With winter right around the corner, "bulking season" is upon us. It drives me insane to see people enter their "bulking" phase for 6-8 weeks only to follow it up with a "cutting" phase when they've added nothing but fat to their frame after two months of pigging out. This begins an ever ending cycle of one diet extreme to another - resulting in never making any real progress one way or another.
This article is going to help you navigate the waters of what you need to be doing when you embark on the journey of adding some quality size to your frame in the form of lean body tissue - AKA MUSCLE.
I don't like to use the term "bulk" or "bulking" phase. To me, it always brought images of fluffier, more bloated versions of whoever partook in them. Mostly because 90+ percent of bulks are "dirty bulks" where the sole focus on the diet is quantity of calories with quality being no where on the list of priorities. Most lifters use it as an excuse to justify straying from their restrictive "cutting phases" that leave them lethargic and malnourished. More on this later...
I always liked to use the term "Mass Gain." We are looking to add quality muscle mass to our frame - not just extra nonfunctional bulk. When we do this it sets us up for not only increased strength potential but also allows us to increase (or at a minimum, maintain) our athleticism as well as set us up to improve our overall body composition.
Below you will find the ultimate hacks to a successful Mass Gain phase - everything from training considerations to lifestyle tips. The more of these you can employ, the more effective and successful your Mass Gain will be.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Before we officially kick-off the list I need to preface all of this with making sure you are lean enough to embark on a Mass Gain season. If you are overweight or over 15% bodyfat (males), 25-30% bodyfat (females), then you should not be partaking in a Mass Gain or bulk of any kind.
Your first priority should be to get down to a relatively lean bodyfat percentage and maintain it for 6-8 months. If your body regulates and holds that composition with relative ease, then you can begin to experiment with increasing calories to make a push towards adding some size. You can absolutely still build muscle while you are trying to lose weight - so don't stress.
Ideally for most men, I like to see them around 10-12% and women around 15-20%. This will ensure you are in a good position and have adequate muscle to be able to take on and use the influx in calories for what we want them to be used for.
Now you might be thinking 'But I want to go on a Mass Gain so I can build the muscle!'
However, you can build quite a bit of muscle and attain a lean bodyfat percentage without taking drastic action. Every person can reach the above bodyfat percentages with a standard lifting regiment and consistent diet that doesn't take drastic measures one way or the other.
IT JUST TAKES TIME....which leads me into the first real tip.
The biggest reason most 'bulks' fail is because people go from one extreme to the other or they try to go from '0-60' by jamming the gas pedal to the floor. They think that because they are trying to add mass and they need more calories that they can eat whatever they want, as much as they want, and do it from the jump.
This is so wrong on so many levels. The body does not like rapid change. There is one variable that no amount of calories will change - TIME. It takes time for the body to utilize the nutrients you're eating to recover from training and to rebuild and repair muscles. Just because you ate 5000 calories that day, does not mean it can do it any faster.
What ends up happening is all those extra calories just end up being stored as body fat, which soon drives people to cutting the bulk short, and then starting their 'cut' - which is the same problem, just on the opposite end of the spectrum because it's over restrictive.
QUALITY STILL REIGNS SUPREME
First and foremost, get the idea that a Mass Gain season becomes a free-for-all that allows you to just eat whatever you want. This is not the case. Unfortunately, main stream society has people thinking that calories is all they need to be concerned with when it comes to their diets. This is one of the biggest misconceptions you can buy in to and one that will seriously stack the deck against you whenever you choose to pursue any kind of athletic and/or fitness goal.
Yes, calories are important and we need to be getting more of them if we are striving to add a substantial amount of muscle, but the quality of those calories is still priority number one!
This means that pizza and ice cream do not become staples in your diet because you 'need the calories.' Your diet should still be comprised of all the same nutrient dense, high quality, whole foods that you eat at any other point during the year, just in higher quantities.
As for the quantity, you do not need a 1000 calorie surplus every day. Start small and build up from there. Starting modest with a 200-300 calorie surplus is a great place to start. And rarely would I ever suggest anything more than a 500 calorie surplus.
This ensures we are building up slowly over time and giving the body as much as it needs to do its job. This is how you're able to keep a 6 pack 365 days a year, regardless of what phase of training you're in. This is also how you get ABSOLUTELY diced when your 'lean' season rolls around. But that's a post for another day...
This one is pretty straight forward. Sleep is the king of recovery. If training is the machine of building muscles and food are the tools, then sleep is the electricity. It gives it all power and allows it all to work the way they're meant to.
Sleep is not only when we allow for rest and repair, but it is also where we produce all the hormones needed to build muscle. Things like testosterone, human growth hormone, insulin like growth factor, etc.
If you are trying to add muscle in the form of a Mass Gain phase then you need to be trying to get a minimum of 8-9 hours of sleep every night. MINIMUM. If you really want to double down on this then get to bed early. The earlier the bedtime - the more of those benefits you will reap.
I can hear it now - "CARDIO KILLS GAINS BRO!!!"
And I will be completely transparent - I used to be that guy. But fortunately for me and for my physique and athletic ability, I matured and actually looked at the science.
By conditioning I don't mean running 10 miles everyday. This is where a lot of people like to make their argument. They look at long distance runners and see how skinny they are. Obviously if your conditioning regiment looks like that of a marathon runner, then it will be next to impossible to get yoked. But using an extreme example doesn't prove anything.
The fact is that our body will adapt to the stimulus placed on it. If you are placing a stimulus that drives muscle growth and strength increases 90% of the time, then the other 10% isn't going to completely turn it on its head.
BUT - what that 10% will do is keep your body functioning efficiently, keep you healthy, train and strengthen your heart AND improve your ability to recover (which will only help you build muscle faster). If sleep is the electricity in our analogy, then conditioning is an amplifier.
Shooting for 60-90 minutes a week of Zone 2 cardiac output is what I recommend and write into most of my programs. This is a nice steady pace done 20-40 minutes at a time. Breaking a good sweat and feeling good. You are not murdering yourself until you want to puke.
This will never take away from your lifting - it will only help it, and as a result, help you build muscle faster.
STRENGTH FIRST - SIZE SECOND
If you have followed my content and listened to my podcasts then you know I am an advocate of muscle tension being the main driver of our Hypertrophy (building muscle). This is just a fancy way of saying I like to use heavy weights to build muscle.
Thus, I always like to start a Mass Gain season with an intensification phase. This means we take 6-8 weeks of gradually increasing the intensities of the loads we are using - essentially focusing on strength as opposed to increasing muscle.
Some people and coaches like to do the opposite. They will start by increasing muscle because a bigger muscle has more potential for strength - thus in theory they can increase strength more following a hypertrophy phase. However, I prefer to be stronger so I can use heavier weights in my hypotrophy focused phase. Heavier weights for more reps equals MASSIVE GAINS.
I also like starting with building strength first because we do not use as much volume to start. This awards our body time to acclimate to us slowly starting to increase our calories. After 6-8 weeks of small increases in calories and allowing our body time to acclimate, (so we don't put on access body fat during the strength phase) - we can increase our calories further to match our increase in training volume.
This can be summed up in one little snippet - 'STIMULATE - DON'T ANNHILATE.'
You do not need to do 40 sets of chest in order to get it to grow. You do not need to train your arms six days a week to fill the sleeves on your t-shirt.
It sounds lazy, but we want the minimum effective dose when it comes to our training. This is because anything over the optimal amount of stimulus is just more we have to recover from without it producing any more growth.
That's like working more hours without getting paid more money - you don't want to do that!
Now what the minimum effective dose is can be hard to say. It's different for everyone. And it will be less the more experienced you are. However, chances are if you are training hard and with intent, it is probably not as much as you would think it is.
***SIDEBAR: This is also another reason I prefer starting with increasing strength before increasing volume - because heavier sets yield more stimulus then a lighter set. A set of 10 at 225 will provide more stimulus than a set of 10 at 165. Thus I can get more stimulus with 2 sets than the latter would with 3. This improves training economy allowing me to get more results with less time. ***
Listen to your body, monitor how it feels, how you are performing, how you look in the mirror, and how good you are sleeping. If all of these things are great, then you are in the sweet spot - keep it going.
If you are sleeping like ass and not getting stronger, then you need more recovery. This can be attained through more sleep and more calories but in most instances is achieved through less lifting volume and a bit more conditioning. You have to take a look at your life and be honest with yourself as to where you are coming up short. This is why coaches can be so valuable.
There are a lot of moving parts to nailing this down and getting it optimized. This is why I make myself available to anyone that wants to take on the challenge of tackling their physical and athletic potential. It is a long and arduous journey but it is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding. I've provided the ultimate hacks you need to be successful when bulking.
If you want to work with me personally, check out the site - there are plenty of ways we can work together.
If you want to hop into my personal Mass Gain Phase, come and join me and my community in Team Valor! We are prepping right now to officially kick off our Mass Gain Phase in just a few weeks. The feedback has been amazing!
Now let's put this to practice and start packing on some muscle!