The Bulking Myth!
The Bulking Myth
How Much Muscle Can We Really Build?
The average trainee has unrealistic expectations when it comes to building muscle.
I can’t state a precise number, but the average gym goer believes that gaining twenty pounds of muscle in three months is ”normal.”
Normally I am an advocate of high expectations. However, in this case, the belief that it’s possible to grow that fast can often lead to jacked up dietary approaches. So, I’m going to attempt to set things straight.
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.
Chances are if you’re gaining more than three pounds per month, you’re gaining some fat.
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: 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, 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: 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 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?
Option 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.. So, 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.
Option 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.
A. In Option B, you’re actually gaining more muscle over a year even though you aren’t gaining as much weight.
B. In Option 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 option B, the risk of muscle loss is much lower than in option 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.
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.
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
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.
Caloric intake suggestions to support optimal growth
Caloric Intake to Support Optimal Growth Based on Lean Body Mass
120lbs – 2455kcals
130lbs – 2634kcals
150lbs – 3037kcals
160lbs – 3260kcals
170lbs – 3440kcals
180lbs – 3663kcals
190lbs – 3885kcals
200lbs – 4064kcals
250lbs – 5091kcals
260lbs – 5270kcals
270lbs – 5494kcals
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!