Steve was about to begin a big bulking phase and wanted some advice. He had read the original Big Bulking Tips article and applied many of the ideas with great success, putting on 15 pounds in a little over two months.
But now he’s ready for more. After reviewing his diet and training history he’s ready to take the next step towards optimizing his progress.
Here are a few of the things I told him.
1. Reps Go Up, Never Down
One of the best parts about bulking is that your strength, along with your size, increases dramatically. Really, who doesn’t love it when the weights feel like nothing? One potential problem however, is that after a month or so of this, our bodies may start to break down under the unaccustomed loads. The continued strain on our connective tissue can become excessive until, ultimately, something gives.
Our joints, rather than muscles, are particularly susceptible to injury when bulking because they seem to adapt more slowly. This is likely due to a decreased blood supply to connective tissue, resulting in a longer adaptation period. So while your muscles may be getting bigger and stronger by the week, your tendons and ligaments may be no better off than they were when you started.
One solution to this problem is to increase rep range as your strength increases. This will help ensure that you’re handling a weight that your joints and connective tissue can handle. Take for example, someone who’s squatting with a 5-7 rep range and has gone from sets using 400 to sets of 420lbs.
Rather than jumping to 440, it may serve him better to stay at 420 for a couple of weeks while his body adjusts to the higher load. In order to keep stressing the muscle, a higher rep range is used in subsequent workouts; for example, 420 for sets of 8-10.
Even if you don’t stay at the same weight, which may be overcautious for some, you should at least resist the temptation to drop reps for the sake of increasing poundage. We all want to see how much iron we can throw around, but when we’re already stressing our connective tissue the last thing our body’s need is a reduction in reps to increase the weight.
To put it bluntly; if you do this, your body will not like you. If you really need to see how much your 1RM has gone up, or want to train with a 2-3 rep range when bulking, make sure that you’re training this way beforeyou bulk.
If you’re bulking and not increasing the amount of weight used at the same rep range, then something is wrong and you need to figure out what it is. Otherwise, you may just fool yourself into thinking that everything is going well by dropping the reps.
2. Don’t be Stupid
When the issue of bulking comes up, I’ve actually heard people say that they can tell how well their cycle is going by how fat they’re getting! The reasoning is that the fatter one gets, the more muscle he’s putting on.
This blows my mind! I mean we can put on fat while bulking up, but we’re not trying to get fat here. The flaw with his thinking is that we now know that fat deposition is not simply a calories in-calories out situation. It depends a lot on timing and nutrient composition, too! So if we’re doing things incorrectly, then we may be getting fatter without optimizing our muscle gain.
For example: even when bulking, you don’t want to start scarfing down Pop Tarts before you go to bed. As wonderful as these calorie supplements are, they’ll still likely contribute unnecessarily to fat gain.
This is particularly true because our muscle insulin sensitivity decreases as the day wears on, meaning that we’re more likely to generate a large insulin response from ingesting carbs. Stated differently, we’re more predisposed to adding fat mass by eating carbs at night because our body doesn’t handle the hormone insulin as well as it does earlier in the day.
Besides, if we really want calories before bed (which we do), we’ll get over 300 from the 80 Gram Casein Protocol, and another 360 from a mere 40g of healthy fats. That’s getting close to 700 calories right before we go to bed, without consuming many carbs at all.
Now before you get all freaked out and start restricting your carbs, understand that I’m not talking about limiting overall nutrient quantity. Rather I’m suggesting that we stay intelligent about nutrient timing. Carbs aren’t bad, especially when bulking, but we can optimizingmize our results by minimizing reductions in muscle insulin sensitivity.
3. Understand Nutrient Density
There can be some confusion about terms such as nutrient density and caloric density, but understanding the differences is quite important when bulking. I most often hear the term nutrient dense applied to leafy green vegetables because they’re full of “stuff that’s good for you”.
But this term could also be used to describe celery or lettuce because they’re full of water, not vitamins or minerals. Remember that water is a nutrient, so by definition foods containing a lot of water can be nutrient dense.
Somewhat paradoxically, Pop Tarts are also nutrient dense because they’re full of carbs. Semantics? Sure, but there’s enough misapplication of nutrient density that it needs to be clarified.
Pop Tarts, now with kitties!
For the most part, when in the real world, nutrient density refers to fruits and vegetables because they’re chock full of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. This is great info, but has little application to nutrient density used in the context of bulking.
In this case, the nutrient density we’re concerned with is really based on the macronutrients: fats, carbs, and protein. That’s because these are the nutrients that contain calories, which is exactly what we’re interested in.
More definitively, the term density is used to describe a lot of something in a small package. For our purposes, this means that we want foods with a lot of calorie-containing nutrients in a small amount of food.
Take for example Pop Tarts (who didn’t see that one coming), which have 200 calories in just 50g of food. That’s pretty dense! On the opposite end of the spectrum, celery has only 8 calories per 50 grams. When you consider that you’d have to eat 1.25 kilo’s (2.75lbs!) of celery to equal the calories of one Pop Tart, the concept of Caloric density becomes clear (actually it becomes crystal clear the day AFTER eating 2.75 pounds of celery).
So why are we so concerned about nutrient density? Well, when bulking, we need to cram in so many calories that we often don’t want to eat any more. But if we can keep our caloric density high, then we’ll be eating less food to get the same number of calories!
4. Fatty Warning
A cautionary note when focusing on caloric density: look at overall macronutrient density of food products. Simply choosing foods based on how calorically dense they are could be a mistake, because fat, as a nutrient, has more calories per gram than the other macronutrients.
This means that 10 grams of fat will provide more energy than the same mass of either protein or carbohydrates – more than twice as much in fact! So by loading up a product with fat, it will have a ton of calories, but it may not be ideal for our body composition – even when bulking.
We have to be realistic. I mean, a tub of lard is the most nutrient dense food you can find, but you’re not going to want to eat spoonfuls of Crisco! So focus on nutrient density and caloric density, but don’t go overboard.
5. Cycle Stimulants: Get Bigger
Stimulants are one of the best ways to increase your strength in the gym, whether you’re bulking or not. This means that regardless of what training phase you’re in (recovery phase excepted), popping some Spike or a little caffeine before your workout will help ensure that the weights you move will be heavier than your last workout. (Keep in mind that while not the primary ingredient, Spike does contain some caffeine.)
Couple this with the gains that come from bulking and you get an incredibly powerful effect.
While caffeine is the most commonly used drug on the planet, it has somehow remained the most underrated performance enhancing drug available. Some of the often overlooked effects include:
• Increased energy (duh)
• Increased muscle strength
• Increased muscle endurance
• Increased mental performance
• Improved concentration
• Increased bodyfat utilization
• Muscle sparing while dieting
On top of all of this, caffeine is legal to purchase and use*, it’s readily available, and incredibly cheap (unless of course you prefer the Starbucks variety, in which case you’ll need a credit check and co-signer prior to getting your “fix on.”)!
Okay, so this information is really nothing new. But if everyone knows this, then why are so few people taking advantage of the benefits? One of the most obvious reasons is that people consume far too much caffeine in their daily lives to get the optimal training effect. Further, many people have these caffeinated drinks so engrained in their lives that they’re unwilling to forego them or pursue de-caffeinated alternatives.
As a side tip for improved body composition and performance, stop regularly drinking caffeinated coffee, tea**, and Cola. This also applies to students and those who can benefit from the mental performance enhancement effects.
That way, when you need a big stimulant boost, it’ll be optimal for the task.
A sample plan based on a 12-week bulking cycle could look like this:
Weeks 1-2: 1 mg caffeine per pound bodyweight‡
Weeks 5-6: 1 mg caffeine per pound bodyweight
Week 7: 1.2 mg caffeine per pound of bodyweight
Week 8: 1.4 mg caffeine per pound of bodyweight
(It should be noted that the maximum dose of 1.8mg/lb is never reached.)
But let’s be realistic. We can always have too much of a good thing. Using stimulants for too long might result in our desensitization to the effects, meaning that we’d have to take more and more just to see the same effect.
Of course this is an undesirable situation and should be avoided. This is particularly true when you consider that one of the best times to use stimulants is immediately after a bulking phase, because this helps keep the weights high as the calories come down. Regardless, the boys in the Biotest lab have told me that the effects of Spike don’t downgrade over time. If that’s true, that’s pretty impressive.
*Caffeine at high doses is banned by the governing bodies of many sports federations, although reasonable doses remain legal for most.
**Green tea excepted.
‡Consumed 1 hour prior to activity
6. Cycle Stimulants: Staying Big
While stimulant use helps increase muscle mass through an acute induction of enhanced strength, it’s through this same mechanism that stimulants can help us maintain this elevated level of muscle mass once the bulking cycle ends.
Naturally, as we decrease our calories after bulking, the enhanced stimulus for growth ends. Although it’s not the end of the world, this can result in a decrease in strength, which translates to a reduction in stimulation for muscle growth.
Coupled with the adjustment in food intake, some people have a rebound effect where they get both smaller and weaker at a rate too quickly for their liking.
In most cases, the rebound effect is more psychological than anything. After all, heavy bulking results in a perpetually swollen feeling because our muscles are replete with glycogen and even intramuscular fat. Suddenly, as we reduce the calories, insulin goes down, as does the pumped feeling, as do the weights…
I mean, we’re not talking about coming off of a heavy drug cycle here, but in reality this is how many people perceive the end of bulking. It should be noted that this happens most drastically when someone thinks they’re getting too fat and decides to drop their calories by a large amount – in essence flipping the switch to cutting from bulking.
As mentioned in the first Big Bulking Tips article, such a rapid change plays havoc with our physiology and completely undermines our efforts.
If we can maintain or even continue to improve our strength gains after bulking, it provides an enormous psychological boost, not to mention the obvious physiological benefits.
A sample post-bulking program could look like this:
• Ideally refrain from stimulants for 3 weeks prior to the end of bulking
• Begin with 1mg of caffeine per pound of bodyweight 1 hour prior to training
• After 8 training sessions at the first dose increase to 1.2mg/lb
• After 8 training sessions at the second dose increase to 1.4mg/lb
Now that all of the sexy information is in the open, it’s time for a reminder: stimulants are drugs and can have side effects.
Use your head if you decide to use them. Although I present the possibility to my paying clients, I can never directly recommend drug use, even to them.
(Caffeine addiction is not a pretty sight. One day you wake up, at noon, and look in the mirror and realize that you’re nothing but a wide-eyed, jittery junkie, strung out on grande caramel macchiatto’s and that you’ve spent junior’s college tuition five bucks at a time for just one more taste of that elixir of the gods. It’s only then that you have hit rock bottom.)
Sheila, before and after Starbucks came into her neighborhood
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Your [sic] wrong. I got mad swole from bulking and my strength went way up, but I decreased my reps and didn’t get injured.
A. I think what you’re trying to say is that it’s not necessary to increase the rep range as we get stronger when bulking, and I agree with you. Of course, I’d never say that any of these tips are necessary – they’re merely ideas that could help.
It’s great that you didn’t experience any problems, but keep in mind that no one goes into a training session thinking that they’ll get injured. It just happens. I’ve seen it too many times. In fact, the application of the first tip may save dozens of people from getting injured, but you know what? We’ll never know.
Q. Slow your roll! Didn’t you just talk about using caution when bulking to help out joints, but in another tip you show people how to increase their strength even more through stimulant use? That’s hypocritical yo!
A. At first glance, the inclusion of these tips seems contradictory until you understand that the article isn’t meant to be followed as a single game plan. In other words, people will use the parts that they like and apply them, while discarding the rest. No one is meant to follow every tip as though it were dogma.
To put it into perspective, the last Big Bulking TipsBarrticle is believed to have had over 100,000 readers! Reviews ranged from people saying that it provided nothing new, to those who said it was one of the most influential articles of 2005. After all, we all have different preferences, goals, and thought processes, so it only makes sense that we’d get something different out of the tips.
For the tips in question, I’d expect that the point on safety would be used by those who have already had an injury, while the stimulant tip would be used by a more aggressive, less cautious crowd. Live and learn I guess.
Q.First you tell me to use stimulants, and then you tell me to not use them. What’s the deal? Can’t you make up your mind?
A. It’s crucial that you understand that I’m not giving any orders with these tips. They are merely a presentation of ideas to help you achieve your goals. Let’s use stimulants as an example.
Do I think they can help you increase muscle strength and mass?
Do I recommend using them? Absolutely not.
But remember that the lack of recommendation to use them is not a recommendation against using them. In other words, just because I don’t directly suggest that someone use stimulants doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad idea to use them. I simply want to ensure that it’s the responsibility of the individual whether they decide to take these drugs or not. C.Y.A.
Special thanks to Maya Kumar, Dr. Ryan Smith, and my forensic botanist, David Lounsbury.