Have you noticed that a large number of fitness athletes and bodybuilders are out-of-shape most of the year?
In an effort to build as much muscle as possible they follow a “bulking” and “cutting” approach to fitness. Eating copious amounts of food, while disregarding waist size and body-fat levels, only to diet back down when they’re cutting. This routine has them putting on weight fast, but it’s not all muscle (in many cases the weight gained is largely fat).
I will show you why the traditional system of bulking and cutting is obsolete and what you should do instead to build muscle while minimizing fat gain. You can get bigger without having to wait till summer to take your shirt off.
This article will cover nutrition strategies for lean muscle acquisition. Strength training is an essential part of this equation, however. Go here if you want to know how to train for lean muscle and superhuman strength.
Avoiding The Pitfalls of Mainstream Fitness
Bulking and cutting are synonymous with the on- and offseason for strength and physique enthusiasts. During bulking season, which usually spans through the fall and winter months, athletes eat a high calorie diet to support weight gain. Come spring time, however, the couch marathons and hot fudge sundaes are replaced by low calorie meals, fat-burning supplements and unending cardio sessions.
First off, yes, this strategy works. This is undoubtedly the fastest way to put on bodyweight, but a chronic excess of calories comes at a cost (ask your overweight diabetic uncle). Doesn’t matter if you “clean” or “dirty” bulk. Your body isn’t designed to cope with a permanent energy surplus.
How can you circumvent the side-effects of overeating while building and maintaining maximum size?
The Art of Balancing Anabolism and Catabolism
Anabolism is the accumulation and building of tissue, while catabolism constitutes the breakdown and elimination of material. Mainstream thinking will have you believe that anabolism= good, catabolism= bad. This notion is fundamentally flawed, however.
Catabolic activity promotes anabolism and vice versa. You need to periodically be in a catabolic state to benefit from the subsequent anabolic feedback. Cycling between periods of excess and periods of limited energy consumption, periods of extreme physical demand and periods of rest, will amplify your body’s adaptive responses.
Your body always seeks homeostasis. It always seeks balance. Chronic overeating and/or overtraining destroy that balance.
Research has indicated, that training in a fasted state produces a significantly stronger anabolic response compared to training in a fed state. How, you ask? The catabolic nature of heavy resistance training is greatly amplified in the absence of food for fuel (double whammy). Remember, catabolism facilitates the anabolic response.
You’ll unlikely build more muscle training on an empty stomach, but this goes to show you how powerful your innate regulatory mechanisms are. Your body will always find a way to maximize its output if you let it.
Calorie Cycling for Lean Muscle Gains
If your goal is to build muscle without compromising performance (and appearance) you must get lean before attempting to add size. Getting to a low body-fat will prime your muscle-building machinery to assimilate large amounts of calories and synthesize new tissue. If you’re above 15% body-fat (as a male) forget about bulking. Eating big will only make you fatter. Get and stay lean if you want to look and perform your best.
Once you’re reasonably lean, cyclically increase your energy intake to support muscle-building. Cycle between days of higher and days of lower calories.
Some people might need more days in a surplus in relation to deficit days. That doesn’t change the fact that you need to periodically undereat to benefit from high calorie feedings.
3 surplus days followed by 1 deficit day, 5 days of overeating followed by 2 days of undereating or a 2:1 ratio. Experiment.
Keep the balance on days of overeating (surplus calories) until you start to “lose” your abs and notice a decrease in muscular definition. A little extra fluff is nothing to worry about, but don’t get fat in the name of building muscle. Muscle doesn’t jiggle.
Calorie cycling for lean muscle gains exemplified:
- Maintenance (base-level) calories: 2500 calories
- Surplus days (overeating): 2800-3000 calories 5 days per week
- Deficit days (undereating): 2000-2200 calories 2 days perweek
A small amount of accompanying fat gain is unavoidable. Since you will be lean starting out, you’re going to stay in “fighting shape” throughout your muscle-building journey.
“Why not just eat a moderate but steady surplus (aka lean bulking)?”
Eating at a slight surplus can work and will keep the side-effects associated with overeating at bay. However, in my experience, this approach isn’t optimal. Our bodies work in cycles. A cyclical approach to feeding (and training) takes advantage of this biological principle, while the traditional bulking and cutting strategy goes against it.
Your system reaches its peak capacity under acute physiological stress. Intense resistance training and intermittent calorie restriction amplify the subsequent compensation.
Why You Need to Eat Less to Build More Muscle
Insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the human body. Testosterone, IGF-1 and growth hormone are not viable without insulin’s interference. High insulin sensitivity is mandatory for maximum anabolic signaling (check this out for more detail). Chronic overeating (bulking) will inevitably crush this delicate pathway and promote insulin resistance, metabolic decline and fat gain.
By cycling between days of high and days of lower calories you can keep your hormonal system peaking in times of very high energy turnover.
“Yeah sounds good on paper, but what is the net difference in terms of muscle and strength gains, Victor? How is this approach superior to bulking with a moderate surplus?”
In order to protect itself from uncontrolled growth, the body reduces insulin sensitivity. This is precisely why obese individuals suffer from insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Their bodies shut down the production of growth promoting (anabolic) hormones.
To bypass this growth limiting effect, you want to keep days of undereating in your regimen. Deficit days, where you take in less energy than you expend, are a critical component to maximizing your physical potential! If there’s anything you take away from this article, let it be this.
The difference in muscle gain might be minimal compared to a sensible bulking program, but the overall physiological benefits this strategy offers are unparalleled.
Sit Down and Eat, Son.
You now understand why getting fat in the name of muscle cannot be the strategy of choice for athletes and fitness buffs. But you still need to eat and occasionally you’re going to have to eat a lot to support growth.
Pigging out on a daily basis? – No sir. On the other hand, constantly restricting your calorie intake out of fear of fat gain will not grant your body sufficient material to synthesize muscle tissue.
Don’t be afraid to really overeat when your body is calling for more energy.
While we understand a chronic surplus has devastating consequences, failing to provide enough nutrition, will short-circuit your muscle-building efforts. You’ll find it next to impossible to put on size despite training like an animal and sipping on the latest high-tech supplement concoction.
So sit down, relax, and eat your pizza.
Thank you for reading
Boden, G. et al (2015). Excessive caloric intake acutely causes oxidative stress, GLUT4 carbonylation, and insulin resistance in healthy men. In: Science Translational Medicine. Vol. 7, Issue 304, pp. 304
Deldicque et al (2009). Increased p70s6k phosphorylation during intake of a protein–carbohydrate drink following resistance exercise in the fasted state. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 108(4), 791-800
Li, C./ Ford, E.S./ Li, B./ Giles, W.H./ Liu, S. (2010). Association of Testosterone and Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin with Metabolic Syndrome and Insulin Resistance in Men. Diabetes Care 33, no. 7: 1618–24.
Pitteloud, N./ Hardin, M./ Dwyer, A.A./ Valassi, E./ Yialamas, M./ Elahi, D./ Hayes, F.J. (2005). Increasing Insulin Resistance Is Associated with a Decrease in Leydig Cell Testosterone Secretion in Men. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 90, no. 5: 2636–41.