One of my fitness goals for 2018 is to build up muscle mass, especially in my arms and back. However, this has been one of my fitness goals since about 2013. It’s difficult for me to put on muscle mass, and over the years I’ve tried a few different sports and combed through many training resources in my efforts to bulk up. I’ve noticed a few things in that time: 1) There is a baseline assumption in most fitness resources that men want to get bigger and women want to lose weight, meaning there are very few resources tailored for women and AFAB non-binary folks who want to get bigger. 2) Gender panic is incredibly pervasive in workout culture. “Don’t worry, you won’t look masculine!” shriek fitness articles for women — which frames female masculinity as a negative trait while also erasing those of us who would like to look more masculine. (And I won’t even get into the infantilizing language in women’s fitness articles, other than to say not one piece written for men would use the words “tummy” or “booty.”)
That’s a lot of nonsense to wade through when you’re just trying to build impressive deltoids. So, this article is for Autostraddle readers who want to bulk up.
Disclaimer: I’m not a certified trainer — I’m a lifelong athlete and fitness geek who’s learned a lot through trial and error. Here, I’ll share my 5-year quest to get bigger and stronger, what has worked and not worked for me, and some tips and advice from fitness professionals. Use this article as a springboard for your own research and training experiments. I hope it helps on your journey to muscled splendor!
What Kind of Exercise Should You Do?
Part of the challenge of getting buff is figuring out which type of exercise gives you the most results. Another part is evaluating where you’re starting.
I spoke with Nathalie Huerta, owner of Queer Gym in Oakland, whose credentials include a degree in Sports Medicine from the University of San Francisco, and Personal Trainer and Sports Specialist certifications from NASM. She describes the path to muscle mass for a beginner: begin with a focus on range of motion and mobility work; then weight loss, if desired; then building up cardiovascular and muscular endurance; then more cutting down body fat; then building strength; and, finally, bulking — putting on lean muscle mass. Huerta says this process goes “from hardest to easiest to hardest,” and notes that the key component of bulking is good nutrition. If you’re somewhere in the middle of the training spectrum — say, at the building-strength phase — Huerta says bulking will still take a lot of effort. “Bulking is a full-time job,” she says, “you’re eating all day to fuel muscle growth.” I’ll dive into what foods best fuel your workouts later in the article; first, let’s talk about what exercises will get your muscles pumped. Here are some combinations I’ve tried over the years.
Powerlifting & Olympic Lifting
Big compound lifts — the powerlifting “Big 3,” or squat, deadlift, and bench — are considered staples when building muscle mass because they are highly efficient: each lift works multiple muscle groups (as well as stabilizer muscles), encouraging simultaneous growth in all those groups. Olympic lifting combines some of the foundational movements of powerlifting (specifically, the squat and deadlift) with explosive full-body movements, and is comprised of two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Powerlifting and Olympic lifting are two different sports, with different competitions and events, and female athletes are a growing force in both disciplines.
Powerlifting and Olympic lifting will certainly make you stronger, but they won’t necessarily make you bigger — at least not right away. Kristin Newman, MS CSCS and Athletic Director of Speed Power Strength in Oakland, explains: “When someone starts to lift for the first time, they’re going to find they get stronger without necessarily putting on size. Much of these ‘newbie gains’ are due to our bodies becoming more efficient at coordinating our muscle contractions to move weight … so for the first six months, your body doesn’t have to build muscle to get stronger, it just has to get your muscle fibers working better as a team.”
The full-body, muscle-coordinating movements of powerlifting and Olympic lifting can also quickly reveal the weak spots and muscular imbalances in your body. The squat looks simple yet is an incredibly complex movement, requiring strength and coordination between multiple parts of the body. Some people will take to squats naturally and be able to make fast progress. Others (like me) will hit a not-that-heavy weight where form falls apart, and spend the next 3 years tinkering with supplemental lifts, mobility work, lifting shoes and so on — none of which will help push past that plateau.
Despite my struggles with form and mobility, I continued to powerlift, but it was disheartening to work so hard and not see muscle growth. I loved lifting — hitting a big deadlift feels awesome — and I also thought it was the only avenue to big muscle gains. (That’s what most of the fitness resources I found were claiming, anyway.) What I was ignoring was the fact that powerlifting is a sport — and, just like any sport, it will suit some body types better than others. It wasn’t optimal for my 6’-tall, long-limbed, carrying-lots-of-old-athletic-injuries body. And that’s OK! Once I stopped being stubborn about that, I was able to find other primary activities that better suited my body, while keeping my powerlifting favorites (deadlifts and overhead press) in my workouts — and also continuing to squat and bench to the best of my ability.
It’s also worth mentioning that my struggles with powerlifting could have been addressed through coaching. I never worked with a coach; I had trouble finding ones in my area who primarily worked with women, and one (male) trainer I found told me I should focus on jogging instead. Additionally, as a lifting beginner, I cobbled together my own programming in a way that probably wasn’t the most effective and included a lot of trial and error.
Recently, however, lifting is gaining popularity and the number of gyms offering coaching programs is growing — it’s more likely than ever there’s one near you. “Buying coaching essentially buys you time,” Huerta says, explaining that if you go it alone (like I did) you have to piece together information and weed out the good from bad. A coach will do that work for you. Huerta recommends semi-private training (in small groups of 4-8) as the best way to get coaching at an affordable rate.
In summary, my two cents here is: Give powerlifting or Olympic lifting a try! If you fall in love with lifting, that’s awesome! Find a programming style you like — and a coach, if that’s in your budget — and get swole! (You can read up on powerlifting basics here.) But if you invest time in lifting — at least a year, to get past that 6-month strength-over-size window Newman mention — and are not seeing growth, don’t give up and think you can’t put on muscle mass. Instead, explore what other exercises might work better with your body.
Boxing + Weight Training
I had a lot of fun with this exercise combination. Boxing helped me get leaner, allowing more muscle to show, and get faster. Because my boxing gym had a partial weight room, I was able to keep up a basic lifting routine of squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses (though scaled-down in weight, as I often lifted right after boxing workouts). Our training drills focused on core and upper-body strength, and boxing itself comes with such an adrenaline rush — executing a great punch combination feels almost as good as doing a big deadlift. After 1.5 years at my boxing gym, I was in great shape overall, but I had not put on much muscle mass.
Bodybuilders focus on developing muscle mass, so if bulking is your goal, bodybuilding could be a good fit. You can follow bodybuilding training programs on your own to meet personal goals, or you can choose to train with the goal of participating in the figure competitions that are run worldwide by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB). I asked Kalli Youngstrom, nutritionist, personal trainer, and IFBB figure professional, about the best places to start if you’re interested in bodybuilding and figure competitions. “Bodybuilding.com is a really great resource for beginners,” she says, “and I always recommend reading first-hand experiences when it comes to competing. Ensuring that you hear the good, bad, and ugly is important when it comes to making an educated decision to step on stage.”
It’s worth noting that competition culture can be heavily gendered: female figure competitors usually wear jeweled bikinis, heels, and big hair. If this is something that fits your gender expression, and you’d like to compete, then learning about IFBB events and prepping for competitions can be a great motivator for your training. For me — especially as I’ve begun to identify as more masculine-of-center — competition culture doesn’t feel comfortable. So, rather than train to compete, I combine some aspects of bodybuilding training with other sports and activities that I enjoy. This gives me the benefits of muscle gain while allowing me to focus on other primary activities. (I’ll cover this in depth in the following Build Size and Strength section.)
CrossFit has been the programming that resulted in the most visible changes to my body. It incorporates many of the movements I love from powerlifting and Olympic lifting, so I get my heavy-weights fix, while also including high-intensity interval training (HIIT)-style cardio, which keeps me lean enough to show off my muscles. I don’t have to mess around with programming (all workouts are designed by the gym), and I have coaches on hand to ask about technique and how to best modify exercises, if needed.
“Coaches on hand” is a crucial point: I believe I’m seeing results in CrossFit because of the exercise itself but also because of coaching guidance (what Huerta recommends, and what I lacked with powerlifting). If you’re serious about putting on muscle mass, it might be worth it to work with a coach in whatever sport you choose — even if it’s just while you’re getting started — to set up a strong foundation and programming structure.
I’m really loving CrossFit right now, but there are some barriers to entry: it’s expensive (the most expensive gym I’ve ever had, and I prioritize spending on my fitness), and it’s important you land at a reputable gym. While traveling recently I decided to check out some local CrossFit gyms for drop-in workouts and, oh my, it was not pretty. If you try the CrossFit option, do your homework and make sure you’re going somewhere with good coaches and a commitment to safe workouts.
Build Size and Strength
Apart from the coaching question, why has CrossFit been my best bet so far in my quest to build muscle? I think the answer (which I wish I’d understood sooner — but that’s why I’m summarizing my 5-year learning experience for you in one handy spot!) has to do with training for muscle hypertrophy, or growth, as well as training for strength.
When I think of muscular hypertrophy I think of bodybuilding: training with high reps at lower weights to specifically focus on building muscle size. Of course, you’ll build strength with high reps/lower weights (HR/LW), but that’s not bodybuilding’s main goal. (Another form of this is called high-volume training, where you train with many sets for longer periods of time.) By contrast, the low-reps/heavy-weight (LR/HW) programming of powerlifting or Olympic lifting is focused on strength rather than size.
To concurrently build strength and size, build a routine that includes elements of HR/LW and LR/HW programming and best suits your fitness interests and abilities. If you’d like to focus on lifting, for instance, “combin[ing] bodybuilding with powerlifting and Olympic lifting … is a very healthy way to approach strength training,” Newman says, noting that the benefits of this cross-training go beyond increasing muscle mass. “High-rep exercises as seen in bodybuilding programs are very good for joint health,” she explains. “Tendons and ligaments don’t get great blood flow, so training for ‘the pump’ helps your joints get stronger and sturdier, protecting you against injury as you get stronger in your main lifts.”
This article by Mike Robertson on Bodybuilding.com explains each type of programming in more detail, and also lays out a training plan that switches between the two every 4-6 weeks to keep your body from settling into a plateau.
CrossFit programming also combines both styles of training, which may account for my marked increase in muscle mass since joining my gym. In a CrossFit workout we might combine burpees, pushups, and dumbbell snatches in a short but intense session (the HR/LW component). We also typically do strength work before workouts — focusing on building up to personal records, or PRs, in lifting staples such as back squats, deadlifts, and overhead press (the LR/HW component).
The takeaway here: Whichever exercise you choose, HR/LW programming will help you build muscle mass. LR/HW programming will help you build overall strength. Combining the two should get you on the path to bigger muscles. “I love ending my training with a circuit of single-joint, high-rep, bodybuilding-type movements,” Newman says. “I want to be strong and look like I’m strong.”
It Starts with Food
So! You have a workout plan in mind, and you’re ready to fuel it. Great! To build muscle mass, you’ll probably have to up your calorie consumption. Here are a few things to figure out:
- How many calories you need to eat to maintain your current weight, and how many you need to start adding mass. There are many calorie calculators online; try a few and compare results to determine your intake goal.
- How much protein to consume. Protein is essential to muscle repair and growth, and most lifting plans recommend 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
- How (and if!) you’re going to track your daily intake. Apps like MyFitnessPal are popular because they do a lot of the tracking work for you; you can also find nutrition information for foods from popular restaurants and grocery chains, and scan the barcodes on some food packaging to quickly input the food’s information.
If tracking your calories sounds triggering or otherwise bad for your mental health, consider these options:
- Macros. Many athletes prefer the macros approach, where instead of tracking calories you track grams consumed of carbs, fats and protein. Here’s a macronutrient calculator along with an explanation of how macros work.
- Choosing a nutrient to track. Let’s say you don’t want to track calories — you just want to make sure you’re getting enough protein. To do so, keep a tally of the protein you’ve consumed during the day, choose protein-rich snacks if you’re falling behind on your daily goal, and try to eat enough food in general. If, over time, you’re not building muscle, add in a few more snacks or meals to your daily routine.
For my own tracking, I keep an old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet (I’m not really an app person): I mostly care about calories and protein, and I tend to eat prep meals or favorite foods, so it’s easier for me to maintain my own food journal that tallies daily calories and grams of protein consumed. You can even get really old-fashioned and track by hand in a journal. The key is to pick the method that will be easiest for you to stick with.
How to Structure Your Meals
For your body to have a consistent supply of nutrients (in order to be actively repairing and building muscle throughout the day), most resources suggest eating 4-6 small meals a day. “I recommend focusing the majority of carbs pre- and post-workout and keeping fats and fiber lower in these meals to encourage quicker digestion,” Youngstrom says. “For the remaining meals of the day I prefer a good balance of protein, fat, and fiber from non-starchy vegetables.” For a pre-workout meal, she says, a favorite is “plant-based protein, oatmeal, and fruit,” and suggests something like “chicken and sweet potato or rice for post-workout.” For athletes who are bulking and have a hard time gaining muscle mass (otherwise known as “hard gainers”), she also recommends “an intra-workout carb drink … [for] extra calories and carbohydrates.”
What About Supplements?
Other than basic protein shakes (pea protein isolate with almond milk is my favorite), I have not waded into the fruit-flavored waters of supplements. In my estimation, if I’m eating a balanced diet with fresh whole foods, I shouldn’t need extra nutrient boosts. That being said, there is a booming market for supplements, with different products claiming to help with everything from rapid post-workout recovery to boosted muscle growth.
“The only two supplements I have continuously used and recommend to people are a good protein powder and creatine monohydrate,” Newman says. Creatine is a supplement that is reputed to increase your body’s ability to perform high-intensity workouts, and therefore promote faster muscle gain. “Don’t waste your money on expensive creatine with fancy additives,” Newman says. “Pretty much any creatine monohydrate will do.” She also recommends fish oil or glucosamine/chondroitin supplements for joint health, if needed.
Do you have a product that’s made a big difference for you? A brand you recommend? Let us know in the comments!
How the F@%$ Do I Eat So Much Protein?
Ah, protein. Muscles demand it! This is something I’ve consistently struggled with over the years. Following the 1-gram/pound formula, I need to be eating 175 grams of protein a day. Some days I don’t hit my protein goal. On the days I do meet my goal I usually:
- Have eaten animal protein in at least two meals
- Have consumed two protein shakes
- Have eaten at least one protein bar
I’d prefer to not eat meat or fish every day, but it’s usually the only sure-fire way to hit my protein goals. Rxbar protein bars, which are additive-free and made with egg whites and nuts, are one of my daily go-to snacks. For protein powder, whey, soy, and pea protein are popular options. Other great protein sources include cottage cheese, yogurt, fish, beans and eggs. If all of this sounds expensive, yes, it can be. What helps me keep costs down is meal-prepping: buying ingredients in bulk, making 10-12 meals at once, and refrigerating or freezing them for later.
Bulking & Cutting
“Bulking” and “cutting” are terms from the weightlifting world. For instance, competitive bodybuilders will “bulk” by calorie loading and working out hard to build mass (adding both muscle and fat) and then, pre-competition, they will “cut,” lowering their caloric intake (while still exercising in order to retain muscle) to strip away some of their excess fat. The third part of bulking and cutting is maintenance: instead of endlessly pushing your body to build muscle — which will eventually lead to overtraining and fatigue — maintenance acts as a reset period in which your body can adapt to its newly built muscle mass.
A “clean” bulk is when you track your food intake and eat to meet your goals. For instance, with the macros calculator linked above, you can input a goal of “Muscle Gainz” and it will calculate your macros with bulking surpluses in mind. If you’re using the calorie-tracking approach, adding about 300 calories to your maintenance levels is considered a good starting place for a bulk.
A “dirty” bulk, on the other hand, is more of a free-for-all approach to nutrition: you’re aiming to overload on calories and can do that however you want — pizza, ice cream, fried chicken, you name it. Dirty bulks are generally considered a bad idea by coaches and fitness writers: you’ll be better off in the long run, they say, if you’re working hard in tandem with fueling your body with a well-rounded healthy diet.
The key takeaway from the bulking/cutting model is that it takes a lot of nutrients to build muscle mass: if you’re lifting heavy but not getting enough calories, you won’t build as much muscle as you could — and you’ll get really tired, really quickly. This is important to keep in mind because it’s not productive to have competing goals. Meaning: If you want to add muscle and lose fat simultaneously, you may be fighting a losing battle. Bulking up means eating more (especially protein, complex carbs, and fats) and probably putting on some fat along with your growing muscles. You can cut later if you want to — and don’t forget the maintenance phases for recovery. It’s also worth noting that a bulk/cut/maintenance cycle shouldn’t be considered a permanent way to eat and train, but rather a plan for when you’re actively building muscle mass.
More Training Resources
As lifting has become a more popular activity, the how-to resources available online have continued to improve and diversify. You’ll occasionally have to wade through some of the gender panic and baby-talk I mentioned in the introduction, but there is good information out there. Here are some resources I’ve found particularly helpful:
- Bodybuilding.com: Recommended by Youngstrom, and a favorite resource of mine, this site provides good workouts and nutrition information, with many articles tailored for female athletes.
- Ask a Swole Woman: This Hairpin column is a favorite for readers of my Gym Class series. Presented in a question-and-answer format, Casey Johnston’s column gives readers a solid foundation to build strength, and tips and information for the journey.
- Meg Squats: Meg is a lifter and offers a variety of resources about nutrition and training through her website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.
- Starting Strength: This was my original programming when I started powerlifting; there’s a website with instructional videos, plus a training manual you can purchase. The big lifts are comprehensively described to keep you as safe as possible. While there are some AFAB-specific tips, most of the information is geared toward young cis men.
- Reddit Fitness: This is a general fitness resource. My friend Kelly, a powerlifter, recommends r/XXFitness, which is geared toward women; she also recommends r/Powerlifting and r/Weightlifting, and notes the community is generally courteous toward female and non-binary athletes.
- Facebook: I never thought I’d be recommending Facebook for anything (I am a noted Facebook curmudgeon). But one of the best things you can do when starting a new routine — lifting, boxing, CrossFit, or whatever activity you love — is find others who share your goals, whether that’s on a social-networking site like Facebook or through a group activity site like Meetup.com. Especially for women and queer folks, many fitness spaces can feel intimidating or unwelcoming. Connecting online with a likeminded group of queer powerlifters, for instance, will give everyone in the group a place to compare training notes, talk about protein-shake blenders, celebrate each other’s PRs, and maybe even meet up in real life (if possible) for workouts. Build your bulking community!
Where I’m at Now
Though I’m still chasing bigger biceps, my efforts to this point have not been in vain: especially with my recent switch to CrossFit as my primary activity, I’ve seen increased definition in my shoulders, upper arms, and back. I no longer fit into dresses I purchased 4-5 years ago because my lats have grown too wide. (Happily, I’ve been dressing more MoC lately, so I don’t miss those dresses too much.)
I’ve met several women recently who love climbing and bouldering, and I’m excited to give that a try next. Excitement has been an important constant in my bulking quest: I love working out, getting stronger, and trying new sports, so even when I get frustrated with my progress, I’m still having fun — and that’s the best part.
As I noted at the start of the article, my mission to get bigger muscles is an ongoing learning experience. If you have any tips or personal stories, I’d love to see them in the comments!