An individuals first bulking phase is
usually littered with numerous and avoidable mistakes from both a training and
nutrition perspective. Issues such as too much training volume or using intensities
that result in technical breakdown and injury are common place for the novice.
So too is a rapid rate of gain (not muscle) leading to excess body fat and further
desire to diet for weight loss.
These are common and unnecessary mistakes which occur far too often with gain chasers, particularly the young male population who stereotypically adopt a gung-ho approach to their training while passing off the pizza, burgers and ice cream with a nonchalant “Gotta eat big to get big bro” attitude.
So, without further a due, lets dive into the science of metabolism, training and nutrition for budding young bulkers.
What is our metabolism and how does it work?
Our metabolism is not set at a preconceived rate as some may believe, but rather made up of a combination of factors that are influenced by many variables, notably our body mass and activity levels.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) – Calories burned while at rest (breathing, organ function, brain function etc.). This is largely determined by our total body mass.
Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) – calories burned during exercise.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) – Calories burned through daily activity outside of formal exercise (walking, fidgeting, doing house chores etc.).
Thermic effect of food (TEF) – The energy cost of processing foods and liquid that are ingested.
Typically, those with a “fast metabolism” who “can’t gain weight” simply don’t eat as much as they think they do, while also underestimating their activity levels.
Our TDEE will determine the required caloric intake required to maintain our bodyweight. If our aim is to gain bodyweight in order to maximize potential muscle mass, we must consume more than our maintenance calories, with the size of the surplus being determined by our desired rate of gain.
Our TDEE/maintenance calories can be determined through multiple methods. Most calorie calculators will work off an equation such as the Harris-Benedict Equation or the Cunningham Equation. These equations work by estimating TDEE by using a lean body mass estimate and multiplying it by an activity level coefficient. While these calculations are quick and convenient, they are not entirely reliable and you’ll have to be willing to adjust calorie targets according to rate of loss/gain.
A more time-consuming alternative to using an equation is to accurately track caloric intake over the course of 7-14 days while assessing body weight fluctuations. One reason this approach is usually so effective is because there is often a disparity in peoples reported intakes when compared to their actual caloric intakes. From personal experience, the times when my weight and my clients has plateaued during a bulking phase has been due to inconsistent intake as the result of neglecting meals due to lack of hunger or simply prioritising other tasks, and this can easily be identified and rectified by tracking a daily intake. When trying to gain weight, eating at a deficit for multiple days a week is not conducive to your physique goals, and every effort must be made to ensure that you’re ingesting as close to your macronutrient requirements as possible.
Basic Macronutrient guide
So, we’ve got an estimation of our maintenance calories, and now it’s time to work out our macronutrient targets which are going to ensure that our caloric surplus results in a steady rate of muscle tissue gain.
Step 1. Protein target should be set between 1.6-2.2kg per kg of body weight.
Protein should be distributed evenly between 3-5 meals during the day in order to ensure that there is continual anabolism. The majority of protein consumed should be of a quality with a complete amino acid profile, meaning that priority should be given to protein sources such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt. Additionally, soybeans and quinoa are two examples of non-animal foods with all nine essential amino acids.
Step 2. Fat targets should be set relatively conservatively at around 1-1.5g per kg of body weight.
Although a lower percentage of calories from fat sources may result in less fat tissue gain when eating in caloric surplus, it is important to set a fat target which is both achievable and does not lead to unnecessary restriction in order to maximise adherence.
Step 3. After having set your protein and fats, the remainder of your calories should be made up of carbohydrates falling within the range of 4-7g per kg of body weight.
Given that carbohydrates are our predominant fuel when it comes to training performance and performance in the gym is critical for muscle gain, the aim of a bulking phase should be to increase carbohydrate levels to as high as possible while tracking along at the target rate of gain.
Rates of gain
The largest factors determining the appropriate rate of gain for an individual are the client’s level of advancement and their genetic potential for muscle gain and fat storage. Typically, more advanced individuals will require a slower rate of gain (0.25-0.5% of BW gain per month) due to the diminishing returns they experience in regard to the amount of muscular tissue they can grow. Conversely, intimidate lifters should utilise a moderate rate of gain (0.5-1% of BW gain per month), and novice lifters with a low body fat percentage and individuals who struggle to gain weight should employ an aggressive rate of gain (1-1.5% of BW gain per month).
Basic training guide
When it comes to hypertrophy training, many methods will yield results and it is important not to get too caught up in chasing optimality. Rather, focus on understanding the basics of training and aim to overtime improve performance and consistency in the gym.
Volume refers to total work done, and for muscle growth is best measured by number of hard working sets per week, per muscle group. Volume has been show to play a large role in muscle hypertrophy so aiming for 10-20 sets per week, per muscle group is a great range to begin with. We generally recommend starting on the low end for novice lifters and building up depending on your progress.
For example, for the quads you may start with 12 sets per week.
Intensity for bodybuilders refers to effort, whereas for strength athletes intensity refers to load on the bar. Effort is usually measured with the RPE scale which indicates how many more reps could be performed within a set. For example, an RPE of 10 means that no more reps could be completed and an RPE of 6 would mean 4 more reps could be completed.
We suggest you learn how to use this important measurement tool and read more HERE.
Research and our anecdote has shown that RPEs of 6-10 with intensity of loads between 60-80% of 1RM are best for muscle growth. But you won’t know your RPE on bicep curls, so its best to use the RPE scale if you’re interested in getting swole.
It almost goes without saying, but if you want to see visible changes to your physique, you’re going to have to train hard! Remember, you’re eating at a surplus, and hence if you do not give your body reason to redirect those calories to growing muscle tissue, the body will simply store them as additional body fat. Even if your nutrition is perfect, training in the stimulus which directly results in the accumulation of more muscle tissue. You cannot simply eat your way to being jacked, you must train hard.
Record your effort, load, reps and sets for each exercise and aim to increase your average RPE over the course of weeks (mesocycles). Start your training cycle with an average RPE of 6-8 and progresss intensity of effort over time where your average RPE will be 7-9. It is a wise idea to keep RPEs on the low end on multi-joint lifts and a little higher on your single joint exercises.
For example, if you were to use squats and leg extensions to train your quads, you would want to use RPEs as follows:
week 1 – RPE 6
week 2 – RPE 7
week 3 – RPE 7
week 4 – RPE 8
week 5 – RPE 8
week 1 – RPE 7
week 2 – RPE 8
week 3 – RPE 8
week 4 – RPE 9
week 5 – RPE 9
Another key point to remember is that many beginners and novices don’t know how to accurately gauge their effort and often their RPE scores are not a true indication of their actual effort. To make sure you can dial in your ratings of effort, we recommend taking videos of your key lifts to not only assess technique, but also your bar speed and how many reps you could have done. What may feel difficult, can often look a lot easier in footage and indicate that your initial RPE score fell short.
Frequency simply refers to how you split up your training volume/intensity. Its an organisational variable that helps structure your training week – aka your split. Research suggests that the optimal training frequency for muscle growth is 1.5-2x per week or training a muscle group every 3-5 days. Simply take your starting volume for each muscle group and spread it across two days, 3-5 days apart.
For example, if you were to start with 12 sets of quads, you could split that into:
- Monday 6 sets
- Thursday 6 sets
The exercises you select are far less important for building muscle than your intensity and volume, but lets just say that some exercises fit the task of building muscle better than others. For example, bosu ball squats and kettle bell swings may look cool, but given their mechanics, they don’t make for effective muscle building tools.
Select and prioritise 1-2 key multi joint (compound) lifts in the bulk of your training. Exercises that train the 6 key movement patterns:
- Squat (Barbell Squat, Leg Press, Hack Squat)
- Hinge (Barbell RDL, Deadlift)
- Horizontal Push (Bench Press, Incline Press)
- Vertical Push (Barbell and Dumbbell Overhead Press)
- Horizontal Pull (Cable Row, Bentover Barbell Row, Prone Dumbbell Row)
- Vertical Pull (Pull Downs, Pull Ups, Chin Ups)
The bulk of your volume (60-70% of your working sets) should be directed to these movements.
From here you can select 1-2 isolation/single joint exercises for any muscle groups you wish to develop:
- Delts (lateral raises, upright row)
- Biceps (dumbbell curl, cable curl, preacher curl, incline dumbbell curl)
- Triceps (rope/bar extensions, overhead dumbbell extensions)
- Calves (seated/standing calve raises
- Abs (planks, cable crunches, v sit ups, ab wheel roll outs, Palloff press)
You would then simply allocate the remaining 30-40% of your volume to any of these movements you incorporate into your plan.
Too often beginners have too much variation in their programs, each week trying to emulate a different workout from one of their favourite IFBB pros. For a novice lifter, too much variation results in not enough time with specific movements and therefore an inability to make drastic improvements on these movements. Muscle hypertrophy will be the result of a steady increase in mechanical tension over time, and the easiest way to ensure that your body is consistently getting exposed to a greater tension is to select a few main movements, and work at consistently adding weight in the 6-15 rep range. Keep exercise selection simple, using advanced exercises will not lead to faster or better progress.
Using the example above, you could split up your quad volume set up your quads as follows:
Squats – 3×5-8 RPE 6
Split Squat – 3×8-12 RPE 8
Squats 3×6-10 RPE 7
Leg Extensions – 3×10-15 RPE 9
Technique and the mind muscle connection.
As a novice, you want to be prioritising technique above all other training variables. Longevity is one of the most important factors in a bulking phase and training career, as injuries will leave you unable to train and will bottleneck your anabolic potential. If you’re unsure if your technique is adequate, either get feedback from a coach, or video your gym sessions and compare to online lifting tutorials. In addition, the intention while lifting should be to “feel” the target muscles being worked, especially on isolation exercises. Getting a good pump and contraction in a target muscle is a god indication that you’re distributing adequate tension to that muscle group.
Track your workouts/progressive overload.
Inevitably, every beginner will hit a point where things just stop working, especially if they’re the type to simply walk into the gym and start working out with little to no plan going into what they’re doing. One of the biggest steps a beginner can make is to start a training log where they record each workout, the exercises they performed, the weights they used and reps they achieved. Over time, the aim should be to overload training volume by adding weight to the bar and increasing working reps and sets. By tracking your training, you have an objective measurement of your training volume and can troubleshoot if any issues or complications arise.
Squats w1 3×5 @ 100kg for an RPE of ~6
Squats w10 4×5 @ 115kg for an RPE of ~7
If you want to let us take the guess work out of your programming, you can download our male physique template HERE!
Nutrition tips for the aspiring bulker.
Build a foundation of essential nutrients.
Even though a caloric surplus is necessary, this does not mean that we can simply forgo our food quality and micronutrients for foods high in fat and sugar. In order to ensure that we’re getting enough essential vitamins and minerals in our diet, we should have some foods or meals that are consumed at a high frequency throughout the week. Having the rigid structure of 2 servings of fruit with breakfast and 2-3 servings of vegetables spread over lunch and dinner is a good way to ensure you’re hitting your RDI’s of nutrients throughout your massing phase.
Increase the palatability of food.
As eating becomes increasingly monotonous, effort must go into making food choices more hedonic in nature. Although dieting should at times be challenging, measures should be taken to ensure that your diet is not causing you to be miserable. If you’re constantly finding yourself poking your cold bowl of rice, broccoli and chicken breast with a fork, it may be time to start looking at food options which are easier and more pleasurable to consume, while also having less overall food volume to further aid consumption. An alternative to chicken, rice and broccoli could be a bowl of coco pops with a scoop of whey protein and a handful of berries.
Furthermore, highly palatable snacks between meals make it easy to rack up needed calories while not filling up too much room in the GI tract. A protein shake and a chocolate bar gives good bang for your buck when it comes to a high calorie snack, while also having a spread of protein, carbs and fats.
Drink more calories.
Eat a meal, drink a meal. A common behaviour exhibited by clients successful when dieting for fat loss is limiting liquid calories due to the fact that they provide low levels of satiation. This makes liquid calories perfect for a bulking phase however, and they can be easily consumed either with a meal or between meals in order to increase daily calories. Fruit juice is a good go to, or perhaps a smoothie or milkshake where ingredients such as fruit, ice cream, peanut butter, Nutella or protein powder can be added as necessary.
Food environment, make eating easier (snackssss)
If eating food is inconvenient or difficult, the drive to consume calories will be low. Altering your food environment to ensure you’ve always calories and protein at hand makes it easier to get calories in when busy or on the run. Having a stack of protein bars in your car glovebox, a tub of trail mix in your desk at work and a box of LCM’s in your backpack will provide you with the macronutrients to guarantee you stay anabolic throughout the day.
More calories in the morning
No one wants to be caught out with their last meal of the day consisting of an unrealistic amount of food to eat in a single sitting, especially when such a heavy meal may negatively affect sleep. A way to work around this is prioritising calories in the morning through multiple meals, snacking or liquid calories, ensuring that by the end of the day you only need 1 standard sized meal to reach your calorie target.
Bulking is a patient endeavour that requires a great deal of work before you begin to see the fruits of your labour. However, by having a structured approach and ensuring that you manage the big rocks of an appropriate training program with an aligned nutrition approach, you’re well on your way to making the most of your anabolic adventure.