In part one of this series I covered why most of you are missing the big picture and robbing yourself of gains training the way you are.
I also went in-depth on the mechanisms of hypertrophy, the fundamental training variables for hypertrophy, why you need to plan/perioidize your training, how to logically plan back to back mesocycles of muscle building training, and why linear periodization isn’t optimal for hypertrophy.
To distill this info down into some key points, form part one, it is sensible do most of your training between 6 and 12 reps, while also including some training focusing on strength and some devoted to muscular endurance, lactate inducing work.
To further crystallize the information here are some basic theoretical principles to follow.
- You need to provide a progressively overload the body to cause adaptation
- Volume is a key driver of hypertrophy so, aim to gradually do more volume over time
- Manipulate intensity, volume and frequency to achieve the above
To give you some actionable tips to help achieve this, do the following (established by Wernborn and expanded upon by Helms in his excellent Strength Training Pyramid book):
- Do 40-70reps/muscle group/session
- For a total of 80-210reps/muscle group/week
- Lift loads heavier than 60% 1RM
- 66-75% of your sets in the 6-12 rep range
- Train each muscle group 2-3xweek
We have clearly identified some of the key principles to follow when training to build size. Now let’s examine some other key elements that can be structured to maximise your gains for the long haul. Namely,
- How to use periods of lower volume strength work to potentiate future hypertrophy
- How to use mini cuts to keep body fat in check and create a more anabolic environment
- How to periodize your nutrition to match your training
To build muscle you need to overload the body by doing more work over time.
So, more is better?
Ummm, kind of.
Let’s get a pearl of wisdom from Eric Helms to answer that…
…“Looking at studies with matched intensities and frequencies, we’ve found that strength and hypertrophy have a linear relationship with volume. However, this is only true to a point and past that point gains in both strength and hypertrophy start to plateau and can even decline.”
That final sentence is an important one. More isn’t better. Better is better.
You cannot indefinitely train harder and for longer.
Eventually, the Law of Diminishing Returns, will kick in. This law states that the more you do something the less you get from it in subsequent exposures. To overcome this, other elements of periodisation come in. For example, periods of time spent training for strength or at maintenance.
Incorporating phases of lower volume training is a smart move to help you to keep growing muscle long-term.
Sadly, this strategy is massively underutilized. Too many of us are scared that our muscles will vanish if we back off in the gym for a day. Let alone, a week or an entire month. This mindset is putting the handbrake on your hypertrophy!
You see, it is possible to maintain muscle mass on relatively low training volumes. Reducing training volume and training for strength isn’t even a case of one step back to take two forward. It is more, “briefly standing still before leaping two jumps forward”.
By reducing your training volume to maintenance levels for a month or so you can re-sensitive your body to volume again. Then ramp volume back up in your next mass gain phase to push the muscle building envelope even further.
Taking a maintenance phase allows you to overcome the fatigue accumulated from months of high volume bodybuilding style training. This allows for fuller systemic recovery than is possible from a standard week long deload. The maintenance phase sets the scene for the next block of high volume, muscle building training.
You will also be stronger after a maintenance phase of training. Ever heard someone say “fatigue masks fitness”? Well it’s true. During high volume hypertrophy focused blocks of training your fatigue levels climb higher and higher. At this point you have pushed up to, or just beyond your body’s ability to recover. The huge levels of fatigue accumulated mean that you cannot display your true strength.
After a period of lower volume training, focusing in the strength rep ranges this fatigue dissipates and you can finally display your true potential in the gym. Do it right and you’ll be smashing PBs at the end of your maintenance phase.
This means you can move more weight for a given number of reps in subsequent phases. More weight at a given rep range = more volume. More volume = the potential for more growth!
Now, I realize maintenance isn’t a sexy word. Who wants to train at maintenance? We all want to constantly improve, right? It’s all about full beast mode 24/7/365 dude! But, you see this is missing the big picture. We know that you cannot constantly do more training but, we also know training with high volumes is a powerful driver of hypertrophy. So, how can you train at high volumes for long periods of time without burning out? By periodizing your training to include lower volume, maintenance phases.
These maintenance phases allow your body to settle, refuel, and prime itself to continue your muscle building journey.
At the end of a long mass gain phase you accumulate a lot of fatigue, your body becomes less insulin sensitive, it adapts to the high volumes and requires you to do even more to overload the system. This all sets you up for a higher chance of fat gain, overtraining and/or injury. Properly timed deloads can help mitigate these risks for a while but, they cannot compensate for months of hard training. Instead a maintenance phase is just what the doctor ordered.
So, I’ve made my case that phases of training and dieting at maintenance are a good idea, but I bet the whole ‘maintenance’ thing is still bugging you though, right?
How about a Primer Phase? (Credit to Steve Hall for the genius idea of changing the name to that)
That’s better, isn’t it? A primer phase. Sounds cool, right?
Glad you agree. Now onto the details.
I suggest you use the Primer Phase at the end of your mass phase when calories and training volume have reached their peak.
During a maintenance/primer phase you will…maintain your bodyweight. Duh!
This enables the body to find it’s ‘new normal’. As a result, it will hold onto the muscle you built during the mass gain phase.
Learn From My Mistakes:
A mistake I have made in the past, and I have seen many others make, is that they fight tooth and nail to pack on some muscle then immediately jump into a cut.
Those last few lbs. of hard earned muscle you built at the end of your bulk…yep they fall off straight away. The body gives them up before it got a chance to get accustomed to them. Almost like it didn’t recognize the new muscle tissue as its own. The body hadn’t adapted to its new more muscular set-point.
Please don’t make this mistake!
Even if you want to get really lean to showcase all that new muscle you are best served showing some restraint and patience. Spend 3-5 weeks at maintenance. Find the ‘new normal’ and then get dieting. You stand a much better chance of holding the new muscle that way.
Now, if you are thinking…
…“Cut? What are you talking about? I just want to get massive!” …
…Then Primer Phases are still a great idea for all the reasons I listed earlier. In this case, we are more concerned with allowing your body a break from the grueling high volume sessions to re-sensitize to the effects of volume and then slingshot past your previous most muscular self when the volume is turned back up.
Your training during primer phases should focus on lower rep ranges and lower overall volume. The main goals are to retain muscle and reduce fatigue built up from chronic high volume training.
Practical Guidelines for Primer Phase:
Eat at maintenance. This means your weight shouldn’t change much through the primer phase. Small fluctuations are normal. So don’t panic if it goes up or down a little bit. Plus or minus a pound is a good goal to aim for over the course of the primer phase.
Eating at maintenance levels will require you to eat fewer calories than you were eating at the end of your bulk. Firstly, you aren’t trying to gain weight anymore and secondly, your training volume is lower. For both reasons your calorie needs are lower.
As a rule of thumb, reducing calories by 250-500kcal from then end of your bulk is a good starting point. Monitor progress (or, ideally lack of!) on the scales and adjust if needed.
I have somewhat labored the point about reducing training volume and frequency during a primer phase. This is for good reason. Don’t piss all over the power of a primer phase by trying to crank high training volumes. You will completely defeat the whole purpose of this phase of training and ruin the subsequent high volume phases.
During a primer phase I suggest 3 whole body sessions per week or 4 sessions on an upper lower split. Now, bear in mind the whole point is that this phase should promote recovery so I would err on the side of ‘only’ 3 sessions per week for most. Focus on getting stronger on big compound lifts in the 4-6 rep range. For example, a 3 days per week primer phase might look like this:
A Back Squats 3x6
B Glute-Ham Raise 3x6
C Bench Press 3x6
D Bent Over Rows 3x6
A Deadlifts 3x6
B Legpress 3x6
C Chin Ups 3x6
D Military Press 3x6
A Front Squats 3x6
B Lying Leg Curls 3x6
C Dips 3x6
D EZ Bar Supinated Bent Rows 3x6
During a Primer phase training volume is lower. Carbohydrate requirements are closely tied to energy expenditure. Given your energy output will be lower in a primer phase your carbohydrate needs are also lower. As such, it is a good idea to slightly increase the ratio of fats to carbs during a primer phase. In my experience, the following ratio is a good starting point for most:
- Protein – 30%
- Carbohydrate 35%
- Fat of 35%
So, there you have it, a quick how to on maintenance nutrition and training, and the reasons why you should incorporate these into your training. Now you may be thinking this is all well and good, I need to periodize my training, hit high volumes and occasionally back off but, how do I put this all together into a coherent plan. Stop worrying I’ve got your back. Here is how I would suggest you do it:
In part one, I identified the following approach as a good setup for back to back phases of muscle building training.
Mesocycle 1: Hyp - Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 6 to 10 rep range)
Mesocycle 2: Hyp+ - Traditional Hypertrophy (focus 8 to 12 rep range)
Mesocycle 3: Hyp++ -Traditional Hypertrophy plus special metabolite techniques like occlusion training, Myo-reps, tri-sets, giant sets etc.
Mesocycle 4: Primer Phase (focus on 4 to 6 rep range)
Mesocycle 5: Repeat process if wanting further mass gain or begin cut of want to drop body fat
To put this into a whole year I would suggest something along the lines of:
Now given January is often a time when people want to shift a few pounds of unwanted fluff. You could adjust the above plan to start with a mini diet. The same basic structure would apply though. So, it would look like this:
Assuming you follow the principles, the combinations are pretty much endless. Just to try and make it completely clear here is how you might set it up if you are an extremely lean hard gainer who just wants to get as big as possible.
Or, if you have a reasonable amount of size but you want to get lean for the summer you might go with:
Mini Diets – Another Counter-intuitive way to keep you building muscle:
Much like Primer phases, Mini diets seem counter-intuitive, but have huge benefits when it comes to building an impressive physique.
While short-term you won’t be growing any appreciable muscle when doing a mini diet, you will be setting the scene for much improved muscle building results in future.
You should implement a mini diet when your body fat begins to get too high from your herculean eating efforts during a bulk.
These mini diets can last anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks depending on how much fat you want/need to lose.
I would suggest most of you do them after a full hypertrophy mesocycle and a primer phase. This usually works out to be about every 12 to 16 weeks.
The frequency with which you use this strategy depends on your metabolism, diet, body fat, muscle mass, goals and various other factors. Some of you may be able to go for longer without needing to diet and some of you may need to incorporate them more frequently. Let your body fat and your happiness with your physique guide you.
Doing these mini diets sets you up for a nice little anabolic rebound in the subsequent training phase. By lowering your body fat, you improve your insulin sensitivity. Your body is better able to partition nutrients to muscle rather than fat. Thus, you will build a higher ratio of muscle to fat than if you had just continued bulking indefinitely.
Essentially, a brief diet can put your body back into a more anabolic state than if you just kept piling on the blubber with a perma-bulk.
To set the mini diet up I suggest you set your calories at around 14 calories per pound of body weight (more details on nutrition for fat loss later). Train with as much volume as you can recover from (this will likely be lower than what you could tolerate during mass gain phases) using the hypertrophy guidelines above. After all, what built the muscle is what works best to keep it.
I would suggest you keep cardio to a minimum during the mini diet. If you want to add some in to speed things along that’s cool, but given this is a short-term thing you should be able to drop a significant amount of fat just by reducing your calories a little.
The key goal of this diet is to quickly drop fat without sacrificing muscle and overly taxing your recovery. That way you will be ready to dive straight back into some hypertrophy training afterwards. Doing boat loads of cardio risks muscle loss and is demanding on your recuperative capacities. This means you accumulate excessive fatigue and it may limit your ability to tolerate high training volumes for a while afterwards. Given training volume is a key determinant of hypertrophy that would be a dumb thing to do.
Periodizing your nutrition to match your training:
Your training and diet should reflect your goals. Furthermore, they should work synergistically to help you reach your goals ASAP.
It seems obvious, but so many people fail to do it. They try to drop body fat by attempting to out train a bad diet. Or, when wanting to build muscle they go full dirty bulk mode with their nutrition, but train with super heavy weights for low volumes.
In both cases they will get sub-optimal results and waste a lot of time. With just a little bit of clear thinking and planning you can avoid this all too common mistake.
It really isn’t complicated. During mass gaining phases you need to be in a caloric surplus, during dieting phases you need to create a calorie deficit and during primer phases eat at maintenance.
Not sure how to judge progress…?
…“if bodyweight doesn’t change noticeably then nothing happened.”
Simple yet sensible advice from Dr. Mike Israetel
Here are some guidelines to help you effectively measure your progress during a mass gain phase:
- Aim to gain 0.25-0.5% of BW/week - Any more than the above means you are likely gaining excessive bodyfat
- When progress stalls raise calories by 250-500/day (smaller guys closer to 250 and bigger guys closer to 500)
- Adjust based on scale weight rather than some arbitrary weekly adjustment (if weight is increasing by the desired 0.25-0.5% BW/week then adjustments in calories aren’t needed)
The guidelines during a diet are as follows:
- Aim to lose 0.5-1% of bodyweight - Not faster than this as you risk losing muscle if you diet too aggressively
- Keeping the deficit relatively moderate will allow you to have sufficient energy to train hard - Training hard gives the body a reason to retain muscle
- When progress slows/stalls lower calories by 250-500/day
- Adjust based on the scale
And for maintenance…
- Just maintain your weight!
- If weight fluctuates by more than +/- a pound (0.5kg) then adjust calories up or down by 250-500/day
Nutrition During Hypertrophy Phases:
If you do not provide your body with adequate rest or nutrition, you can kiss goodbye to making gains.
You must be in a surplus to build muscle. Sure, you’ll accumulate some fat along the way being in a surplus but, the good news is that it is far quicker to drop a few pounds of fat than it is to build pounds of muscle. This means you can diet the fat away ASAP after you’ve finished bulking.
To keep you growing many mass gain plans simply drive calories higher and higher, week after week. This will work for a short period of time and then you will realize that you are simply gaining fat at an alarming rate. Instead of that you want to have a method which uses your progress and feedback in a logical and methodical way to determine what adjustments to make to keep you progressing.
I will outline the fundamentals of muscle building nutrition below. Use the guidelines provided above to help you make objective, data based adjustments to your diet to keep you progressing.
Protein – Of Primary Importance
The word protein comes from the Greek “proteos”, meaning the first one or, of primary importance. This emphasises that protein is our bodies most important building block.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the driving force behind adaptive responses to training. It is a widely accepted proxy for gauging if you are building muscle. Essentially whether you are building muscle or not can be assessed in one simple equation:
Net Protein Balance (NPB) = MPS - Muscle Protein Breakdown.
If you are in positive NPB then you are heading in the right direction on the gain train.
MPS stimulated by eating is largely dependent upon the protein content of a meal. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids but, 9 of them cannot be made by the body. These are known as the Essential Amino Acids (EAAs). It appears that consuming sufficient quantities of protein, particularly EAAs, is essential to your muscles building efforts.
As every bro, has told us it’s important to get some protein in after you train. As well as straight after training you will want to raise protein synthesis throughout the day. When you eat amino acids (the building blocks of protein) peak in the blood stream about 30-60 minutes later and raise MPS 2-3 hours.
With this information you can see that the amount, quality and timing of your protein intake are all key factors to maximize your muscle building potential.
Amount – research indicates that once you have eaten the amount of protein that will maximally stimulate MPS eating more doesn’t have any additional benefit.
(Dammit! That explains why I didn’t build a tonne of muscle back when I was eating 2 chicken breasts and a pack of pastrami in one sitting!)
How much is enough?
A simple guideline is to consume 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight a day. So, a 200lbs guy would consume 200g. For those of you better versed in KGs there are 2.2lbs to a KG. So simply multiply your scale weight in KG by 2.2 to get your protein requirements. For an 70kg male that equals 154g per day (70 x 2.2 = 154).
How much in one sitting?
A good rule of thumb is to aim for 04.g/kg/bw per meal. For our 70kg guy this equates to 28g of protein per meal. Getting this much protein from animal protein per meal help will help you to hit the threshold required (e.g., leucine content etc.) to maximally turn on the body’s anabolic machinery.
As previously mentioned MPS is raised for 2-3 hours post meal. It then begins to tail off. Thus, it would be wise to promote MPS again by eating another meal. Research indicates that these peaks and troughs in MPS are key to maximal muscle growth. Trying to keep levels chronically elevated (constantly sipping on an EAA drink anyone?!) produces a refractory response. (Refractory = resistant to a process or stimulus)
Obviously we want to avoid this refractory response. So, what is the optimum distribution of protein feedings to spike MPS but, allow the required drop offs to occur avoid to becoming resistant?
Research currently indicates 4 to 6 servings every 3-4 hours as your best bet.
With this information, we can build an easy template for ideal protein consumption for our earlier 70kg example.
- We know he needs 154g of protein a day
- We know he needs to hit about 28g per serving to stimulate MPS
- We know that this should be spaced into 4-6 servings.
So, some simple maths to calculate total meals…
Total target protein / per meal protein = number of meals
154 / 28 = 5.5 meals
Now need to pick 5 or 6 servings. In practical terms this could just come down to individual preference but, if we want what is optimal I would suggest 5 meals rather than 6. (Watch This: How Many Meals Per Day for Maximum Muscle Growth?)
Well we want to guarantee maximal MPS post meal. Eating 6 meals a day would result in 25.67g per meal (154 / 6 = 25.67). This might be just under the threshold required to maximally stimulate MPS.
As such, I’d be a little cautious and shoot for 5 meals providing 30.8g (154 / 5 = 30.8). This way our 70kg man can be sure that he has fully kick-started MPS at each meal.
Creating your eating schedule:
Since we know the meals should be spaced 3-4 hours apart let’s go halfway and opt for 3.5 hour intervals meaning it might look like this:
10am Meal 2/Second Breakfast for the Hobbit fans amongst you
5pm Meal 3/Post training meal for me/Probably the pre-training meal for most of you
Carbs might be your soulmate (or your swole-mate!)
Carbohydrate is stored by the body in the liver and muscle as glycogen. The body’s glycogen levels are linked to muscle growth signaling through a feedback loop. If levels are chronically low, then muscle growth won’t be priority for the body.
Essentially this means gaining appreciable muscle growth on a low carb diet is making life unnecessarily difficult for yourself.
I should know I’ve tried. Guess what, I hit a long ass plateau with no real size gains. Do yourself a favor and fuel training sessions and muscle growth by eating sufficient carbs.
As a rule of thumb if you train hard with weights 4-5 days a week consume at least 1.5g/lbs./BW of carbs per day (weigh 200lbs then eat 300g of carbs) when trying to build muscle.
See how progress is. Not gaining? Then bump it up to 2x. If you train multiple times a day you may even need to go as high as 3x.
How much should you eat…
We know protein and carbs are important but, what about total calories?
Well in my experience you will need to consume at least 16 calories per pound of bodyweight to make good progress. For many this number will need to be in the 18-20 calorie per pound of bodyweight range. I would suggest going higher would be counterproductive for most (some really hardgainers will need to go up to 22 calories per pound). You can’t force feed muscle growth and going above this level is likely to result in no extra muscle and the rapid accumulation of fat.
Be your own experiment. Start out with 16 calories per pound? Not gaining weight?...bump it up to 17 (then 18, 19, or 20).
Everyone responds differently to a nutrition plan and we are all unique. With that said the following is a great place to start when it comes to setting up your diet.
1g per pound of bodyweight (there are 2.2lbs per KG). So if you weigh 70kg that is 154lbs. As a result, you should eat about 154g of protein per day.
I have found a good starting point for fat is 0.5g/lbs/BW. So our 70kg/154lbs example guy would eat 77g (154 x 0.5) of fat per day.
So if our 154lbs example was starting at 16 calories per pound his total calories would be 2,464 (154 x 16).
We know he is having 616kcals of protein (1g of protein = 4 calories, so 154x4 = 616) and 693kcals of fat (fat is 9 calories per pound, 77 x 9 = 693).
So, protein and fat combined are 1,309kcals (616 + 693 = 1309).
That leaves him with 1,155 calories for carbohydrates (2,464 – 1,309 = 1,155).
Just like protein, carbs are 4 calories per gram. So, divide 1,155 by 4 and hey presto, our 70kg friend is having 289g (288.75 to be exact!) of carbohydrates a day. This is right between the earlier recommendation of 1.5-2x body weight in pounds.
A quick review:
70kg (154lbs) guy starting mass gain diet is as follows:
Fibre…The 4th macro?
Fibre is often forgotten about. Especially with a few of the IIFYM community. Don’t make this mistake! Simply aim for 10-15g of fibre per 1,000 calories eaten. So, for our example that equates to roughly 24-40g of fibre a day.
Nutrition During Cutting Phases:
Many of the same principles apply to muscle building nutrition. One fundamental difference is that you need to be in a calorie deficit (see my article here on creating a calorie deficit).
Here is how I would suggest you set up your nutrition at the start of a diet.
How to calculate your macros:
Establish how many calories you need each day to drop fat.
Here is a simple yet effective strategy:
Take your bodyweight in pounds and multiply it by 14.
Work out your ideal macronutrient ratio. Macros are protein, carbohydrates and fats. They are what your body requires for energy. As previously discussed protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram while fat contains 9.
Protein provides greater satiety than carbs or fats. Thus, you feel fuller for longer. It also requires more energy than the other macros for your body to digest. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Proteins high TEF means you burn more calories in the digestion on a gram by gram basis than with carbs or fats. As you have probably worked out this all means that a high protein diet is great for fat loss.
How much protein?
Much like when aiming to gain mass, I believe the gram of protein per bodyweight in per day is also a good rule of thumb when dieting. For example, a 200-pound guy would 200g of protein a day. I suggest you use this as your starting point.
Now, for some of you it may work better to nudge protein up a fraction higher as it helps with satiety and muscle retention. You must experiment with this yourself though to find out if you prefer eating slightly higher protein levels. I wouldn’t go higher than 1.2g per pound of bodyweight though. Going higher than this means you must drive carbohydrate and fat unnecessarily low and your energy levels will suffer.
Fat is an essential nutrient which plays a role in hormone production and regulation, brain function, and nutrient absorption.
0.4-0.6g of fat per pound of bodyweight. This can be determined by your preference. If you prefer fatty foods to carbs then choose the higher end of the range. Conversely, if you are a carb lover then choose the lower end of the range.
We use carbs for energy. They are stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen.
Carbs simply fill up the remainder of your calories after protein and fat are calculated.
To help you here is a working example for a 90kg (198lbs) carb lover with an active job.
Protein = 198g (same as bodyweight in pounds)
Fat= 80g (rounded up from 79.2). This was calculated out at the lowest end of the fat range (0.4g per pound of bodyweight) because this guy looooooves his carbs.
Carbs = 266g
This was calculated out in the following steps. Establishing daily calorie target by multiplying bodyweight x 13 (because this guy has an active job). So, 198 x 13 = 2,574kcal per day.
Then multiply protein intake in grams by 4 (because a gram of protein has 4 calories). So, 198 x 4 = 792kcal.
Then multiply fat intake in grams by 9 (because a gram fat has 9 calories). So, 80 x 9 = 720kcal.
Now you have your protein and fat intake in calories it is just a case of subtracting this from your calorie total to establish what is left for carbs.
2,574 (total kcal) – 792 (protein kcals) – 720 (fat kcals) = 1,062kcals from carbs.
Finally, divide the carb total by 4 as they also contain 4 calories per gram. 1,062 divide 4 = 265.5g (I have rounded this up to 266g because I’m a nice guy).
There you have it guys, everything you need to know to ensure that both your training and nutrition work synergistically over the long-term to maximize your gains. There are various pieces of the muscle building jigsaw to piece together, but if you take a bit of time to sit down and plan them out with a timeframe and your goals in mind you can optimize the process. Make a plan based on the information provided in these two articles. Then doggedly adhere to the plan, while consistently working hard, and you will reach your muscular potential faster than you thought possible.
About The Author
Tom is a former skinny kid who was told he was too small to make it as a rugby player. Since then he has added over 40 pounds to his frame and helped hundreds of clients to build muscle and drop fat. More recently he founded Flat Whites Free Weights to provide a hub for his online clients and to share his thoughts on training, nutrition and the ultimate pre-workout supplement…COFFEE
You can contact him at -