Bulking season is upon us. The time of year when you throw caution to the wind and devour anything and everything in sight in hopes of adding some lean muscle to your frame. A relic of the early years of bodybuilding, bulking is yet another dogmatic strategy that is at best — ineffective. Nowadays, we know better. There are more effective ways to build lean mass without rapidly expanding your waistline and those pudgy cheeks at the same time.
The Traditional Bulk
The logic behind a traditional bulk is to add as much muscle mass as possible by any means necessary. Instead of counting calories, macros, or trying to optimize the diet for muscle gain, you are instructed to consume everything in sight. Pizza, ice cream, sushi, burritos, nothing is off limits. This goes on and on, almost indefinitely, until you either get so fat that you can’t bear the sight of your own reflection, or it comes time to prep for a show, summer, event, etc.
This strategy is based on the simple fact that you need to be in a calorie surplus to gain weight — but while this is true, it is not the whole picture. There are a whole host of factors — like hormones, nutrients, and macros — that determine whether the weight you gain is actually muscle, fat, or just water.
And the worst part about bulking is the aftermath. Traditional bulking usually comes with excessive fat gain, and natural or not, it is a monumental task to get rid of it all. While bulking is all fun, games, cheat foods, and happy days, the cut is miserable, long, and ends in negligible gains and metabolic damage.
Is there a limit to a bulk?
Even if we concede to brutish methods and forgo calorie counting and macro management in favor of plain and simple excess, the traditional bulk can only get us so far. You see, the fat you gain during a bulk has a direct negative impact on your general health and anabolic hormones. Creep over 15% BF, and your body will start to fight against you.
Your heart works overtime, your blood pressure rises, your estrogen goes through the roof, and you become insulin resistant, all of which result in more fat and less muscle. You lose motivation, you feel tired throughout the day, your mood suffers, you lose your sex drive…Your body goes completely out of whack, and basically, stops supporting the muscle building process.
The bottom line is that the higher your body fat is, the less likely you are to gain muscle.
What is the right way to bulk?
Your body likes balance. It does not want to be higher than 15% Body Fat (males) / 25% Body Fat (females) and it does not want your body fat to be too low (single digits) — your body wants the Goldilocks scenario, everything just right. When you start to stray from this comfort zone, your body will fight to bring you back to baseline. So why fight it?
Instead of putting yourself through the turmoil of an off season bulk, where body fat routinely blows past 15%, try cyclical bulking to keep your hormones in check and smash through plateaus. So what is cyclical bulking, you ask?
The Cyclical Bulk
In one sentence, cyclical bulking is a strategy whereby you switch between brief periods of cutting and bulking in order to maximize your capacity to gain muscle and lose fat. That’s the synopsis — now let’s dive into the details, because there is a bit more to it than that.
The ABCs of a Cyclical Bulk
If you are over 15% body fat, then it’s time to cut before even considering a bulking phase. If you are already at 15% or less, then it’s time to bulk. That is your baseline.
From there, you pick a number that is 5% over your current weight. This is your target for the bulk.
e.g. 200lb male X 5% = 10lbs
Your aim is to manipulate food intake to add about one to two pounds a week until you reach your goal. So our example 200lb male will bulk for between 5 and 10 weeks, depending on how much he gains every week. You will have to make adjustments every week based on your progress. Gain more than a pound or two, cut back on the food…didn’t gain enough, time to add some meals. Simple.
Once you reach your goal weight, regardless of how long that takes, you immediately go into a cutting phase to lose two thirds (66%) of the weight you just added. So our sample 200 lb male, who just gained 10 pounds, will aim to lose 2/3 of that. A little bit of math (.66 x 10 = 6.6) and presto! He knows he needs to lose about 6 pounds.
By the end of the cut, our bodybuilder has gained 4 pounds* of real muscle.
That would be one whole cycle. Basically, you repeat this process for as long as you want — until you are as big as your heart desires.
*Now I know you’re probably thinking that 4 pounds on a 200lb bodybuilder doesn’t sound like much, but remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that in his best year he managed just 15lbs! And that’s Arnold we’re talking about! So if you can manage 4lbs every every 3-6 months, you are not very far from Arnold’s best.
The Magic of A Cyclical Bulk
What makes the cyclical bulk so great is that it works with your body instead of against it. You feed your body when it is primed for growth, and you cut the fat when it is ready to shred. Here’s how the magic happens:
- It is really easy to gain weight immediately after a cut
- It is really easy to lose fat immediately after a bulk
- Growth and fat loss, both occur in spurts
After a cut, your body is extremely sensitive to nutrients. It has been deprived of food, and in response, has unregulated many processes which allow it to absorb nutrients and build muscle efficiently. The opposite happens after a bulk — your metabolism is through the roof from the extra food you have been consuming and the muscle you have just gained. Minor manipulations to your diet, and the fat melts off. The last point is perhaps the most important. Growth and fat loss occur in spurts, neither is consistent. You may not see any changes for weeks, and then BOOM, a few pounds come or go practically overnight. The cyclical bulk takes advantage of this. Instead of idling, waiting around for progress to happen, you force it to happen by forcing you body into rapid growth and fat loss cycles.
How To Structure Your Cyclical Bulk
Structuring a cyclical bulk is pretty simple. If you are above 15% body fat, start by cutting. If you are below 15% body fat, start bulking. Measure progress weekly, and if the scales are not moving every week, then increase/decrease your kcal by 10-15%, and weigh yourself again in 1 week. Always maintain a high level of protein in your diet , and look to increase this when cutting to keep hold of all your lean gains in a kcal deficit. And as far as food choices go, be flexible, eat healthy most of the time, but enjoy some “cheat” foods too, i’m a big fan of flexible dieting to ensure you adhere to a lifestyle instead of a “diet”. I recommend 80-90% of your diet is nutrient dense food that will have a good impact on your health and goals, but 10-20% of your diet can be treats, cheats…basically whatever you want. This way, you not only optimize nutrition to maximize progress, but you stay happy and sane throughout the entire process..everything in moderation 😉
Bulking Must Die
Everyone that’s bulking cant wait to get shredded, and everyone whose shredded can’t wait to eat and grow.
Old school mentality would have us bulk up, adding lbs of muscle..and fat in the process, only to be followed by a long and arduous cut to reveal a few measly pounds of muscle.
Cyclical bulking is the intelligent way to gain muscle, look good year round, and achieve greater gains in the long run.