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Saturday, 7 April 2012

Real world example of muscle gains


Now that I'm cutting, and enjoying the new challenge of maintaining my strength while reducing calories, I can look back on my second "bulk".
As you know, I'm a small guy and not taking steroids. Therefore the rate at which I can gain muscle is going to be fairly slow. I'm confident that this is a reasonable real-world example of a typical rate of muscle gain however, so let's take a look.


This is the graph of my bodyweight over the course of my second bulking phase. As you can see, I started at the beginning of May 2011, weighing 120 lb. I stopped at the end of Feb 2012, weighing 140 lb. I was reasonably lean when I started. See my previous post.

Some points I want to stress:

  • This was real-world. I have a full-time job and all the usual stuff to worry about.
  • I was lifting twice per week (roughly each muscle group every 4 days, which seems to be optimal for naturals). Lyle McDonald reckons every fifth day, although he tends to split muscle groups up more - since I'm still fairly new to this (two years isn't long in this game), I'm concentrating on big compound lifts to get a good foundation of strength).
  • I carefully controlled my calorie intake so that I would gain around 1/2 lb per week. If I found I was gaining faster, I reduced the calories a little. From my first bulk, where I wasn't really holding back from eating too much, I would gain around 1 lb per week but soon found that most of this was fat!
  • I developed an injury in my shoulder from too much bench-pressing and not enough rowing movements. I had to take six weeks off from the gym and went to several physio sessions. This really set me back mentally and I lost quite a lot of strength. You can see this on the graph as a plateau between December and January.
  • Notice that the gain wasn't steady. It was up and down, but you can see the trend. When weighing yourself, you need to bear in mind that there will be some variation.
  • At the end of the bulk, I felt fat. I couldn't wait to start reducing the calories and getting rid of the belly! (I'll post pictures when I've finished my cut).

Things I've learnt:

  • Patience. Patience is the key to this body recomposition stuff. Unless you are one of those people blessed with natural leanness, you will want to bulk slowly. It's frustrating to see the abs disappear!
  • Rate of muscle gain - Lyle has an excellent article on muscle gains. He gives a figure of 1/2 lb per week as good going for a natural male. My findings agree with this and, as a small guy, I estimate I can gain 1/2 lb every other week. During this second bulk, I averaged 1/2 lb per week, but by the end of it, I was quite a lot fatter.
  • It takes years to build significant muscle, unless you are naturally stocky (thick wrists and ankles) or taking steroids.
  • Injury sucks. I've been training consistently for over two years and until November, was injury-free. I was stupid because I figured that, since it didn't hurt when I was lifting, I was OK to carry on. I was just a little sore outside of the gym when moving my shoulder to its limits (stretching etc.). I kept training and it kept getting worse. If I had admitted I was injured and gone to see a physio earlier, I would have healed faster and therefore made better progress.

Things I'm going to do next time:

  • Go even more slowly. I'll aim for 1/2 lb every other week.
  • Add some cardio. I'll admit it - I'm a cardio-phobe. Ever since I got lean by lifting weights a couple of times per week and doing zero cardio, I haven't wanted to go back. I know it's good for me, and I did enjoy the running when I got reasonably fit. I maintain that when cutting, cardio can be counter-productive, but when bulking I think it will help me stay lean and healthy. 
  • Add flexibility exercises - I think I'll do some yoga as an antidote to the heavy weights.
  • Make sure I select a balance of exercises. Since adding more rowing movements and doing some external shoulder rotation exercises (see the animation at the bottom of this link), my shoulder is a lot happier. I'm now doing an equal amount of pushing (e.g. bench) as pulling (e.g. row).

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