Whether summer’s approaching or you’re in the dead of winter, your main goal as a bodybuilder should almost always be to gain mass and strength. Sure, you’ll want to spend a few weeks cutting down here and there, but if you’re not using at least the first few years of your lifting career to get bigger and stronger, you’re wasting a hell of a lot of time!
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should follow traditional bulking advice and become a fat slob 365 days of the year. On the contrary, your other goal as a bodybuilder should be to stay relatively lean, at least lean enough that you look good to the average person, and so that you don’t feel uncomfortable taking off your shirt at the pool or on the beach.
If you take both of those goals seriously, then you’re really only left with one option: a slow, gradual, and LONG period of lean gaining. I won’t call it “bulking,” since your focus isn’t on weight for weight’s sake, but on adding quality mass to your frame. To gain as much muscle as possible and not look like a fatty while doing it, you’re going to have to put some serious effort and thought towards your training AND diet. Here are a few things to consider…
Fat Percentage vs. Total Fat Mass
First of all, you need to understand that you’re still going to gain some fat.
Unless you’re on hefty amounts of drugs, you’re just not going to be able to add purely lean mass in significant quantities for years on end.
That’s okay, though, because the small fat gains that will accompany your LARGE muscle gains may not even impact your body fat percentage – the most important number when it comes to your overall look.
Confused? Let’s say you start gaining muscle at about 10 percent body fat, and you gain 90 percent muscle and 10 percent fat. With those numbers, you’re adding lean mass and fat mass to your frame in the same proportions you already had, and your actual body fat percentage won’t change a bit! In fact, if you’re efficient enough at gaining muscle and avoiding fat gain, you might actually decrease that percentage, even if you are adding tiny amounts of fat to your frame.
Getting Lean First
Here’s the real kicker when it comes to lean gains – you’re going to look a lot better, get better results and enjoy the process more if you START lean! In fact, I never let any of my muscle-building clients start gaining until they’ve slimmed down to a comfortable level of body fat.
When you’re lean, your body is far better at partitioning excess calories towards muscle cells, not fat cells.
Plus, starting out as lean as possible gives you a little “wiggle room,” in case you have a month or two where you get lax with your diet or training. If you’re already pushing 15 percent or more, you’re going to feel the effects of every cheat meal and every extra ounce of fat, and you’ll constantly waiver between dedicated gaining and “damage control.” So, instead of spinning your wheels like that, diet down first!
There are no two ways about it, if you want to keep your body fat under control, you’re going to have to count and measure your foods. I don’t want to hear about how this or that friend of yours looks great and never counts a thing; the VAST majority of guys with great physiques keep tight control over their calories, macros and portion sizes year ’round. If you’re not willing to count calories during both gaining and cutting phases, then you’re just going to have to go with the more traditional “bulking” approach accept a lot more fat gains.
Proteins, Fats and Carbs
While your daily caloric intake will determine the amount of weight you gain or lose, it’s your macronutrient numbers that will actually affect the proportions of muscle and fat you gain. We’re not worrying about percentages here, either – it’s the absolute numbers that count. 20 percent protein might be plenty for a guy eating tons of calories, for instance, but it might not be nearly enough protein for someone who’s dieting on low cals.
As for the actual numbers, start with some baselines. 1 gram of protein per pound of total body weight and about 0.4 grams of fat per pound. Those are your essential nutrients, and staying with those baselines will give you everything you need for optimal tissue repair and hormonal function.
As for carbs, I’d recommend you just use them to fill the rest of your caloric needs, whatever those may be. Most guys can gain on around 15 calories per pound of body weight, but that number varies wildly based on genetics, body type and activity level.
Basically, you’ll need more carbs if you’re extremely active or genetically skinny, and you’ll need fewer carbs if you’re sedentary or genetically chubby.
Nutrient Timing: As Important as You Think?
There’s tons of hype in the bodybuilding industry regarding optimal nutrient timing, particularly when it comes to carbohydrate intake. For the most part, however, your overall caloric intake and macronutrient intake are going to be the real determinants of your overall results. For those of you with a sweet tooth or ravenous appetites, that means you can’t just eat whatever the hell you want post-workout and avoid fat gain! If you’re overeating or under-eating over the course of the entire day, you’re not going to get the results you want.
That having been said, nutrient timing can play a small role in optimizing your ratio of muscle to fat gain, and you’ll want to do everything in your power to get the best results.
To make sure your carbs are being put to the best use possible, eat the bulk of them before and after your workouts. And, if you’ve got some carbs left over, I actually recommend putting them at the END of the day before bed! The morning is actually a prime time for fat-burning, and sticking to proteins and fats at breakfast will actually help you burn off a little extra. On the other hand, night time is a great time for your body to use carbs for muscle repair and growth, and most of my clients experience better, deeper sleep when they eat carbs before bed. Don’t buy into the hype that pre-bed carbs will make you fat!
Taking it Slow
Ultimately, the best way to ensure your gains are as lean as possible is to take things slow. I’ve heard gurus recommend that bulking bodybuilders gain up to two pounds per week, and I’m always dumbfounded by such irresponsible recommendations. You can’t even gain that much muscle that quickly on huge doses of anabolics, and for the natural trainee, that’s a surefire way to get straight-up fat – not “bulky,” just FAT!
At most, your body can add a couple of pounds of lean mass per month, maybe a little more if you’re completely new to training. Aim for no more than two pounds gained per month, and keep on eye on the mirror to see if even that rate is too fast. You’re not going to see dramatic changes daily or weekly, but over the course of a few consistent years of training, even two pounds per month will lead to slabs of muscle! Plus, you won’t have to spend a year or more cutting all the fat. You’ll be looking good already, and a couple months of dieting will have you sliced and diced for beach season.