There seems to be an obsession that in order to get huge you need to eat vast amounts of food. But is bulking the answer to piling on brawn? Dr Jacob Wilson investigates.

Let’s face it, the core of bodybuilding is to develop quality mass. We are willing to slave for years just to put an inch on our quads or arms. Constant obsessions with gaining muscle lead athletes to go to extremes.

One of these has to do with the traditional bulk. Throughout the history of the sport, bodybuilders have gone through two phases of dieting. The first occurs in the off-season and is characterized by consumption of an excess amount of calories. The goal during this ‘bulking phase’ is to gain size.

The second phase, which occurs during contest prep, is known as the cutting phase in which bodybuilders lower their calories and increase their cardio to get shredded. But is a bulk necessary? To understand the answer to this question, we need to cover the fundamentals of diet and training for gaining mass.


Hardcore training

The first thing I must emphasize is that without hardcore training, you are not going to get huge. Training is the most powerful stimulus for muscle mass.

Training for mass involves three primary methods. The first is to obtain a large pump during the training session as this cell swelling response triggers muscle growth.

The second is to increase the amount of lactic acid in your muscle, and this occurs via short rest period lengths and higher repetitions.

The final is mechanical stress accomplished by lifting heavy weights. These training methods should be cycled throughout the week so that you experience each growth stimulus frequently. Once your training is in place you need to focus on the macronutrients.


Protein amount and quality

Research is very clear, protein is one of the most critical nutrients needed to gain mass. Most people focus on how much protein to obtain throughout an entire day which science shows to be anywhere from 0.8–1g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily.

However, I’d like to emphasize that the real focus should be what you consume to maximize growth at each meal. Research from, Dr Gabriel Wilson, suggests this comes out to about 30–40g of high quality protein per meal. Exceeding this amount has not been shown to increase muscle growth.

The main reason you should select 30–40g of protein is that this amount contains the optimal amount of branched-chain amino acid leucine you need to grow. What is cool is that Dr Gabe Wilson’s research has found that alternating meals containing whole protein with snacks of branched-chain amino acids optimizes growth!


The role of calories

The next major player after protein that’s manipulated is, of course, total calories. Can you gain muscle without taking in excess calories? The answer is yes. In fact, we published a study in European Journal of Applied Physiology where we optimised protein intake, but kept calories at maintenance levels in the subjects.

We found that these highly-trained subjects gained muscle and lost fat at the same time, with minimal change in their total bodyweight. In other words, training hardcore while on maintenance calories will shift your body to a more muscular, less fat appearance.

However, we also know that bodybuilding is an extreme sport and that excess calories can be anabolic. Unfortunately, until recently all of the studies, which overfed subjects in the past, were done in sedentary (non training) subjects.

The most classic study to date took sedentary people and overfed them for 100 days by 1,000 calories per day. The average bodyweight increase for the subjects during the overfeed was 17lb, of which 67% of this gain was fat and only 33% was muscle mass.

This research shows that excess calories can be anabolic to both fat mass and lean mass supporting the use of a bulk.

However, my lab is the first to look at the impact of bulking in guys who were actually training hardcore. In one particular study we overfed subjects with either a moderate 800 or extreme 2,000 extra calories per day for 45 days. This is markedly shorter than past studies which lasted 100 days or longer.

Subjects in our study trained every body part to extreme levels several times per week. We found that both groups increased their muscle mass by approximately 6–8lb with no differences between groups.

Intriguingly enough, while the moderate calorie group lost 2lb of fat, the extreme calorie group actually gained 2lb! This tells us that while extra calories can be anabolic, there is a ceiling to their positive effects. Past this ceiling excess calories will be stored as fat. The result is that it will take you longer to cut body fat, which may be catabolic to your muscle tissue.


Take home message

Simply put, to gain mass you need to optimize your training and protein intake. That alone will ensure you gain muscle.

However, if you want to accelerate this process, then consuming calories above that needed to maintain weight may be advantageous. But you must also realize there is a ceiling to the potential anabolic effects of overfeeding.

Our study suggests the overfeed should likely be no more than 500-800 extra calories per day. Further, keeping your bulks shorter (30-45 days) will maximize muscle gains, and minimize fat gains.


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