by Chris Beardsley and Kurtis Frank
Bodybuilders use a variety of tools to get ready for a competition, and each of these tools are in some way geared towards creating a body that possesses the greatest amounts of muscle mass and the lowest levels of body fat.
So what do these tools look like? Well, anyone who has read a few articles in a bodybuilding magazine can tell you that they include strength training, nutrition, cardio, supplements, and…uh…pharmaceuticals. But what is the exact recipe? How many sets and reps do they use in their training? How many times a week do they train? Do they always do cardio?
It’s not easy to find out, as every bodybuilding expert has his or her own pet theories. What’s more, in their articles, bodybuilders tend to focus on how they differ from other experts and bodybuilders rather than the things they have in common, leaving the areas of agreement unspoken. But most of the time, these areas of agreement are the big rocks that form the foundation of a bodybuilder’s routines.
Fortunately, there are researchers out there who are just as interested in the fundamental questions as we are. And lucky for you, these researchers recently put together a study that tried to answer some of these important questions.
Who are these researchers and what did they do?
The enterprising researchers to whom we owe a debt of gratitude were three Australians from the University of Sydney—Daniel Hackett, Nathan Johnson, and Chin-Moi Chow. These bold and inquiring minds went out and recruited 127 competitive male bodybuilders for a survey.1 And they didn’t skimp on quality. Their survey respondents were genuine athletes who had actually placed in a competition. About a quarter of them had placed well in a state competition, while the rest had recorded their best placing in a regional championship. The bodybuilders who responded spilled the beans on everything from training to cardio to supplements.
So, let’s finally find out what competitive bodybuilders do…
It all starts with body-part splits
The researchers were surprised to discover that every single one of these bodybuilders used body-part split-routines either five or six days a week. Every. Single. One. Not most of them or almost all of them, but every single one.
That’s not to say that whole-body training doesn’t have some very useful applications. For instance, it’s often the right choice for beginners. However, the key message here is that body-part splits are the preferred training program for all competitive bodybuilders. Therefore, if you want to be a competitive bodybuilder, or just want to look like a bodybuilder, and you’re not using a body-part split, you might want to take a moment to think about what makes your program so special.
After that, there are a few differences amongst routines, especially between the off-season and the pre-competition phases, so let’s break it down.
What does the off-season training look like?
The researchers found that, in the off-season, most of the bodybuilders trained using the guidelines below (within their five to six days per week body-part split). The percentages show the proportion of positive responses to the following statements:
- Used four to five exercises per muscle group – 74%
- Mainly used 7-12RM loads – 77%
- Lifted heavier loads occasionally for variation – 85%
- Do three to six sets per exercise – 95%
- Rest 61-120 seconds between sets – 69%
- Used some advanced overload techniques with some exercises – 83%
Many people often assume that there is a big gap between what bodybuilders do and what the science says. However, as evidence-based trainers, Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld have previously noted, bodybuilders are often ahead of the science in many respects. These days, there is actually a lot of agreement. Here are a few examples of where science backs up the bodybuilders’ approaches:
- Using different exercises: It is still not widely discussed in some fitness circles, but sports scientists are becoming increasingly aware that exercises lead to localized hypertrophy at different points along a muscle fiber. For example, Mendiguchia et al.2 found that the lunge and the leg curl, while both causing significant hamstring activation, led to hypertrophic signaling at completely different points along the biceps femoris muscle. So, using a variety of exercises targets more of the muscle, leading to more possible growth.
- Varying loads and advanced overload techniques: Changing loads or using advanced techniques means challenging the body in new ways, which leads to greater muscle damage. Schoenfeld3 describes how muscle damage can help increase hypertrophy through increased levels of local growth factors and increased activation of satellite cells.
- Higher volumes: In a study (that has since been very widely quoted), Marshall4 found that eight sets of squats led to greater strength and hypertrophy gains than either two or four sets. The researchers were surprised, as they expected to find that four sets were ideal and that eight sets would lead to overtraining.
So there is some sound agreement between the lab rats and the muscle heads… at least when it comes to the science of hypertrophy.
How much off-season cardio do bodybuilders do?
Not all of the surveyed bodybuilders performed cardio in the off-season. The researchers found that only 64% of those surveyed used cardio in the off-season, and those who did tended to perform just one to two sessions per week. In turn, despite more recent enthusiasm for high-intensity interval training and unconventional cardio, 75% jogged or ran, 65% used the cross-trainer, 53% walked, and 38% cycled.
So why would bodybuilders perform cardio in the off-season? Well, again, science can help us answer that question. Recently, there has been a surge of interest in what is called “concurrent” training, which involves performing strength training and endurance training each week. Researchers have been trying to establish whether cardio interferes with the results that athletes get from their strength training.
The current state of play seems to be that power gains are reduced by including endurance training in a program, most likely by way of reducing rate of force development. However, as Mikkola5 recently reported, hypertrophy gains are actually slightly enhanced by including some cardio, and this appears to be especially true in respect to cycling on quadriceps muscularity.
How is pre-competition training different?
The researchers found that in the pre-competition phase, most of the bodybuilders trained using similar guidelines to those in the off-season (within their five to six days per week body-part split). However, there were a few changes. For instance, while a similar number of respondents reported using four to five exercises per muscle group, the remainder tended to perform three to four exercises rather than five to six. So, there is a slight tendency to reduce the number of exercises per muscle group during the pre-competition phase. Similarly, while most of the bodybuilders still trained with 7-12RM loads, there was an increase in the number of bodybuilders who used 10-15RM loads, and a similar increase in those using shorter rest periods (from 30- 60 seconds). Therefore, again, there is a slight tendency to increase reps and decrease rest periods during the pre-competition phase.
How is pre-competition cardio different?
The researchers found that there was a big upswing in the number of bodybuilders who performed cardio in the pre-competition phase compared to those who performed cardio in the off-season. They reported that 85% of the respondents used low-moderate aerobic exercise in the pre-competition phase, with 59% performing five or more sessions per week.
What dietary supplements did the bodybuilders use?
This study reported on six categories of ergogenic aids, as shown in the chart below:
The bodybuilders made slightly more use of supplements in the pre-contest phase than during the off-season, using 3.4 ± 0.9 supplements in the off-season, and 3.7 ± 1.2 supplements in the pre-contest phase.
Why were these supplements used at these times?
This study only acquired data on which supplements were used at each time, while providing little information on why they were chosen. We can, however, make good educated guesses as to why they were chosen:
Creatine is a well-known ergogenic aid that has shown to increase lean mass and muscular power output. One of the more surprising results of this study is the extremely low usage of creatine during the off-season. We expected more bodybuilders to make use of this supplement, but it is possible that some of those who did not use it were non-responders. Its complete exclusion during the pre-contest phase is easier to explain, as it is most likely related to water retention.
Protein shakes were highly used by bodybuilders in both the off-season and the pre-contest phase, with no differentiation as to the type of protein used. They are a staple in a bodybuilder’s regimen, and their reduced rate during pre-contest may be due to the bodybuilders eating fewer calories overall and having real food take precedence.
Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) usage was almost completely the same in the off-season and the pre-contest phases. This was somewhat surprising since the importance for muscle preservation may be elevated during periods of reduced food and protein intake. It is possible that the bodybuilders were overusing these supplements in the off-season.
Pre-contest, the bodybuilders slightly increased their use of glutamine, which may be a reflection of two possibilities. The first is that glutamine is an ergogenic aid during extended cardiovascular exercise, and cardiovascular exercise was increased pre-contest. The second is that glutamine anecdotally suppresses carbohydrate cravings, which, if true, could provide mental support for these athletes during a period of reduced caloric intake.
The bodybuilders made use of a moderate amount of fish oil. Unfortunately, the study did not record dietary fish intake, so it is unknown whether those who did not use fish oil perhaps ate more fish in their diet. Fish oil intake went up in the off-season most likely as a reflection of its anti-inflammatory abilities in suppressing DOMS in light of the greater volume of training that was being performed. Unfortunately, intake of Advil and Ibuprofen were not recorded in this study (which may also explain the reduced use of this anti-inflammatory if the respondents were using another compound).
Some usage of fat burning compounds was mentioned under the category of Ephedrine/Caffeine products, but given the customization of fat burners currently on the market, it is unknown whether this refers to an ECA stack or a customized fat burner that simply contains similar compounds. Nevertheless, its usage actually appears in the pre-contest phase because of the switch in priorities in the fat loss direction. Its overall usage is fairly low, which is perhaps a testament to the reliance on diet for fat loss.
Are these supplement choices evidence-based?
It’s important to note at the outset that competitive bodybuilders, and what they go through, are not something researchers can easily study and results seen in interventions using sedentary or ‘weight trained’ individuals may not always apply to bodybuilders.
However, there is strong support for the use of creatine and fish oil (for enhancing weight room performance and suppressing inflammation, respectively) as well as protein powders and BCAAs on one condition. Protein powders and BCAAs become valid when the diet is subpar and lacking in either of these respective nutrients. Their inclusion in levels above what is needed (e.g. taking 8g of BCAAs alongside a protein sufficient feast) is not currently supported by evidence. However, “what is needed” for advanced bodybuilders is not explored very often in literature, so there is still a large grey area here.
It is frequently suggested that glutamine can increase lean mass or preserve it, and it definitely has biological plausibility for these roles. Unfortunately, its usage in bodybuilders during a pre-contest phase has not been assessed. In turn, it isn’t known whether glutamine is in fact a semi-sweet placebo or if it actually does attenuate muscle mass loss. Quite a few studies have concluded that it doesn’t build muscle as a supplement, but the mechanisms that mediate protein loss during low caloric intakes are slightly different. Glutamine might have a role here given the high volumes of training and the fact that glutamine shows some efficacy in endurance athletes.
What other supplements might bodybuilders consider?
In addition to the above, competitive bodybuilders might also wish to consider Leucine and L-Carnitine.
Leucine could potentially be used in lieu of BCAAs, as it is the amino acid that exerts most of the muscle preservation and anabolic effects of the BCAAs. This simple swap could easily halve the amount of calories ingested from supplemental amino acids, which might be useful in the pre-contest phase. More importantly, however, Leucine has an alternative benefit for any bodybuilder on a ketogenic diet. While Valine and Isoleucine (the two other BCAAs) are able to convert into glucose, Leucine is ketogenic and turns into ketone bodies rather than glucose. Consuming Leucine in isolation also spikes insulin, and the combination of spiking insulin (and glycolysis), while not contributing to a systemic glucose pool, leads to a deepening of the state of ketosis. This could provide a small edge in caloric expenditure via urinary ketone bodies (definitely small, but possibly worthwhile).
Additionally, L-Carnitine could be beneficial in reducing muscle protein breakdown and subsequent soreness during periods of overreaching and excessive cardio exercise. Many studies use L-Carnitine-L-Tartrate and note reduced muscular damage, while anecdotes and some studies on Acetyl-L-Carnitine note that it can exert minor stimulatory effects. The combination could be a push in the right direction during the pre-contest phase.
So, how do competitive bodybuilders place in a regional or state competition?
In summary, competitive bodybuilders who have placed in either a regional or state competition train in the off-season as follows:
- Adhere to body-part splits
- Train 5-6 days per week
- Perform 4-5 exercises per muscle group
- Rely mainly on 7 -12RM loads
- Lift heavier loads occasionally for variation
- Do 3-6 sets per exercise
- Rest 61-120 seconds between sets
- Use some advanced overload techniques with certain exercises
- Perform 1-2 sessions of low-moderate intensity cardio on the treadmill, cross-trainer, or bike
- Consume protein shakes, creatine, vitamins, BCAAs, and fish oil
And in the pre-competition phase, they tend to alter their training as follows:
- Reduce the number of exercises slightly
- Increase the number of cardio sessions to 5+ per week
- Drop creatine out of the supplement stack to reduce water retention
It may be true that just because bodybuilders train a certain way that it still might not be the optimal way to train. However, their training methods are clearly achieving their goals, which makes them a very sound starting point. What’s more, as we’ve shown in this article, there are many areas in which the training and supplementation practices of competitive bodybuilders have very good evidence to support them. So, if your training and supplementation program is very different from the above norms, you might want to take a second look at it.
- Training Practices and Ergogenic Aids used by Male Bodybuilders, by Hackett, Johnson and Chow, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Publish Ahead of Print
- Does exercise-induced muscle damage play a role in skeletal muscle hypertrophy? By Schoenfeld, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012
- Non-uniform changes in MRI measurements of the thigh muscles following two hamstring strengthening exercises, by Mendiguchia, Garrues, Cronin, Contreras, Arcos, Malliaropoulos, Maffulli and Idoate, in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012
- Strength and neuromuscular adaptation following one, four, and eight sets of high intensity resistance exercise in trained males, by Marshall, McEwen and Robbins, in European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2011
- Neuromuscular and cardiovascular adaptations during concurrent strength and endurance training in untrained men, by Mikkola, Rusko, Izquierdo, Gorostiaga and Häkkinen, in International Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012