‘Not today fatty!’
Gaining weight, getting fluffy, bulking or cultivating thickness, however you wish to phrase it, getting bigger has always been a fascination to myself and I guarantee to the majority of people clicking into this article! The quest to be big enough to scare babies and old people, or for the ladies to look like Marge off the Simpsons episode where she is jacked beyond belief will always be something linked to the culture of strength sports.
But why is this! Well, from the outside looking in it is not hard to see that the bigger someone is the more weight they can move, there will always be some exceptions to this, but at a glance most top end strength athletes are not normal sized people. For many years this seeming link between bigger and better has perpetuated a quest for mass by ANY means (although usually by the means of excess cheesecake).
Over the last few years however, there seems to be an emerging shift to this attitude, which has followed a progressing understanding of nutrition, performance and sports psychology. With this in mind, today I'd like to delve a little deeper into what the process of getting bigger SHOULD look like for a modern-day strength athlete.
So to reiterate, we have all heard the saying that “weight moves weight” and this usually comes with the assumption that to be a successful lifter, being fat and out of breath is not only a benefit, but is encouraged. This is a dangerous stereotype that still clings to a lot of self proclaimed ‘hardcore’ lifters, who only think of nutrition if it comes out of a drive through window. However, this attitude fails to consider not only the laundry list of negative health consequences, but the hormonal and performance markers that will take a giant hit when carrying an extra 60 kg of unneeded fat.
The realisation of the negative consequences of getting too fat too quick, has shifted the aim of the game to not just cultivating as much mass as possible regardless of composition, but to accruing the maximum amount of contractile tissue, as having an extra 60 kg of muscle mass will bare unequivocal benefits to having an extra 60 kg of junk in the trunk. This is because more muscle always means a higher potential for force development.
Although a bigger muscle is not always stronger, the best analogy I have found to show this is car engines, yes, a bigger engine on paper can make the car run faster, although the other parts of that car have to be able to accommodate for such speeds! This brings into consideration the other physiological and neurological aspects of strength adaptations, but it shows my point that more muscle means potential for more work output.
However, this does beg the question of how do we bulk in such a way that we maximise our lean tissue development whilst minimising fat gain along with planning it in an advantageous time in our training cycles?
To address the first part of our question, we need to first ensure that we are beginning with an internal environment conducive to our desired weight gain, this means if for a male you are already above 18% body fat and for a woman already a way over 20%, you should consider cutting back some of that excess fat before beginning a massing phase.
This will address two things off the bat, firstly, from a psychological standpoint if you are already looking like mashed potatoes stuffed into a sock, you will tend to be a bit less concerned if you are overshooting your calories and putting on that extra weight a bit too fast. Secondly, especially from a male perspective the more fat you begin with, the harder it is going to be to add a desired range of lean tissue as the more visceral fat you have the more readily your body’s testosterone is going to convert to estrogen, which is going to down regulate your ability to add muscle mass!
So, from that perspective starting your massing from a leaner body fat range is going to increase the efficiency of the whole process! From here the other variables we have to play with are activity and nutritionally based. From a nutritional standpoint we must make sure we are consuming enough protein to facilitate the muscular growth we desire (around the range 2g/kg is a good number if you are not carrying a excess of fat to begin with). What is important to remember and I can’t stress this enough, is protein overfeeding DOES NOT up regulate growth. Once you are consuming an adequate amount of protein to drive the machinery of protein synthesis, piling more on top is just going to limit your food palatability and cause possible gastrointestinal distress.
After the box of protein has been ticked, we need to organise our surplus in such a way that we are making sure of a positive energy balance whilst keeping our rate of gain between 200-400g per week on average. This slower rate of gain may take you a little bit longer to get you to your goal, but unlike weight loss where a bigger deficit increases the rate of fat loss, a bigger surplus will not increase the rate of lean tissue development, but it will increase the rate of fat gain. Once you are over a 200-300 daily calorie surplus, your body has the tools it needs to allow growth to occur, once you push this surplus higher it provides minimal muscular gain.
It is important to note that yes, this slower approach will minimise unneeded fat gain, but you will still get a bit soft around the edges with any form of weight gain, it is just part of the deal. However this is not reason enough to throw caution to the wind and blow out completely! As with anything performance based, a slow, controlled and calculated approach will always rear better results than attacking something blindly.
Finally we need to talk about when the best time is to approach a weight gain phase as powerlifters, as we cannot just be gaining 100% of the time! As with most weight manipulation it should be done a bit further away from competition where you can spend a few weeks prioritising hypertrophy and working on those adaptations which will promote muscular growth. As with weight loss, weight gain is still providing a bodily stressor with an increased burden of digestion and your body working hard to process and develop new tissues. So attempting to pump obscene amounts of weight gain leading in close to a competition will not only develop more fatigue, but possibly mess with your positioning, energy levels and digestive health!
To conclude, when approaching weight gain it may sound simple and in theory it is, but it still MUST be approached with a time frame and a plan in mind to avoid many of the pitfalls athletes of the past failed to see due to misinformation and a lack of foresight. Bigger is not always better folks!