Mass Made Simple

by Dan John

A heavy bar across your back and peanut butter sandwiches in your belly: it's time to build mass the Dan John way!

Coach Dan John’s football team just won their second straight state championship. No surprise really. Building big strong athletes is, after all, what Dan is all about.

Now Dan is thinking about next season. Mainly, he’s thinking about how he’s going to get his juniors to put on some unadulterated muscle so they can play with the big boys on varsity next year.

Luckily for them, Dan knows a thing or two about packing on muscle mass.

Luckily for T Nation, he’s going to share that same info with us. It’s pretty cool stuff, too: a brutal blend of heavy strength training, high-rep squats, and complexes.

Dear skinny bastards: This one’s for you.

Forty Pounds of Mass

Oh, I know, everyone is an expert on weight gain. The Internet is flooded with 145 pound skinny-fat experts.

Here’s a summary of their mass-gaining methods: Stick a bunch of big words together in a row, or pull out a thesaurus and just jam synonyms into every sentence. Bam! Your audience will instantly grow bigger.

Recently at a workshop I was held hostage by a guy arguing that back squats are superior to front squats because of hamstring recruitment. The problem was that this guy, I was later told, had never done a squat in his life. Another expert.

Actually, I’m a fairly good example of actual bulking. In a four-month period, without steroids (always a caveat), I put on forty pounds, going from 162 to 202. What’s interesting about my four-month, forty-pound gain was what I was doing before I started to gain size. Why? Well, it’s probably what you’re doing now.

At a bodyweight of 162 pounds, I benched heavy and hard nearly every day. At a bodyweight of 162 pounds, I did lat pulldowns, a variety of curls, lots of ab work, and I moved from machine to machine quickly. Then I met Dick Notmeyer and the scale began to move.

At Dick’s place, there was a bar on the floor and a squat rack. Three days a week I walked over to the bar on the floor and moved it overhead a bunch of different ways. Two days a week I squatted the bar.

Soon, I was always hungry, so much so that I famously ate sandwiches just before dinner so I wouldn’t be hungry while I was eating.

Dick had me weigh in every day, and it was shocking to watch the numbers go up daily. I came home one day after working out and my brother, who hadn’t seen me in a few weeks, looked up from the table and said, 'Holy shit!"

Folks, that’s a bulking program.

If you miss seeing someone for a few weeks and they don’t recognize you, well, you have dialed it in. If, in two months, you find yourself smaller than when you started: welcome to the club. Most people who want to 'bulk" fail.

Why? Because:

  1. They do too much of the things that get them tired, but not big.
  2. They do too little of the things that get them big and really tired.

Read on and I’ll explain.

The 3 Principles of Bulking

It’s a formula you can bank on:

1. You must get stronger, but you can get there with any intelligent basic program.

I’ve fallen in love with Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program because, well, it works.

You need to do two things to get stronger: add weight and do more reps. The answer has never been: lift light weights for high reps, or lift heavy weights for few reps. The answer remains: Lift heavy weights for high reps.

2. The other part of the formula is as old as the rack. You need to do some serious squatting.

In the March 1980 edition of Ironman, Jack Kirwan offered a short article: 'A Seminar by Tom Platz." The honesty and candor of Platz was always his hallmark, and, if you didn’t notice, the size of his thighs. His answer to small arms, small chest or whatever was simply to load the body up by squatting.

To repeat: The answer is squatting.

3. Finally, you literally need tto spend more time on the bar.

No, I didn’t say “at the bar.” Bourbon and squats don’t mix. I’ve tried that workout. Trust me on this. No, the single best way I know to get more time with a bar in your hands is to use complexes.

As you’ve read about in recent T Nation articles, complexes involve cycling through a series of exercises without putting the bar down, performing all the reps on one exercise before moving to the next. It’s tough. You’ll whimper. Then you’ll want to do it again. (But not right away.)

Putting It All Together

The magic in a bulk-building program is putting these three elements together and surviving the workouts.

First, let me say this: Ideally, the best way to get ready for a bulking program is to lean out first.

Although it’s counterintuitive, in my experience the athletes who’ve made the best gains have just come out of something that ate huge amounts of resources and time and energy and calories. The body adapted to that load and was primed to gain size, to adapt to any future crisis. That is why football players in December and wrestlers in March tend to put on ten to twenty pounds seemingly overnight.

How do you lean out? I think having you walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine consuming only protein and fats would drive down your body fat levels. You might as well walk barefoot, too, to regain the strength in your feet, toes, and ankles. Next, you’d move to a warm, sunny place and begin the serious training.

Not practical? Okay, fine. Leaning out can be done in a variety of ways, but I refuse to ignore the Velocity Diet. The great lesson of the V-Diet for me is that I didn’t take in enough protein previously. I also agree with Chris Shugart’s basic contention that the really important changes are psychological.

Now, I understand that few people will take my advice about leaning out first. If you ever get a chance to actually try this order – leaning out followed by bulking up – you’ll be amazed at the difference.

So, how do you put the workouts together? Like this:

Element 1 – The Basic Strength Program

For getting stronger, I’d like you to consider doing four basic strength movements. Jim Wendler recommends the back squat, the military press, the deadlift, and the bench press. Use with a low-volume approach with one serious set of 'as many" on the last set.

We’ve tweaked it for our athletes like this during the week:

  • Day One: Front squat and bench press. We do front squats in the strength part of the workout. The back squats are for high reps.
  • Day Two: Deadlift and military press.

It takes about fifteen minutes or so for the athlete to get in some light warm-ups then do the three serious sets of each exercise. The last set is 'as many" and that’s the only number we record. If your reps are moving up on a weight then you’re getting stronger (the word 'duh" can be used now), but, for whatever reason, people miss this simple point.

If you’re doing something else (and there are dozens of basic strength programs) that’s fine, but double check the amount of time you’re taking to get the work done. Basic movements and basic training can be done much more efficiently. I had great success years ago training only two days a week with simple movements.

Element 2 – The High-Rep Squat

Now, during the bulking phase, the next exercise is the high-rep back squat. Tom Platz recommended this:


  • 135 x 10
  • 225 x 10
  • 275 x 6
  • 325 x 3
  • 345 x 3
  • 345 x 3
  • 275 to exhaustion


  • 135 x 10
  • 225 x 10
  • 275 x 5
  • 325 x 5
  • 325 x 5
  • 325 x 5

For my athletes, I allow a two-week breaking in period. Why? Because if you’re coming in from a sport (or that little six month hike I mentioned) anything you do the first two weeks will increase the number on the scale at the weigh-in.

Here’s exactly what we do:

Back Squats

Week One

  • Day One: One set of 30 with 95 pounds
  • Day Two: Two sets of 30 with 95 pounds

Week Two

  • Day One: One set of 30 with 95 pounds. One set of 30 with 115 pounds
  • Day Two: Three sets of 25 with 115 pounds

The ash-colored faces of my athletes on the week two workouts 'indicates" that something good is happening! From there, we’ll strive for one back squat workout a week with a heavier and heavier weight and the other workout strives for more reps.

So, it could be something as simple as this:

Week One

Day One:

  • Warm-up
  • 185 x 10
  • 205 x 10
  • 225 x 10
  • 275 x 5
  • 315 x 5

Day Two:

  • Warm-up
  • 185 x 5
  • 205 x 5
  • 225 x 20 x 15

Week Two

Day One:

  • Warm-up
  • 185 x 10
  • 225 x 10
  • 275 x 5
  • 315 x 5
  • 335 x 3

Day Two:

  • Warm-up
  • 185 x 5
  • 205 x 5
  • 225 x 25 x 20

So, there’s no secret to bulking. You have to load the iron and squat down. Then, come back up.

Give yourself about four weeks after the break-in period to focus on the high rep squats. Then, stop. For clarity, two weeks to break in, four weeks to push the weights and the reps up, then, move on.

Element 3 – The Complexes

We’ve had great success using complexes to really increase the time under load for our athletes. If you’re unfamiliar with them, try something this simple one:

  1. Clean the weight eight times
  2. Do eight military presses after the last clean
  3. Lower the bar to the back of the neck and do eight back squats
  4. Pop the bar over your head and do eight front squats
  5. Lower the weight and do eight deadlifts

Here’s a great hypertrophy complex. With two kettlebells, clean and press the weight overhead. This is the starting position. Now do this:

  1. Press the kettlebells eight times
  2. Clean the kettlebells eight times
  3. Double front squat the kettlebells eight times
  4. Deadlift them eight times

I suggest you use complexes to be your general warm-up two days a week. For example:

Day One

Complex D

  • Upright Row
  • Clean Grip Snatch
  • Back Squat
  • Behind Neck Press
  • Good Mornings
  • Row

Do this complex for 3 sets of 8 with a light weight.

“Big Two”

  • Front Squat
  • Bench Press
  • Utilize the 5/3/1 Program
  • High Rep Back Squat: one set of 30 with 95 pounds

Consume food.

Day Two

Complex A

  • Row
  • Clean
  • Front Squat
  • Military Press
  • Back Squat
  • Good Mornings

Again, do three sets of eight.

“Big Two”

  • Deadlift
  • Military Press
  • Utilize the 5/3/1 Program
  • High Rep Back Squat: two set of 30 with 95 pounds

Consume food.

This would be a nice break-in workout.

The Bonus Day

I’d also strongly suggest one additional day a week. On this day, warm up and do five sets of three with any of the standard complexes striving to add weight each set.

Then, do any of the things you feel you missed, curls or whatever. Get in a good workout and go home. No, I’m not going to spell it out for you. If you choose not to do it, that is fine, too.

Nutrition and Other Factors

1. Eat three meals a day.

Snack three or four times a day. I’d prefer each meal to be a meat, egg, fish, or poultry-based meal with black, pinto, white, or navy beans and veggies, but you get a little wiggle room on a bulking program.

Snacks? Well, you can get away with dietary murder on a bulking program. Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches work for putting on weight. No, I can’t believe I wrote that, either.

2. If you really want to shock yourself, take fish oil.

Now, here’s an odd 'secret" that I use for my extremely motivated athletes: Continue to up the amount of fish oil capsules you take until you get a bit 'runny." (If you don’t know what I mean, you’ve never taken too many fish oil capsules.)

From that number, back off one or two and that’s the amount of capsules you need a day. If you’re taking Flameout (Buy at Amazon), it’ll be a smaller number than someone taking a cheap store brand because it’s so concentrated in fatty acids.

3. Recovery is important.

You must sleep. It’s okay to watch movies and television on a bulking program. I never recommend bulking programs to last too long, so it’s okay to become like a typical American for a few months.

Also, I really don’t want you to play basketball and train for a marathon and learn a new sport. Later, yes, of course, but not now.

4. Do not try to perform your sport at an elite level!

You’re focusing on something else for now. You may even find your skill eroding. That’s fine temporarily as you’re focusing on adding mass.


Bulking is basic. Remember that. If you try to do too much or get too clever during the six weeks, you’re not going to make the kind of progress that I’ve typically seen.

Honestly, you can expect a surge during the first two weeks that’ll convince you that the simple combination of strength training, high rep squats, and complexes actually works better than something more exotic and sexy.

Remember, I didn’t say it was easy, just simple.

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