Bulking Diet – Is it Required to Build Muscle?
Can you build muscle without using a bulking diet? Taking this question even further, can you build muscle while trying to lose weight? Very important questions.
Let’s take a look at some of the facts. Before I do so, let’s establish just what a bulking diet and a cutting diet are.
Daily calorie maintenance level. While eating at this level, over the long run you neither gain or lose weight.
Bulking diet. Eating above daily calorie maintenance level. The goal is to facilitate the addition of weight, primarily muscle mass, while minimizing fat accumulation.
Cutting diet. Eating below daily calorie maintenance level. The goal is to lose weight at a relatively slow pace through a calorie reduction, holding on to your existing muscle mass in the process.
It is an established standard in the bodybuilding world that progressive overload combined with a bulking diet is the fastest, and most efficient method of packing on muscle mass. This tenant has been around for so long, and has become such an ingrained standard, that few lifters even question the validity of this practice.
You CAN Build Muscle Without Bulking
So let’s get straight to the meat of this article. You can build muscle without using a bulking diet. Repeat. You can pack on muscle mass without eating in a daily calorie surplus. How do I know for certain?
Very good question. The answer comes from science. It’s science bro.
If you consider each scientific study to be a drop of water, there is literally an ocean’s worth of research on the muscle building process. Yes, the ocean analogy is hyberbole, but you get the picture.
OK, so back to the studies…
There is a common theme to be found. Buried deep within this research on hypertrophy (muscle building), you realize that while most of these studies provide specific lifting protocols, very few advocate eating guidelines.
Simply stated, in the vast majority of these studies, lifters are building muscle mass without being told what (or how) to eat. Kind of pops a hole in the balloon that is the mantra diet is 90%, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Are all of these lifters eating in a calorie surplus? No.
Are all of this lifters eating at calorie maintenance? No.
Are some of these lifters (possibly) in a calorie deficit and still building muscle mass. Potentially yes.
Obviously, we can’t perform a meta-analysis of this data, because there is none. The vast majority of lifters building muscle mass in these studies were not told how to eat. Calorie intake and protein intake weren’t monitored.
This means that a substantial number of lifters were, indeed, building muscle mass without eating in a calorie surplus. There is also a strong likelihood that they were building muscle mass without eating enough daily protein.
Shocking, but true.
Building Without Bulking – Is it Efficient?
So we have established that it is possible to build muscle without officially relying on a bulking diet. Great news, right?
Not so fast…
Just because something works, doesn’t mean that’s it’s the most effective and efficient method. Remember this point.
When you challenge a muscle with some form of progressive overload, it will respond. But the human body only has so many resources. It must prioritize these resources for the most vital functions and processes.
Organ and brain maintenance. Energy production. The processing of food and water. I could continue. These functions are all a greater priority than adaptation to overload. This isn’t to say that the human body won’t adapt when “only” in maintenance mode. It does. The point here is simple… The more resources you have on hand, the more likely the body is to either store these resources as fat, or to expand existing muscle tissue.
Don’t believe me?
Article author and Tiger Fitness Editorial Director Steve Shaw (left) showing the results of a 100 pound weight loss. Pictured with Branden McDaniel, NPC Physique athlete.
By encouraging growth through an extra amount of calories, you are providing the body with a better opportunity to both gain and maintain mass. It takes more calories to maintain a heavier body. So the more you gain, the more it takes to maintain.
This is metabolism 101. Mass requires upkeep. The more mass you have, the more calories you must eat each day simply to keep this weight up and functioning properly.
Restrict calories and you put the human body in a disadvantage. The expansion of muscle tissue becomes a more challenging task, and certainly the maintenance of this new tissue also becomes more difficult.
Here are two lessons I have personally learned.
Lesson one – The more muscle I build, the more I can eat. During the period of time I lost 100 pounds (see my transformation story here), I was losing weight eating around 2,400 to 2,600 calories per day. Once the 100 pounds was off, I added about 10 to 15 more pounds of muscle.
Something magical happened.
Now I am able to lose weight while eating 3,000 to 3,200 calories per day. Why the change? I have more mass to maintain; specifically muscle mass.
What would happen if I had never bumped my daily calorie intake from 2,600 to 3,200? My rate of muscle gain would have slowed, or even stopped.
Think about this. If I weigh 246 pounds right now, and it requires 3,400 calories per day to maintain this weight, what would happen if I ate only 2,500 calories per day?
I would love weight rapidly. Too rapidly. This rapid weight loss would not be just fat. I would also lose muscle mass, even if I am training hard. Every major bodybuilder and physique star on the planet knows this reality.
That is why slow and steady weight loss is recommended. To hold on to existing muscle mass while losing fat, by eating as many calories as we can to reach this goal.
The fewer calories you eat, the more willing your body is to drop extra muscle mass. The human body is too busy maintaining vital functions. Not only will it be burning through fat stores to keep you going during a calorie deficit, but it will also be tossing some “extra” muscle mass overboard. This muscle is simply too energy intense to maintain.
It’s a luxury, not a necessity.
The second lesson I learned? The more I ate, the easier it was to pack on strength. Strength leads to more muscle mass. So following this trail, the more you eat, the easier it is to build strength and muscle mass.
So here’s the bottom line. While the body is capable of adding muscle mass while at daily calorie maintenance levels, it is not the most efficient method. The more you eat, the more willing the human body is to expend calories on the expansion and maintenance of muscle tissue.
Conversely, the fewer calories that you eat, the less likely the body will be to invest these resources into the development and maintenance of muscle tissue.
Make sense? I sure hope so.
The Bulking Diet Bottom Line
So, does this mean everyone should dive headfirst into a bulking diet?
But. But. But. I thought you just said that the more you eat, the easier it is to build muscle mass? I did.
Not all of us have the goal of packing on as much muscle mass as possible. Bulking comes with a price, and that price can be unwanted fat gain. While this fat gain isn’t typically substantial, it’s not something many fitness freaks want.
If you’re a bodybuilder who wants as much muscle mass as humanly possible, then bulking makes sense. It you’re simply a fit chick after a more athletic and appealing physique, then eating at maintenance level while getting stronger might be a better option.
And if you’re simply a “dude” who wants to add a few pounds of muscle and look better with his shirt off, but doesn’t want to pudge up or become a bodybuilder, eating at maintenance levels might make more sense.
Remember one key point though. The more muscle you add, the more calories it will take to maintain. Because of this, your daily calorie maintenance levels may changeover time.
That is good news, as it means you will be able to eat more food without gaining fat. What an amazing win win.