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11 principles of bodybuilding training part 1

11 Prinzipien des Bodybuilding Trainings Teil 1

"Obey the principles without being bound by them."
- Bruce Lee

The goal of the following principles is not to give you a set of training rules to follow, but to give you guidelines that I have found will provide consistent and predictable results.

It is important that these principles are used as a unit, which in other words means that you should not implement one part of this while ignoring others - these principles belong together.

Of course, you may decide that you need to adapt some (or all) of these principles to suit you, your situation and your preferred training style. That's perfectly fine - these principles are all elastic and can be modified somewhat. Speaking of training style, I want to point out that these are my principles for bodybuilding training - not athletic training, not fitness training, and not functional training, but bodybuilding training.

Therefore, those who will benefit most from these principles are those who want to compete in a bodybuilding or figure training competition, or who want to look like they could compete in such a competition. In principle, however, anyone who trains can benefit from understanding the logic behind these principles. Even if you don't want to compete in bodybuilding competitions, I encourage you to read on and adapt these principles accordingly. Without further ado, here are the first 5 bodybuilding training principles that I have found have helped me tremendously and I hope they will help you too. The next 6 principles will follow in the second part of this article series.

1 - Train each muscle group once a week

Depending on which circles you move in, this principle may sound obvious, stupid or even lazy.

In competitive bodybuilding circles, training each muscle group once a week is more common than any other training split. Even those who don't train each muscle group once every seven days tend to train each muscle group about once every five days. If you're like me, you're willing to train as often as necessary to get the best results. When you combine this willingness to train with the human tendency to think that more is better, it's easy to see how we could easily end up training each muscle group twice, or even three times or more per week.

The problem with increased training frequency, however, is that it can easily lead to inadequate recovery. We should not forget that the whole purpose of training is to reap the benefits that come from recovering from these training sessions. Training is basically the process of an infinite sequence of stimulation-recovery-stimulation-recovery and so on. However, if you are hungry for progress then it can be tempting to eat from the plate of stimulation too frequently.

A common question regarding training is "When should I re-train a muscle group?" The vague but honest answer is, "as soon as you've recovered from your last training session."

So how long does it take to recover from a training session?

Recovery time depends on a number of variables including - but not limited to - the volume and intensity of the training session as a whole. The way I see it, the more damage you inflict on a muscle during a given training session, the longer it will take to recover. It's a bit like sunbathing - if you have red skin afterwards, then you need to stay out of the sun for a while to allow your skin to recover and repair.

If, on the other hand, you have only been in the sun for a few minutes in the afternoon and have not developed any redness, then you can go back in the sun the next day without fear of putting too much strain on your skin or overstretching your body's ability to regenerate.

Trial and error

Over the last two decades, I have kept a detailed training diary most of the time. I started this simply to find out what works for me and what does not. One of the variables I kept changing was training frequency. I wanted to find the right balance between training frequency and recovery that would allow me to maximize adaptations aka results.

I have found that I can train each muscle group once every 5 days and make progress, but that progress seems to stall after a few months. However, if I train each muscle group once every 7 days, I can progress almost indefinitely.

One thing we tend to forget is that even if recovery only takes a few days, a significant amount of time is needed to see a de-training effect. Around day 5 after the last training session, a muscle has adapted and supercompensation has taken place, but this does not mean that it will start to atrophy the next day. It takes a while for this to happen - and certainly longer than I had initially thought.

And that's exactly what makes seven days the ideal period - this period is almost always long enough for sufficient regeneration, but at the same time not long enough to allow atrophy.

Even though I regularly came back to the idea of training each muscle group every 5 days, this always seemed to backfire and result in insufficient recovery. On the other hand, training all muscle groups once a week seems to be a foolproof recipe for continuous progress. After observing this over and over again, I finally accepted that I should build my programs around training all muscle groups once a week and it works wonderfully!

Note: The fact that training once a week per muscle group is optimal is based on an implementation of the rest of the principles described below. If you train differently, that is perfectly fine. If this is the case, these principles will still be applicable - you just need to adapt them to fit your situation. Just keep in mind that it's better to under-train than to over-train.


Possible exceptions to this rule include calves, abs and back. For whatever reason, calves and abs recover faster than other muscle groups. If this is the case, then it's safe to say that you can - and ideally should - train calves and abs twice a week. However, the beauty is that if you want to keep things simple and only train these two muscle groups once a week like all other muscles, you should still see progress - but it won't be quite as fast as with a twice-weekly ab and calf training approach. As for the fact that the back also seems to be an exception, I don't think this is because it recovers faster from training, but because it can tolerate a higher total training volume.

My explanation for this has to do with the fact that the "back" is a collection of muscle groups to which the training stimulus is divided. Basically, to say that we train the "back" is about as idiotic as saying that we train the "front". With this in mind, and considering the way most traditional approaches approach back training, it could be considered a standard to train the back twice a week, where the back can be divided into upper back (trapezius, rhomboids) and lower back (latissimus, back extensors) to minimize overlap of training stimulus.

The other possible exception is muscle groups that lag behind the rest of the body in their development. Training a muscle group several times a week can be a good strategy to advance this muscle group in its development. Be careful here, however, as this approach can quickly backfire. When in doubt, keep things simple and don't worry too much. Train each muscle group once a week and you will make good, steady progress. It's basically a no-brainer.

2 - Use 3 to 4 exercises per muscle group

As I said before, it is crucial to find the right balance between training volume, training intensity and training frequency. This principle, in combination with the next one, helps to control the volume component of the recovery equation. Although there are times when it makes sense to perform only one or two exercises per muscle group - and occasionally five or more - you can't go wrong if you apply the KISS principle (keep it super simple) to the number of exercises per muscle group by simply performing 3 to 4 exercises. Performing 3 to 4 exercises allows you enough variety during each training session to ensure that a given muscle is stimulated in a number of different ways - both through different exercises and through different repetition schemes and rest intervals.

I would definitely recommend moving towards 3 exercises for biceps and triceps and 4 exercises for the back, especially if you only train it fully once a week in a training session. It should be noted at this point that the legs are not a muscle group but a group of muscles. The quadriceps are just as much a muscle group as the hamstrings and calves. So don't cheat yourself by only doing 3 to 4 exercises for the entire lower body or you'll end up looking like a big muscular guy riding a stork.

To look like a competitive bodybuilder, you will generally need 3 to 4 exercises for the quadriceps and about 3 exercises each for the hamstrings and calves. This may sound like a lot - especially after performing the first half of the leg workout - but this is the type of work you'll need to perform on a regular basis to move up into the competitive bodybuilder range.

3 - Perform 3 work sets per exercise

Many people quantify the volume of their training sessions by the total number of sets. This doesn't make much sense in my view and here's why. Let's go back to our sunbathing analogy. Let's say we want to quantify the "volume" of a tanning session. An obvious way to do this - and undoubtedly the easiest - is to simply use the total number of minutes you've spent outdoors.

The problem with this quantification, however, is that the time you spend in the shade should not count, as the amount of stress the skin is exposed to in the shade is minimal. Similarly, the time you spend in the sun in the early morning or late afternoon, when the intensity of UV rays is much lower than during midday, should not count.

Are you following me? If so, then you will probably agree that the best way to quantify the volume of sun exposure is to record the number of minutes you spent in direct sunlight between 9am and 3pm.

Of course, you could refine this further, but this approach is a good compromise between simple and accurate - far more accurate than simply looking at the number of minutes you spent outdoors. The same goes for training volume. We should not consider warm-up sets as part of our training volume as they do not significantly challenge our recovery abilities. Instead, we should only count the work sets.

For the record: I define a working set as a set performed to near the point where you can no longer perform another repetition with good form. Basically, this means performing the set to concentric failure or finishing it 1 to 2 reps before reaching muscle failure. Anything less intense is considered a warm-up set for later work sets.

4 Perform a power or strength exercise for each muscle group

Since we are talking about a bodybuilding program, I will refer to training muscle groups instead of training "movement patterns". However, these two terms are usually interchangeable. The goal of a bodybuilding training program is to improve your body development and not necessarily to get stronger. However, training for power and strength should still be a cornerstone of your bodybuilding training program. If you train for power, which basically means being able to do more work in a shorter period of time, then your muscles will develop an improved ability to activate or recruit more muscle fibers at once (also known as neuromuscular efficiency).

Of course, this will also make you stronger, but it will also do something that is of greater interest to us bodybuilders.

Improved neuromuscular efficiency means that you will recruit more muscle fibers for a given exercise. This equates to more hypertrophy, as only muscle fibers that are stimulated and challenged will adapt (by getting bigger). It is possible to increase the percentage of muscle fibers recruited by 10% in a reasonable amount of time and you can imagine the huge benefits of this! For this reason, 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3 x 5) barbell shoulder presses, for example, will make the 3 x 8 - 12 repetitions dumbbell shoulder presses of your workout more effective. Note: Sets performed with the intention of increasing power are an exception to the work set rule. Power training sets are not performed to muscle failure. To be considered a work set, a power training set should be performed to the point where the maximum repetition rate decreases significantly.

Unlike power sets, which are about moving the weight quickly, strength sets are about moving as much weight as possible regardless of speed. Training for strength has similar benefits to power training, including the recruitment of more muscle fibers. The effects are also similar, making other exercises more effective. However, we should not forget that strength training on its own also promotes muscle hypertrophy - particularly the increase in muscle fiber size via the build-up of new actin and myosin filaments.

Although the overall hypertrophy effect of heavy sets with low repetitions (~1 to 5) may not be as strong as sets with more time under tension, the hypertrophy achieved through strength training results in visually denser looking muscles. Even if you don't care about your athletic ability, performing one strength or power exercise per muscle group will do wonders for the appearance of your body.

5 - Perform one strength/hypertrophy exercise for each muscle group

When I say strength/hypertrophy exercise, I'm talking about an exercise and set/repetition scheme that has a hybrid goal in mind - an increase in strength and an increase in hypertrophy.

As mentioned earlier, performing low repetition sets (~1 to 5 reps) is great for increasing strength and when performed with less resistance and higher speed, low repetition sets are great for increasing power.

However, the problem with these sets is that they do not maximally stimulate hypertrophy. This is best achieved through a longer time under tension to generate a little more metabolic stress on the muscle.

Therefore, if the goal of a set is to stimulate improvements in strength and hypertrophy, it is best to use sets of 8 to 10 repetitions. This will still allow you to use a relatively heavy weight to address the strength component of the hybrid goal, while keeping the weight light enough to perform enough repetitions to increase the time under tension. For the record, sets with reps between 6 and 12 will also fulfill these conditions, keeping in mind that if you end up performing most of your sets with 6 reps, you will likely compromise your hypertrophy. On the other hand, too much time in the 12-rep range will compromise the strength component.

Without a doubt, you will benefit enormously from spending plenty of time training in the 8 to 10 repetition range! I would go as far as to say that this is crucial if you want to develop a combination of mass, strength and even endurance. The fact is that I have seen many professional bodybuilders train almost exclusively in this repetition range. While we certainly shouldn't blindly copy what professionals do (as many of them have great bodies not because of the way they train, but in spite of the way they train), this illustrates how elegantly simple effective training can be. It doesn't have to be complicated. Variety in training is key, but if you ever have to choose a repetition range to train in, then you should choose the 8 to 10 repetition range.

Final words - for now

Start thinking about how these 5 principles apply to your own training.

In the second part of this article, I'll cover the final 6 bodybuilding training principles - including the one that I think is by far the most important principle - one that applies to everyone regardless of training style and goals.

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