The 12-Point Bodybuilding Checklist

by Stuart McRobert

How to Know If You’re Sabotaging Yourself

To gain serious size, stop standing in your own way. Take this bodybuilding test to see if you’re on the right path.


The Ultimate Bodybuilding Checklist

Can you check everything off this list? Think of it like an assessment. It’ll help you whether you’re drug-free and genetically typical or drug-enhanced and genetically gifted. You don’t even have to be a competitor, just a lifter who wants to gain muscle.

You may think these questions are basic, but if you’re getting the basics wrong, that’s most likely the cause of your stagnation. Use these questions to identify the roadblocks that are wrecking your bodybuilding progress, then take corrective action.

1. Do You Use Exercises That Work Well For You?

Do you persist with the barbell press when a seated high-incline pressing machine (that mimics a dumbbell press) may be safer and provide more involvement of your side delts? Or how about the conventional barbell squat when you may be better off with the safety-bar squat, the trap bar squat, a good squat machine, the belt-squat apparatus, or even a good leg press machine?

We could go on with common exercises that people continue doing even when there are alternatives that’d give them better results. So are you continuing to do what’s trendy or what actually works to build your body?

If You’re Not…

Start picking the exercises that challenge your muscles without taxing your joints. Stop feeling pressured to do what’s trendy instead of what you know works best for your goals and body.

2. Do You Use Good Form?

As a bodybuilder, your aim is to train your muscles, not move the heaviest weights possible. Lower the resistance under control and lift it under control – no dropping, bouncing, yanking, heaving, throwing, or jerking. Do you catch yourself doing those things? Are you using so much weight that you can’t pause for a dead stop at the bottom and top of every rep of every exercise, or use as full a range of motion as is safe for you?

Good form also includes the correct set-up position for each exercise – be it grip, stance, seat positioning, or other matters – and the correct bar pathways during the reps. Become an expert on lifting technique!

If You’re Not…

Start now. Make changes so that from now on, you always use good form. A pause of just one second for each dead stop makes a world of difference to improving your form and the stimulation your muscles receive, provided you also train hard enough. The pausing will probably require you to reduce your poundages initially, but they’ll recover as you adapt and build muscle.

For exercises where you shouldn’t (for safety) perform as full a range of motion as is physically possible – including free weight dips, presses, and squats – the brief pause at the bottom of each rep must be done with particular care. Use a depth barrier for certain exercises like the bench press. Set the pins in a rack at your safe bottom position, let the barrier take the load for a count of “one thousand and one” at the bottom of each rep, and then drive the bar up immediately.

3. Do You Train Hard?

Most bodybuilders don’t train hard enough. A few overdo training intensity, but they’re very rare. Most bodybuilders need to up their effort! So are you actually going hard enough that your training is uncomfortable?

If Not…

If your training is comfortable, you’re not training hard enough. In all your work sets, perform every rep you can grind out in good form. If you quit on the discomfort, you’ll also quit on stimulating muscle growth.

The exception is when you’re starting a new training program and/or introducing a new exercise or employing one you haven’t used for a while. Then, take it easy for a few workouts as you gradually build up your training intensity.

But you can’t train hard if you’re using a lot of volume. So reduce your work sets as you up your effort.

Using exercises that really suit you, in consistently good form, and while training hard, is muscularly very uncomfortable. But that’s what’s needed to stimulate growth.

4. Do You Follow A Sound Set-Rep Scheme?

There isn’t just one sound set-rep scheme. There are several. All of them can be effective, but all of them can be ineffective, depending on how they are applied and how well (or otherwise) the components of recovery are satisfied.

If Not…

To see clear results, stick to one sound set-rep scheme, properly applied, for at least 10 weeks. Chopping and changing your set-rep scheme is training death for most bodybuilders, especially the drug-free, genetically typical ones.

Here’s one such set-rep scheme. Forget all the others for the time being:

Other than for calves, do 6-8 reps for the first work set. While you rest, reduce the weight sufficiently so that you can do 10-12 reps on the second work set. For calves, use 10-12 and 18-20 as your rep targets for the two sets.

Select your poundages so that you make your target rep range on each set. It will require trial-and-error experimentation at first. For the weight reduction between the first and second sets, try 25% to begin with. If you got it wrong, adjust the reduction next time. The reduction will vary for different exercises and among individuals.

That’s just two work sets per exercise. “Not enough!” you may shriek. But it is enough if you’re truly using exercises that really suit you, in consistently good form, and while training hard.

5. Are You Consistent With Rest Intervals Between Sets?

Do you use a timer on your phone or wear a watch so that you can keep an eye on your inter-set rest periods?

If Not…

Rest three minutes between sets of your compound exercises and two minutes on your isolation exercises. Longer rest intervals can also be effective, but your workouts will take longer. Shorter rest intervals can also be effective but will necessitate a greater poundage reduction for the second sets to get your target reps.

Consistency with those rest intervals from workout to workout and month to month is essential so that you can track your workouts accurately.

6. Do You Keep A Training Log?

Do you make a written note of each of your work sets – poundage and reps – in a training diary or log?

If Not…

Consult it before every work set. Don’t try to rely on your memory. Before each work set, remind yourself of what you did the previous time, so you know what you need to do to register a tad of progress in good form. After each work set, note whether it was a real grinder or it left room to add a little iron next time.

Simple notations can work. For example, you could add “G” if the set was a grinder or “+” when you owned the weight sufficiently to earn a small increase at the next session.

For the grinders, stick with the same weight for a few workouts until you own it and the sets are no longer grinders. Then you’ve earned the small poundage increase next time.

7. Do You Strive To Make Small Poundage Increments?

If you’re a beginner or intermediate bodybuilder, you’re a long way from topping out. So are you adding a little weight to each exercise when you can without compromising your form?

If Not…

Use small weight plates: not just the 1.25 kilo or 2.5 pound ones, but also micro-plates or large washers so that you can nudge up your weights by just a pound at a time, especially on the lower-poundage exercises.

Excellent training and excellent recovery mean you’ll be able to build strength slowly but steadily unless you’re advanced. Advanced trainees should still strive to build additional strength, though, even if the increased strength doesn’t actually happen.

8. Do You Follow A Training Routine That’s Appropriate For You?

Genetically gifted or drug-enhanced bodybuilders can make progress with much more volume and frequency than natural bodybuilders, but the former will usually make even better progress if they increase the quality of their training but reduce its volume and/or frequency. So are you using a plan that’s for you and not someone who’s enhanced?

If Not…

Keep the volume and frequency of training much lower than what most bodybuilders do. That’s what most natural trainees need to do if they’re to make good progress. I’ve given specific advice to natural bodybuilders before.

If you add sets, exercises, or workouts to the week, you’ll wreck the potential of those routines to build muscle.

Unless you have excellent recovery ability, you could do a great job in the gym but still make little or no progress. For excellent recovery, you need to sleep well, rest well in general, and eat well. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid all activity on your off days. Some moderate general activity, including walking, may help your recovery.

But avoid hard cardio between workouts. Otherwise, you’ll risk undermining your overall recovery. If you do hard cardio, do it at the end of your weights workouts, but keep it brief.

9. Do You Sleep Adequately?

Sleep needs can vary, but if you’re training hard, you’ll likely need at least eight hours of sleep each night to keep you alert and energetic without any caffeine after midday.

Without post-midday caffeine, are you really alert and energetic until around an hour before your bedtime? That means no drowsiness whatsoever, even when you’re watching TV or reading for a sustained period, or a passenger in a car, train, or plane. If you do get drowsy, you’re definitely not sleeping adequately in terms of quantity and/or quality.

If Not…

For five consecutive days, stop all caffeine consumption after midday. Although you may feel fine over the short term if you use caffeine to give an illusion of alertness, your insufficient sleeping will take an inexorable toll on your recovery ability (and health).

Improved sleep won’t just improve your health and recovery ability, it’ll also improve the quality of your workouts, which could mean greater muscle growth stimulation. Learn from experts how to improve your sleep and then apply it consistently.

You’ll need to spend more time asleep, which means going to bed earlier and/or sleeping later. That extra sack time means you’ll have less time for other activities. Don’t resent giving up some activities for your extra kip. The extra slumber is essential if you want to have the excellent recovery required for turning growth stimulation into actual muscle tissue.

10. Do You Control The Stress In Your Life?

Stress comes in degrees of severity and from many sources – including financial difficulties, work-related problems, serious injury or illness, parenting difficulties, relationship struggles, and toxic people. Do you have it under control?

If Not…

If you’re under severe stress, it will be nigh-on impossible to make good bodybuilding progress. Your recovery ability will be wrecked. And your workouts may also be wrecked. You won’t be rested and raring to go at each workout, and your mind will be on your problems rather than your training.

Get help on stress management and coping strategies. Trying to cope alone isn’t a good strategy. And find practical solutions to problems rather than simply battling on with them.

11. Do You Eat Adequately?

Do you really eat three to six nutritious, protein-rich meals every day?

If Not…

Eat a slight caloric surplus. Consume around a gram of protein per pound of body weight and divide the rest of your caloric intake roughly 50-50 between carbs and fats. (For natural bodybuilders, a low-fat eating regimen will probably prevent muscle growth.)

12. Are You Patient?

For natural bodybuilders, even good progress is usually slow. So applying a good routine properly for just a few weeks isn’t going to deliver visible progress. Are you willing to make slow, sustained progress?

If Not…

A few weeks isn’t quite long enough to discover that you’re on the right track. But you need to take your time and make sure you’re raring to go at each workout, training hard, not getting hurt, not overtraining, and that you’ve got your eating and sleeping sorted out, and you’re nudging up your exercise poundages.

Stick with it for at least several back-to-back months and then you’ll notice bigger muscles.

One Last Thing

Even if you checked off all 12 points, did you really buy in mentally?

The training advice I give is fundamentally different from high-volume split routines. So it’s only natural for you to be skeptical. But give what I recommend a fair try.

That means implementing the whole package of sound training and sound recovery. Cutting corners in just one component, or even one detail of a component, could wreck the whole program. Then once you start to harvest your crop of new muscles, you’ll never return to conventional bodybuilding routines.

Three to five back-to-back years of applying my recommendations can produce progress that most bodybuilders may think is impossible for someone who’s drug-free and genetically typical.

It can make hardgainers (normal-gainers, actually) into easy gainers, relatively speaking. But to do that requires savvy training, discipline, dedication, and patience.

11 Likes

I, legit, had a total fanboy meltdown seeing a Stuart McRobert article. “Brawn” is one of those books that totally revolutionized how I approached training. Big fan of this article in turn. Definitely one of those “before you start worrying about periodization protocols, see if you’re doing THIS” sort of thing. Very similar to @Dan_John 's thought process of learning how to eat like an adult before we start to sweat the small stuff.

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Like most articles on T-Nation I liked this one and it got me thinking. I think #2 is an often quoted piece of advice - but the question I always have is “How should someone know if they are using “good form””. I have had experienced trainers correct me that I should “look up” when squatting and be stunned (often offended) when I tell them thats bad form. I have had experienced lifters tell me to put me curl my feet up under me on the bench to get a really good arch. And I’ve had people tell me how much safer a Trap Bar is than a conventional deadlift and how reckless I am to do that (at least go sumo). Who says what “good form” is?

#2 Is just a bit of advice emphasizing that you’ve built proficiency in a movement pattern before adding weight.

Good form is often anthropometry and training history dependant. There are several ways to do lifts, especially the big ones. This is why it’s important to always keep an open mind and not be dogmatic. People have individual bad experiences and it shapes their opinions completely.

In my gym I believe that telling people “a trap bar is much safer and it’s reckless to conventional deadlift” is good advice. This is because it’s full of late-teens ego lifting in front of their mates and never having any proper coaching. That doesn’t mean I think deadlifting conventional is reckless at all though. These big compound movements can have so much nuance that it’s never as simple as “do this” or “do that”. Even elite competitors occasionally alter form.

What wouldn’t be clever is completely changing your form and trying to lift the same weight straight away. This is part of the message that advice like #2 is trying to convey.

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Holy cow, the first edition of that book is $200 bucks. Picked up a second edition for next to nothing though.

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Another solid article from McRobert for the novice and intermediate lifter. I wonder how many people reading this, do or will implement the majority of the items on the list!!

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Probably not many!

Another great article from Stuart.

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Point 10 about external stress is excellent. Even when other areas of recovery are going well this can sap away and it might be difficult to realize. Another great article!

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Great article Stuart’s info. is the best, bar none. His articles, books, and release of the new hardgainer magazine are all invaluable information.

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Some of the best advice that you will read!
Most people do not need anything more advanced than what is laid out here in this article.
Chris and TC thank you for this!

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If you are legit Chad Coy I am not sure I can handle all my fanboy meltdowns in one topic…

I put my pants on just like everyone else, but yest the one and only Chad Coy.

I have been a fan of Stuart McRobert since the 90’s and I have learned a lot from the likes of him, Dr. Ken, Dan John, and many other contributors of T-Nation. Stuart just keeps everything real and I appreciate his expansive knowledge.
Who knows maybe my coaching will slow down enough and I will have time to write a few articles myself again?

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