Your muscles grow on food, correct? Of course. We all know you’re not going to pack on serious muscle size without an ideal consumption of muscle-building foods. In fact, without a certain amount of muscle-growing and nutrient-dense foods, you are at risk for losing the current muscle mass you bust your butt for.
This is probably why many newbie bodybuilders fall for the logic behind the “see food diet” that encourages you to eat anything within an arm’s reach if your goal is to grow big muscles.
I wish it was that simple!
The “just eat, bro” mentality is not the way to go, unless you want to set yourself up for excess fat gain and possibly less muscle in the long term.
Any Idiot Can Gain Weight!
Eating more food than your body requires, will certainly make you a bigger person, but it does not promise you’ll be a more muscular person! Too often we see young guys with great muscle-building potential, ruin their physiques by eating excessive food quantities, even junk food, in the quest to stimulate faster muscle gains.
Unfortunately, if you’re a drug-free trainee, your body has a limited capacity for growth. 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.
Bottom line: You can’t force your muscles into growth by simply overloading your muscles with more and more calories. Giving your body more than the ideal number of calories only results in your body gaining more body fat, not muscle.
Bulking Up, Then Cutting Down: Yes or No?
Let’s first admit that both cases are extreme approaches even though each method is the polar opposite. When you’re bulking, your primary goal is to pack on size and mass without too much concern for extra fat gain.
This is a period of time when you eat everything within arm’s reach and some people even employ force feeding themselves. You eliminate your cardio and any activity that might stall your weight gain. Your success is dictated by how much the scale goes up, with minimal concern for your appearance.
The rationale is that you’ll be able to diet the fat off later. Your next goal is a cutting phase where the objective is to strip as much fat as possible. This is accomplished by increasing cardio, restricting your calories, and introducing more physical activity to accelerate the fat loss process.
Problem #1: You can’t force your muscles to grow. Muscle growth occurs in spurts.
Bodybuilders will routinely go from heavy “off-season” mass-building programs, to ultra strict “pre-contest” fat-loss programs, as well as taking some down time when they settle into more generic maintenance-style cruising programs.
You see, building muscles happens in spurts. It’s somewhat similar to the seasons in nature; you have the planting season of the spring, the growing season of the summer, the harvesting season of the fall, and then some down time over the winter.
Muscle-building works along the same lines; it is NOT a non-stop process that just goes on and on forever without interruption. You have to work WITH your body, not against it. If you are stubborn and try to force your body to grow non-stop, 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 yourself, or at least know of people who have; however, the strategy employed in the 21-Day Fast Mass-Building training cycle avoids many of 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.
Problem #2: Simply eating more food won’t always lead to more muscle growth. Instead, it’ll add more weight in the form of body fat.
You might be thinking, “so what? I’m going to cut the fat later, and it’s only on my body for a few months…”
Performing one or two dramatic bulking & cutting cycles is quite common, but the problems arise when these excessive weight fluctuations become as common as the seasonal changes in Canada.
Here’s a brief summary of the health problems you can’t escape, from bulking, which result in excessive fat:
First things first.
Low insulin-resistance is good. Insulin-resistance is bad. Low insulin-sensitivity is bad. Insulin-sensitivity is good.
Better insulin-sensitivity is also known as the nutrient-partitioning effect which simply refers to forcing the nutrients you consume, into your muscle cells, and not into your fat cells.
Your entire nutrition program and training must be designed around shuttling ingested calories away from fat stores, and directing them into muscle. Makes sense, right?
Let me break it down a tad further:
When you’re in caloric excess, calories can either go into muscle or fat. 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.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE: The key to a clean and healthy bulk is nutrient-partitioning, and the lower your body fat, the better your body is at nutrient-partitioning (see how this all ties together?)
Ever wonder why physique competitors continue to get leaner and more muscular each year, while the majority of gym-goers pretty much look the same? It’s because every time you compete, you lower your percentage of body fat, and that makes your body better at nutrient-partitioning.
Physique competitors become more effective at storing ingested nutrients in the muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen), or in the liver (as glycogen), and less effective at storing nutrients as body fat.
Body Fat Will Decrease Muscle Gain
We now have research to support that it is unquestionably clear that higher fat levels can decrease muscle gain.
Want to see the evidence?
Forbes’ Theory: In the 1980s, Forbes showed that there is a logarithmic relation between fat gain and lean body mass gain. He showed that the extent of LBM gain or loss depends on the initial body fat in humans and other species.
Basically, lower your body fat, better your muscle gains when you overeat. As you put on more fat, your muscle gains tend to decrease. Lean people show 30-70% of LBM gains, and obese people show 30-40% of LBM gains with overeating.
Anecdotal Evidence: There has always been some anecdotal evidence that, naturally, folks tend to gain the most muscle at 10-15% body fat. Beyond 15%, they tend to gain more fat and less muscle.
How, and why, in the world does this happen?
Insulin-Resistance: The decrease in muscle mass with increasing fat can largely be attributed to the insulin-resistance in the muscle with increasing fat-accumulation. A recent animal study was the first to show that increased fat levels can directly blunt muscle protein synthesis via the insulin pathway. Mice were fed a high fat diet, and loaded (akin to weight training) for 30 weeks. The mice in the high fat group put on 31% more weight than the low fat group.
The results showed a significant decrease in the muscle mass and the activation of key members of the muscle growth pathway in the high fat group. (It’s an animal study, so take it with a grain of salt).
Next we have…
- Fat-cell hyperplasia.
Another problem with bulking up, is fat-cell hyperplasia. Here’s what we learned from muscle-building expert, 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). This holds true for fat cells.”
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, but lucky for us (or not), our body is a fantastic storage machine built for survival. As a result, it can also increase fat storage by adding more fat cells. The more fat cells you have, the easier it is for your body to store fat. This is where the problem comes in.
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.
Your body can add fat cells, but it can’t remove them. This is the big problem: the more fat cells you have, the easier it is for your body to store fat, and 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. Another huge problem is yo-yo dieting AND the use of “diet gimmicks”. These gimmicks include living on some stupid soup diet, injections like the HCG product, appetite suppressants etc.”
- Bulking up can ramp down the power of your thyroid hormone production.
If you know anything about fat loss, you know this is not good.
We learned this from Charles Poliquin, too, and he was quoted as saying, “Thyroid production is essential for fat loss. The fatter your abdominal wall becomes, the less conversion there will be of T4 to T3, the metabolically active form of thyroid.”
Here’s what I’ve personally discovered: You can get away with a traditional bulk up/cut down cycle, maybe a few times in your life; however, as you train longer and become more experienced, eventually you’ll hit a point that overshooting your goal ‘ripped look’ before cutting, becomes more and more challenging as you get closer to your genetic potential.
Let’s say your first bulk was from 80kgs to 100kgs, and then you cut down? If it was your very first transformation, then I’m guessing the majority of those 20kgs was lean muscle, and not too much 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 is to go from 100kgs to 120kgs, and then cut down. Again, you’ll probably have to bulk to 125kgs-plus to end up at 100kgs ripped. It’s going to take longer to cut 15-20kgs of fat than to cut 5kgs of fat.
Can you see a problem?
More time cutting results in less time bulking, and less time bulking means 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 #3: Bulking can become overwhelming and not practical (for some).
Bulking for four to six months at a time can be an intimidating and daunting goal. Often- times, guys can’t commit to the grocery bill, meal prep time, cooking time, and constant meal-feeding. They begin seeing some decent muscle gains, but soon hit a plateau and find the only scale weight that continues is fat.
The mental benefit of breaking down your large goals into smaller chunks can be more appealing and realistic for you to commit to. Instead of a 12-week bulking / cutting phase, you only have to focus on a 2-week overload phase and a 1-week cutting phase for example.
Mentally and physically it’s easier to follow a short high-energy 21-day program rather than a long, monotonous 12-week program. Plus, you’ll make faster gains with shorter programs if you’re compliant to the training and diet.
- Don’t get fat. If you’re a competitive bodybuilder, then your body fat should never go over 10% fat all year round. If you never plan on stepping on stage, then your body fat should never go over 15% all year round, even during bulking cycles. Anyone can maintain 10% – 15% body fat. These are not high standards by any means, and I like these numbers because you’re always a few weeks from being in super lean, shredded shape.
- Your body develops muscle in spurts, and trying to ‘force-feed’ your body into growth will only work for a certain period of time and result in poor health, bad habits, excessive fat, and will ruin your physique.
- Staying lean will help you grow muscle better through nutrient-partitioning. Packing on fat only makes it harder to lose it later on. Remember, lean people are more efficient at storing their digested food in the muscle (as muscle tissue or glycogen), or in the liver (glycogen), and less efficient at storing it as body fat. In plain English, lean people can eat more food with less chance of getting fat.
- The fatter you get, the more fat cells you accumulate in your body. This makes losing fat harder in the future, and that does not even factor in the less insulin- sensitive you become. This is why lean people have an easier time staying lean, and why fatter people seem to be in a losing battle.
- Your muscles do grow on calories, but this isn’t rationale to eat junk-food, and 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. It’s true that, many times, lifters don’t eat enough to promote maximum muscle gains, but allowing yourself to get fat, is not the plan you should follow. If you’re not growing, then in all likelihood, you’re not eating enough, but never take the easy way out by resorting to low-quality junk food.