5 reasons for the success of my hypertrophy phase – by Ben Coker

Well the beloved bulking phase has passed for me and I am now 2 weeks into a mild trim. Looking back on the months since Christmas in which I put on 11kg, I reflected on the things that contributed to my success. My previous articles on the mistakes of bulking 1 and 2 went a long way in keeping me on the road to success but this article explains 5 more personal reasons.

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1) I set quantifiable, challenging but realistic goals.

For me I had two post-its on my wall; one saying 150kg for 10reps = 170kg and the other 114.3 kg / 18stone, both surrounded by inspiring quotes I hold close.

The first refers to benching 150kg for 10 reps which should equate to a 1rm of 170kg + by the end of my bulk. The second refers to the body wight I wanted to achieve by the end of my bulk.

These notes were glaring at me every time I sat in my room, there was no escape. I had held myself accountable. Looking back those notes where instrumental in me smashing both targets.

I feel that simply entering a bulk phase with the notion of ‘I want to be bigger and or stronger’ will undoubtedly lead to poor or sub optimal results. Have a fixed finish point and make it visible to you everyday as a reminder to yourself; are you doing everything you can to reach your best?

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2) I built my calories up slowly but ultimately if I wasn’t eating when I felt I shouldn’t have then I was stunting my growth.

A recent article about leaving something in the toolbox applies here. When starting a bulk dont go over crazy on the food. Trust me simply by giving your body as little as 500kcal extra a day from its maintenance or dieted levels it has been on between bulking phases is enough to make the body  put on muscle at impressive rates.

BUT here’s the twist. This rate of growth slows as you put on weight so you have to keep increasing your calories over the hypertrophy period to get that surplus of calories above your RMR!

And boy did they the calories have to go up!  Two thirds of the way through my bulk I plateaued. I wasn’t eating enough, but surely 6000kcal a day was enough?

‘Obviously not you idiot’ I told myself.

I went and revised my list on the mistakes of bulking and all boxes were checked barring the fact I wasn’t eating when I felt I shouldn’t!

So up went the calories to 7000kcal and even 8000kcal on some days. What happened? From being stuck at around 110-112kg bodyweight I flew up to 114kg then continue up until 116kg.

So build up those calories conservatively but keep building them up! Don’t fear fat gain as long as your building muscle as fast as humanly possible. There will be another time for you to ‘unveil’ your sculpture later…

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3) I walked everywhere

This one is so important especially when you get REAL heavy but also if you put on a decent level of mass in a relatively short period of time. Last weeks article also touched on it.

By walking everywhere everyday you body doesn’t notice the effects of the extra mass gradually being put on. You feel lighter on your feet, and your cardio-respiratory systems are much better adapt to cope with the larger mass.

Honesty call, I love being big but even to me an out of breath mass monster don’t look (or feel) too good! Everyone should be able to walk briskly for at least an hour whilst still holding a conversation. And I’m glad to say that despite impressive gains in muscle mass I don’t feel ‘burdened’ with the extra weight.

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4) Adapt to setbacks: I got outside the bodybuilding world and fell in love with a sled

At one point my knee was playing up a bit and so I sought different ways to hit my legs. Pulling a sled caused no pain in my knee and so there was the answer.

If I’m stuck with this I thought then I may as well load the thing up to the max and put a lot of work through my legs. 4 weeks of puke inducing sled training and my legs grew by an inch.

A slap in the face reminder that different is good sometimes, even for a bodybuilder. Any bodybuilder would settle for an inch on their legs but for me the benefits went further. Since quitting rugby some time ago I had not run for years. Despite my strength I was now slower and struggled to sprint under my new weight.

The sled training got me right back on track; my legs were not only bigger now but their power had also been increased. I was now functional again despite being kilos heavier and I loved it! I also enjoyed the sensation of high intensity cardio believe it or not. It made me feel healthier and that’s priceless when piling on size.

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5) Deadlift, Deadlift, Deadlift.

I have had issues with my low back for a while and have spent a long time rehabbing and tentatively dabbling in deadlifting again in the process of recovery. But by this bulk phase I was ready to hit them in ernest. I knew deadlifts were the missing link to gorilla muscle, and gorilla muscle was what I wanted.

Gorilla muscle: built by deadlifts.

So I deadlifted and deadlifted a lot. Not always super heavy but I made a point to work hard on form and intensity. Some days I did heavy singles, some days sets of 5 and some days I even did super volume on them like 10×10 or sets of 30reps at 1.5 x bodyweight.

The results of fanatical deadlifting?. My low back and core is now a whole lot stronger and my discs far more protected. A movement that had crippled me even to think of, I now loved. My legs ballooned. My back got super thick. Oh and finally all my other lifts sored up and as a result all their relevant muscle groups grew in a crazy fashion.

The deadlift is the king at building the whole body as the whole body is used. This hypertrophy phases owes a lot of its success to the fact that in it I could for the first time deadlift pain free.  I took full advantage and the scales and measurements went through the roof as a result.

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Mistakes of Bulking Part 2 – by Ben Coker

Last week I posted about 5 key areas for failure when pursuing hypertrophy, focusing on food. This installment of bulking mistakes focuses on 5 common training errors…
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1) Not doing the basic muscle building lifts enough or even at all!

Too often the main compound lifts are neglected in programmes. They are either not done which is just plain dumb or they are done but with the premise of doing them because one knows they should! These people do them just to get them out the way so they can do the easier exercises!

‘All aboard for no gains!’

The lifts that are hardest get the best results. Compounds must form the vast majority of your programme. Isolation exercises from a hypertrophy perspective add shape to a huge mound of putty. With them we can add little extra bits of size to get a complete stage shape. These little extra bits put on to an already large piece of putty yields impressive illusions for size and density. But you can’t sculpt or shape if you have no putty to work with in the first place (ie limited muscle mass). In this case adding little bits to a little will yield slow and unimpressive gains. So unless you have a 17+ inch biceps for example, curls should hardly appear in your split but heavy chins should.

Ditch the curls...

2) Lack of intensity

Often people don’t do enough work for muscles to force the best growth out of them. It is essential for hypertrophy that we actually make the muscles work through fatigue. This isn’t about strength and letting the CNS fully recover for another 1RM, this is about working the target muscles hard and forcing them to grow.

Built with intensity.

If you are not sweating then believe me your intensity sucks! Work hard and push through fatigue to get optimal results. Upping your intensity may mean ditching your ego and lifting lighter but hey ego gets you no where intensity does.

There also needs to be a decent accumulation of work done for a movement pattern or exercise in a session to make it worthwhile. I’m talking mainly about doing enough working sets here. Too often people warm up to a working weight then switch to the next exercise. 3 working sets mean just that 3 sets where your working with the top weight for that session!

3) Poor body splits and recovery

This can be the undoing of many programmes. Often the right exercises are in a programme but how they are combined and spread out is woeful at times.

Doing arms one day then back the next, or doing chest one day then shoulders the next are good examples of this. The splits are good in that they could contain the heavy compound lifts to work the muscles well but done back to back  over training occurs and the second session is not performed optimally enough and can actually hinder recovery and progress from the day before.

It is essential that you get 2 days rest between hitting body parts directly to get the best out of each session. Failing to do so leads to under recovery and a subsequent lesser performance in the next session which over time will lead to an accumulation of over training and lost results. Doing a back workout, followed the day after by a leg session that involves deadlifting is going to lead to under performance on the deadlift. Little things like this add up across many splits preventing optimal training and growth.

Remember if you train like a madman and you will get more out of the days when you are not training but you need to have those rest days to actually realise this! Ensure that your spilt allows for enough rest days where your body doesn’t have to deal with any training stimulus at all and can focus solely on repair and growth.

4) Missing out key body parts that give the appearance of fullness and density.

Side delts are vital in giving you a wider appearance from the front and back. As a result they help to accentuate your V taper. They also tie in the traps to the arms to give a fuller, denser appearance.

Rear delts are crucial in making you look thick and complete from unflattering 45degree angles. They also give a finishing touch to the upper back, helping to build that mountain range that is visible through the back of a t-shirt. Its worth noting that in bodybuilding, it is the rear delts that stick out the furthest in the most muscular pose, highlighting their importance in the size illusion.

Rear delts make a most muscular physique!

Without a thick set of sweeping hamstrings you quads will never look big! Neglecting hamstrings will leave your legs looking puny and ill sightly despite what quad size you have. Not only this but big hamstrings can actually build bigger quads as it allows you to squat and deadlift more! Whatever way you look at it if you don’t have big hamstrings you won’t have big well rounded legs. As the bodybuilding saying goes ‘a good set of hamstrings is an overdeveloped set of hamstrings.’

Calves. All I can say to this is how silly it looks when your as wide as a house up top yet are walking on match stick calves! Calves are a very impressive muscle group when well developed and often if someones calves are of epic proportions then you can bet that they are gonna be massive up top.

So ego lovers if you wont people to gawk at how big you instead of laugh at how unbalanced you are…get some calves.

5) Changing programme every week when the scales haven’t gone up as much as last week.

Building muscle is a long endeavor and gains are non linear in the way they appear. Trust in your training and ‘stay the course’. Keep training hard and consistently and give those result time to show themselves because they will. Programme hopping will get you nowhere. Fact.

Mistakes of Bulking Part 1 – by Ben Coker

When the scales aren’t moving, the measurments aren’t getting bigger or the t-shirt tighter you are more than likely doing something wrong in your hypertrophy quest.

 These articles will outline common pitfalls that I have realised to be the key areas that have limited my hyhpertrophy at various points in my life. Now, whenever my growth stagnates, I got back to these points and ensure that i’m hitting all of them. When I am, I have noticed that  i’m always growing!  The first part focuses on food.

1) Not eating enough.

You think you do but you don’t. This is such a massive pitfall for many lifters. You think that meal had about 750 ish kcals so you round it to 800kcal. This mindset leads to massive calorie variances at the end of each day.

Here’s what you need to do: Key a food diary. Write out a meal plan including weights of foods, kcal content across your 7-6 meals. This means you know that at x time you need to eat y food which contains z kcal. And once you’ve eaten a meal you can tick it off. Theres no room for mistakes. Sounds strikingly obvious but most lifters don’t keep a log like this – writing down your meals in advance and marking them off as you go ensures you eat the right amount and the right stuff.

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You're plan doesn't have to extensive, just do it!

 

2) Not keeping your kitchen stocked

You should always have your kitchen stocked with the foods that you need so that when it comes to have the next meal you’ve planned out everything is there for you. Theres no excuses to miss or replace meals or skimp on calories. Buy for the week, or at least a couples of days ahead. When stocks start to reach empty go and top them up. Don’t wait till they are empty!

Allways have a stockpile for at least 2 days ahead...

 

3) Failing to ‘cram the window’.

This is the term I use to describe the 1hr post training window where a lot of growth can be stimulated. This time is like an open window  when your body is screaming for food to refuel and rearm! Take advantage of this and cram some serious calories through that window whilst it’s open. Just as an insight into my understanding of ‘cramming’ I take a 750kcal immediate post training shake then another 1500 to 2000kcal in food in the next 60-90min! (BW 110kg).
 

'Cram that window!'

 

4) Being scared of losing your six pack (or at least what you think is a six pack)

Don’t be the idiot that wastes his time trying to get bigger whilst staying lean. You will fail. Don’t be one of those people  that have been training at a gym for year after year but look exacly the same as the day they joined! If you love your six pack so much you’ll have more than enough commitment to strip the fat away when the new you is ready to be unveiled right? Or are you scared of the lazy person that’s inside of you? Commit to bulking 100% Get great results then commit to shredding up those results. Period.

Lee Priest certainly wasn't scared to commit!

 

5) Not laying your foundation

Keeping this short and sweet, you need to lay a good foundation to grow. Just like you can’t build a house on sand you can’t build muscle in the absence of the micro nutrients and water.

You must be taking good quality omega fish oil tablets (or eating adequate oily fish), a high quality multivitamin and drinking plenty of water each day for optimal growth. The importance and function of omegas and vitamins doesn’t need readdressing, theres plenty of information out there if you look to indicate you need to be taking them for optimal training and health results.

Water is a little less clearly stated in terms of its benefits but they are strikingly obvious. The body comprises approximately 60-70% water. Water flows through the human body, transporting, dissolving, replenishing nutrients and organic matter, while carrying away waste material. Further in the body, it regulates the activities of fluids, tissues, cells, lymph, blood and glandular secretions. Protein synthesis and the training required to induce it therefore are heavily reliant of water. Drink loads!

Be water smart...drink more!

Bulking On A £3 Budget – by Ben Coker

This is a very short article just to fire home how simple and cheap bulking can be. People either don’t know how to eat to grow or come up with an excuses for not eating, namely its too expensive.
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I strongly recommended reading ‘Building a Basic Diet’ to gain a good understanding of nutrition as a whole, but more specifically ‘Time to Belly Up Mr. Hardgainer’ on the matter of serious bulking the blended way.
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If you believe that eating to grow is too taxing on the wallet don’t fret – it doesn’t have to be. I do fully understand that eating lots of lean meats and lots of calories in general can leave you a bit strapped for cash but what would you say if i said you can easily pack on the muscle for as little as £3 a day? And in a healthy way? You’ll want to know how i bet! Well relax because the answer is at hand.
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Below is the breakdown of 8 basic food products in terms of cost per unit, per serving, as well as nutritional values…
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Now lets break this down specifically in terms of servings, their cost and the amount you should have of each.  The macro nutrient and calorie breakdown per serving is also given…
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Now finally just to fully complete the picture here is how you can combine the foods into 5 meals or ‘feeds’ as i prefer to call them to create a bulking on a budget diet when times are hard.
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There you have it. 8 food sources. 4,286kcal. £3.07 a day. By all means this is not a perfect diet (a more varied protein source would be better) but it definitely leaves no excuses  to be not growing when times are financially hard. If you have a slightly more flexible budget obviously add in more. 4,286kcal will not be enough for 100kg + individuals that are on their diet already, but the take home message for those individuals is simply that you can get a lot of calories in for only £3.

Busting Strength Plateaus, Bodybuilder Style! – by Ben Coker

So you’ve decided you are a die-hard strength athlete. You goal is strength alone and your aim is to be as strong as possible. You’ve read all about strength training and about maximum motor unit recruitment and CNS activation work (or so you should have if you really are a serious lifter). You’ve implemented all the various methods for accruing more strength but once again you’ve plateaued but this time unlike before you just cannot seem to get the weights to go up despite using every activation, speed and partial rep exercise available. The answer… get bigger.

I know you’re thinking I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder I just want the strength and here is my reply. Granted bodybuilders aren’t the strongest of the strength athletes around but some come pretty close and most can move some serious weight despite not training for speed or power at all! Whats the link? Muscle size!

There are many ways to break plateaus but this is a piece of advice that I frequently give out to peers and people I train, especially newbies that have noticed quick strength peaks and have after 6months to a year ground to a halt. Does this apply to you? If you were to come to me saying that you have hit progressive PBs over say a 6month period but now suddenly they have stopped I would ask how much muscle size have you developed? If the answer is not much or relatively little compared to improvements in strength then I’d advise you to listen up as this article may just be your new best friend.

Studies show that there is a positive correlation between between muscle CSA (cross sectional area or size) and muscle strength. By increasing cross sectional area we increase the number of contractile units in parallel (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes). This means that there are more contractile units contracting at the same time to produce movement, meaning a stronger contraction force.

But this isn’t the main point that I am trying to stress. The guys that come to me asking for advise to break their plateau are frequently the smaller guys. They have done many of the above techniques and the way I view it is that they have simple activated as many fibres (and resultantly the contractile units within them) as their body will allow them. If this is true how can they get stronger if all ‘x’ of their muscle fibres are now fully recruited to lift the weight. They can’t be further activated so what do they do? Get bigger muscles and get more contractile units! Take a break from your singles, doubles, triples and involve some typical hypertrophy approaches: overload, fatigue training and time under tension (often through my favorite training method…volume!) that bodybuilders adopt.

How will this help? Well it’s pretty simple to understand and this is why it baffles me why so many aspiring strength competitors avoid hypertrophy. If you have fully recruited all your muscles fibres through training in a lift then the only real way to make good progress is to get more muscles contractile units in parallel (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes) that can then be activated! This means developing bigger muscle fibres.

Lets use some numbers to give a basic picture. Lets say currently you have 2000 contractile units (actin and myosin cross bridge complexes) along the muscle fibres that you activate when you squat. You have successfully ‘grooved’ your nervous system to be able to recruit all those motor units controlling those fibres (and thus the contractile units) at the same time to lift a PB (maximum efficiency). But now you are stuck. You adopt a hypertrophy period in your training and after which you now have bigger muscle fibres and now 4000 contractile units in the same muscle groups. You can now begin to ‘groove’ your nervous system into recruiting all the 4000 contractile units at the same time, i.e. 2000 extra ones.

Mr Coleman knows all about hypertrophy periods

The result –  you now have double the amount of contractile potential to lift the weight at a given moment in time. If we think of those units as horses pulling a cart you would obviously pull a heavier load in your cart if you had double the horses pulling in unison!

Wrap Up

Nothing here is revolutionary but so many guys avoid this fact and get hooked on typical strength training approaches. Guys if you look like a rake please widen your eyes and think logically. If you really are serious about getting stronger add in some hypertrophy phases to your programme when stubborn plateaus arise. Maybe your body simply needs more horses for your cart!

Time to ‘Belly Up’ Mr. Hard Gainer – by Ben Coker

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by people regarding hypertrophy is what to eat. Questions are invariably ‘what do you have to eat to get that big?’ Or ‘what supplements do you take?’ I’ll put it very simply from the outset; forget the supplements and just eat a LOT of food. Oh wait I forgot you’re a hard gainer with such a fast metabolism that no matter what you eat you can’t grow. Let me break it to you bluntly. Either your training sucks and or you aren’t ‘bellying up’.

Let me guess, this guy is already 'bellying up'

Building big muscles means big food! Think of muscles as a house and food as bricks. If you want a bigger house you’re going to need more bricks. Catch my drift? Now I can guarantee that for a large proportion of people they have no idea of what my definition of a lot is!  A chicken breast with brown rice three times a day I’m afraid to say to me means, three snacks. Don’t get me wrong these foods are the right stuff to be eating (great protein source and relatively low G.I. carbohydrate sources) but they aren’t calorie dense and you’ll be surprised by how little calories they have compared to how full you feel after eating them.

I can here you guys out there that are dedicated muscle magazine readers screaming in confusion ‘but that’s what Cutler does, that’s what all the pros do!’ Yes they do but they will have seven of these meals and a whole lot more protein at each serving, but that isn’t the point I’m making. Yes these guys can do that because at that level their bodies are so used to carrying that amount of muscle that they have become much more efficient at retaining that muscle and aren’t actually looking to build a huge lot more! The point that the magazines don’t point out is that to get to that stage of weighting 120kg most of the pro bodybuilders would have been smashing in some serious calorie dense food on a silly scale in their off season. The best example is Lee Priest who openly admits to ‘indulging in food’ because it tastes good and it is necessary.

Lee Priest knows what Massive Meals are

Now I’m not condoning eating plate loads of K.F.C. 6 times a day, neither is Lee Priest. What I am highlighting is that massive meals need to be just that, massive! Although the odd fast food binge too probably won’t hurt, due to the calorie dense nature of the food in light of serious resistance training causing your muscles to be seriously hungry for building blocks.

From experience the huge quantity of food necessary is very hard to consume day in day out every 2 to 3 hours and so I called upon liquid calories to make it easier to get the vast amounts of calories in per day. I soon learnt the beauty of a food blender as it enabled me to make a whole host of mass shakes which have numerous advantages:

  1. If you’re counting calories it’s very easy to weight the ingredients you are blending thus you can ensure the precise calorie count per shake.
  2. You can ingest a whole lot more healthy food sources than what you would otherwise be able to eat solid.
  3. As the calories are liquid they are more readily digested and absorbed, which means that you feel hungry soon despite eating a whole lot more! This makes it easier to meet daily calorie requirements.
  4. They save you having to spend half your life in the kitchen.
  5. You don’t have to carry Tupperware boxes of food round with you only a shaker.
  6. You can play around with any food stuffs that you love!
I currently fluctuate around 110kg body weight and am currently bulking hard. My favourite mass shake at the moment is:
  • 2 scoops of whey blend (44g protein)
  • 500ml full fat milk (yes red top and green top milk is for sissies)
  • 200g oats
Roughly 1240kcal
Last year’s staple bulking shake was:
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 scoop of whey blend (22g protein)
  • 500ml full fat milk
  • 120g oats

Roughly 1152 kcal
(Obviously for smaller or larger persons quantities vary accordingly)

Now for the observant of you out there you may realise that I have included protein powder in these shakes despite saying forget supplements. OK I lied, the only supplements that I feel are necessary for a convenience factor are high quality whey blends, multivitamins and omega 3 tablets. Protein powder works out a lot cheaper than buying large quantities of meat especially in today’s economic climate and that is why I use them in the shakes for convenience not necessity. You can simply add in other sources of protein from whole foods though like eggs or egg whites (personal opinion: if you’re looking for size, just put the whole egg), peanut butter and even increase the milk contend to avoid having to use protein powder.

All ingredients in the above shakes are healthy foods of a low G.I. source and each shake allows me to consume way more then I could possibly eat! The 2 scoops of protein is roughly equivalent to 200g chicken and 200g oats and milk equals 4 large bowls full of porridge and 5 eggs says it all! Do you fancy eating that every 2-3 hours?! Me neither.

Don’t feel that the options are limited to that list. Think peanut butter, Greek yogurt and even dairy ice cream around workouts! The beauty of the shake is now evident. Not only are these easy eating but if you price up all the ingredients you’ll be amazed at how little you have to spend on food despite eating a ton load more! Trust me the cheapest most effective supplement you’ll ever get!

Now I hear cries of’ madness you will get fat’. My answer, ’maybe if you aren’t smart or committed enough to use the scales, mirror and your eyes to find your optimum calorie range per day and if your training is really just a bunch of ’going through the motion movements’ in the mirror!’ If that’s you then hey you probably won’t succeed anyway in this game as it’s all about a perfectly disciplined will to hard training and food. If you’re still concerned about staying lean whilst bulking then try having mass shakes when your muscles are hungriest for nutrients. Basically, try having one for breakfast and one post workout or the first feed after your post workout shake. That will help to ensure that the calories go into the right place following the insulin spike i.e. your muscle cells when they are most insulin sensitive.

The truth of the matter remains this, if you are serious about making noticeable muscle gains mass shakes will put size on you like nothing else. In my opinion, throw caution to the wind, screw staying lean if your trying to put on serious weight, because guess what? If you’re that serious about having a great physique you’ll have the commitment to diet down excess fat after your bulk. Period. And if you’re a power lifter or strongman then having a six pack isn’t the most essential fitness trait for success. So before you go looking for the next best supplement that drains your pocket for no return just give these a try. Belly up Mr. Hard Gainer or go home!

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