The principles behind bulking - from Dan John's Mass Made Simple
Updated: May 5, 2021
"The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble."
Being a skinny guy entering the world of fitness, I've heard the word 'bulking' thrown around a lot, but most people seem to think this just means following a certain program with lots of arms and lots of chest work. Recently I managed to get my hands on a copy of Mass Made Simple by Dan John (2011), a veteran coach who looks like a GI Joe doll with an inflated upper body, but who has been around in the business longer than I've been alive.
Dan John is not a poet. Dan John does not write in the nicest style, often repeats himself and actually lost me a couple times with his out there metaphors. If you read this book you could probably guess that he looks like a high school jock, but...
What Dan John does do is: write things that make a lot of sense.
He starts off with the most important thing in his book Mass Made Simple, the principles of bulking. He knows that if you understand the principles behind bulking, even if you fail this time, or the next, you will still have the tools to keep going.
His principles look like this:
Everybody is the same, but just enough different to warrant some exploration.
Doing everything at once makes it difficult to discern what is working.
There is a need to spend time under a load.
There are some nutritional tweaks that work.
1. Everybody is the same, but just enough different to warrant some exploration. Everybody benefits from the same things: my grandma would benefit from squats just as much as your athlete cousin would, but they obviously wouldn't be able to move in the same way. So while the general movement of the squat will stay the same, it is worth figuring out what type of squat works best for you. A barbell back squat is a terrific option for the athlete, whereas simply standing up from a chair might be exactly what grandma needs.
2. Doing everything at once makes it difficult to discern what is working. Dan John uses a really good metaphor to explain this point. If you have aphids on your indoor plants and you chuck 10 different things at them and the aphids die but so does your plant, how do you know what worked? How do you know what killed your plant? What are you going to do next time you have aphids on your indoor plants? I've repeatedly said that fitness is a lifetime challenge, so Dan John's approach to change one thing at a time, see if it's working and chuck out anything that doesn't, really resonates with me.
3. There is a need to spend time under a load. I could have told you this day 1 out of university but it's more believable coming from a coach with 40+ years of experience:
"Barbells Machines Kettlebells Sandbags Rocks Sleds
They ALL work."
Obviously they all have their advantages and disadvantages but sitting here arguing about which one is best won't help anyone get bigger. As long as you are spending time under an adequate load, it doesn't matter if your weights come from precision German engineering or nature's own work. Spend loads of time under load!
4, There are some nutritional tweaks that work. Dan John has 3 pieces of advice he gives for just about any goal:
Eat more protein Eat more fiber Take more fish oil
Eat more protein - I 100% agree and say this to anyone who comes into the gym. You're just never going to eat too much protein in everyday life and it makes a huge difference to resistance training goals - whether it is weight loss or toning up.
Eat more fiber - An interesting statement for his top 3 pieces of advice, but really I can see nothing wrong with it. Fibre often comes from healthy foods like fruit and undoubtedly has a benefit to health.
Take more fish oil - This one made me raise an eyebrow. While fish oil has been proven as an effective supplement for multiple uses including reducing hypertension and depression, telling most people to take these tablets seems like overkill when the benefits are readily available from a diet involving regular fish. This statement won't harm you, but plays a little into the "forget about healthy living and just take these pills every day" narrative which seems to be in mainstream health society. I can't say I support this statement for everyone, but again, he's not wrong.
While these principles of bulking should underpin everything you do during your bulking period, there is way more to keep in mind. Below are some of the pieces of advice that I will be taking away from this book.
Bite sized nuggets of advice from Dan John that you should hear:
If you're really trying to put on muscle, learn to walk slowly, lie down and rest. In the absolute ideal world for bulking you could push yourself hard at the gym, then just relax in an armchair for the rest of the day so your body can focus on healing and repeat. Obviously not possible in the real world, but hey, try your best.
If you're really trying to put on muscle, stay warm. Wear a sweatshirt at the gym and jackets at home to avoid shivering.
Get lean first, then gain mass. You can read a lot about "dirty bulking" online where one puts on as much weight as possible, then tries to lose the fat to "shred" down. Dan John says don't bother, just try to gain lean mass in the first place.
Write down your training before you begin. A great way to get your head into the workout coming up, and to make sure you're not missing anything.
When in doubt, eat more protein.
Rest days are not a rest from your ultimate goal. They are just as vital as anytime you spend at the gym, so you should treat them as such.
Recharge - Dan John has this idea for recharge days, which are separate to rest days, where you go to the gym for 10-20 minutes and just do a bunch of movements to "recharge" the body. "You get sore from squats, but they are also the answer to that soreness". You don't need to have a perfect routine set up, Dan John recommends doing a combination of strength moves and stretches without sticking strictly to defined movements (e.g. doing Ed's really good leg stretch).
Carry a backpack with food, water and a jacket everywhere you go to remind you of your goal. Convenient not just for keeping snacks and drinks handy, Dan John says having this backpack will also ensure everything you do throughout your day will keep your goal in mind.
Ongoing success is the skill of assessing what works and what doesn't work for an individual. This is why Dan John is referred to as Mr 91. Because while some special offers provide a 90 day fitness kickstart, fitness is a lifetime journey, so what comes after the 90 days?
Weekly tweaks - once a week add in a different lifestyle strategy and write down how you feel it works for you. If at the end of the week you feel it wasn't working, get rid of it and move onto the next one. If it was going fine, then great! keep that in, you've got a new habit now.
Dan's recommended nutritional tweaks are: Have a protein shake before bed, have half a protein shake before working out, have half a protein shake after working out, add creatine into your diet and have a protein shake at breakfast.
*Side note: personally I've found great success with a protein shake an hour before sleep. Not just for bulking, but you wake up feeling more refreshed and less like you've just starved for 8 hours. Would recommend everyone tries this one! Especially if you're "not a morning person". Casein protein works best. And now, back to the scheduled program.
Tell all your friends if you don't achieve your goal you'll eat a can of dog food. The threat of failure is more motivating than the rewards of success.
Avoid the axis of evil foods - Soft drink, candy and chips/cookies. It's simple, eat like an adult, he says.
Carry a PB & J sandwich with you everywhere you go. While a hard-boiled egg and a can of tuna is better for you, good luck eating them every day. Remember this is about finding what works.
And finally, we get to Dan John's life motto:
"Show up. Do something"
"If you can just do this, you'll be ahead of most people."
I like this attitude, because he's right. The first step to doing anything is showing up and the second step is to do something. If you get those two done, no matter whether you think it was successful or not, you're doing much better than a lot of others and you're ahead of where you would be if you hadn't shown up!
Dan John clearly has a wealth of knowledge, not only for bulking up, but for general fitness as well. You would be wise to take what he says, find what works for you and throw out the rest.
By reaching the end of this post you have definitely shown up. The only question now is what are you going to do?
The information in this post was from Mass Made Simple by Dan John.