Why Bulking Over Long Periods Doesn’t Work
The fitness industry has made billions of dollars through one simple concept: taking the complex biology and physiology of human beings and creating seemingly plug and play systems that are supposed to make burning fat and building muscle simple. Some of these concepts have helped, but many others have either not helped or done damage to those that use them.
When I think of the real damage the fitness industry has caused, I don’t think of the gimmicky equipment like the shake weight or the ab blaster. I don’t think of guys and girls like Devin Physique or Paige Hathaway creating cookie cutter programs. I don’t even think of the vast array of ineffective supplements that people spend their money on every year.
Rather, I think of the dumb ideas that they’ve engrained into peoples’ minds as reality that they use to sell all of their ineffective products and shitty programs. I’ve discussed one of these, the myth that you need one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, at length in other articles (you actually only need between .4 and .65 grams per pound of bodyweight according to the literature). The other one is the idea of bulking.
Why Bulking Doesn’t Work
The idea behind bulking is actually found in fact: you need to consume more calories than you burn if you want to build muscle tissue. I’m not disputing this. But as with anything in human communication, things get lost in translation. They get passed from person to person in a big game of telephone and then at the end we have people trying to consume 4,000-5,000 calories a day to put on muscle.
Let’s think about what happens to a person who consistently eats this much in an effort to put on muscle over a long period of time.
- If he or she is healthy at the start of the plan, and has been training, most real gains will happen at the beginning. This is especially true if the person was in a caloric deficit prior to the start. This is because, presumably, the person would be more insulin sensitive due to the calorie deficit.
- After a week or so, that person will start to retain water. This is the big and puffy look we see in a lot of off season bodybuilders. The cool part of this stage is that strength goes through the roof due to the increased water retention and requisite weight gain.
- This is where things start to get hairy. After a good period of time, glycogen stores start to reach their limit. And if this person is following the advice of most who advocate bulking, he isn’t doing much physical activity besides very slow paced heavy weight lifting. As such, glycogen is rarely getting fully depleted. With no where to store the extra glycogen from the influx of calories, any glycogen taken in is going to get stored as fat. As the hormone insulin continually attempts to transport muscle glycogen into the cells, the cell receptor sites get stimulated. This, in turn, leads the receptors to become increasingly desensitized. The body begins to become insulin resistant.
- As fat builds up around the mid-section, two things happen. First, that visceral fat begins to store toxins. Then the body begins to release inflammatory cytokines in response to the toxin build up. Total body chronic inflammation increases, and this, in turn, leads to a further decrease in insulin sensitivity.
- As fat continues to build and insulin resistance increases, less and less glucose is stored as glycogen and more gets stored as fat. Much of the nutrition from the extra calories he’s eating never makes it to the muscle cells. It’s heading straight to fat storage.
- In the most severe of cases, this person could become diabetic or pre diabetic. His or her risk of heart disease will go up, as will the chances for cancer.
I’m not writing that to scare you. Most of you will never get to stage 6, but it was necessary to lay this out to show you how the logic behind most bulking plans simply doesn’t add up.
The key to understanding how to build muscle is to understand this: your body doesn’t want extra muscle. It takes too much energy to maintain. Fat, on the other hand, requires no energy to maintain, and it helps you to survive. Your body’s goal is survival, not looking good on the beach. So when you eat a massive amount of calories over a long period of time, your body might build a little bit of muscle, but it’s going to favor storing fat much more than it will favor building muscle.
So What Should You Do?
Eating a massive caloric surplus for one or two days is not bad. Eating a massive caloric every day over the course of three months or more can be really bad for your health and can even be counterproductive to building muscle
If we want to build muscle without the increased risk of early death or illness, then the key is understanding how to regularly be in a caloric surplus while also preserving your insulin sensitivity. Here’s how this becomes possible:
- Vary your calories. For every two to three days you are eating a caloric surplus, have one or two days where you are in an extreme deficit. One technique for doing this is intermittent fasting. You can have fasting periods every two or three days where you do not eat for 12-14 hours. This offers the body a reset, where you deplete glycogen every few days to make room for the nutrition that insulin will transport to your muscles on the high calories days.
- Make sure that your high calorie days are on training days. This will give your body the nutrition it needs to build muscle when it needs it.
- Make your non training days very low calorie days. Don’t try to load a truck that’s already full. Keeping these days low calories will make room for the extra glycogen on your training days.
- Perform some physical activity on your rest days. Move around. Go for walks. Do some pushups every time you get up to pee. This will help you deplete glycogen and level out blood sugar. It will also help to increase your insulin sensitivity.
- Eat a nutritionally dense diet. Nutritional density refers to the micronutrient content of your food in relation to the calories. Eating foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and omega 3 fatty acids will aid in increasing insulin sensitivity.
- Do some cardio. It will also help to deplete glycogen stores in your liver and your muscles and allow you to burn some of that excess fat.
So here’s the bottom line. Bulking is not simply eating lots of food if you really want to put on muscle. Putting on muscle is really about outsmarting your body in an intelligent way and overcoming its preference for fat storage. Contrary to popular belief, intermittent fasting and increased physical activity can help you to build muscle.