It must just be how I’m wired, but I like to question everything and rationalize the “why” from an objective, scientific point of view whenever necessary. It’s just how my brain operates and how yours should too. Being able to identify a problem and then use intelligent reasoning to come up with the best possible solution is part of what makes a great coach and a successful athlete.
I refuse to do something just because that’s what Joe Meathead in the gym says to do, which has probably been done since the 90’s and has very little scientific backing to it. Might sound crazy but some of the best gains you’ll make will come from going against the grain, questioning things and figuring out what works for you. Call it, ‘new school’ or whatever you like, but it’s really about just about opening your mind to alternative methods and exploring different techniques. Be the wolf, not the sheep.
#1. The Dirty Bulk
One of the problems with the old-school method of bulking up is that the unwanted weight you’re packing on is actually working against you and I’ll explain why. For starters and the simplest most obvious issue is that the extra fluff you’re adding will just need to come off later when you shred down to reveal the hard-earned muscle. Any bodybuilder will tell you that the more fat you have to lose, the greater the chances you’ll be sacrificing lean muscle.
The process of creating a negative caloric balance and tapping into stubborn fat can be catabolic at times and that’s where over a period of months, you could be losing 5-10 pounds of muscle. Yes, it is possible to drop fat and maintain muscle but the process is a whole lot easier when you’re not carrying around extra rolls of flab looking like the marshmallow man. Remain relatively lean (8-12% body fat) during your off-season while you’re packing on muscle and you’ll have much less work to do when it comes time to get diced.
The second issue with old-school bulking I have is that the fat you’re adding can be negatively impacting your ability to make lean gains! Fat stored around the trunk and internal organs can negatively impact insulin sensitivity – which means your ability to process and take up carbs into the muscles can be compromised. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this same stored fat can also negatively impact your hormonal profile – specifically triggering a small increase in estrogen and a corresponding reduction in testosterone. If you’re adding size, you need your test. There’s no debating that. Walking around with extra fat might make you look half decent in a few of your xxl baggy shirts, but don’t fool yourself – you’re not doing yourself any favors if you’re trying to gain lean muscle. In fact, you’re more likely to be making your body work against you and just increasing the likelihood you’ll store even more fat.
#2. Stuff Your Face
Want another common meathead tip? Stuff your face with as many calories as you can handle if you want to grow…bro. Doesn’t matter what it is, doesn’t even matter if you’re hungry or not – JUST EAT. While this one might not be too obvious to spot, I’m going to explain the problem here – every person is different and has varying caloric demands.
Do you need 8,000-10,000 calories to grow? Probably not, unless of course you’re an Olympic level endurance athlete that’s training three hours a day and burning up thousands of calories in the process. For the average kid with a sedentary job and normal metabolism, simply taking in an extra 750-1000 calories might be enough to grow on – what’s important is understanding individual caloric needs, nutrient timing and strict consistency with your diet. The stuff-your-face method may sound like the right thing to do from a highly simplistic view of nutrition.
What’s being overlooked is that when you supply your body with far more calories than needed, you’re actually putting a strain on your digestive system and likely negatively impacting nutrient absorption. It’s something I’ve been referring to as overconsumption of calories and although it’s not commonly discussed topic, experienced coaches know about it. You’ve likely heard of the term overshoot. Well it’s a lot like that concept – taking in way more calories than you needed and the body reacts in a opposite way than you would imagine – in this case by charging up the metabolism to compensate and absorbing only a small portion of what’s being consumed.
Your body can only process so much calories – it’s not infinite. That’s the part people tend to forget. There is such a thing as eating too many calories. The trick is to find the sweet spot – where you’re growing, remaining lean and getting stronger in the gym. If you need another reason not jump on board the all-you-can-eat train is to remember that the human body has several built-in mechanisms that kick in to let you know when you’re hungry. Forcing a meal when you’re not hungry simply to get more calories in you makes little sense to me and I’d question how much of that force-fed meal is actually being digested properly when the previous meal is still being processed. Try to eat at regular intervals, but above anything else, eat when you’re hungry. Load your body when it needs it and is letting you know.
#3. Low Reps is the Only Way to Grow
Another one of my favorite meathead myths is the one that says the only way to get big is to lift big - in other words lifting dat ‘heavy-ass weight’ for low reps. Low rep, heavy weight training has its place in a growth phase (I call it Density training), but it’s certainly not the only training protocol that works, in fact it’s arguably not even the most effective. Only focusing on one rep range is not the optimal way to make gains in size.
For starters, this type of training is mostly taxing on the neurological system and its ability to generate strong contractions, with not very much metabolic damage at the muscle tissue level. If it’s muscle you want to grow and you’re not just a powerlifter interested in strength, you’ll need to train to isolate your muscles more effectively and induce maximum metabolic damage via higher rep ranges, longer time under tension sets, tempo training, beyond failure techniques and higher volume workouts. Overall, this will place a greater stress on the muscle, as opposed to other energy systems that don’t respond with hypertrophy.
In my coaching practice, I’ve found the best approach is to cycle through (or periodize) various styles of training for the fastest route to gains. Using different training systems will stimulate muscle growth through several unique but synergistic pathways – and that’s how you’ll make gains faster than simply lifting the heaviest weight you can. Focusing a portion of your effort and intensity into higher rep sets with a relatively lighter weight should also encourage you to develop a stronger mind-muscle connection to isolate target muscles and bring the right muscles to failure - rather than simply lifting the weight, you’re actually training your muscles to grow.
It’s been said many of the biggest pro bodybuilders aren’t nearly as strong as you would think, they are however much better at recruiting muscles, generating contractions and having some of the strongest mind to muscle connections of any athletes. After having met and worked with tons of 250+ pro bodybuilders, I would completely support this sentiment. It’s not that they’re stronger, it’s that they’ve become supreme experts at contracting their muscles.
#4. Always Annihilate
The final meathead myth being passed around gyms is the idea that you must completely destroy yourself in the gym every time you train. This is one that haunts me to this day. Probably because I was once that kid training to point of puking nearly every workout…leaving nothing behind and only leaving when you simply had nothing left in you to move any weight. Only then were you were done…apparently.
The problem with this that became strikingly obvious, after over 15 years of coaching clients and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, is that it’s not the fastest or smartest route to go about go about gaining size. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about hardcore training, but done strategically in a way that’s most conducive to growth.
The approach I prefer to use is more like annihilate, then stimulate from week to week (which I’ll get into in Section 2). When you’re killing yourself in the gym every training session for weeks and months at a time, you’re bound to slip into the overtraining trap which comes with a cascade of physiological responses – all negative as far as you should be concerned when trying to make lean gains.
When the body is drained and over stressed from excessive training, it’s difficult to make gains because your body is then working against you. Key muscle building hormones can get depressed (i.e. testosterone), catabolic hormones can remain elevated (i.e. cortisol) strength drops off, sleep suffers, soreness persists for 3 or more days and your ability to recover and grow from workouts is impaired. When you cycle in annihilate type workouts with more stimulate type workouts you allow your body to fully repair, recover and restore itself, instead of constantly demanding more and draining it.
Remember that your recovery ability isn’t infinite and it varies significantly from person to person. While some in the upper elite echelon can hack weeks of torturous training back to back, there’s a strong chance you can’t and might be a big reason why you’re not actually growing and just spinning your wheels from month to month.