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For ages, bodybuilders and regular guys alike have taken a two-prong approach to getting big and ripped. “Bulking,” or eating as much as possible while training for muscle growth, followed by a calorie-restricted, fat-burning “cutting” phase has become the default method to carve out a bigger, leaner physique. But it’s time consuming, and treating your body like a thermostat that you turn up and down can have negative effects on a cellular level. Fortunately, as we learn more about how the body processes macronutrients, it’s becoming clearer that we aren’t being nearly as efficient in our physique-enhancing efforts as we could be, and consuming specific quantities of nutrients at certain times of day can condense the bulking and cutting phases into one simple phase that will get you jacked—the healthy way—in a fraction of the time.
Bigger and fatter is not an ideal bulking strategy. Bigger and better is. Old-school bodybuilders like Frank Zane and Vince Gironda—two of the greatest physiques of all time, in my opinion— would tell you that you’d look a lot more impressive by adding five to eight pounds of fat-free muscle mass than by slapping on 10 pounds of muscle with 20 pounds of belly marbling. These days, traditional bulking strategies tend to fall under two broad categories, and they both leave much to be desired.
It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right, just eat it, eat it, eat it: The “dirty” school of thought is that as long as you down enough protein, you can garbage disposal whatever else you want, regardless of food quality. Even if this “crap loading” works physique-wise, it’s not a wise choice from a long-term health perspective. (Admit it, you know.)
If you are pounding foods loaded with sugar, trans fats, and omega-6 vegetable oils every day, cell-membrane integrity and elasticity can be compromised, chronic systemic inflammation can predispose you to disease—or at least debilitating joint pain—and you may just end up with the emotional stability of a seesaw.
Even if you’re not scared of disease, think emotions are for women, and care only about how you look, consider that poor food choices can reduce insulin sensitivity and nutrient partitioning toward the muscle cell. This makes it harder to gain quality muscle mass with each successive bulk, and next to impossible to shed that last layer of flab when shifting into a shredding phase.
What’s the unappealing alternative? A hyper-micromanaged diet, or traditional “clean” bulk, where you eat every 1½ hours, carry around seven different plastic containers yielding a weird mix of tuna and broccoli odors, display obsessive-compulsive behavior, have your life revolve around your diet, and likely become a social hermit.
That may work for the 5% of the population who are professional athletes and models, but it is not a sustainable approach for most of us with more common careers and lifestyles. These plans may look immaculate on paper, but they rarely work off of it. Luckily, there is an alternative plan that optimizes food choices for overall health and quality of gains and is also flexible enough in structure to be practical in the real world.
Lets take a step back for a second. Make no mistake, while we can argue over optimum dietary approaches into eternity, consistently hitting the right calories and macronutrients will always be the most important step in achieving any body composition goal, including bulking. Here’s a recommended starting point, using a 175-pound male as an example:
16 per pound of body weight
16 x 175 lbs = 2,800 calories
1g per pound of body weight
1g x 175 lbs = 700 calories (175g protein)
25% of calories
2,800 calories x 0.25 = 700 calories (75g fat)
2,800-700-700 = 1,400 calories (350g carbs)
From this starting point, everything needs to be tested, assessed, and refined in the real world to produce optimum results. Ectomorphs may need to push the calories up to 20 per pound of body weight. Endomorphs may need to implement a more cyclical dieting strategy by lowering calories to maintenance levels or below on rest days (12–14 per pound of body weight) in order to avoid gaining fat.
Once you get your optimum numbers dialed in, the flexibility of your diet opens up. That’s because research shows that as long as you account for calories and macronutrients, meal frequency is irrelevant in terms of changing body composition. If that’s the case, choosing the right diet structure for you is about making your plan as realistic, functional, and sustainable as possible, and not about clinging to bro-science.
Theoretically, you could eat your 2,800 calories over six small meals, three average-size ones, or one to two large meals and get equally impressive results. But which one is the most practical in the real world of a working professional—plastic containers and clock watching or consistently nailing down a solid lunch and dinner?
I advocate following an intermittent feast eating structure—going light and low-carb during the day, and then eating the majority of your calories and carbs at night—simply because it is the easiest plan to follow for the majority of guys out there. It fits in with our business and social patterns. It aligns with our natural instincts. It breaks dietary obsession.
Human beings evolved on a fasting and feeding cycle. We spent the majority of our existence fasting or eating lighter during the day while actively tracking, hunting, and gathering our food. Then we spent the evening relaxing and feasting on the majority, if not all, of our daily food intake. Train. Feast. Repeat.
This method is extremely effective on a physiological level. It controls insulin and blood sugar levels, and maximizes fat-burning hormones and cellular factors like growth hormone (GH) and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) during the day. This ensures that you are burning fat for a large portion of the day. It also boosts energy and improves cognitive function.
Going big with a nightly feast maximizes muscle-building hormones and additional cellular factors like cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) and mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR). And with depleted energy reserves and damaged muscle fibers from training, you’ll be more than ready for a chowdown throwdown. The best part is you’ll be craving foods that serve a metabolic purpose—high-quality proteins, clean carbs, and healthy fats. The desire to dirty bulk with crap and eat useless foods will be dramatically reduced after eating a complete, satiating, wholefoods dinner.
What the heck does this mean outside of the lab in the real world of the gym? You get to bulk the right way, and you build muscle while keeping body fat in check—all without compromising your overall health.
Skip it. Black coffee is recommended. Plain tea is fine, too.
Combine an 8–12 oz serving of protein with 1–2 servings of wholefood fats. Unlimited non-starchy vegetables can be included.
Combine a 12–16 oz serving of protein with 5–6 servings of starchy carbs. Unlimited non-starchy vegetables can be included.