So you want to get jacked eh? Inflated. Huge. Swole. Bulk up. Whatever you want to call it–you’re looking to gain muscle mass. But what does it take to gain a good amount of muscle mass?
- How much do I need to eat?
- How long should I bulk for?
- How should I train?
- How do I gain muscle mass without getting too fat?
These are questions I get all the time about gaining muscle. In this article, I’d like to focus on the last question with regards to gaining muscle (hypertrophy) without gaining fat as that seems to be the biggest concern many of you have.
Is it possible to gain only muscle mass?
First, let me clear it up right now by saying unless you’re fresh off the couch and a total beginner training or you have a little “help”, you are going to gain some fat mass along with the muscle mass while you bulk even if you have freak genetics. That’s just something you’re going to have to come to terms with if you want to put on serious muscle mass. At best, you’ll be able to gain muscle and minimize fat gain, but you won’t be able to completely avoid it.
To add muscle mass, you’ll need to take in slightly more energy/calories from food than your body needs putting you into an energy/calorie surplus. When in a surplus, your body will use that extra energy and create new mass. As much as we would all love, there’s no magic switch to flip to tell your body “Hey body, I wanna get jacked so take all this extra energy I’m giving you and only make new muscle mass, k thanks”. It just doesn’t work like that. Your body is going to take the extra energy and add mass to your body in total. Some new mass will be muscle and some new mass will also be fat.
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How much you need to eat to be in a surplus depends on several individual factors. There are estimates for starting points on how many calories you should try to hit to gain mass but these are still, at best, estimates.
If you’re in a surplus, your weight should gradually increase over time. You’ll have some daily fluctuations but an upward trend is what we’re looking for. If you’re not consistently gaining body mass over time, you’re likely not in a surplus and you probably need to eat more food. Add more meat or protein, starches, fruits, and healthy fats on your plates. Do that consistently until your weight starts moving upwards.
Lift heavy and lift often.
To ensure that all of that new mass isn’t just fat, obviously, don’t just eat a bunch of food and sit on the couch. Prioritize lifting heavy weights and lifting often. Push, pull, press, squat and carry moderate to heavy weights 3-5 days throughout the week and give yourself enough rest and sleep to recover from that training.
Lift heavy weights if you want to get jacked.
My suggestion is to follow a well-designed program that stimulates muscle growth but doesn’t completely destroy you so you can recover. Unless you’re familiar with program design, I wouldn’t try to write your own. Get a personal coach or source a program from a good coach. With an internet filled with resources and programming from really good coaches, you don’t really have a good excuse.
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Don’t eat like a jerk.
The best way to gain a bunch of fat while you’re trying to bulk is to gain weight too quickly. This usually happens when you eat or treat yourself too much. Bulking isn’t a reason to devour an entire dozen Krispy Kreme or ice cream by the gallon every day. Stick to mostly whole, unprocessed foods and treat yourself within reason on occasion. With bulking, your treats can be more frequent, but ultimately what you’ll need to watch is the scale, what’s happening to your body and performance over time.
Even when bulking, eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods and treat yourself on occasion.
To keep fat gain low, aim to gain between 0.5 – 1 lbs of weight per week.
If you think that’s really slow, it should be. Remember some of that weight will be fat, but if you’re gaining significantly faster than that, there’s a greater chance for the new mass to be mostly fat and very little muscle.
Gaining Muscle Takes Time.
Adding actual muscle mass takes a lot of time and effort. It heavily depends on where you’re starting and how long you’ve been training. If you’re new, you can gain lots of new muscle pretty quickly. If you’re a veteran and have been training a while, gains will be smaller and slower. Either way, if you’re looking to put on serious muscle, be prepared to commit to the process for at least 6 months to a year if you want to minimize fat gain. Be aware, if you really want to totally change your physique, it’s going to take years of consistently eating and training properly.
Committing to 6 months or year of gaining muscle doesn’t mean eat a calorie surplus for a year straight. This is a mistake many people (including myself) have made. If you listened to our podcast on nutritional periodization, then you learned that you should operate in periods of a surplus for some time, then return to a maintenance level before starting again for best results. You’ll periodize your bulking and do it in phases rather than “permabulking”.
Periodize your muscle gains.
To periodize, actively bulk for periods of 3-4 months, then take a break and maintain for about month or more to let your body settle into its new weight. I’ve found this 3-4 month block to align well with training programs, be most tolerable for the individual and be enough time to gain muscle without seeing more diminishing returns from the excess food intake.
Once you’ve maintained for a bit, if you feel like you added more fat than you’re ok with, try going on a short deficit (cut). When you’re happy with how you look, you can start another bulking phase. Continue the cycle between bulking and maintenance until you’re satisfied with how much muscle mass you’ve put on.
After you’ve added as much mass as you care for and maintained it for a couple months, I would then cut. Relatively speaking, fat comes off easier than muscle does. So after you’ve added all that muscle, unsheathe those gains from underneath the hopefully small layer of fat. Just be sure to cut gradually (around 0.5 – 1 lb per week), stop after 2-3 months and return to a maintenance level or you risk cutting more into those new muscle gains more than you want.
Now after reading this article, do you understand why it can take sometimes a year or even several YEARS to add a large amount of muscle and build a physique you’re proud of? I’ll use myself as an example. In 2010, I started training and lost a ton of weight, getting down to 170 pounds, but I wasn’t strong and had very little muscle. Fast forward after 6 years of lifting heavy weights, bulking (even sometimes too long), improving my overall nutrition and cutting the excess fat I put on, I got down to the same weight, but I looked completely different. Besides the time spent, that difference was clearly the muscle.
Me weighing around 170 lbs in both pictures. The difference is 6 years of work. Gaining muscle takes time.
If you’re really serious about adding muscle and changing your body, commit to the process, be patient, keep putting in the work and the gains are inevitable.
As always, if you have specific questions, leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!