Who doesn’t want to get bigger, strong, build muscle and not gain a boat load of fat in the process? It’s the holy grail of gym training. But it’s not that easy, is it?
You think you’re doing everything right: you train hard, ‘eat clean’, you take your pre-workout……but you’re still not building muscle and making many, if any, gains.
Don’t worry, I get it. Building muscle is incredibly frustrating. Your lack of progress often forces you to be constantly trying new and ever increasingly complicated methods. But it’s just the same hamster on a new wheel (that’s just a figure of speech, I’m not suggesting that you resemble a hamster although those little guys look like they have bulking down to a fine art!).
Before we get into the meat and veg of this guide I need you to do one thing for me – forget about your genetics.
Calling yourself a ‘hardgainer’ has been good for one thing, it’s brought you to this article.
Now it’s time to move on from limiting beliefs. Believe me when I say; if you follow the information in this guide you can, and will, transform your physique into something even you won’t recognize!
This is the definitive bulking guide, the solution to all your hardgainer problems.
Let’s Define ‘Bulking’
Before we get into the really good stuff it’s important to define once and for all the goal of a bulking phase and that is;
To build as much muscle tissue as possible whilst minimizing fat gain
The goal of a bulking phase is not to simply gain weight. This is commonly known as the ‘dirty bulk’ approach. That’s easy to do…..
Dirty bulking results in gaining a lot of fat which then has to be lost in order to see how much quality muscle you have actually gained. Not worth it.
Gaining muscle, without fat, requires a little more skill and finesse.
Get Your Mind Right Baby
Embarking on a muscle building phase means that you’re making a commitment to grow above everything else.
You’ve got to get your mind right as Todd Durkin would say.
There may be meals you don’t want to eat, workouts you don’t want to do and times where you think that you can stop and start ‘getting shredded’.
Your resilience through times where you want to move onto something else will be the main factor in determining how much muscle you pack onto your frame.
It’s common for people to get bored during a phase of training. This boredom makes change very appealing. But you must focus on the process, not simply the outcome. Muscle building takes time, you have to remember this.
The Muscle Gain Diet: What Should I Eat To Build Muscle?
Let’s kick things off with calories.
You know that calories matter, but how much should you be eating?
To build muscle, you need to be in a ‘calorie surplus’. This means that you’re taking in more energy than you’re burning each day.
Calorie intake is specific to the individual so the first thing you have to do is calculate how many calories you need to consume in order to gain weight. There are lot’s of ways to do this but I like to use this simple equation:
Men = Bodyweight in lbs x 18, 20 or 22.
18 if you have a sedentary job and train 3 time per week
20 if you have an active job and train 4-5 times per week
22 if you have a very active job and train hard 5-6 times per week.
Women = Bodyweight in lbs x 16,17 or 18
Same criteria as above.
What About Protein, Carbs & Fats?
For protein intake, the research suggests you aim for between 1.6-1.8g per kilo of bodyweight.
You generally have a lot of flexibility when it comes to your carbohydrate and fat targets. The two main targets that should account for 90% of your focus is calories and protein.
Hit your protein target and you pick your carb and fat targets to fill the remaining ‘void’.
Just to recap there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate and protein and 9 calories per gram of fat.
To give you a little example of how this would work, let’s say you’re aiming for 3000 calories and your protein target is 180g (720 calories). That means you’ve got 2280 calories remaining.
If you ate 70g of fat (630 calories) you would have 1650 calories remaining which would be 412g of carbohydrate.
Make sense? If you need some more help, read this article how to calculate macros.
Here’s a tip from me: if you want to track these numbers then go ahead but I would recommend aiming for a weekly total (multiply your daily goal by 7). This will allow for greater flexibility and will help you avoid getting caught up with hitting exact daily totals.
If you don’t want to track that’s fine, you can eat intuitively and make adjustments as you see fit. If you are totally new to this then I would advise tracking for at least a few weeks until you have a grasp on the content of your food. You can go beyond this and calculate your exact macros, carbohydrates and fats in grams, but this can become time consuming and overwhelming very quickly.
What Kind of Muscle Building Foods Should I Eat?
There are no magic foods that are ‘anabolic’ or will cause you to magically grow muscle. Sorry pal.
Creatine can help build muscle from a supplement perspective but ‘muscle building foods’ don’t exist. Therefore, for the most part eat foods that you enjoy and that are convenient for you to prepare.
Rather than give you a boring list of carbohydrates, protein sources etc I thought it would be better to give you some more specific information about the composition of your diet as a whole.
Don’t forget the veggies
I don’t want to repeat myself but make sure you include vegetables in your high protein meals to ensure you are getting enough nutrients and looking after your health.
Are you buzzing?
Liquid meals, these can really save the day when it comes to bulking. You can easily pack a bunch of calories and nutrients into a shake. This not only saves time but also gives your digestive system a welcome break and makes it easier to hit your calorie goals.
Take it higher
A simple food swap can make hitting your daily calories a lot easier. Switching from semi-skimmed to whole milk or low fat greek yoghurt to regular is an easy way to increase your calorie intake. You could also start to include higher calorie foods such as peanut butter, olive oil, pasta, cheese, honey, milkshake powder etc. This is where a lot of people fall down in their attempts at bulking. Despite the fact that they are consciously trying to gain weight, a lot of people still revert to lower calorie foods out of habit. Low fat foods and reduced calorie foods have no place in your diet if you are trying to gain maximum muscle.
Pickled and fermented foods are packed with probiotics and enzymes that aid in digestion. When you’re in a bulking phase, chances are that you are going to be eating a lot more food than you’re used to. Make sure you look after your digestive system because you don’t want to be walking around all bloated with a perma-food-baby.
Meal prep is the most important workout of the week ~ Josh Hillis
Try and prepare as many meals ahead of time as possible. This will likely keep you on track and allow you to focus on your day to day life as opposed to finding your next meal.
Stuck for time in the morning? Start the night before. These overnight oats recipes will save you a tonne of time at breakfast. The amount of meals you need to prep will obviously depend on your daily life so think about how your days normally go and identify what meals you need to prepare. As a side note, you don’t need to every 2 hours like some bodybuilders would have you believe. That’s a bit of a meal timing myth! Total calories over the course of the day is most important!
Don’t force feed yourself, you’re not a competitive eater!
One thing that a lot of people fall victim to during a bulk is force feeding themselves, please do not do this. Force feeding will only make you feel unwell and may even put you off the entire bulking process.
You may of seen posts on social media or videos of pro bodybuilders force feeding themselves during their off season and this may lead you to believe that you have to do the same – good thing is, you don’t.
You are not an IFBB pro. There is no need to take your body to the extremes of its capacity in the same way that a professional, whose physique is their job, does. Force feeding is a slippery slope to quitting so stay away from it and trust the process outlined in this guide.
Training: What Is The Best Muscle Building Program?
Needless to say, how you train will play a huge role in the amount of muscle you build.
There are no magic rep ranges, exercises, training programs or workout hacks that will double your muscle growth in half the time. There are, however, certain principles that you can follow to ensure you are doing all you can to build as much muscle as possible.
Execution always comes first
If you want to build as much muscle as possible then you must execute each and every rep, set and workout to the highest possible standard. Without the foundation of perfect execution, the effectiveness of every other method is drastically reduced.
This means that when you are working a particular muscle group all the force and tension is going through that muscle and nowhere else.
It means that your rep tempo is a controlled eccentric and fast concentric.
It means that you are in control of each and every movement during the entire workout, even when your muscles are screaming.
This may sound a little ‘hardcore’ but it is a point that is not talked about enough in this industry.
Don’t be Johnny partial rep in the gym! Become a master of technique and you will experience gains that you never thought possible. Fall into the trap of mediocre execution or a ‘just get the reps done’ mentality and you will be leaving pounds of muscle on the table….or gym floor.
Train a bodypart more than once per week
The traditional ‘bro-split’ of leg day, chest day, arm day etc has been shown to be well below par when it comes to maximising muscle mass in natural trainees.
Yet so many folks still do this and base their workouts of garbage they read in muscle magazines.
The latest scientific research has shown that training body parts 2-3 times per week is optimal for muscle growth.
By stimulating muscle groups every 2-3 days, as opposed to once every 6-7 days, your body elevates its levels of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) on a more regular basis. MPS is one of the precursors to new muscle growth so the more often it is stimulated, the more potential you have to build muscle.
Want more about rep ranges and training frequency? Listen to this podcast with muscle-building expert Brad Schoenfeld
Increase volume over time
All training plans must increase volume over time if they are to be effective. The technical term for this is ‘progressive overoad’.
There are many different ways that you can increase the volume of your training from adding in more working sets, increasing weight and utilizing drop sets.
I always recommend adding in more working sets for the first few weeks of a program before adding any weight. The reasons for this are to ensure technique is mastered (back to execution again) and to increase work capacity. Both of these factors will seriously enhance your capabilities in the later weeks if you focus on improving them first before anything else.
How Fast Can I Expect To Build Muscle?
There are far too many outrageous claims in the fitness industry about how much muscle you can build within a certain period of time.
The magazines love a 6 lbs in 6 weeks headline. Unfortauntely, most of these claims are made in an attempt to sell a product or service and if if sounds too good to be true then it most definitely is!
Muscle gain is slow, very slow, even glacial in more advanced trainees.
If we look at muscle gain in terms of pounds gained per month you are looking at a minimum of 0.5lbs per month up to a maximum of 2lbs per month, these numbers are dependent on training experience.
Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Bulking
I am not Captain America
Entering a bulking phase usually begins with a lot of excitement and thoughts of building ungodly amounts of muscle. You are convinced that people won’t recognize you in a matter of weeks and you will have to buy yourself a whole new wardrobe to accommodate the slabs of muscle you have slapped onto your physique. It will be like the scene in Captain America when Chris Rogers is transformed from scrawny wimp into Captain America, defender of the free world.
I’m no Captain America. I can’t defend the free world.
But I can defend you from the pitfalls of a bulking phase – all of which I have face-planted into with considerable force and took a long time to climb out of.
Progression happens in more places than the mirror or the scale
If you are only measuring progress in terms of how you look, and the numbers on the scale, you will get frustrated very quickly.
Frustration puts you in a mindset that makes you prone to making rash decisions. I’ve said it before, this is something you want to avoid if you want your bulking phase to be a success.
I’m not saying you ignore these methods of tracking progress – I am suggesting that you look to other factors as well.
Focus on other progress measures such as the weight you are lifting, hitting your weekly calorie intake consistently and staying on track when life gets hectic and when you would normally have thrown in the towel.
Calories cannot increase forever
Just like the rule of volume increasing over time in training, calories also must increase over time as your body adapts to a higher caloric intake. This will work for a period of time however, there will come a point where calories cannot be increased anymore.
So what do you do when this happens?
I advise taking a small diet break, a week or two for most people works best, and lowering your calorie intake. This can be done by removing a specific amount of calories and then seeing how you adjust. You could remove entire meals or swap higher calorie foods for low calorie alternatives. What this does is that it gives your body a chance to re-sensitize to a higher calorie intake and re-start the muscle building process.
Realise that you will gain a little fat
At the beginning of this article I outlined the definitive goal of a bulking phase as ‘to build as much muscle tissue as possible whilst minimizing fat gain’.
This doesn’t mean that absolutely no fat will be gained during the entire process.
You have to be prepared to look a little ‘fluffy’ in certain areas and not allow this to affect your mindset – remember why you started this process and do not abandon it at the first sign of a little fat gain.
Following the principles laid out in this guide will ensure that you have minimal fat gain with maximum muscle gain, follow this process through to the end and you will be astounded at the amount of muscle you have built and when you decide to diet down? My lord, you will resemble a viral transformation picture.
You now have the blueprint for building muscle, all that is required now is for you to execute your plan.
There will be ups and downs along the way but always remember that those who make long lasting changes and transform their physique all have one thing in common – consistency. I could drown you with cliches here like ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and they would all be relevant however, the point I want to make it that we are all an impatient bunch in 2017.
Everything we desire is available on demand and usually from our phones. Changing your body is not the same as placing an order on Amazon, your mindset HAS to be focused on the long term if you want to be successful.
I know you can do it and I sincerely hope you do.