My First Bulk

I got pretty sick at the beginning of November 2006 and when I went to the doctor, their preliminary test indicated that there was protein in my urine – a bad sign and an indication of kidney dysfunction. I got a second test a week later. I went to Toronto to see my doctor and when I left his office with the “all clear”, I sort of floated along College Street to Union station in a blurry happy fog. I was going to have the time to do all the things I thought I would be going without. It was a fantastic feeling.

That night I started planning my first bulk. For those who are not familiar with a bulk, it’s a body building term use to describe a period of deliberate over eating to force the body into a more anabolic state allowing it to create more muscle. It’s an approach with a long history and it is generally accepted that you need to hold your body in a caloric surplus state to facilitate growth.

At the beginning:
Before I started, my weight was 168 pounds and my body fat level was 10.4. My weight has been around 168 for the last 3 years, basically since I started mountain bike riding. There is a seasonal fluctuation in body fat, with it bottoming out at around 9% at the end of the summer. My goal was bulk for 3 or 4 months to try and get to 190 pounds with little consideration being given to my level of leanness.

It was going to be a clean bulk, which meant that I wasn’t going to be eating everything that I wanted. A lot of lifters will treat their bulk as a period of non-stop gorging and will eat foods that are very high in calories but not very high in nutrients. The goal of a clean bulk is to limit the amount of body fat that you gain while providing enough nutrients and energy to build dry lean body mass (actual muscle vs. water and glycogen stores).
I needed to create and maintain a caloric surplus. That meant that I had to drastically limit the amount of cardiovascular exercise that I did. This turned out to be the toughest part of it because I LOVE cardio – I race a mountain bike and love indoor cycling classes and find my bliss state when my heart rate hits 150. Unfortunately for me, I had to limit both the volume and intensity of my cardiovascular work. I did one or two sessions a week trying to keep my heart rate below 140 and my usual high intensity warm-up was scaled back to the same level.

The diet and food management:
I followed all of the rules that I have outline in the weight management program with very few deviations. I would occasionally eat when I wasn’t hungry because I needed to ingest the calories. My daily calorie count went from about 2000 per day to about 3000 per day and my daily meal count went from 4 to 7 or 8, a meal every 2 to 3 hours usually right after my stomach emptied into my intestines.

My breakfast was always the same, 150 grams of oatmeal, 50 grams of whey protein powder, 50 grams of dextrose and 5 grams of creatine, all mixed with water and eaten within 15 minutes of waking up.

My post workout shake was always the same, 80 grams of sugar (dextrose and maltodextrin combination), 50 grams of whey protein and 5 grams of creatine, all mixed with water and I would start to drink it within 10 minutes of finishing my workout. It was the same regardless of the number of workouts I did in a day.

My first whole food meal after the gym was usually the same for my first workout of the day, whole-wheat toast with a smear of margarine, and scrambled eggs with sliced turkey. I would use 250 ml of egg whites and 1 whole egg. I would drink water with this meal.

The rest of the meals would contain either lots of carbohydrates or lots of essential fats, but NEVER both because the body will use carbohydrates for energy if they are available and, when fats are also present, the body will just store the fat. Fats consumed in the absence of carbohydrates will be utilized for immediate energy.

I drank 2-4 liters of water a day.

I consumed no alcohol for most of the bulk because alcohol suppresses growth hormone release. I was sacrificing so much that it didn’t seem to make any sense to me to slow my progress because of a couple of beers.

I would eat 150 grams of cottage cheese before bed to make sure my body had a long acting protein available throughout the night and I made Venom’s Protein bars to make sure I didn’t go to sleep hungry. I’m one of the few people I know who admits to eating in bed before falling asleep. Venom’s recipe offered a low GI carb option that tasted fairly good.

The workouts:
This was an over reaching program, one that had me doing way more volume than my normal routine. In hindsight this was too much work. It burned a lot of calories that could have gone to repair and muscle building but at the time, I didn’t feel like sacrificing workout time and enjoyment. I just replaced my cardio with resistance training. Some days have me working out three times and I was more than happy to do it most of the time although there were a couple of times when I got to the gym and knew I needed to skip the workout.

The workouts were shorter than usual, each about 45 minutes, and I did a lot of high intensity training methods to completely fatigue the muscles, like retraining a muscle group later on in the day and it was during this time that I discovered the concept of training movements and not body parts. All I all, it was an amazing program and I felt stronger and bigger with each workout – I bench pressed over 200 pounds for the first time in my life and finally broken the 20 rep mark with wide grip pull-ups (something I haven’t done since university). I learned a lot of biomechanics and how my body responds to exercise stress and movements. I also introduced plyometrics training and added skipping as a warm-up exercise.

The results:

They were fantastic! I broke the 180-pound mark on January 21st with a body fat level of 11.4%; 50 days after starting the bulk. I gained about 9.5 pounds of lean body mass and a little over 2 pounds of body fat. I was very pleased with the results.

When I weighed myself today (March 6, 2007) I was 176 @ 10.6% body fat. That means that I have lost just less than 3 pounds of lean mass and almost 2 pounds of body fat.

Here are the numbers:

Nov 3, 06 Jan 21, 07 March 6, 07

Weight: 168.6 181 176

Body Fat: 10.5 11.4 10.6

Lean Mass: 150.9 160.3 157.3

Body Fat: 17.7 20.6 18.7

The toughest parts were not being able to do as much cardiovascular exercise as I wanted and all the extra eating I had to do. Human beings are state dependent creatures, so my body had adjusted to function effectively on ~2000 calories a day with 4 or 5 intense cardio sessions per week. When I started cramming in an extra 1000 calories of nutritionally sound foods, the body wasn’t used to them and it didn’t need them as it had found stasis with 2000 a day and some cardio, now it had to adjust to find stasis on 3000 with almost no cardio. I was forcing a caloric surplus of ~1500 calories through increased eating and decreased exercise. There were some digestive consequences to it and elimination frequency increased.

The best part of it was the feeling of gaining weight – I actually felt like there was more of me and that I was taking up more space on the planet. The workouts were awesome as well. They were both fun and all the volume I was doing meant that I needed to come up with some creative exercises to find new ways to attack the muscles. My favorite exercises to do were ISO leg press shrugs and wide grip platform dead lifts, two movements I had never done before.

I don’t think I’ll go on another bulk again because I don’t see the need for it. As a learning experience goes, I would recommend it, providing you are in good health and have your doctor’s approval. As a lifestyle, and that is what you have to make it to get the most out of it, I’d have a very hard time keeping up with it. There were times when I didn’t feel like eating and I have to force myself to eat. Plus, I missed working out the way I like, with intensity and my heart rate soaring.