The Controlled-Carb Bulking Strategy

Gain Mass Without Getting Fat

The Carbohydrate Catch-22

Fact: If you want to make significant muscular gains from year to year, you'll need some carbohydrates in your diet.

Problem: Many of us pack on body fat just reading the word carb.

So what should the prone-to-pudge do? Wallow in ketogenic despair, never to eat a carb again for fear that it will turn to adipose tissue upon ingestion? Give up bodybuilding and pursue cake decorating?

Fortunately, I'm familiar with this situation. I come from an endomorphic background myself, and I've worked with hundreds of individuals who have similar body types. Over the years I've learned a lot of different methods to keep fat gain under control in the off-season, without limiting gains in hypertrophy.

Manage Your Carbs

You need insulin release during mass season. It's an extremely anabolic hormone, and also extremely anti-catabolic. Couple these properties and you have an awesome recipe for muscle gain.

For most people though, keeping carbs sky-high all the time will also result in massive fat gain. It might be fun to see the scale moving up every day, but when you look in the mirror a few months later, don't be surprised to see a sumo wrestler looking back.

But, consume too few carbs and you won't optimize lean gains. For those with less-than-stellar insulin sensitivity, carbohydrates must be used judiciously.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to set up a "carb-controlled" plan for lean mass gains. I'd recommend experimenting with each to find your optimal setup.

Quick Note: This Isn't a Plan for Fat Guys

These dietary approaches assume that you're relatively lean to begin with (visible abs and a lean lower back). If you're still on the softer side of things, prioritize fat loss before using one of these approaches.

When you're leaner you have better nutrient partitioning and are less likely to store extra calories as fat. You'll always have the genetic hand you're dealt (i.e. insulin sensitive or not, more endomorph than ectomorph, etc.) but you'll set yourself up for much better success by getting lean first.

Method 1: The Targeted Approach

Much like a targeted ketogenic diet plan, this approach places carbs only around workouts (pre, during, and post). The rest of the day will be zero to trace carbs (from vegetables and nuts). Off days will typically be zero to trace as well. This diet keeps insulin very quiet at all times except around the workout.

Start with setting protein somewhere around 1.5 to 1.75g per pound of LBM (lean body mass), and fat at about .5 to .75g per pound of LBM. For the peri-workout nutrition, keep total carbs to around 1g per pound of LBM.

For an individual with 200 pounds of LBM this might look something like this:

  • Off days: 325g protein, 125g fat (2425 calories, not including incidentals)
  • Training days: 325g protein, 125g fat, 200g carbs (3225 calories, not including incidentals)

Remember, this is just a baseline – a place to start. After a week or two on the diet, you may find that you need to increase or decrease your carbs (or increase or decrease your protein and fat) to make suitable progress.

As with any dietary approach, nothing is set in stone and you'll need to experiment, monitor, and adjust as needed to keep things headed in the right direction.

Method 2: The Modified-Carb "Back-Loading" Approach

This approach works best for those who train in the late afternoon or evening. It's similar to the method above, but keeps carbs to just post-workout and the hours following – typically during the hours you're awake after training.

If you eat three meals after training, add carbs to all three meals. Starting values would be the same as the approach above, but the carbs would be limited to only the post-workout meals (rather than pre and during). For example, if you have 200 grams of carbs total for the day, you could add 65g to each of the three meals following your workout.

The Modified Carb Back-Loading Approach allows for fat to be used as the primary fuel source up to and through the workout.

Method 3: The Moderate Approach

With this approach, you have protein, fat, and carbohydrate at almost all meals, the exception being post-workout where you omit fat, and the last meal of the day where you omit carbs.

All other meals will include all three macronutrients with an emphasis on protein and fat, and a low-to-moderate amount of carbohydrate.

This may sound a bit counterintuitive at first, but by combining all three macros you get a much slower, steady release from the carbohydrate, thereby keeping insulin levels very controlled.

Fat is omitted post-workout when you want faster digestion, and carbs are omitted in the last meal of the day because there's typically no need for an energy source then.

Starting values for this approach would again be similar to above: 1.5 to 1.75g protein per pound of LBM, .5 to .75g fat per pound of LBM, and .75 to 1g carbohydrate per pound of LBM.

A male with 200 pounds of LBM eating six meals per day might have a setup something like this:

  1. 55g protein, 25g fat, 30g carbs
  2. 55g protein, 25g fat, 30g carbs
  3. (Post-Workout): 55g protein, 50g carbs
  4. 55g protein, 25g fat, 30g carbs
  5. 55g protein, 25g fat, 30g carbs
  6. 55g protein, 25g fat

Again, this approach can be modified as needed by adding or subtracting carbs, depending on your individual response and needs.

Food Choices

Stick to healthy, whole, bodybuilding foods for these diets, such as the following:

  • Proteins: Eggs, lean beef, chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, high-quality protein powders, low-fat cottage cheese
  • Fats: Extra-virgin olive oil, macadamia nut oil, all-natural peanut butter, almond butter, fish oils, coconut oil, nuts
  • Carbs: Oats, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, sprouted-grain bread, fruit. For post-workout, a quickly-digesting, carb-containing supplement like Mag-10® would be ideal.

The Need to Refeed

You might find that using one of these approaches leaves you feeling a bit depleted after a week or so. Rather than increasing carbs on a daily basis, implement a weekly refeed of some sort – usually either a high-carb day or even just a high-carb meal, designed to fully replenish glycogen stores and give the metabolism a bit of a boost.

Some elect to replace this weekly refeed with a cheat meal, which serves a similar purpose but also allows for any cravings to be quenched.

Be careful with refeeds though. Used improperly, they can be a great way to pack on fat. Use them judiciously and monitor whether they're having a positive or negative effect on your physique and training. Check out my Cheat Meal Manifesto for guidelines.

Supplements to Support Progress

A few key supplements can really give you the edge when your goal is clean mass gains:

  • BCAAs Used around workouts to support anabolism and anti-catabolism.
  • Creatine Used to help build muscle and strength.
  • Flameout™ Hormonal building blocks!
  • Surge® Recovery Used around workouts to support anabolism and anti-catabolism.

Put Carbs in Their Place

Carbs aren't evil, but they are a double-edged sword.

They can contribute greatly to anabolism (muscle-building) and anti-catabolism (prevention of muscle breakdown) but they can also inhibit fat burning as well increase fat storage.

The good news? Manage carbs properly and you'll limit their drawbacks and maximize their benefits!