How to Bulk up Like Wales Rugby Union Captain Sam Warburton

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You’d be excused for thinking it all comes a bit too easily for Wales rugby union captain Sam Warburton. He’s already led Wales to a World Cup semi-final and a Six Nations Grand Slam victory and captained the British and Irish Lions to their first series win since 1997. Yet, for the 1.88m, 99kg back row forward, this wasn’t always the case.

“Putting on weight and size was one of my biggest hurdles when I was coming through the academy system,” Warburton tells us, speaking about the difficulties of bulking for rugby and battling a naturally skinny ectomorph body type. “I used to take all sorts of shakes. One had 2,500 calories in it. A nutritionist said I had to eat four slices of bread with every meal, four to five times a day. I found it really difficult. When you’re young your metabolism is so high. Everything I ate would go straight through me. But as I ate and trained smarter things started to change.” Here are his five lessons for building rugby bulk.

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1. Escalate your workout intensity

Warburton found a muscle-bulking solution with a relatively new training programme called Escalating Density Training (EDT) known for forcing your muscles to grow big quickly. “EDT is best summed up as the total amount of work completed within a set amount of time,” says Warburton. Density is measured by the amount of work done in that time, and the “escalating” part is because you’re aiming to complete more work, or density, in each successive workout. The time stays the same, but the amount of work you do steps up every session.

Each workout consists of two 15- to 20-minute time frames, usually with a five-minute rest period between the two. In each you’ll perform two exercises, making four exercises in total. Alternate the exercises until the time has elapsed and record the number of total reps performed.

2. Pick the big lifts

“For a typical 15-minute EDT workout I superset chin-ups with bench presses,” says Warburton. Because you only do four exercises in one workout there’s no use picking isolation moves like calf raises or triceps extensions. Instead opt for compound moves that work multiple muscles at once. Think squats, deadlifts, lunges, overhead presses, dips and seated rows. “For each move I pick my ten-rep maximum weight but only do five reps each time. After you get to sets five, six and seven you start to get quite badly fatigued and have to lower the weights. It’s pretty horrible but very effective.”

3. Crank up the pressure

The key is how much rest you afford yourself within the time frame. As your body begins to adapt, you’ll be able to reduce your rest periods and therefore clock up more total reps. It’s recommended that, once you can increase the total number of reps by 20% or more, you do the next workout with 5% more weight and start again from the beginning.

4. Go big in pre-season

“In the off-season you can afford to do a lot of hypertrophy because you don’t have to make sure you’re fresh to play," says Warburton. If you’re not a pro, this might not apply, but it’s worth saving this type of training for a time when you’re not playing a lot of other sports because you’ll need all the rest you can get between sessions to recover. “Over the summer I sometimes do double days,” Warburton adds. “In the past with Cardiff Blues I’ve done strength on my chest in the morning and hypertrophy on my chest in the afternoon to pack on size without losing strength.”

5. Bulk up your diet

To match this Herculean training effort, Warburton has to put in a shift in the kitchen. “I aim to get 200-300g of protein in everyday but I have to be diligent about what I eat,” he says. “I try to eat a lot of carbohydrates but the right ones at the right time and look to get at least 40g of protein into every meal.” On average Warburton has five proper meals a day, each containing 40g of protein plus three protein shakes.

“Typically breakfast is a three- or four-egg omelette with tomatoes and peppers, and I love to have chicken and chorizo in there,” says Warburton. “Chorizo is a bit naughty but it adds a lot of flavour and I get away with it because I need to eat more to put weight on. Once that’s gone down I usually follow it up with a bowl of oat porridge with milk and a banana.”

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Sample Bulking Diet Plan

Warburton aims to pack in 200-300g of protein every day, prioritising getting the bulk of his macros (protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats) through whole food sources. The less processed the food, the more nutrients it will have and the better his body will be able to use it to support his tough exercise regime and build strong muscle. Plenty of dark-green leafy vegetables and pulses, and a bit of fruit, are also vital to maintain health and boosting the amount of nutritious calories in his body so his muscles don’t break down because of a calorie deficit. On training days he’ll replace lost calories after a workout by taking a protein shake with extra carbs in it at a ration of 1:3. Alternatively, this is when it’s fine to eat relatively high-GI carbs such as white rice, pasta or potato that will spike insulin levels and help drive protein to muscles, aiding quick recovery.

Feed 1: Breakfast four-egg and potato frittata with spinach, onion, cheddar and bacon

Feed 2: Brunch banana milkshake with whey protein, whole milk and cinnamon

Feed 3: Lunch tuna and avocado jacket potato with salad and extra virgin olive oil

Feed 3: Snack Greek yogurt with berries and a separate handful of mixed unsalted nuts

Feed 5: Dinner ribeye steak with sweet potato wedges, broccoli, tomatoes and mushrooms

Feed 6: Pre-bed casein protein shake with whole milk

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If you can stomach all that and push yourself to your limits in the gym, you’ll quickly see dramatic changes to your body shape and impressive gains in muscle mass as Warburton did. Of course, the relationship between diet and training is a delicate balance and you have to train hard to turn those nutrients into rippling muscle. But with commitment in the gym and careful planning in the kitchen the rewards can be worth your while.

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Sample Bulking Workout

This sample EDT targets your back, chest and arms, then your lower body, all while giving your core muscles a blast. EDT workouts are punishing, so limit yourself to two a week and make sure you get plenty of quality food and rest to help you recover and rebuild bigger.

Work out your ten-rep max for each move and start with that weight, alternating five reps of each and resting as little as you can manage. Count up the number of sets you can hit in that 15-minute window, rest five minutes, then do the same for the second EDT. Keep track of the weights you use and sets you clock up so you can aim to beat it next session.

EDT 1 (15min)
1. Chin-up
2. Bench press

Rest 5min

EDT 2 (15min)
3. Front squat
4. Romanian deadlift

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Sam Rider

Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix. Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.