Bulking to Build Muscle: What You Need to Know

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If you're looking to bulk up, you've got to get the balance right – it's all about making sure you're eating the right amount of the right foods and are training hard enough. A bodybuilding doctor and a nutritionist guide us through what you need to know about bulking up and offer some helpful tips. 

And if you're wondering what it's actually like to follow a bulking training plan, we've got the answer. Writer Sam Rider tries out a 10-week bulking training plan and shares his experience, below.

Bulking to Build Muscle: What You Need to Know

Know What Your Body Needs 

“The principle of bulking is to achieve a calorie surplus, where you consume more than you burn off, and converting it to muscle with smart training,” says doctor and bodybuilder Emil Hodzovic. If you’re a “hardgainer” – someone with a rapid metabolism who struggles to gain weight – that can mean chowing down a tonne of food. First, identify how many calories you need by working out your basal metabolic rate using an online BMR calculator, then slightly exceed your calorie target the clean way, eating whole food sources like steak, eggs and milk. Here nutritionist Matt Lovell describes the daily macronutrient totals for both hardgainers and those who have no such problems.

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Row 0 - Cell 0 HardgainersOthers
Protein per kg of bodyweight3g2g
Carbs per kg of bodyweight5g2g
Fat per kg of bodyweight1g1g

So for a 75kg hardgainer, the amount of protein is calculated as 3 x 75 = 225g.

RECOMMENDED: Sam Warburton Diet and Workout to Build Bulk

Fast Food Doesn’t Mean Dirty Dining

Have you ever tried eating 6,000 calories’ worth of chicken breast and broccoli in a day? Hodzovic has, and he doesn’t recommend it. That’s when loading up on convenient high-calorie fast food can seem an appealing solution. “But feasting solely on nutritionally weak junk food can cause you to lurch way beyond your calorie requirements and get fat, risking a host of illnesses from diabetes to heart disease,” Hodzovic says. It’s important not to compromise on quality. Go for grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs and chemical-free nut butters – and there are even good-quality pot noodles called Quick Sports Meals from Sport Kitchen for a fast but clean hit.

Have Some ‘Strategic Overfeeds’

It’s the new way to do cheat meals. Lovell, who advises the Football Association and works with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, prescribes these to youth footballers to help them get big enough to survive the intensity of the Premier League. The rule: eat clean 80% of the time and afford yourself an “anything goes” policy for the remaining 20%. For example, most of your breakfasts should look like the “clean” omelette drizzled with omega 3-rich extra virgin olive oil and packed with veg, turkey and chorizo on the left, below, but one in five times you can cut loose with a plate of these “dirty” bacon and blueberry pancakes – but fry everything in coconut oil for bonus healthy fats, and don’t skimp on quality.


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Keep Doing High-Intensity Exercise

“If your calorie intake is high, your training intensity has to be higher,” says Hodzovic – otherwise bulk will turn to bulge. Lifting heavy with big multi-joint compound moves will create the stimulus for muscle synthesis, while occasional high-intensity intervals on the rower or bike will keep your body fat low.

The hardgainer who incinerates calories even when resting should replace calories lost during a session with a carb and protein shake before and after a workout. Wear an activity tracker that monitors your heart rate to identify how many calories you burn in a session.

RECOMMENDED: Protein Shake Recipes

Squat Every Day

Or at least every workout. “Squats are an epic exercise and they build a hell of a lot more than just your legs, including a mental toughness that you just won’t get doing endless biceps curls,” says Hodzovic. There is a time and place for a bodybuilding muscle-group split but, to take advantage of the calorie surplus of a bulk, full-body workouts are key.

Take it Easy

Working out a plan of endless drop sets, negatives and supersets will probably take longer to do than the workouts themselves, and it’s not time well spent. Instead stick to Hodzovic’s tried-and-tested solution, “controlled movement with slow tempos and rest-pause sets”.

Try this tempo rest-pause set with biceps curls: lift your ten-rep max at a tempo of two seconds up, four seconds down until failure. Rest for 15 seconds. Lift again for two seconds up, two seconds down to failure. Rest 15 seconds once more, then do a final set of as many reps as you can muster at a faster tempo. Then shake off the agonising lactate. And never forget – you grow while you rest.

RECOMMENDED: Try the Bulking Workout Plan Henry Cavill Used for Batman v Superman

Go Beyond Pasta

chocolate milkshake

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If you’re training hard, you’ll need a hefty dose of carbs with your protein and healthy fats to speed up muscle recovery. A University of Connecticut study identified 470ml of chocolate milk, which provides all three, as the best post-workout antidote. But the rest of the time you shouldn’t just stick to bread and pasta. “Shake up your carb sources constantly,” says Lovell. “Cycle between wholewheat, rice (especially basmati, wild and Thai black rice), oats, barley and quinoa for a huge variety of nutrients to help you grow healthy as well as big.”

Eat the Rainbow

As with carbs, you should keep your sources of fruit and vegetables varied. “Eat green leafy veg, bright tropical fruit, dark berries, the full spectrum,” Lovell says. It’ll provide all the micronutrients you need. Bulk up your meals with pulses and legumes so you don’t have to buy so much expensive meat. “Don’t compromise on this,” says Lovell. “All-cause mortality drops by 5% for every daily portion of fruit and veg you eat.” That’s a decent trade-off.

Watch Your Blood Sugar Levels

Your body is a control freak – in a good way. It’s excellent at controlling your blood sugar with hormones such as insulin. “But scoffing sugary foods on a ‘dirty bulk’ causes blood sugar spikes, which carries risks for type 2 diabetes,” says Hodzovic. One jam doughnut won’t tip you over the edge, but a few might leave you feeling sluggish when your blood sugar drops after spiking. Regular exercise can offset some of the risks, so save the cakes for big training days.

Get Help From Supps

Matt Lovell reveals the essentials

Fish oil: To fire on all cylinders for maximum growth, your cells need essential fatty acids from pharmaceutical-grade fish oils. Get yours with added vitamin E.

CLA: Fats like conjugated linoleic acid help your body manage the glucose you’re taking on from carbs so that it goes to your muscles and isn’t stored as fat.

ZMA: If you’re taking care of the eating and training parts of the growth triumvirate, this combo of zinc and magnesium aspartate will aid your demand for the third – sleep.

Probiotics: For immunity support and gut function to tolerate the high demands on your CNS and digestive system from heavy-duty eating and lifting.

Digestive enzymes: You can’t afford a slow digestive grind. Look for the word “proteolytic” on the label for supps that aid protein breakdown for max muscle.

R-ALA/blueberry extract: Like CLA, this insulin sensitiser helps shuttle sugar into muscles and less into fat stores.

RECOMMENDED: The Best Supplements for Getting in Shape

I Followed A 10-Week Bulking Training Plan

Can you go from scrawny to brawny in just 10 weeks? In 2014, Sam Rider, from Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness, investigated.

I’m skinny. My body type means I’m naturally thin. In many ways that makes me lucky, but after more than a decade of intensive weight training in an attempt to pack on muscle I’ve got nowhere. My bodyweight has flatlined since I turned 17. No matter how many overhead press variations I use, or all-you-can-eat buffets I visit, I can’t seem to make my shoulders any less bony, or my weight climb any further north than 76kg (12 stone).

I’m not the only one. The population is split into three different body types. My characteristics are typical of an ectomorph, also known as a ‘hard gainer’. The rest are either lucky mesomorphs, who pack on pecs just by looking at a bench press, or the less fortunate endomorphs, who’ll get fatter just by walking past a burrito stand.

But your genetic predisposition doesn’t doom you to the same physique for your whole life – with the right kind of training, you can overcome it. In fact it’s possible for an ectomorph to pack on considerable lean muscle, healthily and quickly. That’s what transformation specialist Adam Gethin, founder of Creating Physiques, tells me when I challenge him to help me pack on as much lean mass as I can in just 10 weeks. At the start he sets me a top-end target of adding 10kg but right now anything would be a bonus.

Before I begin I take biometric tests at data-based gym Speedflex, to measure my weight, body fat, muscle mass, cholesterol and other key health indicators. The challenge is to pack on lean muscle, but I also want to make sure I’m doing it in a healthy way so I’ll be doing the same tests at the end of the ten-week period.

Part 1

For my first hour-long session I head to W10 Performance in west London, where I’ll be training four times a week. The first two weeks of the plan alternate low-rep, heavy days for strength with high-volume hypertrophy days to add size. But Adam stresses the biggest factor in achieving any gains will be my diet – consisting of lots of protein, lots of carbs and a healthy dose of good fats.

It’s going to be a big challenge, but as an example for all hard gainers, I want to prove that it is possible to overcome your genetics and get into the shape your hard work deserves.

Watch the video below to see how I get on at my first workout.

Part 2

In the above video at W10 Performance Gym you join me at the halfway point. To help me cope with the vast quantities of healthy food I need to eat to grow I've been making weekly orders of lean meat, nuts and egg whites from Muscle Food. I've also been using PhD supplements to support my training.

That's a carb shake I'm swigging and those pills I keep popping are branch chained amino acids (BCAAs). The shake gives me energy and helps me hit my daily calorie target of 4,500 calories (turns out I was seriously under eating for my rapid metabolism). The pills reduce muscle breakdown. And I certainly need them, because this upper body hypertrophy workout Adam's got me doing includes three punishing supersets. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Part 3

In the above video you join me for a brutal lower body workout at W10 Performance in West London. I'm seven weeks in and making good progress but my body is beginning to get used to the increased workload and 4,500 calorie diet I've been ploughing through. So to keep me on track Adam has shaken things up.

In the kitchen I've been tasked with squeezing in another 500 calories. Rather than altering my protein intake this has come from increasing my carb and healthy fat intake. The solution: Snack a Jacks caramel flavoured rice cakes with banana slices and crunchy peanut butter. Cramming in a couple of those morning, noon and night hasn't been too painful, but the changes in the weights room certainly have.

In this lower body workout Adam has switched up the typical order of my exercises to keep my muscles guessing. We start with five sets of 15 glute-ham raises, finishing with a drop set. This is where you do as many reps as you can with a weight until failure. Then reduce or take away the weight and go again until you can't do any more, all with the aim of keeping the muscles under tension - the golden ticket in making them grow.

Next were the dreaded Bulgarian split squat. This followed the same principle but Adam had me digging in for 20 to 30 reps per set because the quads respond better to a higher volume. Either that or he's just trying to break me. This was followed by weighted walking lunges, squats and calf raises to finish.

For the squats Adam had another trick up his sleeve: density sets. Using a relatively light weight, around 50kg for me, I had to do as many reps as I could in three minutes. I could put the bar down for a breather but I had to pause for a second at the bottom of each rep. Adam challenged me to beat 30 reps and this competitive element helped me ignore the searing pain overwhelming my thighs to clock up 50 reps.

I heartily encourage you to give it a go. It's a superb way exert a great deal of time under tension on your muscles in a short timeframe, and leaves you feeling like you've had a tough aerobic workout at the same time.

Part 4

One is never enough. It's true for drinks on a night out, silverware in your trophy cabinet and beach holidays in a calendar year. And it's also true for building muscle in the gym - as I found out during this transformation. Doing one exercise for each muscle group is not going to cut it. For example, I've always struggled to get bigger shoulders, but that's because I thought just doing push presses, for three sets of ten reps once a week was enough to develop them. How wrong I was.

In the above video you join me for a shoulders, back and biceps workout in week eight. First up are four sets of seated overhead presses, swiftly followed by three relentless tri-sets of lateral raises, partial lateral raises and wide-grip upright rows to attack the deltoids from every angle. With each exercise Adam has abandoned the principle of doing a prerequisite number of reps, in place of simply making me keep the muscles under constant tension by reducing the weight so I can keep pushing until complete failure.

With the finish line in sight, all the emphasis of my training is on this form of hypertrophy workout to increase muscle cell size. That means using at least three exercises per body part and bombarding them with infinite reps, endless sets, a painfully slow tempo and short rest periods, while I bombard Adam, my chief tormentor, with numerous expletives for putting me through this punishment.

Part 5

The ten weeks are up and the results are in. In the above video you join me for the Men's Fitness photoshoot. Here you'll also hear from my associate editor Joel Snape and my girlfriend Kathryn to reveal how the transformation affected my work and home life.

Because the challenge has been to put on as much lean mass as I could, rather than specifically get in cover model shape, I've been spared the typical depletion workouts and diet fixes to drop my body fat percentage. Instead for the the last two weeks I've introduced cable crunches and hanging leg raises plus high intensity interval training to my workouts to ensure I don't lose sight of my abs muscles.

I've pushed myself to my limits in every workout and prioritised eating over entertainment to make sure every day of the final fortnight counts. Now it's time for the revelatory photoshoot. Under Adam's instruction I've shaved my chest and had a spray tan – something he assured me would help highlight my new muscles and make them look leaner despite the ridicule I've been getting from my colleagues and rugby teammates – and headed back to Speedflex for my final body fat assessments to find out the extent of my transformation.

For more information on Adam Gethin and Creating Physiques go to creatingphysiques.com and for more on W10 Performance visit w10performance.com

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.