Chances are if you're reading T Nation you're interested in muscle, and you're interested in packing on as much of it as possible.
Whether it's to improve performance on the field, look better naked, or to stop the, "Hey, you look like that skinny kid from the movie Road Trip" taunts, it stands to reason that a fair share of the people reading this have gone through a bulking cycle or two.
And failed miserably.
Bulking isn't easy – it takes a lot of hard work, time, and dedication. But if you're someone who's consistently making the same two mistakes below, then it's time to make some changes.
1 – Not Focusing on Getting Stronger
I know this will rub some the wrong way and might even cause a select few to reach for their pitchfork, but I'm often flummoxed as to how many guys routinely end up making this mistake time and time again.
And that mistake is not training for strength!
On one hand I understand why many will gravitate towards a more "body building" influenced training split when bulking, since every fitness magazine for the past 30 years has plastered the likes of Arnold, Lou Ferrigno, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman, and Jay Cutler on their covers detailing how each did "x" biceps routine to add inches to their arms, or how "so and so" built legs the size of Kansas by following [insert killer lateral hamstring and anterior tibialis routine].
Hey, I'm not judging – whatever works.
While I won't sit here and say that I didn't fall into the same trap when I was younger (who didn't?), part of why I write articles is so I can hopefully steer people in the right direction and save them time, effort, and frustration
The truth of the matter is, with very few exceptions, all those bodybuilders we grew up idolizing (as well as those we continue to idolize today) spent years building a foundation of strength to get their physiques.
Granted, today many may follow more of a traditional bodybuilding protocol (body part splits, machine based training, super sets, pyramid schemes, etc.) to help bring up aesthetic weaknesses and to focus on lagging areas, so it's easy to understand why so many young, impressionable minds assume that's the key to building a body that blocks the sun.
But what many fail to grasp is that most of the dirty work which helped yield Arnold's chest, or Dorian's back, or Ronnie's quads wasn't some super secret post-exhaustion, quasi-isometric, rest/pause, drop set.
Nope, the real coup de grace, and what I want every so-called "hard gainer" reading to soak up, is that when it comes to adding mass to your frame you need to make your workouts as efficient and productive as possible, and as such, "chest day" is not the way to go. Nor is arm day, leg day, or middle deltoid day.
In fact, as fellow coach, Bret Contreras, summed up nicely in a recent conversation he and I had, "The vast majority of pro bodybuilders recommend that beginners (and even intermediate) lifters do three full-body workouts per week to gain a strength base before splitting things up."
Moreover, he noted that "the more frequently you can perform a lift during your first couple of years of training, the more progress you'll probably see. Bodypart splits aren't ideal for building strength, which is what most people who bulk need to focus on. Once the strength and mass are there, then it's time to split, but the vast majority of lifters never build up strength."
The Two-Barbell Rule
One of the best pieces of advice I heard recently came from fellow Cressey Performance coach Greg Robins (who "stole" the idea from Jim Wendler) and that's to follow the two-barbell rule:
With every training session, perform two barbell-based exercises before doing anything else.
As standard practice, it makes the most sense to begin each training session with one of the "big three" movements like a squat, bench press, or deadlift.
When I write programs for people, I like starting each training session with one of the three because doing so gives a sense of purpose and generally forces people to quit the BS and put all their heart and effort into that one lift.
What's more, there's very little wiggle room for error. It's you versus the barbell, and either you're going to place a premium on adding more weight to the bar each and every week and actually make progress, or you're not.
And while that's a gulf of a step in the right direction, I still feel that's only half the picture.
You see, most people stop there. They perform their main lift and then, almost as if turning off a switch, move onto the fluff.
Don't do this. Instead, grab another barbell – preferably another barbell-based exercise that complements the first one.
Best Accessory Squat/Deadlift Exercises
Many feel that it's taboo or against the "rules" to squat and deadlift the same day, which is absurd.
While I don't do it all the time, it's not uncommon for some clients to perform squats, deadlifts, and exercises like hip thrusts or heavy barbell-based single-leg work all in the same session.
The key is just to modulate the intensity by going max effort on squats, dynamic effort on deads, and more repetition work on the other stuff.
Now I'm not saying you need to perform four barbell lifts per session, but Oly lifters, powerlifters, and strongmen do multiple barbell exercises in their workouts on a regular basis – and no one's stealing their lunch money.
Others to consider include rack pulls, snatch grip rack pulls, sumo deadlifts, narrow stance sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, box squats, front squats, Anderson squats, Anderson deadstart squats, giant cambered bar squats, safety bar squats, good mornings, hip thrusts, barbell bent over rows, barbell Bulgarian split squats, barbell split squats, barbell reverse lunges, and barbell step-ups.
If you're a real masochist you can even do all the single-leg variations with a front squat grip.
Best Accessory Bench Press Exercises
Similar to above, what's wrong with following a few heavy sets of bench presses with another bench press variation? That should earn me a few virtual fist pumps.
Others to consider are close grip benches, paused bench presses, board presses, etc.
And while the above choices may seem limited (who cares!), this doesn't take into consideration the subtleties that arise when one varies foot stance, hand width, tempo, rest intervals, or whether bands or chains come into the mix.
Bonus – The Stage System
One of my favorite set/rep schemes to use when writing programs for guys who are trying to bulk up is something we frequently use at Cressey Performance called the stage system.
In short, what we're looking at is performing "x" number of sets in the 1-5 rep range, and then following that with 1-2 sets of high(er) rep training as a pseudo compromise for those more aesthetically biased and more interested in hypertrophy.
So it may look something like this:
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 4 x 2, 1 x 8
Meaning, after a proper warm-up (and the appropriate number of "buildup" sets), the first three sets will be performed by the lifter working up to heavy doubles. Then, on the last set, he'll drop the weight and perform a high(er) rep set of 8.
The cool thing is that because of a process known as Post-Activation Potentiation (PCP), one should hypothetically be able to use more weight for the set of 8 due to the activation of more high-threshold motor units with the lower rep sets (compared to if he'd just done the set of 8 as a standalone set).
A weekly progression may look something like this:
- Week 1: 4 x 2, 1 x 8
- Week 2: 3 x 2, 1 x 10
- Week 3: 4 x 2, 1 x 10
- Week 4: 2 x 2, 1 x 8
Another approach for those looking to really hate life:
- Week 1: 3 x 3, 1 x 8
- Week 2: 3 x 3, 1 x 12
- Week 3: 3 x 3, 1 x16
- Week 4: 2 x 3, 1 x 20
I really love this setup, and it's one that can be tweaked in countless ways. The main point to remember, however, is that plenty of guys got uber strong (and big) with only barbells back in the day. You can too!
2 – Dude, It's Okay I'm Bulking!
It wasn't that long ago when, like many reading, I was just a skinny, cardio-obsessed, biceps-curl junkie who could never put on any weight.
I was always a lean kid growing up, namely because the internet didn't exist and instead of watching porn I was outside playing sports.
As a frame of reference, when I graduated high school and entered my Freshman year of playing college baseball, I weighed all of 160 pounds soaking wet.
Giving some credit where it's due, though, I was able to assemble a decent frame throughout college and into my 20s, which is to say I had a six-pack (and a nasty forkball), but I certainly wasn't turning any heads on the beach at a top weight of 175-180 pounds.
Adding insult to injury, my training consisted of running 15-20 miles per week, banging out 500 crunches every day, and hitting the weight room 3-4 times per week where I never touched a deadlift or squat.
People often joke about it, but I really do wish I had a spare Flux Capacitor so that I could go back and scissor-kick myself in the face for how I used to train, and for how much time I wasted.
Hindsight is 20/20, right?
Anyways, at the end of 2003 I decided enough was enough and that I'd finally make a concerted effort to put myself through an aggressive bulking cycle and make a run for 200 pounds.
I completely overhauled my training thanks to discovering T Nation. I started deadlifting, squatting (to depth), as well as nixing the long-duration runs and opting instead to toss in a few sprint sessions 1-2 times per week.
The biggest hurdle, though, was teaching myself to eat more. Like, a lot more.
It's no secret that to get big, you need to eat big. It's sacrilegious to think otherwise. Yet this is an area where most guys fail miserably, because one of two scenarios inevitably happens.
On one side you have those who simply don't eat enough. These are the guys who are adamant that they eat all the time, and that they couldn't possibly shove another morsel of food in their mouth, which is bullshit 99% of the time.
Not coincidentally, my litmus test when working with someone like this is to ask him what he had for breakfast that morning.
Nine time out of 10 the crickets start chirping and I hear nothing but a bunch of "ums" and "uhs," and I have my answer.
They're not eating enough, plain and simple.
On the other side we have guys who use bulking as an excuse to eat like crap and as a free-for-all to inhale everything under the sun.
For me, bulking is (usually, not always) best reserved for a "slow and steady wins the race" pace because it doesn't make sense to get too carried away and end up looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
From there, it's typically just a never-ending cycle of cutting, bulking, cutting, and bulking and very little (if any) progress is ever made.
Which is why, like training, I feel it's more advantageous to periodize caloric intake, especially when bulking.
This is the exact mindset I took back in 2003 when, in the span of a year and a half, I took my body from 180 to 210 pounds and stayed pretty lean in the process.
I wanted to add mass, but I also wanted to keep some semblance of having abs during the process, so I structured my caloric intake to coincide with my training schedule.
On lower body days, which I knew were going to be my most intense days, I'd stay aggressive with my caloric intake.
On upper body days, I'd still keep calories somewhat high, but I'd lower them a bit because I knew I wouldn't necessarily "need" those calories.
On sprint days or "off" days, I'd keep calories at or around maintenance levels.
In other words, I ate a lot on lower body days, a little less on upper body days, and even less on non-training days.
For the visual learners in the crowd, here's me at the start, on the left:
And here's me, roughly 18 months later, in the middle of winter in what probably serves as the best reverse-before and after transformation, because I'm tan in the before and whiter than a Coldplay concert in the after.
As far as specific numbers are concerned, I really pushed the envelope and it wasn't uncommon for me to be crushing 5000-6000 kcals on certain days of the week.
Of course, it took me a few months to work up to that point, and I'd gauge my weight (and waistline) on a week-to-week basis and adjusted as I went.
To give you a more concrete estimate, here's what I did:
- Monday: Deadlift my ass off (caloric intake +20% above maintenance).
- Tuesday: Bench (caloric intake +10% above maintenance)
- Wednesday: Off Day (calories at or slightly below maintenance)
- Thursday: Squats (caloric intake +20% above maintenance).
- Friday: Sprint Day (calories at or slightly below maintenance).
- Saturday: Meathead Day (caloric intake +10% above maintenance).
- Sunday: Off, go to the movies, or wherever my girlfriend at the time dragged me (calories at or slightly below maintenance).
I don't like cookie-cutter approaches, but when it comes to figuring out one's optimal caloric intake given their goals, it's important to at least have a starting line.
I've found, for simplicity's sake, that taking one's current bodyweight and multiplying by 15 is acceptable.
So, for a 175-pound guy, his "maintenance" caloric intake would be 2,625 kcals per day.
Using my super complicated algorithm from above:
On his more intense days (say lower body days), caloric intake will cap out at around 3,150 kcals per day.
On his less intense days (upper body days), caloric intake will cap out at around 2,900.
Again, these are just starting numbers to work with, and can (and should) be adjusted every 1-2 weeks based off progress.
A point to consider – and something many guys fail to address – is that as your bodyweight goes up, so does your caloric cap. You need to keep adding calories!
Succinctly put, I'll always steer people in the direction of emphasizing whole, minimally processed foods as much as possible like whole eggs, cheese, milk, beef, chicken, fish, nuts, fruits/veggies, oats, potatoes (yes, even white), rice, yogurt, and let's not forget Biotest recovery supps.
Now, this doesn't mean I'm against eating things like pizza, ice cream, cereal, and pasta. Those are fine, as it's kind of hard to crush calories by eating asparagus 24/7.
But by the same token, I'd caution people to not go bat shit crazy and use the excuse of, "Dude, I'm bulking" as a free pass to get sloppy.
For some this will be common sense; for others I'm hoping it will be a reality check. It's nothing earth shattering and by no means revolutionary, but it doesn't have to be.
Focus on getting stronger, make sure you're getting enough calories (and if you are, don't get too carried away), and good things will happen. I guarantee it.