Out of all the topics I was asked to write about this past month, bulking was by far one of the most popular. The questions ran the gauntlet of,
“How to bulk”
“When to bulk”
“Should I be bulking?”
“Is there a way to train for bulk?”
And so on a so forth. This a topic that has a lot of mythology that surrounds it, and separating fact from fiction is difficult. There are five major misconceptions that people have in various forms.
1. You Need to Bulk To Build Muscle-Muscle can be built year around. While moderate to higher reps are generally more effective for muscle growth, there are no hard and fast rules that muscle growth can only happen during set times. You can build muscle through almost any form of progressive resistance training. Whether that training is the most effective for muscle growth is a different question, but overall resistance training done consistently will always lead to some degree of hypertrophy. Even in a calorie deficit while dieting, there is abundant evidence, both clinical and anecdotal, that the body can still body muscle given adequate protein intake. So muscle growth is a 24/7, 365 possibility.
2. Bulking requires overeating/overfeeding-While it’s true some guys need to eat a lot to gain weight, for the majority of people, overeating just makes them fat. There are plenty of “big guys” who want to believe their weight is all muscle, but in reality they are just “fat jacked” and carry way more muscle than they would care to admit. A “bulking” diet does not demand insane calorie intake. Most men can reasonably gain weight eating an extra 500 calories a day. The guys that need to eat 5,000+ calories are outliers, not the norm.
3. You need fat to build muscle-This is a high school bro myth that persists. The idea is that you NEED to get your bodyfat higher in order for that fat to “turn into” muscle, or for your body to adapt to being a higher weight. This is categorically wrong in every possible way. Excess fat gain impedes muscle growth, and aside from getting enough healthy fats in your diet to support health, the body has zero need for fat beyond that necessary levels for overall physiological health. Once you go over the athletic range for bodyfat, you are doing nothing beneficial for your health at all, let alone gaining muscle
4. Bulking requires specialized “bulking” training-There are no special bulking exercises or bulking programs. Training for increased muscular size is hypertrophy training, and conventional training of moderate to high reps will accomplish exactly that. Different muscle groups respond slightly different to sets and rep ranges, but overall its hard to go wrong sticking with 8-15 reps a set, and doing anywhere from 10-20 sets a week per muscle group. Train like a bodybuilder to build the body.
5. Bulking and Cutting is the best way to train for muscle growth-Bulking is something of a recent phenomena where gaining tons of weight is promoted is good for “gains” and then you “cut down” to reveal the muscle. Unless you are taking anabolic steroids and have great genetics, packing on a ton of weight and then trying to lose is ineffective for muscle growth. Most gains and will be fat, and like I said before, you can train for muscle and still be reasonably lean most of the year. The practice of massive weight gain started in the 1990s with juiced up bodybuilders. That approach is ill-advised for a natural guy, or even a gentleman on TRT (testosterone replacement therapy). Stay lean and mean.
Requirements for Bulking
First off, some conditions must you be met. In this case, we are deciding we are going to have a specific timeframe of overfeeding, likely 3 months, maybe 4 if we are very lean, and we are going to use training volume (sets and reps) to push our body to adapt and grow to new levels of muscularity. Conditions beforehand:
-Athletic Bodyfat %-If you are overweight or heavyset, you don’t need to bulk. You will just be exacerbating being overly fat and the ill effects thereof. To start a bulk, you should be reasonably lean around, around 12% bodyfat or less. Any higher than that, and most of your weight gain will be pure adipose tissue
-Experienced trainee-If you are new to lifting, you likely do not need to do a “bulk” at all. Even for naturally skinny guys, simply increasing calories and eating consistently will build the muscle. A training novice can make gains with a simple routine. For someone with some lifting experience, a bulk can be an effective way to break through a perceived plateau in training.
-Consistent Training-This is an obvious one, but it must be said; if you struggle to train consistently, THAT is your first priority. Your lack of muscle reflects your lack of action. Beginner trainees that struggle to get to the gym dont need to bulk, they need to SHOW UP in the first place.
-Calorie control and nutrition knowledge-Something that is overlooked, but many guys think they need to “bulk” when in reality they just undereat and do not realize it, or eat like shit. If you struggle to eat consistently, eat enough protein, eat a healthy diet, again you do not need to “bulk”, you need consistency with how you feed yourself
All these things said, how do we execute a Bulking Training Cycle?
How to Bulk 101
- Train for Hypertrophy-Bodybuilding training exists because it WORKS. Do not fall for the fallacy of “i want to be strong but not big!”. If you had the genetics to be big, you’d already know it. And further, the strongest indicator of strength is muscular SIZE. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. There are endless programs in existence that are designed for hypertrophy, but they all share some things in common
-moderate to high reps, 8-20+
-at least 4 days a week of training (a conventional push/pull/legs/arms split works well)
-moderate to high volume, at least 10 and up to 20+ sets per muscle group
I have programs both on my website and in my daily training newsletter. You can also find programs for free all over the web. Find something that looks appealing and stick with it.
- Eat enough, but not too much calories-If you are undereating, you are not going to maximize your muscle growth. You do not need to a massive surplus, but consistent eating and sufficient eating are nonnegotiable
- Protein-Also nonnegotiable. I keep things simple for people. Have a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Eat a lot of vegetables. Have some clean carbs (rice, potatoes, yams, oateal, etc) before and maybe after training with your carbs. Eat at least 4 times a day.
- Gain weight slowly-A ¼ to ½ pound gain of weight is reasonable. Over 3 months, you should gain about 10lbs. Over 4 months, 12lbs. Gaining a pound a week is a setup for excess fat gain.
- Do Cardio still-Your bodies ability to use oxygen is a very critical factor in muscle growth. If you are cardiovascularly unhealthy, you are limiting your muscularity. Get in regular aerobic and/or anaerobic cardio at least 3x weekly.
- Sleep-If your sleep is compromised, so is recovery. Sleep is the critical factor for anabolism and adaptation. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Get naps in during the day if your nighttime sleep is sub-optimal. If your sleep is limited, don’t expect much to happen through training.
- Be consistent-that goes for training, for eating, and for recovery. There is no circumvention to consistency.
- Be Realistic-80% of your gains will be made within the first 3 years training. Past that point, muscle growth will be much slower, adaptation will take longer, and it will be a game of inches, not of massive increases. Dont expect insane transformation, especially if you are an experienced lifter. The only time rapid transformations happen is with relative novices to lifting, or if you are very overweight and are cutting down for the first time. Otherwise, play the long game
Questions and comments? Let me know,
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