Bulking Can Kill Your Gains

One of the hardest aspects of my job is researching these articles and finding good scientific sources. Nevertheless, certain subjects in the bodybuilding world are inherently non-scientific because very little research has been done on them.   Unfortunately, one of these areas is in one of the most popular subjects: bulking and cutting. This means that, whenever I research trends in these areas, I’m forced to read the garbage put out by the popular bodybuilding sites.  Hence, at this moment, my mind is complete mush, but I will go on to deliver this blog because it is important that you understand that bulking and cutting is, for the most part, completely useless.

The practice of bulking and cutting is a funny one in the bodybuilding world because there have never really been any scientific studies suggesting that either are effective for obtaining a more muscular or aesthetic physique. It’s really just something that we do as bodybuilders, and we simply do it because other bodybuilders have done it. Suggesting anything else is just blasphemy.

Well ladies and gentlemen, I have to confess that I am an infidel and I find little use for bulking or cutting cycles. That is not to say that bulking and cutting is ineffective for everyone. Many times competitive powerlifters improve at their sport by bulking and obtaining new leverages from fat and water gain.

On the other hand, for physique athletes – those mainly concerned with aesthetics, the utility of a long bulking cycle is quite questionable. Why?

The biggest reason is this: your mind is fucking with you. You know that poster you have of Frank Zane (or Kai Greene for you wannabe mass monsters) on your wall or on your computer home screen?   Your mind is telling you that that body is within reach. I’m not here to be a dream killer, and it is completely possible to get a great body after years of consistent nutrition and hard work, but the key word there is years. It won’t happen in weeks, months, or even one year, and I say this even if you use steroids. It will take years and possibly decades to build your dream body even if you do everything correctly and never meet a pitfall.

There’s someone probably reading this thinking, “well my friend just started lifting and he put on 40lbs in 6 months.” Keep in mind that you can exponentially increase your muscle mass after the first year of training, but after that, your potential for gains begins to decrease significantly. As such, if you’re going to try bulking, do it at the very beginning.

Once your honeymoon phase with the iron game is over; however, you will come to a realization. You spend six to nine months out of the year embarrassed to take your shirt off because of those love handle gainz and the other three months wondering why you don’t fill out your tee shirts anymore. All those gains you thought you made during your bulk disappear rapidly when you begin a cut, and your number of abs decreases to one single keg. You’re not skinny-fat, you’re either skinny or fat depending on the time of year. Yet you continue the cycle, year in and year out because, well, everyone else is doing it. You begin to question and dissect everything else – the type of supplements you use, the quality of your protein intake, and whether or not you’re training hard enough in the gym – but you never question the maxim that you need to be bulking or cutting because everyone else is doing it and everyone on YouTube tells you to do it. Well my friend, it’s time to let it go.

Bulking and Cutting: It’s the Same Damn Thing

The simple solution to solving some of the confusion behind whether or not bulking or cutting is necessary, we can simply look at the definition of the goals for each. The goal of bulking for physique athletes, however you think of it, is to increase lean body mass in relation to fat mass. The goal of cutting is to decrease fat mass in relation to lean body mass. Both entail keeping or growing as much lean body mass as possible and both entail limiting or decreasing fat mass. By definition they are the same thing.

What about the science?

Well the process of building muscle requires a number of factors: raising levels of testosterone, mitigating cortisol, increasing insulin sensitivity, and decreasing levels of total body chronic inflammation to enhance recovery. The process of fat loss also requires all of these factors.

In fact, the only supposed difference between the two processes is that one requires a caloric surplus and the other requires a caloric deficit.   If you read my blog on calories and macronutrients, you know that the second law of thermodynamics implies that, in a chaotic system like the human body, there are many intervening variables that can come into play to effect your ability to build muscle or burn fat. For instance:

  • Insulin sensitivity – eating an abundance of calories over an extended period of time can seriously affect your skeletal muscle’s ability to respond to the hormone insulin.[1]  This not only leads to fat gain, but also muscle loss as studies have demonstrated that insulin resistance is associated with accelerated muscle degradation.[2] Hence, the key to both building muscle and burning fat is preserving insulin sensitivity.
  • Testosterone – many of you may already know that decreased caloric intake can be associated with lower testosterone levels. On the other hand, even moderate obesity can also decrease testosterone levels.[3] This means that bulking to the point of fat gain could actually have a seriously negative effect on your gains.
  • Blood flow- one of the keys to muscle growth is blood flow. The problem with bulking, however is that increased fat mass can actually decrease blood flow to the muscles. Again, a long-term bulk does not seem optimal for gaining muscle, despite its popularity.

If you don’t bulk and you shouldn’t cut, what the hell are you supposed to do?

I know, right now your mind is going crazy saying “I don’t get a bulking season? WTF!” Here’s the thing – you don’t get a bulking season, but you also don’t have to do three to four months of nothing but fish and vetegables to get that spare tire off. Here’s the approach:

  • Spend most of your days eating maintenance calories. On very low activity days when you can’t get to the gym, keep your calories very low. On high activity days, like a leg day, pack the calories in and allow for a cheat meal. I am fat adapted so I do not eat carbs, but if you are not fat adapted, raise your carbs by 50-100 grams on that day. If you are fat adapted, have a little extra protein these days and up to 100 grams of carbs after your workout.
  • Avoid overeating the junk food that you would normally eat during a bulk. By junk food, I especially mean inflammation-causing foods that contain gluten, high fructose corn syrup, omega-6 vegetable oils, and sugar (i.e. baked goods and pre-packaged pastries). That is not to say that you can never eat these foods, but don’t make it a daily or even weekly thing. Reward yourself with a cheat meal every week and a half or so after a really hard workout. Even if you break out your macro counter and you calculate that you can have 0.75 grams of poptarts each day, you will still need to deal with the inflammation those poptarts bring on a daily basis. This can really help to gradually bring on things like joint pain, gut distress, and mental fog. You might look great for a while, but inflammation creeps up slowly like a ninja, and after a couple of years you will feel it. If you want to be in the game for a long time, don’t fall into the inflammation trap.
  • Don’t take weight gainers. They are a complete waste of money and loaded with sugar that will just make you fat. If you want extra calories for your shake, try adding things like avocado, coconut oil, or chia seeds to your shakes. Additionally, if you are using a whey protein powder that is causing gut distress, get rid of it and opt for a vegetarian non-soy based protein. Otherwise you’re literally flushing your gains down the toilet.
  • Do take supplements that will help your insulin sensitivity and decrease total body chronic inflammation like vitamin D, green tea extract, turmeric, omega 3, and alpha lipoic acid.
  • Train hard year round, but also do cardio whether you are trying to build muscle or burn fat. This will preserve your insulin sensitivity and blood flow to the muscles. I suggest at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular training (HIIT or steady state or both) three times per week minimum.
  • Don’t mistake fat gain for muscle gain. Yeah you were filling that shirt out during your bulk with a little help from total body chub. Don’t lie to yourself about it and realize that you can’t flex fat. I meet so many people who stop trying to lose fat because “their arms are getting smaller.” Well your arms are getting smaller because you have fat arms. Deal with it, and put the work in to replace that size with muscle.
  • Be patient – as I said, this will take years, not weeks. If gaining three to five pounds of muscle per year sounds slow to you, then find another pastime that brings instant gratification because you’re not cut out for bodybuilding.

It might be hard to break the bulking/cutting cycle. The world is telling you that you have to do it. I’m telling you that there can be a better way, and best of all, I’m not trying to sell you anything here. You can decide for yourself at the end of the day what’s best for you, but if you ever have any questions, hit me up at gettingtoshredded@gmail.com.

[1] http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/Diabetes/insulin-resistance-prediabetes/Pages/index.aspx#resistance

[2] http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/en.2006-0251

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3955331/