There are many things I know now that I wish I could go back and tell teenage Greg such as “if you had a book to read along on during loading screens in Madden 2005, you would practically be a literary scholar at this point,” “if she says she doesn’t like beards, she’s no good for you,” and “wearing a fedora is never acceptable.”
Also on this list – “Getting strong is no excuse for gaining a lot of fat.”
Astoundingly, this flies in the face of a lot of nutrition advice swirling around in the strength world, particularly as it applies to brand new trainees. The astounding features are twofold. Firstly, it’s astounding that anyone would think that a substantial degree of fat gain is a good idea for any goal where sheer weight isn’t a primary benefit (i.e. anyone other than offensive lineman and sumo wrestlers). Secondly, it’s astounding that numerous people who hear this obviously bad advice, regardless of the source, still take it and run with it.
Unfortunately, while “substantial fat gain during periods of intense strength training should be expected and even encouraged” seems like ludicrous enough advice to dismiss out of hand, an alarming number of people believe it. Therefore, it’s necessary to explain exactly WHY it’s bad advice.
The explanation hinges on insulin sensitivity.
Many of you probably know what insulin is and what it does. For people who need a brief primer, insulin is the body’s primary anabolic hormone. It halts almost all forms of catabolism (tissue breakdown, including stored carbohydrate and muscle protein), signals for glucose uptake into your body’s cells, aids in amino acid uptake and amplifies protein synthesis, and much more. Basically, it’s the main hormonal driver for adding mass, whether that be muscle or fat.
Insulin sensitivity describes how well your tissues respond to insulin. When a tissue is insulin sensitive, a little insulin goes a long way. When it’s insensitive, more insulin is necessary to have the same effect that was once accomplished with less insulin.
Now, I’m not going to deal with how insulin insensitivity and hyperinsulinemia are primary risk factors for a host of chronic diseases. I’m not an MD. That sort of stuff interests me, but it’s not my area of expertise, and it’s not why you read my blog.
I’m talking about performance and training goals – gaining muscle, getting stronger, and crushing your competition.
So, the problem with gaining fat while training for mass and strength is this: gaining fat specifically reduces insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle.
As you accumulate fat, blood levels of free fatty acids (FFAs) increase. Elevated blood levels of FFAs decrease insulin sensitivity in the muscles two different ways. Firstly, they directly decrease insulin sensitivity, and secondly, they contribute to increased muscle triglyceride levels, which also decrease insulin sensitivity.
However, it doesn’t stop there. As fat mass increases, the release of adipokines (hormones from fat tissue) also increases. Of these, some (like TNF-a) decrease insulin sensitivity and others (like leptin) increase insulin sensitivity. However, over time, your tissues lose sensitivity to leptin if levels are chronically elevated, so the net effect of these adipokines is also decreased insulin sensitivity (and the loss of the effectiveness of leptin – your body’s most powerful hormone for countering weight gain).
Also with increased fat mass comes increased inflammation. Inflammation decreases insulin sensitivity in muscle, AND increases expression of genes that aid in fat storage and creation of new fat cells.
I hope the picture is becoming clear by now.
The more fat you gain, the LESS anabolic insulin is for muscle, and the easier it is to increase fat storage. It’s a positive feedback loop where the more you eat over baseline, and the more fat you gain, the less it benefits strength and hypertrophy and the more it simply increases the proportion of extra calories that go to fat storage.
Learn how to count calories.
Seriously. Gaining mass uses the same basic principles as shedding fat, except in reverse. Keep track of weight and waist circumference (a good indicator of visceral fat, which is much more a culprit in this process than subcutaneous fat). If you’re fairly lean to start with, eat at a little above baseline with the goal of gaining a pound every 2-3 weeks, and don’t let your waist circumference increase by more than 1/4 inch every couple of weeks. If the numbers are increasing too fast, bump calories down. If they’re stuck in place, bump calories up.
You’ll still probably gain some fat. I mean, you ARE in a surplus, and it’s much easier for your body to store extra energy in triglycerides (relatively cheap metabolic currency) rather than muscle protein (expensive metabolic currency). However, at the sane rate of weight gain I proposed, fat gain shouldn’t be extreme as long as you’re training hard. Minimizing fat gain means that your muscles will stay more sensitive to anabolic signalling than they do on more extreme bulking plans.
So, in essence, I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to gain a ton of muscle with absolutely NO fat gain, but the notion of “Let’s gain 60 pounds this offseason with 5000 calories per day + GOMAD because GAINZZZ!” is even more misguided
Also, for sports where weight matters, this approach should be common sense. For weight-class governed sports like powerlifting, weightlifting, or wrestling it’s a no brainer: the more muscle you can have with the least amount of fat possible, the greater your potential. However, the same principle applies to almost every sport in existence because the more force you can generate per pound of weight, the faster and more explosive you’ll be. Additionally, the less non-functional fat mass you have, the longer you’ll be able to perform at a high level in any sport with an aerobic component since you won’t be lugging around as much mass.
Short term and long term
Short term, you MAY see better results with a huge surplus. Sure, I’ll grant that. However, it’s absolutely a case where there are diminishing returns past a certain point. So if you are seeing better results initially, they’ll be marginally better, NOT exponentially better. And yes, exercise will mitigate the decreases in insulin sensitivity, but that’s still not the same as no decrease at all. You may have to pay the piper later, but that day will still come eventually.
In the long run, gaining a bunch of fat is going to decrease the effectiveness of your training for muscle and strength gains as muscle insulin sensitivity decreases. Additionally, if you need to cut for 16 weeks after your aggressive bulk, you’ve essentially shortened the period of time that you could have been making progress by 2-3 months (assuming you’d need to cut for 4-8 weeks if you’d managed your weight gain better).
By no means am I saying you can never gain any fat whatsoever, or that you have to be 6% bodyfat year round for your training to be effective. Nor am I saying that you plunge off the deep end and instantly wind up obese and diabetic with moderate fat gain. However, as I see it, there’s really no reason to ever be over 20% body fat for men, or 30% for women (although 15% and 25% are better targets for most people). You’re not going to get massively better results with a 1000 calorie/day surplus than you will a 300-500 calorie/day surplus, and if excessive fat is gained in the process, any immediate benefit will eventually be erased by decreased muscle insulin sensitivity.
Get lean. Gradually add size. Repeat the process.