Building muscle requires three simple things: a positive energy balance, progressive overload in training, and sleep.
So, despite their best efforts, how come so many lifters fail to build muscle?
Once a scraggly, toothpick-armed, mouth-breather, I know the ups and downs of building muscle.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve helped hundreds of guys pack on muscle. Now I’m here to help you do the same.
There aren't secret complicated methods; just simple principles executed consistently over time.
1. Eat Carb Heavy at Night
When someone says eat carbs at night, do you shudder and say, “carbs after eight, gain weight, bro?"
Well, I hope not. Carbohydrates are ideal around dinnertime, especially on your fall bulk. Carbohydrates are more than just fuel for high performance training. They’re an essential macronutrient to prompt deep sleep. According to this study, carbohydrate rich meals, and the ensuing release of serotonin, aid in relaxation and improve your sleep onset time.1
Getting enough sleep and calories are the biggest issues for most lifters. Taking in carbs at night addresses them both.
Now, this doesn’t mean you get to crush ice cream, cookies, and the like. After all, the basic rules of proper nutrition still apply, so fill your plate with potatoes, rice, quinoa, and oatmeal for better sleep quality and exercise recovery.
2. Don't Rely on Isolation Work
I love a skin-splitting pump. But years of being a skinny dude painted a clear picture: isolation work is a waste of time. That’s a bit harsh, but you won’t build much muscle with isolation work until you build significant strength.
Multi-joint exercises are more effective for growth due to anabolic release from major muscular contractions and total body stress. That means you'll build more muscle by improving your chin-ups, deadlifts, and squats than banging out biceps curls.
This doesn't mean you need to abandon all isolation exercises and follow a minimalist program, but keep it simple. Set aside ten minutes of isolation work at the end of training with a variety of exercises. Keep it fun, mix it up, get a pump, and go eat.
3. Stimulate Hypertrophy (the science-based way)
To maximize muscle growth, you must train in a variety of ways. Brad Schoenfeld covers three mechanisms in his review of "The Mechanisms of Muscular Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training"2:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscular damage
Training these three mechanisms in conjunction exerts the greatest stimuli for muscle growth. Let's discuss what each means for your training.
1. Mechanical Tension
The time you spend under tension creates mechanical tension in the muscles. The more significant the time of the lift, the more significant the mechanical tension.
Greater strength and loading begets greater mechanical tension across all exercises. It sounds kind of circular, but the gist is lift heavy at a relatively slow tempo through a full range of motion to promote muscle growth.
How to do it: Incorporate pure strength work on compound lifts, then mix in a combination of slower eccentrics to increase time under tension.
2. Metabolic Stress
When you train and get a skin-splitting pump, your muscles accumulate lactate, hydrogen ions, and creatinine. This accumulation of metabolites, coupled with the prevention of blood from escaping creates metabolic stress. Metabolic stress in the muscles signals adaptation and plays a role in hypertrophy.
How to do it: Incorporate high-rep pump work with minimal rest between sets to increase metabolic stress and stimulate hypertrophy.
3. Muscular Damage
We’ve all experienced this unfortunate moment: Crippling soreness a day after squatting and you care barely peel your butt off the toilet.
Luckily, your soreness isn't for nothing. The damage to muscle tissue creates an inflammatory response and releases signals for muscle growth.
That must mean the more soreness, the better for growth, right?
Not quite. This is where most lifters miss the boat. The goal of training isn’t crippling soreness; it's stimulating a physiological response. Unfortunately, excessive damage may interfere with training frequency. If training frequency and intensity suffer due to soreness, then you're limiting cumulative training load and leaving growth on the table.
How to do it: Use exercises you're not accustomed to, slow down eccentric phases, and use long-duration sets.
4. Find Your Easy Foods
The biggest place most lifters fail on their bulk is failing to eat enough. That's where easy foods come in.
Easy foods are foods that provide you with the nutrients you need for growth, yet you’re able to house a ton of them.
Chances are you're undereating on your bulk and you need to get your calories in. Pick foods that support your training and that you enjoy.
For me, this means crushing copious cups of rice post-workout, bananas, and PB&J’s.
Keep in mind this isn't a pass to live on Ben and Jerry's and Burger King. Make healthy choices 90% of the time. But, if you need the calories and are craving something deemed "dirty," go for it.
At the end of the day, positive energy balance is reigns supreme for growth – make that your focus.
5. Perform Explosive Movements
Building a body is about being capable of handling what life throws at you. That's where performance comes in – you must increase the capabilities of your muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system together.
At least once a week you need to add jumps or throws to your training to increase the neuromuscular capabilities of your body and recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers.
This has two benefits:
First, fast twitch muscle fibers are the big, thick muscle fibers most prone to muscle growth. The greater number of muscle fibers you train, the greater number of muscle fibers will grow.
Second, fast-twitch muscle fibers are the primary fibers used for explosive movements. That means your big strength lifts, jumps, throws, sprints, and most athletic movements are fast twitch dominant.
During a bulk, most of your training is slower tempo with reps between 8-12 per set. Training fast-twitch fibers helps you keep explosiveness, athleticism, and relative strength high.
Bottom Line: What fun will that muscle be if you're a walking ball of fail when you try to be athletic? Don't abandon high-performance because you want to gain mass. Throw and jump at least once per week for 3 sets of 5 to ramp up your nervous system and maintain athleticism.
6. Make One Change at a Time
90 percent of our actions are the result of habits. So it's not a stretch to think changing your habits is the key making progress towards a goal.
Change them all, right?
Research shows that trying to adopt multiple habits at once makes it exponentially more difficult to turn behaviors into habits.
Assuming you want to build muscle for your bulk, it's important build long-term habits rather than short-term fixes.
Start with picking one goal with the plan of making it a lifestyle change.
One. Only one. Just change one behavior at a time and implement it flawlessly for two weeks, then add another.
Let’s say a 31 year-old man wants to gain ten pounds of muscle.
To hit goals, break them into two categories:
- Outcome Goals: Gain 10lbs of muscle. This is your big end goal.
- Behavior Goals: Behavior goals pave the path to the outcome goal, or are the actions that will achieve your outcome goal. This could mean lift four times per week. Do 15 minutes of mobility work every day. Add a post-workout shake to boost recovery. Eat an extra 75 grams of carbs on training days.
Here's the gameplan for reaching those goals:
Perform four muscle-building workouts per week, all under 1hr in length.
Because this is only 4 days per week it works as a great introduction to the method without overloading your motivation.
Why? Resistance training 4x/week in a specialized training program provides the necessary hormonal influx, metabolic stress, and muscular tension to build muscle.
Drink two customized workout shakes each day.
Why? Find a nutrition plan that fits your goals. In this case, an influx of high quality nutrients through real food and calories to support lean muscle growth and health.
Remember: you want this bulk to be a long-term success, not a mid-November bloat, right?
Then you must emphasize creating lifestyle and nutritional changes. Lifestyle change is like a snowball rolling downhill. It starts small, then builds speed, size, and momentum as time goes on.
Pick one habit at a time and execute. Your long-term goals are closer than you think.
7. Always Seek Progressive Overload
Look around the gym: How many guys have been training for years, yet still remain the same size?
Furthermore, how many dudes are still following the same 3x10 Smith Machine squat routine with 115 lbs. on the bar? The goal of training is to build a bigger, stronger body and mind. To make progress you must stress the system above its current state, whether it's adding resistance, volume, or training density.
Pick your program, stick with the same lifts, and add weight to the bar. Whether it's 5 x 5, Starting Strength, or 5/3/1, the principle is the same – stress the body beyond its current capacity to create a higher level of resistance to stress. As a result, your body creates stronger muscles, stores more fuel, and grows.
Successful bulking is more about dominating simple principles than secret methods.
Take control and use the principles and methods outlined in this article to dominate your fall bulk.
- Afaghi, A., O'Connor, H., & Chow, C. (2007, February 1). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
- Schoenfeld, Brad. "The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2857. Web. 21 Nov. 2013