A lot of you are probably thinking, but it’s easy to put on weight, it’s the losing weight which is hard. For those of you thinking that yes, it might be easy for YOU to put on weight (may I direct you to our blog on losing weight if you’ve put on too much 😉), we are all different. Some of us find it incredibly difficult to put on muscle due to genetics or eating habits which have persisted for years.
I personally find it easier to bulk than to lose weight, but that’s just my genetics, but I know how to bulk healthily and put on good muscle, regardless of genetics, so hopefully I can help you with yours (I do also know how to put on bad size through dirty bulking – otherwise known as getting fat)!
Bulking does not mean just eating junk food and sitting on the sofa. We are going to cover the food side of it in a separate blog post, again written by my lovely fiancée who takes care of most of my nutrition when it comes to bulking, so I’ll leave that part to her. For the exercise part of things though, I will try and give you a good overview of what you’ll need to do exercise-wise to put on that all illusive lean mass!
You’ve probably heard the term “lean mass” banded about a lot before, and maybe not really known what it means. This is the term used for putting on muscle, without putting on much fat. But how the hell do you do that? It’s hard work for sure, it takes a lot of dedication, and you will likely put on a bit of fat during the bulking. Which is great if that’s your goal. If you are looking to put on more fat, then just up the calories by using the calorie dense foods we will be talking about in the food part! The quickest way to put on muscle though is to be in a calorie surplus, so unless you have finely tuned it so that all your excess calories go into repairing muscles, you will put on fat.
The basic premise
The exercise side of things essentially takes on a bodybuilding style programme. What we are wanting to do is break down the type 1 and 2 fibres of the muscles, and as many of them as possible. In order for your muscles to grow bigger, you need to break down the fibres, and then they repair bigger. There are some exercise programmes which claim to be able to increase the NUMBER of muscle fibres you have, however there has been no evidence to suggest this is true, so I like to stick to the science and encourage you to use proven methods.
By creating little tears in as many fibres as possible, you maximise the number of fibres torn which then repair bigger than before. Be prepared to have serious Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) if you haven’t done this type of exercise before. You may feel fine the next day, or maybe even the following, as it can take up to 2 days later for the DOMS to start, but when they do you’ll notice it! Don’t worry though, the more you exercise, the better your body gets at repairing the damage, and the soreness is lessened! Also, with a good plant based food programme, your recovery time will be reduced.
So, what exercises should you do?
To put on size you need to do resistance training. You can use a mixture of free weights and resistance machine, but I wouldn’t rely entirely on either one. The advantage free-weights have over resistance machine is that they engage the stabilising muscles. On a resistance machine, where the weight goes it controlled by the machine itself, and all you have to do is push or pull. However, when you are using free weights, not only do you push and pull, but you stop it from going sideways with your stabilising muscles, therefore making them bigger where you may otherwise not engage them.
A great example of this is doing overhead press with dumbbells or a barbell. By using dumbbells rather than a machine, you will be engaging your chest, back, shoulders and arms in order to push the weight above your head and stopping it from going behind, to the side or in front of you. If you used a machine, it would largely just focus on the shoulders and top of chest. Make sure you are using the correct form though!
On the flip, an advantage resistance machines may have over free weights is they can isolate muscles easier – so if you want a specific muscle to be bigger compared to other muscles, then resistance machines can come in handy.
What kind of motion?
From the studies available (unfortunately the studies in this area are more limited than you would hope for) but there is evidence to suggest that, to gain more strength, you need to do low reps, high weight explosive movements – this engages more of the type 2b muscle fibres. However, a study out of Loughborough university (a leading sports science university in the UK) has shown that doing slower controlled movements increases the size of the muscle. This is why I encourage you to do both. On contraction, you should do a fast-explosive movement, then you want to do a slow release. By doing a fast explosive motion, your type 2 muscle fibres are engaged, then a slow release engages the type 1 muscle fibres. By doing both types of movement, you are creating little tears in both muscle fibres, therefore engaging more muscle fibres in total. As muscle bundles are made of both type 1, type 2a and type 2b muscle fibres, if you are increasing the size of all these fibres, then you will be increasing the muscle size more effectively overall.
How many sets and reps?
Again, studies have been conducted into the optimal amount of reps for people wanting to build muscle size. The studies are conflicting on this front, whether the 5 rep range is any better or worse than the 10 – 12 rep muscle range. However, what they do all conclude on is that doing excessive reps (i.e. in the 15+ range) is worse for both muscle size and strength. So, I feel it best to only do more than 15 if it’s a superset (i.e the last set of the exercise and you want to tire it to exhaustion, using a lighter weight). Otherwise I recommend a rep range of 10 to 12 reps for 4 sets.
What about rest periods?
Because you are wanting to exhaust your muscles and break down the muscle fibres, you want to avoid having too long a rest between sets. However, you want to make sure you have enough of a rest to be able to do another set. A rest of between 1:30 and 2:00 should be about right.
How many exercises on the same muscle group?
In each gym session you want to be doing multiple exercises on the same muscle group, and usually only one or two muscle groups each session. You should be doing at least 4 exercises on each muscle group, and make sure you do a number of different exercises which use the muscle group in different ways. For example, squats will work most of the leg muscles, however leg extensions will isolate the quadriceps, so these are great to pair together. Likewise, squats won’t target the calf muscles much, so doing specific calf raises ensures these are also targeted. The thing not to do is just do arms (however tempting this might be). Lots of people want big arms, but if you just get big arms, they look a little silly without a bigger frame. Also don’t neglect legs, no matter how much you don’t like doing legs!
How often should you go?
If you are managing to do at least 4 exercises on each muscle group each week and eating properly then you'll put on size, however to maximise the growth I would go 5 times a week and do one or two muscle groups each session. This will mean that you give the muscle time to repair whilst training the other muscle groups. Consistency really is key, If you keep it at, you will be sure to start seeing results!
Hopefully this gives you a good foundation to start with, and you are able to incorporate these suggestions into your own routine. It should be noted, the muscle growth won’t happen overnight, and is essential that you are pairing the exercise with the nutrition. So make sure you give the nutrition tips later this week a good read over.