My wife’s nephew contacted me today for some advice regarding weight training and nutritional supplements for the young, novice trainee who aspires to put on some clean weight without necessarily pursuing a career as a competitive bodybuilder. Rather than write him a long private message in reply, I’ve decided to make a post of it here on my Old Man Blog since I know a lot of younger guys are interested and it’s easy to get confused by all the advice and info out there from self-proclaimed experts, friends, coaches, magazines and advertisements for the latest wonder supplement. I also have some experience on the subject, am a recognized expert and an established Internet personality, and I also have a blog with a Bodybuilding & Fitness category in need of content, so it’s a win-win-win.
my wife’s nephew’s (let’s call him “Martin”, no, his name really is Martin) Martin’s questions specifically, but the answers are pretty universal and should apply to most anybody unless you suffer from a medical condition that would dictate otherwise, in which case consult with your doctor (for those of you lucky enough to have decent health care coverage) before getting into any kind of training/dietary regimen.
Martin is about 20 y/o I think and on the tall and gangly side (the last time I saw him he was short and chubby). He hasn’t given me any details about his training regimen, but claims to have put on 15 lbs. in the 2 weeks he’s been into it. I don’t know anything about his diet, but he supplements it with something called Horsepower X which a Google search revealed is a pre-workout concoction comprised of creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, l-citronella, torabolic and caffeine. Basically your run-of-the-mill pre-workout pump- and energy booster. He also takes creatine monohydrate, BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) and a protein supplement separately.
Creatine, in all its forms is IMO a worthless product. All it does is force water into the muscle cells, bloating them up. No actual muscle tissue is added. As soon as you stop taking the creatine, the water, the weight, and the illusion of muscle gain disappears, literally pissing it down the toilet. A lot of people also get serious gastrointestinal discomfort from creatine.
The components in Horsepower X overlap the creatine you are already taking; the other ingredients are meant to give energy (caffeine) and improve your “pump“, that feeling of fullness and distendedness you have in a muscle after you’ve trained it due to increased nitric oxide retention in your blood. These ingredients might also cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some sensitive individuals. While a good pump is certainly a very satisfactory and desirable feeling, it is in no way necessarily an indicator of muscle growth, or the muscle growth inducing effect of a workout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Horsepower X (and other similar products) should be more aptly named Horseshit X, but for the novice trainee I see little value in them. If you’ve got the spare change and it makes you feel good, by all means go for it, but don’t expect any particular benefits from it, and certainly nothing remotely like the ad claims. A real tight pump feels good, but it’s temporary, and, like I said, not necessarily indicative of permanent growth in size or gain in strength.
Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoying multiple orgasms while pumping iron.
I do believe BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids), more specifically leucine, isoleucine and valine have some value for the advanced trainee, but for the novice such as Martin there is so much to be gained by simpler methods, I wouldn’t recommend it. Remember, you are starting from scratch and can only go one way – up – and whatever marginal effect you might get from BCAAs wouldn’t be worth the money.
Now a good quality protein powder supplement is another story altogether. Don’t worry too much about what kind of protein it is (so long as it’s not just soy and a lot of sugar; caveat emptor; read the labels), whey, casein, egg, whatever; it’s all good and you should aim at getting 250-300 grams/day (including what you get from food). It’s a good rule of thumb to have a shake shortly after your workout (combined with some carb source) when your body is most in need of repair and receptive to the value of good supplementation and nutrition.
So in a nutshell, the only supplementation I would recommend for a newbie is a quality protein powder. Not even vitamin pills. If your diet is otherwise sound you just don’t need it. As for your 15 lbs weight gain in only 2 weeks, I’m sorry to disappoint you; I would almost with 100% certainty attribute that to water retention from the creatine. It is humanly impossible to put on that much muscle weight in that short amount of time (unless you have a friend who works at a pharmacy).
As far as training goes, the biggest mistake most beginners make is training too much and not getting enough rest. Remember, when you train, you are “breaking down” muscle tissue. The actual growth occurs in between workouts when you rest and eat. So keep your workouts brief, intense and infrequent. Three, max four, workouts/week not lasting more than one hour each. If you still feel like training after an hour you haven’t trained hard enough. Stick with compound exercises rather than isolation exercises. Lots of squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses and heavy rows. Five sets each, 8-12 reps/set. Two exercises for large muscle groups, one or none at all for smaller muscles since they assist in the larger, compound exercises anyway. Save the concentration curls and side laterals and other detail work for a year or two down the road. If you have a coach/trainer who knows his business, the power clean is IMO one of the best all-round exercises to pack on the beef. There’s a learning curve for most people, but it’s worth it.
Regarding diet I’m gonna keep this very short so as not to turn this into a novel. Stay away from the junk food and eat healthy, normal food supplemented with a good protein powder. Make every calorie count. Many small meals spread out over the day is better (much better!) than a few large meals. The principle of junk in, junk out applies here. You can have the best training regimen in the world, a personal trainer (would advise against it) and state of the art supplementation, even illegal performance enhancing drugs, but if you do most of your eating at McDonald’s, it won’t do shit for you.
German über champ Markus Ruhl before and after. No shit! It’s amazing what 20 years of dedicated training and lots and lots of testosterone, anabolic steroids and human growth hormone can do!