The eat big to get big rule is well-known, and most agree that you need to eat more – or move less – to gain weight. Here, however, the agreement ends – and a hot and chubby topic of bulking creeps up. Many athletes advocate eating clean all year around, others follow the if it fits your macros approach and others eat as much as they physically can, with no foods off-limits. However, there are different strategies to follow to bulk up, depending on your goals, so read on to find out the difference between them all.
1. Dirty Bulk: Eat What You Want
For the purpose of this article, we will define “dirty bulk” as eating whatever and whenever. Effort is taken to meet protein requirements while the rest of the calories come from anywhere – mostly from highly-processed foods, calorie-dense food, like burgers, pizzas, and cake. Force-feeding can be quite common and the amount of consumed food is not tracked. As one of the professional strongmen phrased it, the whole foods diet; whole pizzas, whole chickens, whole cakes!
This approach can be seen among some power lifters, strongmen and other big fellows who can have little to no regard for body fat. In the mentioned disciplines, a big belly can actually be an advantage, reducing range of motion in bench press or giving extra support in squat. Despite this arguable strategy, growing a large belly on a “clean diet” can be close to impossible! “Clean” foods such as rice or pasta are not very dense in calories. During cooking they swell up, absorbing water and tripling in weight. So let’s say our power-lifter wants to get 70 grams of carbohydrates in 6 meals. That is six portions of 100 grams of dry rice… which goes up to 300 grams after cooking. Nearly four pounds of rice a day! Not as easy to swallow as, having roughly same carb content, 12 pop-tarts. Of course this example is over dramatic, no respectable lifter lives off a daily pop tart fest. It just illustrates the calorie density issue.
Nevertheless, if your goal is to gain muscle, the dirty bulk has no place in your nutritional strategy. Building muscle is a slow process and the rate of your calorie increase should match that tempo. You should monitor how much food are you eating and methodically increase it by a small amount for few weeks. Constantly overshooting your calorie requirement feeds fat cells more than muscles. This will impair insulin sensitivity, reduce appetite, lower testosterone and increase oestrogen levels. Many times trainees cutting down from a dirty bulk end up weighing less than they did before it, simply because getting rid of all that unnecessarily gained body fat requires harsh (on lean body mass) dieting and cardio regime.
2. Semi-Dirty Bulk: Eat What Fits Your Macros
“If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) is a relatively new concept of flexible dieting. The approach is very methodical – you set yourself a calorie intake goal as well as protein, carbohydrates and fat goals. Instead of following a strict meal plan you can simply pick any food which will fit your calorie and macronutrient target. For example if you are aiming to bulk up on extra 280 kcal coming from 70 grams of carbohydrate you can either go for a bowl of rice or 4 packs of oven baked, low-fat, chips.
Bulking on IIFYM gives a lot of flexibility and accounts for the social aspect of the diet. With some effort; analyzing restaurant’s menu and calculating the nutrients you can eat out without spoiling your diet.
This approach can also help people with naturally high basal metabolic rates and/or high physical activity. These may struggle to eat enough of voluminous, “clean” foods to match calorie needs. Instead of force feeding dry chicken fillet and a bowl of rice, the meal can be changes to something more energy dense like low-fat chicken burger. The 80/20 rule, where 20% of your foods (e.g. 1 meal out of 6) are IIFYM may be a good option for poor eaters.
On the other hand, the IIFYM is a simplistic approach to a diet. Food is more complex than a combination of three macronutrients and X amount of calories. The amino acid composition of protein, fatty acids composition of fat as well as type and glycaemic index of carbohydrate is also very important. Not to mention the micronutrients and phytochemicals which you won’t find in processed foods. These are important not only for health but also for laying out new muscle. That is why the 80/20 rule may be more optimal than IIFYM.
3. Clean Bulk: Rice and Chicken …Chicken and Rice
Last but not least, “clean” bulk; conventional strategy of a small calorie surplus of up to 500kcal/day. Day in and day out you follow a meal plan, which consists of large quantities of homemade, unprocessed foods. A lot of DIY is involved, usually preparing all meals in advance for few days and packing them into plastic containers. There is no objections against food choice variety, however preparing traditional 6 meals for every day begs for simplicity. And so, clean bulk often resorts to rice and chicken… chicken and rice. Nevertheless, it doesn’t need to. Your diet should always be varied to avoid developing food intolerances and ensure wide spectrum of nutrient intake.
Clean bulk with a set meal plan allows for meticulous diet control. If you (or your trainer) set your meal plan to cover all the macro and micro nutrient demands, sticking to it means optimal nutrition every day. However, most of the fitness enthusiasts may not be prepared to cope with the monotony and social awkwardness associated with it – refusing birthday cakes and carrying chicken filled Tupperware to all kinds of places.
Focusing on “clean”, unprocessed and homemade foods may be the best option for goal orientated people who easily gain body fat. Once again, the calorie density comes to play. “Clean” food is less likely to be overeaten. No, not because it’s “nasty”, but because it is very high in volume, causing gastric stretching which sends your brain the satiety signal.
Of course, make sure that you maintain a healthy approach towards your food. A certain degree of sacrifice is necessary to be your best, however obsessive avoidance of “unhealthy” food followed by feelings of anxiety and shame are a one way ticket to an eating disorder (orthorexia). Every once in a while allow yourself a guilt-free cheat meal with your loved ones – it won’t hurt your progress!