If you’ve read much of my previous stuff, you’ll know that I spent a lot of my early lifting days spinning my wheels on the quest for gains.
I thought I was doing everything right:
- I threw money at the latest muscle building supplements.
- Smashed down my post workout shake the second I finished my last set of curls.
- And ate my chicken, rice and broccoli out of Tupperware on the dot every 3 hours.
What I was doing was completely wrong though
And the reality was that my gains sucked in comparison to what they could have been.
This series is here to stop you making those same mistakes that I did though.
And that means no more twiglet arms, no more lose fitting sleeves, and no more wasted money on supplements that just empty your pockets rather than adding inches to your biceps.
So let’s dive into the reasons I ended up spinning my wheels:
- First off, I had a crappy training programme and little structure to my sessions. We’ve already covered that though so it doesn’t apply to you.
- Secondly, my sleep sucked. This was asking for sub-par gains as it screwed with my recovery. So if you haven’t dialled in your sleep, read this.
- Thirdly (and most relevantly to this blog), I didn’t know how to prioritise my nutrition.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about first as if you don’t understand the bigger picture when it comes to nutrition, you’ll end up getting nowhere.
Stop Majoring In The Minor
Like leveling up your Pokemon was one of the most important factors determining your success when you got to the Pokemon League on your gameboy colour, some things are far more important than others in the nutrition world (1).
First comes Calories:
No matter what moves your Pikachu knows, if it’s a low level, it will suck when put up against The Elite Four.
- Similarly, you could eat plenty of protein and nothing but nutritious fruit, veg and whole foods, but if your Calories aren’t on point, you won’t see any progress: If you don’t eat enough Calories, you won’t have the energy to fuel your performance and gains. The opposite goes for fat loss; if you eat too many, you won’t get lean.
Then we have protein:
This is like the moves you teach your Pokemon, which are almost as important as their level. For example, you could have two Charizards at the same level. If one only knew rookie moves like ember but the other was taught fire blast, there would be no comparing the two.
- Similarly, if two people ate the same number of Calories but one had a low intake of protein, their progress would suck compared to their higher protein counterpart. So protein is a close second behind Calories; it ramps up the muscle building process and if you don’t eat enough of it, you won’t have the building blocks necessary to gain muscle.
Next up is carbs and fat:
If all the Pokemon on your team are a high level and they all have sick moves, you should get on pretty well at the Pokemon League regardless of the specific Pokemon in your team. Obviously your team selection is still important though; just less so than their level and moves.
- This is like the ratio of your carb and fat intake, which is far less important than your total Calories and protein, but not irrelevant by any means. Most people should aim to strike a relatively even balance of the two, but there are those that do better on high and low of either.
Now, at the bottom of the pile is meal timing, frequency and supplements:
Regardless of intricacies like which Pokemon you send out into battle first, if your team is strong, you’ll end up becoming the Pokemon master eventually.
- This is similar to the more minute details of nutrition; sure, they can all be important given the right context, but in the grand scheme of things, they won’t have a great impact on your gains if you nail the other stuff.
So with all that in mind, can you see how majoring in the minor by focusing on supplements, your post workout protein shake, and getting your Tupperware out every 3 hours is pretty futile if you haven’t already dialled in more important factors like Calories, protein and carbs/fat?
Yup. I thought so.
^^^And that, my friend, is why I ended up spinning my wheels; I focused too much on the stuff at the bottom of the nutrition priority list.
Not you though.
And now you not only know where to direct your focus to become the next Pokemon master, but you also know where to start on your quest for gains:
- Carbs and fat
- Meal timing, frequency and supplements
Don’t know how to dial in the above to build muscle?
I’ve got you covered.
And I’ll be telling you all you need to know about each level of the hierarchy over the next few blogs, starting today with Calories, so read on.
(Ok. I get it; not everyone was as keen on Pokemon as I was. So if all that Pokemon stuff went straight over your head, just take note of the bullet points for each subheading)
Let’s get one thing straight before we go on though: like choosing between Charmander and Squirtle (because let’s be honest, who really wanted a Balbasaur), you can’t have the best of both worlds when it comes to building your physique.
By that, I mean that outside of a couple of scenarios, you can’t both lose fat AND gain muscle at the same time.
And if you try to do both simultaneously, you’ll just end up spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.
I know, right? It sucks!
What this means is you need to be sure your primary goal is to add some size and stay on the straight and narrow when you commit to the bulk, rather than jumping between goals.
But when should you commit to the bulk?
Whilst personal preference will come in here, as a general rule I suggest you’re able to see your abs before you decide to bulk, and are hovering around 12% body fat or lower (2).
Because as I hinted at earlier, building muscle requires a surplus of Calories to fuel your performance and gains (3).
And with that, you will inevitability put on some body fat along with your gains in muscle.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, you sure can stay lean whilst packing on the muscle, and I’m not telling you to go out and eat anything and everything in sight; that would just leave you with a load of extra body fat to diet off in the future.
But you need to be comfortable with the prospect of gaining a little body fat given your current level of leanness.
So you don’t want to be starting your bulk off semi-fat.
And that leads nicely on to:
Calorie recommendations for lean bulking
The amount of fat you gain whilst bulking will largely depend on the size of your Calorie surplus:
- No surplus = no fat gain and minimal/no gains in muscle.
- Moderate surplus = the sweet spot where gains in muscle are maximised whilst body fat gains are kept low (provided your training is on point and your protein intake isn’t low). This is your classic lean bulk.
- Large surplus = gains in muscle and body fat are both high. You can only gain so much muscle though and once that’s maxed out, the extra Calories will just be stored as fat.
So you want to be somewhere in the middle and shoot for a moderate surplus.
And that’s why I suggest you eat 5-10% above your maintenance Calorie requirements during your bulking phase (5-10% more Calories than your body needs to maintain its weight).
To work that out, fill in your deets on this website, and then multiply the figure it spits out by 1.1 (that will add a 10% surplus).
Stick to that Calorie target for 2 weeks and then adjust if necessary. If your weight isn’t going up and/or you’re not seeing progress in the gym, increase your Calories by 5-10% again. More on this in a sec.
But before we move on, I need to make a quick note on increasing Calories and transitioning into a bulk
Which brings up:
The Reverse Dieting Myth
Now, after dieting, a lot of folk will tell you that you need to increase your Calories super slow to prevent a load of fat gain.
Quite frankly, this is nonsense, which is pretty obvious if you look at it logically:
When you diet, you need to create a decent Calorie deficit (when your intake is less than your expenditure) to lose an appreciable amount of fat.
So let’s say you’re eating 500 Calories less than you expend per day.
After a while, you reach your desired physique: you’re lean, your abs resemble a cheese grater, and that vein running along your bicep is out in full force.
Because you no longer want to diet, you decide it’s time to ramp your Calories back up to maintenance.
You’ve heard you have to take it slow, ‘else your body will store everything you eat as fat. As a result, you add 50 Calories to your diet a week (that’s around half a piece of toast per week extra).
Through some miracle, your weight continues to drop, you start to see veins in your abs, and that one in your bicep is popping out more than ever.
Weeks 2, 3, 4 and 5 pass and you’re still dropping weight.
Because you’re eating more than you were when you were dieting, you assume it must have been some metabolic magic from taking it slow and adding 50 Calories per week.
As great as it would be if that were the case, the simple reality is that you’re dropping weight because YOU’RE STILL IN A CALORIE DEFICIT as you haven’t increased your Calories anywhere near enough to be back at maintenance level yet.
In reality, if you’ve reached your fat loss goal, there is no need (physiologically speaking) to take things super slow and it’s best to get your Calories back up to maintenance level as quickly as possible. This will start reversing any adaptations your body has made to your cutting phase diet.
So I suggest you increase Calories by around 150-250 at the end of your diet (mostly from carbs) and then go from there, adding another 100-150 Calories per week until you find your maintenance needs and your weight stabilises.
Then hang around at maintenance Calories for at least 2-4 weeks to prevent a rebound in fat gain post diet (4).
After that 2-4 weeks at maintenance is up, add 5-10% extra Calories to transition into your lean bulking phase.
If, however, the above about transitioning out of a cut doesn’t apply to you and you just need a starting point for your ‘bulking’ Calorie needs, then use this calculator to get an estimation of your maintenance Calories. Then add 5-10% extra Calories to that.
I advise my clients to aim to be within +/- 100 Calories of their target rather than trying to be bang on the whole time. So if you work out that you need 3000 Calories per day to build muscle, shoot for 2900 – 3100.
Ok sweet; you’ve got your Calorie target now, but how do you know if it’s working? And how long should you be bulking for?
I’m going to swipe the figures given by Alan Aragon for this (you should read his stuff if you don’t already). These give a good outline of what rate of gain you should be shooting for based on your lifting experience.
As you can see, the rate you can expect to make gains drops the longer you’ve been lifting for. This is because you’ll be closer to your genetic potential and will have less scope to improve.
It also means that monitoring your weight gain becomes a bit of a pain in the ass as you get more experienced as it will be much less noticeable month to month.
For example, 0.25% weight gain per month for an 80kg guy is a measly 0.2kg. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have other methods to track progress, such as recording your numbers in the gym. If you’re lifting more over time, then you can be confident you’re building muscle.
So keep an eye on your weight alongside your performance in the gym as indicators of your progress.
If they’re not going in the right direction, refer back to those three points I made at the beginning of this blog and assess where you’re going wrong.
It could be that you’re simply not eating enough.
The final thing I want to cover today (because this is getting long enough as it is) is:
How long should you bulk for?
Remember earlier I said you should be fairly lean before you start your bulk?
Well, other than the obvious of looking good with your kit off, one of the main benefits of this is that it allows you to dedicate more time to building muscle without becoming a fat ass.
You see, unlike fat, muscle is damn hard to gain and it takes a long time to build appreciable amounts (if it didn’t, everyone would be jacked, right?).
So you need to spend a number of months (3-8 for example) in a lean bulking phase for it to be worth it.
Then once your abs aren’t at all visible and/or you’re tipping over 15% body fat, you know it’s time to start a cut.
So, to round off and summarise all of the above:
- You need to be in a position to bulk in the first place. That means visible abs and roughly 12% body fat or below.
- You must keep the goal the goal and commit to the bulk, dedicating months at a time to the process of making gains.
- From a nutrition perspective, first and foremost that means eating a slight surplus of Calories and nailing your protein.
Yeah, I know; I haven’t mentioned protein much at all today. But that’s because I didn’t want to leave any stones uncovered relating to Calories.
Don’t worry though, next time I’ll be delving into the macros.
References and reading
(1) Eric Helms, Andrea Valdez and Andy Morgan – Muscle & Strength Pyramids (www.muscleandstrengthpyramids.com)
(2) Lyle Mcdonald – www.bodyrecomposition.com/muscle-gain/initial-body-fat-and-body-composition-changes.html
(3) Lambert CP, Frank LL, Evans WJ. Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding.Sports Med. 2004;34:317–327.
(4) Lyle Mcdonald – www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/transition-phase-between-dieting-gaining.html