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.
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.
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.