So, you’re bulking, huh? You’re going to gain 8 pounds of muscle this summer? You’re going to gain a pound per week, for the entire year? Ok, good. Have fun. This post isn’t for you.
Or maybe it is. By all means, do all of those things. But when they don’t work out exactly as you had planned, come back and read this article. I’m not saying you can’t bulk up, but there is a huge information gap. Most people that try to “bulk up”, myself included, end up gaining a bunch of weight, mostly fat, then “cutting”, and ending up either at the same size as they originally were, or only a few pounds heavier. It is incredibly frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be.
Yes, I’ve been there. I’ve tried it the hard way. I had a blast, gaining 34.6 pounds in 6 months. It wasn’t all muscle. Yes, I was getting stronger. But I still weighed 198 pounds, while benching 200 pounds. It was not impressive at all, and yet, when I did it, I thought I was he-man or something. I just assumed that all my weight was muscle, disregarding the larger waist as a side effect of “having large obliques” or something ridiculous. Not that people don’t get thicker waists from heavy lifting and a strong core, but they don’t gain 4 inches on them in 6 months.
I know, it sounds like I was just completely blissful. But be careful; turning a bulk into an obesity transformation it isn’t as hard as it seems. Most of my fat was not flopping around in the wind; I didn’t look like a bowl of jello. Yet, had I continued down the path of gaining weight at that rate, things could’ve gotten ugly.
If I pinched my stomach, it was still pretty hard, so I figured I was good. My waist was expanding, and so were my legs, but like I said, I was able to fool myself that it was muscle.
As soon as I started cutting, I realized what was going on. No, I wasn’t jiggling like jello, but there was fat being lost. It was under my muscles; literally under and inside my muscles, in what is called intramuscular fat. “Intramuscular fat or Intramuscular triglycerides (IMTG) is located throughout skeletal and is responsible for the marbling seen in certain cuts of beef.” Then, on top of that, there was the “Visceral fat or abdominal fat also known as organ fat or intra-abdominal fat, [which] is located inside the abdominal cavity packed between the organs (stomach, liver, intestines, kidneys, etc)”.
When I cut down, I dropped weight like a rock, going down to 176 before I knew it. Even then, I was a bit chubbier than I had been at 164. Going from 198 to 176 took about 4 months, the entire journey from 164 to 176 around 10 months. Then, lets assume that I had 4 extra pounds of fat at 176 than I had at 164, so I had really only gained 8 pounds of muscle in 10 months. That is a gain, but it was very slow. Now, looking back, if I had just stayed lean, and slowly added pounds without trying to gain as much weight as possible, I could have avoided the whole chubby phase, and quite likely would have gained more muscle during those 10 months.
This leads me to my first point about bulking up. Remember to consider the composition of the weight you are gaining. Sure, I may have gained 36 pounds, but how much of it was muscle?
I know you are going to disregard that last point when you are a novice; just remember that I warned you. If you are anything like me, you are/were convinced that you simply couldn’t gain weight at all, and were determined to do so just to prove that you could. That is perfectly natural. Go wild. But be aware that there is a better way: slow bulking.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Before we get to slow bulking, I want you to consider the chicken-or-egg dilemma I have been wrestling with for the past few years: if you want to put on muscle mass, do you up your lifting or your eating first? I’ll admit, during my “bulk”, I was convinced that the eating had to go up first. Now, I’m not so sure.
For some reason, bodybuilding culture (read: bodybuilding magazine culture) is enamored with the idea that bodybuilding is mostly nutrition, and lifting comes secondary. That is incredibly wrong. Does that mean that I can start eating like a professional bodybuilder, and will soon look like him? No. Goodness no. I’d have to be lifting the same weights he is. If not, I would just turn into a blob (which is exactly what I did).
Therefore, my second point is this: up your lifting first, then let your eating catch up. Muscles are like engines to move your body. If you just put more gas in them, and they don’t need it, they’ll just keep it in the tank. Eventually, the tank will be full, and you’ll have to put another tank in if you want to keep storing gas. However, if you make the engine bigger, it needs more gas to run. Then, you can add that gas, and you won’t have to get another tank. Now, substitute the word ‘muscles’ for ‘engine’ and the word ‘stomach/fat stores’ for ‘tank’, and you’ll see where I’m coming from.
Building the engine
Now you may be wondering, how can you build this engine? Well, simply, do more volume. Do more sets, do more reps, or any combination thereof, and you will grow. No, I don’t know if it is better to do 100 x 10 x 10 (pounds x reps x sets) = 100 total reps with 100 pounds = 10,000 pounds tonnage, or to do 150 x 5 x 10 = 50 total reps with 150 pounds = 7,500 pounds tonnage. But what I do know is that increasing tonnage is good. Doing more, within your limits, is good. Besides, this is a beginner’s post. At this point, you should stop worrying about all of that, and just go lift and pay your dues.
Before you get all excited, if you are a beginner, take some time to learn the form for the movements. Have someone teach it to you. Watch videos of how to do it on youtube. Make sure you do lots of lower-back and ab work to get a solid base. Don’t jump into deadlifting right away. Work on your rows, work on chinups, work on your incline pressing strength (incline presses require much less form than flat bench presses). Gradually add in complicated lifts like deadlifts, bench press, and cleans. At this point, the goal is to focus on ingraining proper form of these lifts by practicing them as much as possible. Paul Carter outlines a solid beginner program that he used to add 7 pounds of muscle on his 13 year old daughter in his wonderfully candid and straight to the point masterpiece book, Strength-Life-Legacy. I would outline it here, but don’t want to steal his stuff.However, the book and his blog are definitely worth checking out for a non-corrupt, non-anabolic drug look at lifting.
There are millions of programs out there, and most of them work. Yet people get so confused over which ones are better, and get overwhelmed by choice. Well, if you must do one of these, just pick one. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick. 5 x 5, 5/3/1, 10 x 10, traditional bodybuilding split, Pavel’s bear program, DeLorme method, Chaos and Pain, the Lift-Run-Bang program, whatever. They will all work. All you have to do is do them, and do them consistently. If you continue to do increase your total tonnage (weight x reps), your muscles will want to grow. Then, boom, you’ll start to get hungry, and you’ll gain weight, almost effortlessly (well, the eating part of it will be effortless).
Now, I know you’re still worried about how many days a week to lift, and which program is best, and so on and so forth. Well, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that I don’t know which program is best for you, and the good news is also that I don’t know which program is best for you. All of these programs with predetermined rest days and set and rep numbers will work, but you need to realize what they are: cookie-cutter programs. They are very conservative, and will work for just about anyone. As Jamie Lewis likes to say, they are low risk, low reward. They are relatively low in terms of volume, to make sure you won’t get hurt, and are relatively simple, so everyone can do them. But they are probably selling you short of your potential.
It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with these programs. They just don’t take into account individual differences, especially the recovery ability of new lifters. Yes, I know what you are thinking: “I’d have to take steroids to lift more than 3 or 4 days a week.” I was under that same impression for years, brainwashed by people like Stuart McRobert, the pessimistic author of Brawn, who created routines entirely based off of making sure that you don’t overtax your frail body. That makes me sad, and thank goodness it isn’t necessary. How in the world would we have survived as a species if we couldn’t recover and adapt to extreme exercise?
I’m about to say something bold, and you don’t have to try it. But you’re going to anyway, because it is great and works. If you are a beginner (any of your lifts are less than these: 1.25x bodyweight bench, 1.5x bodyweight squat, 2x bodyweight deadlift), start lifting 6 days a week. With such light weights, you can’t really do that much damage anyways. 2 days squatting, 2 days benching, 2 days pulling. Don’t go to failure every set. Just put in volume. You can either do lots of low rep sets (10 sets of 3) with heavy weights, or less high rep sets (5 sets of 8). Heck, you can do anything you want, just do lots of it, okay?
Six days a week is not the end-all-be-all split, even for beginners. But try it. Start with a lot, and if you find that it is too much for you, do less. Stop underselling yourself by default. Grind it out.
This, like lifting, is a personal thing. However, there are a few things that must remain constant. Firstly, base your diet around protein. If you are lifting consistently, get a lot of protein. It isn’t going to hurt you. If you don’t believe me, read Dietary Protein and Resistance Exercise, by Lonnie Lowery, PhD, RD then tell me I’m wrong. As for how much protein, use 1g/lb bodyweight as a target. But more than that won’t hurt either. Protein must remain high, no matter what.
The variables in your diet will be carbohydrates and fats. I’m not going to rehash what has already been written millions of times about how much to get, because everyone seems to have their own opinion. However, what I will say is this: if you want to gain weight, add more carbs and fats. If you want to lose it, cut carbs first.
No, I don’t support no carb diets, because I don’t think they work long-term. If you do weekly carb-ups, that can work, however. I personally like to cycle my carbs. On rest days (or light(er) workout days), I’ll have high protein, high fat, low carb. On lifting (heavier days), I’ll have high protein, high carb, low fat. If you want a more thorough explanation of why that works, read Anthony Mychal’s article here.
Meal timing? I don’t think it matters much. That 3 hour rule, where you’re muscles will evaporate if you don’t eat every 3 hours, is not real. It really takes around 24 hours, so go out and have a good time, stop carrying your chicken around, weirdo (or maybe that is just me). I’ve become enamored with intermittent fasting lately, and have found that it is pretty easy to both lose and gain weight on it, without ever getting chubby. Read more about that on leangains.com.
-remember to consider the composition of the weight you are gaining
-up your lifting first, then let your eating catch up
- do more volume; increasing tonnage is good
-learn the form for the movements
-base your diet around protein
Learn from people better than you. Ask their advice, read their articles. Worry about getting your lifts up before you worry about eating 6,000 calories per day. Learn the movements. Do more volume. Put in work, and reap the rewards.
“Visceral Fat.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Mar. 2012. Web. 07 Aug. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visceral_fat>.
“Intramuscular Fat.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 July 2012. Web. 07 Aug. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intramuscular_fat>.