Is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea?
Here's what you need to know...
- After a certain point, your ability to gain muscle is not going to speed up by consuming more food.
- The body can't build more than a few pounds of muscle in a month. So don't assume all your "gainz" are going to the right places.
- There's an optimal way to grow muscle without going overboard. Don't use bulking season as an excuse to eat junk.
The Gluttony Games
To gain size you have to eat. We can all agree with that. If you're a non-juicing lifter 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!
If you aren't consuming enough, muscle growth will stall, but that doesn't necessarily mean the more you eat the more muscle you'll grow.
This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when training to build an aesthetic and muscular physique: eating too much junk and achieving a high body fat percentage in hopes of stimulating more muscle growth.
When you're a natural lifter 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 depend on your natural testosterone levels; your testosterone to cortisol ratio; your insulin sensitivity; your muscle fiber makeup, and your genetics.
You can eat any amount of food you want, but you can't change your protein synthesis limit naturally. Eating excess will only lead to a fatter body.
Your Body is a Construction Worker
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 muscle growth.
If you don't pay your workers enough total nutrition they won't be as motivated to work hard. As a result, the house won't be built quickly. And 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 gains.
What would happen if you started to send more bricks (increase protein intake) to the workers? They'll be able to build the house more rapidly because they aren't lacking in raw material.
But at some point, sending more and more bricks won't lead to a faster rate of construction. The workers can only perform so much work in any given amount of time. For example, if your crew can add 1,000 bricks per day to the walls, giving them 2,000 bricks per day will be useless: it exceeds their work capacity. So the excess bricks will go to waste.
If you increase your workers' salary (increase caloric intake) chances are their motivation will rise, and as a result they'll build the house faster.
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 they do, you can increase their salary all you want, but they won't be able to add bricks to the house any faster.
Muscle Growth and Scale Weight
Under the best possible circumstances – perfect diet, training, supplementation, and recovery strategies – the average male body can build 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 maybe one or two pounds a month. May not sound like much, but that can add up to twelve to twenty pounds over one year of training.
While building muscle, it's possible to gain more weight without adding fat. When you increase your muscle size you also increase glycogen and water storage in those muscles. More muscle equals more glycogen.
Related: 20-Minute Muscle Builder
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 (4,545g) you'll also increase glycogen storage by around four pounds (1.8kg).
Because of water storage and glycogen, 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.
The Lean Threshold
"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 then how come you see so many people claiming to have gained heaps of muscle without getting fatter?
This is what I call the ''lean threshold.''
There's a certain body fat percentage at which you start to look lean. It's around 10% for most men. There's also a point where you start to look fat. That's around 18-20% for most men. Then in-between those you have a zone where you basically look the same.
At that point, even if you gain a few pounds of fat, you won't visually see the difference, and you aren't lean enough to look defined, so you don't really have any muscle separation to be your guide.
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!
A guy could very well have gained six pounds of muscle, six to seven pounds of fat, and two pounds of glycogen 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.
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!
Bulking and Cutting: Good or Bad?
Traditional bodybuilding protocols are divided into bulking and cutting phases. Both phases use extreme approaches to achieve opposite effects.
For bulking, success is normally measured by the increase in scale weight, without much regard to appearance. Some coaches even recommend force-feeding yourself. And you don't perform any physical activity that might slow your weight gain like cardio.
Supposedly you'll be able to diet off the fat during the cutting phase. To do this, calories are drastically restricted and cardio or other physical activity is increased to speed up fat loss.
Related: Fasted Cardio Eats Muscle
Here are two big problems with bulking and cutting – aside from what I explained with the construction-worker analogy.
Problem #1: It limits the amount of time you can spend building.
Fat loss methods don't support muscle growth. It's virtually impossible for a natural lifter to lose lots of fat while gaining muscle. When you cut calories during your cutting phase, you won't add muscle. In most cases you'll lose some muscle in the process.
If you bulk for six months and cut for three, those three months won't be muscle-growth months. You'll have more muscle-growth months by building without bulking, since you won't need to spend much time cutting.
Problem #2: 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).
Fat cells (adipocytes) are like little bags. The more fat you put in the bags, the bigger they get. But the bags can only hold so much fat, and our body is a storage machine built for survival. As a result, it can also increase fat storage by adding more fat cells.
When overeating for a significant period of time, your body increases its number of fat cells. While you can make existing fat cells smaller by emptying them via fat loss, it's impossible to remove fat cells without surgery. Your body can make fat cells, but it can't remove them.
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 and you make it worse at losing it.
By doing a dirty bulk, you can stimulate adipocyte hyperplasia, which will make it harder to lose fat and easier to gain it over time.
Do The Math. Which Situations is Better?
- 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.
- Best case scenario, it'll take you from 6 to 12 weeks to lose the fat.
Plus fat loss isn't linear. The body adapts to caloric restriction and fat loss stalls. Realistically losing the gained fat – if you don't want to lose muscle – will actually require 12 to 20 weeks of dieting. Cutting will be harder and harder after every bulk because of fat cell hyperplasia.
Over a 9 to 11 month period you gained around seven pounds of muscle (if you didn't lose anything while dieting). That's average of 0.6 to 0.75 pounds of muscle per month. Reported over a year, it's to a total of seven to nine pounds.
- Increase your calories, but just enough to give your body the required nutrition for optimal muscle growth.
- You gain 1.5 pounds of muscle per month, with much less fat.
- After the first six months, you gain 5-10 pounds but only 3-5 pounds of fat.
- That means, you only need to diet for around a month to lose what you gained.
You gain around seven pounds of muscle over a seven months, or one pound per month. You end up with 12 pounds of muscle after a year as opposed to seven.
Remind Me – Why Do We Bulk Up?
If a true bulk is so bad, why is it recommended by so many people?
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. In both cases the volume of food is large, but the quality was much different.
2. It's meant for peaking.
The bulk-and-cut approach is a bodybuilding thing. Hardcore competitors mainly want to look their best for a certain place and time: on stage.
Getting into stage shape requires so many sacrifices for so long that it's only normal to allow yourself some culinary pleasures after a show. But the average lifter wants to look good all year long.
The average lifter doesn't 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.
3. It's used by non-natural competitors.
Competitive bodybuilders who do best with the bulking-cutting approach take performance-enhancing drugs. By artificially enhancing their body chemistry they can bypass their natural muscle growth limit. Eating a ton of food works for "enhanced" athletes.
A natural athlete is limited in the amount of nutrients he can use to build muscle by his own body chemistry, this doesn't apply to a drug-using bodybuilder. Anabolic substances such as steroids, insulin, IGF-1, and hGH can bypass the body's natural biological state.
Banned substances can also accelerate the fat loss process. Thyroid hormones, clenbuterol, DNP, hGH, etc. 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, steroids prevent muscle loss while dieting, so it's possible to restrict calories even more (thus losing fat faster) without risking losing muscle mass.
Many use the bulking excuse to feel better about eating crappy food. Most don't have the discipline to make the lifestyle changes necessary to build an aesthetic, lean, and muscular physique.
"Bulking" makes it acceptable to eat a bad diet. If they had more self-discipline they'd be more efficient at building muscle by jacking up their caloric intake but choosing better food.
The Illusion of Big
When someone carries a significant amount of muscle mass, adding a layer of fat will make him look more built when wearing clothes.
Muscle mass gives him a 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 hidden by clothes.
Plus, 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. Those who store body fat evenly might even look just as lean at 18% as 13%.
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 the same – while he occupies more space.
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 makes people underestimate the amount of fat they carry and as a result they can accumulate a lot of fat over time.
My Big Illusion
At 17, I was 180 pounds with a 32'' waist and around 13-14% body fat. To play football I decided to gain size and bulk up. I was consuming at least 10,000 calories per day (7,200 of which where from weight gainer shakes). In six months I went up to 225 pounds.
I thought it was muscle. I was getting stronger and looked 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.
Sadly, 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 thought I was just as lean.
Then 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. Once I got back down to that size, I was down to 172 pounds. I actually lost eight pounds of muscle after wasting 18 months of my life trying to gain it.
The Illusion of Small
Losing body fat will make you look and feel smaller and less muscular at first. 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.
Muscle definition will look the same, but 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.
I've stopped several diets because of that phenomenon. I'd diet for four weeks or so, feel small and look like crap, then think ''the heck with it'' and go back to my bulking habits.
But 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! 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.
Examples of Illusion
First is Sebastien Cossette, a young bodybuilder I trained for his first competition. In his before pictures he weighs more than he did 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, who's a female bodybuilder as well as a trainer and nutritionist. In the before pictures she's around ten pounds heavier than in the after pictures.
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.
And here's Mike:
Banish the Bulk
1. Most train to look good, not get on stage. Is looking good a couple months a year what you're really after? Of course not. Why not look good all year long?
Attain a body fat percentage where you look lean and muscular. A male who's training for aesthetic purposes should never go above 10% body fat, which is not that lean. But it's a point where muscle definition and muscularity are sufficient to make you look very good.
That leaves you within four weeks or so of being in superb, super-lean condition.
Related: Targeted Fat Mobilization
So what if you're at 13% body fat and don't have that much muscle? Should you bulk up? No! Cut down to 10% then gradually increase your nutrition until you reach a point where you're gaining 1.5 to 2 pounds per month. You'd gain muscle at an optimal rate while staying at 10%.
2. The leaner you are, the better your body becomes at nutrient partitioning. Lean individuals are more effective at storing nutrition in their muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen) or in the liver (glycogen), and less effective at storing it as body fat. Leaner people can eat more without gaining fat.
3. The fatter you let yourself get, the more fat cells you produce. This makes it easier to gain fat and harder to lose it in the future, and the fatter you are, the less insulin sensitive you become.
4. Building a good looking body isn't something that happens overnight, and it's a 24-hour a day job.
It isn't limited to the hour you spend at the gym; it's a lifestyle. By eating well all year, you aren't using an extreme approach but rather changing your habits. It's much easier to lose fat when you're already used to eating well most of the time.
So Should I Eat Like a Bird?
No. To build muscle you must eat more calories than you expend every day. The point is to use the correct amount of food to allow your body to build muscle at an optimal rate.
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.
The Best Way to Build
I'm tired of seeing kids with potential ruin their bodies by following the bulking advice from Internet gurus who advise them to eat as much as they can – even junk food – if it can help them jack up their calories. All this will do is add heaps of fat to their lean bodies.
A lot of young lifters don't eat enough to support maximum muscle growth, but eating junk or excessive calories isn't the way to go. If you aren't gaining muscle, you're probably not eating enough.
But that doesn't mean you should eat too much, and it doesn't mean you should eat crap.