Your beginners guide to bodybuilding for men

02 Jun 2023

When you think about bodybuilding, the huge gym bros hogging the weights with their animalistic grunts and enthusiastic protein-powder shaking spring to mind…

This is the – unfortunate – bodybuilding stereotype, when bodybuilding is simply a sport for most people, where the aim of the game is to strengthen and ‘build’ your body as best as you can.

What is body building?

Here’s the definition of body building from Oxford Dictionary:1 bodybuilding (noun)

‘A sport involving strenuous physical exercise in order to strengthen and enlarge the muscles of the body.’

Yes, there are big competitions that some people participate in. Yes, the lifestyle is quite intense. Yes, a lot of fake tan is involved! But men are into it for all sorts of reasons.

Some like to feel like the strongest man in the room, some love the chemical reactions bodybuilding pumps to the brain, some want win bodybuilding competitions and some simply want to look stacked. It’s not for everyone though, and there are some risks are associated with the sport.

Still interested? Keep reading for more bodybuilding facts, workout plans, diet plans and other tips to get you started off on a good foot in the bodybuilding world.

When did people start bodybuilding?

Welcome to your brief history lesson in bodybuilding! Muscle building culture has been around for a long time with many followers. It’s only in the last century or so where muscle building, in general, has shifted focus from purely strength abilities to the buff and ripped bodies you see winning the modern bodybuilding competitions today.

Back before it became more superficial, bodybuilding as a sport had literally meant that, building more muscle and tone on your body to be strong. The main way this has always been done is through weightlifting. The Greeks and Egyptians started us off with the ancient tradition of lifting stones, which then progressed to more modern forms of muscle building / bodybuilding using equipment.

Muscle building / bodybuilding even detoured into pulling carts, lifting animals and other objects, which was rather popular with the general public. It was similar to the strongman contests we have today.2

When was the first ever bodybuilding contest?

The first ever bodybuilding show was called, “The Great Show” and happened way back in 1891, developed by Eugene Sandow – the father of modern bodybuilding. The vision of these contests was to allow his students in the UK to compete in front of a full judging panel and paying audience for who had the best physique.3

Who are some famous male bodybuilders?

Arnold Shwarzenegger

I think we can all agree that there’s nobody more famous in the male bodybuilding world than Arnold Shwarzenegger, especially for people who don’t follow the sport. He won the title of Mr. Universe at just 20 years old and went on to win 4 more as well as 7 Mr. Olympia titles.

However, although he was obviously very impressive for his time, some people think that most bodybuilders since the 1990s tend to show better mass and conditioning than Arnie did when he was competing.4

Flex Wheeler

Both Arnold Shwarzenegger and another famous bodybuilder called Ronnie Coleman have described Wheeler as ‘the greatest ever’. He has won the Arnold Classic a record 4 times and in winning the Arnold Classic, Ironman and San Jose Classic, he has achieved the acclaimed ‘triple crown’.

Flex is also known as the ‘Sultan of Symmetry’ and has collected an impressive 17 professional titles throughout his bodybuilding career.5

Other famous bodybuilder men

  • Ronnie Coleman
  • Frank Zane
  • Dorian Yates
  • Lee Haney
  • Dexter Jackson
  • Phil Heath
  • Shawn Ray6

How do bodybuilders get judged in competitions?

One of the most reputable organisations in the UK bodybuilding world is the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation, and they advise that competitions get judged on the following criteria:7

  1. Symmetry: having an evenly balanced physique is highly valued in this sphere, so you better not just focus on one area! The overall shape, structure and proportion of the competitors is considered, and an even balance between the lower and upper body should be apparent.

  2. Muscularity: the degree of a participant’s muscle mass in relation to their frame size will be judged, as well as their level of muscular fullness and conditioning. Conditioning should be sufficient enough so you can clearly see their muscularity but not to the extreme that it negatively affects symmetry.

  3. The evening performance: in the final round, competitors have the opportunity to display their physique in their own routine to their music of choice. It’s mostly based on posing and how well they have showcased their physique in the routine.

How do bodybuilders build muscle?

Bodybuilders build muscle through a regimented combination of diet and exercise – just like anybody else really, but most bodybuilders have to be very committed to achieve those impressive results.

Bodybuilding workout programmes

Bodybuilding training looks different for everyone. This is because we all have different bodies, which come with different areas to work on to achieve what professional bodybuilders see as ‘perfection’ (and what will help them win competitions).

There’s a bodybuilding program out there for everyone, and while they may differ in method, their main goal is to get you physically stronger and add muscle mass – which conveniently go together. Here are a couple of examples:8

Novice bodybuilding programme

by Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Who is it for? All you beginners out there, this could be the program to help you dip your toes into the world of bodybuilding.

What does it involve? This 4-day a week strength training program focuses on the compound bodybuilding exercises squats, deadlifts, bench presses and overhead presses, with a couple ‘accessory exercises’ to support other muscle groups.

How to do it:

  • 2 upper body workouts a week, including bench press and overhead press
  • 2 lower body workouts a week, including squats and deadlifts
  • Perform 10 to 12 sets with 5-15 reps, depending on the exercise
  • Use weights that are 65-85% of your 1 rep max, and take each set of compound exercises 1-3 reps from failure – until it’s hard enough that you could only do maybe 1 more rep before your muscles are fully exhausted
  • Accessory exercises include standing / seated calf raises for lower body workouts and lat pull downs or flyes for upper body workouts

Want to know more? Find the programme and more information for free here.

What is a 1 rep max?

A 1 rep max is the absolute maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of the chosen exercise using proper technique and a full range of motion.

You can find 1 rep max calculators online to help you determine it, without having to attempt it during your normal training, which can be risky and exhausting. You’ll never normally have to perform your 1 rep max outside of competitions.

The Classic Push Pull Legs routine

Who is it for? Anyone who wants to increase their overall strength

What does it involve? You will train from 3-6 days a week, focussing on 1 of 3 major muscle groups each time. This makes it ideal for both beginners and experienced lifters / bodybuilders as it can have you working out almost every day if you want!

How to do it:

  • Train push, pull and legs at least once a week each

  • Push: focusses on muscles in your upper body that ‘push’ e.g. your pecs, triceps and shoulders. Example exercises include bench pressing, overhead pressing and isolation work on your triceps

  • Pull: focusses on muscles in your upper body that ‘pull’ like your back muscles and biceps. Example exercises include deadlifting, dumbbell and barbell rows, pullups and chin-ups.

  • Legs: focusses on your hamstrings, quads, calves and glutes. Example exercises include different variations of the squat, lunges and other isolation exercises for the muscles noted above.

Want to know more? Find the programme and more information for free here.

What do bodybuilders eat?

Have you ever watched in awe as the ‘gym guy’ packs away what seems like 1kg of rice and a whole chicken during his lunch break? Well it’s true, bodybuilders do like their protein, but that’s not the only factor to consider in their diets. Here’s some things bodybuilders think about when planning their diet:

Calorie counting

When you’re working out so much, you need to fuel your body right, and bodybuilders know this better than anybody. Most bodybuilders have to be extremely regimented when it comes to what they eat, and most of them count calories for their specific goals, whether that is:

  • The cut: Cutting calories and eating lots of protein if they want to lose fat and get ‘lean’, but still maintain muscle mass

  • The bulk: Adding extra calories and protein to maximise muscle building

A lot of bodybuilders will alternate back and forth from ‘cutting season’ to ‘bulking season’ to help alter and perfect their body composition.

Calorie counting is an important tool for getting the most out of bodybuilder diets. There are countless calculators on the internet that can help make sure you’re getting the right amount of calories for your goals, like this one. Then, the next step is making sure you’re hitting your macro goals for best results.

Macro goals

Macronutrients are the carbs, proteins and fats in the foods we eat – and most of us don’t pay attention to them too much if we’re not trying to lose/ put on weight or train for a sport like bodybuilding.

The general goal is to increase protein and decrease carbs to get the most out of bodybuilding as you’ll mostly be focussing on growing and building muscle – which protein is responsible for. Again, there are lots of resources online like this macro calculator that can help determine which macro combination is best for you.

For best results, speak to other people at your gym / your coach who should be able to give you some tips!

Most bodybuilding diet plans revolve around these food groups:

  • Starchy carbs: quinoa, potatoes, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oats, whole wheat bread, and cereals

  • Protein: egg whites (full eggs sparingly), protein powders, tofu, tempeh, soya ‘faux’ meats, white meat, white fish and high-protein yoghurts like Greek yoghurt

  • Fruits / vegetables / legumes: leafy green veggies, beans, chickpeas, lentils and citrus fruits

  • Oils: cut down on the oils and use sparingly if combining with carbs

  • Fats: avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut oil and full-fat cheese

Example bodybuilding diet plan for beginners:

Approx. 2500 calories, and roughly 40% carbs / 45% protein /15% fat9

Meal 1:

Greek yoghurt, raspberries, healthy granola + scrambled eggs / tofu on the side.

Meal 2:

Protein shake made with vanilla protein powder, soya milk, strawberries, flaxseeds and chia seeds.

Meal 3:

Burger with a lettuce bun made with a lean protein burger (meat, fish or soya), tomatoes, red onion, ketchup.

Meal 4:

Protein bar or recovery protein shake for post workout nutrition.

Meal 5:

Spinach salad made with spinach, brown rice, feta cheese, pepper, olive oil and a lean protein like prawns, chicken or tofu.

As we have mentioned before though, everybody needs a different number of calories depending on their lifestyle, current body composition and bodybuilding goals. Just use this as inspiration and you can even adapt these meals to your calorie / macro needs once you’ve figured them out.

Other bodybuilding tips for your diet

  • Eat frequently: keep your metabolism steady, blood sugar levels under control and promote new muscle growth

  • Cut down processed food: try to stick to home-made meals and simple ingredients

  • Keep hydrated: drinking lots of water and staying hydrated is essential for keeping your performance at the gym strong – try to avoid sugary and high-calorie drinks

  • Choose your carbs wisely: instead of nutrient-lacking white bread, pasta and rice, make the switch to wholegrain varieties instead which will keep you fuller for longer and can actually help you hit your protein goals, too

  • Lean protein: if you can, top up on your protein every few hours to maximise muscle growth. Some of the best sources are lean beef, fish, chicken, low-fat dairy and soya. If you haven’t got time to eat, then a protein shake can also work

What risks to look out for

Illegal substances like steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are rife in the bodybuilding scene and 100% not good for you! Yes, they may help you bulk up quicker, but they can come with horrible side-effects and even kill you. Avoid at all costs, and if you think you have a problem with illegal bodybuilding supplements, please seek help from your GP.

What are bodybuilding supplements?

Some bodybuilders choose to take – perfectly legal - pre-workout supplements to support their energy levels and performance in the gym. They usually come in the form of drinks and tablets, like the very popular Grenade Thermo Detonator Capsules. Others just go for protein supplements – some of which are specially made for ‘bulking’ like Optimum Nutrition Serious Mass Vanilla Powder, which packs a huge amount of protein along with the calories needed to help you put on muscle mass. Another popular bodybuilding supplement is creatine which helps give your muscles a ‘burst of energy’ from a substance called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). It’s great for all high-intensity exercise, which makes it perfect for lifting heavy. Shop Sports Nutrition

Last updated: 27 November 2020 

Bhupesh Panchal

Author: Bhupesh Panchal, Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate

Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019

Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry

Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.

After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.