It’s that time of the year again; the winter bulk is upon us! This is that amazing time when most of us are putting on the good ole’ sweats and going to the gym to train heavy, only to return home and stuff ourselves in hopes of packing on as much size as possible before the shredding season comes.
But First, My Story (It’ll help you later on I promise)
I worked so hard to get to where I was during my NPC Classic Physique competition in 2017. I dieted hard for 16 grueling weeks. I thought I looked pretty damn good…
Could I have come in more conditioned? Absolutely. But for my first NPC show, I thought I did pretty well; not even having a coach and acting as my own coach. But then decision time came, it really hit me…
Before we get to that, let me give you a little background. I signed up for two classes; both the open class, which anybody can participate in, and the novice class, which you can only enter if you have never placed in the top 3 in a competition before. Given that I’ve never placed before, I thought this would give me a much better chance of victory competing in this category.
I was DEAD wrong. I did absolutely terrible. I got 9th out of 13 in the novice class and LAST in the open class. I was shocked. “Why did I do so bad?” I asked myself.
I compared myself to the other competitors. They were all so much bigger than I was. Exactly why they were bigger than I didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to get bigger. A lot bigger.
I came in at 147 lbs soaking freakin wet, and I expected to win? What was I thinking? And with a weight cap of all the way up to 165 lbs for my height of 5’5″ to boot. I had a lot more work to do. I did not gain enough size in my previous offseason to constitute competing at that time.
I was so determined to win the next time I competed that I was going on a bulk indefinitely. I was not going to stop until I packed on as much muscle as possible and stayed below my personal body fat cap that I set for myself at 16%. Once I reached this mark, then I’d stop.
Why Am I Telling You All This?
Because it’ll help provide you with context as to why and how it can be possible to bulk for either too long or not long enough. There’s a happy middle ground here. And I’ll help you find it with this sappy story of mine.
I Bulked…FOR A Long Time
Starting right after my competition, I bulked all the way till September of 2018. At first, I was scared to add one more pound to my already deteriorating physique. I wasn’t as lean anymore due to excessive water weight gain. It was a huge psychological (“mind fuck”) in my head. I was having negative self-esteem issues because of my loss of leanness. And I still looked small in my eyes.
However, after a few months, things started to come together. I started to gain weight steadily. The pounds started to pack on (in a good way). I was getting stronger in the gym. I finally sucked it up and forced myself into a caloric surplus, despite my fears of getting fat.
And I didn’t get fat. I added a respectful amount of muscle, going from 147-166 lbs over the course of half of a year.
And this trend continued up until the summer time of 2018. During this time, I started to get lazy. Not with my workouts, but mostly with my nutrition. I started not to track macros anymore, just eating whenever I felt like it. I noticed I was starting to get weaker in the gym as well. Most likely because my protein intake dropped because I just wasn’t tracking anymore.
September came around. And I wasn’t like what I was seeing in the mirror. I wasn’t getting any stronger either. I’d been in a stalemate for months. Did I get bigger? Of course. People were even telling me so. But I hated how fat I looked. I hated that I was able to so easily grab on to my “love handles” (does that sound weird coming from a dude?). I was curious to see what my body fat percentage was at this point.
I was at 16.2% body fat! Perfect timing! Just slightly above the cap I set for myself. I was finally happy with how big I was in terms of weight (183 lbs) and I was now ready for the next phase.
TRUTH: Adding on Muscle Mass Takes A LONG time!
Do I need to repeat myself? This takes a long freakin ass time people! It’s not easy. It can get super boring and repetitive sometimes. But if you’re serious about it, you’ll make it happen.
It took me 16 months to get where I wanted to be. Most people want instant gratification. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out like that. So don’t go spinning your wheels in the dirt going on short bulking and cutting cycles of a few months each. Sure, you can lose a considerable amount of fat in a matter of 3, 4, or 5 months. But you CANNOT add a significant amount of muscle to your body in just a few months. Unless you’re just starting out in the fitness world, you can gain muscle and strength doing virtually any training program (1), which is an entirely different story altogether.
Each Bulk Has an Expiration Date
What do I mean by this?
Everybody’s different. Different genetics. Different background. Different training experience. But everybody has a point in time in which they reach a sticking point in their bulk. They simply can’t gain any more muscle (or a significant amount anyway). It seems as if there’s a certain point where all the extra weight gained just goes to fat and not muscle. This happened to me as well…
For those last few months of my bulk where I was lazy and more unmotivated when it came to my nutrition, I started to gain a good amount of fat without adding much muscle mass. I went from 14% body fat in June up to 16% in September, while only gaining approximately 20% muscle mass and the rest coming from fat! Now, why did this happen?
It’s hard to say with absolute certainty, as there is a huge lack of scientific literature on the topic. This is because this would require an exorbitant amount of time to study this phenomenon in multiple individuals, as most would not want to commit to such a long study. Studies of that magnitude are mostly saved for those in a clinical setting, such as pharmaceutical studies.
Because of this, much of what we can go on is anecdotal. However, one theory that can be speculated is that it has to do with something called insulin resistance. This is when the body cannot effectively store glucose (sugar) into the tissues of the body effectively, which raises one’s blood sugar, leading to a myriad of health complications. This can occur in up to 25% of nonobese individuals with what appears to be normal glucose levels via an oral glucose tolerance test (2). Now, this doesn’t cause weight gain directly per se. But, it can possibly shift our body composition adaptations from primarily gaining muscle to gaining fat, while still gaining the same amount of total weight. However, this is just a theory, as there haven’t been any adequate studies conducted on resistance trained populations. If you’ve been overconsuming calories for a while now (usually via carbohydrates) this is something to think about.
The Bottom Line
As it looks right now, the mechanism as to why bulks start to fail after prolonged periods of time is still unclear. More studies are definitely going to need to be conducted in order to analyze this phenomenon further.
So, how should you bulk? With patience. This is a must. As the cliche saying goes “This is a marathon, not a sprint!” And it holds very true. Don’t rush it. The results that you get from it will be worth it. Trust me.
But also, don’t prolong it for too long either. Be your own guinea pig and constantly gauge your progress. Do this by utilizing:
- Progress Pictures
- Body Fat Analysis (skinfold calipers, BodPod, DEXA, etc.)
- Progressive Overload (are you getting stronger?)
- If others comment on your physique (seriously!)
These are just a few ways in which you can see if you’re headed in the right direction. Also, everybody has different images of what they want their physique to look like and why they want it to look like that. So if somebody is at 18% body fat and they like the way they look, then that’s great, don’t criticize them for that. Getting upwards of 20%, however, is when we start to run into health and performance problems, which is a story for another day.
If you guys have any questions, feel free to reach out either in the comments or on social media! Have a great week!
- Cunha, P. M., Nunes, J. P., Tomeleri, C. M., Nascimento, M. A., Schoenfeld, B. J., Antunes, M., . . . Cyrino, E. S. (2018). Resistance Training Performed With Single and Multiple Sets Induces Similar Improvements in Muscular Strength, Muscle Mass, Muscle Quality, and IGF-1 in Older Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000002847
- Reaven, G. M. (1997). Role of insulin resistance in human disease. Nutrition, 13(1), 64. doi:10.1016/s0899-9007(96)00380-2
Boston-born bodybuilder currently residing in the beautiful city of Tampa, Florida in pursuit of a Master's Degree in Exercise & Nutrition Science. Competitive NPC Classic Physique athlete with a passion for strength training, health, well-being, and the science that makes it all possible. I want to sift through all of the B.S that's out there to provide you with the best information possible for you to achieve YOUR goals, whatever they may be. Human physiology is an amazing thing, let's find out what the human body is capable of!