Have you been working out for months or *gasp* years without putting on muscle?
Did you follow the magazines and eat 7000 calories a day only to look like Moby Dick?
Or were you told, “You NEED this mass gainer”?
If you answered Yes to any of these questions then the following piece of wisdom will help you.
Don’t dress like an asshole.
When I think of bulking up, adding lean muscle or makin’ dem gainz – I always come back to that line that was said to my friend when he asked about a dress code to a cigar bar.
That one simple phrase tells you everything you need to know. Don’t come in to the bar looking like you slept on the street and ya good.
Like any solid piece of advice, it can also be translated to other topics. Such as…
Don’t bulk like an asshole.
Using a little common sense, everything you need to know about bulking is in that little sentence.
This phrase has become one of my new maxims in life, well played mister cigar bar owner, well played.
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The concept of bulking or a bulking season has been around since the early 60’s.
This practice exploded in the early 90’s when guys tipping the scales at 300+ pounds of pure muscle became the new standard of muscle building and were romanticised in magazines and ads to this day.
The sad truth?
99.9% of people aren’t them. These guys are first and foremost genetic mutants (in the same way any elite level athlete is). They are more than likely supplementing with *ahem* “hormone therapies” and can devote more time than any normal person has to working out.
They have the ideal muscle building environment.
So how does the normal everyday Joe build muscle if everything you were taught is wrong for you situation?
Let’s come back full circle – don’t bulk like an asshole.
When you don’t bulk like an asshole everything becomes manageable. Eating, training and sleeping all become things that are easily attainable as compared to doing two-a-days while sleeping 9-10 hours and consuming 4000 calories in boiled chicken breasts intermixed with your real life.
My training and nutrition is 15 years in the making is still a work in progress, I fell into the same traps you did and dirty bulked myself to a 40 pound weight gain for football in my early 20’s. Ten years later, 35 pounds lighter, I have more muscle and I’ma shit-ton stronger.
HOW NOT TO BULK LIKE AN ASSHOLE
Your body is always in one of two states – anabolic or catabolic. While we may associate anabolic simply with muscle building and steroids, it really means making something – fat or muscle. Catabolic being the exact opposite.
The limiting factor in putting muscle on is your body’s ability to make new muscle from the protein you eat aka protein synthesis.
Your body’s protein synthesis capacities depend on your natural testosterone levels; your testosterone to cortisol ratio; your insulin sensitivity; your muscle fiber makeup, and of course your genetics.
Unfortunately, you can eat any amount of food you want, but you can’t change your protein synthesis limit naturally. That’s where the steroids, growth hormone and other *ahem* “hormone therapies” come in. Eating excess will only lead to more Moby Dick and less Ryan Reynolds.
The easiest thing to control in all the muscle building factors is insulin. We often think insulin = fat gain but insulin is also essential for muscle growth. When insulin is released it’s main job is to shuttle the glucose, amino acids and fatty acids from your bloodstream to somewhere that can store it.
Insulin is basically a key to the storage units in the muscle, fat and liver cells.
So if you just worked out or are coming off a long fast, that insulin spike will bring the glucose and amino acids to your muscles rather than storing it as fat, as there will be space in the muscle storage units. Obviously, this is a simplification of a complex process.
Controlling insulin response will be the fine line between bulking the right way and bulking like an asshole.
Traditional bulking diets have you eating every 2-3 hours and cramming as much food in as possible. As you’ve probably seen, this doesn’t work that well for normal people.
If you’re eating carbs at every meal and eating 5-6 meals a day, that’s 5-6 times a day your insulin is spiking. And that’s with clean food, forget about junk food.
At a certain point you adding more fat than muscle because your muscles a full.
This is where insulin timing becomes super important.
There’s a few times a day to double down on insulin; post workout and right before bed.
Post workout your muscles are primed for glucose. You’ve just beaten them up, they’re damaged, now the repair process begins.
The next best time is right before bed. Sleep is where the muscle build magic happens. By not having carbs all day, your body uses the glucose within the muscles to function – essentially emptying the tank.
While sleeping, growth hormone is released and now you’re flooding your body with muscle building raw materials.
With this little bit of knowledge, we can now hit the biggest question when it comes to bulking – calories.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
Weight loss, muscle gain are all symptoms of calorie intake. Miss the mark on calories and no matter how well you time your insulin spikes it would be an exercise in futility.
For a weight lifting male, aim for 14 calories per pound of bodyweight for maintenance. I know some of you are consuming less, maintaining weight and calling bullshit.
This is possible but it also means your metabolism is not optimized. This makes gaining fat easy and gaining muscle that much harder.
After you find your daily calories needed, add 200 to that for training days. That is the amount of calories needed to bulk. For rest days, go for 14 calories per pound. I shit you not, it’s that simple.
No need to jump calories to ridiculous levels that only takes you down the road of being mistaken for a beached whale.
WHAT FOODS SHOULD I EAT?
You know this answer. Keep it clean just like you would if you were trying to lose weight.
Make chicken, beef, sweet potatoes and bananas staples in your diet.
WHAT SHOULD MY MACROS BE?
The phrase “majoring in the minors” comes to mind when I hear this question. Don’t get caught up in this noise.
Focus on calories is numero uno.
Next, eat 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight and multiply that number by 4. That’s the calories in the protein you need to eat daily. Now subtract that number from your total. For the rest of the calories fill in with carbs and fats. Again, it’s that simple.
Taking a 200 pound person for example:
200 (pounds) x 14 (maintanence calories) = 2800 +200 (calories for bulk) = 3000 calories/ day
200g of protein x 4 calories per gram = 800 calories from protein
3000 – 800 = 2200 to play with for carbs and fat
Fat = 9 calories per gram
Carbs = 4 calories per gram
Scale appropriately. Seriously, don’t put more thought into it than that.
You’ll want healthy fats in your diet for vitamin absorption and hormone production. You’ll need carbs to supply glucose for your muscle growth. As long as you aren’t eating like an asshole the exact ratio of carbs to fats to protein doesn’t matter.
Calories>>protein>>carbs and fats
Remember nutrition is 85% of the battle. The other 15% is sleep (~14%) and the final 1% is your training.
SLEEP WITH YOUR GAINZ
When you sleep your body goes into gainz mode, growth hormone is released which is the cat’s pajamas of muscle building hormones.
Without your 7-9 hours of sleep you simply won’t give your body enough time to recoup.
Take an hour before bed to just relax. Stop working, lower the lights and relax. Marvin Gaye helps, but he also helps to make babies so take it for what you will.
I know for myself if I don’t relax before bed it feels like my brain’s cursor is just spinning and I can’t power down. Seems a little nerdy but it’s an accurate metaphor.
The days of sleeping 3-4 hours a night to boost productivity are done. Get some fuckin sleep!
HOW TO MAKE MUSCLE
Muscle growth happens through three different mechanisms and a tiny bit of black magic. Tension, stress and damage.
We’ll save the magic portion for another day.
To increase tension on the muscle you need to add weight to the bar. More specifically 90% of your 1RM or something you can lift for 2-3 reps.
At this weight you are at your mechanical sweet spot for muscle tension. This is where the muscular tension is at it’s highest without your nervous system taking over.
To make further gainz, slow the weight on the decline portion. Take 2-3 seconds to lower the weight, explode up and slowly lower again. The more you control the weight, the more you’ll benefit.
STRESS AKA DA PUMP
One of the most commonly known ways to gain muscle is through the infamous “Pump”. Check out this clip from Pumping Iron, Arnold tells you why everyone is chasing it. This is where blood rushes to the muscle you just annihilated so you appear bigger for a while.
Getting there requires minimal rest periods (<60 seconds) and hitting it with 12-20+ reps per set. You’re going to want to use a weight you can lift for 15 reps or so.
The trick here is to keep constant tension on the muscle. Times like this are great to side step the full range of motion argument and implore a 1/2 rep. Don’t go all the way down and don’t go all the way to lockout. This will ensure your muscles don’t get a rest and the blood rushing to them will give you the pump of your life.
The final mechanism for muscle growth is muscular damage or emphasizing the negative.
I briefly mention this in the tension section with controlling the weights on the lowering portion or the eccentric phase. The lowering portion of the movement is where the muscle damage happens.
Lifting the weight produces the power by making you more explosive while the lowering portion makes the muscle bigger.
The trick is to control the lowering portion for 3-4 seconds. A task easier typed than in actual practice.
This can be done with any weight but it’s more beneficial with weights you can lift for 12 reps or less. Word of advice, if you use your 12RM, go for 10 rep sets. You’ll thank me.
A single week of workouts is great, but a program is more better…er. Training for muscle gain can go a few different avenues.
High rep, light weight
Low rep, heavy weight
Various combinations of both
For the purpose of my sanity, I’m going to focus on the first two rather than the hundreds of designer programs out there.
HIGH REP, LIGHT WEIGHT
One of the best ways to add muscle is to go light weight until your arms fall off. If you get caught up in this methodology you’ll be all show and no go – meaning you’ll be weak AF but you’ll look good with your shirt off.
This type of training is seen in your bodybuilding mags and bodybuilding sites because it’s great for their purpose. If you’re after big muscles in a hurry this is the route to take. The light weight high rep approach tickles da pump mechanism for muscle growth.
Workouts will consist of anywhere from 10-20+ reps per set and for an exercise you want to aim for 36-50 total reps to get muscle growth. The weight you want to use is 70-80% of your 1RM.
I.e. 4×12, 3×12, 5×10 etc.
It’s easy to go overboard with this type of workout. The pump is unreal and addicting. Keep it in check.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing – remember weak AF. Aim for 100-130 reps per bodypart. So if you’re doing a bro-split, chest day might look like this:
Dumbbell Bench 4×10
Incline Dumbbell Bench 5×10
Cable Fly 3×12
126 reps and ya done. That’s enough volume and stress to produce bigger muscles while not burning yourself out. Don’t aim for soreness, it’s not an indicator of growth.
If you’re going this route shoot for a 60-90 sec rest period between sets.
LOW REP, HEAVY WEIGHT
At the opposite end of the spectrum, using weights from the deep end of the pool can be used to add pounds of muscle to your frame and you get strong in the process.
Traditionally, when using heavy weights people tend to do sets of <25 reps (think 5×5). This amount of reps is good for building strength but not quiet enough to produce slabs of muscle.
Honestly what good is being strong if you don’t look the part, amIright?
Rather than sticking to a 5×5, up the weight, drop the reps. The weight you want to target is your 3RM, or about 90% of your 1RM. This is the tension mechanism at work.
At this point is where your muscle recruitment is at it’s highest. Any more and you’re dipping more into your nervous system for the power.
So how do you elicit muscle growth with a 3 rep set? Lots and lots of sets. A typical number of sets is anywhere from 6-10 per exercise.
Unlike its lightweight counterpart, these workouts tap out around 75 reps per bodypart. The heavy weights do a number on your body. Again, a chest day might look like:
Dumbbell Bench 8×3
Incline Dumbbell Bench 8×4
Cable Fly 3×6
This is a lot less volume than most people are used to, but this is also a lot heavier than most people lift for the volume. Failure is not the end game here. Stimulate, don’t annihilate.
If you decide to dabble in the deep end of the pool, go with a 2-3 minute rest period between sets.
Both of these methodologies can be expanded by elongating the lowering portion of the movement. You’d be using two muscle building mechanism and we all know from the strip club – two is better than one.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Ahh, this is where all the magic happens. Each of the prior sections is not enough to make this your best bulk season. This section will put it all together in a nice jacked bow.
If you do full body workouts a few days a week the best way to go about it is to focus on one muscle building mechanism each day.
Day 1 would be Muscle Tension day where you lift heavy.
Day 2 would be Muscle Stress Day where you rep it out.
Day 3 would be Muscle Damage day where all the lowering portions are emphasized.
If you do these in a different order it might take away from the other. For example, emphasizing the lowering portion before lifting heavy would severely stifle the weight you can lift.
If you follow the bro-split or something similar, you can hit all of these in one exercise or session.
Emphasize mechanical tension at the beginning of the workout or for the first few sets of an exercise. Then transition to metabolic stress and muscle damage later in the session or on the last couple of back-off sets of each movement.
Or if you’re a traditionalist, you can do three weeks of heavy weights followed by two weeks of light weights and keep alternating.
WRAP IT UP B
Making gainz isn’t as drastic as some people make it. Up your calories by 200 over maintenance (14 calories x bodyweight) for three weeks and cycle down to maintenance for a week. Keep the four week cycle going as long as you need. That’s your fall bulking nutrition plan.
No need for fancy supplements or shovelling Mickey-D’s in your mouth. Unless you have an affinity for chicken nuggets and sweet and sour sauce. If you do, I’m always available for some late night McNuggets.