by Benjamin Johnson T-Nation
How to Bulk and Keep Your Abs
Here’s what you need to know…
- Progressive overload applies to dieting. Just like with lifting, gradual increases in calories will help you take control of your gains without gaining excess fat.
- If you’ve been dieting you shouldn’t start a traditional bulk. Hitting your body with excess calories after being in a caloric deficit will lead to fat gain.
- The body wants to maintain homeostasis. So fast increases or decreases in calories will cause problems.
- Use reverse dieting to build muscle. Whether you’re starting from maintenance or from a diet, you can increase your food intake to build muscle, not fat.
- Bulking doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to your abs. In fact, if you gain more than 5% body fat on a mass cycle, you’re doing it wrong.
Yes, you should eat more calories if you’re looking to get bigger. But it’s a problem when you go from zero to sixty too quickly, and most people do exactly that. They add hundreds of calories to their diet overnight thinking they’re on their way to adding more muscle. But they’re not. They’re just getting fat.
Easing into a caloric increase makes all the difference. You’ll still build muscle, if you’re working out right, but you’ll stay lean too. Here’s how it works.
The Progressive Overload of Eating
The principle of progressive overload is fundamental in lifting. It means consistently and incrementally increasing the load or volume in your training. Every training program worth its salt utilizes some form of progressive overload. It keeps you moving forward. But when it comes to food, nobody talks about progressive overload. It works when adding weight to the bar and it works when adding muscle to your frame without gaining excessive amounts of body fat.
Dieting Gone Wrong
Let’s say your maintenance calories were 2500, and then you decided to reduce calories. It goes well, you drop fat, maintain muscle, and get shredded. Awesome. Now it’s time to go back to maintenance again and eat your original 2500-calorie diet, right? But because you dropped weight, your metabolic rate has also dropped. And now, instantaneously going back to eating those same 2500 calories can make you gain fat.
This metabolic downregulation is why you’ll see people pack on pounds right after doing a super strict diet. They either go back to “normal” or even rebound in body fat. If a quick return to maintenance can cause this, imagine what diving into an extreme bulk can do.
Homeostasis and Metabolic Rate
Your body is always working toward equilibrium, or homeostasis. It’s a natural process. It’s also the culprit behind the downregulation of your metabolism when you diet. When you’re in a caloric deficit, your body is already working on returning to homeostasis or equilibrium. How? By decreasing your metabolic rate in an attempt to close the gap caused by your caloric deficit.
A big player in this process is the hormone leptin. Leptin regulates your metabolism. If leptin levels are high, your metabolic rate will also be high. But when leptin levels drop, like when you’re in a caloric deficit, your metabolic rate goes down with it. Even if you’re strategically manipulating leptin levels with refeeds and cheat meals, leptin will drop when you diet down. Ever notice how your diet gets a lot less effective after the first month? It’s because your body is working towards homeostasis, down-regulating leptin secretion, and dropping your metabolic rate.
After a strict diet, you may feel ready for a ton more food, but your body isn’t. And if you’re going from that state of calorie restriction to an all-out bulk, then hitting that slow metabolism with an abundance of calories is like setting yourself up for failure – unless you do it the right way.
Reverse Dieting for Lean Gains
Reverse dieting means using consistent and incremental caloric increases to get killer muscle-building results. You gradually eat more without gaining fat. I’ve worked with people as they’ve packed on double-digit pounds of lean mass without gaining a single percent of body fat. Some even finished their reverse diet leaner than when they began.
At the heart of the reverse diet is the caloric progressive overload. Instead of overwhelming your body with too many calories all at once, you consistently eat just a bit more. It doesn’t have to be a ton to be enough. Assuming your training stimulates hypertrophy, adding a few extra calories each week works wonders.
It takes some time for your body, leptin, and metabolism to catch up (read: reach homeostasis) when you start eating more. It’s just like when you diet down; your body doesn’t reestablish equilibrium overnight. A properly programmed reverse diet takes advantage of this fact.
If you continually out-eat your metabolic rate, you’ll gain fat. It’s that simple. But when you strategically increase your caloric intake each week, you slowly condition your metabolism to rise. As you eat more and more, your metabolism increases and you’re left gaining lean mass without excess body fat.
It’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, though. Your eyes may be hungrier than your reverse diet. But you have to nail your numbers through the program to get the most out of it. It takes self control to eat more without eating too much.
Programming a Reverse Diet
The programming is simple. Start with a baseline – your current numbers for macros and calories – then increase from there. This approach applies whether you’ve been dieting down or not. However, if you haven’t been dieting, skip week one.
Only use week one if you’ve been eating below maintenance calories. Why? Because if you’re not coming out of a caloric deficit, you won’t need this extra bump of a 10% increase from baseline. You’ll be starting with a gradual 2-5% increase from the baseline which can help keep you from starting too quickly.
You also need to know your maintenance numbers in order to follow the program. If you’re already tracking everything, you’re set. If you aren’t (and let’s be real, everyone gets a little lazy with it during maintenance), start logging your food for a week or two to calculate your daily macro and calorie averages for your baseline numbers. Everybody is a little bit different when it comes to their maintenance numbers, so track your intake and calculate averages rather than just going by a formula, calculator, or website.
This is the starting point for someone who’s been eating in a caloric deficit.
Protein: Maintain the same protein intake. A general rule of thumb is one gram per pound of body weight.
Fats: Increase fat intake 10% from the baseline.
Carbs: Increase carb intake 10% from the baseline.
Each Subsequent Week
Protein: Maintain protein intake. Towards the end of the reverse diet you may consider slight increases in protein. This can help keep your macronutrient ratios from becoming lopsided, but isn’t necessary.
Fats: Increase fat intake 2-5% from the previous week. This range gives you a chance to customize your plan based on how aggressive you want your program and your particular body type. If you’re what’s traditionally thought of as an endomorph, your body likely responds well to a high fat diet. So increasing fats by 5% will be a good fit.
Carbs: Increase carb intake 2-5% from the previous week. Again, this range gives you a chance to personalize your program. If you’re a hard-gaining ectomorph, you want to eat a lot of carbs. So increasing carbs by 5% will be a good fit.
Follow the reverse diet until you begin to gain too much body fat. (“Too much body fat” will be a little bit different for everybody.) When you get to that point, you have two options:
- Tweak your program to something less aggressive and reevaluate.
- Stop the program and maintain your caloric intake.
Aggressive and Conservative Examples
Let’s say Bob just finished dieting down and was eating 175 grams of protein, 125 grams of carbs, 85 grams of fat, and 1965 total calories. But now Bob wants to gain some muscle without gaining fat. Below are a couple examples of the reverse diet calculations for Bob. Example one is an aggressive program with 5% increases on both carbs and fats. Example two is a cautious program with 2% increases on both carbs and fat.
These are just 8 weeks. An actual program would usually last longer. Also, bear in mind these are simply examples. Build your program the way you want using the framework above.
Example 1 – Aggressive
Protein Carbs Fat Total Cals
Start 175 125 85 1965
Week 1 175 138 94 2092
Week 2 175 144 98 2161
Week 3 175 152 103 2234
Week 4 175 159 108 2311
Week 5 175 167 114 2391
Week 6 175 175 119 2476
Week 7 175 184 125 2565
Week 8 175 193 132 2658
Example 2 – Cautious
Protein Carbs Fat Total Cals
Start 175 125 85 1965
Week 1 175 138 94 2092
Week 2 175 140 95 2119
Week 3 175 143 97 2148
Week 4 175 146 99 2177
Week 5 175 149 101 2206
Week 6 175 152 103 2236
Week 7 175 155 105 2267
Week 8 175 158 107 2298
Reverse Diet Vs. Traditional Bulking
Use today to start building the body you want tomorrow. If you’re looking to pack on slabs of muscle try a reverse diet instead of haphazardly eating more than your body can handle. You’ll still end up big and strong, but you’ll do it all while keeping lean. Let the gains begin.