“The Secret of Change Is to Focus All of Your Energy, Not on Fighting the Old, But on Building the New” – Socrates
I Want To Bulk Up
While the majority of us suffer from the problem of losing weight there are those individuals that want to gain weight. These individuals have been skinny for the majority of their lives and want to add mass and size in order to become better versions of themselves.
As a former skinny person who was thin for the majority of my adolescent life, I always felt like the smallest person in the room. When I would look into the mirror I would always see an underwhelming body missing the shape and curves of definition. I struggled to find clothes small enough to fit my small frame.
All of this had big impacts on my self-confidence and I was never happy with myself. I knew the body I had was not up to par and the only way to improve my body image issues was to look like a bodybuilder like Bradley Martyn or world class powerlifter like Dmitri Klokov. I idolized the physique of these men because they oozed confidence. They were the biggest and baddest people in any room and it commanded respect. I was convinced in order for me to feel good about myself I needed to bulk up and build my frame out.
However, this was not an easy task. I struggled with finding the correct information and sticking to the program. I suffered from some of the same problems you might have also faced.
How Much Should I Eat?
Translating putting on muscle to calories and food groups can be very confusing. There are tons of calculators and guides online dictating different caloric ranges and macro (protein, fat, carbohydrate) breakdowns.
There are also hundreds of fitness programs and fitness youtube videos which serve up conflicting information.
At the end of the day, most people suffer from information overload and struggle with a place to start. Not having an accurate breakdown of calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates can make shopping difficult as well as sabotage any results. If you eat too little you won’t grow. If you eat too much, you grow too fat.
I Can’t Eat That Much Food
When you finalize the number of calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates you have to consume, the real challenge starts. On paper, it is easy finding foods to can equal your calorie amount but it is another task to find foods to hit your protein, fat and carbohydrate amounts as well.
To put this into perspective my numbers were: 2026 Calories, 162g Protein, 193 Carbohydrates, and 67g Fat. The most calorie dense meat is chicken. One full-sized chicken breast has 30g of protein. This means I would need to consume 4 chicken breasts and a protein shake just to hit my protein goals per day. When you add pasta or rice for carbohydrates it translates to a lot of food per day. A lot of meat, rice, pasta, oils, cheeses, and other calorie dense foods.
The typical person is not built for eating this much food.
After a while, you start to get sick of eating meat all of the time and you start to dread eating. You are no longer eating for pleasure. You are eating for fuel and numbers towards a goal. This mentality is not for everyone and so most people cannot keep up with the constant eating and abandon the program.
I Ate A Lot And…I Got Fat
Some people find ways to overcome eating by using tricks and shortcuts. They start paying more attention to the calorie count and pay less attention to the macro numbers. They believe calorie surplus is the only number that matters and so as long as they exceed that number, the rest will fall into place.
This behavior results in eating everything in sight which is calorie dense and unfortunately, only bad stuff is calorie dense. Foods like pizza, burgers, fries, cookies, ice cream, doughnuts, butter, and mayonnaise get consumed daily and before long excess weight and fat start accumulating quickly. Rather than putting on muscle and mass in the right places, they put on fat in all of the wrong places.
As soon as we see ourselves in the mirror we are horrified and immediately drop the program in replacement of a diet and fat loss program.
Bulking Up Diet
When I finally tried to give bulking another chance it was years (and many vital lessons learned) after my first attempts.
This time I approached it from a pure numbers perspective. I measured and calculated everything. I also figured out an ideal training program that helped to build muscle in the right places and relatively minimize the fat gain. However, this took time and a lot of adjustments. I was only able to identify the best diet after months of borrowing diets from the internet, tweaking and scraping what didn’t work. Similarly, I was able to identify the ideal training program by borrowing exercises and advice from fitness blogs and youtube.
The hacks and principles listed below are what helped me gain the appropriate amount of mass in the shortest acceptable time frame, with limited health risks.
The methods outlined before are what worked for me and the culmination of months of trial and error to determine what worked and how to make it easy to implement. They helped me gain over 30 pounds of muscle in a year without a lot of fat increase.
I hope that will serve you well.
Identify Your Current State And Goals
Before beginning, you have to identify where you are and where you want to go.
Without clearly defining your starting and ending point, the success of your bulking will be very difficult.
You need these two markers to accurately plan diet, exercise programs, macros and even meal frequency. Without accuracy, you are simply guessing your way through a very dangerous program that could result in fat gain and body dysmorphia which will last a very long time.
Identify the following current state metrics:
- Body Mass Index Percentage (BMI)
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) Cholesterol Level
- Glucose Level
Bodyweight and BMI will be used to identify your starting point. As you go through the bulk, you want to ensure you are increasing bodyweight but keeping the BMI within 19-25%.
The purpose of the bulk should be to gain as much muscle as possible while accumulating as little fat as possible.
BMI is a good indicator to identify if your muscle to fat ratio is imbalanced or your diet is too carb heavy. If your starting BMI is already above 25% then you might want to take some time to diet before you bulk to bring this number down to the normal range.
Failing to do so will only mean you will add more fat and further increase your BMI. Body fat is a very difficult thing to bring down, so starting with a high number might just put you on the road to becoming husky (muscles trapped under a layer of fat) versus ripped.
Basal Metabolic Rate will be used to identify how many calories your body burns through daily usage (exercise excluded). Doing nothing your body burns this amount of calories and so any bulking diet will have to take this number into consideration when calculating your daily caloric goal.
When I started, I ignored this number completely and assumed my body burned 0 calories. For the first few weeks, I saw no weight increase.
The moment I factored it in, I started to put on weight.
LDL Cholesterol and Glucose levels are very important measures to take note of before starting the bulk.
Similar to BMI, they should be within acceptable healthy levels because the bulk will increase those levels.
However, unlike BMI, if your LDL Cholesterol or Glucose levels go too high they can be significant health risks. Too high of glucose can lead to Type 1 Diabetes. High LDL Cholesterol can lead to a higher risk of heart disease or a heart attack.
Bulk Body Diet
Your diet is the biggest factor in determining how much muscle and fat you build.
It is also a big determinant for having a balanced muscle build or have pockets of muscle layered with fat. If you screw up your diet or take shortcuts, the effects can be drastic and unfavorable. It is these reasons to get the diet locked down.
Make It Scalable, Sustainable and Reproducible.
In order for a diet to work, it needs to be scalable, sustainable and reproducible. These three criteria are what will keep you on track and stick to the program.
If your diet does not meet these three criteria, then your program is subject to failure when outside variables that are out of your control take place.
I recommend building a custom meal plan that contains foods, cooking methods and preparation time that is sustainable, reproducible and scalable. As and when your life changes, this custom meal plan can go with you and be used anywhere.
Sustainable is the ability to eat and repeat for weeks and months. When you take on a long-term goal of gaining mass you need a diet and workout you can stick to, will yield frequent and tangible results and something you will get bored off easily.
Reproducible is the ability to easily re-create meals in your diet and follow a training program without having to constantly refer to guides.
In any location away from your home or in any foreign gym, you should be able to stick to your routine. This will help you immensely during vacations or travel when it is easy to veer off course and break your routine.
Scalability is the ability to modify your diet or program to increase or decrease a variable in order to meet your goals, schedule or lifestyle.
Your diet should be designed so you can easily adjust the ratios of fats, proteins or carbohydrates based on heavy days or light days in the gym.
Do Not Worry If You Fail To Hit Your Daily Caloric And Macro Goals
As important as it is to hit your daily caloric and macro goals, it is not the end of the world if you fail.
Things happen in that prevent us from preparing, consuming or finishing a meal. This is understandable and will happen from time to time. I can reassure you not hitting your goals for the day will not result in massive muscle loss. Since you are operating at a calorie surplus, your body has excess energy and fat to live from.
A one-day deficit will hardly result in your body entering a catabolic state and breaking down muscle tissues.
Do Not Try to Over Compensate For Calories
In the case, you are unable to hit your daily caloric and macro goals, it is very important to avoid overeating to compensate for the loss.
A massive influx of calories from overeating will result in a surge of energy to the body. Without exercise or physical activity to put that energy into use, it will quickly become fat. This surge of energy also creates unhealthy spikes of insulin to counteract the added glucose in your blood. Large spikes of insulin are bad because they put a strain on the pancreas and over time could lead to an increased risk of type 1 diabetes.
The goal of a bulk diet is to have slight calorie surplus by the end of the day which results in maximum transfer to muscle and little transfer to fat.
Overeating will have the inverse effect and lead to health risks. The loss of muscle growth for one day of undereating is much less detrimental than the fat gained and health risks of one day of overeating.
If you fail to hit your caloric or macro goals for the day, log what you did consume and make sure you hit your goal for the next day.
Never Eat Right Before Bed
Similar to overcompensating by overeating, eating before bed should be avoided at all costs.
Falling asleep after a big meal will immediately result in subcutaneous fat accumulation. Subcutaneous fat which has been stored underneath the skin.
This is the technique sumo wrestlers use to become bigger.
Although subcutaneous fat is healthier than visceral fat, it is more visually prominent and much harder to burn. This fat will stay with you for a long time and be visible around your chest, stomach, and shoulders.
Eating before bed will also result in bloating, cramps and undigested food. When we sleep our metabolisms slow down considerably. Food takes much longer to break down and digest.
Based on how much you sleep, there is a good chance that in the morning your stomach will still feel bloated from undigested or partially digested food. When you wake up in the morning your stomach will still be expanded from the previous meal and you might even have stomach pains until your body digests the remaining food. This bloating and craps could also end up hurting your appetite, energy, and ability to hit your diet or exercise goals for the next day.
The goal of a bulk diet is to transfer as much of the calories and macronutrients from food into energy for workouts and muscles for growth.
It is important to center your eating times around +/-2 hours before and after the gym.
Give yourself at least 2-3 hours of digestion time before sleeping. Plan ahead to make sure you work out and eat before you sleep.
If you have to go to bed earlier then either compromise by going to the gym and eating earlier or accepting a calorie deficit for the day.
Remember, caloric deficits are much less detrimental than fat accumulation.
Eat Whole Food. Do Not Drink Your Calories.
During the bulk, you will reach a point when you are tired of eating multiple meals a day. You will become tired of having the same bland meals over and over again. You might even lose your appetite for eating.
It is at this time you might consider taking shortcuts like weight gainer milkshakes or creating high-calorie smoothies.
I urge you to avoid doing this!
Blending food together into calorie smoothies cause a high influx of calories into your system. This will cause your insulin levels to spike and may potentially increase the risk of diabetes. Introducing a large number of calories into your system may also result in more fat accumulation rather than synthesis into muscle.
They also taste terrible and go bad very quickly. Blending together different foods will hardly taste appetizing and have different shelf lives causing certain ingredients to go bad.
These smoothies also lack vital nutrition. You can only combine so many ingredients in a blender. The ingredients you did include do not contain the essential nutrients, fiber, vitamins and fats your body also needs to grow. Lastly, they will not fill you. Liquids make you feel full at first but digest quicker than solid food.
You will be hungry again shortly after consuming the shake and this can lead to over-eating.
Weight-gainer shakes not great alternatives either. They contain high amounts of carbohydrates and sugars.
The only way to get the calories so high is to up the sugar and carbohydrate amounts. This will lead to large insulin spikes and potentially diabetes risk.
Lastly, they can be expensive. Since they are meal replacements you have to have them multiple times a day. A typical bag of 12 pounds is $55 This is enough for 16 meals which makes it $3.45 per meal.
Track Everything That Goes Into Your Mouth
The most important step in adding or losing weight is to track and measure every meal you ingest. At any point of the day you should know:
- Caloric Goal: How many calories you have to consume today
- Macro Goal: How many grams of proteins, carbs, and fats you have to consume today
- Caloric Progress: How many calories have you already consumed today
- Macro Progress: How many grams of proteins, carbs, and fats have you already consume today
Knowing this information as well as tracking it will allow you to plan ahead.
The key is planning ahead.
Building mass is like a marathon, not a sprint. If you correctly plan out your meals based on your caloric and macro goals then you have done half the work and will completely avoid the problem of over or under eating.
If you do not track or plan out your meals based on your caloric and macro goals then you are simply guessing and making bad decisions which could result in no weight gained or weight loss.
One great resource to help manage this for you is an app called MyFitnessPal.
This app allows you to enter the meals you consumed and tracks the calories and macros in them. All you have to do is log in each time you have a meal and record what you had. The App will calculate the numbers and store it for you. The App will even tell you how far you are from achieving your caloric or macro goal for the day. MyFitnessPal has a collection of hundreds of different meals, recipes, restaurants and store items.
This really helps out when you eat food outside, change your cooking or are too lazy to calculate the numbers by hand.
Keep The Weight Gain to 12 Pounds Per Year.
As you start the bulk, it is important to be conservative and start slow during the first year. During this process, your body will go through massive changes and it is important to take your time. A healthy and realistic goal should be:
- First Year: 12 Pounds
- Second Year: 12-15 Pounds
Going slow your first year will allow your body to naturally ease into its new size.
By gradually increasing the weight you can prevent things like stretch marks, spikes of cholesterol and other hormones. Your body will have time to accommodate the new size and naturally build up its ability to sustain the new size.
Adding a large amount of weight rapidly can put tremendous strain on your organs, heart and nervous system because they are unprepared and have to work overtime to support your new body mass. Going slow during the first year also allows you the ability to make quick adjustments as you go along.
Since this is a new process, chances are you might over-eat or put on too much fat initially. By going slow you can easily course correct and adjust your macros, diet or exercise to lower the fat. Mistakes from going quickly could be very hard to reverse and might even alter your future goals.
After your first year, your body will be acclimated to the new build and the process of bulking.
You will have also worked out all of the kinks from the program and learned from your mistakes during the previous year. With this newfound knowledge, you can add on more weight than the previous year. However, it is vital to still take it slow and only increase the goal by a few more pounds. However, the same principles of giving your body time to adapt are still relevant and important.
Document Progress And Make Adjustments
As with any diet, in order to be successful, you have to measure the progress made and make adjustments as necessary. Just as you track daily caloric and macro goals, it is important to take pictures of your progress.
Taking pictures will help you identify problem areas that go beyond the numbers.
Things like stretch marks, gynecomastia, fat deposits or muscle imbalances are things that can easily go unnoticed if you do not pay attention to them. By identifying these things early, you can take preventative measures to adjust your diet or exercise program to lessen the effects.
When I was bulking I started to notice stretch mark around my armpits because my shoulders were growing much more rapidly than my chest and arms. By catching it early, I was able to apply Vitamin E oils to reduce the size of marks and swap out shoulder workouts (Overhead press) for more arm and chest focused workouts (Bench Press, Rows)
Documenting progress will also help you feel good about your body and help visualize your goals. It is easy to forget how much progress you have made when you stare the mirror each day but looking at previous photos can help you identify areas where you have grown and boot your confidence towards continuing the program and diet.
Bulking Up Workout Program
Just as important as a diet plan, a solid workout program to build up your body is essential.
For specific details on the criteria and the program, I used to bulk up check out part 2 of this series located here.
As you gain the weight and reach your goal, your body will start to fill out. Enjoy this process and adapt as necessary.
You will have to buy a new wardrobe and even change your clothing style. Certain clothes only look good on skinny people, while certain clothes are more flattering for developed people.
The good news is you will now be able to shop in the large or x-large section which means more options at cheaper prices (sometimes).
Your self-confidence also stands to dramatically increase. Either by enjoying the way you look in the mirror or the increase in testosterone, you will be more confident in your abilities and will be able to approach new situations without fear.
Your diet and training program will be a disciplined part of your life and will allow you to sustain your new body and progress or regress if necessary. Lastly, if you adhere to the principles and hacks in this article you will have a well-balanced body that is not top heavy or bloated.
It will have taken a bit longer but it will a body you can be proud of and sustain, rather than a quick and ugly increase in overall weight.
How Do You Put On Mass?
What I’ve shared above are tactics and techniques which have worked for me, however, I am still constantly trying to refine the bulk-up process as I do this every winter. I would love to hear what tactics or techniques have worked well for you. Feel free to comment below with an example or identify an area I might have missed. Please share so we can learn and possibly incorporate ourselves.