I have been talking a lot about bulking this summer, and the thought occurred to me that my Iron Beavie fans might not know what I am talking about, or why I am trying to get bigger when most people are running in the opposite direction.
Bodybuilders achieve their signature look of big muscles and low bodyfat through cycles of bulking and cutting.
The combination of muscle growth and ultra-lean bodyfat percentage doesn't generally coexist by simply working out a lot. You have to go through periods of growth and leaning, separately.
Bulking is the muscle growth phase. In order to bulk, you need extra calories. This is called a caloric surplus, and it simply means taking in more calories than you are burning off. The extra calories should go to building more muscle mass. Not to mention, they give you the energy to power through the hard and heavy workouts it takes to achieve this mass. But bulking comes with a side-effect. Your bodyfat percentage goes up. No matter how clean your extra calories are, the average person will still accumulate a certain amount of fat, it's just the nature of the beast.
Once you have built up sufficient muscle mass, it's time for the cutting phase. This is the opposite of bulking. You take in less calories than you are burning to create a caloric deficit, which will shed the unwanted layer off and reveal the musculature underneath. Most often, this involves eating less, but keeping your protein intake high so your body doesn't cannibalize it's muscle, and adding more cardio into the mix to keep your heart rate up and burn the most fat.
Typically, a professional bodybuilder will bulk for 6-9 months and cut for a few months during contest season. Most recreational bodybuilders bulk over the winter, when they can wear big clothes, and then start cutting in the spring, so they look fly at the beach when summer rolls in.
I, however, am not bulking for looks, I am bulking for performance. More muscle mass means more strength. More strength means I can push heavier shit, which is my top priority. The plan was to bulk until October, then cut in preparation for a Hawaiian vacation. I am perfectly comfortable sitting at about 18% bodyfat. As long as I don't get so fat that I can't do jiu jitsu or not wear a bathing suit without shame, I'm all good. (Also, I have to wear rashguards now, and those things are not forgiving.) But since starting jiu jitsu, it's been a conditioning gauntlet and I find myself having to re-calibrate my intake to match the intensity. Such is life, endless flux and re-adjustment.
So, is bulking and cutting right for you? That depends.
Are you overweight and just getting started working out? No. Keep exercising and losing bodyfat until you are in the ballpark of a healthy range. You'll build a bit of muscle and lose some bodyfat in the process.
Are you really skinny, or skinny-fat and want to put on some muscle? Starting a bulk is a great option. Keep most of your food clean and start with +300 calories. Make sure your gym routine is optimal for growth, otherwise you'll just gain weight. Evaluate where you're at monthly and adjust calories accordingly.
Are you well-muscled, but have a pesky gut or uncomfortable layer of bodyfat all over everything? Cut it up. Start with -200 calories and up the cardio and HIIT type training to a few times a week. Evaluate where you're at monthly and adjust calories/cardio accordingly.
Don't be fooled into thinking you can have your cake and eat it too, when it comes to big muscles and single-digit bodyfat. You don't get there by just eating right and working out. Big muscles and shredded abs have opposite requirements. It takes time and balance to achieve both. Years, in fact. It also takes a trained mind to trust the process and see it through, because results are never instantaneous in either direction.
Tips for beginners:
1. When bulking, try to keep most of your food choices clean. Flexible dieting works, but it is easy to get off track, especially if you aren't a professional. This is not to say you can't chow a double cheeseburger or three, it's just to say don't do it every day, even if it fits your macros.
2. When cutting, go easy. Do not hard cut with major calorie restrictions and endless cardio. You will become a monster. Then, the moment your cut is over, you will become the monster that can't stop eating everything in sight. It has nothing to do with will power, it is biology. If there isn't a trophy, purse, job, or endorsement involved, a hard cut is not worth it. Not ever.
3. Either way you go, monitor your progress monthly. If you're getting too fat too quickly, adjust. If you suddenly have a washboard stomach after two weeks, cut yourself a little slack. No diet out there is 100% tailored to you, so you have to do the fine-tuning. Don't get upset and discouraged if things aren't happening fast enough, either. In a year, you'll be glad you stuck with it and passed the necessary phases to build a better, healthier, body.