Research Review: The Most Important Bulking Studies for Ectomorphs from 2018

To close off 2018 and kick off 2019, let’s take a closer look at the most important bulking research that was published last year, including studies looking into:

  • How important are bicep curls for big arms?
  • Does muscle memory really exist?
  • How long should you rest between sets?
  • What happens if you bulk on a ketogenic diet?
  • Are high-protein diets healthy?
  • Does casein before bed speed up muscle growth?
  • Are 5×5 routines good for building muscle?

That last one, wow. It’s not just a single study, it’s a massive meta-analysis looking into every single study published on the topic. It’s not a total surprise given the research that has been trickling out over the years, but seeing them all together in one place like this—wow.

Anyway, all of those answers and more inside.

* * *

Okay, so there were a lot of studies that were published this year. We went through all of the influential ones that had anything to do with muscle gain, strength, and body composition. In this article, I’ve tried to cover the most significant of those.

I’ve chosen four studies to dive deep into, finishing with that epic meta-analysis about bulking up using strength training (e.g. a 5×5 routine). 

But let’s start with a rapid-fire review of the other important research:

  • Muscle memory does indeed exist: Another study has come out looking into the mechanisms of muscle memory, proving once again that it really does exist. When you gain muscle, many of the changes are permanent—lasting your entire life. For more, check out our article on muscle memory.
  • Sleep is still absolutely crucial when bulking: This meta-analysis found that sleep continues to be a one of the most important bulking factors, rivalling even protein intake. With better sleep you’ll gain more muscle, more strength, less fat, less chronic stress, and better overall health. (We have a chapter in our program about this, but it’s probably time to write an in-depth article on it, too.)
  • The more sets you do per muscle group, the more quickly that muscle group grows. This is the latest study from top researcher Brad Schoenfeld, PhD. There were no surprises here, but it adds to the body of evidence showing that the more sets you do per muscle group (volume), the more muscle growth you’ll stimulate. This is important though because strength training doesn’t work quite the same way, as you’ll see later.
  • After a hard workout, it can take 1–4 days to recover. A couple studies showed that depending on what the lifts were, how heavy they were, and how many sets were done, the ideal time between workouts varied between 1–4 days. Most modern programs have you training each muscle group 2–3 times per week, which is perfect, but this is another nail in the coffin of those old triple split workouts where you do a push workout on Monday, a pull workout on Wednesday, and a legs workout on Friday. 
  • Rest at least two minutes between sets: In this study, longer rest times produced better muscle gains. This is because longer rest times allow you to regain more strength between sets, allowing you to lift more weight for more reps. (With enough rest, it’s common to do slightly better on your second set than your first.) Getting enough rest also improves lifting technique. This is important because the more practice you get lifting with good technique, the better your technique will become, causing this benefit to compound over time. This produces substantially better gains in both the short and long term. (Plus, if your goal is to gain muscle and strength, there’s no detectable benefit to short rest times anyway.)
  • Adding in biceps curls after your compound exercises will boost biceps growth: This study found that the group who added in extra arm isolation exercises after their compound lifts built bigger arms while bulking up. (It’s also worth noting that if a program doesn’t have chin-ups in it, it won’t do a good job of stimulating your biceps with compound lifts, either, reducing your bicep gains by even more.)
  • The trap-bar deadlift might be the best deadlift variation for bulking up: This study found that when guys switched from a conventional deadlift to a trap-bar deadlift, they were able to lift 6% heavier, they produced force more steadily throughout the lift, and there was less stress placed on the lower back. Mind you, stress on the muscles in your lower back can be a good thing, as it can protect against lower back injuries. It all depends on your circumstances and your goals.
  • You’ll gain more strength if you come to a full “dead” stop between deadlift reps: This study found that deadlifting from a dead stop resulted in the lifter needing to exert 64% more force. This makes the lift harder, but also way better for gaining size and strength. Resetting between each rep also allows you to get back into an ideal pulling position, making the lift safer, and it allows you to get plenty of practicing pulling singles, which will improve your coordination.
  • High-protein diets are still safe: A new study by Jose Antonio came out showing no adverse effects when consuming a diet that’s extremely high in protein. (Antonio publishes a lot of studies and they almost always involve extreme amounts of protein.) On the downside, though, the study followed guys eating 1.5 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day for two years, and they didn’t gain any muscle mass. Two years of bulking and not a single pound of muscle gained. Ouch. Goes to show that protein is just one factor. The quality of your workout program, your calorie intake, and your recovery are also incredibly important if you’re trying to bulk up.
  • Even a small daily dose of regular creatine will fully saturate your muscles: This study found that guys were able to fully saturate their muscles by taking just 3 grams of regular creatine monohydrate each day, which just costs a few cents per serving. This proves once again that there’s really no point in buying fancy creatine or doing those 20-gram-per-day loading periods. Just take your small daily dose and enjoy the extra muscle (and health benefits).
  • Taurine isn’t a good pre-workout supplement. This study found that not only does taurine fail to help, it actually worsens lifting performance. It doesn’t reduce lifting performance by very much, so it doesn’t really matter, but still, not the best news for guys who have energy drinks before working out. Even regular coffee might be better (especially with an extra shot of espresso).
  • Citrulline malate still doesn’t work very well: Citrulline malate initially had some promising results, resulting in a lot of hype. It was added into a ton of popular pre-workout supplements. However, the early promising results aren’t being replicated by follow-up studies, including this new one. Seems like citrulline malate might not be so great after all? Time will tell, but it’s not looking good. (Here’s our guide on the bulking supplements that are actually proven to work.)

Okay, now let’s go in-depth on the four studies that I thought were particularly valuable. It’s not that these findings are all that shocking (except for the last one), but rather that they clarify little details that weren’t very clear yet. So what I did was quickly summarize the current body of evidence (all the research published in the decades before 2018), and then added in how these new studies fit into that.

Does casein before bed stimulate more muscle growth?

Casein is a protein found in some dairy products, such as cottage cheese. You can also buy casein protein powder, which is pretty popular among bodybuilders.

Like whey protein, casein has a great mix of amino acids for building muscle, but whereas whey digests extremely quickly, casein digests extremely slowly. You’d think that casein, as the slow-burning protein, would be great to have before bed. That way while you’re sleeping, your body is slowly digesting the casein, turning it into muscle mass. Theoretically, this makes sense.

The next step was to test this hypothesis, and at first the research seemed promising—kind of. In 2012, the first study did find that adding a casein protein shake before bed boosted muscle growth. However, muscle growth only increased compared to people who didn’t have any sort of protein shake whatsoever. All this study proved was that it’s important to get enough protein while bulking, which is no surprise to anyone.

This led to a follow-up study by Jose Antonio. He gave one group a casein shake before bed, and he gave the other group a protein shake earlier in the day. Same overall protein intake. Perfect. And this time there was no difference in muscle growth. But here’s the problem, neither group gained muscle. The participants were seasoned lifters, so just the workout program alone wasn’t enough to spur on any muscle growth, and they weren’t eating in a calorie surplus, so they didn’t gain any weight overall. It’s not surprising that the bulking program failed—they didn’t take into account the fundamentals of muscle growth. This shows that pre-bed casein isn’t magic, but it doesn’t say much about how effective it would be in the context of an effective bulking program.

That brings us to this new 2018 study. In this study, they split the participants into two groups. The first group got a carb shake during the day and a casein shake before bed. The second group got a casein shake during the day and a carb shake before bed. Both groups consumed 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day, which is great. Only the timing of the casein different. And they used a program that was actually effective for bulking up. Now we’re talking.

So what happened? Both groups gained a bunch of muscle mass and strength. Following a good lifting program, eating a good bulking diet, and having enough protein each day produced awesome gains in both groups. In fact, the group having the extra protein during the day and the carbs before bed got better muscle gains than the pre-bed casein group. This difference wasn’t significant though—probably just a fluke. This again confirms that casein isn’t magic and that it’s the fundamentals that produce awsome muscle growth.

However, keep in mind that if having some casein before bed helps you get the protein and the calories that you need to bulk up, absolutely go for it. Cottage cheese is still a great muscle-building snack to have before bed. There’s just no need to buy special casein protein powder and there’s no need to intentionally have it at night.

Also keep in mind that this study doesn’t prove that there’s no benefit to pre-bed casein, just that there’s no noticeable benefit. There could be a tiny benefit that the study couldn’t detect. Hard to say. But don’t worry about it either way.

Now the question becomes why? All of the protein researchers expected that having casein before bed would be effective. Why didn’t it produce more muscle growth?

The researcher Eric Helms, PhD, makes the point that when we’re bulking, our digestive systems are pretty much running at capacity 24/7 anyway. If you’re eating a good bulking diet, chances are that you have plenty of protein digesting all night long anyway (along with carbs, fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals, etc). This is why we build a ton of muscle while we sleep with or without the casein. If Dr Helms is right, this would mean that casein before bed might still be viable while cutting, just not while bulking.

Clean bulking or dirty bulking: which is better?

Previous research, such as this 1991 study, found that clean eating places so many restrictions on food choices that the diet tends to become unbalanced. Perhaps the participants eat plenty of leafy greens, which is good, but they have too much fibre, which is bad. Maybe they find themselves craving chocolate covered peanuts because their body is looking for a good source of zinc, but they resist that craving because chocolate peanuts are “dirty,” creating a zinc deficiency.

With a flexible dieting approach, we tend to eat a wider variety of foods—including junk foods—which paradoxically gives us a more balanced intake of nutrients overall. There was this one old study that found that people who were given unrestricted access to a full refrigerator were able to prevent deficiencies by simply trusting their cravings. You could say that when it comes to your gut, you should trust your gut. Heh.

This more unrestricted approach to food makes even more sense while bulking, given how many calories we’re consuming overall (more overall vitamins and minerals), and given how easy it is to run into digestive problems from eating too much fibre (gas, bloating, etc). If we casually aim for a diet that’s around 80% whole foods, we’ll still be getting more fibre and micronutrients than we need for our health, our diet will be easier to digest, and we’ll have an easier time eating more calories. (Dessert is a very easy source of calories.)

This has led most of the top researchers, such as Dr Eric Helms, to recommend bulking up using a more flexible approach. It’s more enjoyable, and it’s also healthier. He just adds the caveat that even flexible dieters should aim to eat 80% whole foods and at least three servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

Okay, so that’s the lay of the land.

In this new study, the researchers wanted to challenge this idea. They hypothesized that since strict dieters would be eating more whole foods and less sugar, they would get superior results.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers split bodybuilders preparing for a competition into two groups. Both groups ate the ideal amount of protein, carbs, and fat, but the first group ate a strict diet (clean) whereas the second group had no dietary restrictions (flexible).

Bodybuilders who are preparing for a competition cut hard. They enter into diets that are extremely low in calories. That makes it almost impossible to eat enough vitamins, minerals, and fibre. If there was ever a time when you’d expect a clean diet to pay off, you’d expect this to be it… right?

So what happened?

Both groups lost fat… at the expense of their health. Both the clean eaters and the flexible dieters were deficient in a dozen different nutrients. If anything, this study just shows that cutting down to 6% body fat is is almost impossible to do while staying healthy. The typical bodybuilder on stage isn’t the picture of perfect health, they’re an extreme athlete making extreme sacrifices to accomplish their extreme goals.

Anyway, when it comes to both bulking and cutting, Dr Helms’ advice is a good rule of thumb: aim to eat around 80% whole foods.

What happens if you bulk on a ketogenic diet?

Ketogaining: can keto be used for and bodybuilding and bulking?

2019 Update: We’ve got a full article about whether the ketogenic diet is good for bulking. It includes this new study along with every other study on how keto affects muscle growth.

From 2018: I found this new study on ketogenic bulking really interesting. To set the stage, a ketogenic diet is a very-low-carb diet. Because of how few carbs you’re eating, your body learns how to get energy from fat instead. This has made it a popular approach for people with various illnesses (e.g. epilepsy) as well as for people trying to lose fat.

Eating very few carbs is really trendy lately, with popular figures like Joe Rogan speaking favourably about ketogenic diets, and Jordan Peterson recently switching to an all-meat diet.

But despite the growing popularity of ketogenic diets, there’s almost no research investigating whether they’re any good for building muscle, which is where this new study comes in. They split up the study participants into a ketogenic group and a higher-carb group, and both groups were put on a 4-day-per-week lifting program and instructed to eat in a calorie surplus, i.e., instructed to eat enough calories to gain weight.

There’s a ton of research proving how effective carbs are for building muscle, so it’s no surprise that the higher-carb group gained a bunch of muscle. What’s cool is that they even lost some fat while bulking up (which isn’t uncommon in these types of studies).

The ketogenic group was more interesting. They didn’t build any muscle. And so the researchers concluded that ketogenic diets are not effective for bulking up. However, there’s a huge flaw here that completely undoes this finding—the ketogenic group wasn’t even able to get into a calorie surplus.

It turns out that ketogenic diet is so effective at getting people into a calorie deficit that even when the ketogenic participants were instructed to gain weight, they simply couldn’t. Sounds like a problem that many of us hardgainers can relate to!

The ketogenic dieters finished the study weighing less than when they started. This hints at ketogenic diets being a pretty cool tool for overweight people trying to lose fat. They can truly eat as much as they want and still lose weight. Even if they try to overeat, they might not be able to.

For us naturally skinny guys eager to build more muscle, though, it’s another reason to be careful with ketogenic diets. It’s already hard to eat enough calories to bulk up. The more restrictions we add in, the harder we make it.

So I would be inspired by the higher-carb group in this study. They ate plenty of carbs, they were able to get into a calorie surplus, and they succeeded in building muscle while losing fat. Total win.

Are 5×5 strength training workouts good for building muscle?

What adaptations does strength training cause? Is it good for building muscle size? Is it good for ectomorphs?

2019 update: If you want to know more, here’s our full article about whether strength training is good for gaining muscle size. It includes the research on myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, we talk about whether bodybuilders are weak but strong, and how to build a good program for gaining as much functional muscle size as possible.

From 2018: Let’s end this article with a meta-analysis that evaluated fourteen studies in order to tease out the relationship between rep ranges, volume, and muscle growth.

First of all, the term “volume” is often used to mean “the total number of sufficiently challenging sets per week.” That’s the definition we use, and it’s also the definition the researchers use in this study. (Another popular definition is the total amount of weight moved.)

So, for example, let’s say your chest workout looks like this:

Bench press: 3 sets of 5

Push-ups: 3 sets of 10

Flyes: 3 sets of 15

Because there are nine sets, we would say that the chest volume in this workout is nine. So if you do this chest workout just once per week, that would give you a weekly chest volume of nine, which isn’t very much. After all, other meta-analyses, as well as Schoenfeld’s new study that we mentioned above, have all confirmed that the more sets you do per muscle group, the better. The only caveat is that you need to be able to properly recover from all those extra sets. Mike Israetel, PhD, calls this our “maximum recoverable volume,” which is what should provide us with the most muscle growth each week.

Now we can bring in all of our frequency research, including the study mentioned above about muscles recovering fully within 1–4 days. That means that training your chest just once per week isn’t often enough. Your chest will be fully recovered within 1–4 days, so you’d want to train it at least twice per week.

So let’s say that you do this nine-set chest workout twice per week, doubling your chest volume, and bringing it to eighteen sets per week. That’s still within our maximum recoverable volume, so based on all of the research done to date, we would expect that to stimulate a lot more muscle growth. Our routine is already looking much better.

That brings us to this new 2018 meta-analysis, which investigated whether different rep ranges stimulate different amounts of muscle growth per set. For example, if you did a 5-rep set of the bench press, would that stimulate as much muscle growth as a 10-rep set? And would that 10-rep set stimulate as much growth as a 20-rep set? Because if different rep ranges stimulate different amounts of growth, then simply adding up the total number of sets wouldn’t tell us very much. We would need a new working definition of volume. That’s a big deal.

What this study found is that sets only stimulate similar muscle if they’re within the 6–20 rep range. For example, this study found that lifters doing heavy bench press sets (2–6 reps) had to do a whopping 24 sets per week in order to maximize muscle growth, whereas lifters doing moderately heavy sets (8–12 reps) only had to do thirteen sets. What we’re seeing is that moderate-rep sets stimulate almost twice as much muscle growth as heavy sets. This means that if you’re including very heavy sets in your workout program, those sets would only give you half a volume point.

So, going back to our example, let’s say our chest workout looks like this:

Bench press: 3 sets of 5

Push-ups: 3 sets of 10

Flyes: 3 sets of 15

With the findings of this study, we would only count those bench press sets as half a point, giving us 7.5 total volume points instead of nine. If we do the workout twice per week, that gives us a weekly volume of fifteen instead of eighteen. However, our maximum recoverable volume is also reduced. In fact, because these heavy sets are more fatiguing than the lighter ones, they actually count for more than one set.

So let’s say that our maximum recoverable volume is twenty sets per week. We’re doing eighteen sets, we’re only getting fifteen sets worth of growth, but we still might actually be doing more than we can recover from. As you can imagine, our routine is quickly moving away from optimal.

Now, in this example, we’re still going to get plenty of muscle growth because we’re still getting plenty of volume from the moderate-rep push-ups and flyes, but if our routine had a bigger emphasis on heavy lifting, we’d have exposed a huge flaw in the workouts—at least if our goal is to bulk up.

This is where the news gets bad for a lot of popular strength programs. I’ve seen 5-rep sets being advertised as the perfect blend of size and strength. We can now say, without any doubt, that this simply isn’t true. In fact, 5-rep sets are only about half as good for stimulating muscle growth while simultaneously reducing our maximum recoverable volume.

For example, in your typical 5×5 routine (Bill Starr 5×5, Stronglifts 5×5, etc), where you do 5–10 sets of the bench press per week, you’d only be reaching a volume of 2.5–5, which isn’t anywhere close to the volume you’d need in order to see good muscle growth.

Not being totally optimal is one thing. Many people are happy to follow a free or simple program if it works 80% as well as its competition. But if your goal is to gain muscle size, these 5×5 programs aren’t even going to work 50% as well as their competition. That means much slower muscle growth, much faster fat gain.

Mind you, these strength programs aren’t designed with muscle growth in mind, they’re designed to give us practice lifting heavy weights, which gives us something called neural gains—an improved ability to lift heavy with the muscle we already have. By the end of a 5×5 program you’d expect to look about the same but to be able to lift a bunch more weight, and these programs do deliver on that promise.

But some guys do use these strength programs for bulking, and the more research that comes out, the more we learn how bad of an idea that is.

Now, we always need to watch out for putting too much stock into a single new study. However, this isn’t a single new study, this a meta-analysis of all fourteen studies examining this topic. Furthermore, this isn’t even a controversial finding. For example, Schoenfeld’s 2016 study also showed greater muscle growth from doing three sets of 8–12 reps when compared with doing three sets of 2–4 reps. There’s also his famous study about how powerlifters had to train for over an hour, doing eight sets of three, in order to match the muscle growth that bodybuilders got in ten minutes doing three sets of eight. The powerlifters felt wrecked after the workout because they’d exceeded their maximum recoverable volume, whereas the bodybuilders were fresh and ready for more.

So this meta-analysis is a pretty big deal. It’s going to be a lot harder for 5-rep programs to claim that they’re any good for building muscle. The research has piled up against it. It simply hasn’t proven to be true.

How does this affect us? Our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program has always been a dedicated bulking program. It already has the ideal balance of volume, frequency, and recovery. We do start off some of our workouts with heavy compound sets, but the emphasis on those sets is low enough that our workouts still math out quite optimally. This might bring our weekly volume from twenty down to eighteen near the end of the program, but that’s still well within the optimal range, producing staggering results like this:

However, Marco and I have discussed moving a couple of our sets up a couple reps, and then making a dedicated strength program for guys to do after they hit their muscle size goals. Of all of this new research, I think that’s the adjustment that will allow us to help you eek out another couple percentage points of growth each week. So that’s something we’re excited about for 2019.

Alright, that about does it.

Some final words

We’ve got exciting plans for Bony to Beastly this year, so stay tuned for some upcoming announcements.

And as always, if you’re ready to start bulking up, there’s never been a better time to join the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. You’ll love it. This is my favourite time of year to be in the coaching community, and we’ve even got a New Year sale running right now. If you click that link, all the sale details are right there.

Happy New Year and Happy Bulking. Good luck making 2019 your biggest year yet!

About Shane Duquette

Shane Duquette, BDes, is a writer and illustrator with a degree in design from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he specializes in helping skinny people bulk up.More about Shane here.

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21 Comments

  1. Josh Aberson on January 8, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Interesting. So I’m doing a month of TRTBA right now, of which the deadlift and squat days are 3-4 sets of 4 reps. Would you recommend not doing that then and making that 3-4 sets of 8 reps as an example? Especially since TRTBA doesn’t really have much else for legs aside from these core compound lifts?

    • Shane Duquette on January 8, 2019 at 11:39 am

      Hey Josh, glad to hear from you, man! Happy New Year!

      Okay, so, The Right to Bear Arms (RTBA)—a product available to members—is designed to prioritize arm and shoulder growth. Because arm volume and frequency are pushed so high, we’ve reduced volume in the rest of your body, allowing you to fully recover from the intense arm training. This means that of your maximum recoverable volume, most of that stress is directed at your arms. This lines up with the research above.

      Our goal by the end of that program is for your arms to see massive growth and for the rest of your body to be maintained with a bare minimal dose. We’ve intentionally reduced the squat and deadlift volume to that bare minimal dose, and we don’t expect your leg or hip measurements to increase much, if at all. We do, however, expect you to maintain your lower body muscle mass and to gain some lower body strength. Your lower body should start feeling “fresher,” too, since it will be less fatigued. This will allow you to exert more energy into your squats and deadlifts.

      To explain how this works, we need to introduce another muscle-growth variable: variation. We didn’t talk about variation research in this article, but it too comes with a key benefit: as your legs are maintained with a lower volume strength routine, they’ll grow more sensitive to higher volumes again. This means that when you switch back to a more balanced program, your legs will not only be stronger, they’ll also see better growth.

      Variation comes into play in all of our programs. That’s why we slightly adjust rep ranges and progress the exercises with every 5-week phase. That gives your body enough time to adapt by growing bigger and stronger, and then as your results begin to plateau, we change the stimulus to something that you’re still sensitive to. This form of periodization has proven to be quite effective, as summarized in this 2017 meta-analysis on periodization and muscle growth. This meta-analysis found that various types of periodization are effective for increasing muscle growth. As for exactly what type of periodization is best, there’s actually no clear answer yet. Perhaps 2019 will shed some more light on that.

      Anyway, this re-sensitization to volume is one aspect of periodization, and it’s a concept that researchers like Greg Nuckols and Mike Israetel, PhD, have been advancing. The idea is that we can focus on one goal—overall size, overall strength, rapid arm growth, rapid chest growth, etc—while allowing our bodies to regain their sensitivity to the types of training we aren’t doing. With RTBA, that means massively boosting arm and shoulder growth while maintaining and resensitizing our legs, chests, and backs.

      So what I would recommend is that you keep doing the lower rep sets for your legs. Then, when you finish the program, that would be the time to get back to bulking up your legs, and you should see great growth there 🙂

      Do try to hit low-rep strength PRs in the squat and deadlift, though. No need to test your one-rep max, but do try to set better four-rep maxes than ever before.

      Does that answer your question / make sense?

      Beta testing has gone really well, so we’re going to be making more of our specialization programs available for purchase this year. When we do that, I’ll publish an article going over how/why they work 🙂

  2. Kyle M. on January 8, 2019 at 11:44 am

    The research around the 5×5 is extremely interesting. I recently switched my routine to a German Volume Training (10×10, each muscle group 1x/5days) and am loving it; I’ve been able to progress way more than ever before.

    • Shane Duquette on January 8, 2019 at 12:37 pm

      That’s awesome, Kyle 🙂

      Yeah, I thought so too. Research like this has come out before, but this new study gave us clearer guidelines. Super interesting.

  3. SB on January 8, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    This is going to be long but people need to read it.

    Great article and I really think you guys are on to something. I would argue that guys training for development (size & aesthetics) do not and should not even bother lifting heavy, IF they can’t handle the weight. Heavy in the industry has been misconstrued so horribly that guys are thinking they have to throw a bunch of weight on the bar to see gains when that’s not even close to being the truth.

    You guys know me and the fact that I’ve struggled to put on solid mass for awhile now. I got injured back in May on the Bench press (Shoulder dislocation) when my form was fairly solid (with low weight) and decided I had to re-evaluate everything I was doing as a tall, lanky lifter with long limbs and a greater distance traveled. I was stupidly training for strength when my body wasn’t made for the big lifts at all. Some will argue with me on that but I stand by it: There are certain guys who just aren’t meant for that and I believe I’m one of those people. If you don’t take anything else from this long a** rant, remember this: Training on ANY strength program in a low rep range (I was doing linear periodization) for size/mass/aesthetics is one of the dumbest things you could ever do and will only lead to injury if you don’t already have a great base of muscle mass already. Why is that? Because guys try to push through “plateaus” when they aren’t even strong to begin with. Don’t be like me. My shoulder has healed but it still gets cranky sometimes and now I have to really be careful with it.

    I came across a lot of research from Scott Abel and Kevin Weiss that made me re-think pretty much everything I thought I knew about lifting after my shoulder popped out. Basically I knew nothing. First off weight isn’t how much is on the bar at all, it’s how much stress the muscle is under. Period. Once you stop ego lifting (even a small amount of ego lifting/swinging is bad, get rid of it) and start actually working the muscle through various ranges and planes of motion, that’s when growth starts to happen. Crazy concept.

    And it’s not even close. I saw more growth out of my chest after my injury than I ever have in lifting for strength over the last year + before that. The biggest myth in the industry is train for strength and development will come when it’s actually the other way around. It seems so rudimentary but nearly everyone misses it. Why? Because we’re men and we want to lift huge things while being looked at as macho.

    Why do you think there are so many skinny guys out there lifting with poor form and their bodies never change? But they keep on doing the same exact thing thinking “Well if I lift heavier my body will have no choice but to grow” even though my form is atrocious and I’m not actually targeting the muscle. Because Progressive Overload, etc. Complete B.S. and it’s toxic. Progressive Overload is the main driver sure, but peoples definition of what it actually is is so wrong and convoluted that it makes the average guy think “Man I’ll never be able to put on any size, I’m not lifting 315 for reps like that guy” when you don’t realize that guy’s been in the gym for 10-15 years probably doing things the right way. It takes so much time and that’s another thing people don’t understand. Every single one of the really impressive natural physiques in my gym? 10 years, 9, years, 24 years, 15 years, and one guy specifically is 66. Training for over 40 years and has the body of a 25 year old. Trust me I talk to them and they’ll all tell you they’ve been putting in the work for a LONG time, consistently showing up and doing the boring routine type stuff that most people want to avoid. People want quick fixes and it just doesn’t work like that.

    Add to that the idiotic supplement craze and you’ve got a recipe for companies swindling millions of dollars out of people and for what? Profit? It’s completely sick and twisted in every way.

    You don’t need supplements in fact none of them are any good (besides creatine which is one of the most well researched).

    You also made a HUGELY important point about protein that needs to be expounded upon and understood by more people. For anyone reading this: Stop buying protein powder. Like right now. In fact don’t spend any more money on supplements period. Once I realized this and understood that the body needs very little of it, it’s like a light bulb went off. My body didn’t waste away because I wasn’t obsessively tracking how much I got. In fact it was probably thanking me profusely because I stopped killing my insides!

    When I started eating more ACTUAL food, no supplements, stopped counting calories, stopped tracking protein intake, stopped counting reps, stopped obsessing over numbers, started training with more volume/higher reps, and started LISTENING to my body, I’ve gained more mass than ever before. My body is actually developing and it takes time, but my chest had NEVER grown before all this. Now it’s popping out and people are starting to notice. Plus my legs are freaking huge and my calves are growing (VOLUME!). I used to blame my lack of calf growth on genetics. Lol. I also filled out an old pair of boxers I had that were baggier than parachute pants on a skinny white boy. 😛 Seriously one day I thought I had a wedgie. Nope. LEGS R HUGE BRAH. Kinda sucks though because I need my chest to grow faster, not my legs 😀

    It’s called portion sizes, and spacing out meals correctly (and loads of carbs of course which you also mentioned + sleep). 80/20 rule is also spot on as well as volume volume volume and increasing work load capacity (while listening to your body, recovery, and not over training of course). This is the key for guys to understand. Forget all that fancy fad crap, Keto, etc. Your body needs carbs and wants carbs (as Shane pointed out), and lots of them. Kevin Weiss says he gets maybe 30g of protein a day and we’re talking about a world champion powerlifter. I get maybe around 100 a day now (probably less, as 190 lb. male) and you know what? I’ve gained more muscle when I stopped obsessing over that 1 g/lb. of body weight lie. It’s a lie plain and simple. It makes people think “Well crap I’m not getting enough protein, better go out a buy a huge tub of this processed garbage” so I can hit my “Daily Goal.” That was me. Deceived and flushing money down a toilet. Sure there are some good ones out there – I was taking Naked Whey for awhile. But it’s completely unnecessary and overpriced.

    I think people need to stop trying to force the body to adapt using math because trust me, it’s way smarter than you give it credit for. Force feeding, tracking, and TRYING to gain weight left me sick and feeling horrible. Portion sizes, meal spacing, and COAXING the body has me putting on considerable size without feeling or looking way too fat. You’re going to put on fat when bulking – that’s non negotiable. But you don’t have to feel like a slob in the process. Your body doesn’t adapt by you obsessively tracking everything as if you’re in control. It responds when you start listening to it and stop trying to dictate things. Stick to the basics and results come.

    Also I wasn’t mad in this post (you mad bro?) just extremely passionate.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Shane Duquette on January 8, 2019 at 1:23 pm

      Hey SB, thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      I’m glad you’ve found a way to train that’s working for you. I say keep at it. However, I do want to push back on some of those ideas because it seems to me like you’ve swung from one extreme to the other.

      Lifting heavy: It’s bad to lift so heavy that your form breaks down, yes. And focusing on sets in lower rep ranges isn’t great for bulking up. However, most people can benefit from learning to lift heavy. It’s good for developing coordination, it transfers over well to athletics, and it’s great for improving bone density and tendon strength. Strength training is both safe and valuable, it’s just not ideal for gaining muscle size. Besides, at a certain point, you’ll hit your size and aesthetics goals, or perhaps you’ll just want a break from them. Strength training is great. It’s just not ideal for bulking is all.

      Are you built for lifting heavy? Most beginners aren’t ready for deep low-bar back squats, barbell benching to their chests, or deadlifting from the floor. They often won’t have the mobility or joint stability for it. That’s why we start most beginners off with goblet squats, dumbbell bench presses, and dumbbell sumo deadlifts. The variants are safer for beginners, easier to learn, and arguably even more effective for gaining mass (at first). However, mobility improves, joints stablilize, tendons toughen, muscles grow stronger. Just because we struggle with something today doesn’t mean that we need to struggle with it tomorrow. The whole point of training is to improve. Most people can get to the point where they’re doing full squats, deadlifts and bench presses with several hundred pounds. You don’t have to work towards that, but it’s very safe, very healthy, and has numerous performance and health benefits.

      Technique: Lifting with poor technique isn’t something unique to strength training. In fact, I believe that most guys who are serious about getting stronger will put in the effort to lift with good technique. Furthermore, all of the popular mainstream strength programs, such as Starting Strength and Stronglifts, emphatically encourage lifting with good form. Everyone is in agreement that a set should stop before form breaks down. Do some people ignore that advice? Sure. Can you blame lifting heavy for that? Absolutely not.

      Supplements: Creatine is effective, yeah. It works well for around 90% of people, which is more than almost any other supplement. Caffeine is similarly powerful. Whey protein is also great. Maltodextrin has its place. There are a few good supplements.

      Protein: It’s not unhealthy, if you’re trying to build muscle, your body needs a fair amount of it. 0.8–1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day is ideal when trying to bulk up. A lot of guys find that protein powder makes hitting their daily protein targets way easier. That makes protein powder very valuable for many guys who are trying to build muscle.

      Volume: I agree with you. Volume is very important.

      Progressive overload: Progressive overload includes adding weight to the bar, as well as adding reps to your set, as well as adding sets to your routine. Adding more volume is progressive overload, which you’re benefitting from at the moment. Progressive overload is very important. If anything, it’s underrated. Too many people stop progressing because they stop focusing on progressive overload.

      Tracking your progress: Muscle growth hinges on your ability to progressively overload your muscles. Right now you’re doing this by adding more volume. That’s fine. However, if you want to make long term, consistent, optimal progress, it’s very important that you track what you’re doing. That’s the only way to guarantee that you’re presenting your muscles with more weight, more reps, or more volume every week, every month, every year. You can periodically back off or add variation, that way you aren’t just burying yourself under progressive overload, but progressive overload nonetheless remains crucial. Some people get away with doing it subconsciously, but if you want to make consistent progress, it helps to do it consciously.

      Copying world champions: When we’re talking about world champions, we’re by definition talking about genetically elite outliers (who also work very hard and smart). Perhaps some of these outliers do well while eating a small amount of protein. Perhaps Kevin Weiss is one of them. Does this mean that people should copy him? Maybe. It’s worth studying, at least. But protein intake has been studied. For the vast majority of people, 0.8–1 gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day has been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to produce substantially more muscle growth. Besides, just because Kevin Weiss is doing well doesn’t mean that he’s doing as well as he could be. Would he do better if he upped his protein intake? Maybe not, but probably!

      Furthermore, the training that people should do as beginners is different from intermediate lifters, which is different from advanced lifters, which is different from world champion lifters. As we progress through the ranks, things change. If as beginner or intermediate lifters, we absolutely should not be copying the routines of world champions. In some ways this is very obvious. If we went to the gym and tried to train by doing 800-pound deadlifts, we would get nowhere. In other ways, it’s less obvious. If we go to the gym and lift with their volume, intensity, or exercise choices, will that be ideal? Almost certainly not.

      This is why there’s that rule of thumb of training how champions used to train when they were at your level. Of course, champions are also genetically elite. That’s how they rose above all the other lifters who train hard and smart for decades. And oftentimes champion lifters lift as their day jobs. Even then, we probably should copy them. Rather, we should see what we can learn from their routines, test those hypotheses on the populations we’re interested in (e.g. testing 30 grams of protein per day on the average intermediate lifter), and then move forward from there.

      Besides, the vast majority of champion lifters and record-holders eat plenty of protein. So even judging by what champion lifters do, we’d come to the conclusion that eating at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day is ideal.

      Anyway, it seems like you’re feeling happy and healthy and seeing good progress. I think you should stick with what you’re doing for as long as it keeps working for you.

      Good luck, man! 🙂

      • Justin on March 8, 2019 at 7:52 pm

        Hey Shane! Thanks so much for this article and so many others! This place was a glorious find for me as a hardgainer! I have made so much progress following the advice in these articles.

        A couple of questions if you don’t mind:

        I am having a hard time keeping my fat intake down, how bad is this? I hear so much how great eggs, olive oil, peanut butter, etc are so great for bulking, but one big meal with any of those, say, eggs with olive oil, (and I have to eat big meals, I need about 4000 calories a day to eek out any gains) and my fat intake goes through the roof! If I eat a breakfast like that, I can basically say goodbye to milk, cheese, or chia seeds, or avocados and other fats if I don’t want to be over 80grams of fat for the day because fat is in so many things!
        Do I need to worry so much about this?
        If yes, any suggestions?

        Next question:
        Im at about 10% BF and I have been working out for almost a year now. My right side of my rectus abs are not as visable as my left. (I am happy with my left side looks like I have a decent six pack if I only view that side) I have tried activating the right side more during my ab workouts, I’ve tried one sided planks, one sided leg lifts and more, but I don’t seem to be making progress on those abs, infact, I can only see the top one.
        Is there a chance I just have a weird genetic thing there?
        Do I need to lose more body fat to see?
        Are there any ab exercises you recommend to fix this?
        Thanks a ton for your time!
        Justin

  4. M Adil on January 9, 2019 at 10:51 pm

    Shane, good job with the thorough browsing. May your efforts be rewarded.

    • Shane Duquette on January 9, 2019 at 11:05 pm

      Thank you, M Adil! Glad to hear from you, man. Hope the New Year is treating you well so far 🙂

  5. MI on February 21, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Great as usual! Couple of quick ideas.

    1. Would like to see you address dietary added sugar. We keep hearing how it’s the rage to cut it out as much as possible these days.

    2. A bit more involved, but do some people bulk easier, to the point of adding muscle without trying?

    Being from a family of ecto-meso people, I’ve always been lean/athletic looking, average height, broad shoulders and tending toward skinny arms. I used to date a girl who was I’d describe as endo-meso. 3 in shorter than me, much larger frame (maybe 12″ ankles??), quite a lot of extra weight in the upper body (anywhere from 80-120 lbs heavier than me (I was 150) and what I can only describe as huge muscles (27″ thighs with little fat for example). Extremely strong as well. In any case, anytime I went on a bulk, she gained nuisance weight (eating 1400 to 3500 cal per day), and seemed to add both fat and muscle readily, with no or minimal weight workouts (but a physically somewhat demanding job). In any case, the disparity got more pronounced over time. Physical relations were Actually quite fun due to her penchant toward mass imparting an interesting twist, but I still wonder how it was even possible. Can some people grow muscle without even trying as they become more overweight? If so, why don’t they work toward cutting and go win a bodybuilding (or women’s figure) comp? You can tell I’m still skeptical. Can humans really be so biochemically diverse that some put on muscle accidentally? Makes no sense! I’d love to tap into that secret formula, whatever it is.

    • Shane Duquette on February 21, 2019 at 1:53 pm

      Hey MI,

      If you’re interested in dietary sugar, check out Should Ectomorphs Avoid Sugar? and our article about protein and carb intake. Long story short, carbs tend to have a positive impact on muscle growth. Even sugar should help more than it hurts so long as it’s part of a diet that’s healthy overall.

      Regarding some people seeming to gain muscle more easily than others… yep! That’s a true phenomenon. Also, people who get fat do tend to also gain muscle. About 67% fat and 33% muscle, usually. Of course, anyone intentionally trying to gain muscle would be horrified by that ratio, so that’s why most bulking websites wouldn’t really consider that an optimal approach. We normally recommend that people also lift weights, eat enough protein, get enough sleep, etc.

      If you’re interested in learning more about muscle-building genetics and how they vary by body type, check out our article about ectomorph genetics and how you can measure how readily you’ll gain muscle.

      • MI on February 21, 2019 at 2:57 pm

        Thank you, Shane. I checked out all of those articles,. The sugar one is very interesting. I think I’ll check up out the studies you mentioned.

        As for the hardgainer tests, I am on the border of average and hardgainer in two of the three from what I can tell. The skinny arms are the biggest contributor.

        Does the same (shoulder to hip ratio) apply to women in terms of predicting muscle gain difficulty, since they’re built differently? Seems to me, women who are wider in the hips tend to be built sturdier, and have more muscle, if anything. That girl I dated was indeed wide in the shoulders, though; we actually measured that biacromial distance, and I believe hers like 20 in, while mine was 18.5. And with respect to the numbers you quoted about muscle gain percentages along with fat: I am horrified to learn from that ratio that she probably put on about 12 lbs of muscle (out of 35 lbs total weight gain) during my bulk (compared to the 3-4 lbs of muscle I added with a 4-5 lb gain). That’s 3 times as much, and also sounds about right from what I saw visually, as well. It is not exactly fair that some people can add muscle easily simply because they get fat and stay active enough to barely generate muscle…though you’re right, the ratio is downright horrible by athletic standards. Thank you again.

  6. Krsiak Daniel on March 2, 2019 at 10:01 am

    Long article, good article 🙂

  7. Seth on April 8, 2019 at 1:31 pm

    Shane,
    As a skinny/long/lanky guy desperate to put on weight/bulk, what workout would you recommend? It seems as if each good answer has 100 negative opinions on it. I have been in and out of the gym for a few years with very little success. One article says high reps low weight, the next article says that’ll burn too many calories; do the opposite, one says no more than 5 reps and the next says at least 10, etc. I have the access to train Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week. I have just began eating as much as possible again and my appetite seems to be increasing as well so I would like some advice before I waste any more time in the gym. Any help from someone who has been there would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Shane Duquette on April 8, 2019 at 3:59 pm

      Hey Seth, so, ah, I’ve got a huge bias here, but I think the best bulking program for skinny guys is our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. I do honestly believe that, but there are other good bulking programs out there too, of course.

      I disagree that there’s a massive disagreement over which style of training is best. Yes, there are contrarians marketing odd ideas, and sure, there are bros who don’t understand the science, but for the most part the scientific community and professional strength and conditioning coaches are all on more or less the same page. If you want to train for size, the bulk of your lifting should be done in the 6–12 rep range, occasionally lifting in lower rep ranges, especially on the big compound lifts, and occasionally lifting lighter, especially on the isolation lifts.

      I know there are popular programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts that recommend 5-rep sets for everything, but keep in mind that those programs are strength training programs. They aren’t designed to be ideal for gaining muscle size. The main purpose of low-rep strength training is to make neural adaptations—to learn how to get more out of the muscle mass that you already have. You can gain some extra muscle mass while doing it, but only about half as much per set. There’s no real scientific disagreement there.

      I haven’t heard much about high-rep training being ideal for muscle growth. Once you start going above around 12 reps, you need to take the sets pretty much all the way to failure, and boy is that ever brutal. Especially when doing the bigger compound lifts, such as squats, most people give up (or throw up) before hitting true muscular failure. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just that it’s total torture to train that way. Plus, you’ll make better neural adaptations in the 6–12 rep range—you get more of those benefits of strength training.

      Lifting weights doesn’t burn very many calories. If you look at this study, for example, it shows that a workout will burn 150–300 calories. If you bring a protein shake to the gym with you, that will fully cancel out the calories you burn. Furthermore, most people burn fewer calories after a hard lifting session. Instead of sitting on the couch they lie down on the couch, for example. So the calories you burn lifting weights will often be cancelled out without you even needing to worry about it. Anyway, I wouldn’t base your training style around the calories you burn.

      If you’re going to train Monday, Wednesday, Friday—which is perfect for a beginner, by the way—I’d recommend doing full-body workouts. That way you’re stimulating each muscle group three times per week. You’ll do great.

      I know you had some specific questions, but it sounds like you want a full bulking program, and I really think you’d love ours. We’ll walk you through all of this. In addition to getting a full lifting and diet program, we’ll also monitor your progress throughout your entire 20–30 pound gain, helping you if you run into any problems. For example, if a week goes by where you don’t gain any weight, we’ll coach you through it, ensuring that you don’t waste another week not making progress. Or if your gains aren’t lean, we’ll fix it early on before your body-fat percentage blows up. Your results are fully guaranteed, and we’ve got an unconditional refund policy. Check it out.

      I hope that helps!

      • Seth on April 9, 2019 at 12:43 pm

        Thank you for the quick response, I am going to look the program over and see if its the right fit for me (it looks to be). It’s nice to have somewhere to turn when nothing else works!! I’ll be in touch very soon and will probably go with that recommended program!! Thanks again!!

  8. Seth on April 8, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    SB,
    Would also like your input as well if possible…. Went back to re-read your article and saw that it was your long post that seemed like you were describing me exactly. Anything you could advise me on would be hugely appreciated!! Very discouraged with my lack of results in the past but I have to figure something out…. despise being the tall skinny guy.

  9. […] under six reps, putting them squarely in the neurological adaptation side of the lifting spectrum (meta-analysis). These workouts are going to make you plenty sore, but they’re going to do a better job of […]

  10. Edward on May 10, 2019 at 12:16 pm

    Hello,

    I am really enjoying this site, particularly because the articles referenced have typically been published articles in a reputable scientific journal (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). It has lead me to err on the side of trust when hearing what is being suggested.

    I am very wary of taking things at face value without doing my own research, and as such, when I went to dig into a couple, specifically about the difference in muscle growth between groups doing high reps and those doing low reps, the following was said:

    “For example, “this study” found that lifters doing heavy bench press sets (2–6 reps) had to do a whopping 24 sets per week in order to maximize muscle growth, whereas lifters doing moderately heavy sets (8–12 reps) only had to do thirteen sets. What we’re seeing is that moderate-rep sets stimulate almost twice as much muscle growth as heavy sets.”

    “This study” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27218448 states that no significant differences were seen in anything other than the following (which ME means muscular endurance):

    “however, for squat ME, a moderate effect size was observed for DUPHR (0.57) versus a trivial effect size for DUPLR (0.17)” and “Our findings suggest that in previously trained males, training volume is a significant contributor to strength and hypertrophy adaptations, which occur independently of specific repetition ranges.”

    To be fair, it seems that only the abstract is available, so perhaps you were able to read more of the study than is available at this time. However, since the abstract is meant to be sort of a summation of the study, it seems pretty clear that the referenced study directly contradicts what you are suggesting in this article.

    • Shane Duquette on May 11, 2019 at 6:28 pm

      Hey Edward, I think I see where the miscommunication is happening. I think it has to do with the term “volume.”

      This study is showing that lower and higher rep ranges both produce similar growth when volume is equal. To match the volume, the high-rep group did 13 sets, the low-rep group did 24 sets.

      Volume is defined as the sets × reps × weight. So let’s say the low-rep group benched 200 pounds for 5 reps, which is 1000 pounds lifted; the high-rep group benched 167 pounds for 12 reps, which is 2000 pounds lifted. Then let’s say the researchers were aiming for a volume of 20,000 pounds lifted per week. The 5-rep group would need to do 20 sets in order to lift 20,000 pounds (5×200×20=20,000), whereas the 12-rep group would need to do just 10 sets (12×167×10=20,000). Then, at the end of the study, they found that both protocols produced the same amount of growth. That would mean that each low-rep set is roughly half as effective at stimulating growth.

      I think the confusion is that the term “volume” can sometimes be simplified to mean “number of sufficiently challenging sets.” This can be helpful if you’re doing, say, three 6-rep sets of bench press, three 8-rep sets of dips, and then three 12-rep sets of weighted push-ups. What volume is that? We can’t just add up poundages because they’re all different exercises with different leverages and whatnot. But that’s okay. All of those rep ranges have been proven to stimulate similar amounts of growth, so we can just count the number of sufficiently challenging sets to get a good estimation of how much growth we can expect to stimulate. If you do 3 working sets of 3 exercises, that’s 9 challenging sets, so a volume of 9 sets per week.

      But when a rep range is too low, it stops being as effective, so we can’t use that method for estimating volume anymore. After all, a set of five reps doesn’t stimulate as much growth as a 12-rep set (as this study confirms). If we want to use a simplified way of calculating volume, we’d be better of counting low-rep sets as half a set. So four sets of 5-rep bench press only count as two volume points.

      Does that clarify things?

  11. The Complete Barbell Guide - Outlift on September 1, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    […] in gaining muscle size, you probably shouldn’t be deadlifting in very low rep ranges anyway (more on that here). And as soon as you’re deadlifting for more than one repetition in a row, a bending barbell […]

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