of individuals will net better overall gains by adhering to a program somewhere in the middle of these 2 extremes. I tend to advise 2-3 work-sets per exercise and 2-4 exercises per bodypart, with larger bodyparts falling at the upper-end of this recommendation and smaller bodyparts at the lower-end.

Finally, the single most important principle available to beginners looking to gain mass is progressive resistance. Progressive resistance is the gradual increase in weights and/or reps whenever possible. In other words, you need to get stronger if you want to get bigger, particularly while training within the hypertrophy rep range. Training like a powerlifter in the 1-3 rep range is not going to get the job done. Unless you want to look like a powerlifter, do not train like one. Of course, not all powerlifters train solely in the lower rep ranges and many have developed quite an impressive physique, particularly some of the raw lifters, but it does not change the fact that training in the low rep range is not conducive to maximum muscular development.

At no other time in your life will the body be able to make greater strength gains than during its first 1-2 years of training, so take full advantage of this brief window of opportunity to add as much strength…and therefore mass, as possible. The bottom line is that you will never come anywhere close to approaching the size of today’s pros if you don’t increase your strength significantly. When is the last time you saw a man with a chest like Arnold, Ronnie, or Haney, who could only bench press 250 lbs? The answer=never. How about the last time you saw Platz-like legs on a man who could only squat 300 lbs? Or, Dennis Wolf-like delts on someone who could only do overhead presses with 185 lbs?

The point here is that all of these men, and anyone else who has built a considerable amount of size for their frame, did so using relatively heavy weights. Of course, variances in genetic ability can account for considerable differences in strength among men of equal size, but it does not take away from the fact that all of these men still had to add quite a bit of strength in order to achieve their current level of development. There is no scale we can refer to in order to determine how much strength one will need to add in order to reach a certain size, as genetic differences make this an impossibility. However, you can rest assured that if you develop impressive strength while training within the hypertrophy rep range, you will build impressive size to go along with it.

Fundamental to this goal is the keeping of a log book, in which you should record all of your exercises, sets, and reps for each workout. With each successive workout, you should attempt to do either more weight for the same reps, more reps with the same weight, or both. This gives you a clear-cut goal for every training session. Now, while you may be able to continue adding strength consistently for the first several months, you will eventually find that strength gains start to slow down. Instead of continuing to add weight at nearly every workout, you may now only get stronger every 2nd or 3rd workout and as time progresses, strength gains will begin to take place even less frequently. However, only those who persevere end up taking things to the next level. Ronnie Coleman, who was the biggest and perhaps the strongest BB’r of all time, continued focusing on progressive resistance throughout his entire career and even at 38 years old, was still getting stronger and bigger.

By keeping progressive resistance at the heart of your routine for the first few years of training (and preferably beyond), you will continue to move onward and upward much more quickly than the pump-trainer who is still using the same weights as he was 3 years ago. Below is a sample routine which will provide excellent results for the beginner.

1.) Flat barbell press: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
2.) Incline barbell press: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
3.) Barbell curls: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
4.) Preacher curls: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
5.) Lying tricep extensions: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
6.) Dips: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.


1.) Deadlifts: 1 set X 10 reps. 1 set X 20 reps.
2.) Wide grip chins: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
3.) Barbell rows or/ Traditional T-bar rows: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
4.) Overhead seated barbell press: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
5.) Dumbbell side laterals: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.
6.) Rear dumbbell/machine laterals: 3 sets X 6-10 reps.


1.) Full squats: 2 set X 20 rep-breathing squats.
2.) Leg press: 3 sets X 10 reps.
3.) Leg curl: 3 sets X 10 reps.
4.) Toe press on leg press: 3 sets X 10 reps.
5.) Seated calve raise: 3 sets X 10 reps.
* Squats: After several sets of warm-ups, select a weight you can perform for 10 reps in non-stop fashion to failure. Then after you hit 10 reps, begin resting in-between each additional rep until you reach 20 total reps. After you get to 20 reps your set is over. Perform 2 sets.



Before we wrap up the training segment, I want to touch on rest periods between sets. Again, keep in mind that all of the training recommendations here are based on generalities—on what has been proven to work in a large percentage of beginners for gaining mass & strength. With that said, being that progressive resistance is the backbone of your program, you want to rest long enough to restore your strength in-between sets. That can be as little as 2 minutes for smaller bodyparts and as many as 5 minutes or more when doing very demanding exercises like 20 rep deadlifts or squats.

One’s cardiovascular endurance will play a role in determining the ideal rest period. Those with excellent cardiovascular endurance will likely be able to take slightly shorter rest periods than the average lifter, while those with poor cardiovascular endurance may need to take a bit more time than the average. Generally speaking, you want to at least wait until your breathing returns to normal before you return to your next set, but you don’t want to wait so long that you start to lose your pump.


Despite its relative simplicity, nutritional mistakes are responsible for more failures than any other aspect of the bodybuilding experience. Without adequate nutrition, all of one’s other efforts will be in vain, as the body cannot grow progressively larger unless it is supplied with enough of the right nutrients on a daily basis. Consistency is vitally important, even more so than with training, as just a few days of sub-par caloric intake can result in muscle loss.
While caloric requirements will vary from person to person based on their metabolic rate, activity level, digestive efficiency, and other factors, the most important nutritional rule for building muscle tissue is to eat an above maintenance calorie diet. If you do not supply your body with more calories than it uses for energy/maintenance, then there will not be any calories available for the synthesis of new muscle tissue. It is possible to gain new muscle tissue when following a maintenance/below maintenance calorie diet, but even in the best case scenarios, such as during times of muscle regain, results will still be severely compromised, as the body will be forced to rely on bodyfat stores to provide the extra calories needed for muscle growth. For guys trying to gain new, never before built muscle tissue the difficulty factor rises 10-fold, especially when steroids are absent. Regardless of the circumstances, eating a below maintenance calorie diet will severely impair your gains, so above all, make sure you are consuming a surplus of calories on a daily basis.

Of secondary importance, but still a critical component of a BB’rs diet, is protein intake. Generally speaking, 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is sufficient for eliciting maximum mass gain, assuming adequate carbs & fats are present. If not, the body will convert protein into glucose in order to meet its energy requirements, leaving you with less than optimal amounts of protein to build muscle tissue.

Regarding frequency of consumption, you should include protein with every meal, although it is fine if some meals contain more or less than others. As long as it is spread throughout the day and you meet your daily overall quota, you are on the right track. In order to ensure you are taking it sufficient protein, only count those grams which come from complete sources of protein, such as meat/fish, dairy products, eggs, and protein powders like whey, milk, egg, soy, beef, etc. There are 8 essential amino acids and 14 non-essential amino acids. Complete protein sources are those foods which contain all 8 essential amino acids. Eating above 1.5 grams will not produce measurably greater gains, but will lead to additional, unnecessary stress on the digestive system and kidneys.

Meal frequency is the next item on the agenda. While there is quite a bit of dispute regarding the ideal number of daily feedings, the off-season BB’r typically consumes between 5-6 meals per day. This could be entirely from whole foods or a combination of foods and protein shakes/weight gainer shakes. Either one is fine, although I recommend staying away from the weight gainer products comprised of low quality carbohydrates, such as maltodextrin or other refined carbs. You may find some products labeling their carbs as “glucose polymers” or “long chain glucose polymers”. Do not be deceived, as these are just other terms for maltodextrin and other refined grains. Your best bet is to make your own weight gainer shakes, as they are much healthier than the nutritionally devoid sugar & maltodextrin-laden store bought weight gainers. The following is one example of an excellent weight gainer that you could use in place of a whole food meal. You will not find a single pre-made weight gainer on store shelves which comes anywhere close to delivering the nutrition found in the shake below. In fact, most whole-food meals pale in comparison in terms of nutritional potency.

Whole-Food Weight Gainer Shake

• 20 ounces raw, grass-fed whole milk
• 40 grams whey protein
• ½ cup finely ground oats
• ¾ cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
• 2 TB wheat germ
• 1 TB raw honey
• 1 TB raw coconut oil
• 1 banana

Protein: 72 grams
Carbs: 143
Fats: 32
Fiber: 15.2
Calories: 1,177

In terms of macro ratios, the unique metabolism of each individual precludes the establishment of a pre-set ratio. Still, this doesn’t prevent us from listing general guidelines. When mass-building, most people will do well with a macro ratio of 2-3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight, 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound, and around .5 grams of fat per pound. Those with faster metabolisms will probably want to remain within the upper-range of these numbers, while those with slower metabolisms should probably gravitate towards the lower end. For a 200 lb BB’r who does not add bodyfat easily, an off-season diet might look something like the following: 600 grams of carbs, 200 grams protein, and 100 grams of fat daily, for a total of 4,100 calories.

Before finishing up on this subject, I feel it is important to spend at least a minute talking about workout-based nutrition, or what many refer to as pre/post-workout nutrition. There are many conflicting ideas out there regarding the optimal way to feed the body around workouts, so instead of arguing the merits of the different methods or advocating my own approach, I will stick with generalities. What is generally agreed on when it comes to post-workout nutrition is that the body needs both protein & carbohydrates immediately before and after training. More specifically, these 2 feedings should contain a larger amount of carbohydrate and protein than other meals. Consuming 1/3rd or even 50% of one’s daily carb intake between these 2 meals is not uncommon, as the body is more likely to use the nutrients you eat during this time for recovery & growth rather than fat gain. Therefore, these meals should be prioritized above all others, if you want to maximize your progress.

Although this may seem like common sense at first glance, I have found that the following nutritional blunder is responsible for more unfulfilled potential than any other mistake. It is failing to continue to increase one’s caloric intake as the body grows. In order to ensure continued, long-term progress every BB’r must clearly understand that the bigger he becomes, the more calories his body will require not only to grow additional muscle tissue, but just to maintain the muscle he already has. In other words, for every pound of muscle you gain, your body will require additional calories. This is because muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns calories just to sustain itself.

Most BB’rs realize that they need to eat to grow, but in many cases, after a BB’r reaches a certain size, eating becomes a chore and this often leads to stagnation. Let me give you an example; one which I have witnessed 100X over. At age 17 and 160 lbs Mr. John Doe decides he wants to look like his BB’ing heroes, so he gets a gym pass and hits the weights. After doing some research, he soon realizes that he needs to eat to grow, so he increases his food intake by a substantial margin. He grows quickly and is content with his progress. After gaining about 20 lbs he continues training, but months pass by without any further weight gain. At some point he realizes that the 3,000 calories he is eating is not enough to keep growing, so he starts eating a bit more. John is not thrilled about this additional calorie increase, as he already felt like he was eating a lot of food, but he mans up and does what needs to be done to achieve his dreams. Another 8 lbs later and once again, his weight gain stops. He trains for many months trying to make further progress, but to no avail. Finally, he reluctantly decides to increase his calories again, but after a few months of doing so, John starts to burn-out. He feels chronically full, never gets hungry, is getting tired of eating “BB’ing foods”, and feels like he can’t eat anymore.

It is at this point that most BB’rs stop making meaningful progress. They may gain a couple more pounds here and there and slowly add strength as they go, but overall, very little change takes place over the next several years. These people just aren’t willing to eat the amount of food it takes, day in and day out, to build & maintain the massive muscle size of their heroes. Oftentimes, they deceive themselves into thinking that they just don’t have good enough genetics, or that the pros must be taking 10x as many drugs as them and that’s why they are so much bigger. No doubt, genetics and drugs play a huge role in building the size of a pro BB’r, but this size never would have been built in the first place if they were not willing to do what it takes at the dinner table.

The fact of the matter is that BB’ing is very hard work, particularly as it pertains to nutrition. A small percentage of pro’s with huge appetites seem to have a relatively easy time putting away the required amount of food, but most either dislike it or even struggle to do so. Supplements & drugs designed to increase the appetite are commonly used, such as injectable B12, GHRP-6, and marijuana. Some BB’rs have even resorted to the use of potent prescription medications designed to treat serious forms of mental illness, as the side effect of some of these drugs is an extreme increases in hunger.

The point here is that if you think, or end up thinking that you are one of the few guys who has to struggle and sacrifice to take in enough calories, think again. Some guys just aren’t cut out for the BB’ing lifestyle. They will never be able to deal with the diet over the long-term, so they never end up getting big. Now, variances in metabolic rate can make a big difference in the amount of calories it takes for someone to reach a certain size. Guys with slower metabolisms have a much easier time, although they frequently struggle to keep the bodyfat off, while guys with very fast metabolisms may have an easy time staying lean, but a very hard time meeting their caloric demands. Whichever situation you find yourself in, there are many options available which might help you. Potential solutions range from supplements, to drugs, to changes in the diet, and in some cases it is simply a matter of dealing with an underlying digestive or other health issue.


It would be foolish for anyone to neglect the cheap and effective supplementation (I am referring to legal supplementation) available to today’s BB’rs. With products such as creatine and Leucine available for just a few dollars per month, I can think of any good reason to turn a blind eye to these clinically validated powerhouse supplements.

Creatine has the potential to significantly improve recovery, muscle growth, and performance within a short period of time. With only a small portion of the population being classified as “non-responders” (due to the fact that some people naturally produce very large amounts of creatine), nearly everyone can use this product to good effect. Creatine has been widely studied over the last 20 years, with 100’s of clinical trials proving its effectiveness and safety. It has been shown to positively affect muscle growth through numerous mechanisms, while also being good for the heart and brain. I consider this supplement to be a basic part of a BBr’s arsenal.

Leucine is another one of the basic supplements every BB’r should be using. It has been demonstrated in numerous university studies to increase protein synthesis independent of the other amino acids. In other words, leucine is a direct modulator of amino acid induced muscle growth. Leucine accomplishes this by stimulating the gene called M-tor, which plays a pivotal role in the accumulation of muscle protein. By adding just a few grams of Leucine to each of your meals, you can dramatically accelerate protein synthesis beyond what you would achieve normally. Even when added to whey protein’s already stacked amino acid profile, research shows that protein synthesis is still enhanced. With protein synthesis having a direct impact on muscle hypertrophy, we should be doing everything we can to maximize this process in the body and with leucine being central to the attainment of this goal, its inclusion is a no-brainer.

Although protein powders are technically a supplement, I consider them more of a food than a supplement, as they are derived from various food sources and can be use to replace whole-food proteins. Protein powders can range widely in terms of quality, so make sure you educate yourself properly before making your selection.

I consider the supplements above to be standard fare for all BB’rs looking to build muscle, as they are among the most cost-effective available. Rounding out my list is a high quality multi-vitamin & mineral. While this supplement won’t result in rapid size & strength gains, solid nutrition is the foundation on which all our other BB’ing efforts rest. With most BB’rs today taking in less than optimal quantities of micronutrients, I consider this supplement to be a must for everyone—lifter or not.

There are many other good supplements out there, some of which are for general use and others which serve a more specialized purpose. Depending on your needs & goals, the value of these products can vary. Now, there are some drugs on the market which are classified as supplements, such as designer steroids. These can be exceptionally effective, even exceeding the muscle building potency of many prescription steroids, but I consider these products drugs, not basic OTC supplements.

In addition, there is a wide variety of health fortifying supplements on the market. For example, there are supplements designed to treat high blood pressure, altered lipid profiles, and elevated hematocrit, which can be very important for steroid users. There are also supplements which can help detoxify the liver—also a big plus for those who use oral AAS. The number and types of supplements available which possess some type of benefit number in 1,000’s, yet many play little to no role in the muscle growth process or are only reserved for use in particular situations. Therefore, accurate self-assessment is a pre-requisite in being able to determine which supplements are right for you and which aren’t.

At the same time, it would not be fair if I did not warn you about those supplements which are not worth your money under any circumstances. Unfortunately, the market is filled with supplements which are better off in your garbage can than in your stomach. The fraudulent supplement companies that manufacture these products know that they don’t work as claimed, yet through deceitful marketing, they trick people into spending their hard-earned cash on these worthless products. As always, make sure you know what you are buying. If a particular product cannot be confirmed as legitimate through either independent clinical research or through extensive anecdotal evidence, how do you even know the product works at all? Because the company selling it told you so? By utilizing combination of common sense and a little research, you can avoid scams like these.

I am not going to get into drugs in this piece. We all know drugs can greatly increase the results we get from our training efforts, but regardless of whether we use steroids or not, the information provided above is equally applicable to the natural and chemically assisted BB’r alike. If you are a beginner or an even an intermediate who has been struggling to get bigger, hopefully you found something in this article which will help you get back on the right track.