Posted 4 months ago

How to structure your gaining phase

If you’ve recently started on your journey, you may have never undergone a “bulk” or gaining phase before. In the past, when I decided I was “bulking”, it would mean I would eat whatever I wanted, not think about the quality of my overall nutrition, and believe it or not, I would have a full on “cheat day” on a Saturday. This was of course to “shock my metabolism” like I had read all over the internet. Hopefully you can sense the sarcasm: I was so wrong.

This is clearly an example of what not to do, but simultaneously, it could sound all too familiar. A lot of us can fall trap into thinking that a “bulking phase” is also a “do whatever the hell you want phase”. This is because we’re all exposed to similar misinformation and myths, and/or have been told by tight tank top wearing “Big Jimmy” down at the gym that calories don’t matter during your bulk, when Jimmy hasn’t counted a calorie other than chicken in his life.

As such, the aim of this article is to give you a clear-cut idea of how to go about structuring your gaining phase to ensure you don’t add unnecessary amounts of fat quickly and can extend this phase for months instead of a few weeks. Remember, the goal of a gaining phase is to add high quality tissue, so here are some of the key considerations you should bear in mind when designing your push phase.

Diet to bulk
Before you start bulking, you need to assess whether or not you are even lean enough to begin a gaining phase. Do you have excess body fat? Do you have some stubborn fat sites around your hips, waist or chest? If so, the best strategy to optimise your gaining phase will be to diet before you begin pushing up. Why? It’s simple: if you start a gaining phase fat, you’ll end up even fatter.When it comes to starting a lengthy gaining phase, we want to have the body at its set point. This means that we want to prime your body to be in the best position to shuttle nutrients into muscle cells, as opposed to fat cells. Given that higher body fat increases the likelihood of nutrients getting shuttled into fat cells, it makes sense to diet before growing.As such, it is incredibly likely that I’ll start a client’s journey with a diet, even if they come on board to grow. If you’ve realised you’re in need of a recomp before growing, you might be asking yourself: how much body fat should I pull down to? From my experience, for optimal results, males should aim to get down to 10-12% body fat before entering a gaining phase, whereas females should aim for around 15-20%. If you’re not sure what your body fat percentage might be, then I strongly recommend you hire a coach who should be able to tell you based on visual data.

Calories and Macros

One of questions I’m most commonly asked on Instagram is: Where should my calories start off at? The answer is it really depends. I often respond and ask: “Where are they now?”. If you have just finished dieting, you will have an exact number or meal plan that tells you how many total calories are going in, and will also break down your totals of carbs, fats and proteins.

If you haven’t been dieting, and/or have not been tracking your food, now is the time to start. Spend a week or two being meticulous with your intake and assessing other forms of feedback, such as bodyweight changes, strength etc. Once you have a rough idea of how much food you’re putting away and how your body is responding to that, you’ll then have a specific figure to push up from. However, the majority of people that work with us – with me, Ally or Clara – who want to bulk are actually not eating enough protein, are under eating on some days, and are over-eating on others. Therefore, we need to establish some ground rules to work from and build up from too.

The two most important factors to set in stone for a growing phase from the offset will be: protein intake and total calories. The general rule of thumb is that you should look to consume 1.1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is of course unless you take anabolic steroids – in that case, you may have to go between 1.2g per pound of bodyweight. A 55kg female will weigh approximately 121lb (2.2lbs = 1kg). 121lbs x 1.1 will give 133. This means we could set her protein intake at 135g (rounded up).

Following with that example, the next step is to calculate that individual’s total caloric intake for the day. The process is similar in that we use pounds of body weight and multiply that by a constant. When it comes to gaining phases, I’ve found that starting off at 14.5-15 calories per pound of bodyweight give us a good starting point to establish a daily intake to begin with. Thus 14.5 x 121lb (for the 55kg female) equals 1745.5kcals.

Now that we have established someone’s protein intake and total calories, how do we go about the rest of their macronutrients? Well, we need to understand what those calories mean by looking at how many kcals we get from 1g of each macronutrient.

1g protein = 4kcals
1g carbs = 4kcals
1g fat = 9kcals

So, if we’re that 55kg female who needs 135g protein, we’ll be eating 540kcal from protein, contributing to that daily intake of 1745.5kcal. This leaves us with 1205.5 calories to play with, which will be made up from carbs and fats. How we choose to distribute those calories between carbs and fats will ultimately come down to personal preference. However, we know that carbohydrates can aid with performance and muscle recovery, and as such, the majority of the remaining calories will typically come from carbs. Personally, I’d opt for 50% of an individual’s total calories to come from carbs.

Here’s the math:

50% of 1745 is 1745 divided by 2 = 872.5kcals, which divided by 4 (because each 1g of carbs contains 4kcals), equates to 218g carbs.

Fats will then make up the remaining calories:
1745kcal (total intake for the day) – 540kcal (from 135g protein) – 872.5kcal (from 218g carbs) = 333kcals remaining, which equate to 37g of fats (we’ve divided 333kcals by 9, because there’s 9kcals in every 1g of fat).

So, in the example of the 121lb/55kg female, her daily target of 1745kcals to start a gaining phase work out at:

Protein 135g
Carbs 218g
Fats 37g

If this individual wanted to have the same intake daily, then they’d be able to start off here. However, we know that our energy demands are higher on training days, and as such, it can be helpful to increase our intake on those days, and then reduce it on our non-training days.

At VW Physique, we like distributing client’s calories by running high days (training day) and low days (non-training days). How do we go about this?

Well, if you take 1745kcals (daily) and multiply it by 7x of the week, the total is 12215kcals across the week. A good way to start is by allocating an extra 200kcal to a training day, which would take up the total of those days to 1945kcals. If you’re training 5x a week, that would take your weekly total up to 9725kcals, which would leave you with 2490kcals to split between your two rest days, giving you 1245kcals respectively. You could then use the exact same format as above to figure out your personal preference of macros for those days, for example, by opting for higher carbs on a high day, and higher fats on a rest day.

I’m sure by now you can see that working out someone’s baseline calories can be fairy complex, but if you follow the process, it really is quite smooth – just takes a bit of math!

But let’s say that you’re at the point where you’ve established your daily intake, you’re happy with your macros and you’re getting stuck into your gaining phase. Where do you go from here?

Weight gain and plateaus
Once you have established a baseline calorie intake, that’s all you’ve really done: you’ve established a baseline. Your next step is to figure out how much weight you actually want to gain during a specific time frame, as this will inform how you adjust your calories over time. Most gaining phases typically span over a 5 month period (approximately), and most natural people will seek to gain roughly 1-1.5kg per month. Some people might get away with pushing more and gaining weight quicker, but they could risk gaining unnecessary fat. Again, this is where it’s person dependent. However, the rate of gain could be much higher for an individual using anabolic steroids.

If you break that down into weekly figures, it gives a rate of gain of 0.25-0.37kg per week. When you put it like that, you can see how we can’t just have “cheat days” or not track our food. If we did, we’d more than likely far surpass that weekly rate of total gain targets.

However, as with fat loss, there will be occasions where your weight gain stalls. This is simply down to the fact that how much you are moving (training, steps etc) and consuming (in food) is in balance. You are no longer in a surplus.

To ensure you continue to add weight and thus muscle mass, you’ll probably look at the option of increasing your food intake. My suggestion is that food increases are kept between 100-200kcals per day. Protein will remain a constant for the most part, and any increases will more than likely come from carbs, and occasionally fats. This would total at an increase of 25g-50g carbs on all days, and if you are a following peri workout nutrition protocol, you’d be wise to put these extra carbs around the workout parameter.

These increases can all contribute towards the rate of gain commencing once more, but can also help your burst plateaus in your strength, as increased food equates to increased recovery, and more fuel whilst you are training.

Training
By now you know how to work out your food and what to do when you hit a plateau in weight gain during your bulking phase. This then leaves us with training and what to do with it. I’d like to think that at this point you know that there isn’t a magic anabolic split out there: the best training rotation is the one that works for you, allows you to get stronger every week, and keeps you from getting injured and bored.

Working out an individuals’ split takes careful consideration of many factors such as: gender, lagging body parts, weakness, over-powering body parts, the goal (i.e., stage), just to name a few.

In the early days, training doesn’t have to get too complex: if you train hard enough, log your lifts, eat enough food and get enough sleep, you’ll grow. It’s only as you start to get bigger, and the goal gets more specific that training must also get more specific. For example, a Push/Pull/Legs split will work in the early days for a male, but later down the line it might need to change to a Pull/Lower/Push+Arms/Posterior/Push+Arms rotation. This is of course one example out of many, and you must figure out your individual needs and wants to design your program accordingly.

The majority of females might not want a big chest but may want bigger glutes. Thus, their program will have limited to zero chest movements and quite a lot of glute work. When it comes to males, they might want a bigger chest, arms and delts, thus training will look completely different for those individuals. You’ll find other articles discussing programming push, pull, leg days and across the website.

In summary, when setting up your gaining phase you need to establish whether or not you are lean enough to do so in the first place. Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to work out your baseline calories, and then gradually increase these when you hit plateaus. Setting up your training split doesn’t have to be too complex but as your journey progresses over time, you’ll need to get more specific. If you’d like to have one of the team set up your gaining phase, hit the button below and start your journey today.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons