Cody Montgomery at 19 winning his third Teen Nationals title. / YouTube
Everyone starts somewhere. And some of the best bodybuilders of all time started hauling home the biggest trophies when only teenagers. What advice do they have for today’s young bodybuilders? We’ve assembled the best teenage bodybuilding tips from 10 of the best-ever teenage bodybuilders.
TAKE TIME TO GROW.
“Don’t be in a hurry. Kids want everything right now, but it takes years in the gym to build quality muscle. The other thing I would say to a teenage competitor is moving up to open shows is a big step. Suddenly, you’ll be standing next to 30-year-olds who’ve been training and dieting for 15 years. Pick your next move carefully. I didn’t compete again until I was 22, and then, though I was living in Massachusetts, I competed in California [winning the prestigious Tournament of Champions], because I knew that’s where I could get noticed and build a name for myself. It worked. The next year, I won the heavyweight class of the NPC Nationals and a pro card.”
When he was just an unknown 216-pound kid with potential, Jay Cutler won the heavyweight class of the 1993 Teen Nationals. How did he fulfill that potential? He earned 15 pro titles, including three Arnold Classics (2002-04) and four Mr. Olympias (2006-07, 2009-10), becoming one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time.
LEARN WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.
“The one secret is that there is no secret. It’s hard work, eating right, avoiding injuries; it’s all those boring things. Don’t look for some secret supplement or drug or magic routine. Just keep eating right and training right. The best advice I can give to a young bodybuilder is learn all you can about training, anatomy, and nutrition. And most importantly, learn what works best for your body. Don’t just do a certain exercise or follow a plan because someone else famous did it. Don’t do it because Lee Haney did it. Find out what works best for you by doing different exercises, for example, and learn how to do those exercises correctly. With the knowledge you learn you can max out your own potential. Develop good habits when you’re young, and you can carry them throughout your life.”
At 19, Lee Haney won the 1979 Teen Mr. America (which later became the Teen Nationals). It was the first step in one of the most successful bodybuilding careers of all time. He won the 1982 NPC Nationals at 22 and his first of a record-setting eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles in 1984 at only 24.
EAT MORE TO GROW MORE.
“I feel like a lot of young guys just don’t eat enough. When you’re a teenager, your metabolism is ramped up. You can pack away a lot of calories without gaining a pound. That’s one of the advantages of youth, but it can be a disadvantage to a young bodybuilder who wants to grow. I ate eight meals a day, including [protein] shakes, every day. I consumed around 4000 calories a day in the offseason when I weighed 250, and I kept my carbs in the 400 [grams] to 450 range. You need all those extra nutrients to grow.”
In 2004, Jason Huh beat two guys in this honor roll (Steve Kuclo and Gerald Williams) for the overall Teen Nationals title. After winning the 2010 USA Championships, Huh competed in four pro shows.
DO BASIC TRAINING.
“Master the basics. When you’re a beginner and for your first few years, what you need is muscle size, and the best exercises for that are the basics—deadlifts, bench presses, squats, military presses, barbell rows. Learn how to do those correctly and gradually get stronger in them, and you’ll grow. There’s no reason to get too fancy. Focus mostly on free-weight, basic lifts and performing them with correct form. If you do that, it’ll serve you well for many years.”
Though he won the Teen Nationals heavyweight divisions in 2004 and 2005, Steve Kuclo lost the overalls to fellow future pros both years. Since winning the 2011 USA Championships, he’s won five pro contests and finished sixth in the 2019 Mr. Olympia.
CULTIVATE A SUPPORT SYSTEM.
“Bodybuilding is a really individualistic sport, but to succeed you need supportive people in your life. To tell you the truth, at first my parents thought bodybuilding was really weird. They didn’t tell me not to do it, but they probably would’ve been happier if I’d done something else. But they’ve always been supportive of me, and when they saw the success I had at 15 or 16, they came around. And there’s been some people in bodybuilding who’ve been in my corner, including Chris Cormier. You need a support system to reach your full potential. If people are negative about what you’re doing, those are probably people you don’t need in your life. Surround yourself with positive people, and learn from those who’ve come before you.”
At 17, 18, and 19 in 2012-14, Cody Montgomery won the Teen Nationals overall three straight years, the first as a light-heavy and the last two as a heavyweight, setting a record that’s unlikely to ever be equaled. While still 20, Montgomery won the 2015 USA Championships, and he made his pro debut at 21.
STRIVE TOWARDS QUALITY.
“You see a lot of teenagers who only want to get big, so they rush on the weight and end up getting mostly fat. If you want to have a quality physique, you need to work towards that goal from the beginning. The reason why I had success from a young age, in addition to good genes, is I was always focused on keeping my muscles in proportion and staying lean enough all year round that I could see my abs. If you want to look like a bodybuilder, you need to always train and eat with that goal in mind. There are no shortcuts. You can’t rush the weight on. That’ll be counterproductive in the long run if you have to lose a lot of fat and you’ve seriously altered the shape of your body to look like a fat kid and not a bodybuilder.”
In 1985, Shawn Ray won the Teen Nationals overall. Ray went on to become one of the very best bodybuilders of the 1990s, finishing in the Mr. Olympia top five a record 12 straight years (1990-01), including seconds in 1994 and 1996.
JUST KEEP GOING FORWARD.
“I say the same thing to a teen bodybuilder that I say to any beginning bodybuilder. Don’t be in a rush. Bodybuilding is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s a way of life and not just some hobby you take up for a summer or something. If you want to earn the body you want, it’s going to take time, but every day you put in the work—the training, the eating, the resting—and you’ll just keep growing. You’ll get there if you’re consistent, don’t rush, and, like a marathoner, just keep going forward.”
After winning the 1966 Mr. Europe at 19 and finishing second in his class at the Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger was already causing a sensation in the bodybuilding world. The next year, two months after turning 20, he won the overall Mr. Universe. And in 1970, at 23 he won his first of seven Mr. Olympia titles. Among his countless other accolades, Arnold was the youngest ever Mr. Olympia—a record unlikely to be broken.
GET STRONGER FOR REPS.
“When you’re a beginner, whether a teenager or not, the gains come fast, because everything is new. That’s a really special time when you’re getting stronger almost from workout to workout. Take advantage of that. Learn how to do the basics lifts correctly—the squat, the bench press, the barbell row, overhead press. And work to do more reps each time than the workout before. Get stronger in the 6-12 rep range or even higher. Twenty reps of squats is a lot harder than three reps with a heavier weight. I wish I could go back to that time when the weights were going up and the muscle was coming on so fast. Those teen years were when I really transformed myself.”
A rival with Arnold for the most accomplished teenage bodybuilder of all-time, the late Casey Viator won the 1970 Teen Mr. America and was third in the Mr. America when only 18. The next year, at 19, he became the youngest ever winner of the Mr. America. Viator went on to win two pro shows and finished third in the 1982 Mr. Olympia.
“Stay consistent. Train smart. Warm up, stretch, and use proper form, because nothing will stop your gains faster than an injury. Overall, you need to train for the right reasons. Do it because you love it. If you’re doing it because you think you’re going to get rich and famous, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to have a passion for bodybuilding.”
At 18, Branch Warren won the light-heavyweight and overall 1993 Teen Nationals, in the process defeating 19-year-old heavyweight Jay Cutler. Warren, who has won nine pro shows, was second to Cutler in the 2009 Mr. Olympia.
EAT QUALITY FOOD.
“I dieted [for the 2005 Teen Nationals] during finals [at Morehouse College]. Studying hard, training and doing cardio, all that stuff was definitely difficult. I was taking 19 credit hours per semester [15 is average] and playing in the school jazz band on top of that. Nutrition was the biggest challenge of all. Dorm food sucks for bodybuilding. It’s all burgers and pizza and stuff. I bought all my own food, which is a really big expense, but I had to do it. I helped other students eat as clean as they could in the cafeterias, but it’s never ideal. Living on campus is not healthy. You have to really work to keep up a bodybuilding lifestyle.”
The 2005 Teen Nationals light-heavyweight and overall winner, Gerald Williams, won the 2017 California Pro and qualified for the Mr. Olympia, where he finished 15th.