Most exercise programs are designed for overweight guys. Even most lifting programs are designed for overweight guys. After all, overweight or not, who doesn’t want to be big and strong? Thing is, most guys intuitively overeat, and so year after year, they gain pound after pound (study). They don’t gain muscle quickly, they gain it relentlessly.
Skinny guys are different. We don’t naturally overeat. We aren’t muscular by default. But once we start bulking, we can usually gain muscle more quickly than any other body type. We’re far enough away from our genetic potential that our bodies are primed for muscle growth. The average guy would be lucky to gain ten pounds of lean mass in a year. Some of us skinny guys can gain up to forty, defeating our skinny genetics in a single year.
Thing is, most weight training programs aren’t actually designed for muscle growth. Yes, they often produce some muscle growth as a byproduct. But as naturally skinny guys, we shouldn’t be doing workouts that stimulate muscle growth as a byproduct, we should be doing workouts that are designed to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible—on purpose.
So how do we deliberately train for muscle growth?
- The History of Bulking Workouts
- The Foundational Principles of Building Muscle
- What Type of Lifting is Best for Bulking Up?
- The Big 5 Approach to Bulking
- Bulking With a Strong Foundation
The History of Bulking Workouts
The Very First Bulking Program for Skinny Guys
Back in the 1920s, Charles Atlas came up with the first muscle-building program for skinny guys. This was back in the good old days, back before the word “ectomorph” was coined, back before skinny guys even knew they could build muscle. Back then, being skinny was just a body type. If you were skinny, you were skinny. That was it.
Problem was, the good old days weren’t so good for skinny guys. Even back in the 1920s, muscular men got more attention from women and more respect from other men. The skinny guys didn’t want to be skinny, but since it was considered immutable trait, they didn’t realize they could do anything about it. They thought they were stuck that way.
Charles Atlas saw an opportunity there. He designed a workout program that he could market to these skinny guys. He called it the Dynamic Resistance Fitness Course. He placed advertisements in magazines calling out to “98-pound weaklings” who were eager to bulk up.
It worked, too. All over the world, pre-ectomorph ectomorphs began placing their orders, eager to finally build up enough muscle to look good on the beach, eager to finally stop having sand kicked in their face.
Atlas’ theory was that you could “pit muscle against muscle” to create the tension needed to stimulate muscle growth. For example, when you flex your biceps, you need to clench both your biceps and your triceps. The two muscles work agonistically, allowing them to flex against each other. He claimed that this muscle-against-muscle tension would stimulate muscle growth. Then, as your muscles became stronger, the resistance you’d create would become more intense, allowing you to become stronger still. Best of all you could do this workout program from the privacy of your own home. No equipment required.
However, Charles Atlas was soon accused of false advertising. Bob Hoffman, founder of York Barbell, believed that lifting weights was the only way to build an impressively muscular physique. He saw that Atlas was impressively muscular, and so he suspected that Atlas was secretly building his muscles by lifting weights but claiming that the results came from his flexing routine. A fraud.
On the stand, Atlas insisted that he did do his flexing routine every single day. But when the lawyers asked him if he also lifted weights, he admitted that, yes, he also lifted weights “on occasion” to test his strength. Pressed further, he admitted that he “tested his strength” three to four times per week.
Charles Atlas didn’t even trust his own routine.
Funny thing, though. A 2014 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that doing a biceps flexing routine three times per week for 12 weeks produced a 4% increase in both biceps and triceps size. You can build your biceps simply by flexing them. Now, is that a good workout routine? No. Not by a long shot. That isn’t very much muscle growth. But Atlas’ routine wasn’t total bull, either.
This is the grey area that most workout programs live in. They work, yes, just not very well. And they work on most people, yeah, but not on everyone. This is how skinny guys can wind up trying a ton of different workout routines while never getting the results they’re after.
Nowadays, this same thing still happens. Not always fraudulently, but still, it can be confusing. For example, P90X is a bodyweight workout routine that’s supposed to help guys build muscle (among other things). It’s fronted by Tony Horton, a former bodybuilder. Before Horton even joined the company, he had already bulked up by lifting weights. However unintentional, there’s a bait and switch there. It leads people to believe that they can build the body of a bodybuilder by doing fitness workouts.
I don’t mean to single out P90X. This is standard practice in the fitness industry, and oftentimes it’s entirely innocent. You’ll have a guy who builds a bunch of muscle by lifting weights. At that point, maybe he loses interest in building more muscle. After all, he’s already accomplished his muscle-building goals. So then he becomes passionate about calisthenics, say. But people don’t realize that he built his muscle by lifting weights.
You see the same thing in reverse, too. There are a few popular programs where the founders did bodybuilding for a few years, hit a muscle size plateau, got bored, and then switched to strength training. At that point, they started seeing results again. They broke through the plateau. So what do they do? They recommend that skinny beginners start with strength training. But they’re forgetting that they themselves built the majority of their muscle mass through bodybuilding. They’re asking skinny beginners to follow in their footsteps, but they’re giving them a training routine that they only started using once they were already muscular. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
A more nefarious variation of this is someone building an impressive physique using traditional methods: lifting weights, eating enough calories, eating enough protein, maybe supplementing with some creatine. Then, once they’re already muscular, they’re asked to promote various bulking supplements that they never used while they were bulking up.
This all goes to show that we can’t look at what someone does now to see how they built their muscle in the first place.
The Colorado Experiment and the Magic of Muscle Memory
Jumping forward to 70s, and Arthur Jones is one of the biggest names in the fitness industry, famous for inventing new bodybuilding equipment and methodologies.
In 1973, he introduced his most famous idea: High Intensity Training (HIT). The idea behind HIT is that you do a single set for each exercise, moving the weight extremely slowly, and going all the way to total muscular failure. This style of training is quite hard to do with free weights, simply from a balance perspective. So to allow the lifters to focus all of their energy on simply pushing the weight through a fixed path, he recommended his Nautilus lifting machines, which he had invented for this very purpose.
To advertise this new bulking method and his new lifting machines, he enlisted the help of his protégé, a professional bodybuilder named Casey Viator. Over the course of 28 days, Arthur Jones coached Viator through the HIT program. They trained just three times per week, each workout lasted only 30 minutes, and yet over the course of those 28 days, Casey Viator gained an astounding 63 pounds of muscle.
This was unheard of at the time. It’s still unheard of to this day. Was this revolutionary new bulking routine really that powerful?
To understand how this is possible, we have to look at the context of Casey Viator’s transformation:
- Viator had some of the best muscle-building genetics the world had ever seen. He had won the title of Mr. Universe at age 19, and he was known for his ability to lift incredibly hard and eat enormous amounts of food.
- He had a reputation for his steroid use, which causes more nuclei to be drawn into muscle fibres. This is a permanent adaptation that makes it easier to gain and regain muscle mass. There’s also no reason to think that he wasn’t taking steroids during the experiment.
- In the year before the experiment, got into an accident where he lost part of his little finger. He got a tetanus shot to prevent infection, but he had a severe allergic reaction to the shot. He lost his ability to eat and exercise for almost a year, losing dozens of pounds of muscle mass.
- In the two months leading up to the experiment, Viator intentionally lost a couple dozen more pounds of muscle by following a starvation diet (800 calories per day) and by strictly avoiding weight training. Casey Viator was going to be paid a tremendous amount for every pound he gained, and so he wanted to make this upcoming transformation as dramatic as possible.
- During the experiment, there were even rumours that Casey Viator, certain that the HIT program wouldn’t be effective enough, had been sneaking in extra workouts in order to boost his muscle growth.
There are a few cases of people using a similar approach to rebuild muscle and getting similarly impressive results. Arthur Jones followed the same protocol as Viator. First a starvation diet, then detraining, and then rapidly recovering 17 pounds of lost muscle in just 28 days.
The results were advertised, the starvation diets and detraining leading up to those results was not. HIT went on to become a popular way to bulk up despite a mounting pile of evidence that it didn’t work very well.
Over the past five decades, research has consistently shown that slow lifting isn’t a good way to build muscle (study, study, study). Neither is low volume training (systematic review). Taking sets to all-out failure doesn’t help either (study, study).
However, research has also shown that many muscle-building adaptations are permanent. This means that recovering muscle mass is much easier than gaining it in the first place. Gaining muscle tends to be fairly slow, but people can rebuild tremendous amounts of muscle in extremely short periods of time.
Why is this relevant today? In his Geek to Freak experiment, the best-selling author Tim Ferriss followed the same protocol as Casey Viator, using it to rebuild 34 pounds of muscle mass in 28 days. Like Viator, Ferriss was detrained and underfed in the year leading up to his transformation, which is what allowed him to regain so much muscle so quickly. And to be clear, Ferriss was fully open about this. I don’t consider this be a case of deceptive or false advertising.
The only problem is that when Tim Ferriss published his fitness book, The 4-Hour Body, it featured his Occam’s Protocol bulking routine, which was based on Arthur Jones’ old HIT routine. For a few years, that workout routine became extremely popular with ectomorphs who were trying to build muscle. They saw that Tim Ferris was skinny in the before photo and muscular in the after photo, not realizing the role that muscle memory played in the transformation.
Eventually, it became clear that most skinny guys weren’t able to reproduce Tim Ferriss’ dramatic results, and so it gradually faded from popularity. We rarely hear about it anymore.
Now, to be fair, results always vary. Even with the best bulking program, you shouldn’t expect your progress to look exactly like someone else’s. We all have different genetics, bone structures, and lifestyle constraints.
My point is that looking at these anecdotal “it worked for them” stories is a poor way to find a workout program. When it comes to those one-in-a-million progress photos, perhaps that’s due to one-in-a-million genetics or circumstances. Who knows what other factors influenced those results?
Without Research, it’s Hard to Tell What Reliably Builds Muscle
There are plenty of bizarre muscle-building routines that have been marketed to skinny guys over the years. As a teenager, I tried my fair share of them. I thought that maybe, just maybe, a radical new workout program could produce radical new muscle growth.
However, there was a flaw in my thinking. If the tree you’re climbing isn’t sturdy, you shouldn’t climb even higher up, you should look to the foundation. The very things that make bulking routines unique are also what make them ineffective. The most revolutionary muscle-building techniques are the ones that deviate the most from the foundational principles. They’re the routines with the least amount of evidence behind them—the ones that are the least likely to work.
We’re quick to toss out conventional wisdom because we want to go beyond it. We want to get better-than-conventional results. And so the assumption there is that we need to get those results from unconventional methods. For example, consider low-volume high-intensity training (HIT), which was touted as being a more efficient way to build muscle. Here are the results of a recent study, extrapolated for a 150-pound man:
- 1 set of squats: 0 pounds muscle, 0 pounds fat, squat strength went up 36 pounds.
- 4 sets of squats: 0 pounds muscle, -3 pounds fat, squat strength went up 46 pounds.
- 8 sets of squats: 5 pounds muscle, -2.5 pounds fat, squat strength went up 82 pounds.
These HIT bulking programs with their single sets to failure might not produce any muscle growth or fat loss in the average person. The workouts may be short, but it’ll take forever to get results out of them.
However, to make sense of these results, there’s also some nuance that we need to discuss. Looking at the 1–4 set squatters, they gained an average of zero pounds of muscle. Not good. But that doesn’t mean that everyone gained zero pounds. This average is the result of some participants gaining muscle and others losing muscle. The gains are cancelled out by the losses.
Even with poor bulking programs, some guys will still succeed in spite of their sub-par workouts. This is balanced out by the people who get absolutely terrible results out of them, sometimes finishing worse off than when they started. Whoever you are, though, it’s better to be in the 8-set group, especially if you don’t have good muscle-building genetics.
This unexplained variation in muscle growth is a well-studied phenomenon. In another study that looked into it directly, the researchers put participants on a 12-week arms-only lifting program (bicep curls and tricep extensions):
- Most participants added around two inches to their arms.
- A few gifted participants were able to add 5.3 inches to their arms.
- A few hardgainers lost 0.1 inches around their arms.
The reason some participants lost muscle size in their arms can likely be explained by the fact that most people intuitively eat enough calories to gain weight, whereas naturally skinny guys tend not to eat enough to keep up with their metabolisms. In this case, the hardgainers probably needed a bulking program that included information about how to eat. But since diet wasn’t monitored, we can’t know for sure.
Nevertheless: some people naturally respond favourably to lifting weights while others need to be more deliberate about it. That means that if we want to gain muscle consistently, especially if we’ve failed in the past, then we have to ground ourselves more firmly in the foundational principles of muscle growth. The answer isn’t in the one crazy trick, the answer is in the basics.
We need a good bulking workout routine, a good bulking diet, and we should also consider whether any other aspects of our lifestyles could be bottlenecking our muscle growth (such as not getting enough sleep).
The best way to guarantee a successful bulk is to stack together these foundational principles of muscle growth.
To do this, we must understand those foundational principles.
The Foundational Principles of Building Muscle
The Power of Specificity
Specificity is a pretty simple concept to understand. If you want to get good at a specific thing, you should train for that specific thing.
If you want to be able to deadlift more weight, you need to gain size and strength in the muscles that will help you deadlift (your hips and back), and you need to improve your deadlift technique. The best way to build those muscles and develop that coordination is to deadlift.
The same thing is true with other types of training. If you want to run a marathon, you need to improve your cardiovascular system, muscle endurance, and running technique. Deadlifting probably won’t help you do that. Better to practice your jogging.
So when it comes to gaining muscle, we need to train specifically for muscle growth. Not for strength, not for endurance, not for fitness, but specifically for muscle growth. This is all the more important because we’re naturally skinny. We aren’t the types of people who build muscle by accident.
Yes, if we train for strength, perhaps some muscle growth will come along as a byproduct. The same can be said with general fitness training. And perhaps that bodyweight workout routine or CrossFit circuit will yield a bit of muscle growth. But make no mistake, these routines aren’t designed for building muscle. They’re not bulking routines.
If your goal is to bulk up, better to do a dedicated bulking program—a hypertrophy program. This is going to mean lifting weights, and it’s going to mean spending most of your time in the moderate rep ranges (6–15 reps per set). Some strength and endurance will come along as a byproduct, but the main adaptation will be building bigger muscles.
The same is true with the specific areas that you’re trying to grow. No amount of deadlifting, squatting, bench pressing, and rowing is going to give you bigger biceps. Biceps simply aren’t a limiting factor on those lifts. So if you want bigger biceps, then you’ve got to make sure that your workout program contains chin-ups and biceps curls, which are the exercises that are best for bulking up your biceps.
Three Two Pathways of Muscle Growth
When evaluating different types of training, it’s important to have a clear grasp of what makes a muscle grow. As the research currently stands, Dr Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, has the dominant theory of hypertrophy, which posits that there are 2–3 pathways that stimulate muscle growth:
- Mechanical tension: This is the tension placed on the muscle as you lift weights. The heavier the weight (study) and the larger the range of motion (study, study, study), the more muscle you’ll build. An example of this would be doing heavy chin-ups for your biceps, starting from a dead hang and bringing your chest all the way up to touch the bar. If you aren’t strong enough to do a full chin-up yet, you can jump up to the bar and then lower yourself back down. Even with lowered chin-ups, you’ll still get a tremendous amount of mechanical tension simply by resisting gravity on the way down. These heavy compound lifts are where most of your muscle growth will come from (study).
- Metabolic stress: This is the “burn” or the “pump” that you get while lifting weights, causing your body to produce local growth factors in the muscles that you’re training (study). For example, after finishing your heavy chin-ups, you might want to do some biceps curls to build up a biceps pump. This will produce extra local growth factors that will cause your biceps to grow slightly more quickly. How much more quickly? If we pool the data from the seven relevant studies, we can predict about 27% more muscle growth from doing curls after chin-ups. (This data analysis is from Monthly Applications in Strength Sport).
Muscle damage:This is how much damage you inflict on your muscles during your training. The muscle soreness you feel a couple days later is caused by inflammation as your body sends in nutrients to repair the damage. If everything goes right, your body will build your muscles back bigger and stronger than they were before (study). This is by far the least important factor. In fact, you may even want to minimize muscle damage so that more of your resources are used to build muscle instead of repair it.
So there are technically three pathways that allow us to stimulate muscle growth, but the third pathway is too weak and tenuous to put much faith in. In fact, we might even want to intentionally minimize it. Mechanical tension and metabolic stress, however, are quite powerful. They’re a foundation that we can build a reliable bulking routine on top of.
In fact, you could build a bulking routine out of one or the other. If you really wanted to focus on mechanical tension, you could build muscle with a heavy strength training routine, whereas if you wanted to focus on metabolic stress, you could build your routine out of high-rep pump work. So long as the routines are properly programmed, both will produce a similar amount of muscle growth.
These pathways fit in with specificity. If you specifically train for muscle growth—doing a 6-rep set of chin-ups followed by a 12-rep set of biceps curls, say—then you’ll be building muscle via mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
If you were to train less specifically—with strength training, say—then you might only stimulate muscle growth via mechanical tension. Less specificity, and therefore a slightly less relevant adaptation. That works well for a lot of guys. It tends to work less well for skinny guys.
The Principle of Progressive Overload
Progressive overload can be illustrated with the apocryphal story of the ancient Greek wrestler, Milo of Croton. Milo was eager to bulk up, so he started training by carrying around a young calf in his arms. He was skinny, so even that small calf was enough to challenge his small muscles, provoking an adaptation.
As his muscles grew bigger, so did the calf. Before long, he was famous for being able to carry around a full-grown bull on his back. In fact, Milo became so confident in his strength that he tried to tear a tree apart with his bare hands. Unfortunately, he got his hand stuck in a crevice in the trunk and got devoured by a pack of wolves. It’s amazing what one can accomplish with a little grit and patience.
Just like Milo, we must challenge our muscles by lifting just barely within our means, right up against the limit of what we’re capable of. Our muscles will realize that they need to grow bigger and stronger, and so they will. Then we need to use that greater strength to lift greater weights. And so on.
This is why weights were invented. They allow us to lift progressively heavier as we grow progressively stronger. Every workout, we can increase the load by a couple pounds.
Barbells, dumbbells, and exercise machines are all great for this. Dumbbells and barbells stimulate more overall muscle growth by demanding that your muscles also work to stabilize the weight. However, regardless of what you’re using, the important thing is that you gradually lift heavier and heavier weights as you grow stronger.
Bodyweight exercises like push-ups and chin-ups are also valuable, but since you need to make them heavier as you grow stronger, they won’t stay bodyweight exercises for very long. Lowered chin-ups soon turn into bodyweight chin-ups. Bodyweight chin-ups soon turn into weighted chin-ups. This can make it tricky to build muscle with bodyweight workouts.
Every time that you lift weights, consider progressive overload. That means knowing how much weight you lifted last time. That way you can ensure that you’re always outlifting yourself. That’s how you’ll gradually grow bigger and stronger, just like Milo did. Eventually, with enough patience, you may even be devoured by wolves.
Lifting Often Enough (But Not Too Often)
Lifting weights stresses your muscles, provoking an adaption. Then we have to wait until the adaption takes place. During this period, we’re weaker (and often sore). Then, once we’ve adapted, we can go stimulate a new round of muscle growth. We’ll be stronger than before, so we should be able to lift a little heavier, or eke out another rep.
That gives us our bulking cadence:
- Lift more
- Live even more
A good bulking workout will stimulate 24–72 hours of muscle growth in the muscles that you train, at which point you can lift weights again to stimulate a new wave of muscle growth (study).
This is why doing full-body workouts three times per week tends to be the quickest and most reliable way to build muscle, especially as a beginner or early intermediate lifter. That way you can stimulate every muscle with a few challenging sets each workout, keeping your entire body growing steadily all week long.
Of course, you could lift more often than that if you wanted to. You could split your workouts up into different body parts. For example, you could train your lower body one day, your upper body the next, allowing you to lift weights every day. It wouldn’t hurt. It just wouldn’t help, either.
Beginners are quite good at stimulating muscle growth but also quite vulnerable to muscle damage, which means that we need to cautious about overdoing it. If your first workout causes a week of crippling muscle soreness, you’ve overdone it.
For beginners, doing just a few challenging sets per muscle group per workout tends to be best. That makes it quite easy to stimulate a maximal amount of growth in all of your muscles with a full-body workout.
A good bulking routine might look like this:
- Full-body workout 1
- Full-body workout 2
- Full-body workout 2
You don’t need that second day of rest, but it can help to clear up any lingering damage and fatigue before starting a fresh week.
Even at an intermediate level, full-body workouts can work quite well. If you ever run into a plateau, you might want to add a fourth day of training, though. Or maybe you simply enjoy training more often. 3-day routines work well, but they’re by no means mandatory, especially beyond a beginner level.
What Type of Lifting is Best for Bulking Up?
Alright, now that we’ve talked about how to build muscle, let’s talk about a few different types of workout routines that guys will often use to bulk up. Frustrated skinny guy that I was, I’ve tried all of these. I even succeeded with some of them.
General Fitness Workouts
At one end of the spectrum, there’s the idea that we don’t need to get strong in order to build muscle. This is where bodyweight workouts, P90X, and CrossFit come in. This concept is even more tenuous: that by becoming more physically fit, we can become more muscular.
Improving your physical fitness does cause a number of beneficial adaptations:
- Improved muscular endurance
- Better blood flow
- More efficient oxygen usage
General fitness workouts are great for you, don’t get me wrong. However, they’re also awful for making our muscles bigger. Yes, you’ll build some muscle, especially if you’re a total beginner, and especially if the exercises are still quite heavy for you. But you won’t build very much.
The problem with fitness-oriented training is that the limiting factor will very rarely be mechanical tension or metabolic stress in your muscles. You’re much more likely to be limited by your cardiovascular fitness, your coordination, or your pain threshold. And since your muscle strength isn’t a limiting factor, your muscles won’t see any need to grow bigger.
It doesn’t matter how gruelling the workouts are, how fearsomely your muscles burn with a Hellish fire, or how many times you throw up. If the stimulus isn’t heavy enough, it won’t cause you to adapt by becoming bigger and stronger (study, study, study, study, study).
Now, don’t get me wrong. These aren’t bad programs. They’re popular for a reason: because they work quite well for most people. It’s just that most people aren’t ectomorphs who are desperately trying to bulk up.
The Pros and Cons of Strength Training
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s this idea that strength is everything. This is a much more compelling argument, especially since it’s mostly correct. However, the Devil is the details.
When I started searching for bulking information online, I kept running into programs like Starting Strength, StrongLifts, Reverse Pyramid Training, nSuns, 5/3/1, and GreySkull LP. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re strength training programs that seem to be advertised to everyone, regardless of their goals. The idea is that if you want to build muscle, just get stronger at the big compound movements, and the muscle size will eventually follow.
That’s where the “just lift heavy” mantra comes from. It comes from guys who are interested in eking more strength out of their already large muscles. By lifting heavy, they strengthen the neural connections between their brains and their muscle fibres, allowing them contract all of their muscle fibres simultaneously for a single all-out rep (study).
That adaptation, nicknamed neural gains, helps people lift more efficiently with the muscle they already have. It makes people stronger for their size.
Strength training is great in a few different ways:
- It’s focused on the big compound lifts. Most strength training programs are build around the squat, bench press, and deadlift, which are fantastic lifts for building muscle. They stimulate hundreds of muscles at once, loading them up with a tremendous amount of mechanical tension.
- It uses free weights. Strength training is usually done with a barbell, which does a great job of building up stabilizer muscles, bone density, and tendon and ligament strength. Furthermore, the strength that you build will be totally versatile.
- Progressive overload is always front and centre. They always keep the focus on gradually lifting more and more weight.
- The programs tend to be simple, focused, and methodical. You can’t get much simpler than Starting Strength or StrongLifts, and that’s a good thing. It makes lifting seem much less overwhelming.
The problem with strength training is that while it certainly does stimulate some muscle growth, it doesn’t do it very quickly or efficiently. There are a few reasons for that:
- Strength training technique tends to be centred around lifting heavier weights, not building muscle. For example, Starting Strength is build around the low-bar barbell back squat not because it’s better for building muscle, but because it gives people better leverage, allowing them to load more weight on the barbell.
- The range of motion is totally arbitrary. Some people can squat deep, others can’t. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from technique to mobility to anatomy. With strength training, though, guys who can squat deep are usually incentivized to cut their range of motion short, missing out on the benefits of going deeper. Worse, the guys who can’t squat deep still need to hit depth, so they have to force it.
- The Big 3 lifts themselves are arbitrary. The squat, deadlift, and bench press aren’t the foundation of strength training programs because they’re the best lifts for bulking up, they’re just the lifts that are tested at powerlifting competitions. The chin-up, for example, is an incredible lift for stimulating muscle growth in your biceps and upper back, but since having big biceps is irrelevant to powerlifting performance, you won’t find it in most strength training programs.
- The rep ranges are too low for hypertrophy. Strength training is all about doing sets of 1–5 reps. That will yield some muscle growth, sure, but it’s by no means ideal for building muscle. For most of us, it’s better to spend most (but not all) of our time lifting in moderate rep ranges.
- Volume is generally pretty low. Heavy compound lifts impose a large amount of stress on our central nervous system. As a result, we fatigue quite quickly. In fact, we fatigue before we’ve stimulated a maximal amount of muscle growth.
- There’s too little upper-body development. Powerlifting is 2/3 lower-body training, which is perfectly fine, but most guys would prefer to have a more balanced physique with more upper-body size and strength.
I find strength training interesting because it’s so close to being good for building muscle. If you want to learn more, we’ve got full article about strength training for muscle growth.
Long story short, strength training programs are absolutely brilliant at developing killer strength, it’s just not quite the kind of strength that will help us build muscle. It’s also not ideal for avoiding injuries, improving our appearance, or improving our general health.
Besides, most of us aren’t trying to get stronger for our size. If we’re small, why limit ourselves to being strong for a small guy. Why not become big and strong?
The Pros and Cons of Bodybuilding
The word “bodybuilding” has a few different definitions. To some people, bodybuilding is a sport that involves cutting down to very low body-fat percentages, getting a spray tan, and stepping on stage in a thong. Most of us aren’t interested in becoming competitive bodybuilders, though, so we can forget that part of it.
To most people, bodybuilding is simply lifting weights with the goal of building muscle and becoming better looking. We’ll use that definition. Still, though, most bodybuilding routines trickle down from the competitive bodybuilders, so the workout routines don’t tend to be much different.
Anything that helps to build muscle can be incorporated into a bodybuilding routine. As a result, there are a ton of different bodybuilding routines out there. Still, most of them have a few things in common:
- More emphasis on the pump (metabolic stress). Instead of loading up the bar with as much weight as possible and lifting for 1-5 reps, a bodybuilder will focus on using perfect form for 8-20 reps. They’ll focus on building up a mind-muscle connection, feeling the burn, and getting a pump.
- Totally customized lifting technique. Instead of adhering to powerlifting competition standards, bodybuilders have total flexibility with their lifting technique. They can squat, bench, and deadlift as deep as benefits them. No more, no less. They can also pick the variations that suit them best, and allow them to stimulate the most muscle growth. This can make bodybuilding less likely to cause injuries, too.
- More exercise variety. Having more exercise variety won’t cause you to gain more muscle size, but it will cause you to build muscle that are rounder, fuller, and more evenly developed (study). Again, this can make bodybuilding less likely to cause injuries.
- More emphasis on the upper body. If you’re doing a push/pull/legs routine, then about 2/3 of your training will be dedicated to your upper body, which is about twice as much as you’ll find in a standard strength training routine. This is done to improve aesthetics, since aesthetics depends mostly on upper-body size.
Most of these things are quite good. If your only goal is to build a bigger and more aesthetic body, then your training is going to be quite good for that. And since there’s less of an emphasis on getting stronger at three specific lifts, the risk of injury tends to be quite a bit lower, too.
However, bodybuilding routines are often criticized for a few reasons:
- There’s no foundation of strength. Strength training routines are built around the big 3 compound lifts. Progress is measured in terms of how much strength you’re gaining on those lifts. This keeps strength training workouts focused and deliberate.
- There’s not enough mechanical tension. The main driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension, and bodybuilding workouts are notorious for not having enough of it. They’d benefit from putting more emphasis on the big compound lifts. Maybe not going as heavy as 1–4 reps, but certainly as heavy as 5–10 reps.
- Bodybuilding workouts are often quite inefficient. Bodybuilders have a reputation for doing leg extensions, leg curls, glute bridges, and calf raises instead of simply squatting. Yes, there’s a benefit to exercise variation, but squats are still the best exercise for building a bigger lower body.
- More days in the gym. The most classic bodybuilding routine is a push/pull/legs split. You train your chest, shoulders and triceps on Monday. Then you train your back and biceps on Tuesday. Then you train your legs and abs on Wednesday. And then you repeat the routine, finishing on Saturday. Sunday is rest day.
- Bodybuilding workouts can be chaotic. You show up in the gym and do a dozen different exercises for your chest. But is your chest actually getting bigger and stronger? If so, what’s causing the growth? And what happens if you plateau? Increase the volume, I suppose.
So although bodybuilding tends to be better for bulking up than strength training, it also abandons many of the things that make strength training so appealing.
As a result, many people combine the two types of training together.
The Pros and Cons of PowerBuilding
Powerbuilding is a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding training. Strength training is great for gaining strength, but it isn’t ideal for bulking up or becoming better looking. Bodybuilding is great for gaining size and aesthetics, but it loses that foundation of strength that makes strength training so badass. Powerlifting is the attempt to get the best of both worlds.
And you know, in most ways, powerbuilding succeeds. It will indeed make you big and strong. And for a long time, I though this was surely the best way to bulk up.
Powerbuilding usually goes something like this:
- Start with strength training. Start your workout with big compound powerlifting lifts to improve your strength, make your workouts more efficient, and gain the many benefits of heavy barbell training.
- Finish with bodybuilding. Finish your workout with bodybuilding exercises to gain more muscle mass, improve your aesthetics, and bulk up your upper body.
There are a few different variations, though. For example, with daily undulating periodization (DUP), you’ll have a couple heavy strength training days and a couple lighter bodybuilding days every week.
That’s a pretty compelling approach to training. It won me over, anyway. Except then you realize that you’re also getting the downsides of each style of training:
- You’re still doing the powerlifting lifts with arbitrary technique and range of motion. You’re still doing those damn low-bar barbell back squats to legal powerlifting depth. Those still aren’t great for building muscle.
- You still have the mind-numbing inefficiency of a bodybuilding routine. You’re still doing a ton of different lifts with a high volume and in painfully high rep ranges. Except now you’re doing it after a strength training routine.
- Your workouts will take forever. Strength training workouts plod along slowly because you need to rest so long between sets. And bodybuilding workouts grind on for ages because of how many different isolation exercises they have you running through. With powerbuilding, you have to do both.
So if you don’t like strength training, you won’t like powerbuilding. And if you don’t like bodybuilding, you won’t like powerbuilding either. In fact, the only people who are going to like powerbuilding are the people who love both powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I like some aspects of strength training: the structure, the emphasis on big compound lifts, the idea of being deliberate and minimalistic, the focus on progressive overload.
But I’m not a competitive powerlifter. I don’t want to go through the pain of optimizing my body for a sport that I don’t even play.
I’ve also realized that I like some things about bodybuilding, too. I like how the varied lifts produce more versatile muscles, I like the lower risk of injury, I like the extra emphasis on the upper body, and I love the idea of actually getting bigger.
But I don’t want to run around doing leg extensions six days per week, I don’t want to abandon my foundation of strength, and I want a more structured approach to becoming bigger and stronger.
This is all to say that powerbuilding is cool for the people it’s designed for—people who love both powerlifting and bodybuilding—but I’ve realized that it isn’t for me.
When I’ve been talking about strength training and bodybuilding, I’ve mostly been talking about stereotypes. There are plenty of strength training programs that don’t recommend spending all of your time doing low-bar back squats.
For example, Chad Wesley Smith is a powerlifter who’s famous for his idea of “building a wide base.” His approach involves doing a wide variety of big compound lifts to become strong in general. Then, using that base of strength, you can specialize at the powerlifting lifts in the months leading up to a competition.
What’s interesting about his approach is that he only does the powerlifting variations of the lifts in the months leading up to his competitions. Why? Because he knows they aren’t ideal for developing general size and strength.
For another example, Mike Israetel, PhD, makes powerlifting programs that start with hypertrophy blocks, where you spend 1–3 months focused on simply building bigger muscles with big compound lifts. Then you do strength blocks, where you become stronger for your size. And finally, you do a “peaking” block where you prepare specifically for your powerlifting meet. It’s only during these peaking blocks that you spend all of your time doing low-rep powerlifting variations.
Again, he knows that the big powerlifting lifts aren’t ideal for gaining general size and strength, and that they carry a higher risk of injury. So even with his powerlifters, he recommends that they focus on other big compound lifts except in the months leading up to their powerlifting competitions.
These styles of strength training don’t suffer from any of the downsides that I mentioned when criticizing strength training. However, these aren’t the most popular strength training programs. Furthermore, these aren’t “general strength” programs, they’re specifically designed for people who are interested in becoming competitive powerlifters.
The same is true of bodybuilding. There are plenty of great bodybuilding programs out there that are built around the big compound lifts. Except, again, they don’t tend to be the most popular programs. They aren’t enough to reverse the negative bodybuilding stereotypes.
But this is all to say that if we back off from the strict training styles associated with strength training and bodybuilding, we can build a routine that has the advantages of both, with none of the downsides.
There’s a perfect word for this, too: hypertrophy training. Hypertrophy, after all, simply means muscle growth. It’s not bodybuilding or powerlifting, it’s just bulking.
That’s what I want. I just want a bulking program. Something that will help me become bigger, stronger, improve my health, and look better.
The Big 5 Approach to Bulking
Most strength training programs are focused on the big 3 lifts: the squat, deadlift, and bench press. And with good reason, too: they’re fantastic lifts for developing and testing strength.
However, unless you’re a powerlifter, you’ll probably want to use a different approach. The Big 3 are great for developing the lower body and spinal erectors, but inevitably lead to physiques with limited upper-body size and strength.
If you’re trying to bulk up in a way that improves your general strength, muscle size, and aesthetics, you’ll be better served by focusing on the “Big 5” movement patterns:
- Squats (knee-dominant)
- Deadlifts (hip and back dominant)
- Horizontal press (chest dominant)
- Overhead press (shoulder dominant)
- Upper-body pull (biceps and back dominant)
That gives us a program that’s around 3/5ths upper body (depending on how you count the deadlift), which we think is a pretty good balance for overall size, strength, and aesthetics.
If we had to choose a best bulking lift for each of those movement patterns, we’d wind up with something like this:
- Front Squat: Given that they allow a deeper range of motion, front squats tend to be better for overall quad development. Plus, having the barbell in front does a better job of bulking up the core and upper back, as well as helping to improve posture.
- Conventional Deadlift: The conventional deadlift is a great exercise for bulking up the hamstrings, hips, lower back, and spinal erectors. This is going to thicken up our thin torsos.
- Close-Grip Bench Press: Most thin powerlifters bench with a fairly wide grip to minimize the range of motion, reducing the amount of muscle needed to lift a heavy weight. We want to do the opposite, using a narrower grip and bringing more overall muscle mass into the lift. As a result, the close-grip bench press will tend to do a better job of building the chest, upper chest, shoulders, and triceps.
- Push Press: The overhead press is a great lift, but the push press is even better. I’m writing up a full article on why the push press is better here, but long story short, it has a better strength curve. It allows our shoulders and triceps to engage more fully throughout the entire range of motion.
- Dead Chin-Ups: There’s no better exercise for the biceps and upper back than heavy chin-ups. You’ll want to do them with an underhand or neutral grip and a full range of motion, starting from a dead hang and bringing your chest all the way to the bar. Rows are sometimes used for this, but they fail to develop the biceps (study), the range of motion is too short, and they have a poor strength curve. They’re a good accessory exercise for the deadlift, but chin-ups are a much better bulking exercise overall—especially for your biceps (study).
However, these are all fairly advanced lifts. They’re what an experienced lifter would use to test and develop his already formidable strength, not what a beginner would use to bulk up for the first (or second) time.
If you’re already big and strong, we talk more about these end-game lifts here. But if you’re still fairly skinny, let’s talk about the best lifts for gaining your first 20–30 pounds:
- Goblet Squats: Goblet squats are done by holding a dumbbell on your chest. They’re simple and easy to learn, and they bring your shoulders and biceps into the lift, making them a true brute strength lift. This allows beginners to build a ton of muscle and full-body strength. Of course, dumbbells only go so heavy, so once you can goblet squat the heaviest dumbbell for a dozen reps, it’s time to progress to the front squat. (Or, if the front squat is too difficult, to a high-bar back squat.)
- Romanian Deadlifts: Full deadlifts require a great deal hip mobility and spinal stabilizer strength, making them a poor choice for beginners. A better lift is the Romanian deadlift, where you start in a standing position and then lower the barbell as low as you can comfortably go. It’s going to bulk up our posterior chain just as well, but it’s safer and easier to do correctly.
- Push-Ups (Or Dumbbell Bench Press): Once you get strong enough, the barbell bench press is hard to avoid. There’s only so heavy you can load a push-up. For beginners, though, it’s usually best to start by mastering the push-up. They’re just as good for developing the chest, but they also help to bulk up your abs and serratus muscles (the muscles under your armpits). When you can do 20 push-ups with a full range of motion, switch to dumbbells. When the dumbbells are too heavy to comfortably get into position, switch to a barbell.
- Incline Bench Press (or Landmine Press) : It takes quite a lot of shoulder mobility and stability to overhead press with good technique, let alone to push press with good technique. As a beginner, you can bulk up your shoulders with dumbbell incline bench press or landmine presses, which will help to develop the strength and mobility you need to press weights overhead. (After that, progress to a one-armed dumbbell press.)
- Lowered Chin-Ups (or Lat Pulldowns): Most skinny guys can’t do sets of chin-ups with a full range until they’ve built up a significant amount of size and strength in their biceps and upper back. A good way to work our way there is with lowered chin-ups or lat pulldowns. Rows done alongside biceps curls can help, too.
Because we aren’t locked into the powerlifting lifts, we have the option of starting with lifts that make bulking up much, much easier on beginners. In fact, I’d already gained 40 pounds by the time I tested our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, and going back to these beginner variations spurred on a new wave of growth. That’s how I wound up gaining 55 pounds overall.
These variations can seem simple, but their simplicity means that your muscles need to work damn hard to move the weight. For example, you won’t find a harder full-body lift than the goblet squat. You’ll often see grizzled lifters challenge themselves to see how many reps they can goblet squat with the heaviest dumbbell (often 120 pounds).
However, we aren’t locked into doing a minimalist program, either. Narrowing in on just a few specific lifts will cause your muscles to develop specifically to those lifts. Instead of becoming bigger and stronger in general, they bigger and stronger in a more specialized way. This leads to muscles that aren’t as well-developed or versatile.
For example, if you’re a skinny guy who’s trying to bulk up his lanky arms, you’re definitely going to want to be doing biceps curls. Chin-up variations are great, sure, but you’ll only get complete biceps development if you also include curls in your routine. Not only will that give your biceps more overall stimulus, it will also work them through a different range of motion with a different strength curve, causing different muscle fibres in your biceps to grow.
There are a few different accessory exercises that we consider fairly essential for ectomorphs:
- Lateral raises to build broader shoulders.
- Biceps and triceps exercises for bulking up lanky arms.
- Chest flyes to help bulk up the chest.
- Core exercises to bulk up small ab muscles.
- Neck exercises to help bulk up skinny necks.
That last point is an especially weird one. Neck training is super common in sports training. If you play football or rugby, or if you fight, then you need a thick neck to defend against concussions and knockouts. Neck size also has a huge impact on how strong and aesthetic someone looks. But for some reason, hardly any strength training or powerlifting programs include any neck training.
I asked Eric Helms, PhD, about this. He’s a top hypertrophy researcher and a competitive natural bodybuilder. He told me that professional bodybuilders don’t bulk up their necks because the steroids already cause neck growth. As a result further neck training could result in overly thick necks that restrict airflow (causing sleep apnea and such).
Developing an overly thick neck isn’t a concern for non-obese people who don’t use steroids, of course, but bodybuilding culture flows down from the professional bodybuilders, and so neck training isn’t a judging factor. So the natural bodybuilders don’t train their necks either.
Then with strength training, of course, neck strength simply isn’t relevant on the big 3 powerlifting lifts. Just like with biceps, it doesn’t matter, and so it’s ignored.
Bulking With a Strong Foundation
This has been a long post. You must surely know everything by now. And even if you don’t, there’s still the rest of the site to explore.
To wrap up, we believe that the best way to bulk up is to:
- Build a foundation of strength with the big compound lifts, including squats, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead pressing, and chin-ups. This is a base of overall strength, not just powerlifting strength.
- Choose variations that are best for bulking. This is going to vary based on your anatomy and experience level, but the guiding principle of exercise selection is specificity, and so we should be choosing our lifts based on which ones are the best at helping skinny guys bulk up.
- Focus on the mythical hypertrophy rep range. It’s true that you can build muscle with anywhere from 1–40 reps, but you’ll get the most bang for your bulk if you spent most (but not all) of your energy lifting in the 6–12 range (study).
- Add in accessory exercises. You’ll build rounder, fuller and more versatile muscles if you add in biceps curls, lateral raises, chest flyes, and, dare I say, neck curls.
There are many different ways to structure a good bulking program, but 3-day full-body workout programs tend to be pretty ideal, at least for beginner and intermediate lifters.
The way we approach that is to use a full-body “split” routine where each full-body workout is a bit different. That allows us to do all of the big compound exercises around twice per week, the accessory exercises more like once per week.
We also start our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program off with an optional Phase 0 that eases new lifters into bulking, with the rest of the program using progressively more advanced exercise variations—all of them specifically chosen because of how effective they are for helping skinny guys bulk up.
We’ve been refining this system for eight years now, and we’ll keep refining it over the next eight years. Here are some of the bulking transformations it has produced so far.