If you’ve spent any time reading about weight training, bodybuilding,
or the general concept of gaining muscle…
…. you’ve likely read about ‘bulking’ up.
The phrase itself is a bit of a social cliche now, especially when celebrity
talk shows talk about actors gaining muscle mass for certain roles such
as Chris Hemsworth in Thor, or Hugh Jackman when he plays Wolverine
in the various X-men movies.
The typical commentary will be that they ‘bulked up’ for their role.
My assumption is they’re trying to describe a gain in lean muscle mass.
I say that this is my assumption because there is no real definition of
what “bulking up” really means.
So what does ‘bulking up’ really mean?
At the most basic level, it’s supposed to describe the gaining of overall
body size, and the assumption is that most of that size increase is due
to a gain in muscle mass.
Usually the only way guys measure their ‘bulk’ is by stepping on a
scale and checking to see if they weigh more.
This is a pretty crude and very unscientific way to measure any progress
in muscle growth… and often leads to a TON of errors.
But, what goes into a typical ‘bulk up’ workout and nutrition cycle?
In the past, typically a bodybuilder or anyone interested in gaining a lot
of muscle mass would be told to train with heavy weights as often as
possible, lots of compound lifts included bench press, squats, deadlifts,
military presses etc.
(Leave the isolation lifts alone for now… of course)
And eat big.
Typical rhetoric would be something along the lines of “if you only weigh
150 lbs but you want to weigh 220 lbs then you gotta eat like you’re already
This simply meant overeat as much as possible… as often as possible.
Eat big, train big… get big. [sounds good so far right?]
To understand where this logic breaks down… we have to determine who
started the trend of bulking and cutting in the first place.
Bulking and cutting started with competitive bodybuilders who typically
take various anabolic steroid drugs that DRAMATICALLY aid in the muscle
(In fact, a guy on gear can out gain a guy NOT on gear even WITHOUT
working out! )
In their case, they may very well need to eat more calories than their
They may actually need more calories than you or I do because the
drugs are allowing for a degree of muscle growth that can actually use
some of these excess calories.
In fact, it is only because these bodybuilders are using testosterone and
testosterone based drugs that they could have ever gotten away with bulking
for any length of time at all…
… because they were counteracting the negative side effect bodyfat can
have on your testosterone and estrogen balance.
(this is a HUGE secret)
Testosterone, Body Fat & Estrogen Conversion
In men, body fat has an enzyme in it that converts testosterone to estrogen.
In layman’s terms, the more body fat you have, the more of your testosterone
gets converted to estrogen.
Obviously this NOT good for muscle building.
If you attempt to gain muscle by overeating and ‘bulking up’, and during this
process you start to gain body fat… you can actually be reducing your
testosterone levels and killing your ability to really gain quality muscle mass.
The only reason bodybuilders might have got away with traditional bulking
is simply because they were taking enough steroids to offset the body fat
conversion to estrogen pathway.
But if you’re not taking steroids, you better not be gaining any body fat at all
while you attempt to gain muscle.
In other words, clean guys cannot ‘bulk up’ to gain muscle in the traditional
In order to gain maximum lean muscle mass your goal should be to first get
to a sensible and lean body fat level. I would suggest anything below 15%
or so should do it.
If you’re already much lower than 15% then no problem, you can focus entirely
on muscle gaining. The main question at this point is how much do you eat to
How do you know if you’re gaining muscle or fat?
Our nutrition calculator will give you a number of both calories and protein to eat
every day that should work for gaining muscle as long as you’re following an
You can test if you are eating too much by measuring your waist and comparing
your WEIGHT gain to your WAIST gain.
In our research, we have found that as guys gain or lose body fat there is a consistent
correlation of approximately 1 inch gained around the waist for every 5 lbs of fat
gained to your body.
Likewise every 5 lbs of weight lost should translate into approximately 1 inch
lost around the waist, most of this loss will be fat.
Therefore a 5 lbs weight gain that comes with a 1 inch gain around the waist
means you’ve likely gained almost all fat.
On the other hand if you gain 5 lbs and there is almost no change to your waist
measurement you can say with confidence that most of that weight gain went to
other areas of your body and most of it is likely lean mass.
Naturally, this is what we want.
Gaining muscle mass happens at different rates for different guys depending
how new they are to weight training, how old they are, and how consistently
they workout. It might happen faster some months and slower other months.
The key is to always monitor your WAIST gain vs your WEIGHT gain as well
as other body circumference like shoulders, chest, arms and legs.
As long as your other measurements are going up faster than your waist…
… then you’re gaining more lean mass than fat and you’re doing ok.
As soon as your waist starts out gaining the rest of your body it’s time to pull
back on the calories and get your body fat down a bit.
Remember, bulking up and gaining fat in the name of gaining muscle isn’t
going to work.
Stay lean to get big.
It sounds counter intuitive but it’s really the only way to works for clean guys.
p.s. The best thing about being lean and testosterone is that the leaner you are
(as a general rule), the more RESPONSIVE your body is to testosterone.
So even smaller increases like you can get with a testosterone booster
can pay off big. No, you won’t get steroid like gains (nor do you want them).
But gains will come faster, and you’ll “feel” better on a day to day basis.
(we haven’t even talked about the effects of how body fat, testosterone and
DEPRESSION are related… more on that another time)