Back to the Basics

Back to the Basics

by Lyle
McDonald, CSCS

For those of you who don’t know, there are several new entries into the world
of muscle magazines including a print version of Testosterone, ‘Body
International’ which is being published by Sergio Oliveira, and a magazine
published by the folks at Penthouse magazine called ‘Mind and Muscle Power’
(now you really can say that you pick up Penthouse just to read the articles).

I want to comment on ‘Mind and Muscle Power’ as an introduction to this column
as well as to explain my next statement: This is the last regular column I’m
going to be doing for Mesomorphosis (and probably for the internet in general).

Ok, don’t freak out yet. Let me explain why I’ve decided to quit writing
regularly. The problem is this: there’s really nothing new under the sun to
write about and, for the great majority of lifters out there, all the
information necessary to do whatever you want with your body (get bigger or get
leaner for the most part) already exists. Hell, it’s existed for decades.

Now, I’ll
be the first to admit that research continues to refine our knowledge about the
underlying mechanisms of muscle growth and fat loss. But I have to ask, will
knowing the exact molecular stimulus for growth (right now, the money is on something
called myogenic-growth factor, which is similar to IGF-1, and is released from
the muscle during eccentric contractions) change how we go about getting bigger
and stronger? The answer is no. The secret to getting bigger and stronger will
still be to lift the weight, lower it under control, add weight to the bar over
time and eat enough. It’s just that we’ll know exactly why that works. But, to
reiterate, knowing the exactly molecular mechanisms won’t change how we (well,
I) go about training to get bigger and stronger.

Basically, with few exceptions, I think we are beyond the stage of making any
truly ground-breaking discoveries about how to get bigger, stronger or leaner.
In the upcoming years, we’ll simply figure out all the exact molecular mechanisms
responsible for what lifters have known for decades.

This brings me back to ‘Mind and Muscle Power’. The premier issue (which came
polybagged with the January issue of Penthouse) is a pretty good example of
every problem with muscle magazines in general (and that doesn’t exclude
Mesomorphosis by the way). No, I’m not going to go off on one of my ‘Magazines
are nothing but supplement catalogs’ rant but something else this time.

As I said above, there’s really nothing new to write about on a monthly (or
even bimonthly basis). Even the Research Updates found in most magazines don’t
really talk about anything new (News Flash: new study shows that exercise is

This leaves writers with one of a few options, two of which appeared in ‘Mind
and Muscle Power’, the third which I’ll just comment on.

Option 1: Rehash the same old stuff

The first option is to simply rehash something that’s been written about a
zillion times before. In this case, we look at TC Luoma’s article ‘Sumo Slim’
on why bodybuilders should be eating 6 times per day (printed, word for word as
it was on over a year ago). Now, I suppose there are
bodybuilders out there who have been living under a rock (and there’s always
newbies, but I doubt their first introduction to bodybuilding nutrition will be
in a magazine put out by Penthouse) who don’t know that you have to eat
numerous times per day for optimal results. But ultimately this is something
that’s been written about a zillion and one times before. Yes, it’s good to
hear it again (i.e. that’s why I wrote my article on ‘The Baseline Diet’) as a
reminder, but it’s nothing new.

The same applies to training programs. Let’s face it, training isn’t and
needn’t be that complicated. And there’s only so many different ways you can
write about how to train. If you read the magazines over a long enough period
of time (I’m talking years here), you find that they start repeating the same
stuff. Weider just keeps rotating the different principles in and out. Volume
will make a come back, then high-intensity, then sets of 100, etc, etc. For the
most part, about the only real new approach to training that’s come along is
the Louie Simmons approach to powerlifting training. Even Poliquin’s 10 sets of
10 was advocated in some form or fashion by John McCallum in ‘The Complete Keys
to Progress’ (I should point out that Poliquin did refine the system but it’s
still the same basic idea: lots of sets, short rest period to stress the muscle
with fatigue, instead of tension). George Turner wrote about a similar system
in Ironman years ago.

But the bottom line remains is that there isn’t much new under the sun when it
comes to training to get bigger and stronger. There are about a zillion
variations on a theme and lots of different stuff that can be tried. And there
are ways that we can micro-manage training (talking tempo and TUL stuff). But,
in the most basic terms, training just isn’t a complicated endeavor. Like Fred
Hatfield once wrote “Just lift the damn bar!”

Option 2: Make up goofy stuff

When rehashing the basics gets old, some writers start getting goofy. In this
case, we look at ‘The Warrior Diet’ written by someone named Ori Hofmekler
(what’s odd is that the same article appeared on Testosterone. net with the
author listed as Nelson Montana, so I have to wonder which is the pen name). It
is the diametrical opposite of TC’s article and recommends eating one meal per
day at night only. As a side note, I have to wonder about anybody reading Mind
and Muscle power, seeing two diet articles that give diametrically opposed
recommendations, not unlike having HIT and volume proponents writing for the
same magazine, giving completely oppose advice. No wonder people are so
confused about how to train and eat.

Again, in training you occasionally see some of the same stuff, just plain
bizarre approaches to training because, again, there’s only so much you can
write about how to train arms. Need an example? Three words: Bulgarian Burst

Option 3: Write incredibly technical articles that nobody understands or wants
to read

While there are no good examples of this in ‘Mind and Muscle Power’ (I would
like to comment that the only article I thought was really worth anything in
that magazine was Pat Arnold’s article on anabolic and catabolic hormones, but
it wasn’t anything that the majority of readers haven’t seen before),
Mesomorphosis has received feedback and criticism for articles that read like a
review paper and are essentially nothing but techie mental masturbation (as I raise
my hand guiltily as someone who has written articles of exactly that nature).
Don’t get me wrong, I happen to like that type of article, but I’m basically a
geek. For the most part, you don’t see this a lot in most forms of bodybuilding
media. Muscle Media 2000, back before it turned into a motivational piece of
shit had articles like this sometimes. Most magazines don’t print stuff like
this because most readers won’t bother trudging through it.

But, for the most part, the above are the 3 options that writers are faced with
when they have to come up with *something* to write about on a monthly, or in
the case of, weekly basis (and look at how often Testosterone.
net has just been reprinting old articles for lack of new content).

Ok, back to the point: my final article

And that’s the problem I’m ultimately faced with. With regards to nutrition for
bodybuilders, I’ve said essentially all I have/can say. So I have to either
start rehashing the same old stuff, or just start making up goofy theoretical
stuff that probably won’t work any better than the basics (let’s see, there’s
protein pulse feeding which increased nitrogen retention in older
non-exercising women by giving them most of their protein at night, a 5 day
cycle to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, a couple of other weird
ideas I’ve thought up). But my strong feeling is that compared to the basic
approach to nutrition, it won’t provide any real benefit in the long run over
just eating a ‘traditional’ bodybuilding diet, and alternating massing and
dieting phases. So I won’t waste reader’s time (or mine, writing something I
don’t believe will work any better anyhow).

Now, I suppose I could write about training (it is ironic that my original
passion was for exercise physiology but that’s really not what I’ve been
writing about for the last few years) but, even there, there’s really only a
limited amount of information that can be presented. Again, there are about a
zillion variations on a theme but when you get down to brass tacks, there are a
few general principles that have to be followed to get as big and strong as
your genetics will allow. All the other techniques are merely ways of staving
off boredom in the gym, IMO.

Ok, with all that said, I would like to use this final column to make a few
final comments (finally, ha ha) about nutrition, training and supplements.
Maybe it’s something that readers will choose to apply in the next century. Oh
yeah, for the record, 2000 is NOT the beginning of the new millennium, it’s the
end of the last one, so new millennium training won’t occur until Jan 1, 2001.
Like Mulder said in last weeks’ X-files ‘Nobody likes a math geek, Scully’ when
she made the same observation.


Since I always write about nutrition, I thought I’d talk about training first.
As mentioned above, training isn’t that complicated, at least not for 99% of
individuals who train (and will never compete in any activity, whether
bodybuilding or another sport). Yes, if you have competitive aspirations (in
bodybuilding or other sports), I think that the specifics of training become
somewhat more critical. But even then folks end up really overcomplicating
something that isn’t a terribly complicated endeavor (and again, I raise my
hand guiltily as someone who has done this too). The recent trend in sports
conditioning (which also tends to move in cycles) is that the specifics of the
program are less important than the effort you put into the program in the
first place. I read that in McCallum’s ‘Complete Keys to Progress’ which he
wrote over 30 years ago.

As I wrote above, if you read the muscle magazines over a long enough period
(and I read them basically constantly from 1988 to 1997 or so, when I finally
got sick of the whole thing), you start to see trends. Usually what you’ll see
every few years is a ‘return to basics’. That is, after trying all kinds of
goofy splits, supersets, giant sets, a million and one exercise variations
(let’s see, lying 1-arm cable curl to the forehead on a 10 degree decline to
work the upper, inner, proximal bicep through the first 3rd of the strength
curve), etc, the pros will start writing articles about how they’ve decided to
get back to the basics and train hard and heavy on the compound exercises.
Well, here’s the facts: the basics ALWAYS work. Day-in, day-out, every year.
They work. And for the grand majority of trainees (there are exceptions to
every rule of course), not only do the basics ALWAYS work, they are basically
(ha ha) all you need, at least for the first several years. Probably even
beyond that.

A good case in point: I was watching a tape of the Bulgarian lifting team that
I picked up from Ironmind. All these guys do is squat (front and back), clean
(full and power), snatch (full and power), and jerk. They had quads that most
bodybuilders would absolutely KILL for (heck, they had physiques most
bodybuilders would kill for). And when you see them high-bar squat 500+ rock
bottom with a belt, straps or a spotter, you know why. So when I read articles
about how the quads, being a big muscle group have to be attacked from various
angles with a lot of different exercises for full development, I think you can
understand why I call bullshit. It’s simply that you can’t sell a monthly
magazine if every month you tell folks ‘just do the basics and add weight’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there can be a place for other types of routines, but
working hard and heavy on the compound exercises will work for anybody and will
get you as big and strong as your genetics will allow (powerlifters sure don’t
seem to be hurting for muscle mass and most of them don’t waste a lot of time
with bodybuilding exercises for the most part). Sure, when you get big and
strong, then is the time to bring up detail areas and weak points (if appearance
is strictly your goal). But when I see a kid who can’t weigh more than 120 lbs
soaking wet doing 9 sets of cable crossovers as his chest workout, that
indicates a problem in how folks are approaching training.

With all of that said, here are my general principles for training (and I’m not
going to differentiate between training for mass and training for fat loss
because I’m of the mind that training shouldn’t change hugely while cutting).

Frequency: 2-4 times/week in the gym depending on recovery. For natural
lifters, with normal recovery capacity, I simply see no reason to be in the gym
more than that. Even Louie Simmons guys only train 4 days/week so tell me why a
natural bodybuilder needs to train 6 days/week. I also don’t like to see more
than 2 days in the gym without a day off, because it tends to screw up hormone
levels. Again, there are always exceptions, I’m talking about the great
majority of lifters out there.

Intensity: While I’m not a hardcore ‘you MUST go to failure proponent’, neither
do I think that going easy is a great way to get big (an exception might be
Poliquin’s 10X10 where you make up for the lack of intensity with a large
volume and short rest periods). Failure or a rep or two short on most work sets
is about right to me.

Volume: I think most people do far too many sets in the gym (this is a function
of inadequate intensity for the most part). I personally find anywhere from
4-8/bodypart (depending on a lot of factors that I can’t get into here) to be
about right for most natural bodybuilders. Some real hardgainers may need
towards the end of that range (I seem to do best with 3-4 sets/bodypart), guys
with good recovery can use more if it suits them. With regards to volume, I
also think workouts should be about an hour in length, although there are
always exceptions. With my partner, with all the BS’ing and making fun of other
folks in the gym, we usually take 1.5 hours from start to finish. I’ve seen
folks who started training when I got there with my partner, and *still* be in
the middle of their workout 3 hours later after I’ve trained the 1-2 clients I
still have. That’s excessive plain and simple.

Overload: While many bodybuilders may disagree with this, in general, if you’re
not getting stronger (adding weight to the bar), you’re probably not growing.
Put differently, if you’re benching 185 now and you’re still benching 185 next
year, I can almost guarantee you that your chest won’t be any bigger no matter
what else you do for it. Put even differently, it’s somewhat rare (there are
exceptions in pure strength sports where athletes commonly keep weight down
deliberately by not eating enough) to see someone who’s very strong that’s not
also very big (I refer you again to power and Olympic lifters). It’s very
common to see someone using light weights but training for the ‘feel’ or the
‘pump’ who’s not very big at all (unless they are juiced, where all the rules
go out the window). Get stronger and eat enough and you will get bigger.


Even though I have occasionally lapsed into silliness myself (I like to call it
being open-minded, ha ha), diet needn’t be complicated either. If your goal is
to gain mass, you need to ensure adequate protein and calories for growth, and
the rest of your diet will be less important (yeah, you need sufficient dietary
fat for optimal testosterone levels and carbs for glycogen
replenishment/maintaining training intensity). But in the long run I doubt
minor changes (within a reasonable range) in macronutrient percentage intake
will make a humongous difference in results.

If your goal is fat loss, you still need adequate protein, but you need to
create a slight caloric deficit (either by decreasing food intake or increasing
activity level, within reason). Carbs and fats will depend on which particular
diet philosophy you believe in and which allows you to most easily control your
caloric intake, etc (i.e. the diet must fit you psychologically at least as
much as it fits you physiologically. If you hate the taste of ketogenic diet
foods, then no matter how great or not great the diet is, you won’t follow it
in the long run).

So here are my general diet principles:

Mass gains:

Set calories: a good starting point is 10-20% above maintenance but this should
be adjusted based on body composition changes. The sad fact is that to gain
muscle at any kind of appreciable rate typically means that you have to gain
some bodyfat as well. The folks I’ve known who stay ripped year round generally
don’t get much bigger either.

Set protein: 1 g/lb or thereabouts

Set fat intake: I like to see 15-25% of total calories as fat or so, mostly
from unsaturated sources.

Set carbs: the rest. If you believe in the glycemic index concept, stick with
lower GI foods most of the day but higher around training.

Eat 4-6 meals/day (women, with lower caloric intakes may have trouble eating
6X/day as each meal ends up so small).

Make sure and have a carb/protein drink right after training for

For fat loss:

Set calories: a good starting point is 10-20% below maintenance but this should
be adjusted based on body composition changes. Ideal is 1-1.5 lbs fat
loss/week. Of course, this depends on starting bodyfat. You’ll lose more fat if
you start out fatter, and have to slow fat loss as you get leaner to prevent
muscle loss.

Set protein: 1 g/lb.

Set fat intake: again, 15-25% of total calories or so, as this tends to be
satiating and help decrease hunger. Obviously if you’re using a Zone/Isocaloric
or keto approach, fat intake will be higher.

Set carbs intake: the rest (depending of course, on fat intake).

Eat 4-6 meals/day (women, with lower caloric intakes may have trouble eating
6X/day as each meal ends up so small)

So those are basic dieting templates. Yes, there will be some variety. If you
are just absolutely sure that you gain better with 1.5 g/lb of protein (but
make sure you are eating enough calories from carbs and fats, and that the
excess protein isn’t just being used as an energy source, before you draw that
conclusion), fine.


To make this article complete, I have to say a few words about supplements.
Contrary to what many may think, I am not staunchly anti-supplement. However, I
am staunchly anti-worrying about supplements before you get your diet and
training in order. Let’s face it, all the creatine or andro-poppers in the
world won’t make you gain muscle if you’re training 7 days/week for 2 hours/day
and only eating 1500 calories/day (at a bodyweight of 160 lbs).

In this vein, I’d like to repeat something I wrote on a
month or two ago: “If you are not growing from your current diet and
training program, no supplement will change that. If you are growing from your
current diet and training program, supplements will only add a small amount to

The problem, as I see it, is that many trainees focus on the supplement end of
things before they even figure out how to train or eat (this type of attitude
is promoted by the major muscle magazines who tend to promulgate the idea that
supplements are a REQUIRED aspect of bodybuilding). I did it years ago, too, so
I can understand how it goes. But I’ve made some of my best gains (at one point
this year, 12 lbs of muscle in 6 months, although that came with 12 lbs of fat)
just focusing on basic training and lots (in hindsight, too much) good food.

Personally, I use a protein powder (for convenience only because I get tired of
eating whole food), a multivitamin (generic grocery store brand) and extra
Vitamin-C when I’m massing. I’ll use ECA and yohimbe when I’m dieting. THAT’S
IT. Up until about 2 years ago, I probably tried just about everything out
there at least once. Nothing ever worked as well as hard training, progressive
overload and eating enough calories for mass gains.

So I guess the bottom line in my mind is this: If you have found out, training
and diet wise, what you need to grow, and you want to experiment with
supplements to see if you can measurably increase the rate or magnitude of
those gains, go for it. But if you’re still struggling with how to train
correctly, or your diet sucks, supplements are simply a waste of money that
will have zero benefit.

In conclusion

Ok, I guess that’s it. I’ve managed to wrap up everything I know (both things)
from 10+ years of being in this field in a single article. Kind of depressing
when you think about it but, for the time being, I really have little else to
write that would be new or interesting.

If you’re questioning the above comments, here’s my challenge. I’ll assume that
you are trying to gain mass for this challenge. For the first 3 months of the
year, I want you to set up a basic training program according to the
suggestions I made above. Keep the workouts short and intense, focus on basic
exercises, keep the set totals reasonable (and don’t forget about overlap, if
you’ve done 8 sets of bench pressing movements, your triceps have gotten
hammered and don’t need a lot of work by themselves). And eat enough. Find the
caloric intake that causes a slight (maybe 1-2 millimeter) increase in
skinfolds (pick a representative site, for me it’s abs) over a 2 week span. Now
hammer away at that program for 3 months, trying to add weight whenever you can
(assuming you maintain good form). See how much mass you gain and compare it to
the previous 3 months. Because for me to get email from folks saying they’ve
only gained 3 lbs in 2 years tells me something is severely wrong (unless you
are at your absolute genetic limits).

And that’s the news and I….am…..outta……here.

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