Dear Dr. Bell, what is the safest, healthiest way to bulk-up? I keep reading all of these ridiculous recommendations, such as “dirty bulk” which appears to be eating as much crap as possible. I want to go about this in the right way. What do you suggest?
This is an excellent question. What is the safest, healthiest way to bulk-up is perfectly worded! You are correct, there are many opinions on Bulking and many of them are not safe, healthy or effective.
Consider that most physique athletes will put on 4-6 pounds of muscle or lean body tissues/year. Knowing that, does it make sense to go through a Bulking Phase where you put on 20-40 pounds or more that still equates out to 4-6 pounds of muscle!?!? No! Of course not! So why do people do it? Unfortunately, a lot of physique strategies and tactics are determined by Physique athletes who use Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED). Please do not consider PED for any purpose. PED are dangerous. They are not only unhealthy: physically, mentally, and emotionally, but they are illegal in most countries. While many would have you believe the side-effects are nominal, I wonder if all the older, bald-bodybuilders, who have breasts larger than a pregnant gorilla and testicles the size of peas, now feel the same way. To Bulk-Up in a healthy way, you need to look at Nutritional Science, not Pharmaceutical Science. Despite what many may tell you, it is possible to put on muscle without gaining fat.
One major component of achieving this goal is energy balance. Recent research provides us a template on how you can build muscle, while burning fat. Remember, weight loss should never be a goal, fat loss should be the goal. Energy balance gives us the tools to accomplish that goal. According to the current research best estimates, if you keep your energy balance on the moderately positive side of approximately: 100-400 calories, you will have sufficient energy available to build, repair and maintain muscle and other lean body tissues. When you exceed an energy balance of positive 400 calories, you now have excess calories beyond metabolism needs and usage, and the body will efficiently store the excess as fat.
For weight loss…or more correctly fat loss programs, the opposite is also true. If you maintain a negative energy balance of between negative 100-400 calories your body will burn fat stores to cover this deficit. If you exceed negative 400 calories at anytime throughout the day, your body will burn muscle and other lean body tissue.
I know many doctors are Pro, the various Ketone Diets…I am not. While many doctors believe low calorie Ketone Diets result in rapid weight loss, I am concerned about where those ketones are coming from. Most ketones are formed from muscle and lean body tissues (liver, kidney, heart, etc.). I am also concerned that ketones are an ineffective source of fuel for brain function. Think of the competitive bodybuilder that feels miserable during their fat loss phase. They are emotional, forgetful, irritable and can feel the “Brain Fog” of the lack of energy going to the brain. This low energy brain state is neither safe or health.
Equally unhealthy is the formation of ketone bodies that cause the body to become acidic. It is well documented that the body remains healthy when it is slightly alkaline (Ph 7.2-7.8). When the body is acidic, not only does it become susceptible to inflammation, it also makes the body susceptible to disease and cancer. Studies show that cancer cannot grow in an alkaline environment and grows rapidly in an acidic environment.
My recommendation is to maintain a moderately positive energy balance. The basic nutrition prescription is for you to split your meals into 6 smaller meals throughout the day, with the goal to keep your energy balance positive 100-400 calories, all day long. To do this, you need to calculate your BMR (Basil Metabolic Rate) RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), your energy expenditures following your exercise activities and plan to consume more calories following your time periods of lowest energy balance (Post: sleep, exercise, and other physical activities).
You can use the charts provided in the IFPA Personal Trainer Certification or provided in the IFPA Sports Nutrition Certification to do your energy balance calculations. There are more detailed Nutrition Prescriptions available in the IFPA Advanced Sports Nutrition Certification based on gender/activity/anthropological data/goals/needs/etc.
Your instincts are correct and I commend you for being cautious! The “Dirty Bulking” diets are neither safe nor effective long term. Neither should they be considered healthy for long term use. Using energy balance is something you can do safely, effectively and very healthy for your entire life span. To make the best use of energy balance, follow an exercise prescription that utilizes strength, cardio and flexibility training.