Ah, summer. It was fun while it lasted. You kept your physique lean and mean while the sun was blasting out the highest temps of the year. You got to sport your sleeveless T's and shorts, and get all oiled up with lotion. You were looking good and feeling better. But now the air's getting cooler. It's time to put away the beach chairs, sunblock, and swim trunks, and get ready for fall—and get back to the gym.
This is a great time of year to start bulking up again, but you must do it right. Far too many of us have added a lot of unwanted body fat in our quest for gains. We wanted bigger guns, lats that blocked out the sun, and wheels that made the earth quake when we walked. Instead, we ended up with fat cheeks and spare tires.
The top athletes and coaches know all about how to avoid getting chubby while adding muscle. Now you too can have a successful "clean bulk" over the coming months by following these directions.
Don't Measure Progress by Scale Weight Alone
The biggest mistake you can make when bulking is to gauge your progress by the scale alone. A scale can tell you only that you have gained weight, not what kind of weight it is. People all around the world gain weight all the time, but most of it is body fat. If you fail to make any distinction about the type of weight you gain, odds are you'll become much fatter.
That's why you need to do these things regularly:
- Take photos: We all have an uncanny ability to find flattering angles and lighting that make us look good in the mirror, allowing us to believe we're getting bigger and that it's all muscle. Pictures taken over a period of time from the same exact angles and with a flash aren't so deceptive. I don't know how many times photos taken on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve have revealed in no uncertain terms that I'd let myself to get too fat.
- Test your body fat: Testing your body fat with calipers every two weeks is an even more accurate tool to keep track of what's happening with your body composition. Let's say you start your bulk at 200 pounds and 10 percent body fat. Roughly speaking, you had 180 pounds of muscle and 20 pounds of fat. This is an oversimplification, but bear with me. If, two months later, you weigh 220 pounds, but your body fat is 15 percent, you have 187 pounds of muscle and 33 pounds of fat: You've gained 7 pounds of muscle and 13 pounds of fat. All in all, that's not a terrible ratio, since most guys tend to gain almost all fat when bulking. But you get the point. Testing your body fat will keep you honest about what you're truly gaining, and guide you to make any needed adjustments to your diet.
- Measure your waist: Measure your waist right around your belly button. This is where we men tend to carry most our body fat, so you must keep an eye on your waistline always. What good is it to gain an inch on your arms and legs if you also gain two inches on your waist? Crafting an exceptional physique means you need to keep your proportions in line, with a goal of creating that mighty V-taper. Otherwise, you will lose all aesthetic appeal.
Be Realistic When You Set Your Goals
Please understand one basic fact about gaining muscle: The rate of gains is nearly always fastest in the very early stages of training. It slows down more and more as the months and years go on.
Many lifters develop unrealistic expectations about what is possible by seeing the progress of those who are either embarking on a steroid cycle, resuming training after a long break, or doing both at once. Trust me, nobody who is past the beginner stages and is drug free puts on 20 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks. It doesn't happen! A goal of achieving a 2:1 gain of muscle to fat is pretty much impossible for most people. A far more realistic and attainable goal would be to gain 1-2 pounds a week, with at least half of that being lean muscle tissue.
Many of us have been so brainwashed by misleading advertising that we think we've failed if we "only" gain 5-8 pounds of muscle during a bulking season. Instead, we hear about some "Joey Biceps" who gains 30 pounds in a month. Okay, Joey may have done this, but if he did, he was regaining mass he had before, while using enough steroids to give an elephant a heart attack.
The next time you're at the supermarket, find a package of steak that weighs 8 pounds. Pick it up and look at it. Imagine that much new muscle tissue added to your body. That's a whole lot of tissue! Keep the image of that big chunk of flesh in mind as you set your own personal goals for your clean bulk.
Gain with Lots of Junk Food? Nice Try
Bulking isn't a license to eat anything you want—from pizza and fried foods to ice cream and cake—all in the name of gains. It's "garbage in, garbage out" or, as 212 Mr. Olympia Flex Lewis puts it, "quality food for quality gains."
Most junk food and fast food has little nutritional value. Consuming vast amounts of the sugar, saturated fat, and sodium they contain won't contribute much toward muscle gains, but it will help you gain unwanted fat.
No one is telling you to eat clean all the time when bulking, but at least three-quarters of your meals should be clean. Your body only needs so many calories to grow muscle, and whatever it doesn't use will be stored as body fat. Unless you're planning on going on a food strike, you don't need that extra fat.
You Can Get Too Much of a Good Thing!
News flash: You can overeat on clean foods! If you need 2,500 calories to maintain your weight, you can add 500-1,000 more to bulk. You don't need 2,500 more, yet a lot of guys will stuff themselves with unbelievable amounts of nice clean chicken, rice, and potatoes.
We all have slightly different nutritional needs based on our size, activity level, and metabolism. We all need about 1.5 grams per pound of body weight per day, but our carbohydrate needs can vary. If you are getting fat eating 500 grams of carbs a day, your body obviously doesn't need 500 grams! Dial it back by 100 grams, then check your body composition again in two weeks. Eventually, you'll arrive at an amount that allows you to gain mostly muscle mass.
There's Always a Place for Cardio
One of the first things guys tend to do when starting a bulk is to stop doing cardio. Big mistake! You need to keep a moderate amount of cardio in your program, something to the tune of 3-4 sessions of 20-30 minutes a week. Not only will this keep your heart and lungs strong, but it will improve nutrient transport and absorption—and help you burn more body fat.
The main concern people have is that cardio will counteract their muscle gain. Unless you are a true hard-gainer ectomorph with a metabolism like a nuclear reactor, you don't need to worry about that. Put on your headphones and do some damn cardio a few times a week!
Set a Time Limit for Your Bulking
Set a deadline for your bulk to end or else you run the very real risk of becoming a "perma-bulker" who stays chunky for the rest of his life.
A bulk should last 16-20 weeks. After that, switch gears and start a cut or a mini-cut to reset your system. I understand the temptation to keep going. We all know what it's like to feel like we're not quite big enough and think that if we can keep bulking for "just a couple more months" we'll hit the right weight.
The problem with this approach is that eventually the human body gets desensitized to just about anything it's exposed to. After months of getting too much food, your body loses the ability to turn those calories into muscle. Instead, they just end up as fat.
You need to make a bulking plan, stick to it, then get out and move on to something new!