At some point, nearly every competitive athlete who participates in weight-divided events will engage in weight manipulation. The unique demands of powerlifting have led to a universally adopted pre-meet weight management routine involving “bulking,” “cutting,” and “bloating.”
Bulking is simply the process of gaining weight to either stimulate muscle growth or improve “leverages” in certain lifts (I use quotes here since leverage generally refers to anything that makes a lift easier, regardless of its impact on an actual lever). Bulking for muscle growth involves consuming excess calories and protein to promote post-exercise protein synthesis, as even the most sound hypertrophy program won’t work without an energy and substrate surplus.
Bulking for leverage is a different tactic. When bulking for leverage, the goal is adding bodymass—water and fat as well as muscle—to make lifts easier. The bench press responds favorably to bulking because extra bodyweight improves barbell stability, which allows more force to be directed towards moving the bar, and because a heavy bulk increases torso girth, which can shorten the bar path. Squats are helped by the added mass both lowering the lifter’s center of gravity, and by strengthening the abdomen by widening its base and packing the core in with a buttressing layer of fat. When you take into account that these two lifts are also the ones that are helped the most by equipment, it especially makes sense for a geared lifter to bulk. The deadlift can also be helped by bulking, though the effects aren’t as noticeable.
There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to bulking. The first, “dirty” bulking, involves jamming all the food into your gullet that you can. The goal is to maximize your intake of protein and carbs (to keep protein synthesis up), as well as fat (to make sure you’re putting on a good layer of blubber.) During a good dirty bulk, you could eat an entire day’s worth of calories by breakfast. You’ll live off of junk food because it’s the only way to keep your calories up.
J.M. Blakely’s dirty bulk methods are some of the best known, though it’s hard to appreciate just how intense they are until you add up the calories. Dave Tate’s recollections on Blakely’s advice offer a blueprint that I’ve made into a (conservative) chart:
|4 breakfast sandwiches||1800|
|4 hash browns||600|
|2 packs mayo||160|
|Chinese buffet binge||4000|
|Large pizza w/ the works||3040|
That’s about four days worth of food for the average American male. And it doesn’t even include snacks, which in this case are fistfuls of candy bars. You can find Dave’s full story and forum follow-ups here:
Mark Rippetoe has re-popularized “GOMAD”—Gallon Of Milk A Day—as another bulking strategy. When added to your normal eating habits, drinking a gallon of whole milk every day will add an easy 2,400 calories and 120 grams of protein to your daily intake. There are other techniques, most involving an “Always Be Eating” approach fortified with fast food.
In a PLUSA article on his bulking method, Blakely acknowledges a litany of health problems associated with the dirty bulk: elevated cholesterol, lipids, and blood pressure; sleep apnea; poor levels of liver enzymes, thyroid hormones, and pancreatic indicators; and of course, fat gain. Fat gain can lead to diabetes, heart problems, and increased cancer risk. The extra fat also makes daily activity harder because the added tissue saps oxygen from your blood stream and restricts mobility. Even just the extra weight can increase wear on your joints—Blakely notes that a good bulk leads to gaining 2-3 pounds of fat for every pound of muscle gained. At the same time, chugging sodas and downing candy can weaken your teeth, which is a bad thing when you spend a lot of time clenching your jaws into knots during PRs. Finally, the dirty bulk almost eliminates low calorie, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, which can increase risk for multiple diseases.
Now, I’m not quite sure there’s such thing as a “healthy” bulk—overeating probably doesn’t improve any normal marker of good health. But lifters who are interested more in gaining muscle (as opposed to simply gaining weight) can take a very different approach and still increase muscle mass without getting too fat or wrecking their diet. This is commonly known as a “clean” bulk, and it involves eating almost nothing but foods with distinct nutritional benefits beyond their ability to provide energy, while monitoring calories in a way that minimizes fat gain without lowering muscle growth.
The trick to a clean bulk is knowing how much muscle you can reasonably gain. The commonly accepted figure for natural lifters is that a younger/newer male lifter can gain about half-a-pound of muscle a week, while older/experienced male lifters can gain half that. Age/experience-equivalent women lifters can gain about half of what men can; individuals with favorable hormonal levels (particularly exogenous) can gain much more, and should consider doubling the calorie recommendations below.
This small amount of muscle means that massive amounts of excess calories and protein aren’t needed for maximal growth. The old classic of consuming 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight will ensure enough protein comes in, and a regular calorie surplus of between 500-800 calories a day will keep you in positive energy balance; men under 200 pounds and most women should probably aim for the lower amount. The latter can be tricky to figure out, and will require some sort of calorie counting. One way to figure out your normal daily intake is to track what you eat for a few weeks, use a calorie database to determine the caloric content of what you ate, and then aim to eat 500-800 calories more than that every day, which goes towards a targeted weight gain of a pound every week. It’s a long build-up, but much more accurate than relying on a generic formula.
You may wonder why so much protein is needed for such a small amount of muscle. There are actually several reasons, the first being that protein is shared among a number of body processes, and not just building muscle. Second, the protein that is used for muscle first has to be used to restore and replenish muscle cells that have simply died as a normal part of tissue turnover, and then repair muscle fibers that have been damaged during training back to a normal state. When all that’s done, the remaining protein can be diverted to adding new muscle.
Let’s say a male lifter who’s been stuck at 240 pounds for a while tracks his calories over a period of two weeks, and realizes he gets in about 3800 calories a day, and about 200 grams of protein. To start a bulk that’s clean but still hits all the targets for guaranteed growth, he’d need to consume about 360 grams of protein and about 4300 calories daily. His foods over the course of a few days might look like this:
|2 cups high fiber/protein cereal w/ dried fruit and milk||500||36|
|Whey protein shake||240||48|
|16 oz sauteed chicken||650||95|
|Large baked sweet potato||160||4|
|1 cup roasted pistachio nuts||700||26|
|Stirfry: 16 oz chick, vegetables, oil, 1/2 cup cashews, sauce||1193||105|
|1 cup brown rice||685||15|
|6 boiled eggs||462||36|
|2 cups skim milk||170||16|
|Smoothie: 3 scoops whey protein, 3 cups skim milk, 2 cups berries, 1 cup oats||1382||124|
|Pasta bowl: 10 oz ground beef (85/15), red sauce, 2 cups enriched multigrain pasta||1690||104|
|Whey protein shake||360||72|
There are some short cuts to getting in your protein and calories without resorting to combo meals and boxes of donuts. For protein, buy large packs of chicken and bake or grill all of it at once, then keep the leftovers in the fridge; from there, supplement with protein shakes as needed. For extra calories, oats, nuts, pasta, dried fruits, brown rice, whole grain breads, potatoes, and a variety of oils like coconut, olive, and walnut are good options. Juices and milk can help fill in multiple gaps quickly and easily, as liquids have a smaller satiety impact than solid items. Since these foods aren’t as calorie-dense as dirty bulk foods, you may find the classic bodybuilder approach of eating multiple small meals will help avoid stomach-stretching marathon sessions of eating.
In the end, a reasonable approach for most of the population would be a midpoint between dirty and clean that facilitates a normal life as much as it does weight gain. For a clean bulker, this might mean cutting loose on Friday night, eating a protein bar to catch up on calories, or having family dinners where the kids have some say in what to eat. Dirty bulkers might slap on restraints by programming in routine fruits and vegetables, or by sticking entirely to enjoyable foods while monitoring calories.
Cutting for a meet is all about temporary dehydration—a lifter sheds as much water as needed to make weight, then rehydrates as much as possible to restore nutrients and regain leverage. Even when fasting for a cut, the primary mechanism of weight loss is dehydration; fat stores will certainly be burned for energy during a fast, though the result won’t be much more than a pound or so in even the heaviest of lifters—the real weight loss comes from dehydration and lack of food mass in the gut.
The ground rules for cutting and rehydrating are simple: continued athletic performance begins to noticeably suffer when 2% of water volume is lost, and more serious effects begin when around 5% of water volume is lost. The intermittent nature of powerlifting makes this figure not entirely applicable, though it’s still very likely that if you achieve a water volume loss greater than 5%, you’re at much higher risk for becoming an uncoordinated or even cramped-up mess during the middle of your cut. This is because dehydration not only strips your cells of the water they need to live, but it also limits the electrolytes and other chemicals your nerves use to transmit signals.
Meets with same-day weigh-ins require prepping the body and cutting weight over the course of several days. The weight must be lost in a manner that doesn’t weaken the system, so the best tactic is a gradual diet that causes water loss and puts the lifter in a position to be as recovered as possible when the meet starts. A general approach would be to begin restricting or eliminating carbohydrates and then salt from the diet several days before the meet starts, and then restrict water. This initiates a “water flush” that anyone who’s ever dieted is familiar with, and can often shed multiple pounds on its own. Salt and carbohydrates are both hydrophilic, which means they attract water; when you have hydrophilic compounds either floating freely or stored in the body, they’re always bonded to water. Get rid of the compounds, and the extra water goes with them. Lifters also try to “trick” their body into thinking it’s holding too much fluid by drinking large amounts of water during the earliest days of the cut. Brian Schwab has a great walkthrough on his method here: http://articles.elitefts.com/articles/powerlifting-articles/4-day-guide-how-to-cut-for-a-short-weigh-in/
If more weight needs to be lost even after the lifter is down to eating scraps of steak, the last day before the meet can become a fast, or you can use a mild diuretic (caffeine tablets are the easiest to get, while dandelion root is a popular herbal) if your federation allows it. Stronger prescription diuretics aren’t advisable—they’ve been implicated in death and illness among multiple athletes. Laxatives aren’t recommended because combining loose stools and the internal abdominal pressure created by a heavy squat might lead to some unwanted explosive results.
When weigh-ins are scheduled well before the meet, you can pressure your body into losing more weight than through just diet. First, there are some things that are too risky to ever advise, and again I’m going to note prescription diuretics: even the potassium sparing versions can shut you down, perhaps permanently. For similar reasons, exercise-induced sweating isn’t advisable, as combining exercise and a bodysuit made out of trashbags is a recipe for fatal hyperthermia through elevated internal body temperature; the activity also taps energy and neurotransmitter stores that should be spared until competition.
Most agree that the safest method for losing large amounts of water is environmentally induced sweating done in conjunction with the dietary methods noted earlier. It’s not necessarily safe, but it’s far better than other methods. The technique is simply to lock yourself in a hot sauna or heated pool of water and sweat yourself dry; the external temperature elevates perspiration (which occurs even when the body is completely submerged in water), though the body doesn’t create any additional internal heat or stress through physical activity. Frequent breaks are taken to prevent overheating. Matt Kroczaleski has elevated the process to an art, and his write-up is highly recommended: here.
It’s important to know the warning signs of a cut that’s gone too far. Dizziness, nausea, headaches, and tingling are early indicators of trouble. Confusion, lack of coordination, racing heart and respiration, and high body temperature without the presence of sweat can be more serious signs. Be aware of these symptoms in yourself and with other lifters.
Getting the Bloat
Believe it or not, at least in terms of hydration and nutrient stores, the post-cut powerlifter has a lot in common with an ultra-marathoner who’s just about wrapped up a race. Immediately after weigh-in, your body is short of water, salt, and carbs, and your weight and center of gravity is completely different from what you’re used to training with. It takes several hours for the boost from rehydration to become apparent, so simply stepping off the scale, downing a jug of Gatorade, and being ready to roll won’t work. The human body is about 70% water, so a 250 pound lifter won’t want to get under the bar more than 8 pounds short of water, which is where the bloat becomes so important, as it will ideally not only replace lost fluids, but actually increase fluid retention to improve leverages.
With your first lift possibly just hours away, you may be tempted to binge on sport drinks and potato chips as soon as you’re weighed. Don’t—it could be an unpleasant experience that ends in vomiting or a soggy squat suit. Better choices are water, diluted sports drink, or a diluted medicinal electrolyte drink (Pedialyte being common) instead. What to drink immediately after a weigh-in (and how much) is a highly individualized thing; drinking too much pure water may over saturate your remaining electrolyte stores and lead to water toxicity, so the diluted sports drink or electrolyte drink approach is probably the safest starting method. There are scientifically reasonable recommendations out there for the use of substances like creatine monohydrate and glycerol to aid in rehydration, though I’d speculate that the average lifter’s ability to gorge on food and liquid limits the impact of these techniques. When your stomach feels settled enough, the typical routine is to jam as much liquid and carb-heavy/salt-heavy food mass into your body as possible, resulting in “bloat.” Lean protein is also recommended, and is more important the further away your actual first lift is. Minimize fats as they can lead to feeling full.
During the bloat, a lifter’s dehydrated body sucks in consumed water and minerals. Blood volume returns to normal levels, allowing dry cells to inflate with water and athletic ability to improve. Ingested carbs trip an insulin response, which then prompts conversion of the carbs into glycogen, which muscles use for energy. The glycogen also bonds with three-times its mass in water, pumping up muscles and ensuring that the water isn’t excreted. Neurotransmitter stores are replenished, improving muscular coordination and mental focus. The body will actually take on a puffy appearance, and geared lifters will notice a tighter fit to their suits, shirts, and briefs. And if the lifter has done it right, weight will be back up to bulk-levels and PRs will be broken.