Adding muscle is one of the hardest things you can do.
While it seems like all sunshine and carbs from the outside, once you start down the road to Jacked Street you quickly realize the work inside the gym pales in comparison to the work you’ve got to put in outside of the gym.
Hi, my name is Ben, and I’m a former bulker.
My bulking journey started in the fall of 2013. I watched Pumping Iron for the seemingly fiftieth time and made the connection that Lou Ferrigno and I were the same height. At the time, I was tipping the scales at a functionally fit 220lbs. In the movie Lou was reportedly weighing in at 275lbs and I thought, “What would I look like at 275lbs?” Fast forward to three months and thirty pounds later and I was nowhere near Lou’s physique. Uncomfortable is an understatement. Thankfully it was in the dead of winter because I would break a sweat tying my shoes. And all of that to say, I still had twenty pounds to go to reach Hulk’s weight status and I wasn’t what you’d necessarily call “lean”. So again, adding muscle is one of the hardest things you can do.
With this best kept secret, there are some pretty common barriers that stand in the way of people’s Ferrigno journey. Here I’ll lay out four common barriers and provide some strategies to overcome them.
Barrier #1: Insufficient Calories
I am sure all of you are aware that you need to eat more calories than you’re burning. While that is true, an extra hundred or so calories a day won’t get you there. A typical bulk over 12 weeks should be a 5-6% increase in body weight. For easy math, let’s say 6% because that equates to 0.5% per week. Currently, I’m sitting at 230, so for me to gain 0.5% of mass each week I would need to increase my daily calorie intake by almost 600 calories per day.
To put that in perspective, I would have to add an 8oz ribeye steak on top of whatever my normal eating would look like. As awesome as that sounds, the problem is that the added protein would make it harder to gain. So, in reality, it’d be more like adding three cups of white rice to my meals or an extra ⅓ cup of olive oil. That’s a fun experiment. Eat a normal day’s diet, and then drink a third a cup of olive oil and see how awesome that is. Spoiler alert, it’s not.
And as you gain, the extra calories increase as well. So before you know it you’re looking at a half cup of olive oil or four cups of rice. Eating like an asshole might be fun every now and then, but seven days a week for 12 weeks and you start to hate it. The only real way to make this easier is to search for calorie dense options. Oils, nuts, juicy fruits, and honey are some strong choices. You can’t escape the need for more calories, but choosing these calorically dense options will at least reduce some of the volume.
Barrier #2: Insufficient Stimulus
With a belly full of food, you’ve still got to bang weights to add muscle. A program like Jacked Street is just what the doctor ordered, but remember: effort is assumed. If you’re looking to pack on slabs of meat you’ve got to hit every day with the fury of 10,000 Chris Sergisons. Six days a week you’ve got to go pedal to the metal chasing the pump.
But what happens if you don’t set up shop on The Street while putting down all those extra calories? Well the interesting thing about physics is: it doesn’t care. You’ll still gain mass, but you’ll start looking less like Lou Ferrigno and more like Lou Costello. The mass you’ll be packing on will be less muscle and more fat. So choosing the right program is equally as important to getting in the calories.
Like I mentioned earlier, Jacked Street is hands-down the best choice for this. It delivers plenty of hypertrophy work throughout the week and there is nothing that can match it. If you’re following Field Strong, Bedrock, HAMR, or ARMR, simply tack on Johnnie BOD to your daily program and hit that with full force. If you’re following Grindstone or Lean & Able, you may want to reconsider your goal because even with JBOD you might not be driving enough stimulus to demand favorable growth. Regardless of the program, you should be taking at least one muscle group to failure every day to ensure the proper stimulus. Failure is not “hard”, it’s not “leave two in the tank”, it’s involuntary muscle spasm inducing intensity.
Barrier #3: Insufficient Recovery
So it’s 10pm, you’ve crushed training, and you’ve got a belly full of casein protein ready to go to sleep. Before you know it, it’s 5:30am and you’ve got to rinse and repeat it all over. What’s the problem here? Well, the problem is you’ve only banked about 7 hours of sleep. If you’re looking to make serious gains, we suggest striving to get 9 hours of high quality sleep a night. “But Ben, that means I’d have to go to bed around 8pm!” Hey, that’s some solid arithmetic.
I told you bulking isn’t as fun as it sounds. Without proper recovery you’re inevitably going to run into two things. First, you won’t be able to bring the hammer to training like you need to each day. Second, and more importantly, you aren’t going to give your body the necessary time it takes to effectively repair the damage caused from the day before. This will, at best, result in stagnant or unfavorable gains but in a more dire scenario it could lead to some soft tissue injuries. And ask any physical therapist about what happens when rehabbing an injury: muscle atrophy. That’s no bueno.
If time isn’t on your side, there are some things you can do to maximize sleep. Cool your room to 64-68ºF, get black out shades, take 5mg of melatonin, and remove screens from your life an hour before you want to be asleep. All of these sleep hygiene habits are healthy ways to maximize whatever amount of sleep you are able to get. But, if you’re someone who is only getting 7hrs on a good day, you may want to rethink your goals. The stress of inadequate sleep will prevent you from adding muscle, but not from adding fat mass. Bulking might just not be in the cards right now. You can still train effectively and prep your body for when your schedule allows for proper recovery.
Barrier #4: Insufficient Physiology
Barring a medical condition, everyone has the ability to gain muscle. If you’re reading this thinking “not me, I’m a hard gainer” you’re wrong. The hard gainer is the unicorn of the weight room. It’s more than likely that you either are succumbing to one of the previous three barriers mentioned above. Training is an easy question to answer. Addressing your sleep is simple, though not quite easy. Calories are a little more “hand wavy” as the estimation equations are just that, estimations. So even if you think you are eating enough, eat more.
But there is a gigantic purple elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about when it comes to setting your internal physiology up to gain muscle: how much fat do you have? If you aren’t relatively lean going into a bulk, your progress is going to be much, MUCH slower than if you were. Not only will you gain less muscle over time (33-50% less) but you will put on significantly more fat mass than if you were leaner.
Unlike our other barriers, there is no easy way around this. Regardless of where you start, you will gain fat as you try to bulk. But, If you can’t see your abs going into your bulk, you’ll be adding more fat than muscle throughout your bulk. You don’t need to get down to 6% body fat, but you do need to be lean enough that the inflammation caused by adipose tissue doesn’t overload your system. Remember Barrier #3? Well nothing throws the brakes on recovery like a constant state of systemic inflammation as seen with high body fat. You also need to be lean enough that your body needs to utilize the fuel you’re feeding it and not pulling from its internal stores. If you’re above 12% for men or 22% for women you may want to seriously reconsider bulking as you’ll likely be set up for less than ideal gains.
Nutrition Coaching: I’m Your Huckleberry
Changing your body composition is a tall task. Simple at face value, it can quickly become an overwhelming endeavor leaving you frustrated. This is where the value in hiring a nutrition coach lies. When it comes to training, do you write your own workouts? Maybe you do, but if you’re reading this you probably turn to us for that. Why would nutrition be any different? Let us do the footwork for you, get you what you need to succeed, and then we’ll let you fly like the muscled up peacock you are.
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COACHING: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching
Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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