Over the past year, I’ve embarked on two “bulking cycles,” but, like… not really.
You see, nothing in my research has led me to believe that bulking, in the traditional bodybuilding sense- eating a bunch, gaining 10-20…30…40… pounds over a couple of months, then shredding down over the course of 20 weeks or so in preparation for a show, is not necessary, nor is it the most effective way to put on mass. Also, cutting freaking sucks, and the prospect of having to cut for that long, and lose that much, seems positively miserable to me, not to mention the fact that for months at a time I would have to walk around hating my body, posting throwback photos to Instagram…
None of that sounds good to me.
Now, I’ll have taken a full 14 months between shows, by the time I compete again this year in May, but I was still in a deficit for a while after my show last year, due to just wanting to look good at music festivals over the summer. I spent a looooooning time reverse dieting out of that caloric deficit, and trying to bring my TDEE up to a nice place before even contemplating dieting down for another show again. When I finally found my maintenance level of calories, after months of slow macro increases, I only went every so slightly above that level. Training hard for competing in powerlifting, I was hungry, and I was well within my weight class. When I say slight, I mean I never calculated a weekly average over about 8-10% above my TDEE. Is this still even bulking?
Broscience and the-way-it’s-always-been-done will have to believing that you need to eat significantly over your TDEE in order to make strength and muscle gains, but that’s not really how it works… infinite calories cannot be infinitely turned into muscle, regardless of where the calories come from. Not even if you eat anabolic doughnuts. No, not even if you just eat chicken and broccoli either. Not even if it’s raw.
Not even if you eat human muscles.
That’s just not how it works.
Excess calories that are not turned into muscle, then, are turned into fat. I am less interested in building my fat stores than I am in building my muscle stores. Unfortunately, bodies are much better at turning calories into energy, or fat, than into muscles, so I choose to keep things moderate. In doing so, a few things happen:
- I get to relax about my macro counting a little. Lick the spoon, use the big scale that doesn’t count by 0.2 grams without anxiety, go a few carbs over without worrying. Live. And it’s nice.
- Maintain a body composition that I am comfortable with. Stage lean? No. But I still like myself. I get a little booty. I feel healthy. I still have visible muscle, and look like I even lift. I am confident with my body and don’t feel the need to cover it up.
- My inevitable cut- let’s face it, I WILL gain a little fat, regardless of my methodology- for a show will be much less arduous. I don’t need a 20 week contest prep diet. Christ on a bike, can you imagine dieting for four or even five months? That sounds like the worst hell to me. By keeping my fat gain minimal, I can afford to spend less time dieting, less time hungry, and less time worrying about preserving muscle mass while in that caloric deficit. Best of all, I don’t have to make as steep of cuts to my calories, either, having less to lose. Hella wins, no?
- I don’t have to buy a lot of new clothes. Yes, I outgrow some things, but clothes are expensive, especially when you have a real, grown up adult job with grown up outfits and stuff. I can wear a lot of my clothes regardless of where I am in a contest prep- at my heaviest or my lightest- with the addition of a belt if needed, and still look put-together, and not annoy my husband with excessive credit card bills.
In my research on the topic, I came across this video, put out by Alberto Nunez of 3D Muscle Journey, who I trust to put out quality, evidence backed content. These guidelines make sense to me, and back up the things that I have come to learn on my own, through Google-fu and experience alike.
Over the course of my “offseason,” which wasn’t really, I suppose- it was my powerlifting season! I put on about 10 pounds. My stage weigh last March was 112, and I’ve been maintaining at 122 for the past few weeks. I feel good at this weight. Strong, sexy, I still rock a few abs, and I’m nicely within the 123 weight class for powerlifting. And best of all, I freaking swear I grew a butt. Not like a flabby one, but there’s muscles in there. I can feel them! And hammies to match!
I feel amazing about my body composition, too!
Two weeks ago, out of curiosity about how this “offseason” has gone, I went and got DEXA scanned. Beforehand, I took tape measurements, and used the skin fold caliper I’ve used 1-2 times monthly for the past year or so. I left armed with a bunch of data, but the takeaway was that I, after the entirety of time I’ve spent reverse dieting up to and eating around/slightly over maintenance, at 124 pounds, that morning, I clocked in at 15.9% body fat. Of that 124 pounds, 98.5 pounds is lean muscle, and 104 pounds is fat-free mass (including organs and such). A mere 20 pounds of my body, at 124 pounds, after months of being out of deficit eating, is fat. I’m super cool with that.
Of course, those numbers don’t mean a damn thing, in real life. Nobody asks your fat free mass on the street, or sees your scale weight above your head as you buy paper towels at Target. The barbell doesn’t ask questions when I step into the squat rack. Nobody gives a shit. Just me.
My doctor likes some of the information, too, though. Some of the numbers mean that I am considered “lean,” on the chart of boxes. They mean that I have a very healthy fat distribution- not all collected in my belly around my organs. They mean that my legs each weigh freaking 22 pounds each, and so when my husband pokes my quads and asks if I’m ready for harvesting, the answer is yes. They mean that my bones are super healthy. On paper, these numbers mean I am a specimen of excellent health.
But mostly to me, the numbers mean that I have been successful in my months or work to build muscle and minimize fat gain. And that feels really, really freaking good. I made some muscles. I learned a lot about my body. I increased my TDEE. I set myself up for a really, really good bodybuilding season, I think. So I guess they’re a little validating in that respect.
So here’s to the non-traditional offseason, filled with powerlifting badassery, with limited edition Oreos, with learning about my body, and mostly, with moderation. My intention is to send it off with a bang, when I dominate my last meet’s total in a week and a half at the South Bay Open, before starting contest prep for my first show, in May. Both contests are looking pretty promising, if I do say so myself.