The Bulking Diet: Necessary or Nonsense?

Advice for Skinny Guys and Hardgainers

Is the bulking diet strategy outdated, necessary to build muscle, or is it just a thing hardgainers have to do? Answers here.

The Bulking Diet: Two Types

Bulking is one of those irritating buzzwords that could mean multiple things. Here are the two most common ways the bulking diet strategy is used:

  1. Bulking Like a Jackass: The practice of consuming junk food and a very large caloric surplus to “force” the body to build muscle while accepting a significant amount of fat gain. This kind of bulking isn’t necessary and will likely backfire.
  2. Bulking Like an Adult: The practice of consuming a modest surplus of healthy calories to build muscle while accepting some fat gain in the process. This type of bulking is necessary for someone who has a hard time building muscle – naturally skinny guys or “hardgainers.”

Let’s break those down.

Easy Gainers Vs. Hardgainers

The more anabolic you are, the less of a caloric surplus you’ll need to build muscle. To keep things simple, just think of “anabolic” as muscle growth and “catabolic” as muscle breakdown.

Being anabolic doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on steroids. Although anabolic steroids are anabolic (shocker), it simply means they build muscle. But your own body produces anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking down) hormones and enzymes.

For example, the testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, and IGF-1 your body produces are all anabolic, just like their injectable equivalents. You also have enzymes like mTOR, which are indirectly anabolic – they initiate anabolic processes, like increasing protein synthesis to build muscle.

As you might’ve guessed, not everyone produces the same level of endogenous anabolic hormones. Nature doesn’t believe in the equity of gains. Some people pump out the equivalent of a small steroid cycle naturally, while others have the anabolic hormone levels of a castrato.

Not surprisingly, those with a higher natural level of anabolic hormones or androgen receptors will build muscle more easily. We could call them easy-gainers.

Their opposites are those with a lower level of anabolic hormones, or a lower response to them, who will have a much harder time building muscle. We usually call them hardgainers.

Now, other factors influence how much muscle someone can build. Myostatin expression levels and the ratio of fast-twitch fibers (or, more specifically, the ACTN3 type) also play a significant role. For example, slow-twitch fibers have insignificant growth potential, whereas fast-twitch fibers have a big one.

If you’re born with a very high ratio of slow-twitch fibers and very few fast-twitch fibers, you likely won’t be able to build tons of muscle regardless of what you do. It sucks to hear, but I’m about being honest, not sugar-coating things.

Catabolic Hormones

There’s also the catabolic part of the equation. Some hormones are catabolic. They break down tissue – not just muscle but also stored energy to make it available for fuel. Cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon are good examples. Typically, the more of these hormones you produce, the harder it’ll be to add muscle.

How does this relate to bulking? Well, food isn’t just energy. It actually impacts tons of stuff, including hormones and enzymes. When you’re consuming a caloric surplus, especially if that surplus comes from carbs and protein, you will:

  • Increase insulin
  • Increase IGF-1
  • Activate mTOR to a greater extent
  • Possibly increase testosterone
  • Decrease cortisol
  • Decrease adrenaline
  • Decrease glucagon

Essentially, being in a surplus makes your body more anabolic. And while it does have a limit, a larger surplus will tend to make you more anabolic and less catabolic. It puts you in a better physiological state to build muscle.

The less naturally gifted or “anabolically gifted” you are, the more you need to use food as a tool. And the more anabolically gifted you are, the less of a surplus you’ll need to build muscle.

A Normal Person and the Anabolic Extreme

Here’s an extreme example to illustrate food and anabolism. Steroid users can build a lot of muscle while losing fat. This indicates that they’re building a lot of muscle while being in a caloric deficit.

Someone who’s not using performance-enhancing drugs can’t do that. In fact, a lot of bodybuilders still build muscle while being in a huge deficit and maintaining a body fat under 7%, which no natural lifter can do, regardless of how anabolically gifted they are. Anabolic steroids (and other performance-enhancing drugs) simply take your anabolic biochemistry to a much higher level.

So the more anabolic you are, the less dependent on a caloric surplus you are to build muscle.

How to Know If You Should Bulk: The Anabolic Continuum

  • Steroid abusers can build a lot of muscle while being in a large deficit.
  • Steroid users can build some muscle while being in a moderate deficit.
  • Natural, anabolically-gifted individuals can build muscle in a slight deficit and grow very well at maintenance-level calories.
  • Natural, average individuals will need at least a small surplus to build a significant amount of muscle.
  • Natural hardgainers will need to be in a large surplus to build muscle.

Basically, someone who’s not anabolically gifted needs to use a food surplus to make his body less shitty at adding muscle tissue. The downside? This larger surplus can come with more fat gain. That’s in large part because insulin is also anabolic to fat cells, not just muscle cells.

What sucks even more is that the hardgainer is more likely to lose muscle when he’s in a caloric deficit. So he’ll need to accept more fat gain to build muscle and a greater likelihood of losing muscle when dieting down.

It’s not ideal, but some people have natural advantages and others have disadvantages. And it’s okay. I’m 5’8" and played football as a kid. My height was a disadvantage. And despite being a hard worker, I’d never be taller. I wouldn’t have been able to play in the NBA either.

People easily accept that some are born with the advantage of height. Yet, they refuse the same acceptance with leanness or muscularity.

That’s not to say you can’t get more muscular and/or leaner if you’re at a genetic disadvantage. But it will be a more complicated journey, and the destination might not be as impressive as what you’ve seen from others.