As I always say, building muscle and proper nutrition go together like peanut butter and banana — not jelly. Because jelly is not as nutrient-dense.
Let’s discuss the exercises and foods you should eat to maximize your gains and to bulk up fast.
If you want to bulk up, the foundation should involve compound movements and lifting heavy weights. Because you’re going to be heavy lifting, the number of repetitions you will be able to perform will decrease.
I would like to mention that I don’t often recommend beginners perform the exercises about to be described. If you’re a beginner, it is vital to start at a pace that feels comfortable to you.
When it comes to building muscle mass, those in the field of exercise science have a special term for this. They call it muscle hypertrophy. Besides just wanting to sound fancy, there’s actually a reason why we use this term in exercise science. “Hyper” simply means a lot of something, and “trophic” means growth. So, hypertrophy simply means “lots of cell growth” – in this case, muscle cell growth. And, it turns out, the American College of Sports Medicine has specific exercise programming recommendations for increasing muscle hypertrophy.
ACSM Muscle Hypertrophy Recommendations
Here’s what they say: when performing resistance training with weights, try to pick a weight you can safely lift 8 to 12 times before having to put it down and rest.
Using exercise science lingo, we’d say: perform 8 to 12 repetitions. Basically, they’re saying if you want to build bigger muscles (increase muscle mass & stimulate muscle hypertrophy), aim to lift a weight in a moderate repetition range – don’t go super-low with your repetitions but don’t aim to perform too many either.
ACSM Muscular Endurance Recommendations
Let’s compare this with the advice of using a lighter weight and performing more repetitions. For example, instead of performing 8 to 12 repetitions before setting the weight down, try to lift the weight 15 or more times before resting. The American College of Sports Medicine says this is perfectly fine to do as well. They just admit that you’ll end up using your muscles in a different way – you’ll start to build more muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance is a little different than hypertrophy. Think of muscular endurance like this: how many sit-ups can you do before you have to stop? You don’t necessarily have to have ginormous abs to be able to perform a lot of sit-ups. If the ab muscles are used to being worked for long periods of time, then they have muscular endurance.
But what if you had to hold a heavy weight across your chest while you performed the sit-ups? Would you be able to perform as many? Probably not. This extra weight would force your muscles to adapt – they’re weren’t used to lifting this weight. This adaptation can lead to hypertrophy.
So how can we build more muscle mass? Well, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, if you want more muscle hypertrophy, you’re going to want to add weight to your repetitions.
In order to truly maximize muscle growth, muscle gains, and get that ripped, sinewy look, here’s what we have to do: we have to incorporate all these forms of training. We have to spend some time lifting lighter weights for more repetitions – like in a 15 repetitions or more range. Then, after training like this for a while – say 3 weeks – we’ll want to again mix things up and lift heavier weights. But instead of lifting these heavier weights 15 or more times, we’ll only want to lift it 3 to 5 times before setting the weight down and resting. Then after training with these heavier weights at the lower repetition range for, say another 3 weeks, we’ll mix things up again and train in the hypertrophy range where we perform 8 to 12 repetitions before resting. We’ll then continue to mix things up every now and then to continue to force our muscles to adapt over time.
In case this all sounds like too much information, this graphic shows how many sets to perform using those repetition ranges as well as how long the rest period should be. For example, when you lift heavier weights, a longer rest period between sets is usually recommended to help your body recover for the next heavy lift.
What Types of Exercises Will Help?
What exercises should you perform to help with bulking up? Compound exercises. Compound exercises are moves that use multiple muscle groups at the same time.
- bench presses (requires you to use your chest, shoulders, and triceps)
- pull-ups (targets your lats, shoulders, forearms and biceps)
- military presses
- lat pull-downs
These are the key moves that will help the bulking up process.
I will also mention that you don’t want to perform these types of heavy lifts day after day, week after week. You want to mix in some cardio — maybe after a couple of weeks of lifting heavy — and throw in some lighter sets.
Variety is important to avoid imbalances and injury.
What should you eat to support all of this hard work?
Of course, protein is important. This is because muscles are made of proteins.
I will use my psychic abilities and say that chances are, you’re probably already consuming enough protein each day. How could I possibly know this?
It's because of the amount of data that has been collected on how much and what types of food populations around the world consume regularly. What we’ve learned is that most of us in the western world consume plenty of protein each day.
Protein After a Workout
The question is: do we need protein immediately after a workout to help support muscle growth? I discussed this during last week’s Q&A, but I’ll repeat it here.
After your workout, especially after strength training, researchers are discovering that consuming 20 grams of leucine-rich protein is often recommended. Leucine-rich proteins can be found in animal products as well as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
How much is 20 g of protein? 3 oz. of chicken would contain about 27 grams of protein. 3 oz. isn’t much — it’s about the size of a deck of cards.
Consuming some carbohydrate after a workout is also beneficial. This is because carbohydrates can help our bodies absorb that leucine-rich protein more efficiently. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends we aim for about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight after a workout.
Doing the Math
This does take a little bit of math to figure out, but stick with me, it’s not too bad.
Let’s say you weigh 150 lbs. You first need to convert weight in pounds to weight in kilograms. To do this, divide your body weight by 2.2. Using my example, you'd divide 150 by 2.2. This means 150 lbs. is equivalent to 68.2 kg. No matter what you weigh, use this same formula.
Now that we know your hypothetical body weight in kg, the math is super simple! Because the American College of Sports Medicine says you need 1 gram of carbohydrate per kg of body weight, you don’t need to do anything else… you have your answer!
That means if you weigh 150 lbs., you should consume about 70 g of carbohydrate after a workout. This would be like eating a bowl of oatmeal topped with blueberries.
Combine that with 20 grams of leucine-rich protein, which would be like 6 oz. of Greek yogurt, and you’ve met all of your post-workout needs.
What about Timing?
Researchers are discovering that the timing of this post-workout meal is important. The goal is to consume these foods within 20-30 minutes of finishing your workout. After a workout, the demand for protein is high which makes it the best time to replenish it. And again, because carbohydrate actually helps with protein absorption, eating both within 20-30 minutes of your workout is ideal.
Like I mentioned last week, there’s no need to consume too many calories to bulk up.
Typically, I do not recommend individuals gain weight prior to building muscle. Instead of exceeding their caloric needs, I prefer that they simply meet them.