Winter is just around the corner making this an opportune time to discuss how to execute a bulking phase properly. In an effort to respect your time, I will try to make these articles as brief as possible while still presenting you with all the information necessary to further your understanding on key fitness topics. Without further ado, let’s discuss bulking…
Why Even Bulk?
The reason for purposefully undergoing periods of sustained weight gain is simple:
Without doing so, you will never reach your maximum muscular potential.
Think of bulking (or any shifts in bodyweight for that matter) like the building of a brick house. There are four people constructing the brick house and the process is ALWAYS ongoing. The four people are:
Now, suppose presently about HALF your house is built and you have 100 total bricks. This means when your house is finished — which it will never fully be because the process is always ongoing — you will have about 200 bricks.
What is “finishing” your house contingent on?
“Finishing” your house (reaching 200 bricks) is contingent on the brick layers adding bricks at a faster pace than the brick takers remove bricks.
If the brick layers do not add bricks at a faster rate than the brick takers remove bricks, your house will never exceed the 100 brick total that it currently has.
This is perfectly synonymous with body mass development.
If the number of calories you intake does not vastly exceed the number of calories you output over a long enough time horizon, you will never reach your max body mass development and thus your maximum muscular potential.
This is the reason you MUST purposefully eat in a calorie surplus for sustained periods of time over the course of a training career.
Back To The Bricks…
So, even if your house is currently made of mostly good bricks — lets say it’s comprised of 92 good bricks and 8 bad bricks — you will still never be able to achieve the most amount of good bricks possible (which is somewhere close to 200 assuming that is the size of your house when “finished” and assuming you can amass a house of almost exclusively good bricks).
Now, you might be saying to yourself:
OK…I get it. I need to consume more calories than I burn on a long time horizon in order to achieve enough total body mass to reach my maximum muscular potential. BUT, how do I ensure good bricks are laid instead of bad ones causing me to become a big fat blob rather than a jacked Greek God?
Enough With The Bricks
By now you understand why you need to bulk in order to reach your maximum muscular potential and you know that your body tissue is comprised of muscle in addition to fat so I can stop talking in analogous terms.
Now, we can focus on the two main ways to maximize muscle gain and minimize fat gain while bulking. They are:
Appropriate Rate Of Gain
As per PMID 31247944, which is a narrative review on off-season weight gain recommendations for bodybuilders done by Helms, Fitschen, Espinar, and Iraki, the ideal rate of gain while bulking is .25-.5% of your total bodyweight per week.
I would extend this range out to .1-.5% of your total bodyweight per week. It is important to note, Helms & colleagues did suggest a slightly more conservative range for advanced trainees so if they were to give a blanket, all encompassing range it’d likely be something quite similar.
Example: For a 200 pound person, this would mean gaining .2-1 pounds per week of total bodyweight.
Why this range?
By gaining at a rate lower than .1% of your total bodyweight per week, are you even gaining? No, not really. The lower end of the range (.1%) is probably the least amount of weight you can gain and still have it be detectable on the scale.
By gaining at a rate higher than .5% of your total bodyweight per week, you are very likely maximizing the amount of muscle you can put on per unit time BUT at the added cost of a ton more fat accrual than you really need.
Above .5% of total bodyweight gained per week, the distribution of muscle to fat that goes on your body becomes less and less favorable with each incremental increase in percent of total bodyweight gained.
This makes .1-.5% the money range for maximizing muscle gain while minimizing fat gain as best as possible when purposefully adding weight to the scale incrementally (I.e bulking).
Now that you know the rate at which you should be gaining weight in order to maximize muscle gain while minimizing fat gain, let’s discuss the ideal macronutrient distribution (I.e how you split up your calories amongst protein, carbs, and fats). This will also play a massive role in determining the ratio of muscle to fat that goes on your body while eating in a calorie surplus.
The Ideal Macro Breakdown
The ideal macro breakdown looks like so:
Protein = 1g per pound of bodyweight
Fats = 15-30% of your total calories per day
Carbs = The remainder of your calories
This is not an article on how to calculate your calories so I will not explain how to do so. That said, you may click here to use my free calculators/data log on Google Sheets to calculate your recommended daily calories/macros. The formula used in that calculator is very similar to above recommendation. Simply make a copy of the sheet and then it is your own which you are then free to edit.
Again citing PMID 31247944, Helms & co. more or less suggested this macro breakdown as well.
Why this breakdown?
With this breakdown, you get:
High Protein — Needed for maximizing anabolic signaling and ultimately muscle growth
High Carbs — Needed for maximizing performance in the gym which will in turn affect the stimulus for growth your body receives
Low-Moderate Fat — Enough fat to keep things running smoothly (fats primarily affect things such as hormonal profile and body temperature regulation) but not so much that it eats into calories that could otherwise be allotted to protein and carbs
All in all, this macronutrient distribution likely provides you with the most favorable profile possible for optimizing anabolic signaling, energy, and hormonal profile.
The one area where it MAY be lacking is in satiety. Some people find fats to be more satiating than carbs so you may alter the ratio of carbs/fat in the distribution to better suit your preferences and ultimately boost adherence if needed. Bumping fats up a tad and carbs down a tad will likely have minimal impact on end body composition results.
So, nail the rate of gain, nail the macro breakdown, and you’re all set???
Nope, not all set.
Nothing is ever that easy.
Remember, we are discussing a physique related outcome and I haven’t even discussed training yet!
Proper Training Regimen
For timing purposes, this article will not get into the hyper-specifics as far as what you should be doing training wise to optimize your chances of putting on muscle while bulking as that article could span pages and pages and pages. That said, I will have plenty of future articles on training which should allow you to piece together an optimal training plan for yourself. In addition, I currently offer free hypertrophy programming for men on my website. You may click here to check that out.
Just so you’re not totally in the dark on training for bulking after having read this article, here are some key things to focus on when creating a training regimen centered around enhancing body composition:
- Relative Intensity
- Exercise Selection
- Rep Ranges
For volume, you should do enough hard working sets/reps in a given workout to evoke a hypertrophy stimulus which you can recover and adapt from but you should NOT do so much work that you cannot adequately recover and adapt by the next time you train.
For relative intensity, all non warm up sets should be taken to 5 RIR or less. The intensity that likely offers up the best stimulus to fatigue ratio on a per set basis is RIR 2.
For frequency, two times per week per body part spread evenly across the week (with enough time allotted for recovery between sessions) usually does the trick. That said, this is muscle group specific when you dig into the weeds.
For exercise selection, you should be choosing exercises that align with your stated goal(s). As one example, if you seek to want to enhance your hamstrings but you choose Conventional Deadlifts over Stiff-Leg Deadlifts, you are doing a poor job of lining up your exercise selection with your purported goal(s).
For rep ranges, you should select ranges that ensure the TARGET MUSCLE is the limiting factor. In general, the 5-10 rep range will be most optimal for the vast majority of exercises. This range will allow you to maximally recruit HTMUs (I.e the muscle fibers with the largest potential for growth) while keeping fatigue at bay as much as possible. Practically speaking, some exercises such as Lateral Raises and Leg Extensions (for example) cater well to slightly higher rep ranges so you may exceed 10 reps on occasion. Doing sets that exceed 15 reps with any degree of regularity, however, would likely be suboptimal.
Use progress as a proxy for the effectiveness of your workouts/training blocks. In other words, you should be seeing repetition or weight increases on a fairly consistent basis across a number of lifts. If this is not the case, your training regimen may need to be reworked (though, as you will see in the upcoming section, a lack of progress isn’t always the fault of the training protocol).
NOW that’s it, right?
Nope! But almost. The last four things to consider are
Sleep — You should aim to sleep about 7+ hours a night with 8+ hours being optimal.
Hydration — Drinking half your bodyweight (lbs.) in ounces of water will probably do the trick as far as hydration goes.
Life Stress — Going out and partying until the wee morning hours, working 80+ hour weeks, staying in toxic relationships, etc. will ALL have an impact on your progress. Try to minimize the amount of undue stress you have in your life to the best extent you can.
Food Choices — It would be a wise choice to aim to make sure the vast majority of the foods you consume are whole, minimally processed foods.
These variables, while easy to overlook, matter a ton. They could be the difference between you making as much progress as possible vs. none at all. Give these as much tender loving care as you giving your training and calories/macros.
Wow, that was a lot, right?
It may have seemed so because I dug into the weeds a bit, but bulking really isn’t all that difficult if you have a plan in place.
Having read this article, you are now armed with all the information necessary to create that plan for yourself.
My recommendation to you would be to write down everything you intend to do on a daily/weekly basis to maximize the likelihood of you ticking all the boxes necessary.
Go…do it now!
What will your calories/macros be?
How much weight will you can per week?
What will your training regimen be?
What time will you go to bed each night?
What time will you wake up each morning?
How much water will you drink each day?
How will you keep your life stress to a minimum?
What does your grocery list look like?
If you really want to achieve your goal of successfully bulking as a means to adding muscle to your frame, you will want to have a plan.
How excited would your future self be that you took the time to create a road map to ensure your own success?
Conversely, how disappointed would your future self be that you were too lazy to take the time to do so and as a result you pissed away many months that could’ve been spent gaining?
I think those questions answer themselves. No further call to action is needed.
"An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without one." -- Warren Buffett