Is it best to bulk up or stay lean in order to build the most muscle?
Matt: Having tried both of these methods, there are positives to be had with either way you choose. When you ‘bulk up’ there is the advantage of a lot of extra carbs for use by our muscles as glucose as well as the fact that glycogen stores are always topped up. This translates into dramatic strength gains and gains in muscle mass. The downside to this type of plan is all of the unwanted fat gain. If you can retain most of the muscle though, then you’ll definitely come out far ahead at the end of the fat loss phase.
I for one believe putting on some body fat and muscle building are a necessary evil to some degree as eating and building muscle with little to no fat gain is next to impossible.
When trying to build muscle and stay lean, there is the obvious advantage of not having to diet to show your hard work when the building phase is through. The disadvantage to this type of plan is that the gains are usually fairly minimal. I used to do this method for years and was lucky to gain a pound or two, year over year.
Ideally a very well thought out plan that allows for a healthy surplus to gain, and allows for some fat gain but not a too large amount, would be preferred. Admittedly when most of us bulk up it means a free for all on eating. If we were to take the same clean eating approach to bulking as we do for fat loss then I believe the results will be somewhere in the middle regarding fat gain, and you’ll be able to build just as much muscle as when on a traditional ‘see food eat food’ bulk.
Michael: I believe wholeheartedly that a surplus of nutrients puts the body in the best condition to add lean muscle mass. Personally, however, I have always trained lean.
Where I have issue is with people who completely disregard good nutrition in the name of “Bulking.” For that reason, I won’t even use the term bulk. Rather, I believe that your caloric intake and balance of nutrients should be consistent with your fitness goals.
Once again, though, I have to acknowledge that I’m not a nutritionist. But I do know that fast food and deserts are not a requirement for me to reach my ultimate physique.
Colin: As always it depends on your goals and also your genetics. It also depends on what each person considers “lean.” Is that 12%, 9%, 6% body fat? If you are someone who is lucky enough to be able to stay lean and build decent muscle at the same time, well then why not do it that way? That, however, is pretty rare. For someone like myself who can stay relatively lean somewhat easily but has a much harder time building muscle, to me it makes more sense to bulk.
If you go by the question literally, which one builds more muscle, I think it’s pretty obvious bulking is the winner. If you are feeding yourself the extra carbs and calories it only makes sense you will build more muscle. It just comes with the side effect of fat gain as well, of course depending on how aggressively you do it. Personally I have much better success going through a bulk and cut cycle in the long run. But I also don’t have to be “photo shoot ready” or anything since I do this just for fun, so I don’t have to worry about staying lean if I don’t want to.
JC: I have contributed articles to this site that have outlined “general guidelines” for gaining and reverse dieting, both of which have a foundation of adding calories to a diet. It may be hard to tell in some instances where I was serious, kidding, or exaggerating, but the main point was the same. A surplus brings gain. As I read over what I have written in the past, I cannot say I would completely adhere to or suggest the same today. Sure, those are methods you can use – but time has proven that there is more than one way to skin a cat. As time, experience, and science evolves, so do the methods and practices of those in this industry. With that in mind, my current view on “bulking” is as follows…
Having utilized the “see food” diet or all of my “reverse dieting” ventures, I can say from experience that you will without a doubt “gain.” I say “gain” because you know what I mean. Muscle will only grow so fast, but fat seems to grow at an unrelenting speed. Several things happen in a see food diet that cause the individual to misinterpret their results.
1. You gain size – perfect, that was the goal. But we need to be real here. Do you honestly think you gained 5 pounds of muscle in a week? But I’m stronger, you say…and strength gain is muscle gain, isn’t it?
2. You gain strength – you have more strength because you have more energy. Why do you have more energy? Chances are you are loading up on carbs/sugars. Glycogen is always topped off, you have tons of calories to burn. Your muscles are functioning on a full tank with fully charged batteries. Beware the inevitable crash.
3. Hunger increases – but dude, I’m ravenous all the time. I know I’m growing….yeah, you’re growing, but so is that dude on TV where they had to cut the walls out of his house to get him out. You’re hungry because your blood sugar levels are going nuts.
This is what a see food diet did to me. It brought me up from 143lbs to 182lbs. I had strength in the gym – but as the day went on I felt like garbage and it got to the point that I just felt like garbage all of the time. I felt lethargic and struggled to make it through the whole day.
Dieting back down from a see food diet has always had the same result. It takes 16-20 weeks to get into contest shape (rather than 8-12) and I still hit the stage at the same weight. In my defense, I want to add that of the half a dozen shows I have done, I think each show has brought a level of conditioning superior to the previous show. Perhaps this can explain my overall gains but no change in show weight – I just had less fat each time. There is no denying I have made mass gains if you compare my shows side by side.
Staying leaner on the other hand, also has many advantages – health, energy, appearance, productive growth cycles, easier cut cycles… Once you are willing to accept that 500 calories above maintenance will build muscle just as fast as 2000 calories above maintenance, you will find that you are able to get yourself in a “let’s mow the lawn shirtless” state and keep it that way. Since my last show I have completely redone my diet to accommodate more respectable numbers that are only a little above my maintenance level. What I have come to find is that I am more energetic and my strength is equal to, if not greater, than when I was a sloppy caloric mess. Since bringing my calories back down I have experienced several PRs in the weight room, all while maintain a healthy body weight with only slow and modest increases in weight. You may recall from an earlier writing of mine that my magic number is 167 in the off-season. Usually, at 167 I look like a bean bag couch. As of this writing, I am 163 and look to be twice the size as I was this time last year.
So, to me, the choice is simple. Remaining lean year round while incorporating a modest and well thought out diet and workout routine is the best way to go. This industry is dominated by competition, and perhaps that is the reason for all of the excess. Too often I hear guys at the gym comparing their diets, trying to outdo the other on how big his post workout meal is going to be and how many calories he eats in a day. It’s great to have that competitive spirit, but that is one thing you really don’t need to be competing at. It took me a while to figure that out. I used to boast of a 4000 calorie diet like it was a medal of honor. I look back on those days and shake my head. I eat 2400-2600 calories a day. Tell me I’m wrong – I’m fine with that. I’ll take my vein riddled war-clubs/forearms elsewhere.
Colin: I think this all brings up another point and that is the question what people consider “bulking.” For me the difference between cutting and bulking is about 700 calories, about 2200 when cutting and 2900 when bulking (plus training) and splitting the difference if maintaining. I definitely agree the “see food” diet is not the way to go. With this method you are staying fairly lean but at the same time adding some muscle and fat. I can’t imagine adding 40-50 pounds in a bulk cycle. I look to add about .5 – 1 pound per week. I guess you could say my preferred method would be to stay semi-lean while bulking.
Round 1: The best fat loss method
Round 2: Fasted vs fed cardio for fatloss
Round 5: The best 3 exercises
Round 6: The ideal training program
Round 7: How much protein for fat loss
Round 8: The last 10 pounds
Round 9: The ultimate training split
Round 10: Do carbs or fats make you fat?