Realistic Muscle Building and How Fast to Gain Weight
Cutting diet complete. Although I was shredded, I had certainly lost a lot of size. But now I was ready to hop on that “gains train.” It was time for some big eating. My mindset shifted from being as shredded as possible, to being as big as possible.
Pancakes and pizza were a regular part of my life. Each day I was taking in a huge surplus of calories. With this bump in daily food intake, I was training like an animal in the gym. I felt unstoppable. Strength was skyrocketing. Pumps were legen…wait for it…DARY.
Riding this momentum, I continued to eat as much as I could. But then, I started to change.
After several weeks the skin ripping pumps started to disappear. I felt bloated. My abs were fading. I had to buy jeans with a drawstring. But I thought, “this is part of the process, bro.” As the weeks went by my strength gains slowed, my energy dipped and I felt like a sloppy sack of garbage.
I went from 175 to 220 in matter of a few short months. The fat gain that I induced by bulking this rapidly caused a landslide of problems. Yes, a surplus of calories was the right approach when it came to putting on some muscle, but I simply was an idiot about it.
I ate way too much. I learned that a calorie surplus is only beneficial up to a certain point, after which the additional fatty acids, triglycerides and glucose become toxic.
That’s why I’ve murdered the idea of a traditional “bulk” in my approach to putting on size. And maybe, the following will influence you to do the same.
The more you weigh, the stronger you naturally are. This is what happens when you bulk. However, your relative strength is likely to decrease.
The Problem With Getting Fat
Insulin acts as an anabolic or storage hormone. Once insulin is in the blood, it shuttles glucose (carbohydrates), amino acids and blood fats into the cells of the body. If these nutrients are transported predominantly into the muscle cells, then the muscle grows and body fat levels are keep at bay. If these nutrients are transported into fat cells, then muscle mass goes unchanged, and body fat increases.
When you bulk like an idiot (as I did), you gain too much fat. This happens way too fast, which causes you to become less sensitive to insulin. As your insulin sensitivity continues to decrease while your body fat levels increase, your muscle cells won’t be able to use glucose and amino acids as efficiently as they should.
Metabolically speaking, once you start becoming less sensitive to insulin things can fall apart rather quickly. Increased fat storage, reduced muscle fullness, training progress slows and it becomes nearly impossible to get a good pump in the gym.
Being over-fat also sends you into a pro-inflammatory state. The more abundant a person’s fat cells, the greater the number of cytokine-releasing macrophage cells in the fat tissue. This inflammatory environment also influences a decreased insulin sensitivity in the muscle cell.
It’s not healthy
The term bulking is often used to mask reality. You’re basically working hard to accelerate fat storage.
Rather than packing on the pounds in the areas you want to see growth (arms, chest and legs), fat storage increases around the exact areas you don’t want to see grow; your belly, hips and low back. This type of fat gain is directly correlated with the onset of metabolic syndrome which puts you at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Relative vs. absolute strength
One reason why I think “bulking” can cause an illusion of progress is because of the strength gains you experience once you skyrocket your calorie intake. But what you might not consider is the difference between relative strength and absolute strength.
- Absolute strength is muscular strength not related to body weight.
- Relative strength is muscular strength in relation to your body weight.
The more you weigh, the stronger you naturally are. This is what happens when you bulk. However, your relative strength is likely to decrease. For example, when I ballooned to 220, I squatted 430. This was a PR for me. But 430 is peanuts relatively speaking.
Which is better? Absolute strength or relative strength?
Considering that you aren’t a lineman in football, a sumo wrestler, or a super-heavyweight lifter, I suggest both are important. Let’s look at Ben Johnson (even though he was pharmaceutically enhanced). At about 175 pounds he had a 600+ squat. The point is that absolute strength is essential. To be relatively strong, you must have a base of absolute strength.
A Better Muscle Building Approach
Learn how to count calories
Seriously. Don’t be a slob.
Putting on quality muscle mass is very similar to shedding body fat; except in reverse. You don’t slash intake by 1,000 calories overnight when you initiate a cutting diet. The same applies to adding mass to your frame. Shoving an extra 800-1,000 calories into your system overnight doesn’t do you any good. It only leads to the problems we reviewed earlier.
First determine your BMR (basal metabolic rate). There are plenty of BMR calculators online.
Second, determine your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). You do this by taking your BMR and multiplying it by an activity factor. Use the chart below.
|Sedentary||BMR x 1.2||Little to no exercise|
|Lightly Active||BMR x 1.375||Moderate training 2-4x a week|
|Moderately Active||BMR x 1.55||Training 3-5x a week|
|Very Active||BMR x 1.725||Training 5-6x a week|
|Extremely Active||BMR x 1.9||Intense training 6+ a week|
Once you arrive at your TDEE, a good place to start is by adding 300 extra calories per day to your intake. Here’s an example
- A 30 year old male who wants to build some muscle, but not pack on a ton of body fat
- He is 5 feet 9 inches tall
- He is 172 pounds
- He has a moderate activity level and hits the gym 4 to 5 times a week
- His TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) is 2,779 a day
By adding 300 extra calories per day to his intake, he would need to eat ~3,100 calories per day.
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Boost insulin sensitivity
Aside from managing your intake properly (particularly your carbs, which we’ll get into in a bit), let’s take a look at three ways you can improve your insulin sensitivity.
Way #1 – ALA
ALA (alpha lipoic acid) is an antioxidant found in spinach, broccoli, and tomatoes. Veggies; as a TigerFitness reader, you already know these should be in your diet. However, the benefits of ALA in the amount of veggies you can eat in a day may not be enough.
While ALA increases insulin sensitivity, it’s also important to note that clinical trials were researched with higher levels of ALA than you normally get through your diet. A good starting point to supplement with ALA is ~50mg a day.
Way #2 – Green Tea
The ancient Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu (hot water for tea in Japanese), came about when the Japanese adopted both Chinese practices of drinking powdered green tea and Zen Buddhist beliefs. Since the 1500’s the traditional Japanese tea ceremony has become more than just drinking tea; it’s now valued as a spiritual experience that embodies harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
I know it sounds a little “woo woo” for us lifters, but I think it’s important to have some substance beyond lifting a barbell. There’s more to life than lifting.
Whether you adopt drinking tea as a spiritual experience or not, drinking green tea has shown to improve your insulin sensitivity by reducing glucose uptake in adipose tissue (fat tissue) and increasing glucose uptake into skeletal muscle.
Way #3 – Cinnamon
Cinnamon has also shown to help partition nutrients in your favor, boosting your insulin sensitivity. I know, Starbucks only releases its pumpkin spice latte drink once a year, but c’mon, don’t limit yourself like that.
The naturally-occurring compounds that have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity include Cr (chromium) and polyphenols, which are both found in cinnamon. This simple addition to your diet may be the most practical way to boost your insulin sensitivity; “subjects with the metabolic syndrome who consume an aqueous extract of cinnamon have been shown to have improved fasting blood glucose, systolic blood pressure, percentage body fat and increased lean body mass compared with the placebo group.”
Adding 2-3 teaspoons of cinnamon to your morning oatmeal, coffee or shake will do the job.
Learn the difference between objective reality and your perception
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who is considered one of the greatest Stoic philosophers. He had a knack for objectivity. For example, he would describe glamorous or elegant things without their euphemisms:
- Roasted meat is dead animal.
- Vintage wine is old, fermented grapes.
- Adult entertainment is porn.
- A domestic engineer is a house maid.
- Your bulk diet is a fat gain diet.
Being objective takes you, your emotions, and your perceptions out of the equation. It opens up space for you to see what is true, rather than what you perceive. It’s hard to be objective with yourself at times, especially with something so personal like your body. Bring a buddy in who can give it to you straight and kick you in the pants when you need it.
A Practical Application to Carb Management
Since the issue of getting fat hinges on insulin sensitivity, it makes sense to address carbohydrate management. In terms of body fat levels, here’s a general guideline on how to manage your carbohydrate intake:
26%+ body fat:
You are probably insulin resistant. Your best approach would be to source your food from high quality proteins, veggies, and 1-2 servings of fruit a day. Including healthy fats like avocado, nuts and coconut oil are all game.
This is a huge range, but this is a general guideline. If you’re training consistently enough with high intensity, you can introduce starchy carbs back into your diet. Things like oatmeal, rice, potatoes, quinoa, millet, buckwheat are a go.
However, in this range, you’ve still got a good amount of fat storage so nutrient timing will be important for you. Be sure to include your starchy carbs when you’re most sensitive to insulin which would be peri and post workout. Carbs will make up about 25-35% of intake in this range.
12% and below
Carbs are a regular part of your diet if your body fat levels are below 12%. To maintain strength, support a healthy immune system and cognitive function, integrating carbs in this range is important. 40-50% of intake will come from carbs in this range.
Realistic Muscle Building Expectations
So what can you really realistically expect to gain with this kind of approach? For the non-drugged lifter, here’s what you can expect:
|Excellent||Gaining 1 to 2 lbs of lean muscle every 2-4 weeks|
|Average||Gaining 1lb of lean muscle every 4 weeks|
|Slow||Gaining less than 1 lb of lean muscle every 4 weeks|
These numbers are averages and may not represent the maximum range of incredible results. There will always be outliers. But for most of you, including me, this is an accurate depiction of what you can expect in terms of muscle gain. Building muscle – actual, lean muscle tissue – is a slow, laborious process for any lifter who isn’t a newbie. Welcome to the iron game.
The point is that absolute strength is essential. To be relatively strong, you must have a base of absolute strength.
The Art of Patience
Living in Southern California, I’m exposed to road rage on the reg. One minute people are fine, the next minute they are steaming from the ears and flipping people off. In some cases, pulling over and squaring up is the outcome.
Don’t be like this in the gym; losing your cool, getting impatient and abandoning all logical thinking. You’re on a journey that will take some time. Gains will be slow. You’ll miss some lifts. Develop the mental fortitude to stick to the process; even when it’s going to take longer than you want or when things just aren’t going your way.
Lastly, murder the idea of the traditional “bulk.” It just makes you fat.
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