Calories Redux (Bulking and Cutting for the Natural Athlete)

TAGS: Pete Stables, lose body fat, starting strength, increase strength, 5/3/1, prowler

Clean eating. According to some, this is the best and most efficient method for gaining mass without ending up looking like a wad of cookie dough. My personal experience with this ‘healthy’ approach, however, produced somewhat different results…

Bizarrely, the most body fat I ever gained was while eating a diet of meat, vegetables, and potatoes (and I have the photos to prove it). The calories were roughly 4,500 per day—although not calculated at the time—and worked into three meals per day. I followed a sound training plan and was active on top of this. Yet still, because the calories were over what was required by my body, I gained some good chub. I wasn’t force feeding myself either, and my rest days were by most people's standards—fairly low carb (50–100 g).

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but a spare tire (even from ‘clean foods’) is still ultimately unhealthy to carry around. I'm not sure if my internal organs will buy my argument that a slightly more rotund figure is OK because my unsightly midsection is comprised predominantly of healthy fats. So where exactly does that leave us in our attempt to get huge and stay lean at the same time? Simultaneously, how should you know whose advice to take when it comes to getting ‘jacked?’

If a trainer is a natural mesomorph, how valuable is his knowledge on building a strong, lean body if he hasn’t had to work for it like the skinny fat guy who has poured blood sweat and tears for every lean pound gained? This isn't intended to be a statement. I'm sure there are plenty of ‘genetic freaks’ who can provide you with a wealth of training expertise to hit your required goals. But my advice would be to look for someone who started out like you–the skinny guy–and got into the shape you want to be in. I guarantee he has tried every diet and training method under the sun to be where he is now. He knows what works.

One thing I can personally attest to is that bulking and cutting without monitoring calories, weight, performance, and body image won't end with the results you had in mind. I've always found it odd that people will plan their training in the most minute detail and make time to train every single day at the expense of a social life, time with family, and other things but take a ‘whatever’ attitude toward a tool infinitely more valuable than working out in providing aesthetic and performance based results. Unless you have exceptional genes or you're an untrained 16-year-old kid, you will struggle to guess your way to an extra 30 pounds of lean mass gain without any body fat accumulation. Some feel that a little extra fat gain is acceptable to be able to lift more, but let's be honest. Who would you rather see in the mirror—Dan Green or Glen Ross?

‘Weight moves weight’ is often quoted on the strength forums, and this is absolutely true. But as Paul Carter would say, wouldn’t extra weight in the form of muscle be superior? I understand time isn't always on your side when shifting to a higher weight class, but the long-term goal should be to carry that extra poundage as lean mass.

So what exactly is wrong with bulking fast and eating 5,000–6,000 calories per day and then just stripping the fat off later? Extra muscle will make it easier to lose those unsightly pounds anyway, right? Wrong! Seriously, have you ever tried it?

Let me explain what happens. You start off well. You’re eating a ton of food and your strength is going through the roof. Three weeks later, you look visibly bigger and you don’t seem to have gained a spare tire. Great! Sure, food doesn’t taste good anymore, but you aren't eating for the pleasure of it. This is straight-up business, and every calorie stored is profit.

You do have to maintain that ridiculously high fuel intake though, and the thought of stomaching more eggs is vomit inducing. Perhaps ice cream and pizza would be a more digestible option? They’re easy to eat and contain a boatload of calories. You can see where this is going. A month or two down the line, you’re a fat mess. You hate how you look in the mirror. It’s time to get shredded!

So you cut back to eating portions of food that wouldn’t satisfy a small bird, and before you know it, you’re already looking and feeling better. You’re losing strength fast, but strength can take a back seat. As long as you look ripped when you take your shirt off, who cares? Months down the line and you’re back to your old skinny self again. You even weigh in a few pounds lighter than when you started your 'swollification' program. But hold on—you still aren't happy with how you look. Your abdominal definition is average at best, but in a T-shirt you resemble Mo Farah. It’s time to get huge (again…)!

And thus continues the cycle for the next decade, making no real progress in strength, size, or definition. I'm fully aware that what I'm about to say will induce the fury in you, the reader.

"Why not calculate how many calories you need?"

I can feel the backlash already. Counting calories is a stupid narcissistic endeavor. I know why you think this. Most of the time it’s because you simply don’t know how to do it. People always fear what they don’t understand, and this is a perfectly natural response. I’ll try to make things a little more palatable for you…

You don’t have to count every single calorie every single day. What I’m suggesting is much easier. All we’re looking for is a rough base to start from. The numbers that you're about to calculate don't have to be exact, as counting calories truly isn't an exact science.

Before you proceed, I should state that this protocol is designed for those of you who have low (less than 12 percent) body fat. If you don't, get your levels as low as possible before you begin. We want your insulin sensitivity to be sky high in order to build good quality muscle. Please don’t ask me how to lose weight. That’s a much easier process than building lean mass, and if you can’t drop a few pounds yourself, you probably don't have any business attempting this set up.

Let’s get started. Go online and find a calorie calculator. It doesn’t matter which one. Plug in your details, and if asked for your activity levels, click on sedentary. What we’re trying to find is your total daily energy expenditure. From there, I want you to increase those calories by 40 percent for your workout days (assuming a three-day per week training program) and then run 10 percent below your TDEE on rest days.

Now Google how many calories are in what you eat on a daily basis. You can work out two days of eating in 15 minutes (training and non-training days). Keep the carbs low (50–100 g) on rest days and higher (200–300 g) on workout days. Aim to eat the majority of your carbs after your session. Now follow this set up for one month.

At the end of that month, step on the scale first thing in the morning after a rest day. You should have gained 2–3 pounds, which, provided you aren't a complete novice, is about the rate you can gain quality mass with minimal fat gain. Sorry, it’s true. If there isn't any change, simply layer in an easily quantifiable extra source of calories like a protein shake on workout days. Monitor for another month. If you’re gaining much over 3–4 pounds, you’re likely to be gaining some fat, in which case remove a layer from your diet. Rinse and repeat.

This is surprisingly easy to do. Many of us eat the same foods on a daily basis anyway, but if you get bored, you will have to recalculate to accommodate different foods (there has to be some work involved). Allow yourself one cheat day per week, on which you can eat whatever the hell you like for 12 hours. I do this the day prior to a big workout to guarantee a good lifting session.

You’ll get stronger because your workout days will have a surplus of calories for you to run on, but you’ll continue to look good, thus giving your training longevity. It’s easy to keep getting strong when you aren't getting fat. One point worth noting is that keeping an eye on the scale is vital. As you gain weight, you will need more food in order to support that mass. If you hit a month where you stall, layer in more food.

I’d like to add a note on conditioning. If you're a skinny guy trying to bulk up, tread carefully. Some will tell you that you need to be conditioned to lift, but if you're so out of shape that you can’t perform a set of five squats, it’s a miracle that you’ve even made it this far.

Personally, I would keep the sessions short and intense. Trust me when I tell you that going overboard on the ‘cardio’ is one of the single biggest factors in keeping your skinny little wheels spinning. Focus on your goal. Your work capacity will increase with a good lifting program alone. And besides, you aren't going to drop dead if you cut back on pounding the pavement or hitting up the WOD for a couple years.

The Prowler® and hill sprints are perfect for what you need, but if you can’t afford a Prowler® or you don’t have a tough hill nearby, there is a solution. Most gyms have rowers. I’ve yet to find one without.

The Concepts 2 is the standard and it's easy to set up for this little workout:

  • Press the menu button.
  • Select workout and then new workout. Then select intervals and then time.
  • Set the work for 20 seconds and the rest for 10 seconds.
  • Perform eight sets of work, aiming to keep the meters rowed above 100 every time.
  • Aim to beat your score at each session.

Just over three minutes of work twice per week is really all you need for now.

With regards to a training program, there are many options. I highly recommend Starting Strength or 5/3/1, depending on your level of progression. This is my preferred style of training, but if you want to throw chains and bands into the mix, be my guest.

Finally, be patient. Imagine holding an extra 50 pounds of quality weight in a couple year’s time. It’s really not that long, and you’ll be a good deal stronger to boot. Forget any program or diet that claims to get you in incredible shape in six weeks. Looking awesome and being strong are worthy goals and should take time to achieve. If it was easy to do, everyone would be cock-diesel and squatting 800 raw.

Set short- and long-term goals for yourself and stick with one training program for at least a year. Don’t go switching routines every few weeks because you’re bored. It’s time to grow up and put stock into a method that has worked well for so many others. Have faith in your program. Eat smart and reap the rewards that discipline and consistency always provide.

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