The end goal for my diet-related experiments has always been to eventually come up with a way of eating that not only optimizes health and performance, but is also truly sustainable in the long-term.
Earlier in the year, I had explored weight loss with my six-pack abs in three months experiment.
The fat-burning routine that I developed proved very effective for getting lean, but I don’t consider it a sustainable routine since it doesn't address an important question:
After I become lean and healthy, how should I adjust my routine so that I can maintain my desired weight?
In order to address this question, I realized I needed to first learn about weight gain since I felt like I had cut a bit too much weight and wanted to first bring my weight back up to a more desirable level.
And so in July while weighing 62.5 kilograms (137.5 pounds) with 9.4% body fat, I began my bulking experiment with a goal of gaining 5.5 kilograms (12 pounds) in three months.
An additional goal of the experiment was to see if I could stay lean throughout the process so I set an arbitrary body fat percentage target of 11%.
[Note: Bodybuilders refer to this elusive process of packing on muscle mass with minimal fat gain as “clean bulking”. The allure is obvious: Who wants to have to go from six-pack to one-pack then back down to six-pack?]
By the end of September, I had managed to bulk up to 66.1 kilograms with 11% body fat — still lean, but two kilograms shy of my target.
At the time I was surprised that I had such a hard time putting on more weight, but in hindsight it seems I made some fairly obvious mistakes that you should definitely try to avoid if you attempt your own bulking experiments.
1. Do NOT ignore calorie math
Prior to starting your own bulking experiment, you’ll want to first use a calorie calculator to estimate how many calories your body needs to maintain its current weight.
Just keep in mind that it's impossible for these calculators to determine what your exact calorie needs are, so the numbers should serve only as a starting point.
After you’ve determined your maintenance calorie level, the next step is to figure out how many calories you need to be eating on top of that number to gain weight.
The rule of thumb used is one pound (0.45 kilograms) of body weight is equivalent to 3,500 calories, so basically for every pound that you hope to gain per week, you’ll want to eat an extra 500 calories per day on top of your maintenance calorie level (7 days x 500 calories = 3,500 calories).
In my case, my goal was to gain 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms) within 12 weeks, which conveniently came out to one pound per week.
But my mistake when designing my bulking experiment was that I ignored the calorie calculators and instead came up with my own 2,000 calorie target by simply adding 500 calories on top of my basal metabolic rate (BMR), which was 1,549 calories at the time.
I then increased my number of cheat days from one to two to ensure that my average daily calories for the week would exceed 2,000. If I had to guess, I probably ate around 2,500 calories on cheat days, which upped my daily average to around 2,143 calories per day.
Now what’s surprising to me is that had I put some faith in the calorie calculator, I would have been able to predict a weight gain very similar to my actual result in September:
- Daily calories consumed: 2,143
- Maintenance calorie level using calorie calculator: 1,835 (choosing “little/no exercise” for exercise level given my less than one-hour-per-week workout routine)
- Excess calories eaten per day: 2,143 - 1,835 = 308
- Experiment duration: 88 days
- Total excess calories eaten over the 3 months: 308 daily excess calories * 88 days = 27,104
- Estimated weight increase: 27,104 / 3,500 calories in a pound = 7.7 pounds or 3.5 kilograms.
How much weight did I actually gain? 7.9 pounds or 3.6 kilograms.
[Note: Your daily calorie needs will increase as you gain weight so to be super accurate, you’ll want to periodically recalculate forward estimates based on your current weight. If I had recalculated on a monthly basis, my total estimated weight gain would have been 0.3 pounds lower. But given calorie calculators are meant to provide very rough estimates, there’s no need to get too caught up with precision here.]
Recommendation: Use calorie calculators to estimate your daily calorie needs so that you know how many excess calories you should be eating per day.
2. Do NOT skip breakfast
Each meal you eat is an opportunity to chow down on more calories.
So if you want a simple way to ensure you are getting enough calories for weight gain, eating more meals is a great place to start.
Don’t buy the saying that “eating a full breakfast in the morning will keep you from overeating during lunch.”
The problem with this logic is that it fails to take into account the fact that our bodies can only handle so much food in any one sitting before our bodies tell us to stop (assuming the absence of metabolic disorders).
Think back to days when you skipped breakfast for whatever reason.
On those days, did you really eat two meals' worth of calories at lunch?
It’s possible you ate a bit more than your typical lunch, but I’d bet you still ended up eating far fewer calories for the day than you normally would.
My mistake during my bulking experiment was that I refused to eat breakfast.
I do not believe that it is necessary to eat breakfast.
[Note: if you are someone who clings to the belief that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day", this article might get you to at least wonder why you believe so strongly in such a convention.]
On the rare occasions when I wake up super hungry, I’ll eat something; but typically, coffee is the only thing I have in the morning.
[Note: if you are a coffee drinker, check out Shanghai Bulletproof Coffee as a way to get fat calories in the mornings while also enjoying the benefits of skipping breakfast].
But only after doing this bulking experiment did I realize that skipping breakfast made my weight gain more difficult.
Skipping breakfast left me with lunch and dinner to cram in my 2,000+ calories for the day, which meant I needed to eat 1,000+ calories per meal on average.
If you are experienced with food tracking you'll know that 1,000+ calories per meal isn't an easy target to hit when eating clean and restricting carbs.
I would often force-feed myself protein and fat after dinner to make up for any calorie shortfalls for the day.
If I had eaten breakfast, hitting my daily calorie target would have been a piece of cake.
Recommendation: Eating a full breakfast every morning is great for squeezing in excess calories and will help you get ahead on achieving a calorie surplus for the day.
3. Do NOT forget about protein
In addition to eating enough excess calories, you’ll also want to make sure you are eating enough protein to provide the body with the “building blocks” for growth.
A commonly used rule of thumb among the bodybuilding community for how much protein to eat is between 1.0 and 1.5 grams of protein for each pound of desired body weight.
This comes out to a lot of protein for even someone my size.
To provide some perspective, a 200 gram (7 ounce) chicken breast contains around 60 grams of protein while a 200 gram steak contains around 50 grams of protein.
For my experiment, my protein intake per day was 125 grams which came out to 0.8 grams per pound of desired body weight.
Based on bodybuilding “wisdom", I should have been eating somewhere between 150-225 grams of protein per day.
This heavy protein requirement for serious muscle growth seems to explain why protein shakes and eating 5-6 meals per day are necessities for bodybuilders.
While I don’t think such high levels of protein are advisable for long-term health, my lackluster gains of 3.6 kilograms (7.9 pounds) with only 60% coming from muscle makes me curious to test out cranking up my protein intake in a future bulking experiment.
Recommendation: For faster growth, experiment with eating 1.0 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of desired body weight. If you are hardcore, go straight to 1.5 grams per pound and let me know how it goes!
4. Do NOT eat low-carb
The primary reason why you should not try to bulk on a low-carb diet is the same reason why eating low-carb is so effective for getting lean and healthy: protein, fat and veggies aren’t efficient at pumping excess calories into your body.
Due to the strong satiating effects of protein and fat, when you eat low-carb, you’ll typically get full before you’ve had a chance to binge on enough calories for serious weight gain, which leads to slower progress relative to a high-carb diet.
Another reason why bulking on a low-carb diet is a bad idea is because it can get pretty expensive — quality proteins and veggies cost a lot more than pasta and rice.
For this bulking experiment, I wanted to minimize changes to my existing low-carb diet (which averaged about 1,500 calories per day) and simply added 500 calories from two bowls of white rice to get to the new 2,000 calorie target.
This adjustment brought my daily macronutrient mix to 25% protein, 45% fat and 30% carbs and my daily carb limit from 50 grams to 150 grams, which is still "low-carb" relative to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines that suggest 45-65% of daily calorie intake should come from carbohydrate.
In the end, I did manage to gain a modest amount of weight while staying lean, but the progress was way too slow for me to hit my target weight in time.
Perhaps four bowls of white rice per day might have done the trick, which ironically would have brought me right within the low-end of the USDA’s recommended carbohydrate range for a “healthy" diet.
Recommendation: After you’ve figured out how much protein you should be eating, I would suggest allocating 40% of daily calories to carbs and then adjust upwards or downwards each week depending on your progress.
Whether the goal is fat loss or muscle gain, I’m convinced that diet and nutrition are 90% of the battle.
In other words, focusing on diet and nutrition alone can get you close enough to where you want to be.
It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend in the gym; if you aren’t eating enough, you won’t bulk up.
You may have noticed that I did not provide any suggestions on lifting weights or working out anywhere in this article.
For this experiment, I did double my body weight exercise routine at home from 30 minutes to 60 minutes per week, but whether the additional 30 minutes per week helped me to gain or lose weight overall is hard to say.
My hypothesis for a future experiment is that as long as you are eating the right mix and quantity of REAL food (with an emphasis on protein), even 30 minutes of body weight exercises per week would be sufficient for an average person to achieve significant gains in muscle mass.
If you’re interested, let me know, and I’d be happy to help you design such an experiment.
What did you think about this article? Comments are always welcome.