The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “bulking” is a 340 pound off-season Ronnie Coleman, or that pic of Lee Priest where he looks so big it’s actually silly. While these examples are certainly the extreme, they represent the basic idea: get as big as possible in the shortest reasonable time.
Bulking isn’t meant to make you look pretty or give you the ideal beach bod (although many skinny guys would actually look healthier from adding a few pounds of fat along with the muscle). It’s designed to allow you to pack on the muscle, along with an acceptable amount of fat that can be stripped off in a subsequent cutting phase.
For some people, bulking is actually fun because you get to eat foods you wouldn’t normally consume. Also, with the anabolic hormone response you get from the excess calories, you may feel more assertive, more attracted to women (is that possible?), more confident, and overall just feel better! Besides, it’s one of the cycles in which you get to see quick results both in terms of the weight that you can move, as well as the way you look in the mirror.
On the other hand, there are the people who hate bulking. This is the group that has zero appetite, the crowd that finds cramming food down their throats to be as painful as watching Lindsay Lohan waste away to nothing. Even the thought of more food makes them feel uneasy, and they make every excuse to get out of eating. Sure, they train hard, and that only makes the situation worse because they’re not getting the results they deserve from the time and effort exerted on crushing the iron.
It’s for these desperate souls that I offer salvation. Through trial and error, I’ve come up with several tips to help you put on muscle at an accelerated rate. The days of bulking terror are over.
Before we jump into the tips, we need to go over some ground rules so that we’re on the same page. The following isn’t about health and fitness. This article isn’t going to help you lose weight for the upcoming family reunion or lower your 5k time.
Here, you won’t read about the “wonders” of soy or how to lower your serum cholesterol. This article is about getting big, plain and simple. Many of you won’t like what you read, but the fact of the matter is that these tips work. For that reason, I make no apologies.
I should at least specify that these tips aren’t for everyone. They’re tailored to the individual who has a hard time putting on weight (classically an ectomorph) and has very little appetite. Also, these tips are not meant to encourage a permanent lifestyle change, but rather an eight week phase when you break the traditional rules and pack on mass. Finally, these are guidelines, not a comprehensive personalized diet.
#1. Focus on nutrition, not training
I’m not sure why, but most of us tend to focus on our training when bulking, not nutrition. This is the biggest and most common mistake people can make.
Let’s face it, most skinny guys are newbies. And when you’re new to working out it really doesn’t take a whole lot to stimulate muscle growth. You could have a horrible program to start (and who among us didn’t?), but in terms of stimulating muscle growth, it’ll work.
We’ve seen this in studies: early muscle growth during a program is greater than when the program has been followed for some time. This suggests that even a sub-optimal program will work well early on.
Another reason why training isn’t a big deal for bulking is the intensity factor. I know from experience that skinny guys, and noobs in particular, often kill themselves in the gym. As mentioned earlier, they may not have the best program, but their sheer desire to put on muscle pushes them through pain barriers that would make a normal man cry.
My Own Noob Training Log
When I first began my “bench and biceps workout,” I trained with the same routine every three days. I’d do eight sets of bench and curls, each to failure. Then I’d follow each set with drop sets and then superset with pec flyes and dumbbell curls. I was so badly overtrained that I despised every minute of it, but my total obsession pushed me through.
Sadly, the 1500 calories I was eating each day did little to support muscle growth, and I didn’t put on a pound all summer. The real tragedy is that I thought the lack of progress was due to inadequate training intensity!
This brings us to the most important reason to focus on nutrition, which is the sheer amount of time and effort required for this aspect of hypertrophy. I mean, any idiot can kill themselves in the gym for an hour a day a few days a week, but it takes real focus and dedication to meet your nutritional requirements every few hours, every single day!
Add on top of this the reality that you’ll likely have to force feed yourself and it’s clear that your focus must be on nutrition.
#2. Forget what you know about traditional “bodybuilding diets”
Traditionally speaking, bodybuilders lived on chicken breasts, egg whites, and oatmeal. While these “clean” foods are great for health, they suck for trying to put on weight. They can have their place in a bulking regimen, but strictly eating “clean” during a bulking cycle is selling yourself short.
Remember, it’s called “bulking” for a reason, and it’s not because you’re supposed to live on brown rice for this period. You’re supposed to jack up the calories in an attempt to stimulate the anabolic response and maximize muscle growth. This doesn’t mean that you eat nothing but cheeseburgers and Pop Tarts, but if you can use these foods to meet your goal of getting big fast, then you should consume them.
While ultra high-fat diets are great, they’re more appropriate for a drug cycle than a food-induced bulking cycle. You can gain a greater proportion of muscle to fat if you combine traditional bodybuilding foods along with higher calorie fare.
Having said that, saturated fat intake is positively correlated with Testosterone levels and is great for calories. It’s also easier to eat foods with saturated fat because they generally taste better — a bonus for those of us who have zero appetite and are trying to overfeed.
Bottom Line: Get more fat calories than you would normally, but know your limits when it comes to this nutrient.
#3. Consume liquid calories
This is a common tip for bulking, but I’d like to take it one step further by saying that at least half of your meals should be consumed as liquids. And no, pre and post-workout drinks don’t count because they simply replace what you lose during training and because of the prolonged elevation in metabolic rate this causes.
Liquid meals are perfect for bulking because they’re generally nutrient dense (assuming you make them so), and take less time to be digested and absorbed. This means that you’ll be ready for your next meal sooner, which equates to getting more calories. Adding sucrose can make these meals taste better, which will help ease the consumption when the last thing you want to do is eat.
This also obviates all of the excuses people have for not eating. Both meal prep time and meal consumption time are low, so you can make and drink these on the go! One quick tip is to prep your drink ahead of time. That way it’s ready when you want it. (And no, you don’t have to worry about the protein degrading.) Making a drink also couldn’t be easier to do, so those of us who are lazy with nutrition really have no excuse for not making them up.
Coming firsthand from someone with no appetite, after two consecutive liquid meals you’ll be craving a solid food meal like you just smoked a big fat bowl! Or so my stoner friends tell me.
#4. Minimize fruit and vegetable intake
Wow, is this really a tip? Do you feel like you’re getting cancer just reading this?
Fruits and vegetables are perfect calorie restriction foods because they’re very filling and provide minimal energy. But if you’re really having issues meeting calorie needs, then fruits and vegetable consumption can be temporarily minimized with little detriment.
While I can already hear people crying about this, keep in mind that you’re not going to get cancer from skipping the “ten servings a day” rule for a couple of months. Again, this is a bulking cycle, not a permanent lifestyle change. Also, micronutrient requirements can be maintained for a short period of time with supplements like Juice Plus or Greens+, as well as the fruit juices from which you should derive your calories.
I think the real danger with this tip is that people may make this a long-term change in their diets, which is of course unnecessary and ultimately harmful. Since eating is largely about habits, and a reduction in fruits and vegetables isn’t a habit we want to maintain, an awareness of this fact is imperative. Likewise, it’s also important to understand that this tip, when used in the short term, isn’t harmful and works well to meet your bulking goals.
To reiterate, this tip only applies if you can’t meet current caloric needs. It should be used for a maximum of two months along with proper supplementation.
#5. The 80 gram casein protocol
Most people cringe at the idea of consuming 80 grams of protein at once, but after Tip #4, this one should be no problem. The most common questions (or rather statements) about consuming this much protein deal with the improbability of digestion or absorption. Sadly, the myth that you can only digest 30 grams of protein at a single sitting is still as pervasive as “muscle turns into fat.”
Rather than worrying about digestion or absorption, the limiting factor of how much protein we can turn into muscle is dictated by oxidation: how much we automatically burn off without using. This means that there are no set limits to the amount of protein we can digest or absorb, but we certainly have limits as to how much gets wasted via oxidation.
Amino acid oxidation is a function of sheer blood quantity, which means that the more we have in our blood, the more likely the amino acids are going to be burned off. Blood concentration is a product of quantity ingested and delivery rate, such that the faster the amino acids get into our blood the more likely they are to be oxidized. This is why we don’t pound back 60 grams of amino acids all at once: because the pre-digested aminos get in our blood so fast that most of them would be wasted by virtue of being burned off.
Casein: Preventing Oxidation
On the other extreme end of the speed spectrum is casein. We know that this protein is great when consumed just before bed because it’ll provide a steady trickle of amino acids to our blood and muscles all night long. This is important because contrary to common dogma, sleep is the most catabolic time for our bodies. Why? Simply because we’re fasting. Our bodies have to start breaking down muscle to fuel the body’s needs.
In a normal situation, 40g of casein before bed is a great way to minimize the catabolism we’d otherwise go through. The thing is, when we’re bulking we’re not just trying to minimize catabolism, we’re trying to stay in an anabolic state as long as possible!
That’s why 80g of casein (particularly micellar casein) before bed is the perfect complement to your bulking regime. It’s released slowly enough into the blood that it won’t succumb to significant oxidation, while the higher dosage will help ensure anabolism throughout the night.
#6. It ain’t over ’til it’s over
Even when the eight week bulking cycle is finished, you still can’t let up. I know you’ll immediately want to start ripping up to show the world your new muscle, but this is the worst thing you can do.
Much like a lifter goes on post-cycle therapy after using anabolics, a sufficient period of time must elapse before you can fully switch over to cutting. You almost have to allow your body to get used to the new level of muscle mass before you start tinkering with low calorie levels.
Think about it. Our bodies are designed to resist change and only adapt when necessary. If you’ve just added ten pounds of muscle in two months, this is a significant deviation from your body’s set point. This means that your body would be all too happy to start dropping the costly and energetically inefficient muscle you just worked so hard to earn. In order to deal with this reversion to the original set point, you have to get your body accustomed to this new level of muscle mass.
This can be accomplished by consuming a maintenance diet, with your full complement of fruits and vegetables. Keep the weights heavy, but be more aware of overtraining. You won’t be in the anabolic state you were when bulking and may be more susceptible to overtraining. Back off if you feel you need it, and don’t worry too much about suddenly losing weight — it’s not like coming off a drug cycle.
Don’t forget that with your new found muscle mass, your maintenance calorie requirement will be even higher than it was before!
5 Frequently Asked Questions
1. Will I put on fat following these tips?
I hope so. That’s why it’s called “bulking” and not “delicately adding lean mass.”
2. Why do we want to put on fat?
If you’re slowly adding a little fat, then it means that you’re in an optimal anabolic state for muscle growth. If you’re adding fat too quickly then you need to analyze what you’re doing and adjust accordingly. Besides, most skinny guys can afford to put on a little fat.
3. Why not gain lean mass exclusively?
From experience with myself and clients, it’s far faster and easier to gain a good quantity of muscle by bulking, then perform a cutting cycle. By trying to gain muscle without gaining fat, you’ll compromise both and accomplish less.
4. What about supplements?
This is the first thing that noobs ask, simply because they don’t understand how muscle growth works. Once they understand that building muscle requires a tremendous amount of food energy, they realize that supplements are meant to be icing on the cake rather than the cause of muscle growth.
5. Why are Pop Tarts so perfect?
Pop Tarts contain an enormous amount of energy wrapped into a small package. You get a big bang for your buck, so to speak. They’re also very sweet, which can encourage consumption for many naturally skinny guys.
These tips are but a sample of what you can do to help yourself pack on weight. When used in conjunction with your training and nutrition programs, you’ll be adding at least a pound a week in no time. As always, stay focused, train heavy, and don’t forget why it’s called bulking!
Author: David Barr
Photography: Alpha Design Photography