How to Eke More Muscle Growth Out of Your Bulking Program

There are many different workout routines that skinny guys will often try as they bulk up, ranging from strength training to bodyweight workouts to bodybuilding. Now, as a general rule, we recommend that you do dedicated hypertrophy training if your goal is to bulk up, but for the purposes of this article, let’s talk about how to get more muscle growth out of any workout program.

My only question is: how is your workout routine working for you? If you aren’t getting the results you want, or living the lifestyle you want to live, then it’s time to re-evaluate your approach to training. 

People can spend years working their butts to the bone—literally. They work so hard that their gluteal muscles erode from their pelvis leaving only bone on their behinds. Believe it or not, this actually happened to me, and let me tell you, it was not pretty!

You see, my friend, working hard is essential. However, working hard on the wrong program will not get you the body you’re working so hard to get.

For example, if your training isn’t designed to help you accomplish your specific goals, then you may get an entirely different set of adaptations out of it. No matter how long you spend improving your cardio, it’s not going to cause any extra muscle growth.

For another example, if your training isn’t efficient, then working harder may not yield extra muscle growth. Nowadays, I feel that this idea tends to get distorted; I know for me it was. Consider this: would you rather work for 3 hours at $100/h and earn a total of $300, or would you rather work 8 hours for $15/hour and earn $120? No brainer, right?

So why do people think that hour after hour of inefficiently training in the gym is the solution?

Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up and becoming muscular

No Pains, No Gains

For roughly 5 years, I spent hours every day trying to build muscle. Bulking up took over my life. I thought I was cool because I had this “go hard in the paint”, “no pain no gain”, “every rep to absolute failure”, “leave everything in the gym” mindset. I was going so hard no one could stop me. Not even myself.

I still gained mass simply because I was eating like a sumo wrestler. I’m an unusual kind of ectomorph. I have the classic ectomorph bone structure, but most naturally skinny guys also have a hard time eating enough to gain weight. I was lucky in that regard. I’ve always been able to eat more calories without much effort. My weight was climbing higher. I was building muscle.

Unfortunately, despite doing 7-day workout routine, eating an entire football team’s calorie requirements, and gaining 63 pounds of muscle, I still wasn’t happy with my physique. It’s not because I was getting fat, either. I was under 10% body fat (estimated in the mirror). And I didn’t have the problem of having flat skinny abs, either. I had great ab definition.

My problem was that my posture was becoming so bad that it was preventing my physique from looking more attractive. Despite all of the extra muscle, despite all of the strength I was gaining, and despite actually being an athlete, my poor posture kept me from looking athletic.

Not only that, I felt like a giant band-aid. I had so many chronic injuries built up from years of pushing myself to limit that I didn’t remember what it felt like to be a normal human being. Apparently it is not normal to have to foam roll between every set of squats so your knees don’t feel like exploding. My workouts were very long, tiresome, and painful.

Several years later, thanks to working with and studying the works of some excellent trainers by the names of Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore, to name a few, I was finally able to realize (aka they explained to me) that I didn’t need to push my body so hard physically. I learned how to better listen to my body and actually recover from workouts so I could actually improve in the long run.

See, if you don’t recover from your workouts, you won’t ever get any better.

I know, blasphemous right? That was really hard for me to do. I wanted to blast my muscle fibres until there was nothing left. That is how you build muscle, right? WRONG!

No, no seriously, you’re pulling my leg, you gotta be the hardest worker in the gym, right? WRONG!

It does take hard work and dedication, no doubt. However, the quality of that hard work is extremely important! Like the old saying goes, “you play how you practice.” If you practice sloppy, you play sloppy.

If your training sessions are always so hard that you get in the habit of lifting with sloppy technique, you won’t be hitting the right muscles, you won’t be growing in the right places, and you’ll also be more likely to injure yourself. If your recovery is sloppy, you won’t actually get better from your workouts. If your nutrition is wack, you won’t get jack…ed.

So how can you adjust your training to get more muscle growth with less work?

Get Your Technique 80% Correct

Who taught you how to lift weights? How do you know you’re lifting with correct form? If you have a hard time answering these questions, I would find someone who knows what they’re doing and have them teach you proper exercise technique.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to lift with perfect technique. If you’re a beginner who’s just starting to lift weights, that simply isn’t possible. Lifting is going to feel a bit awkward and uncoordinated at first. That’s perfectly fine.

The trick is to try and lift with technique that’s at least 80% correct. That means that you shouldn’t be increasing the weight on the bar until your technique is feeling fairly good. And you shouldn’t be taking your sets all the way to failure, either, because your technique will likely fall below that 80% threshold in those final brutal reps. If your add weight a little more slowly and stop your sets a couple reps shy of failure, it won’t negatively impact your muscle growth. You’ll still be challenging your muscles enough to provoke an optimal adaptation.

However, that means that you shouldn’t hold yourself to an impossible standard, either. If your technique feels fairly good, increase the load. You don’t need to wait until you’re lifting an empty barbell with the skill of an Olympic athlete before adding 5 pounds to the bar. Your body is strong. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.

Feel The Right Muscles Working

This idea is often misrepresented, so just to be perfectly clear, no, I don’t mean that you should feel the muscles on the right side of your body working. I mean that you should feel the correct muscles working.

For example, if you feel your lower back working more than any other muscle group while deadlifting, there’s a good chance that something isn’t working properly.

  • Try lifting your chest up a little higher so that you can see the logo of your shirt in the mirror.
  • Try engaging your lats by flexing into your armpits.
  • Try thinking of driving the floor away with your legs.

Yes, your lower back is one of the main muscles being worked while you’re deadlifting. Building stronger spinal erectors is one of the things that the deadlift is best for. That’s going to help you build a stronger, healthier back that’s more resistant to injury.

However, you shouldn’t only be feeling the spinal erectors working. And it shouldn’t only be the spinal erectors in your lower back that are crying out in pain. What you want is all of your spinal erectors working in concert with your lats to keep your back stable while you pull the weight up with your glutes and hamstrings.

One way to go about it is to start with easier variations of the lift that naturally help you develop better lifting technique. So in the case of the deadlift, instead of starting with a conventional deadlift from the floor, perhaps start with a dumbbell sumo deadlift or a barbell Romanian deadlift. Both of these variations naturally take strain off of the lower back, allowing you to improve your technique before advancing to a conventional barbell deadlift.

This is the approach we use in our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. We start beginners off with an optional Phase Zero where we show them the ropes.

Even then, every lift has its nuances. Even just being a lanky ectomorph can change the dynamics of the big compound lifts. And when something feel off, it can really help to have a coach who can help you diagnose the problem and then help you overcome it.

Your coach doesn’t need to be a personal trainer that you hire in person, but it could be. The way we do it in our program is that we have guys send in videos when they want form feedback.

Proper technique does a couple key things.

  1. It will help keep your joints and muscles healthy, which will keep you lifting weights pain free and to your maximum capability.
  2. It allows you to hypertrophy the correct muscles. Going back to the example of the deadlift, instead of just stimulating some muscle fibres in your lower back, you’ll be stimulating all of the muscle fibres in your entire posterior chain. (Big muscles, baby!)
  3. It will improve your posture, which will help you look like much more of a badass.

Bulk with Compound Lifts (Mostly)

Train less, get paid more. I believe this is also very applicable to life, but with training, it means focusing on exercises that give you the most return on your investment.

For example compound exercises are exercises that work a bunch of different muscle groups while also allowing you to use a lot of weight. I recommend building your bulking routine on top of a foundation of the following “Big 5” bulking lifts:

  1. The Deadlift
  2. The Front Squat
  3. The Chin-Up
  4. The Close-Grip Bench Press
  5. The Push Press

In addition to stimulating hundreds of muscle with every rep you do, the heavier weights that you’ll be using will put more overall mechanical tension on your muscles, helping to stimulate more overall muscle growth.

Lifting heavier weights will also make your bones denser and your connective tissues tougher. And there’s even some evidence showing that it can help to improve your production of testosterone and growth hormone.

Now, if you could focus on just five exercises and get all of your muscle from those, wouldn’t that be much easier than doing fifteen exercises? Would you be able to do more in your life if you only had to go to the gym 3-4 times a week instead of 5-7? 

If you focus on doing and developing your skills at compound exercises, you will essentially kill a flock of geese with four stones.

(This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t also do isolation exercises, mind you. I just mean that most of your effort should be focused on these big compound exercises that will give you the most dead geese per shotgun shell.)

Every workout should start with two of the big compound lifts. If you get stronger at these lifts then your body will have no choice but to get jacked.

Limit yourself to seven exercises per workout. Most of our workouts have 5–6 exercises, starting with two big compound exercises, then two assistance lifts, and then a couple quick isolation exercises.

If you haven’t finished after an hour and a half (including warm-up)—leave. If that means you don’t get to do your bicep curls or calf raises, so be it. That’s going to force you to stay focused.

Take Recovery Seriously

If you train hard, you also need to recover hard. And if you’re new to lifting weights, then almost any training at all can be hard on your body. The more seriously you take your recovery, the more seriously you’ll be able to take your training.

Yes, this is me telling you that you can spend more time playing outside in the park, hanging out with friends and maybe even playing some Call of Duty. Although if you’re anything like me, COD is anything but relaxing—that shit is intense!

Training only three times a week might sound really weird to some people. Sleeping in to make sure that you get your eight hours of sleep might sound lazy. Going to bed early might sound like a waste of time.

However, training less and recovering more will allow you to show up to every workout bigger and stronger. You’ll be able to push yourself harder and stimulate more muscle growth.

How do you know if you’re recovering properly? That is tough to say and this topic is incredibly huge. I’m not going to get into that here. Especially because Shane got into muscle soreness and recovery over here. (A good rule of thumb is that if you show up to your workouts stronger than before, then you’ve recovered properly. This is one of many reasons why it’s so important to track how much weight you’re lifting and how quickly you’re progressing.)

That being said, if I could say one thing it would be to limit your training sessions to 3-4 days a week, with a day or two of “active rest” in between each workout.

Active rest is simply doing something easy to get your heart rate up and blood flowing into your muscles to help them recover: walking, swimming, jogging, basketball, mobility exercises, those dynamic stretches up above, foam rolling, etc. The fitter you are, the better you’ll be able to recover from lifting. So when you aren’t lifting, it helps to be a generally active and healthy guy.

Key Takeaways

No matter what workout program you’re using to bulk up, you’ll be able to get better results if you:

  • Lift in a way that makes you challenges you and builds you up, not in a way that wears you down. You don’t need to lift all the way to failure, you don’t need to kill yourself with marathon workouts, and you shouldn’t be associating pain with progress.
  • Lift 80% correct. This means that you should always be trying to improve your technique, but that you shouldn’t hold yourself to impossible standards, either. You can add weight to the barbell even when your technique isn’t flawless. But don’t rush to add weight if you can feel your technique becoming sloppier because of it.
  • Bulk more efficiently by using compound lifts. We recommend starting every workout with two big compound lifts (such as a squat and chin-up, or deadlift and bench press). That’s going to ensure that every workout starts off with highly efficient exercises that put a tremendous amount of mechanical tension on most of the muscles in your body. After those compound lifts, choose some assistance lifts (such as rows and incline benching). Finally, add in a couple quick isolation exercises, such as curls or ab exercises.
  • Train hard, recover hard. If you want to train well, you need to recover well. That means getting a good night’s sleep, having some rest days every week, and doing some active recovery: walking, swimming, casual sports, yoga, and so on.

So next time you plan your workouts, take a second to see if you’re doing these four things. If you combine these tips with a good bulking diet, you’ll be very pleased with how much muscle you can build!

About Marco Walker-Ng, BHSc, PTS

Marco Walker-Ng, BHSc, PTS, is a certified strength coach with an honours degree in health sciences from the University of Ottawa. Before co-founding Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, Marco specialized in helping college, professional, and Olympic athletes bulk up. Now he helps people gain muscle mass and strength to improve their health and performance.

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How to build 20 to 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days. Even if you have failed before

15 Comments

  1. John on August 10, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Hey dudes,

    I consider myself to have a solid form at least on the majority of the exercises I perform, including the deadlift. Every time I deadlift, I pay attention to the position of my feet, back, knees, etc.

    But when you said, “For example, if you feel your lower back working a ton while deadlifting, something is not working properly! Fix it!” you actually meant it? I mean, deads aren’t supposed to work your lower back?

    I feel my lower back when deadlifting more than any other muscle group, and I don’t even pull from the floor to avoid bending my back (slightly bellow my knees). Am I doing something wrong?

    • Shane Duquette on August 13, 2013 at 4:42 pm

      Hey John hehe yeah we did mean it.

      Yes, you probably are doing something wrong. That’s not the end of the world – nobody rocks a flawless deadlift their first time – but continuing to load up the lift without addressing the problem could lead to trouble down the road.

      It could be that your spine isn’t neutral, but it sounds like you’ve already thought of that.

      It could also be that your back is too horizontal. A deadlift has your back usually at around 45*. That involves dropping your hips pretty low though, which many guys don’t realize they aren’t doing, as they can’t see themselves doing it. It’s very common to see people deadlifting with a near horizontal back.

      Horizontal – lots of stress on the back:
      http://www.muscleandfitness.com/sites/muscleandfitness.com/files/images/deadlift_main.jpg

      Correct:
      http://beingpeterpan.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/wide-grip-deadlift.jpg

      Another common cause, and one much more difficult to explain, is that your hip hinge isn’t great. Most people know not to round their back … but forget not to round it the other way:
      http://www.bodytribe.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/deadlift-top-down-3-921×1024.jpg

      It’s a tough lift to master so make sure to spend your time building up your skills and making it feel really good before you start worrying about going really heavy.

      Let me know if that helps at all!

      If that’s confusing … take a video with your iPhone, upload it to YouTube, and email the link to us@bonytobeastly.com

      I’d be glad to take a look at it for ya!

      • John on August 16, 2013 at 10:59 am

        Hey Shane,

        I injured my back (nothing to do with the deadlift hehe) and haven’t been in the gym for a while. Next week I’ll be doing some deads and I’ll for sure let you know how it went!

        • Shane Duquette on August 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm

          If you’ve got pre-existing back injuries be sure to get clearance from your doc / physio before doing lifts like the deadlift, where a relatively healthy back is assumed!

          Good luck man 🙂

  2. John on August 23, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Hahaha, I’m cool, thanks for noting! Actually, I fell and couldn’t move thaat well for quite a while. But I’m 100% now. I actually tried to deadlift today.

    And today I saw what you mean there. Instead of trying moving my back backwards, the focus on the motion should be lifting your hips up and forward. Am I right?

    While that didn’t “hurt” my back, it made the movement waaaay more difficult. I almost fell trying to “pull” the bar backwards (while moving the hips forward). Also, the bar kept hitting my knee and that freaking hurts!

    I wish I could send you guys a video to show this thing better, but I actually broke my phone and I’m afraid I won’t be able to record anything for a while…

    • Shane Duquette on August 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm

      I’d practice it with light weights until you get the form smooth. If you use light enough weights, you might even be able to set up sideways in front of a mirror so you can get an idea of what things are looking like.

      (Don’t do that with anything resembling a heavy weight or you might tweak something!)

  3. Darryl on November 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    so what is the Golden lift?

    • Shane Duquette on November 15, 2013 at 1:13 pm

      Definitely the big compound ones like the squat and deadlift. Squat movements, for example, work over 200 muscles.

      As for my favourite though … I really love the bench press.

  4. Dean W on March 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Hey Guys
    Firstly you have an amazing website, Being an Ecto there isn’t much info as far as info on the web out there for us.

    If your lifting heavy 3 times per week with big compound movements wouldn’t you be sore from workout 1, then by the time workout 2 comes along your muscles would still be essentially sore and not recovered in time for the next workout.
    Eg. If i do barbell squats on a monday (3 sets of 10,10,7) I’m bloody sore for 3 days after.
    Is it ok to hit them again when they are still sore?
    I always thought that muscles needed to recover before you could hit them again.

    I used squats as an example because I’m having trouble putting size on my legs.
    My weight is currently 151 lbs from 138 lbs
    My current max squat (strict form) is 200 lbs for 6 reps
    My current max deadlift (strict) is 240 lbs for 6
    I train deadlifts on sunday and squats on thursday and I feel strong in my legs but no growth.

    Any help would be awesomely appreciated

    D

    • Shane Duquette on April 3, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Dean – really glad you’re liking it!

      If you were doing an intense leg day on Monday, another intense leg day on Wednesday and a third on Friday … not only might you be very sore, you’d also probably be overstraining. That’s not what we’re recommending though. We’re recommending take a leg day, pull day and press day … and jumbling them all up so that each day is 1/3 of each. That means you’re still doing the same total weekly amount of leg work, chest work, back work, arm work, core work, etc … but you’re stimulating the muscles more often.

      Studies are finding this approach superior, since the volume is still optimized but the frequency is improved.

      You would need to make sure that you’re recovering in time for each subsequent workout though, yes. We don’t train quite to failure, our volume on each day is a little lower, we’re excellent at eating in a way that has us recovering very heartily, etc. The whole system is designed to support the full body workouts, you know?

      If you’re doing just three sets of barbell squats on Monday though, you could definitely do another three sets of squats on Wednesday and another three on Friday! We only do barbell back squats once a week (we train the legs in other ways on the other days) but you could do it if you wanted. That would help you grow your legs more quickly as well, since right now your leg volume is seemingly very low – far under the optimal amount! I would just say stay a tiny little bit further away from failure. And give your body a couple weeks to adapt to the new style of training. You may indeed find yourself very sore for the first little bit, just because you aren’t used to it.

      I hope that helps! And good luck man. I too have ridiculously skinny legs by default, so those are an area I need to pay special attention to as well 😛

  5. Lucas on February 19, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Hey guys,

    I’m a 23 years old 130 pounds guy and I’m coming back to the gym after 6 months out. I have already worked out twice, first time I did for 4 months, got some 20 pounds without following any course, just doing what the teachers at the gym told me to ( not much weight, 10 reps per set) and eating a lot. Next time I came back after 4 months out, I had lost al I had gained and heard that making 8 reps sets helped gaining weight faster, then after 6 months working out I didn’t gain as much weight as before and couldn’t increase the volume I was training with anymore, I got frustrated and stopped.
    Now, 6 months after that, I decided to go back to the gym and follow the awesome advice on this blog.
    If I understood it correctly, I should go to the gym 3 times a week, say Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, each day do the same 7 exercises (which would be the squat, deadlift, chin up, bench press and military press, plus other two, please correct me if I’m wrong). However, don’t know how to distribute the exercises on short sets with more weight for building mass and long sets with less weight for strenght. Should I do long sets and short sets on separate weeks or days or mix them on the same day( in this case, should I do first the long, lighter or short, heavier sets ?) ?
    Thanks for the help 😀

    • Shane Duquette on February 21, 2015 at 3:13 pm

      Hey Lucas,

      Congrats on the progress you’ve made! Sounds like you’ve already had a lot of success, even if you’ve temporarily moved backwards a bit. I think you’ll find that rebuilding muscle, when done properly, is a breeze compared to building muscle for the first time. A lot of the improvements you make to your body when building muscle are permanent, even if your muscles deflate 🙂

      Stoked to hear you’re enjoying the website and learning a lot!

      You could take those exercises and perform them all three times per week, yeah. That would be a simple way to do full body workouts. We take a slightly different approach, performing each movement pattern each workout, even if the exercises aren’t quite the same. For example, on Monday we may do some 10 rep sets Romanian deadlifts, on Wednesday some sets of higher rep swings, on Friday some 3 rep deadlifts. We also add in some assistance exercises for the arms, shoulders, chest, etc., or some assistance exercises to better master the big lifts. This allows us to use a lot of different lifts that offer a lot of unique advantages, and there’s a large body of evidence that suggests that the best muscle and strength gains are seen with a wider variety of complementary lifts for each muscle group.

      You don’t have to be as fancy as that though. What you’re suggesting sounds great. You could do some heavy sets to start the day off—maybe two big compound exercises. You could some moderately heavy sets afterwards—maybe another two compound lifts. And then maybe a couple lighter accessory lifts. I’d aim to hit every major muscle group each workout.

      And if you ever want to try a professionally programmed lifting routine you’d love the Bony to Beastly program! You sound like a guy who would get a lot out of it 🙂

      I hope that helps, and good luck!

      • Lucas on February 23, 2015 at 2:42 pm

        Beastly advice, Shane!
        Thanks 😀

  6. Leo on February 3, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    Hi everyone,
    So we should workout 3 times a week. In another article you said, the best results appear when each muscle (group) to be excercised at least every 5 days!
    So there is no other way to just do the full body excercise in every session. Is that right?
    Another question is: how many supersets are allowed to be put in a programme (obviously appropriate for ectomorphs)? Can you please indicate the minimum and maximum range?

    • Shane Duquette on February 18, 2019 at 5:41 pm

      There’s a range with how often you should train each muscle per week, and it varies depending on your situation. A beginner usually does best training every muscle three times per week to give them a better opportunity to practice the movements, but most research shows that reducing that to twice per week still produces a comparable amount of muscle. As an intermediate lifter, we can just say that 2–3 times per week is ideal.

      Full body workouts are the most efficient approach, but splits also work. For example, you could do an upper/lower split three times per week, like so:

      Monday: Upper body
      Tuesday: Lower body
      Wednesday: Upper
      Thursday: Lower
      Friday: Upper
      Saturday: Lower
      Sunday: Rest

      Once you get to the point where you’ve already built a bunch of muscle and strength, and twice per week becomes equally effective, you have a lot more options. For example, if you like training six days per week, a popular approach for bodybuilders is to do a push, pull, legs (PPL) split twice per week, like so:

      Monday: Push
      Tuesday: Pull
      Wednesday: Legs
      Thursday: Push
      Friday: Pull
      Saturday: Legs
      Sunday: Rest

      Or you could keep doing an upper/lower split, which is more popular among athletes:

      Monday: Upper body
      Tuesday: Lower body
      Wednesday: Rest
      Thursday: Upper body
      Friday: Lower body
      Saturday: Rest
      Sunday: Rest

      Mind you, full body workouts are still the most efficient way of training. But some guys like going to the gym more often. Perhaps they enjoy the daily routine of it. There are other advantages to splits, too, such as being able to do shorter workouts, and having more energy for each exercise. Depends on the person and the situation.

      Regarding supersets, the first set of an exercise can never be a superset, but you could technically superset every set after that one. It wouldn’t be the BEST approach, but it would work. Supersets can be effective. And then I guess you’d just need to make sure that you didn’t do too many sets per muscle group overall. How much is too much? That depends on all kinds of things, but for the average amount for a typical intermediate lifter would be around 20 challenging sets per muscle group per week. And we have at least 1 set per muscle that’s not a superset. So 0–19 is your range.

      If we split that up over three full-body workouts per week, that would mean at least one regular set per exercise per workout, and the weekly volume would be divided by three. So now the range would be 0–6 supersets per muscle per workout.

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