One of my favorite things about bodybuilding is that it is an "individual" endeavor. Your degree of success or failure is contingent on your own efforts, and not those of a teammate or coach. There is no official rulebook involved in bodybuilding (except for actual bodybuilding competitions).
You must write your own "set of rules." You must decide when to train, how to train, what to eat, what supplements to take, and how consistent and dedicated you will be to all of these factors.
In my 17 years of bodybuilding and my 10 + years of personal training/coaching, I have managed to put together not so much a "rulebook," but a set of guidelines that seem to work for everyone. Of course there is some variation from individual to individual in terms of genetics, fiber types, metabolism, somatotype, recovery ability, etc., and these differences will certainly affect how well and how efficiently each of us can develop our physique. However, I still feel there are several "universal truths" that can help everyone reach their physique goals. I call them "Hypertrophy Hints."
Hint # 1: Base the majority of your training on compound movements. Exercises like bench presses, squats, military presses, deadlifts, dips, upright rows, leg presses, stiff deadlifts, etc., will do more to develop your physique than any "isolation" or machine/cable movement ever could. I am not saying you should avoid "isolation" and machine training entirely, but make sure the core of your program revolves around heavy, compound exercises.
Hint # 2: Train intensely, but briefly. Our bodies have limited amounts of recovery ability, as well as a limited ability to put toward building new muscle tissue. The best stimulus for building muscle is intense weight training in which each set is taken near to, or fully to, absolute "failure," or the point in which another strict repetition cannot be performed. However, while intense training is exactly what sets in motion the adaptations necessary for gaining size and strength, it is also precisely what taps deep into our recovery ability. Since we recover first, and grow second, we must make sure to never "overtax" our systems' ability to recover. I have found that workouts need to be completed in an hour or less, otherwise you are in danger of overtraining and under-recovering. This is especially important for those that train drug free.
Hint # 3: Do not train more than 2 days in a row without taking a full day off from the gym, especially if you are a natural trainee. This hint is related to # 2 in that it is again concerned with our recovery ability. In my many years of training I have tried every training program imaginable. Three on one off, five on two off, four on one off, etc. Although I did make very nice progress using these different regimens, my best bodybuilding gains came from either every- other- day training, or the program I currently utilize2 on 1 off, 2 on 2 off. As a natural bodybuilder I have found that after 2 days of intense training my mind and body are always ready for a day or two off. Whenever certain "life commitments" force me to train three days in a row, I find myself to be sluggish and unmotivated on that 3rd workout day. I have seen the same with most of my clients as well. Remember, we "stimulate" muscle growth in the gym, but we do our actual growing while at rest.
Hint # 4: Eat your protein! This is perhaps the most important of all the advice I can offer. Muscle is protein. Protein is required to build and repair muscle tissue. Not eating enough can hinder your gains no matter how hard you train. How much protein is enough? For most trainees, at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of bodyweight should be consumed daily. This is a minimum, however. I usually find that faster gains in size and strength are achieved when protein intake is closer to 1.5-2.0 grams per lb. of bodyweight. It is also important that you consume your protein over 5-7 daily meals rather than 2 or 3. This way your body will have amino acids readily available throughout the day for growth and repair. Also, you can more efficiently digest smaller, more frequent protein feedings than overly large portions. The sources of protein you choose to consume will depend on individual taste, your budget, and what is readily available to you. Some of the best protein sources include chicken, turkey, red meat, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, buffalo, venison, ostrich, milk, and whey. To make it easier for you to consume all of this protein, you may wish to purchase one of the many quality MRP's or protein powders that are now available. Two or three meals per day can come from these powders.
Hint # 5: Take advantage of the post workout "anabolic window!" There is such a wonderful opportunity for aiding in your plight for larger and stronger muscles at this time, that I don't know why anyone would not take full advantage! Right after you complete a workout your muscles are starving for protein and carbohydrates. And they are in no mood to wait for it either! They want their nutrition now! The best thing you can do at this time is to whip up a shake containing 30-50 grams of protein and 60-100 grams of carbs. Since whey is absorbed more quickly than any other protein, this would be the optimal protein source. The carbs should also be fast acting in order to spike insulin levels. High insulin levels are important post-workout as insulin is responsible for carrying carbohydrates and amino acids into muscle cells. A good carb source at this time would be dextrose or maltodextrin powder mixed together with the whey. Then, about 1-1.5 hours later, you can consume a regular protein and carbohydrate whole food meal. Studies have shown that this approach to post-workout nutrition is optimal for gains in size and strength.
Hint # 6: Use the right supplements. While it is not 100% necessary to use supplements in order to make progress, they certainly can hasten results. The world of supplements can be quite confusing. Sifting through the fantastic claims made by manufacturers can be exciting, but you need to know what is for real and what is just marketing hype. To make things easier for you I will mention 3 items that should be on everyone's "must use" list. The first is a quality protein powder. As I mentioned, whey is essential at the post-workout meal. However, a protein blend of casein, whey, and egg albumin is best before bed and at any other time of day that you can't eat a whole food meal. While whey is absorbed very rapidly, protein blends containing casein and egg have a sort of "timed release" affect. This is beneficial in the hours between meals and especially before bed when we are often not eating again for 6-8 hours.
Next is creatine. This is perhaps the most well researched and studied of all supplements currently on the market. It has proven itself time and again in both the lab and the gym. Among creatine's benefits are increased strength, enhanced nitrogen retention, cell voluminization, and lactic acid buffering. It has proven itself to be safe and effective for almost everyone that uses it.
Finally, there is my personal favorite, glutamine. I use large amounts of glutamine year around, and recommend it to anyone that is training regularly. Among it's myriad of benefits are enhanced immune function (I never get sick anymore!), increased glycogen storage, increased production of glutathione (one of our bodies' most powerful antioxidants), enhanced gut health, cell voluminization, and natural growth hormone release. It is rare to find a supplement with so many positive effects!
So there you have it. Six "hints" that can lead to more hypertrophy. Serious bodybuilding is hard work, and you deserve to get the most out of the time you spend in the gym. If you are already making great progress, than more power to you! However, if you feel that your gains are slow coming, than put these hints to work for you. They helped me go from a rail thin 125 lbs. to my current offseason weight of 255 lbs. They have helped all of my clients. There is no reason why they can't help you! So what are you waiting for? See you at the gym!