The Truth About Bulking
Is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea?
Let’s Get Fat!
To gain size you have to eat, right? I think we can all agree with that. If you’re a natural trainee you won’t be able to add a significant amount of muscle mass unless you’re consuming enough calories and nutrients to support muscle growth. If you’re not ingesting enough nutrients, your body won’t be in an optimal muscle-building state. In fact, if you don’t eat enough, chances are you might even lose muscle mass despite training hard.
So on the surface it looks like the good ol’ advice about following the ”see food diet” to grow bigger seems logical. The more you eat the more you grow, right?
Not so fast!
While it’s true that if you aren’t consuming enough nutrients your muscle growth will be impaired, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the more you eat the more you grow. Actually, it is true: the more you eat the bigger you’ll get. However, this doesn’t mean that you’ll become more muscular!
This brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves and what I believe to be one of the biggest mistakes a person can make when training to build an aesthetic and muscular physique: eating way too much junk to grow bigger and accepting a large body fat gain in hope of stimulating more muscle growth.
You see, when you’re a natural trainee your body has a limited capacity to build muscle. The amount of muscle you can build is dependent on your body’s capacity to synthesize new muscle tissue from the ingested protein. Your body’s protein synthesis capacities are dependent on your natural Testosterone levels, your Testosterone to cortisol ratio, your insulin sensitivity, and your muscle fiber makeup, among other things.
You can eat any amount of food you want; you simply can’t change your protein synthesis limit naturally. Eating more food than your body can use to build muscle will simply lead to more body fat being gained.
I like to use a construction worker analogy to explain this. Imagine that your muscles are like a house you’re trying to build. The bricks used to build the house represent the amino acids (from the ingestion of protein) while the money you’re paying the workers (so that they’ll do the work) represents the carbs and fat you eat.
Finally, the workers represent the factors involved in the protein synthesis process (Testosterone mainly) and the truck bringing the bricks to the workers represent insulin (which plays a capital role in transporting the nutrients to the muscle cells).
If you don’t give the workers enough bricks (protein) they won’t be able to build the house as fast as they could. So in that regard, an insufficient protein intake will slow down muscle growth.
Similarly, if you don’t pay your workers enough (low carbs or fat intake) they won’t be as motivated to work hard. As a result, the house won’t be built very rapidly. In fact, if you really cut the workers’ pay, they might even get mad, go on strike, and start demolishing the house (catabolism due to an excessively low caloric intake). So in that regard, not consuming enough protein or calories to support muscle growth will lead to a slower rate of gains.
Now, what happens if you start to send more bricks (increase protein intake) to the workers? Well, they’ll be able to build the house more rapidly because they aren’t lacking in raw material. However, at some point, sending more and more bricks won’t lead to a faster rate of construction because the workers can only perform so much work in any given amount of time. For example, if your crew can add 1000 bricks per day to the walls, giving them 2000 bricks per day will be useless: it exceeds their work capacity. So the excess bricks will go to waste (literally).
In the same regard, if you increase your workers’ salary (increase caloric intake) chances are their motivation will also increase and as a result they’ll build the house faster. However, just like with bricks, there comes a point where increasing the workers’ salary won’t have any effect on the house-building rate: the workers will reach their physical limit. Once this limit is reached you can increase their salary all you want; they won’t be able to add bricks to the house any faster.
What I’m trying to say is you can’t bully your body into building muscle by force-feeding it. Adding nutrients and calories will have a positive effect on muscle growth until you reach your saturation point. After that, any additional calories will be stored as body fat.
So while it’s true the more you eat the bigger you’ll get, the additional weight will be in the form of fat, not muscle tissue.
How Much Muscle Can We Really Build?
The origin of the problem lies in the belief that our bodies can build a lot of muscle fast. Simply put, the average trainee has unrealistic expectations when it comes to building muscle.
I can’t state a precise number, but the average gym rat (especially the younger members of said group) believe that gaining twenty pounds of muscle in three months is ”normal.” In fact, I’ve seen many young lifting aficionados complaining about only gaining ten pounds in two months of training! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your body (if you aren’t using growth-enhancing drugs) can’t build that much muscle that fast… not even close.
Normally I don’t have any problems with people who have high expectations. However, in that particular case, the belief that it’s possible to grow that fast can often lead to erroneous dietary approaches or even drug use (both out of frustration from not gaining twenty pounds in two or three months of training). So I’m here to set things straight. Many of you won’t like what I’m about to say, but it’s the truth.
Under the best possible circumstances (perfect diet, training, supplementation, and recovery strategies) the average male body can manufacture between 0.25 and 0.5 pounds of dry muscle tissue per week. That is the amount your natural body chemistry will allow you to build. So we’re talking about around one or two pounds per month. It may not sound like much, but that can add up to twelve to twenty pounds over one year of training.
Understand that it’s possible to gain more weight without adding fat because when you increase your muscle size you also increase glycogen and water storage in those muscles. More muscle equals more glycogen.
A trained individual can store up to 40g of glycogen per 100g of muscle tissue. So if you’re gaining ten pounds of new muscle (4545g) you’ll also increase glycogen storage by around four pounds (1.8kg). So if you gain ten pounds of muscle, your scale gain will actually be closer to fourteen pounds (if you didn’t gain any fat).
Chances are if you’re gaining more than three pounds per month, you’re gaining some fat.
Body Image As An Enemy
“But I gained fifteen pounds in three months and I didn’t gain fat.”
This is something I hear often. If it’s not possible to gain more than a few pounds of muscle per month (or around six pounds over a three month period) how come you see so many people claiming to have gained heaps of muscle without getting fatter?
It’s most likely due to what I call the ”lean threshold.” You see, there’s a point (a certain body fat percentage) where you start to look lean (around 10% for most men). There’s also a point where you start to look fat (around 18-20% for most men). Then in between you have a certain zone where you basically look the same; you aren’t lean enough to look defined so you don’t really have any muscle separation.
At that point, even if you gain a few pounds of fat, you won’t visually see the difference. This is compounded by the fact that you’re seeing yourself every day, so you might not notice the small changes in appearance. Most men won’t be able to see a visual difference in muscularity between 13 and 16%. But if you’re 200 pounds, going from 13 to 16% body fat can mean a six pound gain in fat!
So a guy could very well have gained six pounds of muscle, six to seven pounds of fat, and two pounds of glycogen and water over the three month period, and he’ll actually believe that he gained fifteen pounds of solid muscle because he looks to be about the same body fat percentage.
Now, repeat that over a few training cycles and you have a guy who could end up with a gain of fifteen to twenty pounds in body fat! One day he’ll wake up and find a fat bastard looking back at him in the mirror, then he’ll need to diet down to look remotely decent! Which brings me to my next point…
Bulking Up Then Dieting Down: Good or Bad?
Traditionally, bodybuilding training and nutrition has been divided into bulking and cutting phases. Both phases use extreme approaches, although the strategy used is the opposite: when you’re in a bulking phase the objective is to get big without really concerning yourself with fat gain.
During that phase you eat as much food as you can handle (some even recommend force-feeding yourself) and don’t perform any cardio or physical activity that might slow down your weight gain. Success in that type of phase is normally measured by the increase in scale weight, without much regard to appearance.
The reasoning is that you’ll be able to diet off the fat afterward. Then you start a cutting phase in which the objective is to shed as much fat as possible. To do this, calories are drastically restricted and cardio or other physical activity is increased to speed up the fat loss process.
During the bulking phase you gain a lot of weight and (supposedly) muscle, while during the cutting phase you starve off the fat and keep (again, supposedly) the muscle you gained. On paper it looks great. However, there are several problems with that approach:
Problem #1: As I mentioned earlier, you can’t force your body to add more muscle simply by eating more. Once you reach a point where you’re giving your body as many nutrients as it can use to build muscle (the limit rate permitted by its natural biological properties), simply adding more food won’t lead to more muscle growth. Instead it’ll lead to an increase in weight in the form of body fat.
Problem #2: For a natural trainee, it’s virtually impossible to lose a significant amount of fat while gaining muscle. That’s one thing you can be sure of: when you’re cutting calories to lose fat, you won’t add muscle. In fact, in most cases you’ll lose some muscle in the process. So the time spent on shedding the fat you gained during your bulking season (an amount of fat that’s much larger than most people believe) is a period of time where you won’t be able to add muscle tissue.
Now, we know that your body can’t build muscle faster than its biological properties will allow. Since your body can’t be forced into adding muscle rapidly, the only way to add more muscle is to spend more time in a positive muscle-building state. When you’re severely restricting calories you aren’t in such a state.
So if you bulk for six months and cut for three months, three of those months won’t be muscle-growth months. If you want to gain more muscle you have to avoid non-building months. If you don’t gain a significant amount of fat while you’re gaining muscle, you won’t need to spend a lot of time dieting down, hence you’ll have more muscle-growth months.
Since most people will add around 1.5 pounds of muscle per month under ideal circumstances, and you can’t increase that amount by force-feeding yourself, which one of the following situations is better?
Situation A: Go on an all-out bulking phase, gain 25 pounds over a period of six months.
Around 5-10 of these pounds will be muscle (12 at the most) and the rest will be from glycogen storage (2-4 pounds) and fat (10-15 pounds). To shed the excess fat, you have to go on a severe diet. If you never cheat and are super strict, you can hope for one or two pounds of fat loss per week without losing muscle. So in the best case scenario, it’ll take you anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks to lose the fat.
However, fat loss isn’t linear. The body adapts to caloric restriction and ”falling off the wagon” will happen to most. So in “real life,” losing the gained fat (if you don’t want to lose muscle) will actually require 12 to 20 weeks of dieting. So over a 9 to 11 month period you gained around seven pounds of muscle (if you didn’t lose anything while dieting). That gives you an average of 0.6 to 0.75 pounds of muscle per month. Reported over a year, it comes up to a total of seven to nine pounds.
Situation B: Ingest a caloric excess, but just enough to give your body the required amount of nutrients for optimal muscle growth. You can still manage a gain of around 1.5 pounds of muscle per month, but the fat gain will be much lower.
So after the same initial six months, you also gained 5-10 pounds but only 3-5 pounds of fat. So you really have to diet only for around a month to lose what you gained. So you gain around seven pounds of muscle over a seven month period, or one pound per month for a total of around 12 pounds reported over 12 months.
Some observations regarding this example:
A. In situation B, you’re actually gaining more muscle over a year even though you aren’t gaining as much weight.
B. In situation A, you have to diet for 3-5 months out of the year to lose the gained fat, versus 4-6 weeks for situation B. Very few people like to eat a restricted diet. So having to diet for only one month versus 3-5 months is a big advantage if you ask me!.
C. Since you don’t have to diet as hard in situation B, the risk of muscle loss is much lower than in situation A. In fact, because of the possibility of losing a significant amount of muscle during the cutting phase, you could very well end up with no muscle gain after a year of bulking and then cutting.
Problem #3: Another problem with bulking up is fat cell hyperplasia. You can add size or volume to a structure either by making the existing components bigger (hypertrophy) or by increasing the number of components (hyperplasia). This holds true for fat cells.
Fat cells (adipocytes) are like little bags. The more fat you put in the bags, the bigger they get. However, the bags can only hold so much fat. But lucky for us (or not) our body is a fantastic storage machine built for survival. As a result, it can also increase fat storage by adding more fat cells. The more fat cells you have, the easier it is for your body to store fat. This is where the problem comes in.
When overeating for a significant period of time, your body increases its number of fat cells. While you can make the existing fat cells “smaller” by emptying their fat content (fat loss), it’s impossible to remove fat cells without surgery.
So your body can add fat cells, but it can’t remove them. This is a big problem: the more fat cells you have, the easier it is for your body to store fat. So by adding new fat cells to your body you’re actually making it better at gaining body fat as well as worse at losing it! By following an all-out bulking approach, you can stimulate adipocyte hyperplasia, which will make it harder to lose fat and easier to gain it over time.
So to recap:
A. Bulking up won’t lead to any more muscle growth than ingesting an ideal amount of nutrients. You can’t force your body to grow muscle by feeding it more and more.
B. By bulking up you’re actually reducing the amount of time per year where you can add muscle because you have to diet for a longer period of time to remove the gained fat.
C. Bulking up will, over time, improve your body’s capacity to store fat and reduce its capacity to lose it.
Of course, some people don’t care about having a good looking physique; all they want is to take up more space and look big in clothes. That’s fine if that’s what you want. And for these people, bulking up is okay since they don’t care about being lean.
However, I cringe when I see these people recommending the same approach to an individual (often a young kid) who wants to look muscular and lean. That’s just irresponsible.
So Why Do We Bulk Up?
If a true bulk is so bad, why is it recommended by so many people?
1. Because it’s part of bodybuilding’s tradition. Ever since the 60s, bodybuilders included bulking and cutting phases. However, even while bulking they wouldn’t gain that much fat because the amount of junk food available was much lower than today.
Bodybuilders from the 60s and 70s relied on steak, whole milk, and eggs when bulking up. They ate a ton of it, but it was still good, nutrient-dense food. Nowadays, bodybuilders focus on fast food, pizza, donuts, pastries, etc. when bulking up. So while in both cases the amount of food consumed is large, the quality of the food was much different.
2. The “bulking then cutting” approach is mostly a bodybuilding thing. However, keep in mind that competitive bodybuilders, those who are truly competition-minded, only want to look their best for a certain period of time: they want to hit their peak at a big show. Getting into stage shape demands so many sacrifices for so long that it’s only normal to allow yourself some culinary pleasures after a show.
However, the average trainee wants to look good all year long. What if you meet a girl while you’re bulked up? “Not with the lights on, honey. I’m bulking.”
The average gym rat also doesn’t want or need to get into stage shape (2-4% body fat); being lean and defined is enough. For most men, we’re talking about a body fat percentage of around 8%, which is attainable by everyone if proper efforts and strategies are used. And once you reach 8% body fat, it isn’t all that painful to maintain that level, certainly not to a point where you become so deprived that you gotta go on a all-you-can-eat eating spree for three months out of the year!
3. Competitive bodybuilders who use the bulking-cutting approach use performance-enhancing drugs which change their body chemistry. (Shocker!) Anabolic substances such as steroids, insulin, IGF-1, and hGH can bypass the body’s natural biological state.
Remember, I told you a natural athlete is limited in the amount of nutrients he can use to build muscle by his own body chemistry? Well, this doesn’t apply to the drug-using bodybuilder. By artificially enhancing his body chemistry he can bypass his natural muscle growth limit. So in that regard, eating a ton of food will work for the enhanced athlete even though it doesn’t for the natural one.
4. Performance-enhancing drugs can also drastically speed up the fat loss process. Substances like thyroid hormones, clenbuterol, DNP, hGH, etc. can make your body lose fat at a much faster rate. So enhanced bodybuilders can afford to gain 20-30 pounds of fat in the off-season because the fat-loss drugs will allow them to quickly lose it.
Plus, the use of steroids can prevent muscle loss while dieting, so it’s possible to restrict calories even more (thus losing fat faster) without risking losing muscle mass – a luxury that a natural trainee doesn’t have.
5. Many people use the bulking up excuse to justify eating a ton of crappy food. “I can eat this tub of ice cream and this pizza, I’m bulking!” The fact is that most people don’t have the discipline and determination to make the lifestyle changes necessary to build an aesthetic, lean, and muscular physique. But instead of saying that they’re too weak-minded to drop the junk out of their diets, they decide to make it acceptable to eat a bad diet by using bulking-up as an excuse.
If these people had both a strong sense of self-discipline and a desire to “bulk up,” they’d jack up their caloric intake but only eat bodybuilding-friendly food. However, since this would mean not eating ice cream, fast food, and cookies, not many people actually bulk up that way. This is yet another indication that bulking up, for most, is just an excuse to not eat properly.
The Illusion of “Big?”
Body fat can really be an odd thing. When someone carries a significant amount of muscle mass, adding a layer of fat can actually make him look much bigger when wearing clothes. That’s because his muscle mass gives him a solid foundation, so the fat added over the muscle (up to a certain point) will make his body occupy more space while keeping a certain amount of shape, at least when wearing clothes.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a certain range of fatness where the body doesn’t look visually different when it comes to definition and muscularity. When going from 13 to 16% body fat, you’ll basically look to be at the same degree of fatness. In fact, some people who store body fat evenly might even look just as lean at 18% as 13%. So if someone goes from 220 pounds at 13% to 230 pounds at 16%, he’ll basically have the same amount of muscle and ten pounds more fat, but he’ll actually look bigger and more muscular because his degree of leanness will appear to be the same (while he occupies more space.)
So we could say if you aren’t lean, adding body fat, up to a point, will make you look more muscular even if you aren’t gaining muscle mass. This can make people underestimate the amount of fat they carry and put them in a situation where, over time, they can accumulate a lot of excess fat.
Something like that happened to me when I was young. At 17 years of age I was 180 pounds with a 32” waist and around 13-14% body fat. To play football I decided to gain size and went on the ”see food diet.” I was consuming at least 10,000 calories per day (7200 of which where from weight gainer shakes). In six months I went up to 225 pounds.
I really believed it was all muscle. I was getting stronger and looked much bigger in clothes. My mother kept telling me that I was getting fat, but I thought it was because she was trying to discourage me from training. The sad thing is that my waist ballooned up to 40 inches, but I never really noticed because at the time my mother was buying my pants. They weren’t tighter (because she was buying larger ones) so I felt like I was just as lean.
Long story short, when I saw pictures of myself shirtless I went into shock. I was fat! It took me a whole year to drop back down to a size 32. The sad thing is that when I got back down to that size, I was down to 172 pounds. I actually lost eight pounds of muscle! I basically wasted 18 months of my life trying to gain muscle.
On the other end, losing body fat, at first, will make you look and feel smaller and less muscular. As I said several times, there isn’t much visual difference between 13 and 16%. So the first 6-10 pounds of fat you lose won’t make you look more defined. You’ll look the same (definition wise) but your clothes will be looser and you’ll feel smaller because your muscles will be flat from a lack of glycogen. So you’ll look and feel smaller without actually looking more defined. Not very encouraging!
In the past, I stopped several diets because of that fact. I’d diet for four weeks or so, feel small and look like crap, so I’d think ”the heck with it” and go back to my bulking habits.
Let me tell you this: a diet won’t make you look good until you drop down to at least 10% body fat. That’s the point where you start to actually look bigger even though you’re becoming smaller (because of the fat you’re losing). As you go down to 8% or so, people will actually believe that you’re gaining size as your weight goes down!
Simply put, when you aren’t lean, adding some fat will make you look larger and losing just a bit of fat will make you look smaller. But past a certain point (10%), you’ll look larger by the day as you’re losing fat. It’s all an illusion.
Here are some examples of this. First is Sebastien Cossette (a.k.a. Da Freak), a young bodybuilder I trained for his first competition. In the ”before” pics he actually weighs more than in the ”after” pictures (around 210 vs. 190-195) yet he looks much bigger and more impressive in the latter.
The second example is Christiane Lamy (my girlfriend), who’s a natural female bodybuilder as well as a trainer and nutritionist. In the ”before” pics she’s around ten pounds heavier than in the ”after” pics; however, I think it’s easy to see in which ones she’s the most impressive!
Finally, two last examples: Allen Cress and Mike Hanley who have been dieting and training hard. They show how definition can make you look much bigger, yet in both cases they were around 20 pounds heavier in the “before” pics. Here’s Alan:
And here’s Mike:
There are several good reasons not to bulk up, at least not in the traditional manner. Here are a few:
1. Very few people will ever set foot on a bodybuilding stage. Those who have no aspiration to compete train mostly to look good. Is looking good two months out of the year what you’re really after? Of course not. Most want to look good all year long!
I don’t mean be stage-ready 365 days a year, but being at a body fat percentage where you look lean and muscular. In my opinion, someone who’s training for aesthetic purposes should never go above 10% body fat. Trust me, 10% is actually not that lean! But it’s a point where muscle definition and muscularity are sufficient to make you look very good. It also leaves you within four weeks or so of being in superb, super-lean condition.
So what if you’re at 13% body fat and don’t have that much muscle? Should you bulk up? No! You should go down to 10% then gradually increase your nutritional intake until you reach a point where you’re gaining 1.5 to 2 pounds per month. This will allow you to gain muscle at your optimal rate while staying at 10%.
2. The leaner you are, the better your body becomes at nutrient partitioning. This means that lean individuals are more effective at storing the ingested nutrients in the muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen) or in the liver (glycogen), and less effective at storing them as body fat. Simply put, leaner individuals can eat more nutrients without gaining fat.
3. The fatter you let yourself become, the more fat cells you’re adding to your body. As we saw earlier, this will make it easier to gain fat and harder to lose it in the future, not to mention that the fatter you are, the less insulin sensitive you become. This is one of the reasons why fatter individuals are more effective at storing nutrients in the form of body fat than their leaner counterparts.
4. Building a good looking body isn’t something that happens overnight. Many people have this distorted idea that within a year of training it’s possible to look like a competitive bodybuilder. Not the case!
Building a great body is a 24 hour a day job. It isn’t limited to the hour you spend at the gym; it’s about the lifestyle. By eating good all year long, you aren’t using a fad approach but rather changing your habits. It’s much easier to lose fat when you’re already used to eating well 90% of the time.
So Should I Eat Like a Bird?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should eat a low calorie diet year ’round. I’m not against eating large amounts of food. In fact, to build muscle you must ingest more calories than you expend every day. However, the message is to use the correct amount of food to allow your body to build muscle at an optimum rate. You shouldn’t stuff yourself trying to force-feed muscle onto your body.
The following table gives you an estimate of what your caloric intake should be set at depending on your lean body weight (total body weight minus fat weight. For example, someone who’s 210 at 12% body fat has a fat mass of 25 pounds and a lean mass of 185 pounds.)
|Caloric intake relative to lean body weight to support optimal growth
(considering a normal activity level)
|Lean Body Weight
(total weight – fat weight)
|Caloric Intake to
Support Optimal Growth
This caloric intake should allow you to gain around two to three pounds per month. If you aren’t gaining that amount, slowly increase your caloric intake until you reach that rate of growth (add 250kcals at a time).
If you’re gaining more than three pounds per month, you might be adding fat. If you’re gaining a lot more than three pounds (like 5-7 per month), reduce the caloric intake.
Take Home Messages
• Don’t get fat. In my opinion, no man needs to be above 10% body fat, and getting there isn’t that hard. It can take time if you carry a lot of fat, but every man can get there and maintain this level.
• You can’t bully your body into adding more muscle simply by overeating.
• You can limit your rate of gain by not ingesting enough nutrients. So adding good food if you’re lacking in that department will help you gain muscle faster, but past a certain point, continuing to jack up calories will only make you fatter.
• Have realistic expectations. You won’t gain 20 pounds of muscle in three months, not even in six months. Gaining 1.5 to 2 pounds of muscle per month is the most you can expect. And for most, gaining more than ten pounds of solid muscle per year (once they’re past the beginner stage) will be very rare. However, gain 5-7 pounds per year for ten years straight and you’ll be one huge beast!
• Being lean makes it easier to stay lean and to gain muscle through better nutrient partitioning. Getting fatter makes it easier to gain more fat and harder to lose it.
• Trying to gain muscle mass should never be a justification for eating crap. If you want to eat a junk diet, at least have the decency to admit it’s because you like your food too much to give it up. Don’t try to pass it off as a “bulking diet.” Pizzas, Big Macs, and donuts don’t have higher anabolic properties than clean food!
Somebody had to say it and it was me. I’m tired of seeing young kids with good potential, who are lean and have nice shapes to start with, ruin their bodies by following the bulking advice from self-proclaimed Internet “gurus” who advise them to eat as much food as they can, even junk food if it can help them jack up their calories. All this will accomplish is helping them add heaps of fat to their lean bodies.
I agree that a lot of young lifters don’t eat enough to support maximum muscle growth, but eating junk or super-excessive calories isn’t the way to go. The basic message is good: if you aren’t gaining muscle, you’re probably not eating enough. However, that doesn’t mean you should eat too much and it doesn’t mean you should eat crap!
Think about it.