Gain Mass

The No-bull Guide to Bulking

Forget the myths. Here's the truth about when, what, and how much to eat to build muscle.

Muscular Man

Pavel Ythjall / M+F Magazine

Bulking, as commonly understood, is B.S. We said it, and it’s time you accepted it, too. Telling yourself you can eat anything you want because you’re skinny and trying to put on muscle is just an excuse to eat like a pig, and you’ll pay for it. Yes, you’ll gain some muscle, but you’ll also gain fat, and that fat will obscure your muscles until you decide you desperately need to lose it—and then you’ll have a hell of a time dieting it off. We’re telling you now: Stop bulking before it’s too late. The solution to your skinniness might actually require less food than you think, and no fancy supplements or uncomfortable force feedings. (On the downside, it doesn’t warrant pizzas or Big Macs, either.) Discover the real science of gaining weight, and never get fat in the process again.

The hard truth

Your body can gain only so much muscle in a given period of time; it’s dependent on your genetics, age, and training age (how long you’ve been lifting). According to Nate Miyaki, C.S.S.N., a San Francisco–based nutrition coach to physique competitors, a beginner in his teens up through his 30s can expect to put on 2-4lbs of lean muscle per month for the first two or three months of his training. An intermediate (several months’ to a few years’ experience) might see 1–1½lbs per month. An experienced lifter, on the other hand, should be happy with just a few pounds per year.

This means that when you hear about somebody who “gained 20lbs in a month,” he really put on closer to 2lbs of muscle and 18lbs of water and fat. Trainers, equipment manufacturers, and some muscle “gurus” like to exaggerate results, but if you measured the body fat of their subjects, you’d see only a modest increase in lean mass. And that’s fine.

“Go pick up a 2-lb top-round steak and envision what that would look like on your body,” says Miyaki. “Very few guys on this planet have the potential to gain 20lbs of rock-hard muscle in a month.” That is, not sans the aid of certain muscle-building drugs.

Focus on strength. Stronger muscles inevitably become bigger muscles.

How to bulk right

The biggest mistake that bulkers make is bombarding their bodies with calories straight out of the gate. Even if you are eating clean (and you should be eating clean), your body simply doesn’t need that many calories to gain muscle. “Eating 200 to 300 calories above maintenance level will do the trick,” says John Alvino, a nutrition expert and strength coach in Morristown, NJ. What’s more, an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that subjects who dieted and weight-trained for 90 days lost an average of 35lbs while gaining significant muscle mass. Don’t get too excited, as the subjects were obese women, but it proves that muscle gain isn’t dependent on big eating alone.

So what should you do? Start by eating 14 to 18 calories per pound of your bodyweight, and adjust from there. Consume 1g of protein per pound of your bodyweight daily, 2g of carbs, and 0.4g of fat. (For a breakdown, see “Start-up formula for bulking” on the next page.) In other words, a 180-lb man looking to gain weight would eat between 2,500 and 3,200 calories daily, consisting of approximately 180g of protein, 360g of carbs, and 70g of fat. To make adjustments, tweak your carbs and fat, but keep your protein intake constant. (See “Best foods for bulking” on the next page for a list of approved eats.) The most important factor, however, is getting in the gym and training your ass off.

“The key element to bulking is to focus on increasing strength,” Alvino says. Stronger muscles inevitably become bigger muscles, so while you can’t quickly eat your way to 10 extra muscle pounds without storing a lot of fat, you can—eventually—train your way there.

Stick with your eating plan for at least two weeks before making adjustments and take photos every couple of days to assess your progress. Also, measure your waist. It seems simple, but if your belly is getting bigger, then that’s the wrong kind of weight.

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