“Don’t wish for it. Work for it.” – Uknown
First Comes Diet, Second Comes Training
As mentioned in part 1, building mass starts in the kitchen. The diet is a foundation upon which you can build up your body into a stack of muscle rather than a blob of fat.
If your diet is dialed in then the next step is to identify the best workout program(s) that will help you sculpt and growth your body into its desired form.
This is not an easy task because it takes dedication, discipline,
and consistency. Building mass is like a freight train. It starts slow and takes a lot of effort to see the first bit of changes. However, when you break through the initial hurdles, change will come quickly. The challenge at this point becomes maintaining and controlling.
I struggled with finding the correct information and sticking to the program. I have gone through multiple, failed bulks and often times, that failure came from the poor choices I made in the workout programming I chose for myself.
I am writing this article to provide the key fundamentals I wish I knew when I was starting my bulk. I will also provide advice on what worked for me.
What Makes A Good Workout Program
During a bulk, your body will be introduced to more calories, energy, protein, and macronutrients than it has ever had. The key objective is to channel as much of this into building up as many muscles as possible to mold your body into a bigger shape while keeping the same leanness as you had before.
A good program should work to build up the majority of muscles in your body. It should focus equally on upper body, mid-section, and lower body. This will ensure that your body can grow in proportion and holistically. There is nothing worse than programs that solely focus on upper body leaving someone with an underdeveloped lower body (insert picture of Johnny Bravo)
A good program needs to be intensive and demanding enough that it can cause sufficient stimulation of the muscles to grow, get stronger and more efficient. The reps, sets, and frequency need to be sufficient that at the end of each exercise or workout you feel exhausted and worked. It is imperative to make most of the calories in your diet go towards muscle rebuilding, while only a small portion goes into the increase of fat. Workouts that are easy or leave you with a tank half full will rob you of the potential gains you can achieve on a bulk. You are feeding your body with all the energy it needs; might-as-well maximizes it to build muscle.
- You need a good exercise program to build up the muscles in your body
- Your program needs to work major muscles in your body so that your body can grow in proportion
- Your program needs to be intensive and demanding enough that you utilize the influx of energy (in the form of calories and carbohydrates) to stress and stimulate the muscles to grow rather than tone
Powerlifting VS Total Body Programs VS Power-Building
As I used the above criteria in selecting my ideal workout program for my bulk I came across three viable options.
- Total Body Programs
Along with your diet, you need a good exercise program to go along with it to build up your size. Through the diet, your body is getting an influx of energy and proteins. To effectively build up mass without accumulating a lot of fat, that energy and proteins need to go into building up muscles all over your body to bigger sizes. Thus, you need an exercise program that targets the most amount of muscles in your body so the energy can be evenly distributed. In my experience, powerlifting is the most effective exercise program in doing this.
Powerlifting focuses on four major lifts: Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift and Overhead Press. These lifts are compound movements, meaning that multiple joints and muscles groups are used when performing them. Powerlifting also includes supplementary (or auxiliary) exercises that help to add strength or size to secondary muscles used in the major lifts.
The goal of powerlifting is to build strength. As such, the programming is tailored to low reps (typically 1-5) and high sets (5-7 excluding warmups). Going through a program will move you through heavier and heavier weight. As that happens your body will start to burn more fat, causing you to put on less fat through your bulk. Your testosterone will also increase, boosting your self-confidence and helping decrease cholesterol, blood pressure, and stress. All of this will lead to increased health which will counterbalance the unhealthiness of consuming more calories than your body is used to.
Powerlifting is excellent in recruiting large muscle groups all around the body in every workout. Since the weight you are lifting increases, more and more of your body is utilized in executing these lifts. Not only do your muscles get more efficient at lifting heavy loads but weak parts of your body are strengthed by proxy.
The major lifts cover all of the key areas of the body (upper body, lower body, and mid-section), as such, by the end of the week, you will have successfully trained 70-80% of the muscles in your body. This high usage of muscles groups will ensure as you grow, you develop proportionately.
I started my bulking with powerlifting routines. They established a good foundation of muscle and strength. I learned proper technique for the major lifts and got exhausting full-body workouts each week.
The two powerlifting programs I used and highly recommend are Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Strong Lifts 5×5. Both of these programs are very easy to start, follow, stop and come back into. They are successful programs used by many world-class powerlifters and athletes. They both have been proven to produce results. Each of these programs requires gym equipment that can be found in any gym.
You can take these programs and implement them if you travel or have a basic gym membership. They do not involve complex modifications, equipment or calculations. There are even mobile apps and excel spreadsheets that allow you to easily follow the program and track your progress. The apps and spreadsheet lay out the weights, reps, dates and assistance exercises to perform. All you have to do is plug in your goals and follow the program.
Bodybuilding Programs are those that you can find on bodybuilding.com and other similar sites. They are workout plans that focus on a mix of isolation exercises to target the key major areas of your body.
The goal of these programs is to concentrate (or isolate) each exercise on a particular muscle or set of muscles. The reps are high (10-15) and the sets are low (2-3). These programs are focused on muscle building and as such, they focus very little on the amount of weight. They place heavy emphasis on the technique and control executed in each repetition of the exercise.
Since these programs have no programming based on strength target, the validation of proper execution or progression is completely up to you. You decide when you need to move up to heavier weight. You decide how long to focus on a particular muscle group. You decide how fatigued you want to be at the end of each exercise or workout.
My experience with these programs is that they isolate and prioritize glamor muscle groups (chest, arms, neck, abs) over others. Since many of these are designed by professional bodybuilders, they have been designed to focus on those muscles that are most visible. In order to build a well-rounded physique, I have had to spend extra time in the gym to give the same concentration to all other parts of your body, otherwise, I would develop muscle imbalances. A person that is bulking and solely concentrates on arms, shoulders, back and chest will have an under-developed core and legs.
Powerbuilding is a mixture of Powerlifting and Bodybuilding. It incorporates the major lifts but also adds in supplementary compound, isolation and bodyweight exercises that build muscle groups not fully targeted by major lifts.
The goal of powerbuilding is to build strength as well as muscle. The programming consists of high reps (typically 8-12) and medium sets (3-4). The program increases the weight linearly similar to a powerlifting program which keeps intensity and muscle fatigue high.
Powerbuilding contains a good balance between recruiting large muscle groups for strength training and isolating specific muscles for growth and definition. Through programs like this not only do you become stronger but you look more jacked and thick. Your muscles get stimulation from all three key factors: 1. Mechanical Load 2. Time under tension 3. Metabolic stress
In my opinion, this is the best of the three workout programs. When I did powerlifting I found myself becoming stronger but not more defined. Bodybuilding programs left severe muscular imbalances in my body. Through powerlifting, I have achieved strength, thickness and muscle definition unlike I have ever experienced in my life. As I switched from powerlifting to powerbuilding I noticed that I did not lose any strength and through the program, I even became stronger. All of the increased volume through sets and reps added to build my overall strength. In addition, the exercises I was doing made the rest of my body stronger as well.
Since powerbuilding is a relatively new or unique concept, there are not a lot of programs out there. The one which I have used (and still use) is Ben Pollack’s Powerbuilding Program. Ben Pollack is a world-class powerlifter with the body of a bodybuilder. His program is easy to follow and comes with a plug-in spreadsheet that does all of the programming and calculations for you based on your 1RPM.
The gym equipment for executing Powerbuilding programs is pretty standard. I have been able to easily carry it over across multiple gyms. When I was traveling for work, this was a huge benefit to keep my consistency and discipline of working out.
The Three Keys To Building Muscle
Correct technique and emphasis when executing an exercise or lift is another big factor in the building of muscle. It is critical to understand what key factors lead to the breakdown of muscle tissue that can be capitalized on for maximum gains.
In my research (and experience) there are three major factors:
Mechanical Load: The amount of stress on the muscle produced by its load (how much it is carrying). This basically means how much the muscle is lifting. The more weight you lift in an exercise, the more mechanical load is exerted onto/by your muscles.
I channel this by making sure that gradually increase the weight from week-to-week. This way my muscles are always dealing with a weight that is heavier than the previous week or just plain heavy.
Time Under Tension: The time under which a muscle is being worked. This basically means how long you are putting stress on the muscle for during each exercise. The longer you can keep a muscle in the eccentric or concentric or isometric state, the more time a muscle remains under tension.
I channel this by slowing down each rep and utilizing a 3-1-3 method. 3 seconds contracting. 1-second holding. 3 seconds releasing. I find this a great way of feeling the “burn” but also building technique and working all other stabilizer and balance muscles.
Metabolic Stress: The time under which a muscle is repeatedly used without break. As we use our muscles this builds up stress. Resting between sets and reps allows us time to naturally recover from that stress. Reducing the time can keep the metabolic stress high.
I channel this but cutting my breaks between sets to under a minute. Within reps I keep the body moving and do not pause at the top or bottom of any lift. By keeping constant movement my muscles get less time to rest and are always under stress.
Make It Scalable, Sustainable and Reproducible.
Just as with the diet, for a good workout program 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 workout does not meet these three criteria, then your program is subject to failure when outside variables that are out of your control take place.
Sustainable is the ability to repeat your workout program for weeks and months without getting bored. Conversely, your training program should be adjustable so you can defer, substitute or add workouts on any given day. This will help you during vacations or during days where you have limited time in the gym. Limited progress is always better than no progress.
Reproducible is the ability to execute your workout in any gym without needing specialized equipment. If you can train in regular gyms, hotel gyms, and common fitness clubs, you will never have an excuse to not work out. In any location away from your home, 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 workout program in order to meet your goals, schedule or energy level. Your program should be customizable that you can add weight or substitute different exercises to work the same muscle groups. Your program should provide linear increases in difficulty, weight, and repetitions. This will provide muscle confusion causing your body to constantly adapt (great for muscle building). This will also prevent boredom from executing the same workout every week.
Stick To The Program
It is easy to get carried away while lifting during a bulk. When you start to make progress it is easy to abandon the program in pursuit of other goals. Some people get comfortable with the results they initially receive, get lazy and stop the program. Others start seeing strength gains and switch programs to purely strength training programs
Exhibiting any of the above will cause your results to taper off. By limiting the collective muscles you work or the intensity at which you train them can lead to you becoming strong and husky instead of big and lean. There is nothing wrong with becoming strong and husky but understand that your muscles will be trapped under a layer of fat that you will then have to burn off for them to become visible. Burning fat while maintaining strength is very hard to do and often results in strength and muscle loss during the cut
This happened to me during my first bulk. I became more focused on the strength that I started to only lift low reps with heavy weights. Before long, I had big arms, legs, and chest but a big gut as well. To the outside world, I looked like a professional strongman.
When I finally decided to cut the fat, it took forever for the definition to show and I lost much of my strength. I was devastated. I spent so much time building up that strength but I just looked fat and big to everyone else. It was only in the gym that I was proud of my body.
How Do You Put On Muscle?
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 workout 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.