I had just finished my “bulk” and was feeling swole (fat). This was a bit earlier in my lifting career and everywhere I turned it was “eat big to get big.” So there I was, freshly returned from my seventh meal of the day at Burger King and breathing heavy as I trudged up the stairs.
I’d wake up sweating and my jeans didn’t fit, but everyone kept saying, “Dude, you’re looking big.” That was the goal, to look big, right? Instead, what I needed to hear was, “Dude, you look like a sloppy piece of shit. You may be the Michelin Man’s brother.” But I guess I have nice friends. At this point, I realized that I was working against my body, not with it. Here’s what I mean…
We can only accrue so much tissue at a time. We’re all different, so it’s hard to say how much one can realistically gain per week, month, or year. As you get closer to your genetic ceiling, the room for improvement gets more narrow. But for the most part, gaining true muscle tissue is a long process. Sorry to break it to you. So why do people still push this bulk and cut bullshit?
- We want an excuse to eat like we’re headed to the electric chair.
- We’re impatient and want to add size as fast as possible.
- We don’t know any fucking better.
But have you ever considered that maybe your fat is making you suck? I don’t just mean it makes the way you look suck, but are you also impeding your gains and decreasing performance? The answer is yes.
Your body doesn’t mind fat. It’s part of our most basic functions for survival. The body still wants to seek and maintain homeostasis, but you can obviously push it toward a certain direction (look at the average gigantic American). Think about all the interactions that occur when you eat. From the initial salivary response to the cascade of hormones released thereafter, your body is constantly communicating with and amongst itself about our energy status.
Usually, sufficient food meant that we would have the energy to reproduce. Some would argue that this is the body’s only “true” function or purpose. Your body recognizes a surplus. It isn’t stupid. It sees the increased calories and reasonably assumes that there’s good reason for this. When you overfeed, you’re pushing your body one direction and your hormones and belt buckle will follow. As we learned quite some time ago, adipose (fat) tissue is an endocrine organ that secretes hormones, communicates with the central nervous system, and plays a role in a host of complex functions throughout the body.
Let’s start with leptin. When there is an increase in adiposity stores (fat), there are elevations in leptin. Depending on how long you’re bulking and storing fat for, this can creep toward leptin resistance, which will effect bodyweight regulation negatively. Not cool, huh? Overfeeding your fat ass for too long will undoubtedly lead to fat accumulation (especially the natural athlete) and decrease your leptin sensitivity. This is less than ideal because your body will become less efficient in realizing that you’re full and have enough stored energy. The same goes for insulin sensitivity or how you’re handling your carbohydrates. Chronic elevated levels equal a decrease in sensitivity, which equals impaired glucose metabolism. Maintaining insulin sensitivity is quite important for health and physique purposes, as we know that insulin is quite anabolic/anti-catabolic and also antilipolytic (inhibits the breakdown of fat). So it’s a hormone for which we’d like to maximize the potential and minimize the potential damage.
Estrogen is up next. Lifters are generally terrified of this word. When bodyfat is increased, there is an increase in aromatase activity in adipose tissue, so more testosterone is converted to estrogen in fat issue. Expand that waist and, before you know it, you’ll be crying because you can’t find the right shoes to match your purse. Not exactly, but again, you’re starting to veer into a state that isn’t optimal for muscle building, which was the initial goal of the bulk. When you want to gain tissue, wouldn’t better glucose metabolism help? Wouldn’t enhanced nutrient repartitioning help? Wouldn’t lower levels of estrogen and higher levels of testosterone help? Wouldn’t you want an optimal ratio between testosterone and estrogen?
How about your metabolic flexibility? This is defined as “the capacity of the body to match fuel oxidation to fuel availability” or your ability to shift between using (mainly) glucose or fat as fuel. Trust me—you want to be able to use your fat as fuel. There is a strong relation between higher bodyfat levels and a reduction in metabolic flexibility. So your skeletal muscle will be less and less likely to shift to lipids (fat) for energy. Over time, this leads to further health issues that you probably want to avoid.
Essentially, what you’re doing by being in a constant surplus is teaching your body to become efficient at storing fat. Let’s say that you start your first bulk ever at 180 pounds and make it to 200 pounds. Eventually, you’ll bulk to say 220 pounds, 240 pounds, and so on. The fatter you allow yourself to become and the more adipose you allow yourself to carry, the more normal it will seem to the body. You’re becoming adapted to storage. You also lose control of what real hunger means and what full feels like.
Now with that weight gain will come some added strength, and if you’re a strength athlete, it may seem like it’s worth it. While strength matters for hypertrophy, it isn’t the only factor. You will come across some big, weak guys and some small, strong guys. You will reach a point where performance will decrease, energy levels will drop, you will be sluggish, inflammation will be increased, and blood pressure will go up. Over time, these things will add up. You’re basically placing yourself in an environment where hormonally and metabolically you aren’t in a prime position to build muscle. While the added strength from weight gain is nice, fat doesn’t produce force—muscle does.
So what do you do if you don’t exclusively bulk and cut? You find a way to work toward both at the same time to gain tissue and drop bodyfat levels. You reshape your body. You “recomp” it. It is possible, very possible. In fact, there are plenty of methods and variables that you can mess with to achieve this. I use some rather unconventional methods with my clients, but at the end of the day, the results are all that really matter, not the specific program. So before you leap into your next bulk, make sure you understand the changes that will occur and how much it will suck trying to diet that excess fat off.