In this article I am going to discuss different approaches and ideologies regarding one’s pursuit in gaining lean muscle mass the quickest and most effective way possible from my personal experience.
To bulk or not to bulk? To diet year around or not?
If you are seriously involved with weight training, bodybuilding, or any athletic endeavor involving muscle mass and strength, then you surely have pondered the question “How do I gain the most size in the least amount of time”? Well, there are a few different approaches that are widely used by numerous bodybuilders and strength athletes.
The first and most commonly practiced approach is to “bulk up “and eat any and everything you can get your hands on, of course with a priority on protein, but dietary fat and carbohydrate control…forget about it! This approach could deem extremely effective for an ectomorph somatotype with a blazing metabolism and forgiving insulin sensitivity. However, for the mesomorph and especially endomorph somatotype, this method could be a complete detriment to their goals.
The second protocol for size would be a slow and gradual approach involving “dieting” all year long, staying lean and in a single digit body fat range. This involves crunching caloric values, macronutrient values, and constant manipulation to your nutrition and training regimen. Usually the folks who can’t stand losing their abdominal muscles and sharp facial features utilize this approach, which is effective, but will not truly maximize your muscle mass potential.
The third approach to building lean muscle mass is what I refer to as “the decondition to condition” method. This train of thought requires one to dramatically reduce weight training to 2-3 times a week. Weight training should be minimal free weights and place an emphasis on safer machine and cable movements for joint and ligament healing and rejuvenation. You want to keep the muscles stimulated, but far from overloaded and severely broken down. You will also need to reduce your protein and food intake, and only consume small, infrequent meals.
Discontinue all muscle building supplementation to get your body flushed out and cleansed. One would follow this deconditioning phase for 2 months or longer depending on what their goals and lifestyle permits for properly executing the next phase. This practice primes your body for a huge growth spurt when you “flip the switch” and do the polar opposite approach.
When making the switch to the “conditioning phase” or muscle growth period, the trainee would begin weight training again, meaning 6-7 times a week. Begin consuming copious amounts of protein, complex carbohydrates and essential fatty acids to induce anabolism. Begin a supplementation plan and regimented sleep schedule to ensure recovery is optimized.
This method should yield a person to do the “impossible” and gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously if the nutrition is strict with smart food choices, training is brutally intense, and no deviations manifest. Of course you will be gaining back lost size from the layoff, but often times you will supersede your previous size with a lower body fat percentage.
Shown below is IFBB pro Bodybuilder Kevin Levrone who was known to “shrink” in the off-season and “grow” into a contest.
This sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Well… it’s not quite that easy. The key to making this protocol work for you is having substantial muscle mass from previous “bulking phases,” where you have already been through the rigors of excessive, gluttonous eating, and performed basic heavy exercises to have put on solid size-- setting the stage for your physical foundation of muscle mass. After reaching ultimate size, you can implement the unorthodox protocol of deconditioning and shrinking in size, to filling back out with lean muscle mass gains.
For example: Let’s say you have bulked up several times to 280 lbs. and have been able to hold that body weight stable. Each time you bulked up to that body weight it should have been a leaner version than the previous time. Also, each time you diet down from that body weight your ending weight should be a little bit heavier with the same body fat levels.
Now you can give your body and general health a break by periodically reducing all facets of extreme muscle building and letting your entire body recuperate. Your joints, ligaments, internal organs, and endocrine system will get a chance to recover and prepare for future bouts of extreme weight training, nutrition, and supplementation.
At the beginning of your growth or conditioning phase, you will shock people by morphing rapidly into a larger and leaner physique by the week. You must cautiously ease back into training and not rush into lifting heavy weights right away. Once you start picking up more muscle mass and build up your appetite, the strength will come along with everything else.
There are two negative aspects of this very complex method of mass building that must be considered. Firstly, the psychological effects of temporarily shrinking down in size when you decondition yourself. Second, the previous years of excessive bulking up it took to get to the point where you have substantial muscle mass and the potential health risks involved while doing it.
Potential health risks from previous heavy off-season weight gain phases:
- Prolonged elevated liver enzymes
- Chronic high blood pressure
- Skewed lipid levels
- Left ventricular hypertrophy
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
I have personally attempted the 3 approaches mentioned and will provide some firsthand feedback for you all. The all out bulking method, where you eat any and everything in sight, regardless of macro nutrient quality is not ideal for a few reasons. When I have experimented with this approach, I became less efficient at weight training due to elevated blood pressure and water retention. This caused a debilitating muscular pump in the lower back and calves.
I felt my leptin levels were sky high which could have initiated a wide array of side effects, like, reduced hunger, left ventricular hypertrophy, and increased blood clotting. High leptin levels also indicate body fat levels are elevated and ghrelin production, which induces appetite, is completely abolished. Ultimately, this approach can be unhealthy and not optimal depending on the individual’s unique response.
The second approach to mass building, in which you stay lean and on a controlled diet all year works well. I personally made awesome gains from this approach. In 1 year I went from a Bodybuilding contest weight of 194 lbs. to 214 lbs. with the same, if not lower body fat levels. I remember staying strict with my nutrition and in very lean condition all throughout the year, and my strength was maximized. I felt healthy, looked healthy, and my exercise performance was the best it had ever been. Utilizing this approach enables you to experiment with different supplements, food choices, and training manipulations to clearly see how your body reacts to each variable due to being so lean and metabolically efficient.
I also experienced the third approach of deconditioning to conditioning method, but not by choice. A few years ago I was at my biggest and leanest condition during my mass-building phase and some very unfortunate chain of events took place. I was unable to weight train, supplement, and consume sufficient nutrition. This phase lasted about 2 months before I was able to get back into consistent weight training, adequate nutrition, and proper supplementation.
I went from a body fat of 9% at 215 lbs. to a stage ready physique of 217 lbs. at 4% body fat. I was able to establish an awesome body composition change in 10 weeks. However, this approach was not planned and ultimately thrown at me without a choice.
Every individual will differ in how they respond to each method of gaining muscle mass. You must experiment and listen to your body while taking notes and keeping records of how each approach works for you.
I personally know that staying very lean with precise nutrition all year long is best for my health and body type. Even though I can eat fast food every day and stay relatively lean due to my genetics, but I also feel as if I am killing myself due to the constant stress I am putting my body under.
If you get blood work done and ensure your health is not in danger, forcing extreme caloric intake is probably the fastest way to accrue appreciable muscle mass. Given your metabolism is fast and efficient in expending and partitioning calories, slamming down a “see-food diet” could be suited well for you. Keep in mind, excessive water retention will be a byproduct from force feeding meals and most likely using water retaining supplements. Even though I believe I respond best to staying lean all year long, for most people, forcing heavy food intake, while not getting completely fat is your best plan for ultimate muscle mass accrual.
I want everyone to always place health as a first priority regardless of which approach you decide to oblige by. Getting blood work done 2-3 times a year is a responsible and wise procedure to adhere to.
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