Your summer went well. You cut some body fat, got some abs, and took your shirt off whenever you could.
The goal was to trim up all that new muscle you built – to show off a lean, chiseled physique. What good was it to go to the beach with a shirt on?
Well, fall is setting in nicely and you have an itch. You know the one; the itch telling you to get bigger and stronger?
The endless cardio, high-rep sets, and extra ab work have all done the job. It’s now time to turn the crank onto some heavy stuff – time to build some new mass and break some PRs. It’s time to load the bar and go into beast mode.
Now is the time to do just that – cover up a little, let the calories increase a bit, and pack on some more muscle. Just like Thanksgiving, it’s a tradition.
But let’s approach things a bit differently than last time. Let’s take a much more calculated mindset so we don’t fall off the wagon too far.
Why Switch From a Cut to a Bulk?
Staying on a super-lean, cutting diet isn’t all that practical year round. It not only can get boring and tedious, it can also prevent you from gaining muscle and getting stronger. If you are constantly in lean diet mode, you miss the opportunity to make some significant jumps in muscle mass and strength gains. Without a substantial calorie surplus, you never really dive into replenishing your body from those heavy workouts.
Sometimes, on a yearly basis, it’s wise to cycle your training. If your goal is to pack on more size then you will need to shift gears every now and then and train in completely different ways. This not only shocks your body into new growth, but will also give you fresh motivation.
Shifting gears will invigorate your training, your enthusiasm, and your gains. Now is the time to build up strength and size for next season. So let’s begin.
Bulking The Right Way
"Bulk" is a pretty loaded word. Normally, most gym-goers will start bulking by shoving every nearby calorie in their mouth and lift with weights they have no business lifting. Yes, this will pack on the pounds, but possibly the wrong kind.
My goal here is to look at bulking in another light. Let’s approach this new phase of your training and nutrition plan as one of gaining lean muscle. What good is it if you pack on a bunch of body fat only to have to go through immense suffering to strip it off next year? Let’s start a bulking plan that will help you gain more muscle and strength while still having an impressive physique.
Bulking Training Changes
Some changes will take place but not as drastic as you may think. Your goal should be to lift heavier weight with lower reps while not slowing training down so much that you become a lazy lifter. You still want to keep somewhat of a tempo and burn some calories along the way.
From High-Rep Training to Lower Reps
It’s most-likely that you’ve stayed in the higher rep ranges for a good part of the spring and summer. It’s time to put some torque in your program and drop down into 4 to 8 rep territory. This is the perfect combination of pure strength training and hypertrophy training – which will complement each other nicely.
Shoot for 4 to 6 reps for most upper body multi-joint exercises such as bench presses (incline and flat), shoulder presses, rows, deadlifts, curls and close-grip bench presses. For lower body go with 6 to 8 reps on squats, leg presses, Romanian deadlifts, and calf raises. The goal is to increase weight while still performing each exercise with good form and function.
From Many Angles to Only a Few
You probably use multiple angles when training every body part. A chest workout may look like this: barbell bench press, incline bench dumbbell press, dumbbell or machine fly, and some sort of cable crossover move. Cut down on the sets and keep things simple. The big, multi-joint moves are best anyway so stay with just a few exercises and perform more sets per exercise.
Go with 2 to 3 moves for most body parts. For example, with our chest workout example above you may want to start with the basics and go with 5 or 6 sets of incline bench barbell press and 5 or 6 sets of flat bench dumbbell press with an option of 3 or 4 sets of push-ups at the end to round things out. A biceps workout, for example, could be 4 sets of barbell curls and 4 sets of seated incline bench dumbbell curls.
From Short to Longer Rest Periods
Another common practice when training to get lean is to rest for short periods of time between sets. Anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute is the norm with hopes of burning more calories and exhausting the muscle. Since your goal has now shifted a bit more towards the strength side of the spectrum go with 2 to 4 minutes of rest for most exercises.
Rest 2 minutes for smaller muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, shoulder lateral moves, and calves. For larger muscle groups and compound exercises take a 3 to 4 minute rest between sets. This will ensure you’ve adequately recovered from the previous set so you will have restored as much strength as possible for the next set.
From Focused on Fatigue to Focused on Strength
Training for hypertrophy normally calls for fatigue-centric workouts. Higher reps taken to muscular failure along with shorter rest periods will exhaust the muscle being trained. Shift to a strength-focused mindset. No, the goal isn’t to become a power lifter but you will need to pay more attention to strength.
Keep track of all exercises, sets, and reps used for each workout. You will be loading the bar with more weight, so recording all the details of each workout is important. Also, be sure to use this information to your advantage. Increase in either reps or weight with each session. If you miss a goal for one or two days, don’t stress. Just move on and attempt those lifts the next time.
Keep Your Form Strict as you Go Heavier
Lifting heavier isn’t a free pass to loosen up your form and risk injury. Many lifters subscribe to the “get the weight up by any means necessary” mentality. Lifting heavier loads isn’t the time to get sloppy. You may be able to get away with some form of cheating with lighter weights, but since you are shifting from a lighter training load to a heavier one you need to pay more attention to form and technique than ever before.
Stabilize your body, adhere to all points of contact during your lifts, and avoid swinging and swaying the weight up. Leaving your ego at the door isn’t just a saying, it’s required practice. Keep your whole body tight during a big lift, focus on the area doing the work and if you miss a rep or two on a lift simply rack the weight and recoup for the next set. Getting injured isn’t the goal.
Bulking Diet Changes
It goes without saying that you will want to shift your nutrition practices as well. In order to facilitate more muscle and build more strength you will need to up the calorie content and pay attention to the scale as well.
Related: How To Bulk for Only $50/Week
From Low Carbs to Moderate and High Carbs
You may have been following a low to very low carb diet for a long time. Now it’s time to not only lift heavier, but also eat bigger. When you hear the word bulk many gym-goers feel like they need to fatten up. Not so. The goal is to pack on lean muscle without the extra baggage. Yes, you can get a little looser on the diet by taking in more calories, but make sure those are the right kind of calories.
Shoot for 2 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight to start. Also, these extra carbs aren’t in the form of candy and cake, they should be more of the food you are used to on a bodybuilder-friendly diet such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, plenty of fibrous vegetables and oats. Now you can start eating other carbs that weren’t on the menu before such as white rice, white potatoes, whole grain pasta, wheat bread and fruits.
Keep Protein in Check
Now isn’t the time to slack on your protein intake either. Keep on eating the lean varieties but now you can even loosen up the reigns on that as well. You are already used to the traditional protein fare such as low-fat fish, lean ground beef and turkey, chicken breast and whey protein powder all the while getting in at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Try some fattier versions of your favorites. Try dark meat chicken, steak, fatty fish and fattier versions of ground meat and turkey. These pack extra calories without feeling like you are stuffing yourself. Plus these foods will make eating desirable again.
Don't Worry About Fat Intake
Fat is essential. It provides important benefits when it comes to staying healthy and continuing on your journey to a better physique. It aids in metabolism, immunity and helps regulate key hormones.
Since your new bulking diet will consist of fattier versions of proteins you will have to give less attention to fat intake. In other words, you’ll have to worry less about getting in the right amounts of healthy fats. Normally you will want to take in around .6 to .8 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight. This is a general guideline and if you feel you need more you can always supplement with a quality fish or krill oil supplement.
Cycle your Carbs
Again, bulking doesn’t mean bulging. Controlling food, namely carb, intake is still a priority. Being loose with your diet plan is one thing but having to buy new pants due to an expanding waistline is quite another. Eating plentiful carbs will take its toll over time. You may find that you are gaining weight too fast, you might start to feel sluggish or you could start seeing those hard-earned cuts fade away.
Carb cycling has benefits when bulking, not just dieting. As you would carb cycle with a fat-loss diet, you would normally have a few days of low carbs followed by a refeed or a high carb day. With bulking you will do the opposite. You can go a few days on the new amount of carbs you’ve established followed by one low carb day. Or you could always reserve low carb days for non-training days.
Don't Go Overboard
The critical point worth mentioning again is the fact that you don’t have to blow up your waistline in order to bulk. Remember, it’s not the time to let it all hang out, throw care out the window and make inroads to your health. Gradually increase calories, coax into your new plan, and don’t force it. Keep a close eye on your progress and make the necessary adjustments along the way.