What is Bodybuilding?
Bodybuilding is a strength sport focused on building muscle and shaping your physique.
Bodybuilding requires high-intensity training and immense dedication to your diet for months to years.
Here, I break down the different competition categories for men and women and share bodybuilding techniques and programming for beginners.
I'll also give tips to help you decide if bodybuilding suits you.
Bodybuilding Competition Categories
Competitive bodybuilding offers different categories for men and women, each with a different level of muscle required.
Men's Bodybuilding Categories
Women's Bodybuilding Categories
Performance-enhancing Drugs in Bodybuilding
If you've looked at a bodybuilder and thought, 'There's no way that is natural", chances are–they aren't.That's because performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), or steroid use, is widespread in bodybuilding.
So much so that special federations were formed to appeal to natural bodybuilders–those who do not use any PEDs.
It's important to know that the use of PEDs is common because, without that knowledge, it's very easy to develop a warped body image.
If you do not plan on using PEDs, make sure you only follow natural bodybuilders and athletes for inspiration. Think about the two worlds as entirely different sports.
History of Bodybuilding
Throughout history, numerous ancient cultures have had competitions of strength, and strength training artifacts have been found worldwide in places like India, Greece, and Scotland. People the world over have long enjoyed marveling at muscular physiques and watching feats of strength.
Fast forward a few millennia, and the oldest and most respected bodybuilding organization–The International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation–was founded in Montreal in 1946.
It wasn't until the 1970s that bodybuilding entered the mainstream in the US thanks to legends such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and Frank Zane, and the smash hit documentary Pumping Iron was released.
Benefits of Bodybuilding
If you want to transform the way you look and are willing to dedicate a significant portion of your life to that goal, bodybuilding can be immensely gratifying.
That's because it is the best way to change how you look.
You also don't ever have to compete to proudly call yourself a bodybuilder.
If you follow a training program, are dedicated to the pursuit of muscle, and are chasing a perfected physique–you are a bodybuilder.
Whether you choose to compete or not, you can plan on gaining muscle, losing fat, increasing your muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance, and improving your overall fitness through bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding Techniques for Beginners
Importance of Technique & Grit
Bodybuilding requires a complete mindset shift for anyone casually hitting a few strength sessions weekly. You will have to lift with an uncomfortable intensity to force maximum muscle growth.
You cannot simply go through the motions in the gym and check off boxes.Instead, every exercise, every set, you must push yourself further than you've gone before. In the same way, you will have to dedicate yourself to perfecting your form on each exercise.
You will not gain muscle safely and consistently using poor form, so make sure you are competent or work with a personal trainer before you jump into bodybuilding.
Follow the Strength Training Hierarchy
When you're doing any strength training, the order in which you perform the exercises matters, and bodybuilding is no exception.
You typically want to complete the most complex or demanding exercises first. This is because you want maximum energy reserves available to get you through them.
In general, the strength hierarchy looks like this:
Compound exercises -> Isolation Exercises -> Machine exercises
The Art of Hypertrophy
It's crucial to remember that building muscle, also called hypertrophy, is a lengthy process that requires 4 things.
- Adequate muscle training stimulus.
- Adequate rest & recovery.
- A surplus of calories.
- A whole lot of time.
Read number three again.
This means that to significantly build muscle, you must eat more calories than your body burns. This also means that for most people, you can plan on gaining a little body fat. To be a bodybuilder, you must make peace with that reality.
Bodybuilding careers are measured in years, not weeks. This training style is not a magic bullet or a quick fix. With careful exercise programming and dieting, you will alternate between months of cutting and bulking to craft your desired body.
Mindset Is Everything
Bodybuilding can be thought of as the ultimate exercise in delayed gratification. Changing your body in a healthy, maintainable way requires time, dedication, and planning.
It doesn't happen by accident. Bodybuilding requires a level of dedication that many people have not experienced in their life. For most, it's unattractive and not worth it, and that's a valid choice.
For a select few, this slow, thankless grind presents the ultimate challenge and individual athletic pursuit. With bodybuilding, you can transform yourself mentally and physically, grow self-confidence, and join an encouraging and empowering community.
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Best Bodybuilding Exercises for Beginners
There isn't a static list of exercises that are exclusive to bodybuilding. You will perform many of the same barbell, dumbbell, and free-weight exercises that other strength athletes perform.
What sets bodybuilding apart from other strength pursuits is how methodical, thorough, and controlled they are when lifting.
Remember that bodybuilding aims to build as much muscle as possible in your target areas. To do that, you must work every muscle in your body with enough volume to initiate growth. This means long workouts with many exercises and lots of reps.
Compound vs. Isolation Exercises
Compound or multi-joint exercises use multiple muscle groups across multiple joints. Squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, pull-ups, and push-ups are all compound exercises.
Compound lifts are superior for building strength, hypertrophy, and improving overall function because they simultaneously recruit the most muscle fibers and groups.
Isolation exercises are the opposite and work only one muscle group at a time. Bicep curls, tricep extensions, and hamstring curls are all isolation exercises.
Isolation exercises are a favorite of bodybuilders because they are great for targeting and building specific muscles. You can do free weight or machine exercises to isolate specific muscle groups.
Time Under Tension
Moving weight to gain maximum muscle is more complex than simply picking up the weight and flying through the movement. There are many ways to force muscle growth, and one that is very popular in bodybuilding is increasing your time under tension.
Time under tension is the time spent generating an average force for a specific target muscle.
Time under tension: Time in concentric (the up) + Time in isometric(the pause)) + Time in eccentric (the down).
So let's say it takes four seconds to bring your bicep curl up and 5 seconds on the way back down. The total TUT would be 9 seconds.
It's important to note that we experience the most muscle tears (what we're going for in the weight room) in the eccentric phase of the lift.
Remember: muscle tears + adequate nutrition = muscle growth.
The time under tension is essential for a few reasons.
- Slowing down the movement increases the difficulty of the movement, which aids in muscle growth.
- It's safer and reveals issues with our exercise form.
When you're flying through your reps, it's much easier to miss issues with your technique.
But form concerns become much easier to spot when you slow down the movement.
No matter how much time you spend under tension during your lifts, you must work hard every day to progress as a bodybuilder.
One easy way to measure intensity is reps in reserve (RIR).
The National Academy of Sports Medicine describes RIR as the number of repetitions you have left before reaching technical failure (or form breakdown).
For bodybuilding, you want to work in the 2-4 RIR range for muscle growth on most exercises. This ensures you're working hard enough and progressively overloading your lifts as time passes.
Bodybuilding Programming for Beginners
While there is no such thing as the perfect training split, a few work better for beginners.
Bodybuilding Programming Basics
Push/Pull/Legs is the most common split for beginner bodybuilders.
If you are entirely new to weight training, not just bodybuilding, check out our Ultimate Guide to Strength Training for a true beginner total body strength split. That means one day is dedicated to pulling exercises that work all the muscles in your back and biceps.
Push is dedicated to the chest, shoulders, and triceps. And the third day is total legs, including quads, hamstrings, and glutes. This setup allows you to work each muscle group and gives adequate rest between sessions.
Plan on working out three days a week, for no more than 1 hour. Your goal is to hit all your main muscle groups and build the habit of exercise into your life. Aim for 2-3 sets per exercise and 10-15 reps per set.
- Bulgarian split squats
- Leg press
- Leg extensions
Hamstring & Glute Exercises
- Romanian deadlifts
- Glute ham raise
- Good morning
- Glute bridge
- Leg curl
- Standing/seated weighted calf raises
- Tip toe walking
- Back extensions
- Bench press
- Cable crossover
- Shoulder press
- Military press
- Upright rows
- Front raise
- Bent arm raises
- Rear delt flys
- Overhead tricep extensions
- Diamond push-ups
- Close grip bench press
- Tricep push downs
- Skull crusher
- Bicep curl
- Hammer curl
- Drag curl
- Concentration curl
Progressive overload is the process of training harder over time, so we continue to see progress. Our progress will plateau if we don't continually challenge the body in different ways.
There are many ways to achieve progressive overload in your strength training, such as increasing the weight, the number of sets or reps, time under tension, reducing your rest time, etc. Pick one variable you will change for your training block (often 4-6 weeks) and stick with it.
Rest & Recovery
All the lifting and protein shakes in the world won't do much if you are not equally dedicated to rest and recovery.
Your recovery should include:
- Adequate rest between reps & sets
- Adequate rest between workouts
- Adequate sleep quality & quantity
Bodybuilders typically rest between 30 and 90 sec during their workouts–but you may need much more, especially in the beginning, as you build your stamina.
Resting 1-2 days between workouts is also helpful for beginners because it takes time to build the foundation of endurance required for these lengthy sessions.
Most people need between 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Get serious about your recovery and watch your progress soar.
Cardio is vital for heart health, so everyone should incorporate some cardio into their programming for health.
If fat loss is your goal, then cardio becomes much more critical. The best cardio is the kind you actually do, so try different machines and options to find what works best for you.
Start with 2-3 sessions a week of at least 15 minutes, and add more when your fat loss starts to stall.
Try mixing things up by incorporating interval training, sprints, and HIIT once a week.
Introduction to Nutrition for Bodybuilding
While nutrition is absolutely crucial in bodybuilding, a detailed breakdown of the nutrition side of the equation is beyond the scope of this article.
Here are the two most important and foundational concepts you'll need to understand:
You can use multiple formulas to estimate your daily caloric intake and macronutrient amounts.
No matter which one you use, it's crucial to remember that they are just estimates, and you will likely need to tweak them as you learn more about your individual metabolism and performance needs.
Whether you're cutting or bulking, a total beginner or an advanced athlete, you must monitor your food consumption. This is because humans are horrible at estimating their caloric intake and activity levels, especially while you are cutting.
Many bodybuilders weigh their food and use tracking apps like MyFitnessPal to track their intake.
Regardless of your chosen method, you must become aware of your consumption to successfully manipulate your body composition.
Supplements for Bodybuilding
While most supplements are junk, a few evidence-based options are worthy of discussion.
Protein is the single most studied nutritional supplement, and 32 studies have shown that it helps stimulate muscle and strength gains in folks training hard enough. Studies have also shown that both animal based and plant based protein powders are equally effective.
Another extensively studied supplement that has significant positive impacts on muscle hypertrophy and strength for both men and women is creatine. Creatine is highly effective and an excellent nutritional supplement for getting stronger or more muscular.
Believe it or not, caffeine is categorized as a performance-enhancing substance, and for good reason. Studies have consistently shown that caffeine aids in the performance of strength, endurance, and team athletes alike. Just don't overdo it, as that could disrupt your sleep.
Fish oil is one of the only supplements I recommend for my clients that comes in pill form. This is because most of us do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids (primarily EHA and DHA) in our diet.
A recent study published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that fish oil supplementation helped participants increase their muscular strength and size in the setting of adequate training and nutrition.
Preventing Injuries for Bodybuilders
Prioritize Your Warm-up
The number one way to prevent injuries in strength training is to include a warm-up.
Warming up is crucial before any strength training session but is also commonly neglected.
Your warm-up should be 5-10 minutes of light cardio, which raises your heart, gets blood to your muscles, and lubricates your joints.
Crucially, for strength training, you'll also want to follow that with a few sets of activation exercises. These simple exercises with little to no extra resistance target the specific muscles you will call upon in the workout to ensure they're ready to work.
If you're considering bodybuilding, you probably love lifting, which is fantastic! However, it can be difficult for enthusiastic newbies to stick to their training schedule, especially in the beginning. Many people think that if exercise is great, more exercise is better–right?
As well-intentioned and hard-working as they are, they end up tweaking something that knocks them off their training program for weeks or even months. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Do I need Equipment to Bodybuild?
Bodybuilding requires access to a traditional or home gym with barbells, dumbbells, machines, and cables.
You certainly can make some progress with bodyweight and calisthenics movements initially, but you will quickly surpass them and require more resistance to continue to see progress.
However, there isn't equipment that you need to buy. Some people like to lift with gloves on to prevent calluses from forming on their hands.
Lifting straps can also be handy when you're trying to overload your muscles with a weight that is too heavy for your hands to hold.
I'd recommend investing in a good water bottle and stocking up on shaker cups if you plan to supplement your diet with protein powder.
Avoid These Common Bodybuilding Mistake
Skipping Rest Days
Rest is crucial for building muscle and getting fitter and stronger.
You are hijacking your progress by skipping the rest periods during your workout, working out too many days a week, or not getting enough sleep.
You must take your recovery as seriously as your training and nutrition to grow your muscles and change your body's appearance.
Exercise / Program Hopping
There's a big difference between exercising and training. If you want to be a bodybuilder, you need to train.
Training means following a tailored exercise program written to produce specific results in a specified time frame.
This means performing the same exercises over and over, week after week. This also means you do not get distracted by the latest move being touted on TikTok or try to change your workouts after 2 weeks because you got bored.
Not Keeping a Training Diary
Keeping a training diary is one way to stick to your training program.
This can be as simple as a marble notebook, or you can use a phone app.
A training diary is crucial because you must record your weights, reps, and sets from week to week to track your progressive overload.
Poor Stress Management
Intense exercise does place some stress on the body, so you must manage your mental and physical health holistically.
In addition to adequate sleep, exercise should decrease your stress, not add to it. If you find your appetite soaring, sleep becoming disturbed, or your mood souring–pull back on your training and deload with a week of restorative movement such as walking, yoga, mindfulness meditations, cycling, etc.
The biggest mistake I see new bodybuilders make is having wildly unrealistic expectations.
Remember that the professional bodybuilders you see up on stage typically:
- Have been training for years (or decades)
- Fitness & nutrition are their full-time job
- Most use steroids
With that in mind, be very careful of who you follow on social media and what content you consume.
Being shredded is excellent, but what does it mean to you personally? Do you want to give up eating out, sleeping in, alcohol, and impromptu social events for a few percent less body fat? It can be done if you do, even with a regular job and life responsibilities.
What matters is that you are thinking deeply about what fitness goals currently make sense for your life and align with your values and the quality of life you want to lead.
Once you've set your goals and started the work, cultivating patience will be the most challenging part of the process.
Changing your physique is just like growing a plant from a seed. It takes daily effort, time, and tending, and even then–it still takes a long time.
If you're new to strength training, you can see impressive results in strength and muscle size as your body adapts. Enjoy that while it lasts. Once you shift from novice to intermediate lifter, gains are much harder to come by.
Remember why you started and have fun with it no matter where you are in your bodybuilding journey. That's what keeps you coming back day after day.
Is Bodybuilding Right for You?
Bodybuilding can be fun if you have a healthy relationship with food, your body, and exercise and want a challenge to dedicate yourself to.
It's a superb sport for solo athletes with the discipline and drive to keep showing up and working hard with no one watching them.
I do not recommend bodybuilding for anyone who has experienced an eating disorder, disordered eating, exercise abuse, or orthorexia.
This is because the stringent calorie tracking and grueling workouts that bodybuilding requires can trigger those who struggle to fall back into unhealthy or unsafe habits.
Bodybuilding is a strength sport focused on the pursuit of the perfect physique. Whether you compete in bodybuilding or simply enjoy the challenge and reward of changing your appearance, it can be a highly gratifying and empowering experience.
Make sure you perfect your exercise form before jumping into a bodybuilding exercise program, and you work with an experienced coach if you're interested in hitting the competition stage.
With the proper training program and a lot of patience, you can grow your muscles, transform your body, and build your confidence with bodybuilding.
More Strength Training Advice from GymBird Experts
- Ultimate Guide to Strength Training
- Ultimate Kettlebell Strength Training Guide
- Optimal Strength Training Frequency
- Functional Strength Training Benefits
- Best Strength Training Exercises
- Resistance Band Strength Training
- Understanding Reps in Strength Training
- Ultimate Guide to Olympic Weight Lifting
- Building the Ultimate Powerlifting Home Gym
- How to Start Powerlifting
- Types of Strength Training and Their Benefits
Current Sports Medicine Reports. Creatine Supplementation: An Update.
European Journal of Nutrition. Supplements with purported effects on muscle mass and strength.
The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The effect of fish oil supplementation on resistance training-induced adaptations.
National Academy of Sports Medicine. Reps in Reserve (RIR): What You Need to Know.
Psychology Today. Why We Underestimate What We Eat.