Should a weekend cyclist contemplating her first race adopt the brutal workout regimen of five-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong? If a 6′ high school basketball player trains, eats and sleeps like 7′ Tim Duncan, can he hope to duplicate the NBA MVP’s abilities? The answer to both questions is no way. Genetic variables and years of experience forge a wide chasm between an average athlete and a top professional.

Similarly, you — if you’re a hardgaining noncompetitive bodybuilder — should not be on Ronnie Coleman‘s precontest training program and diet in hopes of approaching his success. Still, you can learn invaluable lessons from the champions. This month, we look at how you differ from the champs and, given such differences, what you should take from their routines. We examine three fundamental distinctions between you and an Olympia-level bodybuilder: genetics, lifestyle and drugs.

Like most people, you are very likely a hardgainer. You don’t pack on muscle with ease. Skeletally, you probably aren’t blessed with wider shoulders and narrower hips than the normal ratio. You tend to lose muscle and/or gain fat when you don’t work out or follow a bodybuilding diet for an extended period. In essence, if you never trained with weights or downed a protein shake, you’d look about average, give or take a few pounds.

On the other hand, most Olympia pros fall into a lucky category we’ll call easygainers. Some of them were quite muscular before they ever picked up a barbell. Others responded rapidly to weight training from the start. Some are also blessed structurally with a greater shoulders-to-hips ratio than normal and either full muscle bellies that swell from small joints or large bones capable of supporting much mass. Bodybuilding is rarely easy, but it’s generally going to be much easier for them than you.

Another key difference between Olympia-level pros and an average hardgainer is the amount of time, effort and money they dedicate to their profession. Take Jay Cutler, for example. He regularly rises at 4:30 am to perform cardio. Throughout the day, he intersperses six to eight meticulously planned meals, two workouts, two naps, a stretching/yoga session and a massage before going to bed around 9 pm. Precontest, he includes cardio, tanning, posing practice and a sauna in his daily routine. As a professional bodybuilder, he dedicates more than eight hours of each day to his job. And his job is expensive. Cutler buys all his seafood, poultry and vegetables fresh daily. His grocery tab alone is more than $200 per week, and that doesn’t include nutritional supplements (which he gets for free, but you don’t).

You must ask yourself if you can afford anything approaching the amount of time, effort and money a typical pro applies to his profession. Even if you can, is it truly in your best interest to do so? Put your family, friends, job and/or school first and then work bodybuilding into that schedule. It is true that bodybuilding is more than a mere hobby; it’s a lifestyle. Your diet, sleep and recreation will affect your bodybuilding gains. However, you need to be realistic about your ultimate goals. If you’re not on the verge of becoming a pro, you shouldn’t be living like one; and if you’re not living like one, you’ll need to take that into account when looking at the pros’ training programs.

Given the differences between you and an elite bodybuilder, what are you to make of the champions’ training and diet routines that you read in FLEX each month? Because there is a wealth of invaluable expertise you can learn from experienced bodybuilders, we try to focus a pro’s emphasis toward our average hardgaining reader. Utilize their tips and principles. Then, remembering the differences between yourself and a top pro, follow these simple rules when assessing a champion’s training routine.

* If you’re a beginning or intermediate bodybuilder, look for a corresponding recommended routine from the champ.

* If the champ performs high-volume workouts (more than 16 sets for large bodyparts and 12 sets for smaller bodyparts) and you don’t respond well to such volume, adjust the number of sets downward while, if possible, performing the same exercises in the same order.

* To train in the manner of the champ without duplicating his routine, look for general rules to follow, such as pushing sets to failure or altering exercises every other workout.

Acknowledge the differences between yourself and the best pro bodybuilders, but remember the key similarities too. Assuming you’re not obese, it’s fair to suppose they once weighed the same as you do today, and they too dreamed of being bigger and better. In the end, the most important factors for all bodybuilders remain the workouts, nutrition and rest. Odds are you’ll never have a physique worthy of stepping on the Olympia stage, but if you set realistic goals, follow the HUGE program and learn from the champs who grew before you, you can realize your natural potential. Doing so is the ultimate prize.

At the pro level, muscle-enhancing drugs, such as testosterone, anabolic steroids and growth hormone, are a fact of life.

It’s difficult to weigh the importance of chemicals against the other two factors (genetics and a full-time bodybuilding lifestyle), but there is no doubt that drugs are part of the picture at the higher echelons of pro bodybuilding. There is also little doubt that their abuse can be linked to major health problems.

Can drugs turn a hardgainer into an easygainer? Generally, drugs are going to boost your gains at the same relative level. This means that if, on a scale of one to 10, you were growing naturally at a rate of two and an easygainer was growing at a rate of four, with drugs you may grow at a rate of three, while an easygainer would grow at a rate of six. This is why many of the guys shooting up the most “gear” couldn’t win a novice show. The champs aren’t champs because they take the most drugs. They’re champs because of genetic advantages and dedication.

Chemicals won’t turn a typical hardgainer into an Olympia contender, but they can still boost muscle gains in an average trainer. So, should you take them? First, consider that steroids and similar drugs are illegal to use without a prescription. Second, consider the health risks, including potentially life-threatening liver, kidney and heart disease, and the fact that you can never be certain what comes in a bottle or vial purchased on the black market.

Weighing those disadvantages, ask yourself what your ultimate goals are. Be honest and consider your genetic makeup and lifestyle commitment. It’s our opinion that the further you are from standing on the Olympia stage, the less advantageous drugs would be for you. With today’s supplements, equipment and knowledge, the vast majority of our readers who will never compete in a bodybuilding contest (and even many of you who will) should be able to attain the muscular physique they desire naturally. It’ll take a little longer, but the journey will be much more rewarding if you ignore treacherous shortcuts along the way.

How to set realistic goals
1 Assess your genetic strengths and limitations.
2 Determine how much time, effort and money you’re willing to commit to bodybuilding.
3 Be aware of the genetic, lifestyle and chemical differences between yourself and a top bodybuilder.
4 Map out short- and long-range goals. Muscle gains of one pound per month, fat losses of two pounds per month and strength increases of 2% per month are within the reach of most hardgainers.