Ask the Expert: How Can I Bulk Up?
Most of us want to lose weight, but what about those who want to get bigger? Skinny folks, trainers, and bodybuilders alike all know that, truth be told, getting big is hard. Over the years, some of the most frustrated clients I’ve ever worked with were those who were trying to put on mass.
Getting big is hard, but it’s not impossible. Here’s how you do it.
“You See Something, You Eat It.”
This was one of the first lines I heard a bodybuilder utter about how he got so big. I’ve heard it repeated time and time again by those looking to gain. For sure, if you want to gain weight, you’ve got to eat more than you’re used to. But, now that we know more about performance eating and nutrient timing, the best way to increase your bulk isn’t to spend all afternoon gorging yourself at Arnold’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Instead, by centering your diet around healthy, calorically-dense foods, you can get big without putting on the excess fat you see many bodybuilders carrying when they’re in the offseason.
One of the easiest ways to get your body used to eating more than you’re comfortable with is to take advantage of the times of the day when it’s easier for your body to digest and utilize nutrients. I’ve broken your day into five basic periods of time. If your day doesn’t fit this exact model, focus on the concepts and adjust as necessary.
1. Pre-Preworkout. Don’t confuse this with the “preworkout” supplements you take right before training. In this context, I’m referring to all the hours of the day before you work out. To give you energy for your training session, focus on eating carbs (for energy) and protein (to maximize amino acid availability). Keep the amount of fat you ingest relatively low, as excess dietary fat will sit in your digestive tract and hinder your workout.
2. Intraworkout. These are supplements you take immediately before or during your workout that help you train harder. I’m not including food here because you should be eating plenty during the rest of the day, so you shouldn’t worry about running out of blood sugar and muscle glycogen during your training sessions unless they are longer than 90 minutes. The exception is simple carbs (or sugars) which are the foundation of most preworkout supplements because they absorb quickly, transporting the targeted nutrients I’m about to discuss.
What those targeted nutrients should be is a matter of debate and personal preference. Many people like caffeine and other stimulants prior to training. While the science around them is mainly solid, the effects vary, so start slow to see what works for you.
Nitric oxide, or NO, boosters are also popular. The science validating them is decent—and getting better—but keep in mind their role is to help you train harder. They won’t make you big. Your tests should be straightforward. If they improve your workouts then they are good. If not, you’re wasting money. Pretty simple.
Then there’s creatine, still one of the best supplements around for training. Generally, I recommend it postworkout, but you may prefer to take it during your workout as well. That’s fine. A personal trial is always recommended but this supplement’s been on the market for 30 years, under great scrutiny, and is still shining bright. Current research still shows that good old creatine monohydrate is the form that’s still the most effective.
B vitamins, amino acids, beta alanine, carnitine, et al. are all popular preworkout ingredients with varying amounts of science showing effectiveness. Again, you need to make the call but keep in mind, as is the case with nitric oxide, these things are only working if your workouts are better. They are therefore very easy to test.
3. Postworkout. Here things start to get cool, as strategic recovery is where you can easily put away a lot of calories. First, you’ll want to drink a low-calorie post-exercise drink within 30 minutes of training. It should contain at least two parts carbs to one part protein and not exceed 250 calories. Your body can only process around 200 to 300 calories in a given hour, and excess calories will slow down the process of restoring your muscle glycogen, an absolute no-no if you want to see muscle growth and recover quickly.
This is also a great time to take more creatine and other targeted supplements because your insulin is spiking and you will utilize those nutrients very efficiently. One hour after your workout you should eat again. Now is a great time for a high-protein, high-fat smoothie that contains an insane number of calories and tons of nutrients. If you trained hard—and you’d better—your muscles will still be starving for nutrients and these calories should go down easy. This “starvation window” is something you’ll learn to greatly appreciate.
4. Evening Meal. This should be the inverse of breakfast (and possibly lunch if you didn’t train until later in the day). It should contain fewer carbs, mostly in the form of veggies, and much more fat and protein. Don’t eschew carbs altogether, just scale the meal, keeping in mind that you eat carbs for energy and you’re not going to be very active until the next day.
5. Before Bed. Recent studies have confirmed that the classic bodybuilder routine of consuming protein prior to bed can raise amino acid activity during sleep. If you’re a big guy (190 pounds or more), 40 grams of protein, preferably a slow protein (like casein), right before bed can help you recover faster than normal.
Even with a perfect strategy, eating more than your body wants is hard work. But you really only have to do it once. Once your body is big, and used to being big, your caloric needs will level off to more manageable numbers.
When getting big is your ultimate goal, time under tension should be the focus of every workout that’s not recovery oriented. Time under tension is the amount of time your muscles are contracted during the workout. You want that amount of time to be as long as possible. This means slowing down your reps and focusing on form and muscle contraction. Time, not reps, is the key to training to get big. We only use reps for convenience. So the number of reps you target should be based on the speed you do them (for example, 5 slow reps might take just as long as 20 fast reps). For hypertrophy, or muscle growth, you want each set to include ideally around 1 minute of contraction.
Failure is essential. Time under tension only works if you are pushing yourself to the limit. You must add weight as you get stronger. If you never fail on a set then your workout was too easy. Add as much weight as you can safely handle. Every rep. Every set. Every workout.
There are too many strategies for targeting time under tension to go into here but you can tweak any weight-training workout to achieve it. It will be much easier to do if you are following a traditional weight-training program that’s designed specifically for building mass.
It’s also vital to note that your body only has so much energy to expend and you need to strategize how it should be engaged. Adding a lot of cardio training or outside activity hurts your ability to get big because you are, essentially, wasting energy that could be used to add more weight to your time under tension goals. Every supporting workout that you do during a mass-gaining phase should be to aid recovery or reduce chances of injury. Anything else is taking your eye off of the prize.
Finally, don’t forget about sleep. It’s the best recovery aid there is. The perfect bulking scenario would have you sleeping whenever you weren’t training and eating. While impractical, you should consider this the ideal and try to get as much shut-eye as you can handle.