Time to Switch Gears
First off, congratulations to all of us for making it through the hottest summer (so far) in recorded human history. There were times looking at national weather maps in the USA when I didn’t know if those numbers were temperatures or NBA scores.
It was a godsend for those of us who devote substantial amounts of our time and energy into hard training and clean eating, because we were free to display our physiques in all their buffed glory in tank tops, shorts, and swimsuits.
Most of us don’t compete, but we nonetheless embark on a “summer cut” in springtime, reducing overall calories and carbohydrates, eliminating all junk and fast foods, and ramping up the cardio to show muscle separation, striations, and roadmap vascularity, all highlighted by a deep tan.
Whether you compete or not, you probably spent most of the summer looking like you were just a few weeks out from a contest. But now that broiling summer is winding down, and autumn will be here before you know it.
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We bodybuilders are creatures of habit and routine, and for us that signifies it’s time to transition from our “summer cut” to bulking mode. The past few months were all about maintaining muscle mass while melting away body fat. For the next few months, our focus turns to building fresh new muscle mass.
Clean vs. Dirty Bulking
I don’t recall hearing the term “dirty bulking” until about 10 years ago, but I embodied that process myself over the course of my entire 20s and 30s. For far too long, I was obsessed with gaining body weight, and that became my sole gauge of progress.
You might ask;
“Did you consider the composition of that weight?
Did you discriminate between lean muscle tissue and body fat?”
I was, like many of us, a master of denial and delusion, and would convince myself that the majority of the newly acquired weight was muscle mass when in fact it was certainly not.
As long as I hit new all-time high body weights of 220, 230, 240, and 245 pounds, in my mind I was well on my way to a Pro-bodybuilder level physique. My nutrition strategy was to eat a clean meal but then have whatever I wanted for “dessert,” which could have been cookies, a couple of big bowls of sugary cereal and milk, a muffin the size of a human heart, or a couple of generous scoops of Ben & Jerry’s.
Correction: Some of those meals I talked myself into labeling “clean” weren’t really, such as an entire California Pizza Kitchen teriyaki chicken pizza (followed of course by the dessert I had earned for that clean meal). I vividly recall convincing myself that everything I stuffed down my gullet was being turned into muscle.
As you have probably guessed by this point, my off-season spirit animal was Porky Pig. My face was round, my abs were buried under a couple of inches of sheer blubber, and I even had cellulite dimples on my ass.
It took me about 20 years of this insanity before I put an end to the insanity and began staying much leaner year-round, out of both vanity and the fact that as I was entering middle age, bulking up suddenly seemed like an unhealthy practice. Now when I hear anyone enthusiastically announce that they’re “dirty bulking,” I have to suppress a scream.
Dirty bulking is just an excuse to eat whatever crap you want and putting a label on it that makes it sound like a legitimate strategy. Many bodybuilders engaging in dirty bulking aren’t eating very differently from obese people, aside from taking in more protein.
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This is why nearly all of them get fat. We do need to be in a caloric surplus to support recovery and growth, but if you tip the scales too far into that surplus direction, your body has far more than it requires and will store the unused calories as body fat.
There’s a tiny group of the population with metabolisms so fast that they would legitimately be classified as “hardgainers,” and as such, would require extraordinary amounts of calories daily in order to gain. Odds are you aren’t one of them.
A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie and IIFYM Is Bogus
In recent years, we’ve seen a movement wherein nutrition is seen as overly versatile. IIFYM, or “If It Fits Your Macros,” posits that so long as you take in your daily allotment of each macronutrient, protein, carbohydrate, and fat, it doesn’t matter what the source is.
Along with this idea comes “a calorie is a calorie,” which, in simplistic terms, is accurate as a calorie is nothing more than a unit of energy. You could eat 500 calories from a grilled chicken breast and a bowl of rice, or 500 calories from a big bowl of potato chips, or a glazed donut.
Which one of those would do a better job of fueling your workouts and especially the muscle recovery and repair following your workouts? And though many of us are in this for pure vanity with our health being an afterthought, eating junk and fast foods that are loaded with sugar now will come back to haunt you later in life.
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5 Rules for Clean Bulking
1. Don’t Rely 100% on the Scale to Measure Progress
As I tried to stress earlier, your body weight is never a reliable indication as to what is happening to your body composition. Ten pounds gained on the scale could be 10 pounds of pure muscle, 10 pounds of pure fat, or a million ratio combinations between the two.
We love to see the numbers on the scale climb upward in the off-season, but it’s just a number. Two men could be 5'10" and 290 pounds, but one might be Blessing Awodibu onstage at 4 percent body fat and the other might be a truck driver with a giant beer belly who’s never touched a weight.
I would say that you should also rely on the mirror, but many of us have a hard time being objective and will easily deny seeing that we’re packing on the wrong kind of weight.
Take weekly “check-in” pictures instead so you have those to compare from week to week along with the recorded body weight. This is where coaches come in handy, as they force accountability and give you that “second eye” that should be brutally honest.
You may also have good friends with an educated eye who will evaluate your pics and let you know if you’re on the right track. To be 100 percent certain of your body composition in the off-season, you should test your body fat every couple of weeks. If you have access to a DEXA machine, Bod Pod, or hydrostatic weighing, take advantage of those highly accurate methods.
If not, calipers are your next best bet. Virtually no one will gain only pure lean muscle tissue, but you should strive to ensure that your gains are at least 50 percent muscle rather than body fat. If not, you need to adjust your diet.
2. Track Your Meals
Many studies have shown that almost everyone, not just we meatheads, severely underestimates the amounts of calories we consume. Luckily, we live in an era of technological wonders where it’s easy to accurately track the calories and macronutrients in all our meals with apps on our smartphones, rather than writing it all down and having to do the math yourself with a calculator.
Without a precise picture of what we’re eating, we can’t adjust up or down to reach our off-season goals. Let’s say you aren’t gaining any weight at all, and you see you’re taking in 3,300 calories a day.
Knowing that, you could increase your calories by 500 daily and check your body weight and composition again in two weeks to see how that adjustment affected your progress. On the flip side, let’s say you’ve gained 10 pounds, but testing reveals that nearly all of that was in the form of body fat.
This time, you could reduce your daily calories by 500 and check in two weeks to see if the composition of your muscle-to-fat ratio has changed. The bottom line is that you must know exactly what you’re taking in so you can adjust your nutrition accordingly for the best quality gains possible.
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3. Forget All About “Cheat Meals”
Hopefully, by this point I’ve discouraged you from the gluttony and lack of discipline known as dirty bulking. You still might have it in your head that you should be incorporating cheat meals into your clean bulk.
Cheat meals can be used as psychological reward for adhering to a lower-calorie diet for a given amount of time, or they can stimulate a metabolism that’s slogged down by weeks of lower calories and carbs.
If you’re bulking, you’re taking in plenty of calories and carbohydrates and have zero reason to indulge in cheat meals. Can you occasionally have treats or something you’ve been craving such as pizza?
But don’t schedule them or believe they’re needed. Any body fat you accumulate in the off-season will need to come off later, so do yourself a favour and keep the fat gains to a minimum. You’re not dieting. You don’t need cheat meals.
4. Don’t Buy Junk Food
The easiest way to avoid eating foods you should be avoiding is to not buy them in the first place. Human beings aren’t great at resisting temptation, so having them in your home is simply a bad idea.
Make a list of exactly what you need when you go food shopping and stick to it. Stay away from the bakery area and aisles where snacks and ice cream are sold.
This can be more challenging for those of you with kids or significant others who aren’t bound to your nutritional parameters. You will have to be strong and leave that stuff for them and them alone. Keep in mind that you’re eating with a purpose.
The foods you take in aren’t for taste or comfort; they’re to provide building blocks to create new muscle tissue so you can be more jacked! The higher the quality of those foods, the better you will look and feel as you gain.
5. Keep Doing Cardio
Last but certainly not least, don’t be like so many other bodybuilders and abandon cardiovascular training once your off-season commences. I understand that cardio can seem at odds with our whole intent of gaining size and strength. Why would you purposely burn calories?
If that’s all that cardio accomplished, I would agree it would be a bad idea. Many bodybuilders believe that “cardio kills gains.” It’s ridiculous to think that 20 or 30 minutes of cardio three to five times a week is going to stop you from putting on muscle mass if you’re eating plenty of good food and getting adequate sleep.
Cardiovascular exercise will burn some calories, but more importantly, it will stimulate the metabolism and improve both circulation and digestion. And especially if you’re over 35, cardio is mandatory to keep your heart and lungs strong and healthy.
Heart disease is still the number one cause of death for both men and women worldwide, and regular cardio has been proven to reduce your risk. Getting back to our focus, cardio will also serve to mitigate some of those excess calories you ingest in the form of the wrong foods.
You don’t need to do an hour every day, but the bare minimum should be 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a week. I would recommend 20 minutes at the end of every weight-training workout as a cooldown, or four sessions of fasted cardio first thing in the morning if you have a cardio machine at home.
Clean Bulk Daily Meal Plan
To wrap this up, I’d like to lay out a day of off-season eating for those who want to bulk clean and gain lean muscle mass with minimal body fat. It provides ample calories, protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, and I’ve even included a treat to show you that junk is okay if moderation can be observed.
You can gain muscle without turning into a chunky monkey. The best part is, you will always look pretty good and see some definition. And when the time comes that you decide to really rip it up and get shredded, you won’t have too far to go.
3 whole eggs, 4 egg whites, 1 cup (dry measure) rolled oats, ⅓ cup blueberries, 1 tbsp raw honey
Optional: 2 slices of wheat toast
8 oz. chicken thigh, 1.5 cups (cooked measure) jasmine rice, 2 tbsp teriyaki sauce
Piece of fruit or 1 muffin, (corn, blueberry, or chocolate chip)
8 oz. ground turkey, 2 cups whole grain or corn tortilla chips, ½ cup salsa
Sirloin burger on whole-wheat or potato bread bun with lettuce and 1 slice cheese, large apple or medium white or sweet potato
8 oz. salmon, ½ cup raw almonds or cashews, 1 cup raw green beans or large green salad with vinaigrette dressing
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