bulking up intelligently

Bulking Up Intelligently

The six-pack season is over.
You suddenly realize that while you sported a decent set of abs, you didn’t look as big and hard as you would have liked. This is why you are going to eat some serious food this winter and make sure your shirts no longer fit.

That’s the story of most guys who lift weights. We will never be satisfied or big enough. Unfortunately, too many people end up with more fat added than muscle, which makes it harder to cut afterward. You definitely don’t want that, which is why I wrote this for you.

Being ready for a bulk

The first question you have to ask yourself before you start is whether or not you are ready. If you are 15% body fat, it is probably not a priority for you to eat more calories. Insulin sensitivity may be a complicated topic, but we know that it decreases as you get fatter. Since you need to be insulin sensitive in order to gain more muscle than fat, I would suggest you start a bulk if you are below 10% body fat.

A good rule of thumb is to be able to see your abs before you start bulking up, not necessarily a six-pack, but at least a decent four-pack.

A good rule of thumb is to be able to see your abs before you start bulking up, not necessarily a six-pack, but at least a decent four-pack. Image courtesy of Built Lean.

Don’t worry, there is no need to go down to 5% just to optimize insulin sensitivity, but I have always found that starting from 8 to 9% is ideal. A good rule of thumb is to be able to see your abs before you start, not necessarily a six-pack, but at least a decent four-pack.

Another advantage to starting lean is that it is easier to see your weaknesses. If you have muscles that need to be worked on more than others to bring symmetry, you will see that better if you are lean instead of sporting a layer of fat.

Once you know what your priorities will be, you can plan your muscle building program accordingly. There is no need to put a crazy amount of volume on chest if you have chicken legs or ILS (Imaginary Lat Syndrome). And since we never see ourselves as we really are, it’s even better to ask for someone else’s unbiased opinion on your priorities.

There is no need to put a crazy amount of volume on chest if you have chicken legs.

There is no need to put a crazy amount of volume on chest if you have chicken legs.

Don’t get fat

Of course, bulking up means you are going to gain mainly muscle, and as little fat as possible. People tend to get fat for the following reasons:

  • First, they do not track anything so they end up with more calories than they really need. This is common if you use the “eat what you see” approach, which is the dumbest thing to do if you want to put on lean muscle.
  • Second, they don’t eat enough proteins or nutrients and just look for easy calories, which leads them to poor nutritional choices, despite getting the calories right.
  • Finally, they poorly estimate how hard they are actually training and they are not providing the stimulus necessary to put on muscle.

You have to find the balance between eating more than you actually need to maintain your weight, and eating everything in sight. Calorie counting may not be necessary if you tend to know how much you are eating, but the problem with guessing is that it can backfire.

The quality of your food also matters. A bulk is a time to be naughty, it’s true, because it should be an anabolic time, but you have to make sure to meet a few nutrient requirements. It can’t only be enjoyment. Protein, fiber, micronutrients, and essential fats have to be there. Once you have met the dietary requirements for these nutrients, however, you can indulge on a few treats to meet your calorie goal.

bulking up

A bulk is a time to be naughty, it’s true, because it should be an anabolic time, but you have to make sure to meet a few nutrient requirements.

The training is often botched because people focus too much on the eating part. Muscles won’t grow if you don’t provide the right stimulus. Too often, people work a body part only once a week, which is the perfect way to ruin gains. Let me get one thing straight, even elite bodybuilders train the same muscle more than once a week. It’s OK to use a training split, but an upper-lower split is often much more effective than a four-day split.

Even if you do everything right, the body doesn’t like change and will stop adapting to it if you are forcing it to change for too long. Bulking shouldn’t be maintained for great lengths of time. You have to make the most of it when your willpower is the strongest (eating a lot is just as hard as not eating too much), and your body’s response is the highest. Past that point, you will be more likely to plateau. Six weeks are generally sufficient to see results. Then you can go on a break for two to three weeks and start again if you have more muscle to build.

How to beat plateaus

Gaining muscle is sometimes harder than losing fat because sustaining a caloric surplus day in and day out is challenging, even for big eaters. Whenever you go out of a certain caloric balance, your body doesn’t like it. In the beginning it can adapt positively, but then your insulin sensitivity goes down and you stall or gain fat.

In order to avoid that, I suggest you use the same strategies as for weight loss, but backwards. Have a day when you eat fewer calories. This should preferably be a rest day but it can be a training day. This day will let your digestive system recover, and prevent your metabolism from adapting too quickly. You don’t necessarily have to count anything on that day. Just make sure to eat mostly meat, fish, veggies and fruits and stop before you feel full. If you want to count, just eat 15 calories or less per pound of body weight. This is the equivalent of the “cheat day” when cutting but in reverse.

Of course, some people also plateau because they don’t eat enough. Few people realize what it takes to gain weight. So called hardgainers are often more plagued by a lack of calories than by genetics. This has happened to a few of my clients more than once. The client tells me “No matter what I eat, I can’t put on weight. But I do eat.” Then I give the menu and they generally say “But I can’t eat all that! Won’t I get fat?”

bulking up

The client tells me “No matter what I eat, I can’t put on weight. But I do eat.” Then I give the menu and they generally say “But I can’t eat all that! Won’t I get fat?”

If you don’t exceed your caloric target by too much, there is no reason to get fat. You will gain a little bit of fat along with the muscles but nothing to worry about. You need to change your focus. If your priority is to build muscle, everything must be geared towards building muscle. Chase two rabbits and you will end up catching neither. Of course, there are things that you can do to make sure your calories go to your muscles and not your fat cells.

Optimizing insulin sensitivity

Whether you stay lean or gain fat from your caloric excess is largely dependent on your body’s ability to handle these extra calories. In other words, your sensitivity to the hormone insulin. Few people understand the meaning of that fancy phrase but it is extremely important for several reasons.

Insulin is one of the most anabolic hormones in the human body, so you need it for protein synthesis and for building muscle. The problem is that in excess, insulin will drive more nutrients to your fat cells than your muscle cells because muscle cells tend to become insulin resistant quicker than your fat cells.

An insulin sensitive person will partition nutrients optimally, meaning that excess calories will be driven towards protein synthesis rather than fat accumulation. Fortunately, training properly increases your insulin sensitivity, and so can a few dietary strategies.

bulking up

Fortunately, training properly increases your insulin sensitivity, and so can a few dietary strategies.

Calorie cycling can be used in countless ways to optimize insulin sensitivity. The principle is much more simple than some people believe. You reduce calories and carbs for a definite amount of time and then increase calories and carbs. This can be done over the course of several days, or in a single day, like in some intermittent fasting protocols.

The best way to control insulin sensitivity will still be to stay fairly lean. Jason here typically advises you to stay below 13% body fat and that’s because past a certain point, there will be diminishing returns from your caloric surplus. If you have no way to measure your body fat levels, I suggest you take a picture of yourself before you start your mass phase. As I said there should be a visible decent four-pack of abs (when you flex). Once the abs disappear, you know it’s time to stop.

Calories and macros

And now to the calories and macros. Some people will tell you it’s all about eating clean foods when you bulk up, so they will have you bulk up on brown rice and chicken breast, but who does that? As much as I always stress to eat for nutrients and limit the junk food, bulking should be a time of enjoyment so you can be a little naughty.

For calories we could get fancy formulas, or just take 20 calories per pound of body weight if you train up to four times a week, and up to 22 calories per pound of bodyweight if you train five to six times a week. Any more than that and you would probably put on too much fat.

Of course, it’s essential to monitor your progress so if those numbers make you gain fat, you need less. If nothing happens (very unlikely but let’s imagine that), you may need to go above that.

bulking up

It’s essential to monitor your progress and if you are gaining fat, you need less calories.

Guess what, I’m not even going to give you any specific macronutrient ratio. You just need to make sure your essential needs are met and the rest can be enjoyment. Since you are going to be in a surplus, your essential nutrient needs are going to be covered way before your calorie goal.

According to the state of current research, between 0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight and up to 2 grams is optimal. Fat intake will also be very important. I recommend fish oil supplementation if you don’t eat fish regularly. Otherwise, mackerel, salmon, sardine, anchovies and other fatty fish should be included at least four times a week. Your essential fat needs can be covered with 0.5g of fat per pound of bodyweight, the majority of them coming from avocado, nuts, eggs, and fish.

Let’s take the example of a 180-pound man. He would need between 3600 and 3900 calories to gain serious muscle. 0.8 grams of protein per pound will give him 144g of protein. 0.5 grams of fat will give him 90 grams. Carbs will generally be the easiest macronutrient to eat so let’s assume most of the remaining calories will come from carbs. What is important, however is a fiber goal, which will be met with veggies and fruits.

With 144 grams of protein and 90 grams of fat, our 180-pound dude is at 1386 calories. If he wants to start bulking at 20 calories per pound, he will need 3600 calories, which means that he has 2200 calories to find (game on!).

bulking up

When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson needs a cheat meal, he eats an entire village.

Don’t forget your veggies

Of course, it shouldn’t be pizza, ice-cream, and hamburgers all the time. You require minerals, vitamins and fibers to keep you healthy. Not to mention, the antioxidants in fruits and veggies will help you recover better from the training.

A good rule of thumb is to eat the same amount of veggies as meat or fish. Let’s say our 180-pound dude is eating 700 grams of meat and fish to meet his protein needs, then he will need 700 grams of veggies. This should give him about 25 grams of fiber, depending on the veggies chosen. The rest can come from fruits and starches. Veggies typically don’t need to be counted when bulking since they carry very few calories.

Where to find the rest of the calories

This is the beauty of the method, once you have eaten the nutrient dense foods, you can eat what you want to meet the caloric target for the day. This means that you no longer feel guilty about not having eaten enough during the day because you can make up for it in the evening. You don’t even have to obsess about eating every two hours to supposedly stay anabolic.

I suggest you eat your nutrient dense food most of the day and keep the fun for later. This way you don’t train on a full stomach, which is never great for performance and you keep insulin in check during most of your day. Research has proven that the sum of what you eat during the day is much more important than what you ate immediately after your workout, or the fact that you didn’t eat for four hours straight (yes, you can do that and still build muscle).

Even if you train in the morning, it is a better idea to have most of your calories later in the day. If you don’t overdo it and make sure to have your last meal 2 hours before bed, the added calories and insulin spike will help you sleep like a baby. Of course, you have to make sure not to overload your digestive system, but a large meal at night can be great to stimulate protein synthesis during your sleep, when the whole repair process can happen, and refill your energy stores for your workout the next day.

bulking up

Even if you train in the morning, it is a better idea to have most of your calories later in the day.

How to train for mass

Don’t pack on the calories with a half-assed training. To make proper gains, make sure to use tension, progressive overload, and to get a pump. The tension will be achieved by maximally contracting your muscles so squeeze the weight like it owes you money and feel the burn. Sets between 8 and 12 reps should be your max tension sets. While I often preach to use mainly compound movements, use isolation to work on your weak points.

Nobody got big without getting strong so include some strength work around the 5-rep mark or below. It is a great way to ensure strength gains and avoid plateaus. Include some work near the 20-rep mark can help you create metabolic stress and maximize the pump. A back-off set after a few heavy sets will give you the best bang for your buck.

An overlooked factor is also frequency. Annihilating a muscle once a week is counterproductive. For most people training four times a week, an upper-lower split or some form of full body workout is more productive than a four-day split. Pro-bodybuilders use a body part split because they train six times a week and sometimes twice a day so they do use frequency. If you are training six times a week, make sure to focus on your weaknesses and just maintain your strengths so as not to overload the nervous system, but this is when you can use a three-day split.

bulking up

Annihilating a muscle once a week is counterproductive.

Here is what a lower-body/back day program can look like when you include tension, strength and metabolic stress, bearing in mind that everything would need to be individualized to you:

1) Squat 4 sets of 5 at 85% of 1RM. Fifth set, 50% of 1RM for 20 reps. (Strength and metabolic stress). 2-3mn of rest

2) Barbell walking lunges 4 sets of 10 reps (per leg) at 65-70% of 1RM (Tension). 90secs of rest

3A) Romanian deadlift for 12 reps(tension) 1mn

3B) Lying leg-curl for 8 reps (tension) 1mn

Alternate between the two and repeat 3 times

4A) 5 sets of 6 Gironda sternum chin-ups (strength and tension)

4B) Bent-over barbell row for 15 reps (tension and metabolic stress) rest 2mns and repeat the superset 4 times.

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When you are bulking up intelligently, eat for nutrients until you have reached a nutrient goal. After this, eat whatever needs to be eaten to reach a caloric goal. You don’t have to gorge 24/7. It’s better to eat frugally and keep the feast for later in the day. Train like a beast and don’t subscribe to just one training method. Make sure to include the variety you need to address your weak points and bust through plateaus. Do six-week bulking cycles and assess your results. Don’t spend the entire winter bulking or it will become very hard to lose the fat for the summer.


About the Author

anthony dexmierAnthony Dexmier is a strength coach in the South of France. He enjoys deadlifting, kettlebells and Olympic lifting, despite a genetic predisposition for endurance sports. He helps people eat and train better both online and at the gym and his special areas of interests are prehab, rehab, strength and nutrition. He loves writing and can be found on AnthonyDexmier.com.

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