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Do You Have to Bulk to Put on Muscle?

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Everyone knows you need to GOMAD (Gallon Of Milk A Day) to put on serious gains, brah!

Hurr durr.


But really, do you need to bulk in order to gain muscle?

Here is everyone’s favorite answer: it depends.


Here are some cases in which you *MIGHT* not need to bulk in order to put on muscle:


You have +30% body fat.


The more body fat you carry around, the less likely you are to need a caloric surplus. If it’s pretty high, you can even still put on muscle in a deficit. That’s because the fat on your body (fat is just stored energy) provides the calories needed to get stronger and put on muscle.


This only works at higher percentages, as eventually your body will want to maintain a certain level of energy storage and won’t delve into it so easily.


You are a complete novice to weight training

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You’ve never done a push up or touched a barbell in your life? You’re probably going to put on some muscle regardless of what you do with your diet. In my experience training people, their weight tends to stay the same even though they notice that their size is changing. This won’t last forever! In fact, don’t count on it for very long at all.


You’ve been hugely muscular in the past and are just now getting back into it


You were a large, strong, and lean rugby player in high school, took time off of training in college. (No one is telling me to do it! Freedom!) Now you’ve got a job that allows you to go to the gym again. The body “remembers” and old gains usually come back faster than getting them brand new.


You won’t necessarily get back to exactly where you were without some serious effort, and much of this depends on how much time has lapsed between your “glory days” and when you start back up again.


So these are some very specific situations where you might not have to bulk to gain muscle.


For the rest of us, we’re going to have to be in a caloric surplus. After all, body weight boils down to calories in vs calories out and putting on muscle means adding body weight. That energy and that substance has to come from somewhere.


But this DOESN’T mean you have to go through those fluffy bulking seasons that are often seen of competitive bodybuilders and that bro that tries to spot you at 24 Hour Fitness. (Get off my back Chad, I’ve set the safety bars! Jeeze…)


The big questions are (1) How fast do you want it and (2) What are the trade offs you’re willing to have?


I want more muscle YESTERDAY!

 The perma-bulk of Bronson the Cat

The perma-bulk of Bronson the Cat

You’re going to lose that six pack and have to start in on some big caloric surpluses and hard lifting. Start with adding about 500 calories a day (that is NOT a gallon of milk, by the way, more like a quart) and hitting some serious volume on your compound lifts. You will gain some body fat, but you’ll be putting on some muscle that you can reveal later in a caloric deficit cutting phase.


But I really like my 6 pack…


It’s gonna need a little better lighting to find, but if you’re willing to take the long road, you can do a series of mini bulks and cuts, with smaller caloric surpluses and deficits, to gain muscle over the course of years. Yes, years. These can be as short as a couple weeks high, a couple weeks low, back and forth.


Each person will have to experiment with this one a bit, because depending on how much muscle you already have, how much time you have to dedicate to lifting, and myriad other inputs, the finessing of this will be super individual. Whereas the previous style is more like taking a sledgehammer to your physique, this is more like using your fine motor skills to paint a teacup.

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So You Want to Lose Body Fat...

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A conversation I have with members at SPS with some frequently revolves around the request for more cardio programming to lose body fat. I’ll ask them if they like doing cardio, which the answer is usually a resounding “No! But I want to lose some weight so I should probably do it.”

I want to dispell of the myth that doing cardio of any nature is required for fat loss. But first, I want to ask people some serious questions about this weight loss desire.

Take an honest look at yourself first

What’s making you say that you want to lose weight? What’s driving this desire? I want people to have a true internal locus of desire for this. Too often people want to shrink their size because they feel they “should” have that as a goal.

A technique used in digging deep into the root of goals is The 5 Questions. Ask them of yourself”: What do you want to do? Lose weight. Why? Because I have weight to lose. Why do you say that? Because some things I do are harder when I’m bigger. How do you notice that? I get out of breath really fast when trying to play with my kids.

Generally if you can get through five levels of why, you have a pretty good indication of what’s driving your decision to make a change. THEN you can decide if cardio is truly the best route to get there. In the above example, it probably would be. More conditioning would help a parent keep up with their kids.

It’s also important to understand that everything has a trade off. Check out this infographic from Precision Nutrition. Are you a person who is willing to have these trade offs? Do you live a lifestyle that would support the goal you want?

Okay, so you still want to lose body fat.

That’s fine!

But if you’re already entrenched in a workout routine that has you at the gym 3+ times a week, there are some changes you should make that DON’T involve more time exercising. In fact, if some of these other approaches aren’t in place, adding more exercise could be counter productive.

What is your sleep and stress management routine?

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This could really boil down to sleep, as if sleep isn’t in place, no amount of meditation and gratitude journaling is going to counteract the chemical maelstrom that’s happening in your body.

If you’re getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night, you’re only hamstringing your attempts at fat loss. Lack of sleep raises cortisol levels, lowers glucose sensitivity, messes with your satiety hormones, not to mention all the other mental acuity issues that arise and compound over time.

I won’t get into all the science and biology here, but the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker (Amazon) details the importance of sleep exquisitely.

You should be giving yourself 8 hours of what he calls “sleep opportunity” - no lights, no screens, no books, no TV, complete darkness, in bed - every night to reach for that 7+ hours of sleep a night. Under 7 hours of sleep and you start to see severe drop off in lots of the benefits.

Be honest about your alcohol intake

I’ve TOTALLY been guilty of this one.

I like a glass of wine at the end of the day, but over time my pours got more and more generous. One day I measured my typical pour and I was looking at nearly 12 ounces of wine! (Those larger, fancy glasses can really be deceiving.) Not only is that A LOT of calories for the end of the day (7 calories per gram of alcohol), alcohol messes with your circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, whether you feel it or not.

I have no doubt that there are lots of people that fall into that same boat.

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Then there is the weekend drinker. The “I don’t drink Monday through Friday, so what’s 2 drinks (or five) now?” For most of us, we’re not mentally calculating those calories in with the food we ate, never mind any mixers in those drinks.

Then, in both cases, since the body treats alcohol as a toxin, the liver will metabolize ethanol before turning its attention to any fats, protein, or carbs in our system that need processing. (Just deal with the personification, we’re talking in plain terms here.) I know I’m more likely to be drinking wine with a meal or having my whiskey with a snack. That food isn’t getting turned into usable sources of energy, and instead will be stored as fat.


Are you truly aware, like, honestly mindful and conscious, about how much you’re eating?

Humans SUCK at estimating their food intake.

Like, really, truly suck.

And experienced dieters and registered dieticians are better, but not THAT much better.

In this study scientists looked at 10 people who were considered diet resistant. In all 10 people, their metabolism was within 5% of what would be predicted based on body composition. Also, in all 10 they “underreported their actual food intake by an average (+/- SD) of 47 +/- 16 percent and over reported their physical activity by 51 +/- 75 percent.”

There are a lot of “coaches” out there that want to espouse the beauty of intuitive eating, but everything about how our modern society is constructed, from how much we sit, to how we get around, to how we acquire food, and how food is engineered to make us crave more, go against our abilities to be intuitive about our bodies. It’s a nice, feel good idea, but unreasonable without some baseline controls and a modicum of experience.

This doesn’t mean you have to weigh and measure everything, and this doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat out. For most people, you can use your hand as a guide to portions sizes: here is another great article with imagery from Precision Nutrition on how to do that.

Caveat: this mostly serves as a starting point. If it is drastically different in portions than from what you normally eat, make the changes gradually. Also, if you find you start losing weight too fast, yes that is a thing, take a step back and add some calories back in.

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Finally, what activities are you already doing? Can you maximize on those?

The best exercise is the one you will do regularly.

So if you like doing cardio, cardio your heart out. There are lots of great benefits to doing it! Lots of great benefits that, if you enjoy it, will pay off in ways that have nothing to do with calorie burn and weight loss!

But if you already have a fitness routine, and you don’t like going on long runs or sitting on a bike for however long someone random deems necessary, DON’T BOTHER. Find something that you can stick to and do more of THAT.

After you first  line up the previous points, of course.

In closing…

Before you start gritting your teeth and trying to force your way into exercises that you hate, won’t last, and psychologically might make you decide “I deserve a treat for doing that,” get the rest of your lifestyle lined up. It’s likely you don’t actually need more cardio.

But as always, if you like cardio, knock yourself out!

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It's Usually Not Your Program That's Holding You Back

If you go to any weightlifting-centric internet forum, be it Instagram, Reddit, or wherever, you get people debating the merits of various programs. Often espousing the efficacy by the number of high level lifters from a given team or institution. Catalyst vs Juggernaut vs Invictus.

Here’s the thing: most coaches can write a program that will get most people better. What really matters is the intention that you bring to your training.

Of course there are cases where coaches have no idea how to peak, cycle, or choose weights and rep schemes. We’re not talking about that, though.

I’m talking about people who are looking for the next, neat thing. Looking for that special sauce that is going to rocket them to the next level. And they keep looking for things external to them: the next fancy program, the newest pre-workout mix, the latest recovery aid.

 Lydia focuses and visualizes before every lift.

Lydia focuses and visualizes before every lift.

Most athletes need to look inward.

How are you approaching the program you have?

After each rep, could you turn to your coach and say whether that rep or set felt better or worse than the previous?

At the end of each training session, could you write down 1-2 things you learned about yourself or your technique?

At the end of a week or a cycle, could you look back through your notes and see where you felt good, where you felt bad, and did you have ideas of what made those days better or worse?

Or is your training book just a collection of sets, reps, and weights?

Before dropping money on the next big thing being espoused across social media I want to challenge you to adopts a few practices with the program you have:

  1. After each set, say out loud one thing that you did well or one thing you could do better on the next set.

  2. At the end of each session, write 1-2 sentences of things you learned. They could be technical, emotional, or generally about your training.

Over time, you want to be able to be so fully present and intentional in your training that these processes are automatic, a constantly running analysis going through your head through your training.

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But I'm Motivated NOW!

We get a lot of conflicting messages around making changes in our lives.

 How much further?

How much further?

Some encourage a “make all the changes now!” mentality with messages of “what’s your excuse” and suggestions on all the New Years/ birthday/ summer resolutions you can make.

And why shouldn’t you try to make all the changes you can while you’re motivated? You’re tired of whatever is or isn’t happening, finally the pain of staying the same is too great and you are READY. You’re going to food prep, join a gym, go five times a week, weekend hikes, use your evenings to read that pile of books, and your lunchtime will be spent on those Coursera classes you’ve had your eye on. Yeah! You’re ready and your life is going to change!

I’ve done that. I know lots of people that have done that. And for most people in about a month they’re right back to where they started.

Why is that? I thought habits are where it’s at? They’re supposed to automate the things you want out of your day. Just make them all habits!

If only it were that easy.

Habits don’t come out of thin air, it’s not a matter of willfully squeezing your eyes shut and making them happen. It’s deliberate repetition over a long period of time. And I don’t care what we’ve all heard said on Oprah, there is no scientifically backed definitive amount of time it takes for a deliberate activity to become habit.


Psychologists list six stages of habit change:

  • precontemplation

  • contemplation

  • determination

  • action

  • maintenance

  • termination


Let’s talk about the transition from action to maintenance. This where, for many people, they think that the sheer wanting of a habit will make it so. But in my experience, maintenance comes in two parts: tedium and routine.

 It’s fine. Everything is fine.

It’s fine. Everything is fine.

There is a space between the initial motivation that get you moving and the point where the action is so routine it’s not even a choice. That space is tedium. It’s lost the shiny newness but is still a conscience decision. And the more habits we have stacked up that enter the tedium stage at the same time, the less likely we are to stick with any of them.

This where people fall of. This is where, if you rely on motivation to carry you through, you’re probably going to stop. This is where if you don’t have a strong sense of why and a self image that encompasses the habit and the desired results, you’re not going to get through the tedium of day in and day out making the choice to make a change.

So what do you do?

I have two things I suggest depending on how big the change is. If it’s a big change, something like going to a gym before or after work, just focus on that ONE thing. Don’t try to add on food prep, macros counting, cutting out TV, or any other number of changes I often see people try to link together. These larger habits could take months to become truly habitual, and they are best solidified when you start seeing yourself as “I am someone who ______.”

If it’s a smaller set of changes, something like adding more vegetables to each of your meals, I think you can use a staggered start to keep up your momentum. For instance, maybe week 1 & 2, you just focus on your dinner. After week 2, you’re probably going to slip into the tedium phase of dealing with veggies at dinner, so now you start to add in veggies with breakfast. For some, myself included, this renews your interest in making a change and you can piggyback your dinner changes on the renewed motivation of changing your breakfast.

In both methods, you’re not starting multiple changes at the same time. You’re either letting one change steep into identity, or you’re using a cascade of changes to keep the motivation ball rolling.

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Your New Weight Loss Inspiration

I want to first acknowledge that not everyone goes to the gym to lose weight. I’ve spent years, until recently, purposefully putting weight on for on my sport.

But many do. And I think there is a lesson we can learn from a source I love to follow:

Bronson the Cat
Instagram
Bored Panda Article

Here are some key takeaways

  1. Slow and steady is the way to go.

  2. Situation appropriate exercise

  3. No judgement on the roller coaster it can be

  4. Compassion the whole time

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Slow and steady is the way to go

Bronson has lost 2.5 lbs over four months, from 33 lbs to 30.4 lbs. So we’re talking about 10% body weight in four months. And that’s a pace they specifically set for him.

How often do you hear people attempt weight loss crash plans that promise around a 10% body weight drop in 30 to 60 days? The plans might work, but they don’t teach you strategies to sustain the weight loss when you’re done.

Situation appropriate exercise

Bronson is very heavy for the kind of cat he is. His healthy weight would be around 15lbs. As such, his own body can put a lot of strain on his joints, so they make a point to encourage activities that involve playing while laying down or sitting.

If you’ve never used a gym before, or you have a lot of weight to you, this same thought process should apply. Don’t throw yourself into completed programs meant for former athletes or SEAL team members.

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No Judgement on the Weight Loss Roller Coaster

The whole time through, Bronson’s owners don’t lament that he’s not at his goal weight yet, rather they celebrate the small accomplishments. They observe what he can and can’t do as information to inform how they approach each day with him.

When they first started, they thought they would having him go up and down the stairs once a day, but then quickly realized that was going to be too hard on his joints. They don’t expect him to “suck it up.” They modified. Without judgement. After all, this is for the long term!

They notice the small things, too. One day they realized he was finally nimble enough and playful enough to play with the other cats using both of this front paws. They LOVED it! Take every sign of moving in the right direction as a reason to celebrate, and make sure you’re looking for wins outside the number on the scale.

Compassion the Whole Time

You can see just how proud the owners are of every step that Bronson takes. When he regularly begs for treats outside his normal feeding times, they try to move his food around to make the process more comfortable for him. When it’s clear that a certain therapy they wanted to try was too stressful for him, they stopped. They didn’t quit, they just said “not yet.”

How often do you try to grit out weight loss programs with low calories and intense workouts because it’s “supposed to be hard!” You’re supposed to suffer! It’s a diet! It’s supposed to suck! Granted, if you’re in a caloric deficit, you’re going to be hungry occasionally, but there is no need to be miserable.

Ease off the intensity, with the idea you can always ease back in if that’s what you really want to do. Move your meals around and experiment. Maybe you do better with 2-3 larger meals than 4-5 smaller meals. Maybe you don’t like eating right when you get up, but are always hankering for a snack before bed. There is no formula that is going to work for everyone. But you have to be KIND to yourself.

Be like Bronson.



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