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#5: On Bulking Up

  • Written by Denis Pedneault

201002_bodysculptingQ: Hi Denis,

Some guys in my gym like to "bulk up" to put on muscle. One guy gained 45 pounds? Do you think bulking up is a good idea? To me, it’s just body fat that you have to lose again while dieting. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

. . . Terry Donaldson

A: Hi Terry,

That’s a very interesting topic, and one that often brings controversy too.

Personally, I don’t recommend what people usually call a "bulking season." As you so rightly said yourself, most of your gains will inevitably be unnecessary body fat that you have to lose to get back into shape afterwards, and that is especially true if you’ve decided to do it the "natural" way.

There is one thing that comes to mind when I think about your question, and that is the reaction I get from people I run into at all the contests and seminars I attend. Be it in the gym or elsewhere, people constantly comment on how good I look. In fact, people always think I’m getting ready for a contest because of my off-season conditioning. Someone asked me this very morning while I was training which contest I was preparing for. I replied, "The 2009 World Qualifier, which will take place in March 2009." No wonder he looked so surprised, as he was probably expecting a different answer with a much closer contest date. At the last show I attended, another guy I know commented to my girlfriend that I always look "in shape" and said, "It’s like they cast this guy in a mold." As funny as this remark may sound, I think it explains why I always seem to be in condition. I like to hear these kinds of comments, because it does take dedication to stay in shape year-round and it’s good to hear that people notice (it keeps you on track!). Let’s face it, recognition has an important place in our sport and I can assure you that you get more of it when you’re in shape than when you’re out of shape.

Conditioning is very important in bodybuilding. As a bodybuilder, your goal shouldn’t be to go against your body structure by altering it with excessive body weight but, rather, to get the most out of it so it looks better. A lot of guys stubbornly strive to a higher body weight in order to compete in a higher weight category. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that leads to an unevenly developed and flawed physique. Divisions in bodybuilding are only there to separate the athletes by their body weight, the one that suits their body structure. That’s why everybody is in the same overall contest at the end of a show, and I did win a national "overall" title, so it proves that the little guy can beat the bigger ones if he is in better shape. Bigger is not necessarily better, only better is better, and the only way to get better is to make sure that your increase in volume is made of quality muscle and not unnecessary fat.

Here’s another thought: Over the years, I have noticed that I do get bigger and better, but not necessarily heavier. You see, if you calculate your diet correctly, you should be able to improve your body composition slowly but continuously. Every year I get in better shape, and yet I still compete under 65 kg. Year after year, my shape improves, but in a way that it seems to get progressively fuller but at a lower body-fat percentage. I also notice that my "off-season" shape is in better condition every year. For example, a few months after my last contest, I did regain most of my off-season body weight but I’ve been able to keep the cuts in my legs and abs in the process. I also noticed similar things happening with the clients who follow my diet plans strictly: they always seem to "re-shape" their body at first as the body fat goes down and the lean body mass increases. The weight stays pretty much the same for the first weeks, but you sure can see the difference in the mirror and in the fit of their clothes. After that period, progress comes in small increases in weight at a slow but steady pace. One of my clients is in the Canadian Forces and he had to change his uniform several times because it wouldn’t fit anymore – he was getting leaner every time!

An effective bodybuilding weight-training program is supposed to make you grow even if you don’t gain much weight, because the muscular system comprises many components other than the contractile proteins (which count for most of the lean weight gain). That’s why you have to make sure that your program contains integrated variations in weights and repetitions to develop all these components.

That said, what I do recommend is a more logical and progressive approach, one that most bodybuilders are just starting to discover and use (the one I’ve been using for the past six or seven years): micro-cycling. Micro-cycles, as opposed to macro-cycles, are periods that are made up of days or, at most, a week, instead of being spread over weeks or months. Long-term routines with extended cycles don’t give quality results, because by the time you change phases and try to gain back what you’ve accomplished weeks or months ago, your body has already adapted to the new stimulus it’s been exposed to. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get any results at all, but I assure you that you could have done better in less time. Don’t underestimate your body’s ability to adapt: it does take some time to do it and change, but it can also become pretty good at it. You also have to keep in mind that the body will react to drastic changes and often with the antagonist process (e.g., increase the metabolism if it’s overfed).

The first thing you must do is learn how to control your metabolism. Either you want to gain muscle (anabolism) or lose fat (lypolisis), and you can easily encourage your metabolism to work with you and not against you if you are careful in designing your nutrition plan. There are different ways to cycle your diet: You can either manipulate your caloric intake or play with your macronutrient ratio (high or low carbs, fat and/or protein intake). The basic idea is to plan fluctuations in the diet so the body doesn’t get lazy and accustomed to it. You can choose to alternate your daily and/or weekly intake but I don’t recommend going for more than a week. I’ve tried it and learned that it works better and faster if the routine is cut down to a week. It also allows you to adjust more rapidly if things are not going as expected, if you just have only one week to catch up. For example, from a personal standpoint, if I can’t see some definition in my abs I’m getting too fat and I need to cut back a little the next week to get back on the right track.

Here are some examples of simple variations that you can include in your program:

  • Alternating the primary macronutrient or energy source of the meals (e.g., carbs, fat)
  • Alternating between high and low meals (e.g., protein, carbs, fat, caloric content)
  • Alternating between high and low days (e.g., carbs, calories)

Here’s now an example of a one-week cycle:

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Training

Upper
Body

Lower
Body

Upper
Body

Lower
Body

Upper
Body

Rest

Rest

Calories

High

Moderate

High

Moderate

High

Very High

Low

Carbs

High

Moderate

High

Moderate

High

Very High

Low

Fat

Moderate

High

Moderate

High

Moderate

High

Low

Protein

High

High

High

High

High

Moderate

Low

In this example, I have the athlete working out five days a week, in which he will vary his energy sources (carbs and fat) in order to stimulate his metabolism. Then on the sixth day, he will impose on his body what people usually call a "cheat day," which in fact will be an "overfeeding" phase of 24 hours to further stimulate anabolism (overcompensation). To make sure we don’t stimulate too much fat storage, this rather short but intense caloric surge will immediately be followed by 24 hours of "underfeeding" (detox) that will increase the body’s sensibility to macronutrients (e.g., protein and carbs) and stimulate food absorption for the following week. This way, the so called "bulking" phase is no longer than one day because it is integrated in a segmented program designed to optimize food intake instead of just overloading the system with extra calories. There are many ways to rotate your diet but that example gives you an idea.

Another good thing about constant variation is that the weight you gain slowly tends to stay more naturally, as you allowed your body enough time to adjust its own "set point" to the new body composition you have imposed on it. Speaking of adaptation, when considering a long-term "bulking phase," you may also want to consider the different levels of adaptation related to each component of the musculoskeletal system. Take the skin, for example, which is an elastic tissue but has a determinate capacity. If you gain a lot of weight, your skin will stretch out in order to adapt itself to the new outlines of your body. But it can only do that to a certain degree and through a certain period of time. Past that point, and depending on its condition (hydration, malleability, etc.), it will simply break and form scar tissue (stretch marks). You often see that on people who gained or lost a lot of weight in record time. That’s exactly what happens to guys who use drugs, as they bypass their body’s natural ability to adapt (in that case relating to outer soft tissues). The same thing is true for other soft tissue structures like internal organs, as they can adapt to the volume of food you eat, but only to a certain degree, and it can take some time before they gain back their normal size (if, in fact, they do).

Here’s an example of different levels of adaptation: When trying to cut down, your stomach may adapt rapidly to smaller meals, but it will take some time for your skin to tighten and adapt itself to a smaller structure, especially around the waist. If the gap is too big, it just won’t model itself onto the muscles and it sure won’t look good. A lot of people don’t think about things like skin health. I don’t know about you but I want my whole body to look good and healthy, and the skin is a part of it (it’s the biggest organ of your body) and comprises most of what you see! I know I’m a bodybuilder, but I’m also a man (with all that it consists of), and, as a man, I sure want my girlfriend to find me attractive, and I don’t think she would find me so attractive if I had a big gut and my skin was all covered with stretch marks, spots and acne (as you see on all the guys who tried to trick their body with unhealthy practices). To me, that is just unaesthetic and antagonist to the bodybuilding ideal. After 15 years of hard training, I managed to sculpt a muscular yet aesthetic physique with none of the above and you can be sure that she appreciates it! This may sound like a strange comment for this column but I suggest you give it a though for a minute.

Then you have health problems that come into play. Prolonged exposure to unhealthy habits like overeating encourages permanent tissue alterations (e.g., scars, hernia), endocrine pathologies (e.g., hypothyroidism) and metabolic conditions (e.g., diabetes). You also have to consider the time required for each physiological process that will come into play, (e.g., nutrient breakdown, absorption and utilization). Overfilling your system won’t necessarily make it work faster: nature can’t be rushed and that’s why you have to plan everything so you get efficient work done. Let’s say you have three men working on building a small brick house, giving them twice as many bricks as they can handle (or need) won’t make them build the house twice as fast because it’s simply above their work capacity. You’ll just end up with a growing pile of bricks and three guys completely exhausted and unable to work, which means no house at all. I know a lot of people who screwed up their system and it often takes a lot of time and effort to recover. I’m always surprised to see how people don’t care about their health until something goes bad and then they complain and are willing to do anything to reverse the situation (when it’s already too late). Besides, I don’t see the point of being in shape one or two months out of twelve. I mean, I’m currently "off-season" and people notice me everywhere I go, and not because I’m a 250-pound monster with a distended gut, but because they can’t help but notice an unusually aesthetic physique that stands out in a crowd. They may even wish they had a physique like mine, and if it’s the case then I’m pleased because that tells me that I’ve done my homework as a real "bodybuilder"! I could go on and on about this very interesting subject, but I think that will be enough for this time.

Be patient, be dedicated, be a real bodybuilder!

Sincerely,

. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006

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