Every one who trains strength wishes they had more muscle. Every coach has their own approach, here’s my quick A-Z of bulking essentials
Adaptogens: Naturopaths & herbalists have know about this for years, but you’ll only start to see adaptogens being used in the main stream recently. Essentially adaptogens the increase body’s resilience to stress; what your body needs that herb will do for you. They’re a great class of herb but be careful – natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s WADA legal if you’re a tested athlete. Go to someone who has a good working knowledge of doping rules.
BCAA: My essential training supplement anyway; especially for the over 30’s. But for bulking essential for all. What is it? Three amino acids (building blocks of protein) Leucine, Isoleucine & Valine that help prevent muscle catabolism, increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle soreness. Look for something with a ratio of 4:1:1 or better.
Creatine: Ah creatine, if you read the mainstream media it’s a gateway drug to steroids that will ruin your kidneys and potentially kill you. On the other side of the coin some of the more hardcore pro-supplement sports scientists recommend it like you’ll die and never get results without it. I disagree with both. Look, if you have a pre-existing tendency to kidney problems maybe give it a skip. Will your bulk work without it, yeah, but it’s nice. To cut through the bullshit creatine already exists in the body – in fact you couldn’t train without it! But creatine supplementation helps with the intramuscular stores of it and will give you greater endurance at the back end of your reps and sets. I use it. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone doing a bulk targeting type II muscle fibres.
Dextrose: It’s a really simple sugar. Creatine needs a simple carbohydrate (sugar) as a carrier. It tastes a bit gak, but it’s cheap and effective.
Eating: EAT, EAT, EAT SOME MORE!!!! I could write 10 000 words on this alone, but that’s for another day. Do yourself a favour:
- Don’t dirty bulk;
- Adjust your calories upwards every week (your body will adapt quickly, the food you’re eating at the beginning of your program will be manifestly insufficient by the end – if your mass gaining plan is scaled right anyway);
- skip the My fitness pal and all those calorie trackers (It’s a topic for another day but they go around and around in popularity every few years. IMHO they aren’t worth a wank, nor is If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM));
- Approach an experienced strength coach and listen to ’em (we all disagree with each other about the details but there is method to each approach based on tried and tested experience).
Fenusin: A natural testosterone booster made from fenugreek. It has mild-moderate effects. It’s in most of the off the shelf T-boosting formulas, but you can buy it as it is from herb and vitamin websites/shops. It makes your burps taste weird.
Grip (alter muscles being worked): So, so, so important!! One of my biggest bug bears is new clients coming in having training in commercial gyms just gripping things stupidly! Look depending on what the reason is you’re doing an exercise your grip may change and both variations may be correct for the purpose at the time. But if you’re just holding a bar because you saw some other lad holding it that way, find out why he’s holding it that way.
Hormones: Where to start!!! Doing some heavy volume squats? You’re gonna get a testosterone boost, you’re gonna get horny. Mass gaining is all about hormones. You can adjust them with supplements like Fenusin, with anabolic steroids (personal opinion you’re a dumbass), or with diet (anabolic meats = red meats!), or you can just let nature take it’s course but in any case your hormones are gonna change.
Incline: Vary your position in pushups, bench, military press, dumbell press and arnold press by using incline and decline benches and target upper and lower fibres. Mass gaining doesn’t have to be complicated (but it does have to be smart), depending on the way your program is structured some simple changes like inclining/declining some of your sets can make all the difference in targetting hard to hit areas.
Jump Squats: Yeah, actually I would use jump squats as burnout sets on a high vol leg day. Not in the conventional cardio bunny sense but with a barbel at around 15% of 1RM squat for sets of 6-8.
Kettlebells: Every tool in the workshop has it’s use in mass training. Kettlebells are no different. I wouldn’t use traditional kettlebell exercises (cleans, snatches, swings) but for thrusters, getups, single leg deadlifts, lunges I find kettlebells are superior to dumbells and barbells.
Libido: Back to hormones again! You’re gonna be tired but you’re gonna be horny.. especially if you’re optimising your diet and supplements.
Mass Gainers: They have their place. I’m far more inclined to get real food in wherever possible, but if you have very high calorie needs, or you’re a hard gainer, or your job makes it hard to get eating time mass gainers can have their place. Go for higher quality brands that aren’t just a bag of whey and sugar. Be aware they can be like drinking sludge and be very hard on your stomach.
Nitric Oxide: Some people swear by it for a pre-workout. I recommend it to my clients because I get positive feedback in terms of energy available for their training. I’ve used it a few times and not gotten much from it. Have had a few reports of clients getting the jitters- but you’ll get that with any pre-workout. My personal preference is just coffee and an apple for pre-workout though.
Overtraining vs Overreaching: This is an important one. Periodising training and rest isn’t something that can be summed up in one succinct little paragraph.. but… The bro-science camp says no such thing as overtraining, the ITEC, ACE, ACSM camps will incline you to undertrain rather than risk overtraining. Somewhere between the two extremes is where results are made. Overtraining is very, very real. Top athletes push themselves up to that raggy edge all the time. Learning to temporarily overreach in order to achieve your goals is key to BIG results though. But remember, big training for big results needs big rest. I generally try and make the final week of my mass routines an overreach week followed by a deload week. That being said though – where the line is for your of overtraining vs overreaching is will be different to where my line is. Bottom line, if you really want to push yourself engage an experienced strength coach.
Protein: You want to gain muscle? You gotta eat protein. You want to gain lots of muscle? You gotta eat lots of protein. Listen there’s 1/2 a dozen studies on grams of protein per lb bodyweight… I don’t pay heed to any of them and nor do most of the top strength coaches. Look at quality of source, look at the timing of it, look at how your body reacts to it. Meat proteins over vegetable sources, red meat sources over white meat sources, slow digesting before bed, fast digesting after training. If you bloat from whey (a lot of people do) try a paleo protein instead.
Quality vs Quantity: You want to get big, really big? It’s got to be quality and quantity. Everything. Big sets, lots of sets, good quality sets, lots of food, good quality food, lots of REAL rest (especially sleep!!). Sorry, I’m not gonna fill anyone’s head with BS and pretend substitution is available here. Do it right and get good results or fuck around and look and talk like every other commercial gym rat who almost, coulda, kinda, but never did and never will.
Romanian Deadlifts: I LOVE RDL’s!!!! You want to target glutes, hams , back and forearms all in one big dirty bastard of an exercise, RDL’s for the win!! Do them right, slow on the negative, sets of 6-8 around 45-55% of your deadlift 1RM. Watch the lockout, don’t let fatigue get the better of you. Don’t be afraid of lifting straps.
Sex: And we’re back to hormones again! Did I mention increased testosterone levels make you really horny?
Testosterone: See sex, libido and hormones.
Undulating Periodisation: Smart programming utilises complex periodisation, especially on longer bulking cycles. If you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re still training sets of 10-12 then increasing your weights when you can do all your sets at the training weight it’s time to go talk to a professional strength coach.
Vitamins: Again, I could write an entire blog just on this!! Vitamin D3 is very important in testosterone production and healthy liver function, especially in these northern latitudes (my poor Aussie body).
Water: If you aren’t willing to drink 3-5 litres a day as a woman or 5-7 litres a day as a man if you’re bulking – especially if you’re taking creatine, your really just aren’t committed enough to get real results.
eXplosive Movement: Want to gain mass for strength as well as size? You better incorporate your explosive sets in same as you would any strength training. You wont get any great volume, but just because you’re bulking doesn’t mean your usual standards should go out the window (see Quality vs Quantity). Control the negative, fast off the chest in bench, agressive lockout in RDL’s; type II fibres don’t grow on trees you know.
Yelling: Do the roar! Don’t believe me, try being one of the poor suffering bastards that is around when I’m training. It sounds like a gorilla’s orgy. It’s the same reason martial artists kiyap; increase diaphragmatic pressure and being honest mental game as much as anything.
ZMA: The big bed time supplement. Helps recovery and also assists in a good nights sleep. Be aware though for some people it causes weird dreams.