You've seen enough diet plans on this site to know that you're not going to pack on serious muscle mass without packing your diet with muscle-building foods. Without a certain amount of nutrient-dense food, you're at risk for losing the muscle mass you already busted your butt to gain.
This fear is why many new bodybuilders fall for the logic behind the "see-food diet." Basically, this system—and that's a loose use of the word "system"—encourages you to eat anything within arm's reach, often for months at a time, under the logic that it will help you get big. I wish it was that simple!
Eating more food than your body requires will certainly make you a bigger person, but that doesn't mean you'll be a more muscular person. Too often we see young guys with great muscle-building potential ruin their physiques by eating in excessive quantities, especially junk food, in the quest to stimulate faster muscle gain. Sure, your muscles grow on calories, but don't ever fool yourself into thinking that pizza, chicken wings, and donuts will create the same muscle growth as brown rice, whole eggs, and fish.
This is the first part of a two-part series that breaks down bulking and cutting cycles into easily digestible portions. Next week, I'll lay out the keys to a healthy mass-gainer plan. For now, we're in cutting mode—cutting all the misinformation you heard from some pudgy bro back in the day.
The Seasonal Swell
Competitive bodybuilders will routinely go from heavy off-season mass-building programs to ultra strict pre-contest fat-loss programs. They also take some down time when they settle into more generic maintenance-style cruising programs. When they bulk, their primary goal is to pack on size and mass without too much concern for extra fat gain or overall appearance.
This is a period when they eat, in a word, everything. Some even resort to force-feeding themselves. They eliminate cardio and activity that may stall their weight gain. Success under this model is dictated by how much the scale goes up.
When you hear the scale creaking underfoot, you rationalize that you'll be able to diet the fat off later. You aim for a certain amount of weight above your "ripped look," and when you reach it, you begin a cutting phase where the objective is to strip as much fat as possible.
This is accomplished by increasing cardio, restricting calories, and introducing more physical activity to accelerate your fat-loss process.
Performing one or two dramatic bulking and cutting cycles is common when people first get serious about bodybuilding or make the choice to hit the stage. And, in truth, they can be an effective way to achieve a body transformation. The problems arise when these excessive weight fluctuations become as common as the seasons changing, and last nearly as long.
If you just bought your town's last pallet of Twinkies in preparation of a long winter gorge-a-thon, you should think twice before opening that wrapper. Here are five problems with the traditional bulking protocol that every aspiring mass-builder should keep in mind.
Problem 1 You Actually Get Fatter
Here's something we learned from muscle-building expert and strength coach Christian Thibaudeau: "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)."
The familiar word "hypertrophy" might make you think he's talking about muscle tissue, but in this case, he's talking about fat. Fat cells (adipocytes) are like little bags. The more fat you put in the bags, the bigger they get. However, the bags can only hold so much fat. Your body is a fantastic storage machine, though, and when you overeat for a significant period of time, it responds by increasing the number of fat cells.
This is where the problem lies. The more fat cells you have, the easier it is for your body to store fat. And while you can make the existing fat cells smaller by emptying their fat contents, it's impossible to remove fat cells without surgery.
Chew on that for a second: Your body can add fat cells, but it can't remove them. So by adding new fat cells to your body, you're actually making it better at gaining body fat and worse at losing it! This phenomenon is called adipocyte hyperplasia, and it's a major reason why lean people have an easier time staying lean, and why fatter people seem to fight a losing battle. An all-out bulking approach over an extended period of time, threatens everything you've worked hard to create.
Problem 2 Lean People Gain More Muscle
Ever wonder why physique competitors seem to get leaner and more muscular each year, while the majority of gym-goers pretty much look the same? It's because every time these high-level athletes compete, they lower their percentage of body fat. Each time they do this, their bodies get better at "nutrient-partitioning," a term which refers to the body's ability to force nutrients into muscle cells rather than fat cells.
When you're in caloric excess, calories can either go into muscle or fat. Likewise, when dieting, calories can either be pulled out of fat or they can be pulled out of muscle. Someone with good partitioning and a high metabolic rate is easily able to pull and utilize energy from fat, and direct energy into muscle. Over time, physique competitors develop insulin sensitivity, which enables them to become especially effective at storing ingested nutrients in the muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen) or in the liver (as glycogen), and less so at storing nutrients as body fat.
A longtime rule of thumb in the fitness community has been that people tend to gain the most muscle at 10-15 percent body fat. Beyond 15 percent, they tend to gain more fat and less muscle. The research backs up the connection between higher fat levels and decreased muscle gains. In the 1980s, Forbes showed that there is a logarithmic relation between fat gain and lean body mass gain. In short, the extent of LBM gain or loss depends on the initial body fat in humans and other species. This is called "Forbes' Theory," and it's still generally accepted today.
This means the lower your body fat when you start bulking, the better your muscle gains will be when you overeat. As you put on more fat, your insulin sensitivity decreases and your muscle gains tend to decrease. Lean people generally show 30-70 percent of LBM gains, and obese people show 30-40 percent of LBM gains with overeating.
The take-home message here: Don't get fat. If you're a competitive bodybuilder, your body fat should never reach more than 10 percent. If you never plan on stepping on stage, then your body fat should never reach more than 15 percent all year round, even during bulking cycles. These are not unreasonable standards, and I like them because you're never too far from super-lean, shredded shape.
Problem 3 You Can't Force Your Muscles to Grow
Muscle growth happens in spurts. No matter how much we might want it to be, it isn't a non-stop process that just goes on forever without interruption. If you're stubborn and try to force your body to grow nonstop, it will fight back with all the negative training symptoms of plateaus, over-training, burnout, and injuries.
You may already have experienced some of these things firsthand when it comes to training, or at least you know people who have. Well, it applies to nutrition, too. You can't force-feed your muscles into growth simply by overloading them with more and more calories. Trying to force-feed your body will only work for a limited period of time and will ultimately result in poor health, bad habits, excessive fat, and a ruined physique.
My friend Lee Hayward and I developed our 21-Day Fast Mass training cycle in order to avoid these pitfalls by providing variety and unique muscle stimulation. It also takes advantage of the body's natural anabolic growth and recovery cycles, and uses them to maximize muscle growth.
I know it seems obvious, but let me say it one more time: You have to work with your body, not against it.
Problem 4 Cutting Gets Harder Every Time You Bulk
Here's what I've personally discovered: You can get away with a traditional bulk up/cut down cycle perhaps a few times in your life. However, as you train longer and become more experienced—and as you inch closer to your genetic potential—eventually you'll hit a point where overshooting your goal "ripped look" before cutting becomes more and more challenging.
Remember, each person can only produce so much muscle tissue based on his or her protein intake, genetics, testosterone levels, testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, insulin sensitivity, muscle fiber breakdown, and many other factors.
Let's say your first bulk was from 150-200 pounds, and then you cut down. If it was your first transformation, then I'm guessing the majority of the 50 pounds was lean muscle, and you only had 10 or so pounds of fat to cut. No problem. Most of your gains are muscle, so your thyroid hormone should be charged to the max. This is similar to my first transformation.
Let's say your second bulk goes from 200-220 pounds. This time, you'll probably have to bulk to 240-plus to end up at 220 ripped. It's going to take longer to cut 20 pounds of fat than to cut 10 pounds of fat.
one-arm dumbbell row
Can you see the problem? More time cutting translates to less time bulking; less time bulking leads to less overall muscle mass. Another hidden problem with cutting cycles is that the longer you cut, the greater the chances of losing muscle due to the caloric deficit. This is definitely not what you want.
Problem 5 Bulking Can be Overwhelming and Impractical
Bulking for 4-6 months is both daunting and impractical. Guys can't commit to the grocery bill, meal prep time, cooking time, and constant meal-feeding. What happens? They end up cheating by eating whatever is easiest. Even if they started to see some decent muscle gains at first, they soon hit a plateau and start adding fat.
The answer seems pretty clear: Break your large goal into smaller chunks that you can realistically commit to, and you'll make faster gains. Next week, I'll break down how you can do that, and what principles you should keep in mind to achieve your best bulk.