Muscle size that is.
Apologies for the click-bait title. At times you have to pull out all the stops to make a point.
And that point is: contrary to what I’ve been hearing lately, building bigger muscles is a good thing.
Now I still believe that guys should ultimately try to get (and stay) lean. When I work with a guy, especially someone over 30, I always try to get them lean first — even if their goal is to get bigger.
Because what they really want is to be lean and muscular – they just don’t know it yet.
Leaner bodies look better, move better, and are typically healthier. And being lean feels awesome. You’re in control of the most important “thing” you own – your body. I consider it my responsibility to help dudes feel that way too.
However, that doesn’t mean everyone should be constantly dieting. On the contrary, after you get lean and comfortable “staying there,” including phases where you focus on adding quality mass will only help in the long run.
Because while your abs may fade, you’ll also build muscle, boost your metabolism, improve aesthetic and structural weak points, and actually look like you lift. Which is a worthy goal for any dude, save for those peculiar types who consider Zac Efron’s physique to be “a little on the big side.”
So should everyone just bulk the fuck up? Start adding a 2000-calorie meal between breakfast and brunch and bust out the fat pants?
Not by a long shot.
The Truth About Bulking
Here’s the truth about bulking up: It works.
Fact is, almost every dude you see who’s built significant muscle has done it to some degree. In other words, at one point in their lifting career they’ve maintained a calorie surplus for an extended period and added a little chunk.
Why? Because unlike losing fat, which is relatively simple (just not easy), building muscle is fricken hard. Especially for those with so-so genes, or near their genetic limits.
And in the battle for new muscle, a calorie surplus is among your most effective tools. Some would argue even more effective than training, even drugs.
But ignoring this or constantly undereating in a misguided attempt to “stay lean” is like bringing a paring knife to a gunfight.
You may still make progress, and for some it’s the best course of action. But it’s much tougher sledding.
However, there’s a big fat problem with bulking.
The Bad About Bulking
Most guys gain way too much fat when they bulk up.
Not everyone of course — some gifted Joes will gain equal amounts of muscle and in a bulk. At worst they’ll get chipmunk cheeks.
But other hapless souls (especially former fat guys) will often add 3 or 4 pounds of fat for every puny pound of muscle.
For that reason, these guys should never bulk – slow and steady gains via a “gentle” surplus is their only option.
Because while adding fat is basically inevitable when adding a lot of muscle, adding a disproportionate amount of fat just isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s counterproductive.
• Getting too fat makes for a longer, tougher diet down the road. Which sucks.
• Longer, more aggressive diets typically lead to greater muscle loss. Classic “two steps forward, one step back into a fresh mound of dog poop” syndrome.
• The more time you spend dieting, the less time you can make significant physique or strength improvements.
• Getting fat is hard on the head. No one wants to look in the mirror and think, “Hey, cool, a fat guy!”
• Getting fat is hard on the body. Lipids, triglycerides, blood pressure, not to mention the knees.
• It’s just not necessary. You can’t force feed muscle.
You can see the anti-bulking trend taking hold even in very high-level ranks.
My friend Shelby Starnes, an IFBB Pro, used to resemble the Michelin Man when he wasn’t competing. Now he’s veins and abs and striated glutes, even in the depths of the off-season.
If a guy that near his genetic ceiling doesn’t need to get fat to be a better bodybuilder, why should the average Joe?
If you’re relatively lean and want to increase lean body mass (without owning two sets of pants), check out the following tips:
1. Eat a “gentle calorie surplus.” You don’t need a shit ton of extra calories to build muscle. Start by adding 100-200 calories a day to your maintenance diet and see what happens.
2. Go slow. A pound a week is probably ideal. Although even at that modest amount, your gains won’t be 100% lean beef. That isn’t a bad thing – you gotta give a little to get a little – just a reality check. If you see a three or four pound jump, prepare to make adjustments.
3. Don’t just go by the scale. Increased glycogen, food volume, and even creatine can affect the scale. Use photos, girth measurements, and body fat testing along with the scale.
4. Keep up your conditioning. A modest amount of cardio will not “eat muscle” and will help keep fat burning pathways open. Plus it feels good and is healthy and shit.
5. Eat all the macros. Very high or low carb or fat diets are counterproductive. Why anyone would want to play macro-voodoo when they’re trying to get bigger is beyond me. Just eat the good food dude.
6. Train as frequently as you can. This is highly individual, but you want to put those calories to work. Prioritizing weak points should be, well, a priority.
7. Have a cut off. This could be the biggest tip of all. There’s nothing worse than coming to an end of a bulk and realizing you’re a member of the fat bastard club. Remember, the leaner you are, the better bulking works. In other words, fatties only get fatter.
Set a cut off point before you start and stick to it. If six weeks into a 12-week mass phase sees you piling on too much chub then pull the plug. Do better next time.
8. Have fun. Gaining muscle isn’t easy but it should be an enjoyable experience. I firmly believe the reason many guys fail to make decent progress is due to too much self-imposed stress. They angst about their macros, fuss with their training, and spend hours arguing on Facebook about minutiae when they should be in bed.
Most successful bodybuilders are very happy go lucky people, save for periods of extreme dieting. Then again, it’s hard to be stressed when you can wear Zubaz pants and a fanny pack to “work.”
While I don’t do meal plans with clients, I do slowly steer them towards following a framework that supports their goals. I can help you too, by the way.
To help illustrate, here’s my current no-bulk bulk:
Shortly after waking:
One liter of water followed by shake with whey isolate, fiber, and greens. Then, coffee. I sometimes do cardio following this. I sometimes where sleeves too; doesn’t mean it happens often.
Cup egg whites, 1-2 whole eggs cooked in tsp coconut oil; 1-cup spinach, sliced tomatoes, and mushrooms sautéed in 1 tsp butter.
1 scoop casein protein, 2/3 cup oats or oat bran, ½ cup berries (dry measure), 1 tbsp nut butter.
20 grams BCAA. I may add 30-60g quick digesting carbs if I fucking feel like it.
EDIT: Two minutes after I post this, Dr. Mike T Nelson emails me, suggesting I add 6 grams of essential amino acids (or another scoop of whey) to this drink to increase muscle protein synthesis. Who says all doctors are assholes? Duly noted.
Shake with whey isolate, frozen banana, cocoa, and PB2. #gourmetbro
8 ounces lean dead animal, 2 cups rice (cooked measure), large salad or two vegetables, tbsp olive oil.
Cup of either yogurt or cottage cheese (or both), casein protein, greens, and 1 tbsp fish oils. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of Cheerios and pickles. No, I’m not pregnant.
Onward and Upward
Nothing is forever. Eventually you may reach a point where you feel “big enough” and ready to just refine and maintain. I know a few dudes in that spot and I’m enormously envious.
But you will never reach such a zenith without first putting in considerable time eating and training to get bigger and stronger.
The key is to not go to extremes, keep your health in check, and especially (to paraphrase Dan John), keep the goal the goal.
Now get growing!
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