I’ve been a personal trainer in London for over 10 years now, and I’ve been interested in healthy eating and fitness for a lot longer than that. When I was a kid I was really skinny, and this drove me to find ways to build muscle, bulk up, and improve my physique.
When I say skinny, I mean really skinny. Part of the problem was that I was a slow eater, and a fussy eater. So I simply wasn’t getting enough calories or nutrients during key periods of childhood growth. Ironic when so many kids these days are obese, largely thanks to the junk food industry’s domination of the high street, TV screens, advertising billboards, supermarket shelves, you name it.
I was also burning up calories like crazy. As a kid, I had a very fast metabolism. As you probably know, the majority of the calories you burn are due to your BMR, your basal metabolic rate, which are all the key functions of your body while at rest. In addition, I was cycling a lot, and swimming at weekends. All this burnt extra calories, so I always stayed very lean.
In my mid-teens, I ate more, but it was often the wrong stuff. My knowledge about nutrition was fairly patchy, and I fell for a lot of poor advice, like ‘to bulk up, eat anything you like’. So I ate Jaffa Cakes, whole packets of them, and swilled down sugar-rich protein shakes. This had the unfortunate effect of making me ‘skinny fat’ – skinny chest and shoulders, fat bum.
I bought a Bullworker, and did exercise sessions in my bedroom, but the resistance was never enough (and the technique never good enough) to make a real difference. Pushups would have been more effective. I also bought one of those bendy metal bars made up of a tightly coiled spring with a handle at each end, which sprang back in your face if you lost your grip. More about the exercise side of the equation in my next blog post.
Since then I’ve learnt a lot about nutrition and exercise, so I’m armed with the right knowledge. I’m now a healthy 86kg (13 stone 7 lbs, or 189 lbs to use the American system), which is ok for a 6’1″ guy (185 cm). The other key statistic of course is body fat percentage, which currently stands at 13.5%.
My goal is to reach 14 stone (ie – 89kg, or 196 lbs) while reducing my body fat to 12%. It would be great to get my body fat lower (to show my six pack, which is hiding right now), but given that I like to eat plenty of foods relatively high in fat/cholesterol (almonds, avocados, oily fish, beef, eggs) together with complex carbs (oats, sweet potato, bulgar wheat), I know it’s a real challenge to bulk up and reduce body fat percentage simultaneously.
How fast should you try to bulk up? Aim for an average of 1 lb a week. Any faster than that, and you’re likely to pile on too much body fat.
My top nutrition tips to bulk up and build muscle
1. Don’t avoid fat. Fat is vital for your health, and actually boosts your testosterone levels, which helps you build muscle. Stick to foods like salmon, mackerel, sardines, beef, lamb, eggs, almonds, olive oil. Whatever you do, avoid junk food like the plague. And the biggest evil of them all is trans fats (hydrogenated fats), a creation of the processed food industry. Do not, I repeat do not eat ready meals. The horse-meat scandal is the least of your worries when it comes to ready meals.
2. Eat plenty of complex carbs, such as oats (not alpen or any fancy boxes of oat cereals, just plain oats in plastic packets, with no added sugar), bulgar wheat, quinoa (also rich in protein), and sweet potato. All these are ‘slow release’ carbs, which means the insulin reaction is moderate because the glucose is released into your bloodstream slowly. And eat the bulk of your complex carbs in your pre-workout meal, and post-workout meal. Eat fewer carbs on your rest days. Carbs are for energy. Excess carbs (ie once your glycogen stores are full) will be stored as fat.
3. Eat some protein with ever meal/snack. A lot of the protein-rich foods I recommend are in point number 1 above, as they’re the foods rich in good fats too.
4. Eat 6 meals/snacks a day. Never skip meals.
5. Eat plenty of veg, and more veg than fruit. In fact, don’t eat more than 3 portions of fruit a day. The ‘5 a day’ message is a vague and misleading health message at best, because it makes no distinction between fruit and veg. The problem with fruit in excess is that only your liver can metabolise fructose (fruit sugar) and any excess is converted to fat. Ideally eat 2 fruit a day (make one an orange for the vitamin C), and 6 portions of veg a day. Yes six! And mainly green veg like broccoli, spinach, spring greens, green peppers.
6. Get plenty of sleep. This is when your muscles grow and your body repairs itself. Assuming you’ve exercised right.
7. Exercise effectively for muscle growth and healthy weight gain (this will be the subject of a separate blog post coming soon)
As a personal trainer, most of my London clients want to lose weight, but I have some who want to build muscle and bulk up. Those who want to bulk up are often stressed at work, get too little sleep, eat too much processed food and not enough real and nutritious food, and skip meals.
Look out for my blog on muscle-building workouts, coming soon…..