Levels of Development in Natural Bodybuilding
By Pro Natural Bodybuilder Alberto Nunez
I first took to lifting 10 years ago with intentions of changing the way my body looked. I was 16 years old, and like any other teenager who wanted to standout I saw lifting weights as my ticket out of mediocrity. When I compare that year (my first year of training) to my tenth year of training, so much has changed. While I have a accumulated a vast collection of knowledge, some of it is obsolete in my current situation. This is something that any bodybuilder who has done this long enough will agree with, it’s a simple concept really. What worked for you as a beginner isn’t optimal anymore. Initially progress is made on a weekly basis, even workout to workout in some stretches, and it was just a matter of training with good effort and focus. Gains were almost so easy that I can’t say I was a fulltime bodybuilder until my second year. Meaning I had no reason, or rather felt no reason, to even manipulate my nutrition, supplementation, or plan anything in advance. Making progress relied purely on working hard, and training motivated me. Fast forward to today, that is not so much the case anymore. As my quest for continued improvements perpetuates, it doesn’t simply come by working harder than the last time, no matter how motivated I am. I rely tremendously on my nutrition, and without it I can’t even begin to talk about making progress. My training is not spontaneous or by feel as much as it used to be, and training philosophies that were once nonnegotiable are now outdated and even counterproductive in my current situation. It’s very key that we learn to differentiate ourselves today from the bodybuilder of yesteryear, as this is essentially the way to make long term progress. It is also important to decipher at what stage you currently find yourself in, and to know what to expect out of each phase. It’s much easier to get work done with a glove that actually fits.
-The 140lb version of myself, besides the boxing gloves, you could certainly tag me a beginner in this phase.
In order to make it much easier, we will brand these phases beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
As a beginner you can grow and improve at an astonishing rate. Especially in younger individuals, but for the most part pound for pound this is where you will see the majority of your gains. As a beginner you are focusing on progressive gluttony for the lack of a better term, you can gain muscle and strength at a rate that will never be duplicated again. I won’t go too much into detail as to what are key points in order to progress, since not too many beginners are out there looking for what is optimal at this phase. However some key points for the beginners are the following:
-You can double or even triple your strength within the first few months, making an effort to add weight and reps to exercises is priority number one. Progress is pretty darn linear during this phase, and this is because you are very far from your genetic ceiling.
-It’s the one time you are really focusing on making the scale move; in some cases 20-30 pounds of LBM are achievable in one year’s time. Your friends and family that go a few months without seeing you will be amazed at how much you have changed overnight.
-Taken about 5 months after the picture above
-Focus should primarily be based on getting in 3 or so training sessions a week. More would not hurt, but it won’t really make you any better. In many cases full body splits are a good way to get the ball rolling, since you aren’t really able to dig a big hole in your recovery at this point.
-Good pre and post workout nutrition are essential to you making leaps and bounds. Protein should be at about 0.2-0.25g/lb of bodyweight, and carbohydrates at about 0.5g/lb of bodyweight for both pre and post workout.
- Motivation is the biggest key here, not so much any fancy protocols, or overcomplicated routines. This phase of training and physique development is where most of the sandbaggers get weeded out. Those who are motivated to improve will find this phase to be a thrill and most likely catch the bug. Learning to be self motivated is a good habit to build during this phase.
-By the time you leave this phase you will have a good idea as to what your genetic potential is, and what your strengths and weaknesses will be. Will you be a mass monster, are you going to be a quadzilla? While you can’t control this, and mentioning this seems to be of no help, it is very important that you are aware of your potential. Not just for the sake of being realistic in your expectations, but also so you learn to milk your strong points, and not try to be something you are not. For example, knowing your limits will prevent you from trying to forcibly bulk to weights over 230 pounds when you are simply not made to be on stage any heavier than 165. Ahem….
-After the beginner phase the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head, I had to learn the hard way. Myself at 230 lbs about two years after the last photo.
At age 17 Natural Pro Jeff Alberts had pythons (and a mullet) that would make most grown men envious.
The Intermediate phase is where it begins to get a bit trickier, and most likely the last time you will ever make gains on a yearly basis that affect the scale. I am not just talking about gaining weight, but actual true LBM. Progress in the weight room will slow down tremendously compared to your first phase. To the point where perhaps you have to be a bit more strategic about the outlining of your training. Compared to your beginner phase, your recovery is actually very important now. A leg day being so taxing that it can actually affect an upper body workout is not out of the ordinary. While the law of diminishing returns really starts to rear its ugly head here, surely there are a few important factors you need to take into account in order to eventually break into the next phase. While the beginner phase pretty much shoots you out, if you are not careful you can actually spend more time in this phase than you would like and some never get out. I will be so brave to say that many very well developed and in some cases very successful (usually genetically elite) bodybuilders spend most of their careers in the later portion of this phase. Genetics play such a big part in this sport that the genetic elite can compete at the top level while still being at the intermediate stage, but that is another story for another article. Key components to minimizing your time as an intermediate are the following:
-Eric Helms going from beginner to high level intermediate right before our eyes.
-As previously mentioned recovery is paramount in this phase. You’re able to beat yourself into next week (literally) to the point where it’s probably best to have a few extra days of rest between body parts. This is why you will notice that many bodybuilders actually start feeling at home with setups that allow them to hit body parts once per week. You can’t just attack the same body parts with reckless abandon just days apart like you did during your beginner phase. You will not continue to outperform your previous best without focusing on getting adequate recovery.
-It’s important that you become familiar with your own recovery abilities, as to how many sets and total reps you can possibly get away with each workout. This will differ greatly from individual to individual.
-In many cases putting a cap on sets, and total reps per workout, so that you can hit body parts every 4th to 5th day might be necessary to really accelerate gains. Meaning instead of having 20 working sets, and about 120 reps, perhaps splitting that into two weekly bouts with half the sets and total reps. Not only does this make sense as far as being able to lift with enough concentration and energy, but from a physiological standpoint as well.
-During this phase I would rather the athlete no longer look at the scale as the primary source of progress. But instead, pay attention to the progress made in the weight room (primarily on big compound movements) since you will likely be gaining very little compared to the honeymoon phase. However, making sure you gain weight over the course of a few weeks is a good way to make sure you are eating enough to support new growth. Something like 1-2lbs per month is a good way to ensure you are eating at a surplus more often than not and allow you to avoid getting too fat.
-Where eating enough was the biggest concern during the beginner phase, making sure you are eating right is one of the biggest factors as an intermediate. Eating an ideal amount of kcals for your body type, as well as the right macronutrient intake are the important factors now. If there is a level to perhaps be a bit more precise with your nutrition, this is the level. With recovery being so important, it’s time to really buckle down on the finer details. Just as you need a plan in the gym, you need once outside the gym as well.
-Linear progression is pretty much a done deal, and a non linear approach is best at this phase in terms of training. You will notice this during the later phases of being an intermediate, and you may find that investing in taking one step back for the sake of taking two steps forward works quite well.
-Zakary Walizadeh is a great example of what a physique at the intermediate level looks like.
The last stop is the advanced phase, which usually takes a few years to actually reach. It’s not that it’s a rarity to see an athlete get to the advanced stage, it’s just very rare that you ever see an athlete make substantial gains here. Firstly I would like to add that nobody ever reaches their full genetic potential, however some athletes get much closer than others. The biggest keys here are precision, motivation, and staying healthy. This is certainly the one case where nutrition and training protocols really have to fit like a glove. Motivation to improve has to be present, simply because at this point the athlete has been doing this for a while. If the passion is not there to improve, and training brings little excitement, it’s going to be very hard to make gains. As previously mentioned, an advanced bodybuilder has likely been training for a while by now and the individual has surely accumulated their fair share of bumps and bruises (it just goes with the territory when you get off the couch) over the years. This phase is no different than the other phases in that progressive overload (adding weight to the bar) is going to dictate how much progress you make. During this time it doesn’t just get heavier, its gets trickier. I find that those athletes who venture deep into this phase are not just optimists, but realists. In a nutshell that is probably the best advice I can give to an advanced athlete looking to continually improve.
-Progressive overload, even if not coming as quickly as before is still your ticket to improving. Think back to when you were a beginner and how as you spurted up in strength, development followed. The same still exists as an advanced trainee, it just occurs at a much slower rate. Muscles were meant to move things long before we made them popular to look at. If a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, then if you get stronger your muscle gets....you guessed it!
-Dr. Layne Norton is prime example of an athlete that has combined all the factors needed to venture deep in the advanced phase.
-No butts about it, your training will really have to be plotted out. As an advanced athlete you can shell out performances that leave you unable to perform at full capacity for weeks sometimes.
Usain Bolt makes it look easy, but still gets PRs
-At this point for most it’s no longer better to focus on making the scale move at all. It’s best to find a weight and body composition where you are able to perform at the level required, and maintain that.
-At the same time, for the competitive advanced bodybuilder it’s best to perhaps not get too far out of contest shape. Often it’s a matter of how much muscle you lose, and it’s much easier to lose when you are a bodybuilder that is close to their genetic ceiling, especially when dieting for long periods of time. One of the best pieces of advice I can give a more advanced bodybuilder is to stay within 10-20 pounds of your contest weight.
-Of all phases, this is probably the one phase where having a workout partner that is of your same level will help you make strides. A big key here is to utilize the motivation from another athlete who also has advanced development.
Kurt Weidner and Brian Whitacre trained together from 2004 to 2006, during this time Brian earned 4 different pro cards.
-Lastly this phase requires the most planning and arguably the most dedication, but you get the least in return for your hard work compared to the first phases. Patience is very important as the following table on growth potential shows. Trust me when I tell you that it only gets slower at the 10 year mark.
Years or Proper Training
Potential Rate Growth Per Year
20-25 pounds (2lb per month)
10-12 pounds (1lb per month)
5-6 pounds (0.5lb per month)
2-3 pounds (not worth counting)
-Courtesy of http://www.bodyrecomposition.comI think once you take into account what phase you are in as a natural bodybuilder, the better you will be able to milk your current situation for all it’s worth. All fancy protocols aside, what I have seen time after time to be the most common attribute in athletes that are at the top of the game (aside from genetics, but that is for another article all together) is their enjoyment of what they do. They love hitting the iron just as much as they day they were bit by the bug. These athletes are also the most open to trying new things and have less emotional reasoning for doing something. They tend to be the most open when it comes to hearing what others have to say and they never stop learning. At the base of all that, they are just as hungry as ever and train with ravenous ambition. Train hard, train smart, and never stop loving it.