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Primal Bodybuilding Guide

I know of no better example of functional strength than a 600-pound deadlift. Except a 700-pound deadlift. That’s what strength is: the ability to generate force, and the “functional” part is really just a qualifier.  Because when you’re that strong, it’s functional. That’s the part that has the modern “academic” wing of the fitness industry in such a fog just now. – Mark Rippetoe

The following is the PBB Guide.  It is an attempt to take the greatest parts of various different training protocols and combine them into one training cycle.  If you give this program a full 6 weeks, you will improve each facet of strength, as well as improve Metabolic Conditioning.   Go here to buy Wendler’s 5/3/1 – it’s only $20 – and here to get Starting Strength. Both are worth a read just to get psyched to train, but are also as the basis of  this simple program – work out hard, get out of the gym.

Please remember:



How (and how MUCH) you eat will determine how effective this program is for achieving ANY and ALL goals you have.  Attention established paleo/primal eaters who want to get bigger, leaner or both: you HAVE to count calories (boo hoo).  There just isn’t any way around it – it’s the easiest way to adapt and adjust your nutrition.  Can some people do it without counting?  Yes.  They play in the NFL and probably don’t need this website.  If you are an NFL player, you can skip to the workouts.  When you look like him or her, you can stop counting.  Everyone else, stay with me.

The Primal Bodybuilding diet is summed up thusly: Eat *REAL* Food.  If you can’t kill it, dig it up or pluck it from a tree, don’t eat it.  It’s that simple.

If you don’t eat enough, you won’t get as strong as you want.  If you eat too much, you won’t get as lean as you want. If you are simply eating to maintain, you should still count calories occasionally – if only to get a baseline in case you’d like to gain or lose.  The following are estimates, but you will find they end up being VERY close to the numbers you get in any BMR calculator or whatever.  Try it if you don’t believe me.

I also suggest a Lean Gains style approach to eating, ESPECIALLY while on a diet.  The larger meals afforded by condensing your eating window really makes a huge difference when trying to diet for losing weight.  It’s hard enough to cut calories, but it’s made harder by the conventional FLEX Magazine-style 6 meals a day nonsense.

I dare even the most obsessive-compulsive bodybuilder to tell me that six 400 calorie meals more SATISFYING than two 1200 calorie meals. (They can’t!)

I like to eat.  Even while dieting.  If you like to be OCD while dieting, if that helps you, be my guest.  Otherwise, give Lean Gains a shot and let me know how you feel.

During this program, eat the following number of calories:

  • If you want to GAIN muscle/weight, get as strong as possible or BOTH: 18-20 calories per pound (this is where GOMAD can really help – barring the use of GOMAD, you aren’t going to get too “fat” if you stick to the food choices above)
  • If you want to MAINTAIN or for Body Recomposition at your current weight: 14-16 calories per pound
  • If you want to GET BRAD PITT FROM FIGHT CLUB: 10-11 calories per pound (I don’t recommend this for longer than 6-12 weeks, and you will need a higher calorie re-feed every 10-14 days.  See this article for more)

Most people wishing to lose bodyfat should start in the “maintain” category.  At this level of calories, with this workout regimen, you’re likely to lean out quite a bit, and see some great body recomposition.  Give it a couple of weeks and see what changes happen to you in the mirror.   If you aren’t satisfied after a couple of weeks, then try the “Get Ripped” level.  Frankly, this is the simplest and most effective fat-loss plan anyone can give you without meeting you.  Don’t expect magic in a day or two, and don’t think that being at the “Get Ripped” level is going to be easy; just stick with it and you will get in the shape you want to be in.


The program is a combination of many ideas, from Wendler’s 5/3/1 to The Periodization Bible to Mark Rippetoe.  The point is – Get stronger and the rest will follow.  This cannot be stressed enough.  The goal of working out is to challenge your body to change.  We are not tricking, forcing, confusing, turbulencing, or any of that.  We are getting stronger.  When body composition or weight is a factor, we adjust our diet accordingly.

The Tao of Primal Bodybuilding comes back here: “lift heavy, run fast, jump high, walk often.”  No “cardio” – but that doesn’t mean you won’t get in fantastic shape.  If you aren’t winded after these workouts, then you need to lift heavier and/or with greater intensity.

The basic premise is to center each weight room session around one main lift, with additional exercises selected to complement the trainee’s goals and experience.  Add in 30-45 minutes three to seven times per week of walking if leanness is your goal – DO NOT JOG.  Jogging doesn’t jive with this program.  If you want to do sprints, they go on 1-2 off days per week, but they cannot interfere with your lifting progress.  If from one workout to the next your strength doesn’t improve, you must pair back on the sprints until your strength gains return.

This is because not getting stronger indicates you are not recovering enough between workouts.  If you are not recovering, you are not going to be getting stronger OR losing much weight, and if you do, that weight will be more muscle than you like.  Recovery is your best friend in body recomposition – DO NOT NEGLECT IT.  Let these words infect your brain and fully embed themselves in your head: if you aren’t recovering, you aren’t getting stronger.  If you aren’t recovering you are not losing body fat.  If you aren’t recovering you aren’t getting stronger.  If you aren’t recovering you aren’t getting in better shape.

Remember: get stronger and the rest will follow.  Strength is a proxy for the hormonal balance we are trying to get at with this program.  Instead of force-feeding fat-loss down our body’s metaphorical throat, we are working with our body.  Remember the story of the fat lion?  Rest and Recovery are the most important part of any long-term weightloss or bodybuilding plan.  If you want a program designed to give you 10% fat loss this week, go read the “Rapid Fat Loss Guidebook” by Lyle McDonald.  The Primal Bodybuilding program is for steady, lasting, REAL changes to your physique.

I typically go with 4 workouts per week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, repeat), but you can also do a 3 day version, where your main lifts cycle through the 4 main lifts.  So you could do:

4-Day – M: Deadlift, T: Military Press, Th: Squat, F: Bench


3-Day – M: Deadlift, W: Military Press, F: Squat, M: Bench, W: Deadlift, F: Military, and so on.

Decide if you want to work out 3 or 4 times per week and then just do the following workouts.  The only other consideration is whether you’d prefer to squat or deadlift first in the 4 day split.  Go with whichever one you like doing more, as Mondays are usually the hardest days to get going again and you’ll want to be focused when you hit this workout.

Use the workout in a 3 weeks on, 1 week deload pattern.  You’ll want to increase intensity each week for the first three then during deload week you’ll work the main lifts at 50% 1RM and add in some higher rep (8-12) accessory work.

What weights should I use?

Basic version: For each of the main lifts, work up to a weight that allows you to get 5-10 reps (usually around 80-85%), and do this weight as many times as you can, leaving 1 rep or so in the tank.  I say this last part because I don’t want you compromising form to get that last rep.  After that set, wait 3-5 minutes (get fully recovered), peel off 10% of the weight you just used and do that weight for as many reps as you can.  Stick in the 5-10 rep range for most and never go over 12 reps.  You will be hypertrophying your muscles with those last workout sets plenty, no need to get in the way of recovery with a bunch of lactic acid and cortisol in those muscles.

How do I know what my 1 Rep Max (1RM) is?  Just take your best 5 rep set of each lift and punch it into this calculator.  Then use the listed percentages of that number.

More thorough explanation:

Week 1: 77.5-80% 1RM (Shoot for 6-8 Reps), drop weight 10% (shoot for another 6-10 reps)

Week 2: 82.5-85% 1RM (Shoot for 4-6 Reps), drop weight 10% (shoot for another 4-8 reps)

Week 3: 85-90% 1RM (Shoot for 2-3 Reps), drop weight 10% (shoot for another 2-5 reps)

Week 4: 50% 1RM @ 3 sets of 5 reps.

Rinse and Repeat.  Key watchout: only adjust your 1RM after completing a 4 week cycle.  Don’t monkey with the weights in the middle.  Remember that the more advanced you get, the fewer reps you’ll get in each range – you’ll often have a higher calculated 1RM on the second work set (after dropping 10%).


If a workout is in bold, there is a clip of how to properly perform the move.  If you have *ANY* doubt, watch the video 5-6 times.

For the main lifts, work up to the day’s Maximum Weight Sets (see above) with sets of 3 reps.  3 rep warm-up sets are ideal because exercise-form stays perfect in that range and you are still actively warming up the motor units to be used in the higher sets, without tiring them excessively or draining glycogen stores.  Go to the Starting Strength website or read the book for a more thorough explanation.

In between your last warm-up sets, rest 1-2 minutes, then rest as long as necessary to lift maximum weight/reps – typically 3-5 minutes.  You don’t need more than 5 minutes.  You probably shouldn’t put this much thought into this, but for reference my warm-ups typically look like this:

  1. Empty Bar/135lbs: 2 sets of 3 reps
  2. 40% of 1RM x 3 x 1-2 sets
  3. 50% of 1RM x 3 x 1-2 sets
  4. 60% of 1RM x 3
  5. 70% of 1RM x 3
  6. 80% of 1RM x 3 (if Max weight is above 85%)
  7. Maximum Weight Set
  8. Maximum Weight –10% Set

Moving on!


  1. Deadlift
  2. Hamstrings/Low Back Assistance – 3-8 sets
  3. Abs, etc (optional) – 3-8 sets

For hamstring/low back assistance, I recommend Glute-Ham Raises.  They are the best at strengthening the posterior chain – the real “core”.  You will only need 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps on this, once you can do 3 sets of 15, you can add sets.

Instead of GHR, you could do an “ab” workout or both.  In general, I don’t care about training the abs because they get worked so much when performing the big lifts that it is often superfluous to add them to a workout.  That said, I know most of you will do them anyway, so: good “ab” workouts include: planks (all variations), hanging ab raises, suitcase walks.

OR you could just go home, you did just deadlift.

Also check the video for a tune-up on your deadlift form.

PRESS (Military Press)

  1. Press
  2. Chinups – treat like a main lift, do two Maximum Weight Sets
  3. Direct Arm Work (Optional) – 5-8 sets for Biceps/Triceps

Press  = no knee bend, no hip thrust.

proper chin/pullup involves BOTH a dead hang and elbows crossing the plane of your back.  This should put your chin well above the bar in either variation.  If these two criteria are not met, the effort does not count as a rep.  If you cannot do more than your bodyweight, chins should become something you do every day.  You simply must strengthen your lats and shoulder girdle.  Do Chins 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps everyday as part of your warmup until you have achieved the ability to do more then your own bodyweight.  Use the same system as the other main lifts to strengthen Chinups once you can do more than your own bodyweight.

Similar to “ab” training, usually only the most advanced trainees need to do direct work on their biceps and triceps when big lifts like the Press/Bench Press and Chinups/Rows are used, but again – I have a feeling people will be doing them anyway, so this would be the day.  Just don’t get crazy with it – you don’t need to do Arnold’s bicep workout here. 4-8 sets TOTAL for each the biceps and triceps, and get out of there.  Remember also that we want to be out of the gym in around an hour.

RANT WARNING: Arnold is an icon, and the best bodybuilder of all time, but he was a genetic anomaly BEFORE he took steroids.  Please keep in mind that unless you have those genetics AND take steroids those workouts are too much.  They will not help you grow; they will ensure that you don’t.   Workouts like what I have outlined here are plenty your first year or so of hard lifting, then you can ratchet up the direct arm work.


  1. Squats
  2. Additional Leg work – Minimal Sets of Jumps (3-5 MAX), a couple of sprints, GHR, etc.
  3. Pick one:
    1. Ab work (Optional)
    2. Farmers Walks/Suitcase Carries (Optional) – grab heavy DB’s and walk 30 yards or so till you’re tired or 2-4 sets

Please watch the linked video (specifically at the 1:00 mark) unless you’ve already read Rippetoe’s Starting Strength.  Also, please buy that book.

GHR (Glute-Ham Raises) work really well here as well, but I like suitcase carries every once in a while to boost grip/hand strength and to get you many funny looks in commercial gyms.


  1. Bench OR Incline Press
  2. Choose 1:
    1. Pendlay Rows – Two Maximum Weight Sets, like main lifts
    2. Kroc Rows (lawnmowers) – 2 sets of 10, 1 set AMRAP (3 total sets).  Read Wendler’s 5/3/1 for more on this, or check out the video link here.
  3. Direct Shoulder Work (Optional) – 3-8 sets of: external rotations, reverse DB flys, lateral raises, etc.

Too many years of football have made my shoulders whiny.  If yours are not whiny, do flat bench, if they are try Incline.  It’s a little easier on them in my experience.

Kroc Rows are an amazing finisher, and if you really go all out, they will end your workout.  Don’t worry about cheating a bit here, just push it.


Deload week should be setup just like your regular week, but this week you’re going to up your sets of the assistance work.  Treat these like lighter bodybuilding-style workouts and you’ll be killing two birds with one stone – getting in some extra sarcoplasmic hypertrophy AND recovering your Central Nervous System.  Just follow the above guide “What weight should I use” for your main lifts, 3 sets of 5.  Then, move on to some assistance work.


No going to failure this week.  You need to recover – just get a good old fashioned bodybuilding pump and get out.  Don’t do too much here and get all sore.  You want to get in and get out.


So, there you have it.  It’s the kind of thing that must be felt to be truly appreciated.  Try it for 12 weeks and see what a difference it makes in your strength and fitness, then get back with me.

If you have questions – email me:

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    June 20, 2011 3:30 pm

    So can you tell me your diet patten now how many cals , protien, carbs etc
    i am 54yrs 240lbs 23% bf train hard eat about 2500 cals but struggle to loose fat ,look more like power lifter
    diet ideas would be good please ie basic template ?

    • August 22, 2011 11:21 am

      Checkout the guide: It outlines calories and such – as for macro setup? Start at a minimum of 1g of protein per pound (240g) and try to match that number in grams of fat for a couple weeks. See how you look, feel and perform. Keep the carbs low, except post workout. At 240, you’ve got to start your calories a lot higher than 2500, and then titrate down as you hit plateaus. I would say for 2-3 weeks get up to around 3300-3500 and see how everything’s going. From there, cut the calories down (keep your protein at 1g/lb). A number is 200 or so for a week, reassess. If you lose weight, hold that number for another week. Then cut out 200 more. Do this until you get down to that 10-11 calorie per pound number, hold for a few weeks and wave back up to 14-15 per pound. This wave style isn’t the sexiest plan and it’s not the quickest, but you’re 54 years old. You can see past the BS and hype. Keep me updated, feel free to email me at – I’d be happy to correspond with you to help you reach your goals.

  2. Binh permalink
    April 6, 2013 11:11 pm

    Thank you for the article. I think I’m going to have to read it a few more times and give it a go before I really get it.

  3. April 12, 2013 1:21 pm

    Good day! I could have sworn I’ve visited this website before but after going through some of the articles I realized it’s new to me.

    Anyways, I’m definitely pleased I came across it and I’ll be book-marking it and
    checking back regularly!

  4. Adam permalink
    July 11, 2013 12:07 pm

    At the end of the first 4 week cycle do I retest my 1 rep max and then start again? Or do I continue with my original one?

    • July 11, 2013 3:14 pm

      The easiest way is to add 5 pounds to bench and military and 10 to squat and bench. If you start to slow down, and eventually can’t hit the minimum number of reps, drop your max and start hitting rep maxes again.

  5. August 20, 2013 10:56 am

    NO DIPS?!?! haha just kidding, although I will miss them. I like the simplicity and the equal amounts of pushing and pulling, will give this a try. Thank you

    • August 20, 2013 11:23 am

      Ha… You can definitely do dips, the guide is built for ultra-efficiency. There’s no harm in throwing some dips in on either of the “Upper” press days, especially if your shoulders are in good health. Enjoy the workout!

  6. Sam Mak permalink
    February 20, 2014 10:00 am

    Thank you for all the useful info. This is my second week of eating Paleo, I am feeling very tired and I guess it is for two reasons: body adjusting to the changes 2. doing a lot of cardio and 15 reps workouts.. I will let you know in a few weeks about my results. In the meantime please. Thanks again

  7. February 23, 2014 12:17 am

    I am not sure if the comment I left earlier this week went through. Anyways I wanted to thank you for this guide. I was wondering what were your results and if you could share your own pictures with us. Also what routine or cycle do you recommend after this one. Cheers

    • March 4, 2014 5:53 pm

      Omar – there’s some pictures of me on, if you’re interested. As for routines after this… what are your numbers? How long have you been lifting? I will need more info to properly guide you.

  8. Michael Leigh permalink
    March 3, 2014 4:19 pm

    So lets say I am lazy and what a 3500 to 4000 calorie month long meal primal plan. Anyone know of a good plan out there?

    • March 4, 2014 5:54 pm

      If the above leaves too much room for your imagination, Robb Wolf is where I’d start

  9. August 8, 2014 11:47 pm

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  10. August 12, 2014 4:17 am

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  11. August 14, 2014 5:48 am

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  12. August 19, 2014 10:45 pm

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  13. October 22, 2014 10:47 pm

    Great post, very detailed on the workout and diet. I ran GOMAD before and saw very nice gains, 15 lbs in a month. Ran it again a year later and put on a bunch of fat. I think now I will only do a half gomad when I bulk up.

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