Bulking: Don’t Cheat Yourself


by Cade Thomas

When you break it down, bodybuilding is pretty simple in theory. Lift heavy weights to breakdown muscle tissue, eat high protein food to repair it larger than it was before, and get lots of rest to allow the process to happen. These basics hold true for even the more advanced lifters and sometimes it needs to be reinstated in your head. This is definitely an over simplification but no matter how far scientific research takes us these facts will always remain true. However for those who like to keep it simple, there is one thing that might be stopping this simple equation from proving to be effective for you.

You are too fat.

Sorry, but bulking is dead. Muscle cannot be formed from fat. There is no such thing as “soft muscle”, just muscle or fat. Amongst dedicated bodybuilders and fans this is a no brainer, but for the more casual lifter this is extremely important. The only physical advantage to having body fat on you is that it will increase the amount of weight you can lift while training through leverage and other factors. If you are serious about improving your physique and your goals stretch beyond filling out your t-shirt and have people call you “big guy”, you need to keep your body fat in check.

I know from personal experience that once your body fat creeps up in the 20% region (which is much more common than most people want to believe it is) that my gains really start to slow down, and you can’t really tell what’s going on with your physique. At the end of the day we are the mercy of our hormones in terms of muscle gain and fat loss, and the hormonal environment that is created by a higher amount of body fat is really going to fight you tooth and nail in your efforts. How your body handles carbohydrates can be the determining factor between producing muscle or producing fat, and insulin sensitivity is not something you want compromised.

High estrogen levels are synonymous with body fat as well, and I think it’s pretty obvious that is not the environment we want. Besides the obvious threat of gynecomastia and other very visual side effects, estrogen levels need to be kept in balance for optimal health for any male, especially a bodybuilder. The soft look is not a coveted one in the sport of bodybuilding, and high estrogen levels are going to only reinforce that look. We all see the big but smooth guys in the gym who’s friends tell everyone they are “pure muscle” and witnessed them train day in and day out but never really make any dramatic improvements, and sadly most of their effort is going to waste.

At a certain point of fatness your body is going to lean heavily towards storing fat; The fatter you are the fatter you will get. The reason some bodybuilders can be seen eating such extreme cheat meals while maintaining a sub 10% level of body fat is that they positioned their bodies to be in a place to be extremely effective at utilizing the nutrients and burning off extra calories. Many prep coaches now cut cheat meals out at the beginning of the diet and wait to introduce them until the bodybuilder is in a good state conditioning wise, at which point the bolus of calories can actually be an effective dieting tool and provide physiological benefits. This goes against the older approach of cheat meals in the offseason and then cutting them out whenever it becomes “crunch time” during show prep. Through staying leaner in the offseason we not only improve our bodies ability to build ACTUAL muscle tissue (not just scale weight) we also put ourselves in a much better position to attack a contest prep.

So stop chasing a number and start being honest with yourself. If you cannot see any semblance of ab or vascularity, chances are your body is not the muscle building machine you need it to be.

This does not imply that you shouldn’t acquire any body fat whatsoever during a growth phase, as that is borderline impossible. The point is that you should start lean and limit fat gain to what is the lowest amount possible. We need to eat enough calories to give our body a surplus from which to build muscle from, and none of us have it figured out to the point where we can eat exactly enough to maximize muscle gain but nothing extra. As the growth season is intended exactly for that – growth, we do not want to limit muscle building so it’s fair to side slightly over the required amount of calories to ensure we are accomplishing what is our main goal. However this is still a carefully approached balance and the “see food” diet is not your friend, and if you notice the butter being lathered over your hard earned muscles it can be very beneficial to spend a few weeks cleaning up the mess with a short term diet.

Everything works better when you are leaner, and anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is just justifying their laziness in their own approach to adding muscle.