OK, so you might not be able to gain seven pounds in seven days, but with the right strategy, a week is enough time to put on some serious muscle.
And (good news!) that exact number is even higher for all of the gainer-newbs out there. “Generally, someone who is already at a high level of fitness and bulked out will find it hard to put on 0.5 to 1.5 pounds of muscle a week. However, someone who has a way to go in making gains, but is not a total gym neophyte, can gain from 1 to 2 pounds of muscle per week initially,” says Wisconsin-based strength coach Pat Gilles, C.S.C.S. That’s because, the closer your muscles get to their maxed-out size, the less reason they really see to grow, and the harder you have to work to convince them otherwise.
So what’s the key to going from scrawny to brawny—and ASAP? Following these eight rules of better bulking.
1. Understand the concept of hypertrophy
Those no-necks in your gym’s weight-room are smarter than they look. So first, it’s worth getting some bro-science schooling: Putting on size is all about a biological process called muscle hypertrophy. Put simply, the enlargement of muscle tissue from the increase in size of its already existing cells, or fibers, explains Oliver C. Witard, Ph.D., an exercise metabolism researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland. What causes that increase? A complex interaction between your neurological, endocrine, and musculoskeletal systems that, following strength training, allows each worked muscle cell to take up amino acids from your blood and incorporate themselves as new structural and contractile proteins, Witard says. Basically, muscle hypertrophy breaks down into two steps: Damaging your muscle cells (just enough) and then helping them build back up stronger through muscle protein synthesis. Got that? OK, now we can move on to making those two things happen.
2. Focus on compound lifts
“Compound movements and big or heavy lifts are best for putting on size,” Gilles says. That’s because they allow you to both work more muscles at once as well as lift more weight with every rep, causing more stress, damage, and, ultimately, remodeling in your muscle fibers. Various studies demonstrate that large muscle group exercises are ideal for spiking the body’s levels of testosterone and other muscle-building hormones. For upper-body muscle growth, Gilles recommends variations of the bench press, bent-over row, pull-up, plank pull, push-up, dips, and the standing strict press. For lower-body growth, squats, deadlifts, lunges, jump squats, sled work, and power cleans.
3. Increase time under tension (AKA workout volume)
“Many athletes think that maximum weight is the way to go to grow muscle. However, increasing time under tension through a higher-volume exercise protocol is really the key,” Gilles says. “When you’re going for maximum weight, the brain will want to protect the muscle and generally athletes will quit because of a perceived muscle overload. However, if you go lighter on the weights, and increase volume, you push the muscles to failure and your body realizes there is a need to make the muscles bigger to adapt to this type of stimulus. So it starts releasing growth hormone and IGFL-1, two hormones that are positively correlated to muscle growth and reduction of body fat.” He recommends following a 10X10 protocol at 50 to 60 percent 1RM for the greatest gains in muscle size. (FYI, for max strength, a 4X4 set-to-rep scheme, lifting about 80 percent of your 1RM max is more appropriate.)
4. Get better sleep
Train your muscles all you want, but they won’t get any bigger until you actually give them a chance to build back up post-workout. “The easiest way to recover is to get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. It’s hard to get, but that complex interaction that I discussed previously involving protein synthesis takes place when you sleep. This is in part because HGH and testosterone are released at higher levels when you sleep. Sleep is when you make the gains of growing and repairing your cells.”
5. Eat about 20-25 grams of protein at every meal
You know you need protein to build muscle, but even more important than how much protein you eat per day is how much you eat per meal, Witard says. In one 2015 study, he found that, when it comes to promoting muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy, it’s best to consume 0.25 to 0.30 grams per kg of body mass (or 0.11 to 0.14 grams per pound of body weight) at each meal. So, if you weigh 180 pounds, that works out to 20 to 25 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, it turns out that whether you opt for a pre- or post-workout snack, getting an additional 20 to 25 grams of protein any time around your workouts results in similar rates of protein synthesis, he says. So do whatever works for you and don’t worry too much about the so-called “anabolic window.”
6. Reach for casein before bed
Casein protein is famous among bodybuilders—and just super swole guys in general—for its super-slow rate of digestion, allowing it to feed your muscles over a longer period of time than other types of protein like whey. In one Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise study, when exercisers ingested casein protein immediately before bed, their bloodstream’s levels of circulating amino acids stayed elevated throughout the entire night. Translation: They built muscle all night long. Gilles recommends drinking a casein protein powder shake for optimal growth. Milk, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt are also great sources of casein.
7. Beat down stress
Stress is your biggest enemy in the fight for more muscle. It decreases your body’s levels of anabolic, or muscle-building, hormones like testosterone and human growth hormones while increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline, both of which work in your body to break down, rather than build, muscle, Gilles explains. Plus, as you undoubtedly know from experience, stress saps your energy, sleep, and makes hitting the weight room all but impossible. Whether it’s getting more sleep, not checking your email after work hours, or scheduling a long overdo guys’ night for you and your buddies, make a point of doing things that will reduce your stress levels.
8. Don’t cut calories, just focus on whole foods
“Total energy intake is one of the most important nutritional considerations for men who are trying to gain muscle mass,” Witard says. “Muscle protein synthesis is an energetically expensive process. Therefore, to maximize muscle mass, a positive energy balance is necessary.” In other words, you need to be taking in more calories than you’re burning every day in order to put on muscle. “You should never be hungry,” Gilles says. Focus on fueling your muscles with whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods like lean meats, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and dairy. You can also make sure you’re never going too-low calorie-wise by checking your metabolic rate here.