Primal Guide to Bulking
So you want to gain some weight, some mass. You want more muscle. You want to bulk up. And you want to do it in a healthy way within the context of the Primal Blueprint, but aren’t sure where to start. Most popular bulking advice consists of eating everything in sight—dirty bulking with fast food, TV dinners, PB&J, peanut butter on the spoon, whatever you have on hand. That’s not the way, folks.
As I’ve made pretty clear, our ultimate goal is to achieve positive gene expression, functional strength, optimum health, and extended longevity. In other words: To make the most out of the particular gene set you inherited.
These are my end goals, and I’ve modeled the Primal Blueprint Laws with them in mind. But that doesn’t mean packing on extra muscle can’t happen with additional input. After I retired from a life of chronic cardio and started living Primally, I added 15 pounds of muscle, while keeping low body fat levels without really trying, so it’s absolutely possible for a hardgainer to gain some. The question is how much and at what expense?
I’d be the first to tell you that lean body mass is healthier than adipose tissue. Generally, the more lean mass a person has, the longer and better they live. But to increase mass at the expense of agility, strength, or speed, or health is, in my opinion, counterproductive.
Of course, we’re all built a little differently. The basic building blocks are the same in everyone, but sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction) has the funny habit of producing unique genetics and small variations that affect the way we respond to our environments. It’s why some people are short and some are tall, or why some of us respond better to carbohydrates than others. Even though we all pretty much operate the same way, there IS a range of possible outcomes that is proscribed by your direct ancestors. Some people naturally have more muscle mass. Some people are innately more muscular than the average person, and putting more on through resistance training is often an easy task. Then there are those who can’t seem to gain a pound: the hardgainers. They might be increasing strength, but it happens more slowly and doesn’t seem to translate into visible muscle mass.
There is a genetic ceiling for muscle growth (and overall size gain). The ceiling manifests in all sorts of ways—your appetite, your hypertrophy response to resistance training, your motivation to train—but there is a ceiling. And although it can be circumvented with pharmacological interventions and force feeding, the Precautionary Principle suggests that using supranatural tactics to overcome the genetic ceiling will have negative effects on health.
How to Bulk the Right Way
Most people do not hit their genetic potential, however. If you’re reading this, there’s likely much more you can do to fulfill your genetic potential and “bulk up.” You can “bulk” in a healthy way. You can bulk in a natural way. You can bulk in a way that flows with your genetic inclinations and potential.
Eat Lots of Plants and Animals
Calories count. You have to eat more food than you are eating before. You have to eat more food than you previously considered excessive before, because you’ll also be lifting weights and creating more of an energy demand. There’s no way around it. You must eat lots of nutrient-dense plants and animals.
Steaks, ground beef, chops, roasts, whole chickens, slabs of salmon, cod filets, mussels, shrimp.
Fruit, greens, crucifers, asparagus, tubers, roots, squash, berries.
Eat it all, and eat lots of it.
The only thing you should explicitly count is protein grams. Aim for a gram of animal protein per pound of body weight. It’s okay if you go a bit under or a bit over.
Overeat on Training Days
You can find detailed guides to determining the specific number of calories you need to be eating to gain mass, but I don’t really agree with following those strict guidelines unless you’re being paid to gain weight. Instead, the better way to ensure you’re eating enough calories to gain weight but not so many that you’re also getting fat is to overeat only on training days and not on rest days.
How does this look?
Stuff yourself—within reason—on training days. Lift hard and then eat big. If you train hard enough, “stuffing yourself” shouldn’t take much effort. It’ll just happen naturally.
Eat normally on rest days. Again, this should ensue naturally. If you eat enough food on training days, your body won’t need as many calories on rest days. This will give you a “break” and allow both muscle protein synthesis and fat loss to occur.
Eat Carbs and Protein Around Your Workouts
Carbs help you gain weight. This cannot be disputed. They aren’t necessary for muscle gain, but they can certainly make it easier for many people.
Protein is absolutely essential. There’s no way around eating animal protein (unless you want to spend your days mixing and weighing arcane plant sources of protein to hit the perfect blend that only barely approaches simply eating a piece of meat or a bowl of eggs or a whey shake).
Eating both protein and carbs shortly before or after your workouts will take advantage of the “anabolic window”—a diffuse opportunity where dietary glucose is more likely to become muscle glycogen and protein is more likely to become muscle. Carbs are actually more crucial to get the timing right; protein is okay eaten several hours after.
Emphasize Carbs and Protein on Workout Days, Fat and Protein on Rest Days
This isn’t a strict prescription. This doesn’t mean “no fat” on workout days and “zero carbs” on rest days. It just means that since you’ll be eating more carbs on hard training days you shouldn’t go overboard with fat. And since you’ll be eating more fat on rest days you shouldn’t go overboard with carbs. Remember: we’re going for a clean, lean bulk, not a dirty bulk that makes you fatter.
Lift Hard and Long
This is subjective and malleable. Lifting hard can take many forms, some of which I’ll explain in another section down below. But the point is to work really, really hard. To bring your musculature to just shy of its breaking point. Go to failure, or almost.
Some people do this with super slow lifts, where each rep takes five to ten seconds to complete (or even more).
Some people do this with super heavy lifts and fewer reps, where each set is smaller but the effort you’re giving is maximal.
Some people do this with lighter weights and higher reps, collecting a lot of volume.
In each of these instances, you’re accumulating a lot of muscular tension. You’re giving your all. You’re bringing your muscles to the brink.
However, sets of 8-12 reps seems to be the best range for gaining mass (and strength). Whatever rep scheme you choose, pick a weight that feels hard by the time you reach the end of the set. You should have to really push to finish.
Chase True Hunger
To bulk, you need to achieve true hunger. There’s the hunger you get because you lifted some heavy weights. The kind that feels pure, raw, real, and unmistakable and unignorable. This is honest hunger. This is hunger that wants to replete your glycogen and introduce the protein and micronutrients required to maximize muscle protein synthesis. It’s the feeling of emptiness after a lifting session, a vacuum that must but probably cannot be filled.
You need to listen to this hunger. It’s trustworthy. It’s urgent. And it involves salivation—you can feel it in your bone marrow.
Cortisol is catabolic. Cortisol contradicts testosterone. Cortisol is the major stress hormone, and it exists for a very legitimate reason—dealing with “flight or fight” incidents, inadequate sleep, anxiety—but in large amounts cortisol increases serum amino acids by breaking down muscle, inhibiting protein synthesis, and reducing amino acid uptake by the muscles.
Your cortisol:testosterone ratio response to a resistance training session can predict how much muscle you’ll gain (or not).1 A lower ratio is better for gains and, thus, for healthy bulking. Furthermore, elevated chronic cortisol is linked to fat accumulation, so while elevated cortisol may make you gain weight, it won’t be the weight you want.
How do you limit cortisol?
- Adequate sleep
- Adequate calories
- Eating the carbs you earn—if you earned carbs/burned glycogen during training, you should just eat a piece of fruit or a potato rather than manufacture glucose from protein
- Keep your intense workouts short and intense—long, drawn out training sessions over 60+ minutes will run the risk of tipping the cortisol:testosterone balance
- Use smart supplementation—I created Adaptogenic Calm to reduce cortisol from excessive training, and it quickly became a hit among my athlete peers; I still use it to this day to enhance recovery
- Figure out some way to “meditate“—for me it’s paddle boarding and walking my dog
Skip “Cardio,” Take Walks
If you’re going for pure bulk, traditional cardio is counterproductive. Instead, just take daily walks. Walk after you train (to burn the liberated free fatty acids). Walk on rest days (to keep the blood and lymph flowing and speed recovery). You can do do easy aerobic “running,” as long as you keep your heart rate under 180 minus your age and maintain nasal breathing and keep things low-stress.
Don’t run hard. Don’t train for a marathon or 10k while you bulk. Again, you can do these things while resistance training and see results, but if you’re only interested in bulking up, any significant amount of cardio will negate your gains.
Sleep More Than You Think
Sleep is where the magic happens. It’s where fat loss occurs and muscle protein synthesis engages. Sleep is when you actually gain. Sleep debt actively inhibits muscle recovery and hypertrophy and promotes muscle degradation.2 Sleep deprivation increases cortisol and reduces testosterone; for optimal muscle building, the former should be lower and the latter higher.3 One older study found that total sleep deprivation increased urinary excretion of nitrogen, which could be indicative of muscle breakdown and loss of lean mass.4
Furthermore, inadequate sleep impairs many important factors tangentially related to bulking:
- Worse insulin sensitivity (affects your ability to assimilate nutrients and burn fat)
- Worse balance (makes you more likely to injure yourself working out)
Sleep at least 8 hours a night.
Fasting and bulking don’t really mesh well. Fasting is a way to reduce calorie intake; bulking is a goal that requires increased calorie intake. Sure, you can mess around with enormous meals and sprinkle protein power in everything and take shots of olive oil to get those calories up quick, but the vast majority of people will have trouble bulking while fasting.
If you want to “fast,” I’d recommend a “sunshine eating window.” Only eat when the sun is up, and abstain from food when it’s not. This will give you a larger eating window for higher calorie intakes while also giving you plenty of time not eating, so you can digest your food, sleep, and burn more body fat.
Either that or do the “Leangains” method, where you use a shortened eating window and shift your macro ratios depending on training status to make “lean gains,” or gain lean mass and minimize or abolish fat gain:
- A daily 16 hour fast during which you eat nothing containing calories. Coffee, tea, and other non-caloric fluids are fine. Some people get away with a little cream in their drink.
- A daily 8 hour eating window.
- Three days of weight training, ideally performed at the tail end of the fasting period. To improve performance and muscle protein synthesis, you have the option of consuming 10 grams of branched chain amino acids or some whey isolate 10 minutes before the workout.
- Always eat high protein.
- On training days, eat more carbs and less fat.
- On rest days, eat more fat, fewer carbs, and slightly reduce calories.
- Most people begin their fast after dinner (say, 9 PM), workout in the afternoon (at around 12 PM), and break their fast immediately post-workout (at around 1 PM), but you can use any schedule you prefer as long as you hit the 16 hours of fasting.
- Your post-workout meal should have about 50% of your day’s caloric allotment (a real feast).
This works pretty well but you have to be religious/neurotic about it. If you’re the right temperament, it might be good for you.
Mindful engagement and activation of the muscles will improve hypertrophy and increase muscle gain by directing more bodily resources to the muscle. When you lift a weight, actively feel the muscle contracting. Imagine with vivid imagery the muscle tissue lengthening and then contracting.
Here’s an example. When I do rows, I think of a few things. One is the cue to “shoot elbows back.” Another is to “bring my shoulder blades toward each other.” And finally, I think about, imagine, and feel the contraction of the sheaths of muscle across my upper back, paying attention to the sensation of tension in those areas, the burn of engaged musculature. When you do that active kind of visualization, you are strengthening the connection between brain and muscle tissue and enhancing the anabolic effect.
Feel the Burn
The “burn” you get while lifting weights indicates that you’ve reached levels of intensity adequate enough for a strong anabolic response. This isn’t really scientific, per se, but all my years of training (and training others) agree. You should hit the “burn” at least once every workout or exercise.
Try Blood Flow Restriction Training
Blood flow restriction training, or BFRT, involves inhibiting the flow of blood from the heart to the limbs by wrapping an elastic wrap around the upper legs and/or arms (depending on the workout). By wrapping the limbs and using a lower weight and higher volume than normal (30% of 1 rep max and 15-30 reps, respectively), you simulate a “hypoxic” environment in the muscle tissue and promote the development of type 2 muscle fibers. The idea is that BFRT allows trainees to make good gains without having to lift heavy weights, which many older adults are nervous about trying.
Most research suggests that blood flow restriction training with lighter weights is just as effective as heavier weight training for increasing muscle strength and size.5
Include Important Supplementary Foods
Chicken breast, broccoli, and brown rice won’t cut it. Many specific supplementary foods exist that provide vital anabolic compounds. I’ll list as many of them as I can think of:
- Whole eggs—Provide choline, cholesterol, vitamin A, protein, iron, zinc, and arachidonic acid; extra points for eating fertilized eggs, which can inhibit myostatin (an enzyme that limits muscle growth). Eat daily. And do not just eat the whites, as whole eggs work better even when you control for protein content.
- Liver—Provides choline, vitamin A, protein, zinc, and iron (liver and eggs were an old school bodybuilder classic and vitamin A is the “forgotten bodybuilding nutrient“). Eat once a week.
- Seafood—Provides creatine, protein, omega-3s (increase muscle protein synthesis)6. Eat three times a week.
- Oysters—Zinc and iron powerhouses. Eat twice a week.
- High protein dairy, ideally raw or fermented—When you lift weights, you need calcium and protein and saturated fat and all the other components of dairy to grow. After all, dairy is meant to grow mammalian tissue.
- Red meat on the bone—There’s something especially anabolic about eating meat off a bone. Maybe it’s the gelatin providing substrate to support connective tissue health. Maybe it’s the Primal high-T response to gnawing on bones. Whatever it is, it works.
- Purple sweet potatoes—The right blend of taste, anthocyanins, fiber, texture, and glucose. Great post-workout.
- Pineapple—Speeds up muscle recovery, tastes great. Excellent post workout.
Include Helpful Supplements
Whey isolate—The best pound for pound animal protein on the planet. Shown time and time again to improve hypertrophy. 10-20 grams morning and night (or post workout).
Creatine—Enhances muscular performance and hypertrophy regardless of timing 7 5 grams a day.
Beta-alanine—Another supplement that increases muscle carnosine content and the amount of work you can do, the number of reps you can eke out. Beware that beta-alanine will give you an intense prickly feeling in your limbs, but it’s totally safe. 6 grams a day.8
Collagen—Bulking requires a lot of resistance training, which increases the demands on your connective tissue. Collagen is a great way to rebuild and reinforce ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.
Take It Slow
Most importantly, you have to just let the bulk happen the way it wants to. Put everything into place—the food, the supplements, the sleep, the stress reduction, the exercises, all the tips from this post—and let it ride. A bulk isn’t linear. It doesn’t follow any schedule. You might not gain for a week and then suddenly pick up 5 pounds. The body works in mysterious ways, in fits and starts, stalls and bursts. Trust that it knows what it’s doing.
The worst thing you can do is stress about not gaining as fast as you wanted to gain. That’s when you get sloppy, when you get injured, when you neglect the less-than-sexy things that are just as important as lifting big weights and eating big meals.
That’s it: the Primal guide to bulking.
Do you “bulk?” What’s your method? How have you done it in the past? What would you add?
Thanks for reading.
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