When I started blogging, as a rule, I wanted to make it about you, the reader. If I didn’t focus on writing content that would help my readers improve then why would they read it? When I dig around online, it's crazy how many fitness bloggers and insatagramers ramble on about themselves like anyone cares. Pictures of their abs, half-assed written motivational quotes, pretty much everything across the board except quality info targeted to make their audience better. A lot of “experts” in this industry make it about themselves. Going down the rabbit hole of everything that pisses me off about that topic would be able to occupy its own post, I’ll save that for down the road.
Well, I’m breaking my own rule, as much as I don’t like it, I’m writing about myself. More specifically, my recent lean(ish) bulk period that just concluded. My intentions for this post are to use my experiences as a teaching tool of what to do/what not to do when in the pursuit of adding muscle. Additionally, it’s to demonstrate how in fitness, you must do things that make you uncomfortable to see progress, and I’m no different. Hopefully, you can draw a nugget or two out of this post to make your journey easier.
Being a former fat boy, I’ve always emphasized leanness. That’s where I’m comfortable. After I shed 60 lbs. in a few short months as a senior in high school and completely changed the course of my life with nutrition and exercise, staying lean was paramount to everything else. I fluctuated a little in college thanks to Natural Light, Taco Bell, McDonald’s $1 menu, and uncontrollable “munchies”, but I still maintained relative leanness. Then roughly 3 years ago, I completely dialed in my nutrition to achieve the leanest and most aesthetic shape of my life. While that felt awesome, the question was where would I go from there? Any leaner and I would risk looking like I was in the midst of a crack bender or adopting veganism, so that was out.
In the back of my mind I knew what I had to do, I needed to switch gears and prioritize gaining muscle. I put on 4 or 5 lbs. over the following winter with a slight increase in calories but then made the decision to “lean out” again as soon as I felt like I was gaining a little fat. Last summer, I got to a point where I was 162 lbs. While I was happy how I looked, all I was doing was taking 1 step forward and 2 steps back with respects to gaining muscle, I wasn’t giving myself the chance to gain long enough to see any decent increases in lean mass before I would diet for fat loss again. I was spinning my wheels full throttle and going nowhere. I thought about what I would tell a client standing in my shoes. It was then I made up my mind that if I was going to keep improving, my almost two-decade long diet was over, it was time to focus on getting bigger and stronger.
The Bulky Details
After diving into the research, I settled on the equation below for a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you are burning to gain weight):
Bodyweight x 18- 20 = total calories
Starting at a weight of 170lbs, I needed 3100-3400 calories per day. Using MyFitnessPal, I tracked every morsel of food that went in my face including alcohol, nibbles from my kid’s food, and supplements (protein, amino acids, and highly branched cyclic dextrin). I used a slightly heavier starting weight to account for NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogeneisis), which is a sciency way of saying I burn a ton of calories while working and chasing my 4 year old and 1 year old during my off hours.
Macros were set at:
To mitigate fat gain and make sure my overall health didn’t go in the shitter, I kept to the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of my calories came from whole, minimally processed foods and the other 20 percent came from “junk”. With 3400 calories to work with, I was excited to eat some foods I hadn’t eaten in a long time. Below are some staples from my diet that I ate on a weekly basis:
80%-baked potato, sweet potato, white rice, oats, fruits, veggies, raisins, figs, dates, craisins, fig preserves, high fiber wraps
20%-fruity pebbles, cinnamon toast crunch, pizza, pop tarts, white bread, pretzels, gold fish, burritos, candy
80%-grass fed ground beef, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, turkey/chicken sausage, greek yogurt, whey isolate protein, whole eggs, pork tenderloin
20%-skim milk, baked chicken nuggets, fake ice cream (Enlightened/Halo Top), reduced fat cheese, egg whites, pizza
80%-grass fed ground beef, grass fed cream, whole eggs, almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts, sunflower seed butter, grass fed butter, bacon, sour cream, avocado
20%- cheese, burritos
Most people look at this protocol and think it’s going to be fun packing in that much food.
I was scared shitless.
Was I going to get fat? How soon would I lose my 6 pack? How am I going to track my progress? Would I look fat in clothes? Would I be able to lose the fat quickly?
Coming from a guy who had spent the last couple years under 10% body fat, these thoughts are completely irrational.
To account for higher calorie/higher junk days during the holidays, I used diet breaks where I didn’t track or step on the scale. For example, between Thanksgiving and Christmas I focused on limiting carbs/fat on days that I could to account for the massive influx in calories on each holiday or family gathering/party, of which there were many. Tracking would have been impossible (nor did I feel like being that guy) at holiday dinners. The breaks were also utilized a couple of times when I was mentally worn down from tracking and when my BF% was in danger of staying over 10%. This was my first experience with diet breaks and there is no question that they enabled me to adhere to the diet for a longer window.
My training routine stayed constant to what I normally do. During the bulk I was alternating between two lifting programs every six weeks, this program written by Christian Thibideau and a volume based hypertrophy style program written by myself and colleague/training partner/homeboy Billy Wunderlich CSCS that hit each muscle 2x per week.
Cardio included mostly HIIT on the air assault bike, rower, and a few incline treadmill walks. Cardio was done 3-4 times per week.
If I wasn’t meticulous about tracking my weight and BF% during the bulk, it wouldn’t have lasted. Had I relied on how I looked in the mirror, the second I saw my abs get hidden under so much as some retained water from the excess carbs, I would bail on the diet, so I relied on the Tanita scale. While this isn’t the most accurate way to monitor body fat, it was the quickest and easiest way to get some data to make sure I wasn’t putting on too much fat. I weighed myself 2x per week on Tuesdays and Fridays at the same time each day. My weight and BF% for that week would be an average of the two measurements to account for any funky readings due to either fluctuation of total body water or equipment error.
My short-term goal for the diet was to gain as much weight as possible while staying under 10% body fat, according to Tanita, which for me probably reads lower than I actually am. I set the end date for April 1st giving me a seven-month window to pack on some size.
It was important to keep my long-term goal at the forefront of my mind as well. Knowing that I was going to be sacrificing my precious leanness for a while, I needed to remember that it was part of a bigger plan to constantly improve towards being the biggest, strongest, leanest, and healthiest version of myself allowed by my genetic potential.
Total time of diet was August 18th- March 23rd. I tracked and weighed for 26 weeks during the diet. Other than the diet break between the holidays where I “intuitively” bulked, I maintained the diet 100%. Below is documentation of the Tanita data for the duration of the diet.
Gaining roughly 18 lbs. and 10 lbs. of lean mass over 7 months (according to Tanita) meant the bulk was a success. While a couple BF readings read over 10, my 2-day average stayed under that threshold for the duration of the diet. Looking at the pictures, my guess is that my ratio of fat to muscle gain was not as favorable as the Tanita data would indicate but regardless, even if I gained 6-7 lbs. of muscle over 7 months I would be content as that would still be an improvement.
While I added some fluff for the winter, I didn’t freak out. That’s probably my biggest sign of growth through this entire process. My long-term goal was heavy on my mind, I had a plan, and executed it to the best of my ability although it was totally outside of my comfort zone. My next bulk may be even a little more aggressive in terms of length with a couple more short diet breaks sprinkled in.
I will admit however that I’m stoked to start a short calorie deficit to lose some of the fat gained during the diet, probably only 6-8 weeks before I go to maintenance or back to gaining, we’ll see how it goes.
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