Stepping off the scale and deciding to gain weight, rather than lose it, is a rewarding fitness goal. Unless you’re a mass monster-bodybuilder, adding lean muscle can only help with sports performance and building an aesthetic physique.
Before you go and “dirty” bulk—eating junk like donuts, burgers, and fries just to get enough calories to gain weight—follow these eight tips to rapidly add slabs of muscle to your frame without sacrificing your health. You’ll look better, you’ll feel better, and avoid a dreadful “cut” if you decide to shred your new gains up even more.
Focus on heavy, total-body lifts
We’re establishing that your goal is to gain 5lbs of muscle in a month. In order to achieve this, you’ll need to do heavy, compound lifts like back squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses, rows, and pullups. With these lifts, you’ll not only boost your total-body strength, but you’ll also immediately increase your testosterone levels for additional muscle growth.
Isolation exercises popular in bodybuilding workouts may make one body part bigger, but the time spent on compound lifts will add up to more total weight gained in one month.
Increase the number of sets, not reps
An increase in training volume will be necessary, but it’s important that you plan out the correct way to do more work. Most guys increase volume, however, by instead ramping up the number of reps to 12, 15, and even 20, keep your reps relatively low—in the 4-8 range—but do 6–12 sets. Ten sets of five reps is still 50 total reps, but you’ll lift a significantly heavier weight than you would with five sets of 10 reps. Then, start training 4-5 days a week.
Also, for this month, go to failure on your last two sets to create an enormous stimulus for growth. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that training to failure increased muscle activation and the secretion of muscle-building hormones like HGH and testosterone compared to conventional methods. Finnish researchers also found that training to failure improved hormonal response in experienced athletes.
Increase your strength
During this month, utilize “progressive overload”—gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts. An extremely simple way to do this is to add 2.5-5lbs to each lift every time you train. If you’re eating the right amount and quality of food for this month, you’ll avoid plateaus.
Eat at least 500 calories above maintenance
If you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight. But many skinny guys still overestimate how much they eat and underestimate how much they burn. Try this solution: keep a food journal for a few days to see exactly how many calories you’re taking in.
Then, use the Cunningham equation—a formula that factors in your lean body mass, protein intake, and exercise levels—to accurately predict how many calories you burn per day (called your “resting metabolic rate” or RMR). For muscle gain, eat 500 more calories than your RMR; if you’re still not seeing results, slowly increase your caloric intake further.
The easiest way to get enough calories to grow is to eat 5 to 6 times per day.
Eat at least 1.5-times your bodyweight in grams of protein
Protein is the building block of muscle—and if your goal is to rapidly add muscle to your frame, make sure you’re getting enough. Forget the myth that “too much protein is bad for your kidneys”—researchers from the University of Connecticut found “no data in the scientific literature to link high protein intakes to increased risk for impaired kidney function in healthy, physically active men.”
Pick healthy sources of protein like fish, lean meats, eggs, nuts, and quality protein powders and eat at least two servings with every meal.
Eat good carbs and veggies with every meal
Processed carbs lack nutrients, disrupt your insulin levels, make you fat, and have been linked to all types of inflammatory diseases. Instead, eat carbs like sweet potatoes, white potatoes, fruits, steel-cut oatmeal, quinoa, and 100% whole-grain breads. This will give you the fuel in the gym and the vitamins and minerals to support muscle growth.
Vegetables also give you a lot of vitamins and nutrients to boost your health, make you feel great, and add muscle without the fat. Eat plenty of veggies with each meal.
Do slow, aerobic cardio once a week
If someone tells you to do “no cardio when bulking,” they’re wrong. Aerobic conditioning is essential in making rapid improvements because it is the foundation that all improvements are built on. By improving your aerobic base, you’ll be able to push harder during your workouts, recover faster in between sets, and rest deeper on your days away from the gym.
Just because jogging trains your cardiovascular system, doesn’t mean it isn’t the best way to lose weight. Your gains will be safe with jogging a few miles a week.
Sleep at least eight hours per day
If you’re pushing hard in the gym, don’t shortchange your gains by skipping the easiest thing you can do to build muscle. Although your body produces growth hormone throughout the day, it releases the most at night while you sleep (especially during deep-sleep cycles). Sleep deprivation, however, interferes with optimal growth hormone production and muscle repair (which also happens while you sleep).