Thursday, August 3, 2017

Let's Talk Mass Gaining

When it comes to the journey it seems like people tend to fall on one of two sides of the struggle, you have people who struggle to maintain and Weight Loss and those who struggle to maintain and Gain Mass. I tend to be on the side of the coin that struggles to maintain and gain mass, and with that in mind, the topic for this Let's Talk is mass gaining.

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Once again this week's Let's Talk builds on Let's Talk about Nutrition so if you haven't seen or read that one you may want to read up on that one first before tackling this one. Let's Talk Nutrition explains a lot of basics that will help you ensure that the mass gaining is muscle and not fat.

Mass gaining can be hard in practice, but in principle it is very simple:

  • You need calories.
  • You need to be doing sufficient volume in training.
  • You need sufficient rest and recovery.

First let's talk calories: when it comes to mass gaining, calories are king! You need to be in a caloric surplus. This means you need to be consuming more calories than you need. This is important because you can't gain weight without it. If you're someone who has a butterfly metabolism, you're going to need to consume a lot of calories just to maintain, and more to gain mass. Here's a simple way to go about figuring out what your goal calories are:

Bodyweight multiplied by 18-22 calories equals your daily goal calories. 

It can be as low as 16 calories per pound of bodyweight though so, if you have a very slow metabolism keep that in mind.

I've already harped on protein consumption and it's importance in Let's Talk about Nutrition (I will again Hint Hint) but for today's purposes try to get a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. It's simple and effective, and important for your recovery from training.

A word of warning! DO NOT be afraid of carbs. If you're trying to gain mass the biggest mistake you can make is avoiding carbs. (or fats for that matter) The reason for this is that it is very hard to get enough calories for mass gaining while avoiding carbs. I avoided carbs to an extent for years and it hampered my gains for years. This happens a lot with people who are afraid of gaining fat in the process of mass gaining, so let's put this to bed right now:

You're going to gain fat while gaining mass. If you're training right and your nutrition is on point, you can minimize it, but you will gain fat in the process.

Good food
Something like this but more calories

Next up is Volume. You need to be doing a certain amount of volume of work per muscle group over the course of the training week to be gaining mass in the area. This is different for each muscle group, and it's very important to train each group in a way that's going to lead to the growth you're looking for. Let's go down the line and talk about the muscle groups, mind you this is based on my experience and I tend to need a lot of volume to get an effect compared to most people, I tend to program lighter than this:


  • The Quadriceps are a large muscle group meaning that they can take a lot of volume. This means that they don't handle frequency well. Train them with up to 20 sets per week, in 2-3 sessions. They work to extend the knees, and also can aid in hip flexion, for training them use mostly squats and lunges, with isolation mixed in to finish them. 
Leg Day

  • The Hamstrings are also fairly large, but not quite as large. They also tend to be less developed in trainees, which means that you can use more frequency and less volume. 3-4 times per week with up to 15-16 sets total, unless they are under developed, at which point you would use much more volume. The Hamstrings are also divided up into two uses, one being knee flexion, and the other being hip extension, meaning that you want to train both uses if you're looking to get the most growth. When training hip extension you want to be using Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Good Mornings, Back Raises, and single leg varieties of those movements. When you're training knee flexion you'll be using leg curl variations, Russian Leg Curls, Slider Leg Curls, and the Glute Ham Raise.

  • The Glutes are a large muscle group as well, and handle a lot of volume very well. I was training them up to 25 sets per week with little problem at all, and making great gains while doing it. This can be divided however you choose, and you can train them up to 5 times  per week if you really want to. The glutes act to abduct the hip, and to extend the hip. Abduction meaning that they work to separate your knees, put simply. When training abduction you'll be using clam shell variations and the like. When training hip extension, you should be using variations of Glute Bridges, Hip Thrusts, Donkey Kicks, and Pull Throughs. The movements that worked for hamstrings will also work here, but they won't give as strong of an effect, and should not be the primary training method for them.
Shoulders and Chest

  • The Deltoids are relatively small as far as muscle groups are concerned. This means that they don't need a whole lot of overall volume to grow. We're talking 6-8 sets of overhead pressing and about the same with of all of the lateral raise variations, combined. Twice a week works well for them. This is partly because they'll also be trained during a lot of chest work, so don't be discouraged or worried that you're not doing enough work. I've never had much success with Upright Rows so I'm not going to give a guideline on them, use your own discretion and be careful with how you program them if you do choose to use them because they can cause impingement, which is not fun.
Lamb Shoulders

  • The Pectorals are also relatively small, and handles between 12-15 sets before you run into problems. You can split this between bench pressing variations, dips, (if your shoulders are mobile enough to tolerate it) and Flyes. 2-3 days per week is usually enough to get it done.

  • The Lats (Latissimus Dorsi) are very large and tolerate a massive amount of volume. Up to 25 sets can work well. You want to use horizontal pulls (rowing variations) as well as Vertical pulls (Pull Downs, Pull Ups, and Chin Ups)

  • The Rhomboids aren't all that large, and don't require all that much volume. Up to 15 sets will work, and most of that can come from rowing variations (be sure to bring your elbows all the way behind you and to squeeze your shoulder blades) with the rest coming from batwings or reverse flyes.

  • The Traps are a very large muscle group that span from you neck down your back. They can take a lot of volume up in the 20 sets range, but it has to come from multiple angles. You want to be doing shrugs, deadlifts, Y's and prone trap raises all contribute to overall growth.

  • The Erectors are the muscles that run alone the spine, and they aren't very large, nor do they recover well so they don't usually require all that much volume. However, I find that training the erectors with high reps can improve your spinal health and recovery immensely by bringing more blood into an area that usually doesn't have much of it. Due to this in addition to the obvious ones like squats, deadlifts, and their variations, doing high rep back raises and reverse hyper-extensions can do a world of good for your overall growth and ability to do more work.

Back, Shoulders, and Arms
Back, Shoulders, and Arms


  • The Biceps and Brachials are relatively small and don't need a ton of volume for growth, up to 15 sets will get the job done. The good thing about them being small is that they don't handle a lot of weight so if you don't hit a lot of volume each session you can train them 3-5 times a week no sweat. I learned this from Mike Israetel from Renaissance Periodization and has worked wonders very quickly, if you want more on that check them out. Every variation of curls will work here.

  • The Triceps, though bigger than the biceps are still relatively small and handle a similar amount of volume to the biceps. They handle a lot more weight and contribute more to pressing movements though so because of that you can't train them with as much frequency. You have plenty of options here between pressdowns, extensions, skull crushers, floor crushers, pull-overs, and well heavy pressing variations.

  • The Forearms are larger than the Triceps and Biceps, and respond well to frequency and load, up to 20 sets a week between variations. You use them primarily for gripping, but also for flexing and extending the wrists. This means that you need to do grip work and flexion extension exercises to bring them up.

This all amounts to a good bit of work, but keep in mind that with compound movements you can mix a lot of the overall volume together making it much easier to meet the requirements for improvement. I personally hit 2-3 big compound lifts per session for 3-5 work sets, then hit whatever muscle groups are neglected. Experiment and find what works best for you, and what you need to trian the most. As always, start at a manageable (relatively easy) spot and progress from there.

You can train with all of the volume you need, and eat all the calories, and if you aren't resting and recovering, and are constantly over stressed, you'll still fail to see progress. This is because growth happens during recovery. If you neglect your recovery then you end up beat up rather than growing. It's important to find time to rest and recover. This means:

  • You need to get 8+ hours of sleep. This not only affects recovery, but it's definitely great for your mood as well.
  • Get your calories in. Follow what we talked about and you should be fine.
  • Find alone time (I know this may be relatively impossible for some) and just take some deep breaths, 5-10 minutes of this is enough to make a significant impact in your recovery. It'll also help you relax from a stressful day.
  • Foam Roll after your sessions. Give 5 minutes to rolling out the muscles you just worked, it'll help reduce soreness that you end up with, and it will make you feel refreshed afterword. 
  • Go for a walk 3-5 times a week. I'm not talking about a jog or a sprint, a nice leisurely walk will improve blood flow through your body, your overall work capacity, and burn a few calories if you're into that. A swim works too if you have the option and would like to use it.
  • Give Contrast showers a try. Alternating hot and cold (cool) water during your shower helps you recover by enhancing blood flow, improving mood, immunity, and making you feel like you can handle anything. I mean that last one isn't necessarily true, but after a contrast shower you may feel that way too!
Find time for this!

Wrapping It Up
  • You need calories, volume, and recovery for your mass gaining efforts to be fruitful.
  • Aiming for 18-22 times your bodyweight in calories and a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a good start.
  • You need to find the right amount of volume for progression for each body-part and work towards that when you train so that you can maximize growth.
  • You need to be on point with your rest and recovery so that your body can grow between workouts, otherwise you just end up beat up.

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