The process of building muscle mass
If you’ve been following me on Instagram or Facebook you know I’m on a journey to build muscle mass in order to enter a Physique competition. It’s an experiment to see how I can transform my body as a women, as a long-time vegan, and as a beginner who just got into lifting this past April. It is a JOURNEY and I will continue to figure out what works best for my body overtime. I do not have it figured out in the least.
Come mid-January if I feel like I’ve put on enough bulk to enter a Physique show in April then I will start my cutting phase. It will take years of bulking and cutting to get to where I can be competitive in competitions and have the physique I dream about having (when I reach a certain size I may not want to get any bigger, who knows!). Bulking and cutting are two different stages. As women and as vegans we already have a few things stacked against us when it comes to building muscle, so if that is REALLY your goal then keep eating the food and lifting the weights (and it’s crucial you eat enough protein!). Here are some other things I found in my research.
I’m really enjoying reading through this website for information on bulking, cutting, training, and nutrition (but I translate it for vegans). I encourage you to do your research and experiment safely on yourself. That is the only way you can really find out if something will work for you.
It’s a great goal to focus on building muscle mass because the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories you burn throughout the day when you aren’t even working out. You also get stronger! My goal is to actually GROW bigger muscles so I am lifting 5-6x a week with very minimal cardio. Some say that volume is most important when building mass. Some argue that you should always lift as heavy as you can and stay in the 6-8 rep range. Others say 10-12 rep range is best and to never go over that. There’s even a group of people that do 5×5 stronglifts that focus only on compound movements and going as heavy as you possibly can for 5 repetitions.
My workouts generally have 8 exercises that are supersets (one exercise followed by another exercise without stopping then taking a rest), 4 sets of each exercise in the 10 repetition range. I try to lift as heavy as I can with perfect form. Sometimes on the last set I will go up in weight to see if it’s possible and may only get in 6-8 reps that set and have to drop down to a lower weight to finish up the set (called a dropset). On some compound moves like squats and deadlifts I will work up in a pyramid style to my highest weight that I can do for 5 reps then work back down to a lower weight I can do for 12 reps.
I generally follow the same routine for 4 weeks then I change it up. Meaning on Leg day 1 I do the same set of exercises with the same general rep range to track my progress. One legged inclined press is something I’ve had on one of my leg days for 6 weeks now. Around week three I progressed the weight twenty pounds and a few days ago at week seven I went up 20 pounds again. Some exercises never change from my routine; mainly compound lifts and unilateral exercises. The isolated movements may change every 4 weeks and sometimes from week to week. It’s good to keep the body guessing! If you are new to lifting it’s good to try all different kinds of things to see what you like.
When you go into a gaining phase (rather than a fat loss phase) it’s best to reduce your cardio to maybe a few HIIT sessions once or twice a week. Some people like to run or do simple things like walking on an inclined treadmill or a short session on the stairmill (the monster machine you may have at your gym that has rolling stairs you climb). Every body is different but if you are a woman or a “hard-gainer” you have to be careful how much cardio you do. Some bodybuilders do zero during a build/gain phase because there’s a risk of eating away the muscle. I have found I really like spinning classes because it helps define my quads.
This is why fat loss and muscle gain are TWO different goals with TWO different plans of action.
Rest and Repair
They say in order to build muscle mass you must give each muscle ample time for rest and repair. That means that a good 2-3 days should be between each muscle group if you do a 5 day bodybuilding split. What this looks like to me is Shoulders, Heavy Legs, rest, Back/Chest, Biceps/Triceps, Legs, yoga and then repeat all over again sometimes switching up the days. Some people like to do full body workouts 3 times a week leaving rest days in-between. What has worked for me is giving each body part it’s all day and blasting it with at least five exercises as heavy as I can go.
I have one rest day per week and another rest day when I do a yoga class. Lifting has made me quite tight so if I can fit another yoga class in somewhere I may try to do two each week. I was only doing ab work a few times a week but now I’m trying to do some bodyweight and some weighted ab work at 3-4 times a week.
When doing a bulk it’s ideal to eat more than your maintenance calories. How much? Anywhere from 200-500 I think is good and will not cause you to gain too much fat. If you eat your maintenance calories you will most likely stay where you are at physically and if you eat below maintenance your body will be burning fat and possibly muscle. You may have started lifting as part of a fat loss goal and noticed that after a few weeks you had all this muscle develop. What probably happened is you lost body fat, which allowed what muscle you to have to show more. It’s pretty impossible to build muscle mass on a calorie deficient diet unless you are a complete newbie (which I discussed in the fat loss blog post).
Protein is a topic that is much debated in the vegan/plant-based world but not at all in the fitness/bodybuilding world. You need protein and amino acids for muscle building and repair. The amount you need is depending on how well you build muscle as some people are “easy-gainers” but most of us would do best to get 1g of protein per pound of weight for muscle building. Some say to get more but I think that’s a good starting point. You can always adjust from there.
What about carbs and fat? Carbs are also crucial to a building plan. Your body runs on carbohydrates. The more you feed it the better chance you have at maintaining muscle because your body burns those instead of your muscle during activity. The best thing you can do is to time your carbs and protein around your workouts. This is called “Nutrient Timing”. Some say it’s old school but it has really helped me. About an hour before I lift I have a small meal that includes carbs, protein and fat and it gives me plenty of energy for working out. Then after I immediately have a protein shake to ensure my muscles get a quick jolt of protein and carbs to fuel glycogen stores. Just like everything in fitness nutrition there is debate on how important it really is to have that within an hour of working out but that’s when I like to have it. Then an hour or so later I have my dinner of whole grains, protein, and greens.
Ideally you want to eat 5-6 meals spaced out throughout the day eating every 2-3 hours. I set alarms on my phone that alert me to eat every 2 hours so I make sure I am getting enough calories in. The first four weeks of bulking I found myself not eating enough during the day and trying to make up all the extra calories I needed in the evening. So setting alarms for myself has been extremely helpful! Some people have done well with intermittent fasting while building but it’s a much harder process to get in all those calories in a shorter feeding window!
If you just want to be lean and toned then you can find the perfect combination of calorie intake, heavy lifting, and cardio to reach your goals. But if you want to build muscle mass, like the kind that my idol Erin Stern has then you need to eat and lift heavy and reduce your cardio.
Don’t Lose Focus
Now this kind of bulking phase is a complete mind-trip for most people especially women. It’s natural that in the gaining phase you will not only gain muscle but will also gain some fat (because you are eating a slight surplus of calories). Your clothes will no longer fit and you may in fact feel “fat”. Am I freaking out about this? Not really, because I realize this phase is a PROCESS. Over the winter I will only concentrate on building that muscle and in order to do that I must EAT and LIFT. I will not have the mentality that I look fat, or OMG I need to eat less, or I must start running 3x a week. Because those things will inhibit my muscle growth. Right now my goal is to BUILD.
Hope that’s helpful to anyone that would actually like to build some muscle mass on their body. Thanks for following along my journey!
I would love to hear what has worked for YOU in gaining muscle mass!! Please share with us in the comments.