Bulking Up – Where to Start

free squatDo you want to get more muscle mass? Do you want to start bulking up? Maybe you are looking for a place to start, and with this simple outline and explanation, you might be able to get on the right track and not get bogged down with too much complication right now.

As well as this Bulking Cycle piece, we will also look at some Cut Cycle and Strength improvement work at some point, so look out for those articles in the future.

There is always a complicated way and a less complicated way to gain muscle. But there is no easy way – and anyone promising you can bulk up fast without any hard work is full of dark matter. By less complicated, I mean that you can dedicated most of your energy to lifting weights (the non-easy part) as opposed to following something convoluted which you will eventually get frustrated with and stop altogether.

This is for people starting out. One day, you will experiment with different exercises and more complex ideas, but it is my experience that most people get off on the right foot if they keep it simple from the get-go. Good structure needs a good foundation; and foundations are simple.

Let’s look at the foundation of building muscle mass.

The Key Areas to Building Muscle

1. Resistance Training
2. Diet and Nutrition
3. Recovery and Sleep

I’ll talk about each one individually in different posts. Even though they may seem obvious, too many people concentrate mainly on lifting weights and fall short of satisfying the other two areas by a long way.

We only work out to stimulate growth. The growth happens during our sleep, and the material to do it comes from nutrition. With inadequate levels of either, you will not get the results you want.

Resistance Training

Much of your gym time should be spent on the core lifts, which I will get to in a moment. There are other factors which you need to consider before ploughing ahead though:

Time

Too many young guys starting out spend a huge amount of time in the gym. There is a case to be made for doing double days (two workouts a day), but I can’t think of a good reason for someone – even in their first year of lifting – to do that.

Session length is an interesting subject too. Again, there are times when long hypertrophic workouts are beneficial, but as I said before, it is not necessary. You can achieve the same, if not more, from 45 minutes in the gym as opposed to 2 hours. Get in, get the job done, and start recovery and nutrition as soon as possible for it is in this period that you actually build muscle.

A lot of gym rats are there for the social aspect as much as doing anything about their body composition. Each to their own, but time spent talking can really eat into energy, motivation and your body’s response to training.

My Advice: If you are like me then you have a busy schedule with work, family and life. So, put in a hard working session and dig deep so you can get on with recovery and the all important growth aspect of a bulk phase.

Core Lifts

The core lifts are a topic of debate still. It’s generally accepted that the 3 absolutes – the trifecta of strength and resistance training if you will, are:

1. Squats
2. Deadlifts
3. Bench Press

I would like to add a 4th to that:

4. Military Press

Big shoulders are essential, if you want to look proportionate, but it goes beyond that. A while ago, the shoulder press was the press exercise. Shoulders – in my opinion (and many other people) – are far more important in terms of everyday strength utilization than the chest/pectoral muscles.

Big pecs look good but big shoulders will do more for you. That being said, I recognize the necessity of both movements in a bodybuilding regime.

Back to time: Each core lift is the basis of a workout for me, though I often put Bench Press, Military Press or Dead Lifts on the same day as Squats to create a 3 day program.

Twice in Eight

Having 3 days centred around the core lifts, you can take a rest day on the 4th. This allows for two cycles within a period of 8 days.

Twenty Minutes

Each core lift can occupy up to 20 minutes of your session (I’ll provide example workouts below). That means, you are done with the main sets in 20 minutes. It may not sound like a lot but honestly, it’s all the time in the world if you are putting high effort in and focusing on the work rate rather than chatting the minutes away.

After the first 20 minutes, the time can be reset for another 20 minutes. This time, you can go to the complimentary/support/satellite muscles that go well with main core lift muscle that you just worked on. Every combination known to man has been done, to success, so there really is no right and wrong here. Compound sets, super sets, drop sets and giant sets can all be used effectively to build mass. However, at the start, it might be worth it just to focus on the core lift and then the smaller muscles in the same group to encourage an overall balance.

Hypertrophy

There are two types of hypertrophic growth: Sarcoplasmic and Myofibrillar.

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy is the increase of the sarcoplasmic fluid surrounding the muscle fibres. This means your muscles get bigger, but not necessarily stronger.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is the increase in density of the muscle fibre itself. This increases strength but not size to a huge degree.

When you lift weights, a mixture of the two types happens which is why you get stronger and bigger in time. You can however put emphasis on either one by adapting your workout. To build mass, you want to aim for 3 or 4 sets of 10-12 reps each. For legs, this can go to 15-20 rep sets.

Later on, you can hone strength a little more by increasing the weight, increasing the number of sets, but decreasing the rep count.

Rest Between Sets

Take about 60 to 90 seconds between sets to recover for the next one. Over time, recovery will get faster and you can experiment with more intense sessions with 30 to 60 second rest intervals between sets.

Cardio

Yes, you are building muscle mass and yes you are trying to gain, not necessarily lose, but cardio is still important. It will keep you healthy, and help burn some fat calories.

I would keep a strict 4 x 15 to 20 minute cardio sessions a week. Keep it medium effort for the most part, although there is a place for one intense session per week, or two intense sessions for some people. The cross-trainer, eliptical, treadmill and bike are all good options.

Example Workout Days

Day 1

This day is slightly longer because of combining squats with bench press. The bench can be replaced by the either one of the other core lifts.

Exercise Sets Reps Time (minutes)
General Warm Up
Warm Up Set 5
Squats 3-4 15-20 15
Leg Press 3 15 5
Bench Press 3-4 10-12 15
Dips (bodyweight) 3 8-12 5
Triceps (skull crushers/extensions) 3-5 10-12 5-10
Cardio 15-20

Day 2

Exercise Sets Reps Time (minutes)
General Warm Up
Warm Up Set 5
Deadlift 3-5 10-12 20
Pull Ups 3 10-12 5
Seated Rows 3 10-12 5
Biceps (hammers/curls) 3-5 10-12 5-10
Core (plank etc) 3 1 (x3)
Cardio 15-20

Day 3

Exercise Sets Reps Time (minutes)
General Warm Up
Warm Up Set 5
Military Press 3-5 10-12 15-20
Side Raises 3 10-12 5
Bent over raises 3 10-12 5
Shrugs 3 10-12 5
Core (plank etc) 3 1 (x3)
Sit-Ups 3 10-12 5
Cardio 15

Day 4

REST

Conclusion

This article could go on forever. In future articles I will talk about the Nutrition and Recovery aspects of bulking. Until then, start basing your workouts around the simple core lifts. Don’t over-do it, but put the effort in to a compact session that allows for you to get on with life at the same time.

Lift safe, eat well, sleep sound.