Thanks for all the great comments on my last post! (If you missed it, catch up here – I talk about how to get in the headspace of trying to gain weight and how long to do it for). Side note: My comment reply emails do not seem to be working, but I am still replying to every comment as usual.
Today I will continue the bulking conversation and talk about just how exactly you can gain muscle, and answer some frequently asked questions.
The essentials to gaining muscle:
- Eat more than you burn off. I recommend using this calculator as a rough estimate of your basal metabolic rate. Then use this calculator to figure out how many calories you burn during daily exercise. The total figure is what you burn in a day. If you are doing a serious bulk, add 400-500 calories to this figure. For a slower approach, add 200 calories and aim to increase that by 100 calories every four weeks. Remember that muscle cannot be constructed out of thin air, so you have to EAT. The problem with this formula is that it is not as simple as calories in>calories out as there are a number of factors at play, so it will take some experimentation.
- Follow a 40/40/20 or 40/30/30 macro split, in favour of carbohydrates. You need protein to build muscle, but your body cannot do anything with that protein unless you give it glycogen in the form of carbohydrates. I have no problem with people following a Paleo diet to gain muscle (but be prepared to eat a LOT of potato), but my favourite forms of carbs for bulking are oatmeal, quinoa, and white and brown rice. Fats can help with reaching calorie targets, but the focus should be on protein and carbs. Do not be afraid to eat carbs with every single meal – there is no such thing as a fat-storing fairy that comes out of hiding past 7pm.
- Lift weights 3 to 5 days per week. I would argue that you need at least three weight sessions per week to stimulate muscle building, but no more than five – your body grows when it is resting, so overdoing it is only sending you backwards.
- Experiment with rep ranges. It is commonly thought that the best rep range to build muscle is 8-12. In my experience, it’s important to incorporate low, medium and high rep training in your programming. I mostly stick to five reps or less when it comes to the main lifts (and I have seen great progress as a result, especially in my shoulders) and the 8-10 range for accessory exercises. That being said, I will occasionally throw in the odd 20 rep set to shake things up a bit.
Should I do a fast or slow bulk?
Having done both a serious bulk and a slow gain, my preference is a slower approach. The only reason I jumped on the hardcore bulking wagon was because I had planned to get on stage in only a year’s time, and I wanted to gain as much muscle as possible. I knew I wouldn’t have any problem losing fat on a strict contest prep diet.
If I could do it over, I don’t think I would have done a serious bulk. I am definitely appreciative of all the muscle I have gained, but I think it would have been safer on my body and easier on my mind to do a slow gain. It’s a lot easier to get rid of 2-3kgs of unwanted fat than 8-9.
I’m a hardgainer and I can’t gain muscle. What should I do?
You are not a hardgainer – you are just not eating enough. When your ribs are popping out and you complain that you can’t gain muscle, it’s because your body is starving. Add 500 calories to your current daily intake. If you haven’t seen any change in your body after four weeks, add another 500 calories.
If you are struggling to eat more than 3000 calories per day, I recommend adding a mass gainer shake to your diet as some of these contain upwards of 1200 calories and do not fill you up in the same way as solid food. Also include more calorie dense foods such as rice, pasta and bread, particularly around workouts.
Why can some people gain muscle without fat?
Don’t be frustrated when you see skinny people who seem to pack on muscle overnight. It is easier to gain muscle when you start out lean. This is why some people diet down before attempting to gain muscle, and why competitors often talk about maximising muscle gains immediately following a competition instead of taking rest. These gains are only temporary, however. If someone is permanently at an unhealthy level of leanness, they will predominantly gain fat as it is not natural to be that lean for an extended period of time (this is why competitors have off-seasons!).
Also keep in mind that the leaner you are, the more muscular you will appear. Most skinny people have less muscle mass than someone with a higher body fat percentage (and again, competitors will lose muscle as well as fat in the lead up to a competition), but they just appear to have more as they do not have as much fat covering it up.
(This picture is one in a series of beautiful shots recently published by bodybuilding.com, which I highly recommend checking out here! Possibly NSFW…)
Another point is that your body becomes better at building muscle over time. When I did a hard bulk, I gained about 50/50 muscle and fat, but my weight has stayed the same since. I have continued to build muscle, hence I have lost fat. Therefore, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time but it takes a lot of experimentation to find the exact macros and calories that work for you.
If I’m gaining, can I eat whatever I want?
Again, I am going to use myself as an example here. When I started gaining hard, I followed a mostly clean diet but I had no fear in eating junk as well. Three or four times a week I would have chocolate, ice cream, pizza, burgers, etc. I gained an average of one kilogram per month, and I’d estimate that around half of that was fat. I firmly believe I would have not gained as much fat if I had stuck to healthier foods.
While I’m still relatively relaxed when it comes to my diet and am not afraid of having traditionally unhealthy foods, I would not recommend eating everything in sight in the name of bulking. There is a big difference between how your body processes 3000 calories of chicken and sweet potato, and 3000 calories of Haagen Dazs. Some people follow an ‘if it fits your macros’ approach, but I usually recommend following a ‘clean’ bulk and keep your treats to one or two meals per week. If you fill up on crap every day, you will gain fat and feel even more depressed about your body!
If you have any other questions, please leave them below and I will get back to you!