To bulk or not to bulk, that is the question? Gaining muscle is not an easy task and nor is it a simple task either when you consider the fact that it’s not just as easy as training or eating. In reality, you need to eat well, train well and recover well. Essentially, all pieces of the puzzle or links on the chain need to be in order or else the end result will not be achieved.
However, some people take the liberty of abusing this concept and instead of being accurate and optimal, they choose to follow the mindset of “more is better.”
So what is a bulk?
A bulk is essentially eating maximum calories for maximum weight gain, without regard for fat gain or even considering the maximum amount of muscle you can gain physiologically. In essence, there is no consideration for body composition improvement in its entirety (how much muscle gained versus how much fat) but instead the focus is solely on weight gain, regardless of whether it is from fat, muscle or both. Even more concerning is the ‘dirty bulk’ concept, whereby the goal is solely consuming excessive calories without regard for nutrient quality.
But is a bulk optimal or is it just lazy?
The Pro’s and Con’s
|No dietary restriction||Less measurable|
|Ensures a calorie surplus||Excessive fat gain|
|Increased strength gain||Potential health issues|
|Joint support||Excessive fat cut required once complete|
As you can see, there are some positives with a bulking approach, in that you have more social and food freedom. You will also notice big strength gains and due to the excessive weight gain, which comes along with a large intake of dietary fats, you will also find your joints feel better as well purely due to their being more ‘support’ (fat) around them. These are all great things, however all too often, the negatives of a bulk are conveniently left out and the discussion of what is optimal is generally forgotten as well.
So what is actually the best way to gain muscle?
Should you bulk or should you eat just enough to gain lean muscle tissue without excessive fat gain? Even better… which approach yields the best results?
Lets look at the facts:
Two highly sort after specialists in the field of nutrition and human physiology are Alan Aragon and Lyle McDonald. They provide the most up to date research with as little bias as possible, while also acknowledging the empirical evidence as well.
In doing so, it is their current position stance that as a natural athlete we can expect to grow muscle at the following rate:
The McDonald Model (Body Recomposition) (1)
|Years of Proper Training||Potential Muscle Gain Per Month|
The Aragon Model (Girth Control Book) (2)
|Category||Rate of Muscle Gain Per Month|
|Beginner||1-1.15% total body weight|
|Intermediate||0.5-1% total bodyweight|
|Advanced||0.25-0.5% total bodyweight|
As you can see, it’s not a whole lot of muscle. More importantly, we are talking about discussing the maximum genetic potential of a male to gain pure muscle tissue over the course of a year and then giving monthly averages, provided training, food and recovery are all optimal. Don’t be disheartened by these though as they are referencing actual tissue growth, not lean body mass increase, which also includes glycogen and water. Personally I believe a gain on average of 500g to 1kg of bodyweight a month is a great indicator for lean body mass improvement in a natural athlete.
Think about it… that’s still 6-12kg a year. It’s huge when you think long term. The question is… what is optimal nutrition and does a bulk achieve it? It is my opinion that the answer is quite simply, no.
For me, optimal nutrition takes into account the persons body composition when determining how many calories they need and the appropriate macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) those calories should come from, and then references that against ensuring that the following markers are optimised:
- Recovery - Do they have enough protein and calories
- Immunity - Will the diet ensure they remain healthy via adequate vitamin and mineral intake
- Hormones - Does their environment affect their hormones or do they have stress, poor body fat distribution and adequate healthy dietary fat intake?
Which, if you consider the above three factors and how nutrition can effect recovery, immunity and hormonal status, simply eating maximum calories without regard for vitamin and mineral intake, fibre intake and body fat gain, is a sure way to put your body in a sub optimal environment for muscle growth.
The reality is, that you can only grow muscle tissue so fast (see above).
However, you can lay down body fat indefinitely, provided you continue to consume enough excess calories that allow it. As a consequence to this, there are vast arrays of negative health implications that will impede your ability to grow muscle and it could be argued that bulking is not only sub optimal, but also potentially limiting your potential to be both healthy and efficient at growing tissue.
Looking at the current research, excessive fat gain may lead to:
- Reduced blood sugar regulation due insulin resistance
- Sleep apnea
- Reduced free testosterone
- Increased systemic cortisol levels
- Increased circulating triglycerides
- Reduced HDL (good) cholesterol
- Increased blood pressure
- Reduced Growth Hormone release
A pretty grim outlook when you consider the importance of the above factors and how they all indirectly affect both your health and also your ability to grow muscle.
Now without going into intense detail, it is thought that all of these issues stem from a disregulation of the HPA Axis (3, 4), which is the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal gland axis, which is known as a neuroendocrine system and regulates things such as digestion, mood, energy, energy storage, energy expenditure, hormone feedback and immunity.
Having a HPA Axis that is functioning healthily is extremely important.
Whether it is correlated, causative or responsive, central body fat storage is linked to a disregulation of the HPA Axis, which then sets off a cascade of hormonal disregulation also. Total circulating cortisol levels appear to be higher, testosterone release tends to be lower and your ability to regulate, control and effectively utilise blood sugar begins to reduce (4,5). In essence, the fatter you become, the more you reduce an optimal environment for muscle growth.
Now this doesn’t mean we should be attempting to stay stage lean or even close to that low body fat at all, as being in that state also comes with implications for metabolism, hormones and health markers.
However we ABSOLUTELY should be keeping body fat in check.
Without using arbitrary numbers for body fat percentage, as these can be somewhat irrelevant on an individual to individual basis, it is recommended that body fat be kept within your normative ranges for you personally as this is the body fat level whereby your body is ‘happiest.’ For those who really want a number though, men can traditionally aim for body fat ranges of 10-15% and from women in the 18-25% range.
Gaining excessive fat above normative ranges achieves ZERO health benefits.
So the question remains - Should I bulk?
Well that answer is up to you, however research suggests 2 major things you need to consider:
- You can only grow muscle so fast naturally
- Excessive fat gain causes negative metabolic and hormonal changes
First and foremost, ensure you are eating adequate protein to achieve the most optimal environment nutritionally for muscle growth, alongside an appropriate amount of calories.
Secondly, don’t over consume calories to the point of excess, whereby weight gain is also excessive. Consume enough to grow and find out how many you need.
Finally, while it may be fun to eat copious amounts of food in an attempt to grow maximum muscle, generally speaking, by the time you then spend 3-6 months eating in a calorie deficit to remove all the excess fat you didn’t need to gain, you will be no better off muscularly, but arguably may even be worse off due to the stress excessive fat gain puts on your system.
You do not need to bulk.
Eat enough to grow and stop using gluttony as an excuse to eat more than you need.
Rosmond, R., Dallman, M.F., Bjorntorp, P. (1998). Stress-Related cortisol secretion in men: relationships with abdominal obesity and endocrine, metabolic and hemodynamic abnormalities. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. 83(6) pp 1853-1859.
Bjorntorp, P. Body fat distribution, insulin resistance and metabolic diseases. Nutrition. 13(9) pp 795-803.
Wilkin, T. and Voss, L. (2004). Metabolic syndrome: maladaptation to a modern world. JRSM, 97(11), pp.511-520.