The 10 Old-School Commandments For Building Muscle - Gymtalk

The 10 Old-School Commandments For Building Muscle

Living through the modern era can be a blessing and a curse.

While we are fortunate enough to have fingertip access to an almost infinite database of information – be it scientific research, music, film, or videos of Japanese women ejecting eels from their colons – we are constantly forced to wade through a swamp of misinformation, claptrap and idiocy.

The same goes for bodybuilding – every day we are encumbered with advice and blather about how we should be training, dieting and pursuing our goals.

Well, listen up.

It’s time to leave behind the fashionable babble, that nauseating hogwash which sweeps across social media every day, and get back to some old-school basics.

Case in point: does Rocky defeat Soviet hardman Ivan Drago with the help of his talking robot, high-tech training equipment and a team of nutrition advisers?

No, he chops logs, pulls a sleigh and runs up a fucking mountain.

Now while I’m not suggesting anyone move to a snow-swamped hut in the arse-end of Russia, I am advocating a no-frills, old-school, and ultimately more efficient approach to building muscle (let’s just ignore for a second the amount of chemicals swimming through Sly’s veins – by now his ejaculations must resemble a leaking witch’s cauldron).

We’re talking taxing full-body routines, lashings of rest and mountains of wholesome food over split routines, isolation exercises and designer supplements and chemicals.

The ‘Golden Era’ greats – Grimek, Park, Reeves – knew how to pile on slabs of natural muscle.

old school bodybuilders

So if, like us, you want to follow in their legendary footsteps and eschew all modern mumbo jumbo, here are Gymtalk’s ten old-school commandments for building muscle.

Have a read, follow the advice, and, above all, keep these secrets under lock and key for future generations, safe from the inevitable Chinese military invasion which will outlaw the internet and seek to eliminate all independent thought.

1) Eat like a medieval king

This is without doubt the most important commandment for building muscle.

If you ignore this point but follow everything else to the letter, you will still end up looking like a sickly weakling who’s been possessed by the villain from Ghostbusters.

It doesn’t matter how frequently you train, how much you lift, how much knowledge you gain, if you’re not consistently overloading your body with fuel you ain’t putting on muscle.

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And while the idea of lean bulking is a nice one, don’t get hung up on maintaining super low body fat while building muscle either, as this is going to impede progress dramatically.

Sure, you may reach your physique goal eventually, but by the time you do you’ll be so old and past it that the only way you’re going to get laid is with a van and a cattle prod.

Meanwhile your mate who read this article will be pulling in more women than a Viking landing party fitted with bionic cocks.

So shovel down as much food as you can and treat every meal like an all-you-can-eat tournament where the booby prize is being trapped in a tiny room while Ed Miliband recites the lyrics of Bono on a constant loop.

However, don’t take this commandment as a green light to eat anything and everything.

When it comes to bodybuilding fuel, keep it natural and keep it old fashioned.

We’re talking red meat, fish, fresh fruit and veg, whole milk, whole eggs, nuts, olive oil.

If it comes in a packet or tin, bin it off; if it’s something your grandparents would have eaten, get it down.

2) Perform full body workouts with compound exercises

Fact: every pre-steroid era bodybuilder of note built their physique using full body workouts.

Split routines only became fashionable with the advent of steroids as drug use complemented high-volume isolation work.

The Weider media empire latched onto this new protocol and subsequently marketed split routines as a pioneering, ‘scientifically proven’ method for building muscle to drive up magazine sales.

And, unfortunately, these workout splits have remained in vogue ever since, being the protocol of choice for the vast majority of muscle rags and the hordes of sequacious internet gurus and personal trainers.

But, ask yourself, why train like you’re on drugs if you’re not?

Of course the pros and fake natties can train for hours every day and isolate muscles with a seven day split – they have chemicals and god-knows-what pumping through their veins.

As advocated by the pre-steroid greats, full body workouts built around compound movements (squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press), at the expense of single joint exercises, are the most efficient way to build muscle and gain strength.

steve reeves

If you are new to the concept of full body workouts and their benefits, check out the following:

3) Get strong

One of Reg Park’s principle philosophies for bodybuilding was: “If you want to get bigger then you need to get stronger”.

In their quest to put on size, too many lifters today focus on hypertrophy, time under tension, or some other bollocky buzzword at the expense of strength training.

And while consistently blasting your biceps and triceps in this manner will no doubt yield initial gains and “skinny muscle”, it’s not going to drastically alter your body composition in the long term.

Sure, you may turn a few heads when stripping down for the Baywatch theme at Wonderworld on a Thursday night, but in a t-shirt and jeans you’re not going to stand out from the crowd.

For that you need to forget all that “hitting the muscle from all angles” bullshit, get off your arse, and shift some serious fucking weight.

old school bodybuilders

The old-school bodybuilders, many of whom actually competed as world class weightlifters, programmed their routines exclusively around getting stronger.

The reasoning is simple: performing compound movements with heavy weight recruits more muscle fibers and stimulates increased growth.

The only difference between pure strength training and bodybuilding, according to Park, is that it is vital for bodybuilders to increase caloric intake to predicate enhanced muscle growth.

4) Rest like a baby

Remember: your body grows when it rests not when it trains.

So if you’re not on gear, ensure that you are treating your body to lashings of rest and recovery, otherwise all that hard work in the gym won’t amount to anything.

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You’ll just be shoveling shit against the tide.

Ideally you should be getting between 8-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night and putting your feet up as much as possible on days off.

And by all means miss the occasional workout for a mate’s birthday, a family do, an all day bender, whatever floats your boat.

As long as you’re not taking the piss, the occasional day off, even a week every few months, is going to leave you feeling motivated and replenished when you next set foot in the gym.

5) Perfect your form

I cannot stress enough how important form is when lifting heavy weights.

Excellent form is the difference between packing on lumps of muscle or ending up on a stretcher with a spine like a pretzel that Michael Flatley has riverdanced all over.

Put the time and effort into improving your form; read articles and books, watch videos, get a mate to film you and watch it back, consult a professional strength coach.

Do everything it takes – your body will thank you for it in 30 years time!

I’m not going to go into details here, but one of the essential rules when performing any heavy lift is to ensure that your spine maintains a neutral position, not arched or hyperextended.

The majority of lifting injuries I have encountered arise from a failure to fix this primary issue, so this is good place to start when assessing your form.

6) Train for overall wellness

Back in the golden era, bodybuilders prized overall wellbeing just as much as building muscle.

For these guys strength and health went hand in hand; improving health and wellbeing was a fundamental goal of their training.

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John Grimek, for example, was nicknamed ‘Glow’ for his impeccable skin tone and vitality.

These days, however, wellness is often divorced from bodybuilding and strength training, and having a nickname such as ‘Glow’ merely indicates you enjoy the films of Judy Garland and can appreciate the intrinsic grace and beauty of a hairy ballsack.

Putting aside the obvious elephant in the room, there is annoying trend right now for slogans such as “Rest day is for wimps”, “There’s no such thing as over-training”, “If it’s hurting it’s working”.

This is patently ridiculous – if not dangerous – advice, straight out of the pages of The Tosser’s Almanac: Volume I.

Follow this ludicrous mantra and you’ll either train your body into the ground or ego lift yourself onto a stretcher.

Look after your body and listen to what it’s telling you.

If a warm up set is leaving you strained and fatigued, don’t keep adding weight to the bar because the girl at the squat rack keeps glancing over.

She thinks you’re a first class cunt, just like everyone else.

Stay healthy and you’ll stay eager and strong, attacking each workout with the enthusiasm of an African tribesman who’s stumbled across the Vatican’s porn collection… or a running tap.

7) Progressive overload

To make size and strength gains from a weightlifting programme you need to be adding weight to the bar as often as possible (progressive overload).

When you’re just starting out, don’t be overawed by the sweaty Scottish maniac who deadlifts the equivalent of a baby elephant and contorts his face like Susan Boyle’s armpit (true story).

It’s not about how much you can lift when you start out, it’s about progressing every session, whether that’s adding weight to the bar on weight on the scales.

For all you know, that Scottish guy started his journey by lifting lighter weight than you.

Although I very much doubt it – I have a theory he was raised in a cave by genetically altered wolves and could caber toss tree trunks while other kids were still learning to tie their shoelaces.

Reg Park was a firm believer in the notion that progression should be gradual and take place over a long period of time.

For him, consistently ramping up the weight and always training to failure was a surefire way to lose confidence and enjoyment in your workouts.

If you’re consistently hitting the gym but have stopped making progress, try increasing your caloric intake, or, failing that, take some time off or incorporate a ‘deload week’ where you drop the weight by 50%.

8) Be consistent

As Lee mentioned in his last article, being consistent with your training trumps everything else.

While many lifters nail certain elements of their regimen, failing to be consistent in every area, be it exercise selection, diet, sleep, will leave precious gains on the table.

An old gym buddy of mine used to say that you’ll grow more muscle in one consistent month of training than six months of sloppy training.

Consistency is why the guy that comes in and deadlifts 275kg once a week still has a body like a dropped burrito, while the guy who huffs and puffs his way through a piss poor Men’s Health split but never misses a session, a rep, or a meal is making gains (albeit marginally).

thankfully perseverance is a good substitute for talent - steve martin

It’s also important to be consistent with your training routine.

Don’t fall for the rubbish that you need to constantly be shocking your body with new exercises, new rep ranges, etc.

If a programme works for you, stick with it, at the very least for a whole cycle, if not years.

Don’t hop from routine to routine like a kangaroo with ADHD.

And if a routine is not working for you, 9 times out of 10 the issue lies elsewhere (diet, rest, etc).

The last thing you meddle with should be your gym routine – provided it’s not complete balderdash, of course.

9) Supplement, do not substitute

We are currently living through a supplement boom.

There are pills, potions and powders everywhere you look, promising everything from lean muscle and six pack abs to superhuman energy and overnight weight loss.

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Ultimately, the cretins that hoover this stuff up are the kind of people that made Coldplay the “biggest rock band in the world” and Hitler’s rise to power so easy.

Forget the testosterone boosters, all that Herbalife/Juice Plus crap, forget that “atomic preworkout” that looks like it was scraped off the floor after a bukkake party involving R2D2 and Mr Blobby.

No supplement can make up for hard work and a disciplined diet.

Indeed, the number one rule regarding supplements is that they should be used to supplement your food intake and not replace it.

For example, so many lifters get hung up on not missing a protein shake during the anabolic window, but for the rest of the day they will freely miss meals and eat crap.

Nail the basics first and then you can start introducing supplements.

At most I’d recommend a decent multivitamin, some omega-3s and a whey protein shake to help you hit your daily protein target when a cooked meal isn’t convenient.

10) Record progress

Whatever your goal in the gym, keeping track of progress is a must if you want to be successful.

Not only will this keep you on track but, looking back, these doodles will help you assess what is working and what isn’t, thus allowing you to make pertinent tweaks to your regimen.

Make a note of the weight you lift, how many sets and reps you do, how much rest you take, your daily macros, your bodyweight, the address of the guy who curls in the squat rack (along with printed instructions of how to manufacture a nail bomb) – whatever data aligns with your goals.

Get it all down!

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Signing off

So there we have it, ten lessons from the golden era of bodybuilding, a time when things were simpler (and better).

Start implementing these tips and you’ll build vast mounds of muscle, dwarfing your compatriots like a whale amongst goldfish.

Are you a disciple of the old-school philosophies?

Agree/disagree with any of these points?

Any other commandments that you’d like to share?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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  1. Great article!

    Totally agree with all that you are saying and it obviously worked for the bodybuilders of days gone by.

    The humour is the icing on the cake to be honest and ensures I won’t forget these rules.

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks Mark – and good luck with your training!

      Let me know if you have any questions at all.

  2. Hi Henry.

    What a great article, I love the way you’ve phrased these tips.

    It’s totally 100% best advice, but made even better by your way of putting it together.

    Nice touch, with Mr. Bean as well,

    Thanks

    Rolandas

    1. Hi Rolandas

      Thanks for your kind words – much appreciated!

  3. I LOVED this list.

    By far some of the best words of wisdom for people who are go to the gym.

    The humour in your article is also something that keeps the reader very captivated.

    Great GREAT article, thanks!

  4. Great article!

    I also have taken part in many marathons and am a fan of running – and also love bodybuilding.

    I found your article very relevant, thanks.

  5. Not sure about doing Full Body Workouts for bodybuilding.

    I train clean and do a 3 day split using isolation exercises and do great with that.

    Is that what you mean?

    Are you a bodybuilder? Have you competed?

    I’d like to see your physique.

    What kinds of gains are you making training in this fashion?

    Or is this just something you’ve researched?

    1. Hi goodfella, thanks for reading and commenting.

      Firstly, yes, I am absolutely suggesting you trade in your 3 day split based around isolation exercises for a full-body routine, for every reason I have listed above!

      If you take all of these commandments on board, I’ll wager you’ll be so impressed at the gains that you’ll never touch an isolation exercise or split routine again.

      Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

      As for me, I am not a bodybuilder, nor have I ever competed.

      I have been training for fun over the last decade – and it’s only after switching to full body routines in the last few years that I have made considerable gains in size and, especially, strength.

      I just wish I had known about this training protocol earlier – and not swallowed all that guff printed in “Men’s Health” and “Muscle and Fitness” magazine.

  6. This article definitely hits on the main aspects of bodybuilding.

    I follow most of these and have seen great results over the years, whether they be actual strength gains or improved health.

    My main question to you is about training for overall wellness.

    Right now I have a torn MCL, a bad lower back, and a bit of a neck pain.

    I want to train for wellness, but don’t know if my situation should stop me from going to the gym for the time being.

    I could definitely do exercises that won’t harm me, but I’m thinking that all these injuries are my body’s way of telling me that I should take a break.

    Juan Amaya

    Tulane

    1. Hi Juan, thanks for your comment.

      You’re right – ALWAYS listen to what your body is telling you, and never train if something is hurting.

      Lots of rest and recovery is what’s required, buddy.

      I know it can be frustrating – I’ve been there – but your body will thank you for it in the long run.

    2. Since you have catches in your movements, I highly suggest stretches for hours at a time, instead of lifting for a while.

      You would be amazed at what good can come from stretching by using a stretch jungle gym, or a wall and your finger tips and toes catching on something for resistance.

  7. Absolutely brilliant article, had me in stitches.

    Only just started training with free weights, mainly to build strength.

    So, I believe these tips will be very useful for me in the medium to long term.

    Well done Henry!

    1. Hi Charles, thanks for stopping by.

      Appreciate the kind words – and good luck with your training!

      If you ever need any advice, email us any time or hit us up on Twitter 🙂

  8. Nice post Henry.

    I think to build muscles you have to do both compound and isolation exercises and at the same time take your protein supplements because protein is an essential nutrient required to build muscles.

    1. Hi Rohit.

      I haven’t included isolation exercises in any routine for 5 years now and muscle/strength gains have been better than ever.

      Other than that, agree with your comments.

  9. Hello Henry!

    I do this routine currently:

    (Performed Mon/Wed/Fri)

    Squats – 2 sets – 15 rep goal
    Bench Press – 2 sets – 15 rep goal
    Barbell Rows – 2 sets – 15 rep goal *
    Military Press – 2 sets – 15 rep goal
    Dumbbell Curls – 2 sets – 15 rep goal

    *On Friday I switch rows for deadlifts – 2 sets – 10 rep goal

    If you aren’t familiar with rep goals, you do as many clean reps as you can each set, stopping before failure.

    If you meet the rep goal for your sets you increase weight.

    For example, I might get 9 reps the first set, and 5 the second.

    This is 14 reps, 1 rep shy of the 15 rep goal, so I use the same weight next time.

    Next time I get 10 reps the first set, and 6 the second.

    This is 16 reps, so I increase the weight next time.

    This method means you maximize every set.

    My questions:

    Is my exercise selection good?

    I know you say no isolation exercises, but surely the old school guys did some curls?

    Would I be better off doing chinups for my biceps, which would also give me a 1:1 push to pull ratio?

    Thanks a lot for the great info and humor!

    1. Hi Ben.

      A decent routine with a heck of lot of volume there.

      I count 150 reps per session – the DOMS must be pretty extreme haha!

      I should think you’ve seen some impressive size gains by hitting this routine consistently?

      However, while I rate volume work for the occasional shock to the system to accelerate muscle growth (such as GVT 10×10), I would always favour a long-term, structured routine built around strength work, such as 5×5 and 5/3/1, for the reasons listed under point three, ‘Get Strong’, above.

      Absolutely nothing transforms the body quite like heavy squats and deadlifts.

      A routine such as the one you have posted above would certainly stimulate growth initially – but, from personal experience here, the body will quickly adapt to the stress of high volume.

      So my advice would be to move to a more progressive, strength-orientated programme (similar exercise selection but with deadlifts) and, by all means, add in some volume-orientated isolation work as well (curls for the girls).

      Hope that’s of use – let me know if you have any more questions!

      Henry

      1. I agree that would be a hell of a lot of volume, but the 15 rep goal is over the 2 sets.

        I push for as many clean reps as possible on both sets and if the total amount of reps for both sets is 15 I increase weight.

        So it’s 75 reps per session not 150.

        On the third day I switch rows for deadlifts.

        I’m going to start doing chinups instead of curls because I feel I have a shoulder imbalance and could do with the extra pulling movement.

        1. Regardless, I would still recommend a strength-focused routine for consistent, long-term results.

          Movements such as deadlift are way more effective in the low-rep range – plus high-rep deadlifts are often synonymous with poor form, which will leave you open to injury.

          But, hey, this is just my opinion, the goal is to find what protocol works best for you.

  10. Great article Henry.

    You hit some very good points and your humor makes reading very enjoyable!

  11. Great article!

    Straightforward, simple, brilliant.

    Thank you!

    Chris Martin… Hitler… heehee…

  12. It may be a given to some, but there are 2 valuable as fuck rules that have been omitted!

    11. Hydration is vital!

    You want to keep that bar moving make sure you are hydrated, keep a bottle of water to hand at all times.

    The shake can come when you are done!

    Water will stop you from being dehydrated NOW!

    12. Make sure you have a plan to maintain movement and a supple body!

    Keeping a solid core lifting routine is awesome and you will be able to fuck batman (or join him… your call really) should you wish to do so, but it’s for shit if you lose too much maneuverability.

    Yoga, calisthenics, stretching!

    Do what you gotta do to stop suffering from limited movement.

    As a side note…

    That pressure in your lower back may have fuck all to do with shit muscles and shit posture.

    You keep rocking out heavy squats and don’t stretch those quads out it *will* pull the pelvis forward and create a heap of shit you don’t need, pain, cramping and worse case lumbar lordosis.

    Yeah, I think that’s everything…

    Love this site btw! XD

    1. Thanks Nathan.

      Can’t say I’ve ever fancied jumping into bed with Batman haha.

      Catwoman (I’m thinking Anne Hathaway) on the other hand…

  13. Recording progress is a big thing.

    I record reps, sets and rest period between every set in seconds.

    Even if I go up 1 pound for one set while keeping rest period the same, I consider that a personal best.

    I have been training for 11 years.

    If you strive to hit those PB’s as as much as you can, the muscle mass will follow.

    1. Hi Ben.

      Definitely concur – so many people fail to record progress.

      Fail to plan, plan to fail, as the old adage goes…

  14. When you say split routines, are you referring to splits such as one muscle group per day (chest/back/shoulders/arms/legs) or are you referring to splits such as push/pull/legs and chest-back/arms/legs?

    You have good intentions and have shared valuable bodybuilding fundamentals in your article.

    But at the of the day, it’s all about what works best for the individual in terms of preference, enjoyment, progression and results.

    Whether you train on a 3 day split doing full body routines or a 6 day split doing a P/P/L or Arnold split, you should be practicing consistency and progressive overload with compound exercises (combined with isolation exercises) just like you stated in your article.

    1. Hi Justin, thanks for commenting.

      By split routines, I chiefly mean the approach of training chest one day, shoulders one day, arms one day, etc.

      This is nowhere near as effective as full-body training, for the simple reason that training a major lift such as squats only once a week is far less productive than training it several times per week.

      Although I agree with your sentiments that enjoyment, consistency and progressive overload should be key factors, I completely disagree that split training can be more beneficial for the natural lifter.

  15. I was actually surprised that pretty much the whole list made sense.

    Great job!

    1. Of course it makes sense – the old ways are the best!

  16. What, no example weekly routine?

    Would help us a lot if you included that.

  17. I enjoyed reading your article.

    You present great advice here for bodybuilders young and old.

    Well presented and well written.

    You could clean up your language avoiding the off color and taking the Lords name in vain.

    Just my opinion.

    All the best.

    1. Thanks for reading Mike, appreciated.

      As it goes, two fucks, two shits and a cunt is fairly mild for a Gymtalk article.

  18. Hey man, great article.

    I’ve been going nuts during my off-week (I take one every ~10 weeks to let my CNS/body recover) trying to think of something new to do after spending 4 years trying out a few different 5×5 programs (most recently Greyskull Phraks Variant).

    You’re damn right about the amount of garbage info out there – it drives me nuts trying to Google for a good 3 day program, and I was almost to the point of doing a 3 day upper/lower split, but I kept looking at the routines and the lack of consistent squat and DL work and didn’t like what I saw.

    Anyways, I think I might just continue with what I was doing (Greyskull Phraks variant) and switch up the assistance I was doing to make things a little more interesting.

    Thanks for putting this out there, and to make sure I hit the quota for fun words: piss fuck cunt ass cumbubbles pissflap-palooza.