Question: I just read a new article on T-nation by Mark Rippetoe and I have actually seen other articles like this one that recommend a gallon of milk and huge amounts of food. It suggests for optimal muscle growth, many more calories than most people recommend are necessary for optimal bulking. He says it takes 5000 to 6000 calories a day! That seems a little crazy to me and goes against everything you said in your other books and articles, but apparently this high calorie bulking is common amongst body builders. Tom, could you give me your opinion on this?Answer:
Actually “bulking” used to be common among bodybuilders, but most have abandoned it for newer methods that create leaner, fat-free muscle gains. Strength athletes on the other hand, who just want to be big and strong, and don’t care about seeing any abs or muscle definition, still sometimes use the old high-calorie bulking approach.
Rippetoe has a very good reputation as a strength coach and his strength training books are very popular, so it’s understandable why a lot of people took a serious look at this article about the virtues (or necessity) of high calorie bulking programs. Mark makes some valid points and in fact, a high calorie bulking approach might be appropriate for some lifters at a certain stage in their early development.
However, as my entire Holy Grail philosophy suggests, I believe this is not a good approach for everyone – in fact, it’s not the ideal approach for most people. Let me explain:
Anytime a weight gain program recommends one amount of calories, whether that’s 3000 or 5000 or even 8000 (don’t laugh – I’ve seen that in the bodybuilding world), instantly we know this recommendation incorrect. Why? because it’s not customized. Making a single prescription of calories and assuming it applies to everyone gets you into trouble right out of the gates.
That would be like saying that the jacked-up dude who is 5 10? and 225 pounds and the skinny guy who weighs 165 pounds both need 5000 calories a day to gain weight. Perish the thought. The 225 pounder is going to need a LOT more calories than the little guy.
Suggesting up to 6000 calories a day for a 165 pounder is crazy on at least two levels.
First is the impracticality issue: I’d like to see how many skinny guys can actually choke down 5,000 calories on their first weight gain diet, consistently, every day for weeks on end, let alone 6,000. I’ve never been able to do it without using a lot of drinks, increasing fat intake and even eating junk food (NOT optimal, especially in a hypercaloric diet). Even then, I couldn’t keep it up.
Second is the lack of personalization: how many calories you need to gain weight is relative and depends totally on the individual. The two big factors influencing calorie needs are body size and activity level.
Using a common calorie formula like the Harris Benedict equation, it’s easy to see how this 5000 calories plus recommendation is not even in the right ballpark for a skinny 165 pounder and how the needs between a 165 pounder and someone 60 pounds heavier are not in the same ballpark either.
WEIGHT GAIN EXAMPLE 1:
5 feet 10 inches tall
20 years old
goal: weight gain
basal metabolic rate = 1695 calories per day.total daily energy expenditure = 2924 calories per day
The most common recommendation for calorie surplus for weight gain ranges from 10% to 20% above TDEE. Let’s take the upper end of that range for this example:
15-20% surplus = 438 – 584 calorie surplus per day
optimal calories to gain weight = TDEE + surplus: 3509 calories per day
Wow, 3509 calories a day is a far cry from 5000-6000 calories per day isn’t it?
Not all calorie formulas agree with each other, but they are all close with regard to the BMR and TDEE. The number that comes up in these controversies more often than not is the ideal surplus – that’s been debated for decades.
Incidentally, some bodybuilders have argued in the opposite direction. Mike Mentzer, Mr. Universe, for example was known at one time for claiming that you only need 16 extra calories per day to gain weight, which is equally as crazy as suggesting a 2000 calorie surplus (Note: in later writings Mentzer said to aim for a 300-500 calorie surplus)
Where Rippetoe and others come up with a 1500-2500 calorie per day surplus as required to gain weight, I don’t know. My guess is that his source is personal experience working with young athletes. That kind of real world experience is definitely worth something, but I still think you need to be careful with huge surpluses and bulking programs unless you’re getting ready for the sumo wrestling world championships.
Now let’s compare the 165 pound skinny young athlete to a professional athlete 60 pounds heavier, who is the same in all other characteristics:
WEIGHT GAIN EXAMPLE 2:
5 feet 10 inches tall
20 years old
goal: weight gain
basal metabolic rate = 2068 calories per day
total daily energy expenditure = 3568 calories per day
15-20% surplus = 535 – 713 calories
Optimal calories to gain weight = 4103 to 4281 calories per day.
As you can see, it’s a misconception that the lighter, skinnier guy needs more calories to gain weight – the opposite is true. The bigger you are, the more calories you require to maintain your weight and the more you require to gain additional body weight.
If we continued with further examples, you’d see that only the biggest guys – such as the professional bodybuilders who weigh 250, 275 even 300 pounds – would require 5000-6000 calories per day. Many of them are also on steroids and other growth-stimulating drugs, which may increase the amount of food and nutrients they can utilize.
In addition, don’t forget how body size changes over time will change your calorie needs. Just like someone who loses weight needs fewer calories as he gets lighter, someone who gains weight needs more calories as he gets heavier.
This is why many people plateau in their weight loss OR weight gain efforts: they fail to adjust their calories as their energy needs change. You have to keep eating more as you get bigger if you want to keep getting bigger. But getting bigger is a gradual process, therefore, eating more should also be a gradual process.
If you are going to choose the traditional bulking (straight line surplus) method of weight gain, I recommend avoiding a HUGE jump up in calories from day one. I recommend using the traditional calorie formulas as indicated above. For a 165 pound guy, 3500 calories is a reasonable starting point – maybe a little bit higher in some cases. Why not start there and see what happens before you try to gorge yourself into a role in the next Austin Powers Movie
If a week goes by that you don’t gain weight, bump up your calories further and further. This approach allows you to slowly gauge how your body responds and you can gauge your comfort level with the amount of body fat you gain – and you will gain some fat with the muscle if you choose the traditional bulking approach.
But to take a small-framed guy and tell him to eat 5000 – 6000 calories a day right from day one just because that the “magic number?” That’s a ticket to fat city for anyone but a genetic anomaly. (And did I mention, it’s damn hard to eat that much?!)
Trust me. Did that. Done that. Been down that road. Played that game. Did the gallon of milk a day phase. Got fat. Did the 3 dozen whole eggs a day. Did the weight gainer shakes – going all the back to the heyday of Weider. Did the 400 grams of protein. Did it all. Got fat. If you eat too much you get fat. You just can’t force muscle gains by eating more and more and more; you’d be erroneously assuming that every surplus calorie will get partitioned into muscle tissue and not fat.
Before I log off, I want to mention that my intention was not to rip on Rippetoe. He’s a strength coach for sports and weightlifting and I’m a bodybuilding and body composition coach, so it’s no surprise that we’d have differences in opinion. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his books to strength athletes who want to boost their bench, squat and deadlift and his new weight gain article did make some accurate and important points:
First, it’s true that you DO have to eat a lot of food to gain a lot of body weight and keep the gains coming. Most so-called “hardgainers” just don’t eat enough. Most people have to start with around 3500 and eventually may get up to requiring 4000 or more calories per day for maximum growth.
Second, I agree 100% with Mark that many people are so hell bent on not losing their abs, that they toil away with painstakingly slow muscle gains for the sake of staying lean, or they never gain any weight at all because because they are perpetually in caloric maintenance or just dieting to stay cut.
This is as much a psychological issue as a physical one. You’ve GOT TO mentally shift gears into “mass mode” if you really want to get huge. If your mindset and behavior aren’t congruent with your goals, you’ll sabotage yourself every time.
Third, it’s also true that in the early days a lifter’s or athlete’s career, (especially in testosterone-filled teens), it might make sense to use an old school bulk in order to get that initial beginner’s growth spurt as quickly as humanly possible. A high school or young college athlete (with which I believe Rippetoe is intimately familiar) might not care if he gets a bit smooth or even gains 5% body fat in exchange for the absolute maximum amount of muscle mass possible.
Each individual’s tolerance for fat gain is a personal matter. Some people want to stay really lean. Some people just want to get big and they don’t care about abs. I can understand the logic behind a young athlete using the old-school bulking method.
On the other hand, using the mega-high-calorie, high-surplus bulking method as a long-term strategy for every time you want to gain muscle is an exercise in futility. Ironically, the repeated bulk and cut cycles often end up canceling each other out.
This is the entire reason I published the Holy Grail body transformation system – to show an alternate way for the body fat-prone endomorph to gain muscle without getting fat… it’s for people who want lean muscle gains, not more bodyweight at all costs.
One last thing: Take the testimonials and advertised claims for huge weight gains from popular bulking programs with a grain of salt. Remember that weight gain is not the same thing as muscle gain. Yes, some young athletes and bodybuilders do make huge gains in bodyweight, (usually only once in their lives – aka the “newbie gains”), but don’t under-estimate how much of that weight can be glycogen, water and fat.
For more information go to www.burnthefat.com
About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.