As the six pack season comes to an end once again, I feel like it’s an apt time to discuss the topic that is ‘bulking’. If you didn’t manage to sport a six pack this summer, at least you can feel comfortable about not having one now as winter approaches!
In this blog I’m going to presume that those reading are already interested in weightlifting and eating lots of food. Thus, you probably already know that a calorie surplus must be involved when trying to ‘bulk’ as well as a good quality training programme according to the goals of the individual i.e., whether they play a sport or are bulking for a physique show for example.
What I am focusing on here is the bulking process as I see it, highlighting some of the mistakes I see people make, the unrealistic expectations as well as some things to take note of if you are considering a ‘bulking’ phase this winter.
So, what is bulking?
I’m going to keep this very to the point. By bulking I mean building muscle and by cutting I mean losing fat. Simple.
A way to describe ‘bulking’ is to consider it as an investment period for anyone looking to gain size/muscle. Done correctly it can improve an individual’s physique and strength immensely however I repeat the ‘done correctly’ part of that.
A lot of men and women who work towards competing in bodybuilding shows would commence a bulking phase in their off season in a bid to improve their physique. Then you have others who are simply sick of being the skinny one in the group and want to beef up a bit, or athletes who need to put on some size for their role/position in their sport.
Whatever the reason for people wanting to bulk, it doesn’t really matter. What I want to focus on is the process as a whole, highlighting common mistakes people make.
- Either not eating enough or eating too much
Some people will think they are eating in a surplus when in actual fact they aren’t eating near enough to gain size and are lacking the energy to train well and improve performance in the gym. Then you have the opposite end of the spectrum where some people think the more they eat the more muscle they will gain. Wrong.
some people think the more they eat the more muscle they will gain. Wrong.Tweet
There is a fine line between eating enough and too much when in a bulking phase. You should be using your weight and general physical progress as a guide to how your bulk is going.
- Eating too much junk food as a way to consume enough calories
This is by far one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to bulking. Whether it is a poor post-show diet or a typical ‘skinny guy’ thinking he can’t gain weight so eating high calorie foods should do the trick. Wrong. A diet riddled with junk food will result in little muscle gain and plenty of fat storage over time.
- Not enough rest and recovery time
The main goal is to put on lean muscle mass when trying to increase size. Too many individuals don’t realise that a lot more growing happens outside the gym rather than inside. It’s the nutrition, rest and recovery that supports your training that will give you the edge on other athletes.
- Too much focus on the scales
Women often have a fear of putting on weight even if they know they have to. This makes it hard to see improvements to their physique as they aren’t fuelling themselves well enough for their training and goal. Men are the opposite and want the weight to go up as fast as possible on the scales when bulking. For some this is just so they can boost their ego by telling everyone they gained ‘X’ amount in 4 weeks for example. In a pursuit to gain as much weight, as fast as possible, athletes begin to pack on body fat.
The impact that excess unnecessary body fat can have on health and performance.
We all know that in order to gain muscle or ‘bulk’, a calorie surplus is necessary. However the ways in which a person achieves that calorie surplus can make all the difference. As stated above, one of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to bulk is that they get too many calories from junk food.
To gain muscle tissue we must store energy basically and that’s where the calorie surplus comes in, then there’s that fine line of balance between gaining unnecessary body fat and gaining lean muscle mass. Adding 10lb fat just to gain 1lb muscle isn’t very clever, for want of a better word.
Obviously the body stores fat in many areas of the body including: adipose tissue, intra muscular and visceral (between the organs). Visceral being the most worrying one here as it has such an effect on the body.
Inflammation is a common side effect of too much visceral fat. Inflammation within the body is normal and it has its place, but it is when inflammation is chronically increased that things start to go wrong. Visceral fat and inflammation go hand in hand therefore the more visceral fat in your body, the more inflammation you are likely to experience.
With visceral fat comes the production of oestrogen which promotes female characteristics like those experienced by girls during puberty. Think breasts and wide hips. Not the ideal set of pecks a man might be looking to gain from his bulking phase. This increase in estrogenic activity is down to the increase in the enzyme aromatase within the fat cells, which is brought about by excess body fat.
Of course, aside from the waistline increasing and the six pack disappearing, there comes other problems such as reduced insulin sensitivity as well as more serious conditions including dementia, Rheumatoid Arthritis and colon cancer.
All the more reason to focus on a healthy bulking phase rather than eating crap, so let’s look at whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘lean bulk’.
First of all the first thing I want to point out before moving forward is that there is a big difference between Lean Body Mass and Muscle Tissue. Some people think of them as the same thing when in fact they are two very different things.
Lean Body Mass can include everything in the body that isn’t strictly fat mass basically, whereas Muscle Tissue is what it is, just raw muscle.
This is where marketing can get people. Products will be marketed as being able to help you gain ‘X’ amount of Lean Body Mass (which some people would straight away assume to be muscle gain) in ‘X’ amount of time. So take those ridiculous claims you see online with a pinch of salt…..or a bucket even.
Now that we know the difference between the two, it’s clear to say that you could increase lean body mass a lot faster than you could increase muscle mass. Taking creatine as an example to show this as it causes intracellular water retention (which disappears soon after you stop taking it), which is of course classed as a lean mass gain.
The marketing of such products aimed at individuals who are unaware of the difference between lean body mass and muscle mass is a big problem. It means that there is a misconception amongst consumers regarding how fast you can gain lean body mass – or muscle mass as most will believe it to be. When in actual fact gaining raw muscle is a very slow and tiresome process.
In reality you cannot gain muscle mass without gaining some fat, however you can of course limit the amount of fat you gain. This can be done through proper nutrition, supplements, rest & recovery as well as training smart of course. The problems arise when people hit plateaus or get an illness, have a personal problem where their training has to take a back seat, or just general life getting in the way. No one is perfect 24-7 so you have to be realistic and this is where having a coach can be really beneficial.
I have taken the below table from Lyle McDonald’s website and it gives a good indicator as to how much muscle mass you can expect to gain in comparison to ‘years of proper training’.
Table 1. Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year (Lyle McDonald).
As you can see, the more experiences the trainee, the slower the rate of muscle gain.
To sum things up:
- When deciding you want to gain muscle mass, you should first consider your current shape. It might be worth dropping some body fat first of all or ‘cutting’. This way you will have a healthier bulk knowing if what you are doing is correct by keeping an eye on your body fat levels, the scales, body measurements, whether you’re gaining muscle and where; just keeping a check on general physical appearance.
- You cannot gain muscle on its own without gaining some fat, however the amount of fat you gain can be monitored and controlled.
- You must be in a calorie surplus to gain muscle. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you can consume – winning!
- Avoid using junk food as your main source of calories or you’ll be asking for trouble. Excess fat means a whole host of other issues, as I mentioned earlier.
- Focus on foods that will improve your recovery from training, boost your brain power, aid in your general wellbeing instead of simply giving you energy to train.
Remember, there are some people who may gain muscle faster than usual and they include:
- Beginners to training/eating well
- Those taking performance enhancing drugs
- Genetically elite
- Those who consistently remain in a surplus environment for a long period of time.
So don’t beat yourself up about not gaining the 10lbs in one month that you might have been aiming for, instead - train smart, eat well, rest, recover and most importantly learn to enjoy the process, as you should know by now it’s not exactly a quick one!
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